“If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts he shall end in certainties.”
Sir Francis Bacon
The subject of alien abduction is even more divisive than most topics which involve an element of the unknown. On one side are the skeptics and debunkers who scoff at the idea of aliens, become positively mirthful when confronted with the notion of alien abduction and toss in sniggering references to tin-foil hats and rectal probes. On the other side are those who implicitly believe in alien abduction and react to any contrary view as evidence of a conspiracy to conceal the truth. And a smaller number who believe that their lives have been blighted because they have directly experienced such an abduction. Given these entrenched views, is it even possible to approach such an emotive subject objectively? Well, that’s what this site is about so let’s give it a try. Let’s see if we can put aside preconceived ideas for a moment and try to judge this case purely on the evidence.
The story of the alleged abduction by aliens of Betty and Barney Hill in 1961 wasn’t the first account of people being taken (willingly or unwillingly) by the occupants of a UFO. But it did generate a huge amount of publicity and many of its elements became a virtual template for accounts of abductions which followed. A great deal has been written both by believers and skeptics but, more than fifty years on, perhaps it’s still possible to find something fresh to say.
I’m going to deal with the facts a little differently in this case. Part 1 deals with the documentary evidence of what the Hills reported in the immediate aftermath of their experience. Many books and articles seem to be predicated on the notion that the Hills, and Barney in particular, remembered little about what happened on 19th/20th September until they began hypnotherapy. Or that Barney didn’t remember anything especially clearly and that he was somehow persuaded by Betty as to what he should say. This doesn’t appear to be true, and as you’ll see, Barney provided detailed information on what he claimed to have seen immediately after the incident.
Some of what was reported about the Betty and Barney Hill case came from hypnosis sessions which took place two and more years after the original experience. There are (justified, I think) concerns about the validity of hypnosis as part of psychotherapy and whether it really does bring back “repressed” memories or whether it simply conflates dreams and other imaginary experiences to create what seem to be memories. For that reason, everything that happened during the period when the Hills were undergoing hypnotherapy is covered in Part 2.
In Part 3 I’ll look at what became known after Betty and Barney (though particularly Betty) became nationally and internationally known UFO celebrities.
Part 1: The sighting
Betty and Barney Hill were married on 12th May 1960. The couple had met five years before and at the time of the marriage Betty was forty-one and Barney was thirty-eight. Both had been married before but what made the marriage unusual or even shocking to some people in the early 1960s was that Betty was a white European American and Barney was a black African American. Both were active in the civil rights movement and both were members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). When they were first married they were able to spend very little time together. Betty, a Social Worker with the New Hampshire Division of Welfare, lived and worked in the city of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Barney, a postal carrier for the US Post Office, lived and worked in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. For the first ten months of their marriage, they lived separately but in March 1961 Barney was offered a transfer to Boston. This wasn’t ideal – it meant he would be required to work night-shifts and undertake a 120 mile round-trip commute every day. Despite this, he joined Betty in Portsmouth on 17th March.
Betty and Barney Hill
Betty and Barney were very happy. Barney’s long commute and night work often left him tired, but at least they were together. Betty had a week’s holiday due from Monday 18th – Friday 22nd September. Impulsively, Barney decided that he too would take a few days off work so that the couple could enjoy a short holiday together – the first holiday since their marriage and what Barney joking referred to as “a sort of honeymoon.” They decided to travel to Niagara Falls, Toronto and Montreal and they (and their pet dachshund Delsey) left Portsmouth on Sunday 17th in Betty’s 1957 Chevrolet. First they drove across Vermont to Niagara Falls and Toronto, then on to the Thousand Islands area. On the night of 18th September they spent the night in a motel around one hundred miles west of Montreal and on the morning of the 19th they drove to the city. They spent the morning and afternoon of the 19th in Montreal and their intention was to spend the night there. However, late in the afternoon, Barney became confused by road signs in French and they found themselves on the eastern outskirts of the city. They had some difficulty finding a motel in the area that would accept Delsey and when they heard a radio report that a tropical storm was approaching New Hampshire, they decided instead to immediately drive back to Portsmouth.
Their route from Montreal to Portsmouth led initially east, through Sherbrooke and then across the US border into New Hampshire and on to US Route 3. They would then continue on Route 3 past Lancaster and Lincoln, through the White Mountain area and Plymouth before reaching Concord and turning east again for the final leg to Portsmouth. The total distance was around 350 miles. However, Barney said that he didn’t feel tired and that he was willing to undertake the drive. They agreed that if he did feel tired, they would find somewhere to spend the night in New Hampshire’s White Mountain area. When they set off from Montreal in the late afternoon the weather was fine – the forecast storm didn’t reach New Hampshire until two days later.
The drive back to Portsmouth was uneventful until around midnight somewhere south of Lincoln on Route 3 and around 150 miles from Portsmouth. Over an extended period Betty and Barney observed a bright object in the sky which seemed to be behaving erratically. Then, as they rounded a bend near Indian Head, a natural granite rock formation resembling a Native American profile just south of the narrow valley through Franconia Notch, they both saw the object at much closer range. They arrived back in Portsmouth at around 05:00. According to Barney, this was later than expected. He had anticipated arriving in Portsmouth around 03:00.
Betty was convinced that they had seen some sort of alien craft and discussed this with members of her family on the following day (including her sister Janet who also claimed to have seen a UFO in 1957). Barney also discussed the sighting with friends and family.
On 21st September Betty made a telephone call to 100th Bomb Wing at Pease Air Force Base in Newington, New Hampshire, to report the sighting. She and Barney gave the interviewing officer a general description of the craft they had observed. Later that day, Major Paul W. Henderson phoned the Hills back and questioned both of them extensively. The next day Henderson phoned again to ask for more details. In 1961 the US Air Force was collecting reports of UFO sightings as part of Project Blue Book. In accordance with Standing Instructions, Major Henderson completed an Air Intelligence Information Report following his conversations with the Hills and submitted this to 1066th Air Intelligence Service Squadron, the unit responsible for collating and analysing UFO reports. The report included the following description of the Hills encounter:
“On the night of 19–20 September between 20/0001 and 20/0100 the observers were traveling by car in a southerly direction on Route 3 south of Lincoln, N.H., when they noticed a brightly lighted object ahead of their car at an angle of elevation of approximately 45 degrees. It appeared strange to them because of its shape and the intensity of its lights compared to the stars in the sky. Weather and sky were clear. They continued to observe the moving object from their moving car for a few minutes, then stopped. After stopping the car they used binoculars at times.
They report that the object was traveling north very fast. They report it changed directions rather abruptly and then headed south. Shortly thereafter, it stopped and hovered in the air. There was no sound evident up to this time. Both observers used the binoculars at this point. While hovering, objects began to appear from the body of the “object,” which they describe as looking like wings, which made a V-shape when extended. The “wings” had red lights on the tips. At this point they observed it to appear to swoop down in the general direction of their auto. The object continued to descend until it appeared to be only a matter of “hundreds of feet” above their car.
At this point they decided to get out of that area, and fast. Mr. Hill was driving, and Mrs. Hill watched the object by sticking her head out the window. It departed in a generally northwesterly direction, but Mrs. Hill was prevented from observing its full departure by her position in the car.
They report that while the object was above them after it had “swooped down” they heard a series of short, loud “buzzes,” which they described as sounding like someone had dropped a tuning fork. They report that they could feel these buzzing sounds in their auto. No further visual observation was made of this object. They continued on their trip and when they arrived in the vicinity of Ashland, N.H., about 30 miles from Lincoln, they again heard the “buzzing” sound of the “object”; however, they did not see it at this time.
Mrs. Hill reported the flight pattern of the “object” to be erratic; changed directions rapidly,] during its flight it ascended and descended numerous times very rapidly. Its flight was described as jerky and not smooth.
Mr. Hill is a civil service employee in the Boston Post Office and doesn’t possess any technical or scientific training. Neither does his wife.
During a later conversation with Mr. Hill, he volunteered the observation that he did not originally intend to report the incident but in as much as he and his wife did in fact see this occurrence he decided to report it. He says that on looking back he feels that the whole thing is incredible and he feels somewhat foolish—he just cannot believe that such a thing could or did happen. He says, on the other hand, that they both saw what they reported, and this fact gives it some degree of reality.
Information contained herein was collected by means of telephone conversation between the observers and the preparing individual. The reliability of the observer cannot be judged, and while his apparent honesty and seriousness appears to be valid, it cannot be judged at this time.
Major Henderson also appended to the report a short note on a strange radar sighting which had occurred at Pease Air Force Base at around 02:00 on 20th September. He notes:
“During a casual conversation on 22 Sept 61 between Major Gardiner D. Reynolds, 100th BW DCOI and Captain Robert O. Daughaday, Commander 1917-2 AACS DIT, Pease AFB, NH it was revealed that a strange incident occurred at 0214 local on 20 Sept. No importance was attached to the incident at that time. Subsequent interrogation failed to bring out any information in addition to the extract of the “Daily Report of the Controller.”
It is not possible to determine any relationship between these two observations, as the radar observation provides no description. Time and distance between the events could hint of a possible relationship.”
The referenced extract of the daily controller was also attached to Major Henderson’s report and the relevant section read:
“Observed unidentified A/C come on PAR 4 miles out. A/C made approach and pulled up at ½ mile. Shortly after observed weak target on downwind, then radar ctc lost. Twr was advised of A/C when it was on final, then when it made low approach. Twr unable to see any A/C at any time.”
Extract of the daily controller, Pease AFB, 20th September 1961. Attachment to Major Henderson’s Air Intelligence Information Report. Note: “PAR” stands for Precision Approach Radar.
On 23rd September Betty went to Portsmouth Public Library where she borrowed The Flying Saucer Conspiracy by Major Donald Edward Keyhoe, author of several books and articles on UFOs and the Director of the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP), an independent body set up to investigate and evaluate reports of UFO sightings. On 26th September she wrote to Keyhoe. In the letter she described the couple’s experience on the night of 19th/20th September:
“My husband and I have become intensely interested in this topic, as we recently had quite a frightening experience, which does seem to differ from others of which we are aware. About midnight on September 20th we were driving in National Forest area in the White Mountains, in N. H. This is a desolate, uninhabited area. At first we noticed a bright object in the sky which seemed to be moving rapidly. We stopped our car and got out to observe it more closely with our binoculars. Suddenly it reversed its flight, from the north to the southwest and appeared to be flying in a very erratic pattern. As we continued driving and then stopping to watch it, we observed the following flight pattern.
The object was spinning and appeared to be lighted only on one side which gave it a twinkling effect.
As it approached our car, we stopped again. As it hovered in the air in front of us, it appeared to be pancake in shape, ringed with windows in the front through which we could see bright blue-white lights. Suddenly two red lights appeared on each side. By this tine my husband was standing in the road, watching closely. He saw wings protrude on each, side and the red lights were on the wing tips.
As it glided closer he was able to see inside this object, but not too closely. He did see many figures scurrying about as though they were making some hurried type of preparation. One figure was observing us from the windows. From the distance this was seen, the figures appeared to be about the size of a pencil, and seemed, to be dressed in some type of shiny black uniform.
At this point, my husband became shocked and got back in the car, in a hysterical condition, laughing and repeating that they were going to capture us. He started driving the car – the motor had been left running. As we started to move, we heard several buzzing or beeping sounds which seemed to be striking the trunk of our car.
At this time we are searching for any clue that might be helpful to my husband, in recalling whatever it was he saw that caused him to panic. His mind has completely blacked out at this point. Every attempt to recall leaves him very frightened. We are considering the possibility of a competent psychiatrist who uses hypnosis.”
Barney was asked later why he had not mentioned seeing occupants in the craft in his conversations with Major Henderson of 100th Bomb Wing. He replied that he was afraid that if he had, he would have been taken for “some sort of crackpot”. Around ten days after the sighting Betty began to experience very vivid and disturbing nightmares of being captured and taken aboard the craft they had seen. On October 17th NICAP Secretary Richard Hall replied to Betty’s letter:
“Major Keyhoe will be writing to you at greater length but he wanted me to send you this interim reply to your letter of September 26. We were greatly impressed by your report and we are making preparations for an investigation. Our Boston subcommittee will probably contact you in the near future. The chairman is Walter Webb, but any of our subcommittee investigators will be carrying identification cards signed by Major Keyhoe. Mr. Webb is a close friend and an adviser to NICAP and you can trust him completely.”
On October 21st Walter Webb visited the Hills in their home. He spoke to them individually and together over a period of approximately six hours. On October 26th Webb wrote a confidential report to NICAP titled: “A Dramatic UFO Encounter in the White Mountains of New Hampshire—September 19–20, 1961”. In part the report read:
“Mr. Hill braked the car to a halt, but left the headlights on and the engine running. His wife handed him the binoculars and he tried to look through the windshield with them. Then he opened the door on his side and stepped out onto the highway for a better look. At that moment the UFO shifted position from right to left in front of the car and hovered again in midair. Barney still believed that what he was seeing had a rational explanation—a military helicopter perhaps having some fun with them. What amazed him though was the ease with which this craft seemed to move and stop, and the absolute lack of any sound at this close range.
Looking through the binoculars, he watched in fascination as the object, tilted downward slightly, began descending slowly in his direction. He could see eight to 11 separate figures watching him at the windows. They seemed to be standing in a corridor that encircled a central section. Suddenly there was a “burst of activity”—the figures scurried about, turned their backs, and acted as if they were pulling levers on the wall. One figure remained at the window. At that instant the red lights began moving away from the object, and Mr. Hill could see that the lights were on the tips of two pointed, fin-like structures sliding outward from the sides of the “ship.”
The figures, according to Barney Hill, were of human form dressed in shiny black uniforms and black caps with peaks or bills on them (which could be seen when the figures turned their heads). The uniforms were like glossy leather. When they were standing at the windows he could see down to their waists. When they moved backward to the wall, their legs were partially visible. The figures reminded the observer of the cold precision of German officers; they moved smoothly and efficiently and showed no emotion except for one fellow operating a lever who, Mr. Hill claims, looked over his shoulder and smiled.”
Sketch by Barney Hill of the object he saw.
In November the US Air Force issued an official press release assessing the Hill’s sighting report. This included the following statements:
“No specific details on maneuverability were given.
The actual light source is not known. As no lateral or vertical movement was noted, the object was in all probability Jupiter.
No evidence was presented to indicate that the object was due to other than natural causes.”
In the weeks and months that followed, Betty and Barney began to experience anxiety about driving in unpopulated areas at night, especially when they encountered a situation that brought back memories of their UFO encounter. Betty’s disturbing dreams continued and both she and Barney were increasingly concerned about what seemed to be a period of “missing time” on their journey back to Portsmouth. Even allowing for driving slowly and stopping to watch the strange object, they arrived home around two hours later than expected. Both had vague memories of some form of roadblock, but neither could remember anything that would account for the missing two hours.
Barney shows a different version of his sketch of the object to Betty and Delsey
Part 2: Hypnosis
On March 12, 1962, Betty and Barney wrote to Dr. Patrick Quirk, a psychiatrist from Georgetown, Massachusetts, to request an appointment. This briefly described their experience on 19th/20th September 1961 and continued:
“Many puzzling aspects remain, so it is felt that hypnotism could clarify these. We have handled this experience with confidentiality, with the exception of NICAP and a very few close friends. Our motive is to obtain information that could be helpful in a scientific way.”
After a consultation, Dr Quirk suggested that the Hills should not attempt hypnosis but that they should wait to see whether more memories of the missing time would emerge. However, Barney’s anxiety continued to worsen and by early 1963 he was suffering from high blood pressure, constant headaches, insomnia and a stomach ulcer that failed to respond to conventional treatment. His doctor concluded that many of Barney’s problems were psychogenic (i.e., physical symptoms that originate from emotional or mental stressors) and referred him to a local psychiatrist, Dr. Duncan Stevens. Barney’s health continued to deteriorate despite psychotherapy to the extent that he was forced to take a three-month leave of absence from his job at the Post Office. His anxiety about his inability to recall everything that had happened during the UFO encounter and the emergence of what seemed to be fragments of memory about that evening continued to be issues. Barney finally asked Dr. Stevens to refer him to a competent psychiatrist who was also a hypnotherapist in the hope that hypnosis would help him to remember what had happened. Dr Stevens referred Barney to Dr Benjamin Simon, a Boston based psychiatrist who had been using hypnosis as a part of psychotherapy for a number of years.
Dr Benjamin Simon
Traumatic amnesia, also known as dissociative amnesia, is a recognized psychological condition which involves the total or partial inability to recall an event associated with trauma or extreme stress. This can lead to memory gaps of anything from a few minutes to several days and is often associated with wartime experiences or involvement in natural disasters or accidents. The afflicted person is aware of the memory loss and may become confused, distressed and fixated on resolving what happened during that time. Dr Simon agreed to use hypnotherapy to treat Barney for his dissociative amnesia. He realized that Betty was becoming increasingly worried about her bizarre and disturbing nightmares and he also agreed to use the same techniques to treat her.
Beginning in February 1964, Dr Simon began a series of sessions where he used hypnosis to help Betty and Barney to recover their lost memories. The sessions were conducted separately and Dr Simon made and kept recordings of all sessions. Initially Dr Simon probed each separately about the events leading up to the sighting, and then on to the sighting itself. Their recalled accounts were very similar, and added only a few additional details to what they had already recounted. But when Dr Simon took them beyond their conscious memories to what happened after the sighting during their period of missing memory, things got very odd indeed. Even though the things they were describing were completely outlandish, their accounts were very similar when they described portions of the experience at which they were present together.
For example, Barney described how, as he was driving away from his encounter with the strange craft hovering over the road, he realized that he was no longer driving on Route 3.
“I made a turn and I never knew this. I don’t know why I had to make that turn, and I was lost. I saw I was on a strange area of highway and I had never been there before. And I was being stopped. I was very uncomfortable …and I saw these men coming down towards me….”
He went on to describe a group of six men standing in the road. As he stopped the car, these men divided into two groups. One group assisted him out of the car and started to lead him into the forest. At this point his mind went blank, he closed his eyes and the men led him onwards. Dr Simon interrupted at this point to ask if Barney hadn’t just imagined or dreamed this. “No, I did not dream this!” he replied. Dr Simon asked “There were men down the road that actually stopped you?” “Yes!” Replied Barney.
YouTube video which has a recording one of Barney’s hypnosis sessions where he describes the sighting.
In a separate session Betty described how, after seeing the strange craft at close range, she suddenly found that they were driving on an unfamiliar road and she had no recall of how they got there. The car then stopped and she noticed men standing in the road and wondered if their car had broken down. The men separated into two groups and started to walk towards the car. One group opened Betty’s door and two of the men assisted her out of the car and led her into the forest. Behind her she could see Barney being led by two other men, but his eyes were closed and he appeared to be asleep.
The transcripts show that many of the accounts given by Betty and Barney under hypnosis are uncannily similar, as if each is describing real events from their own perspective. The sessions went on to uncover detailed accounts of the occupants of the craft, its interior and a series of examinations to which Betty and barney were separately subjected. Betty in particular recalled a set of conversations she had with the “Leader”, a being who seemed to be in charge of the craft. At one point Betty mentioned being shown a 3-D map by the Leader while she was in the alien craft. She described it under hypnosis:
“…an oblong map with dots scattered all over it. Some were little, just pinpoints, and others were as big as a nickel. On some of the dots, there were curved lines going from one dot to another. Then, there was one large circle with several heavy, solid lines that connected it to another, slightly smaller, circle.”
The map seemed to have particular significance for Betty and in a post-hypnotic session Dr Simon told her that she should go home, to relax entirely and then to draw the map precisely as she had seen it. Betty did this and gave a copy of the map to Dr Simon on her next visit.
Betty’s star map
The sessions continued for six months. At the end of that period they stopped, leaving both the Hills dissatisfied. Before starting the sessions, both of them believed that Dr Simon had assured them he would be able to recover their missing memories and understand what had happened to them. However, Dr Simon assured them that the accounts of abduction they provided under hypnosis were simply not true, that they instead originated from Betty’s dreams. In August 1965 Betty wrote to Walter Webb:
“Barney feels that Dr. Simon deceived him by assuring us on several occasions that the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth would be on those tapes. And then at the end, he decided that it was a dream I had, although he had a copy of my dreams, and was able to compare the differences. Then, he explained Barney’s part of the sessions by saying that he was suggestible to my dreams! The whole experience has been an upsetting, time-consuming, and expensive project.”
Despite this, Betty remained convinced that the information she provided under hypnosis was the literal truth and that she had been abducted by alien creatures. She became increasingly interested in UFOs in general and abduction stories in particular though she continued to lead a normal life and she was promoted at work. Barney, on the other hand, seemed to simply want forget what had happened and get back to his pre-sighting life. He became anxious and angry if questioned about his experience. However, his health improved after the sessions with Dr Simon and he threw himself back into his civil rights activities. In May 1965 he was appointed to the New Hampshire State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Although friends and family knew about Betty and Barney Hills experience, as did a handful of other people, it was not widely known. Gradually, life for the Hills began to return to normal.
Barney Hill at work
Part 3: Fame
Then, on October 25th 1965, the Boston Traveler magazine published the first of a series of articles titled “UFO Chiller – Did they seize couple?” Reporter John Luttrell had approached Betty and Barney some weeks before, but both had refused to talk to him. Now it seemed that he had somehow obtained not just details of their original sighting but also information about their hypnosis sessions and used these to produce a lurid and sensational series of articles about the alleged abduction. Suddenly, Betty and Barney Hill were famous not just in the US but around the world. Barney first learnt of the article when he received telephone calls from reporters in Europe asking for comment on his UFO experience. When Betty returned home she thought at first that one of her neighbours must be having a party due to the number of cars parked on the street. Then she realized that her house was full of reporters and that Barney was fielding a call from a reporter in London. When Barney went to work that evening, he found the Post Office besieged with reporters who wanted to talk to him. When Betty went to work the next day, she found the same situation. Life would never be the same for the Hills.
The article in the Boston Traveler was wildly popular – the newspaper sold more copies than it had in 84 years of publication and received more than 3,000 requests for copies of the article. In an attempt to counter some of the more sensational claims, Betty and Barney agreed to speak publicly for the first time on November 7th at a forum at the Pierce Memorial Unitarian-Universalist Church in neighboring Dover. All four hundred seats were filled and speakers were set up so that the overflow crowd outside could hear what was said. One of the people in the audience was John G. Fuller, playwright, author and columnist for the The Saturday Review. Fuller was working on a book about UFOs (published as Incident at Exeter: The Story of Unidentified Flying Objects Over America Now in 1966) and he met with Betty and Barney after their presentation for an interview that he originally intended for inclusion in this book. However, Fuller quickly became convinced that the Hill’s story was so unique that it warranted a book to itself. He mentioned this to the Hills. Betty and Barney were both unhappy with the inaccuracies in the Boston Traveler articles and they both felt that a book that they would have an opportunity to contribute to might be an opportunity to set the record straight.
A deal was quickly struck with royalties from the book being shared between the Hills and Fuller. However, the Hills also insisted that Dr Simon be involved in the writing of the book, and that he also receive a portion of the royalties as well as having sole right to approve or disapprove all medical statements and conclusions in the book. Fuller found the book difficult to write (especially because of Dr Simon’s editorial input) but in 1966 The Interrupted Journey: 2 Lost Hours “Aboard a Flying Saucer” was published. The book was an immediate success, quickly arriving at the top of The New York Times bestseller list and going on to sell more than 300,000 copies and being translated and published around the world. The Interrupted Journey continued to be in print until 1988.
From the moment the book appeared, Betty and Barney became media stars, appearing on a number of television and radio programmes in 1966 and 1967 and giving interviews to journalists from US and foreign publications. They also received a great many letters from people who had either had similar experiences themselves or who wanted to ask about the Hill’s experience. One thing they did not do was attend or speak in front of UFO groups. On November 17th, 1966 in an interview on the Louis Lomax television programme, Barney explained some of the reasoning behind his and Betty’s decision to co-operate with the writing of the book:
“We’re not defending UFOs. I couldn’t really personally care less. What we were compelled to do as the result of a newspaper article that ran in one of the Boston papers for five days…we had not cooperated with this reporter, so he wrote a story much like we had talked to Lei and told her. All of this got around and in 1965 everyone was talking; although the place and the people were not put into proper perspective, he put the story together and wrote it without any cooperation from us. So we, after that, we were more or less compelled to put down the documentation.”
Strange though it may seem, Barney didn’t seem very interested in talking about his experience, or about UFOs in general. He no longer appeared to be angered or frightened by talking about his experience. He just didn’t seem to find it terribly interesting and in many of his radio and television appearances, he used the time to talk about his work in the civil rights movement and the struggle for social justice in America. Betty on the other hand, clearly found the topic of UFOs and extraterrestrials fascinating, and her letters and journals from this period become more and more focused on this topic. She also reported increasing numbers of UFO sightings. In a letter she wrote on 4th April 1966 she wrote:
“Barney and I go out frequently at night for one reason or another. Since last October, we have seen our “friends” on the average of eight or nine times out of every 10 trips, outside of Portsmouth.
One night six witnesses and I watched for 45 minutes while one came out over a lake and performed for us, by maneuvering at different heights, different flight patterns, different lighting effects, and then it met with a second one for a few minutes before they took off in different directions.”
During the same period, Betty’s health began to decline. She had polyps removed from her vocal chords in January 1968 and in June 1968 she was briefly hospitalized due to pericarditis, and inflammation of the lining of the heart. This left her very weak and unable to work for an extended period and this was exacerbated by several bouts of pneumonia. Conversely, Barney’s health seemed to improve. The headaches, insomnia and stomach problems that had previously plagued him had all but disappeared by 1968. However, he was pushing himself hard. While continuing to work at the Post Office full time he was also serving on the Governor’s Council of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission and he founded and served as first executive director for the Rockingham County Community Action Program. And while doing all this he was also appearing on radio and television, talking to journalists and giving talks about his UFO experience in many different parts of America. In late 1968 he suffered an intense bout of vertigo while driving to give a talk. This was so severe that he was forced to ask Betty to take over driving. After the talk, Betty took Barney to a hospital but they could find no cause for the vertigo, which gradually diminished.
Then, on February 25th 1969, Barney died of a massive cerebral haemmorhage. He was just forty-six years old. Betty continued to have health problems and by the mid-1970s these were so serious that she was forced to retire from her job as a Social Worker at the age of 56. She also complained of continuing persecution by unknown people who she claimed, amongst other things, broke into her home on several occasions and removed information from medical and income tax files relating to her UFO experience. Betty continued to report large numbers of UFO sightings and began taking photographs to confirm these.
In early 1975, the movie rights to The Interrupted Journey were bought by actor James Earl Jones. Having read the book, he was keen to see a movie version in which he planned to play the role of Barney. Work began on the television movie in the summer of 1975 and included extended discussions between Betty and Hesper Anderson, the screenwriter. On October 20th, 1975 NBC Television premiered The UFO Incident in which James Earl Jones played Barney and Estelle parson played Betty. World-wide interest in the Hill case was re-ignited. In August 1983 Betty agreed to appear on the F. Lee Bailey Lie Detector show, a popular television programme where a lie detector was used live on-air to test the veracity of statements made by those appearing on the show. Betty was asked three questions:
- Did you initially receive the star map information while onboard a UFO?
- Did you obtain it from a source other than a UFO?
- Do you believe your star map is a hoax?
The lie detector test was administered by Ed Gault, the President of the American Polygraph Association. Betty’s answers to all three questions (Yes, No and No) were judged to be truthful.
Betty became increasingly frustrated at the continuing skepticism about UFOs and she formed a loose affiliation of friends and acquaintances with whom she watched the skies and reported on sightings. She also took photographs and a used a movie camera to record these sightings. The media began to print increasingly tongue-in-cheek reports on Betty’s sightings of whole groups of UFOs. Those who watched with her reported that she frequently misidentified aircraft and other explainable phenomena as UFOs and that on occasion she claimed to observe UFOs that others present were unable to see. Betty’s seeming credulity and willingness to identify mundane occurrences as evidence of UFOs led to her increasing estrangement from the mainstream UFO community which was moving towards a more rigorous and scientific study of the subject. In 1979 John Fuller wrote to Betty:
“I just want to emphasize that, for your own credibility, that anything that cannot be documented or substantiated by others can do severe harm to your reputation, regardless of whether or not you believe it to be true. The Interrupted Journey would not have been widely read at all without the restraint placed in writing it. It is also important for you to realize that even if you believed something subjectively, that is not good enough—we all can deceive ourselves at times.”
Another prominent UFO investigator wrote to Betty on the same topic in 1980:
“My own feelings regarding your “UFO” sightings remains unchanged based upon my personal conversations with those who have accompanied you on UFO hunts. Aircraft lights, street lights, and lighted trailers, etc., but UFO to you only because you are not able to identify them as such. Perhaps they are wrong, but I have a very high regard for their judgment. The recent articles in the newspapers about the “UFOs” sighted at your secret site further support their reports to me. I personally think that you’re going out of your way to get publicity for such “sightings” gives the whole subject a bad look and I have asked those who have witnessed phenomena which you call UFOs to write a full report of just what is going on in order that your sightings are dealt with in a more objective way. The reputation that you have acquired from a possible initial experience may give undue weight to additional claims by you.”
Increasingly derided and ignored by other UFO enthusiasts, Betty announced her retirement from the field of UFO investigation in 1991. Despite this, she remained in contact with many of the people she had met through her interest in UFOs and in 1995 she wrote and self-published a short book titled A Common Sense Approach to UFOs. The book was not well received. It included accounts of sightings by Betty of large numbers of UFOs and accounts of other events which were simply not credible to many readers.
Interview with Betty Hill, 1999
In the early 2000s the dress which Betty had worn during the alleged abduction (and which she had kept, unworn, since) was subjected to a series of tests. Some of these tests claimed that the dress contained traces of an “anomalous biological substance”.
In 2004 Betty died of metastatic lung cancer.
If you’ve stuck with things so far, well done! There is a lot of detail in the Just the Facts section above, but I think it’s important if we’re to establish a clear picture of just what happened to Betty and Barney hill on 19th/20th September 1961 and afterwards. You’ll be happy to hear that there are just four theories, so this section will be shorter. I’ll deal with each theory in turn and they are:
- Betty and Barney Hill were demented loons who imagined/hallucinated the whole thing.
- Betty and Barney Hill were cynical manipulators who invented the abduction story to make money out of the UFO craze.
- Betty and Barney Hill were abducted by aliens.
- Something odd happened to the Hills in September 1961, but that became conflated with hypnosis results which may have been misleading and Betty’s later uncritical belief in UFOs and extraterrestrials.
Theory 1 is difficult if not impossible to disprove. However, we do have evidence that, in 1961 both Betty and Barney were well respected in their community and their workplaces. There is no hint that either were prone to fantasy or hallucination, that either took drugs or suffered from any form of mental illness. Betty’s job as a social worker required the ability to make important, consistent and reliable judgments about cases. There is no evidence that her employers had any doubts about her ability to do this and she was actually promoted to a supervisory role in 1962. Barney’s work in the civil rights movement was well respected and he was elected to a role on an important national civil rights council. Given Betty’s later predilection for seeing UFOs wherever she went, it’s tempting to project back to the Betty of 1961 and see her as someone who was predisposed to see UFOs and to believe in extraterrestrials and to attribute the sighting to this. But there is nothing to support this – the evidence strongly suggests that Betty’s fascination (or obsession) with UFOs developed in the years that followed the sighting, not before. In 1961, both the Hills were respectable, respected members of their community who were regarded as reliable and balanced.
Portsmouth, New Hampshire, circa 1960
As part of theory 1, I suppose we should also mention the notion that the sighting was a hallucination induced by fatigue because Barney had driven so far on that day. I don’t think this is supported by the facts. On the morning of the 19th Barney had driven approximately 100 miles to Montreal after a night’s rest in a motel. After spending the day in and around the city he set off to drive back to Portsmouth sometime in the evening. Betty and Barney agreed that if he felt too tired to continue driving safely, they would find somewhere en-route to spend the night. By the time of the first sighting, he had driven around 200 miles over the course of about five hours since leaving Montreal. I can find no other case where driving for 200 miles in five hours has induced fatigue to the point of hallucination. And this hallucination would have to have been shared by Betty, who could have presumably dozed in the passenger seat if she felt tired. There is nothing here to support the idea of a fatigue induced hallucination.
Theory 2 is also difficult to disprove. UFOs were a hot topic in America in the 1950s and 1960s. Someone who wanted fame and perhaps money might have invented a UFO encounter (and there were other cases in this period where people did just that). But there is no evidence and clear motivation for the Hills to do this. They were not short of money at the time – they lived a comfortable life and both were working full-time. Likewise, there is no evidence that either was especially interested in fame or even notoriety. But I think that the most telling point against this theory is that the Hills made no attempt to publicise their experience until after a newspaper report appeared in October 1965, more than four years later. In the immediate aftermath of the incident they told friends and family what they had seen and they reported the sighting to NICAP and the US Air Force. They were clearly intrigued, puzzled and perhaps a little frightened by what had happened to them. After their hypnosis sessions with Dr Simon they became even more puzzled but again, although they told family and friends and some interested UFO researchers about these sessions, they made no attempt to seek publicity. If they had invented the incident in September 1961 to make them rich and/or famous, it just doesn’t make any sense that they would make no attempt to publicise it until this was forced upon them four years later.
Theory 3 is, on the face of it, difficult to accept. If true, it would change some of the most fundamental beliefs we have about our world. But let’s try to keep an open mind and look at this objectively. There are several things that are frequently cited as “proof” for this theory. The three principal pieces of evidence quoted are:
- That under hypnosis Betty and Barney separately gave accounts of their abduction experience which are so similar that they must refer to a real event.
- That the star map which Betty drew showed a conjunction of stars that would only be visible to an observer in a distant part of the galaxy.
- That the “anomalous biological material” found on Betty’s dress cannot have a terrestrial origin.
Let’s look at these individually. I’m afraid that the first point doesn’t really stand up to examination. Since soon after 19th September, Betty began to have vivid and frightening dreams about being abducted by aliens. Her descriptions of these dreams accord very closely with the “recovered memories” in the hypnosis sessions. We know that she spoke at length to Barney about these dreams before the hypnosis began. Dr Simon, a very experienced clinical psychiatrist and hypnotherapist was absolutely clear from the start that what appeared to be repressed memories recovered under hypnosis were nothing of the kind (as evidenced by Betty’s indignant letter to Walter Webb in August 1965). He was certain that they derived directly and entirely from Betty’s dreams and her recounting of these to Barney. John Fuller was careful not to include this information in The Interrupted Journey, and the fact that he had allowed this was clearly a source of some embarrassment to Dr Simon. In Fuller’s book, the information from the hypnosis sessions is used to support the idea that Betty and Barney were abducted. It wasn’t until appearing on the NBC-TV Today show on October 25th 1975 (the same day that NBC premiered The UFO Incident) that Dr Simon publically announced that he did not believe that the information from the hypnosis sessions supported the reality of an alien abduction. He followed this up in a letter written on October 28th:
“When Fuller undertook to write the book, I agreed that I would allow that it was possible to have visitors from outer space, but I made clear that I did not believe that it was very likely… Without at least this degree of admission, Fuller would not have had a book at all.
Let it be known that I have never deviated from my conviction that the “sighting” took place. What was sighted, I don’t know, nor do the Hills know. I am also sure that the “abduction and examination” did not take place except as Betty’s dreams; and the evidence I have is very strong.”
There are now serious concerns about the use of hypnosis as a part of psychotherapy and grave doubt about its use to recover repressed memories – “false memory syndrome” is the clinical terms used to describe the recovery of what appear to be real memories, but are actually not. In a 1994 experiment that simulated hypnosis, psychologist Steven Jay Lynn asked subjects to imagine that they had seen bright lights in the sky and had experienced periods of missing time. Ninety-one percent of those who’d been primed with questions about UFOs claimed that they had some form of contact with aliens.
Given the doubts about hypnosis and especially about the recovery of repressed memory and missing time and Dr Simon’s immediate and unambiguous reaction that Betty and Barney’s account did not describe a real event, the results of the hypnosis sessions just cannot be used as proof that the alleged abduction was real.
Betty’s star map is probably the most often cited example of physical proof that the Hills had contact with extraterrestrial beings. The initial examination of the map was conducted by Marjorie Fish, an elementary school teacher from Ohio. Fish had become fascinated by UFOs and by Betty’s star map. If it could be shown that the star map showed a conjunction of stars not visible from earth, Fish believed that this would constitute proof of Betty’s contact with extraterrestrials. To help her understand the perspective from which the map was drawn, Fish constructed an elaborate 3D model of part of the galaxy using fishing line and coloured beads in her living room. She studied and refined this model this for almost three years before announcing that it showed an accurate representation of the Zeta Reticuli system, but only if the view point is somewhere other than Earth. Many astronomers disagreed with Fish (though some did broadly agree), but it was also noted that Betty had said that the map showed “stars and planets” while Fish’s interpretation only worked if all the dots were interpreted as stars.
Another problem is that there have been several other equally confident but quite different interpretations of the map. Betty believed that it showed the constellation Pegasus. Charles W. Atterberg claimed that it depicts nearby stars, but not the ones selected by Fish. Two German UFO enthusiasts showed that it can be aligned with our solar system’s major and minor planets. Yari Danjo claimed that the map shows definitively that the aliens’ home star system must be Alpha Centauri. I could quote more interpretations of the star map, but I won’t. I think you probably get the picture. There are an awful lot of stars out there. Given sufficient time and enthusiasm it would probably be possible to match up just about any random scattering of dots with some stars viewed from some viewpoint. Even if we are to believe that Betty was somehow able to draw a perfect representation of a 3-D display in two dimensions from memory (just give it a try – it’s virtually impossible) three years after the event, the wildly differing interpretations show clearly that resulting map is not accurate or detailed enough to constitute proof of anything and it certainly does not provide definitive proof of contact with extraterrestrials.
And finally we come to the dress Betty wore on the night of the incident. She put this in the wardrobe and didn’t take it out again until two years later. At that time she claimed that it was covered in a strange pink dust. In the late 1990s and early 2000s the dress was examined by several different groups. By this time there was no sign of the pink dust but the dress was stained in some areas. The dress was subjected to an examination by the Pinelandia Biophysics Laboratory of Grass Lake, Michigan who concluded that it produced anomalous results. Which sounds interesting until you check what those results were: The laboratory concluded that the stained portions of Betty’s dress would “induce a higher degree of energy in the water” than the unstained ones. Unfortunately, this is complete hokum which has no meaning in any recognised scientific terms. Then we learn that the main function of the impressive sounding Pinelandia Biophysics Laboratory was to analyse soil and plant samples from crop circles. The laboratory noted that plants samples taken from within crop circles often showed “different energy patterns” (whatever the hell that means) and the founder later noted that the creation of crop circles involved the release of more than forty times the energy produced by the sun and the interaction of complex atmospheric plasma vortex energy systems. Given that the evidence very strongly suggests that the creation of crop circles actually involves the interaction of string, boards and the consumption of more beer than is ideal, the findings of the PBL are at the very least suspect and likely have no meaning at all in accepted scientific terms. Sorry, but just like the other “proof” used to confirm the alien abduction theory, Betty’s dress provides no tangible proof at all.
Other things such as the presence of shiny spots inside the trunk of Betty’s Chevrolet, the alleged strange behaviour of a compass near the car and even scuffing on Barney’s shoes are sometimes cited providing as additional circumstantial proof of their extraterrestrial contact. They do not. Now, all of that doesn’t necessarily mean that their abduction didn’t happen of course, but it does mean that there is no tangible evidence to directly support this theory.
The fourth theory, that the Hill’s experience on the night of 19th September and later events should be treated separately, is covered in the next section.
It’s difficult to approach something as well known as the Betty and Barney Hill incident without preconceptions. I know that when I started researching this article, I thought I knew about the case. My broad understanding was that Betty was the main mover and that Barney had compliantly gone along with her wishes. And that the pair were most probably publicity seekers who made a great deal out of not very much. I was completely wrong.
The “evidence” which comes from hypnosis isn’t really evidence for an alien abduction at all except to someone who is already predisposed to believe this. The experienced and knowledgeable psychiatrist who conducted the sessions was in no doubt that Betty and Barney’s recollections of time aboard a flying saucer were based on dreams and not on real events. He explained this to Betty and Barney before the sessions ended and yet John G. Fuller managed to write a popular book about the case without actually mentioning this very important fact. But then, as Fuller is claimed to have said, if he had included that, there wouldn’t have been a book at all. And without The Interrupted Journey, I don’t think that this case would have caught the popular imagination in the way that it did. The star map, the dress and the other alleged physical proof doesn’t stand up to any serious examination. Overall there is very little evidence and absolutely no proof that the Hills were abducted by extraterrestrials.
This commemorative plaque now marks approximately the spot on Route 3 where Betty and Barney Hill had their sighting. Though I don’t actually recall anyone mentioning a “cigar-shaped craft”.
I’m not even sure that Barney believed in the reality of the abduction. Unlike Betty, he didn’t leave much in the way of writing to tell us how he felt and what he thought. However, remember his comment in a 1966 television interview when he was talking about whether UFOs were real?
“I couldn’t really personally care less.”
Is that what we would expect a man who truly believed that he had been abducted and taken aboard a flying saucer to say? I don’t think so, but it seems to sum up Barney’s attitude towards UFOs. If you look at Barney’s interviews and talks after the publication of The Interrupted Journey, one of the things that stands out is that he isn’t particularly interested in talking about UFOs. He doesn’t seem frightened by the subject, he doesn’t especially try to avoid it, he just seems bored by the whole topic and he is generally far more interested in talking about social injustice and the civil rights movement (to the occasional evident annoyance of interviewers who obviously wanted to hear him speak about UFOs).
Betty however seemed to believe absolutely in the reality of the abduction experience, especially following the detailed accounts given under hypnosis. She simply ignored Dr Simon’s conclusion that these accounts originated in her own dreams and imagination. After Barney’s death, Betty seemed to descend into delusion, or at least to become so desperate to have additional UFO sightings that she was willing to mis-identify commonplace objects or even to claim that she was able to see and communicate with UFOs which others were not able to observe. It may be unfair, but it’s very difficult to take any of Betty’s claims after around 1968 seriously.
So, what does that leave? It leaves us with a very odd sighting on the night of 19th/20th September 1961 and the Hill’s behaviour up to the point the case became well-known in 1965. And this, once you strip away the later additions of abduction and a flying saucer, still leaves an intriguing mystery.
I don’t think that there is any doubt that Barney in particular (as he looked at the object through binoculars) saw something very strange in the White Mountains. Something so odd that it caused him to become almost hysterical and in the years that followed to develop many of the symptoms of what we’d now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Taken at face value his sighting sounds more than a little stupid – a huge craft with windows through which he could see the occupants as they hurried around inside. Wings with red lights on the tips which slid out from the body of the craft. The ability to hover silently above the ground and then to abruptly move to another location. A crew dressed in shiny black suits and caps, with one of them smiling at Barney as he pulls the lever to extend the wings. There is no doubt that Barney realised how silly the sighting sounded. The US Air Force Major he spoke to about the sighting two days later said:
“He says that on looking back he feels that the whole thing is incredible and he feels somewhat foolish—he just cannot believe that such a thing could or did happen. He says, on the other hand, that they both saw what they reported, and this fact gives it some degree of reality.”
Despite the apparent absurdity of the sighting (or perhaps partly because of it – if you were to invent something, surely you’d make it more plausible than this?) I think that Barney was providing a sincere and accurate account of what he saw. The account he gave of the sighting remained consistent whether he was talking to friends and family or to UFO investigators and throughout the hypnosis sessions. His behavior during this time was completely consistent with an honest, intelligent and rational man who is struggling to come to terms with something that simply doesn’t fit into his view of the world. He sought no publicity and there is no evidence that he tried to persuade anyone of the reality of UFOs. It’s interesting to recall that Dr Simon, while convinced that the accounts of abduction given under hypnosis were not real events, was equally vehement that the original sighting was a real event. I simply cannot imagine what it was that Barney saw, or believed that he saw. His description is much too detailed to allow us to reasonably assume he actually saw an aircraft or a helicopter (or Jupiter!). But it was clearly something so odd and so disturbing that it affected him deeply and profoundly, both in the short term as he drove home but also in the longer term as it directly influenced the remainder of his life.
When I researched the evidence for this case, there was only one point at which I laughed out loud. And that was when I read the official US Air Force explanation for what Barney saw. Whatever it was, it patently wasn’t Jupiter. And therein lies the real heart of this mystery. In the darkness of that September night in the White Mountains the lives of a man and his wife were changed irrevocably by something they saw. Or that they believed that they saw. This was a very ordinary, hard-working couple. Prior to this event there is no evidence that either held esoteric beliefs, that they were mentally ill or that they took drugs or did anything to make them imagine this incident. Immediately after the event and for more than four years they struggled to understand what had happened to them but they did nothing to court fame or fortune. They were in fact, people just like you or I who reacted in the way that most people would in these circumstances. If they hallucinated the whole thing, perhaps that could happen to any of us? If they really did see what they claimed, perhaps that too could happen to any of us? Because of that, and even if you strip away all the nonsense and irrelevance, this is still an intriguing and significant mystery.
The Interrupted Journey: Two Lost Hours Aboard a Flying Saucer, 1966 by John G. Fuller.
Captured! The Betty and Barney Hill UFO Experience: The True Story of the World’s First Documented Alien Abduction, 2007 by Stanton T Friedman and and Kathleen Marden.
Kathleen Marden UFO. Website and blog maintained by Kathleen Marden, niece of Betty and Barney Hill and a supporter of the literal truth of their abduction experience.
The Sceptic Report: The Hill Abduction. Reasonably balanced report of the Hill case.