Once upon a time, Betty and Barney Hill told a story that was out of this world


Monitor staff

Published: 03-17-2018 11:03 PM

Leon Noel moved carefully toward the row of twisted, sagging apple trees near the Interstate 93 overpass in Lincoln, each step swallowed by two feet of snow.

He pointed with a sweeping motion across the horizon. “There,” he said. “That’s them.”

The trees had been zapped by radiation emitted from an alien craft in 1961. At least that’s what Noel had always told his children and then his grandchildren. “They thought it was gospel,” Noel said.

That was a family joke. The part about Barney Hill squinting through binoculars and seeing humanoids above this same field, peering from windows like passengers on a plane, was not.

Neither was the part about Hill making a mad dash back to his car on Route 3, screaming in terror to his wife, Betty Hill, that the couple had to leave, fast, or risk capture.

Or the piece about the Hills being taken aboard the craft somewhere near Thornton, then losing all memory for two hours, then arriving at home in Portsmouth as the sun rose and their thoughts were unchained, allowing them to focus, at least partially, on what had happened.

It occurred during a six-hour stretch, beginning near midnight on Sept. 19, 1961, if you believe in that sort of thing.

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And don’t take my word for it.

Look it up.

“Who knows?” Noel said. “I don’t. All I know is something happened.”

Noel drives the steam locomotive at Clark’s Trading Post. He’s lived in Lincoln for nearly 50 years. His hands and smile are gigantic, and his silver hair rises from his head and shoots in different directions, sort of like that craft that Barney and Betty Hill insisted they saw that night 57 years ago.

The yarn is part of the town’s landscape, much like those funny-looking apple trees.

As Noel worked his way through the high snow, a 12-year veteran of the Lincoln Police Department pulled over to see what was happening. He declined to give his name.

“I have more than a passing familiarity with what happened,” the officer said. “But that doesn’t mean I’m a believer.”

What about you?

An alien concept

The Hills lived in Portsmouth and were just passing through on their way home from Canada. A mixed marriage before those unions were fully accepted, Barney, an African American, died in 1969 from a brain aneurysm at age 46, and Betty, who was white, passed in 2004 from lung cancer at 85.

And yet, like Noel and that steam locomotive, they’re forever connected to the Lincoln region. As Noel says, “It was a big thing. My aunt lived here and she was right here, so it was a big thing to talk about. But nothing ever came of it because ...”

Noel’s voice trailed off, then he laughed, as though his mind had hit that universal stop sign we all approach. Look one way, and your mind tells you it’s not true.

Look the other way, however, and your mind asks, “Why not?”

“There is something out there,” Noel says. “For the billions of stars that you look out at with the naked eye at night, we can’t be the only flea on the dog.”

If what Betty and Barney – the most famous couple with those names since the Flintstones – claimed was true, the 1969 moon landing would be transformed into a walk in the park. But no matter what you believe, the story was out of this world once the media got a hold of it four years after the incident.

A zany-sounding episode, sure, but whiffs of legitimacy – including government scrutiny and hypnosis by a respected Boston physician – followed this like a comet’s tail. In fact, even the state added some credibility, planting one of those green historical markers near Indian Head Resort, right there on Route 3, to celebrate the 50th anniversary in 2011.

It reads: “On the night of September 19-20, 1961, Portsmouth, NH couple Betty and Barney Hill experienced a close encounter with an unidentified flying object and two hours of ‘lost time’ while driving south on Route 3 near Lincoln. They filed an official Air Force Project Blue Book report of a brightly-lit cigar-shaped craft the next day, but were not public with their story until it was leaked in the Boston Traveler in 1965.”

Then come the words that push you to Google: “This was the first widely-reported UFO abduction report in the United States.”

‘Somehow not human’

In the ensuing years, retired schoolteacher Kathleen Marden, Betty Hill’s niece, became obsessed. She’s a written a book, compiled a 78-page PDF as part of a presentation and told me by phone from Florida, “My opinion is they did have an encounter with non-human entities. It created an emotional disturbance because it was so close and they had missing time. There were scientists and military people who were interested.”

Take everything Marden says, of course, with a grain of cosmic dust. But she no doubt knows more about this topic than anyone in the solar system.

She was 13 when it happened, and says Betty called her sister – Marden’s mother – at their home in Kingston the afternoon after the abduction.

“I came home from school during that time frame and heard the end of it,” Marden said. “Then we were at the Hill’s home a few days later and saw the spots on the car and the watches that had stopped.”

Spots on the car? Legend has it that no one could explain what made them on the trunk, or what they were made from. Stopped watches? Yep. Betty and Barney claimed that happened, too.

Early reports said that after the Hills bolted from the field in Lincoln, their car began to vibrate and a tingling sensation passed through their bodies.

That incident also happened in Lincoln, which was the last moment the couple recalled. Their memories returned two hours later in Ashland, about 30 miles away, and it wasn’t until four years later that the couple identified the abduction site as Thornton, where an apartment complex now sits.

They quickly reported their experience to the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena, or NICAP.

In one report, Walter Webb of NICAP filed that “Mr. Hill believed that he was going to be captured ‘like a bug in a net.’ That is when he knew it was no conventional aircraft he was observing but something alien and enearthly (sic) containing beings of a superior type, beings that were somehow not human.”

An Air Intelligence Information Report, prepared by a major at Pease Air Force Base at the same time the Hills say they were abducted, read, “It was revealed that a strange incident occurred on 20 Sept. It is not possible to determine any relationship between these two observations, as the radar observation provides no description.

“Time and distance between the two events could hint at a possible relationship.”

Elsewhere, Dr. Benjamin Simon, a renowned psychiatrist from Boston, hypnotized Barney and learned that his severe anxiety was caused by his belief that an abduction had taken place. Betty’s description of the event, also made under hypnosis, matched up pretty closely with Barney’s.

In memories and then under hypnosis, the Hills revealed that a group of aliens had blocked their car on Route 3 and escorted them aboard. Betty remembered fighting, throwing a punch or a kick, which might explain why her dress was torn. She said they tried to probe her naval, but it hurt so they stopped.

Barney described beings wearing shiny black uniforms with spindly legs, a bulky torso and cat-like eyes.

The Hills tried to keep their experience quiet, but a Boston journalist got a tip in 1965 and ran with the story, even though the Hills declined his requests for an interview.

That initiated a media storm.

“They fled and went to my grandparents’ house across the street from me in Kingston,” Marden told me. “They knew where Betty and Barney lived, and we had a family meeting on what to do next. There was a lot of media, the phone ringing off the hook.”

A matter of credibility

The headline, “Aboard a Flying Saucer,” teased the Hill story, above a picture of Liz Taylor in a 1966 edition of Look magazine.

Then a movie based on the Hill’s account called The UFO Incident came out in 1975 and starred James Earl Jones as Barney and academy-award winning actress Estelle Parsons as Betty.

Are you getting the idea?

People wanted to believe it. Lots more poked fun at the Hills, calling them nuts or publicity seekers.

Maybe. But these were educated people, a biracial couple far ahead of their time. She was a college graduate and a social worker, he a member of the United States Commission on Civil Rights who was honored by the Northern New England Governor’s Conference on Community Action.

They were invited to the 1965 inauguration of President Lyndon Johnson.

And why in the world would a mixed-race couple living in New Hampshire in the early 1960s want to draw attention to themselves in this manner?

Some believed the Hills. Lots more did not.

“People have an agenda to dismiss this sort of thing despite the evidence,” Marden told me. “They don’t believe in anything. The only thing they will believe is dead bodies and a crashed saucer they can analyze.”

That, of course, would help, and by now, if you’ve made it this far, perhaps you’re rolling your eyes, or just plain laughing.

Betty didn’t help her cause in later years, claiming she’d seen lots of UFOs flying in groups. Marden felt foolish, telling me she grew angry with her aunt. Only later did Marden forgive her, after learning Betty had a brain tumor, which probably caused her bizarre behavior.

“I had gone with her and sky watchers and I could see helicopters and she was insisting they were moving in unconventional ways,” Marden said. “I was disgusted that she was destroying her credibility. It started out with serious investigations and teams of scientists and she went out on her own with crackpot ideas.”

By then, however, the story was established. Or at least it made you think.

An opportunity lands

The owners of the Notch Express convenience store across from the field in Lincoln take it quite seriously. It’s certainly good for business.

Falguni Patel bought the store four years ago and moved the old UFO newspaper clippings from the unisex bathroom to the main area. She sells little flying saucer keychains and green alien dolls with big eyes. There’s a mural painted outside showing a skinny alien with a big head.

“I think it’s really true,” Patel told me. “There are pretty strong believers in town, so I believe it too. I can see the evidence.”

Evidence is in the eye of the beholder. Either way, Lincoln is forever known for the trained bears at Clark’s, the train at the Hobo Railroad and the extraterrestrials who some believe appeared in a local field, years before I-93 was built.

The story about those apple trees is fictitious.

The rest?

“All I can say is something happened,” Noel said. “What better explanation can you come up with?”