P.T. Barnum, Roswell, and Jim Ragsdale  


P.T. Barnum is alive and apparently living in Roswell, NM

by William P. Barrett
Forbes Magazine, July 15, 1996

Let's visit the City Hall office of Roswell, N.M. Mayor Thomas Jennings. Adorning the room: three space-alien dolls, one sitting in a chair next to Hizzoner's desk. The official city stationery contains a flying-saucer-shaped watermark. On one wall hangs the framed July 8, 1947 front page of the Roswell Daily Record with the stunning headline that the local Air Force base "Captures Flying Saucer on Ranch in Roswell Region."

In good old American tradition Roswell has turned Unidentified Flying Object mystique into a nice business. The Roswell area now sports three UFO museums, competing UFO landing sites and a growing UFO summer festival that altogether are expected to draw 90,000 tourists this year. Entrepreneurial local artists and manufacturers churn out alien dolls and puppets, ceramic miniatures of crash sites, spaceship earrings, UFO hats, T-shirts showing aliens spying on soldiers and bumper stickers. A local candy company makes "Alien Glow Pop" lollipops for a national market. The daily newspaper has sold an estimated 50,000 reproductions of its famous front page on coffee mugs, T-shirts and single sheet reprints.

City hotel room tax revenues have risen 36% over four years. Hotel operators say up to one-fifth of their business comes from UFO seekers. By some estimates the UFO craze pumps more than $5 million a year into this community of 50,000, which badly needs the money, median household income here being 27% below the national average. UFO mania probably lowers the still high jobless rate -- 7% -- by a full point. Civic leaders are positively giddy about prospects for next year's 50th anniversary.

Like Hollywood, Roswell is in the fantasy business. Top military officials in 1947 disavowed the captured saucer story within hours, saying that what landed was the debris of a weather balloon. The Pentagon now says the balloon was connected with monitoring Soviet nuclear testing. But by the mid-1980s people began recalling seeing dead or dying aliens in varying numbers, colors and positions of repose. These accounts have since been embellished, along with the appearance of testimonials -- now considered hoaxes [hey, not by everyone! - ed.] -- detailing alien body recovery, and even a movie said to be of an alien autopsy [OK, OK, maybe the movie is a hoax - ed.].

Many date Roswell's UFO resurgent economy to 1994, when Jennings became mayor, edging out a veteran incumbent who thought Roswell had better things to be known for than UFOs. Says Jennings, 45, a college marketing major: "My thought is that there was another industry that could be developed." Does he believe in UFOs? "I don't know," Jennings dodges, grinning. But tourist ads picturing Jennings with a space-alien doll proclaim: "Roswell -- An unsolved mystery. Drop in anytime. After all...'they' already may have."

The mayor's flair for promotion is right in character here. Named for the father of the professional gambler who co-founded the city in 1870, Roswell is an experienced hustler for business. When the dominant Roswell Air Force Base closed in the late 1960s, threatening economic ruin, the city took it over and developed a now thriving industrial park. The diversified economy includes farming, oil and gas, manufacturing and the world's largest mozzarella factory.

Lacking anything authentic, the three museums are not exactly the Smithsonian. The best known is the International UFO Museum & Research Center in downtown Roswell -- in a condemned building rented from the city for $1 a year. Many of the exhibits consist of mounted newspaper and magazine articles about UFOs. Admission is free, but donations are accepted and the gift shop is busy. Tax-exempt, the museum's management includes investor types, some of whom are working side deals concerning UFO endeavors. The museum's president just left in an internal dispute partly over budget and expansion.

Near the airport is the UFO Enigma Museum, owned by ex-videostore owner John Price. Admission: $1. Besides his mounted clippings and gift shop, Price has an elaborate re-creation of the purported crash site, complete with flashing UFO lights, alien bodies and a watchful military policeman.

Then there's something called the Midway Sighting UFO Museum, housed in a set of rundown shacks just south of town. Its operators, siblings Becky and Manuel Escamilla, claim UFOs can be videotaped on many days. For $6.50, a visitor can watch what the Escamillas swear is video of alien UFOs. Critics say these UFOs are flying insects.

Where did the supposed UFO crash-land? In 1994 two UFO researchers identified a location 30 miles north of Roswell. They relied partly on the account of one Jim Ragsdale, who said the UFO crashed next to the pickup truck in which he and a ladyfriend were dallying. He identified pictures of the site and in a sworn statement said that he saw bodies from a distance. That land was bought in 1976 by fourth-generation farmer Miller (Hub) Corn. No firm believer but also no fool, he now allows tourists to visit the site -- for $15 a head -- and gets 500 takers annually.

Here's where things get fuzzy. According to the plainspoken Corn, the leaders of the downtown UFO museum invited him to a meeting and offered to buy the site. He refused. Museum officials confirm the meeting but deny any offer was made. In any event, within a few months the museum was writing that Ragsdale had identified a new site 53 miles west of Roswell, on U.S. Forest Service land in the Capitan Mountains. Before he died last year, Ragsdale's memory improved, too. In a second affidavit he vividly described the dead aliens and even tried to touch one. His enhanced account endures in a just-released video (retail, $29.50) and book ($14.95). The publisher: a corporation organized by the family of museum secretary/treasurer Max Littell. A canny real estate developer, Littell says Ragsdale heirs and the museum will split proceeds "after our expenses are covered."

In the Capitan Mountains elderly neighbors called by Forbes say flatly the crash didn't happen there, and -- tellingly -- that no UFO Museum researcher had bothered to contact them. "It's all a hoax," says a laughing Dorothy Epps, 82, whose family has owned land within a half-mile of the supposed crash site since 1909. "But let's get it on my ranch."