Gray Barker: UFO Prankster

by Charles Lear

Right at the very beginning of modern UFOlogy, researchers had to contend with hoaxes.  This has continuously been an issue and causes great indignity among serious researchers.  From the point of view of an historian, however, hoaxes and hoaxers have provided stories and characters that range from amusing to downright bizarre.  Motivations for hoaxing range from those of the practical joker to those of people with a penchant for making a dishonest living.  A person who was subject to both of those was Gray Barker, who was an early investigator of the Flatwoods Monster case and who had links to the introduction of the Men In Black and the Philadelphia Experiment into the literature.  Barker’s associates included legendary researchers from the fifties and sixties including Ivan Sanderson, Jim Moseley, Morris Jessup and John Keel.  All of these people were writers trying to make a living in a tough market and if there was a scale for measuring truth in journalism, Jessup followed by Sanderson and then Keel would be on the side of truthful whereas Moseley followed by Barker would be towards the opposite.

Gray Barker first became prominent in the world of UFOlogy with his investigation of the September 12, 1952 Flatwoods Monster case which was reported in his native Braxton County, West Virginia. He arrived on the scene just after Ivan Sanderson and both interviewed primary witnesses as well as many residents of the area.  Sanderson was preparing an article for True while Barker was commissioned by Fate.  Barker seems to have been earnest in this early investigation and this is reflected by his recollection of it in his classic 1956 book, “They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers.”  After the Flatwoods case, Barker wrote articles for Space Review, which was a regular publication of the International Flying Saucer Bureau run by Albert Bender and later became IFSB’s chief investigator.  In his book, Barker relates that Bender claimed to have solved the mystery of UFOs but was forced into silence by higher powers and visited by three MIBs.  This is the first mention of MIBs in UFO literature but the story originated with Bender.  Bender abruptly ceased his IFSB activities and Barker seemed to have been impressed that there was a genuine element to the story, which can be discerned from his archived correspondence with Morris Jessup.

    Barker had written to Jessup in 1954 stating that he’d heard he was writing a book on flying saucers and the two wrote back and forth until 1957.  Barker would later publish facsimiles of an annotated version of Jessup’s “The Case for the UFO” that had been printed by the Varo Manufacturing Company for the Office of Naval Research.  Jessup’s book with mysterious annotations in the margins in three different ink colors apparently by three different people had been mailed to the ONR and they had taken it seriously enough to warrant its reproduction and personally interviewed a bewildered Jessup.  Barker wrote an article titled, ”The Enigma of M.K. Jessup for Flying Saucers September 1972 No. 74 where he mentions the emergence of one Carlos Allende as one of the annotators.  He goes on to reveal that Allende had written to Jessup about a Navy experiment that involved the disappearance of a ship and its crew.  This story would go on to become known as “The Philadelphia Experiment.”

Over time Barker’s concern for the truth gave way to his concern with making a living and that meant selling stories.  His attitude toward reporting on the subject of UFOs can be seen in a letter to Robert Sheaffer, a regular contributor to the Skeptical Inquirer, thanking him for comments on his Mothman book, “The Silver Bridge.”  Barker describes his practice of mixing fiction with fact and his justification for doing so.  Amusingly he expresses his concern that John Keel “may actually BELIEVE” in the things he investigates.  His letters to Sheaffer, an ardent skeptic, are friendly and candid and imply he might have been sympathetic towards Sheaffer’s views.  He contributed a regular column to a pulp magazine, Flying Saucers called, “Chasing the Flying Saucers”, wrote books and sold what stories he could.  He started his own publishing company, Saucerian Publications, which put out magazines and in 1959 he expanded it to publish books through Saucerian Press.

It was in 1953 that Barker began his friendship with James Moseley who was publisher of Saucer News.  Their friendship would last until Barker’s death and they held a similar view of UFO research which was that the business of saucers was the business of entertainment and if that meant testing the flexibility of the truth, so be it.  They also felt that many researchers and believers were far too serious and that was justification for the occasional prank or (gasp!) hoax.  The difference between them was that Moseley believed there was something real behind the phenomenon while Barker was becoming increasingly doubtful.

The first well-known prank they played on the UFO community involved a series of letters they had written using stationary they’d managed to obtain with official U.S. Government letterheads.  They sent one with a Department of State letterhead to George Adamski, which was signed R.E. Straith of the Cultural Exchange Committee, and it was an unofficial confirmation of Adamski’s tales of alien contact which he would proudly show off in support of his claims.  Another was sent to one of Adamski’s followers, Laura Mundo, that had “Office of the Director” and “United States Information Agency” on its letterhead.  This letter asked for details about her Michigan contactee group including the number of members it had, its political implications and her personal opinion of “peace groups” to help complete files being prepared on the group.  Coral Lorenzen of the Aerial Phenomena Research Organization received a letter advising her to cease operations because of a coming “crackdown” implied to be in the works by the U.S. Postal Service and a group called Civilian Saucer Intelligence got one inferring one of their members was involved in collusion and conspiracy.  The F.B.I. became involved and got nowhere though Barker is reported to have been scared enough by this to destroy the typewriter they used.  Meanwhile the Adamski letter became known as the “Straith” letter and took on a life of its own among conspiracy theorists.  Moseley had told Barker he would confess the prank after his death and did so in his January 10, 1985 publication of Saucer Smear.

John Keel writes about pranks that Barker and Moseley had pulled on him during his Mothman research.  In one instance, Barker had phoned him and addressed him as if he was a stranger and referred to Keel’s investigation of Woodrow Derenberger (who was visited by an alien named, Indrid Cold) as the “Derenstein” case.  When Keel later asked Barker about the call he denied having made it.  Keel received more mysterious calls and wrote about them in “The Mothman Prophecies” as if they were possibly being made by otherworldly beings.  Keel’s paranoia and serious approach to his research must have made him an irresistible target and Barker and Moseley seem to have had great fun at his expense.

In 1966 there was an increase of UFO interest following J. Allen Hynek’s “marsh gas” explanation for sightings in Michigan.  Jim Moseley received a desperate call from the American Program Bureau looking for a UFO expert to speak at an Engineering Society of Detroit meeting as a replacement for Donald Keyhoe who had demanded too high a fee.  After this he found himself on the UFO lecture circuit and was looking for something to add some excitement to his presentations.  Film footage of a flying saucer would be just the thing to do this so he enlisted the help of Barker to create one.  One of Barker’s researchers, John Sheets, held a fishing pole with a ceramic flying saucer on the end of the line out in front of a car while Moseley drove and Barker filmed.  This footage became known as “The Lost Creek Saucer” film and Barker sold prints while Moseley used it in his lectures and showed it on television when he was a guest of talk show host, Joe Pyne.  By the seventies, many researchers became aware of the hoax due to Barker and Moseley admitting to it while drinking with them.  This didn’t prevent the film from being used (without permission) in “U.S. UFO Coverup: Live!” which was a 1988 television show hosted by Mike Farrell.  The truth “officially” came out in 1996 through a documentary on Barker, “Whispers From Space” directed by Ralph Coon and Jim Moseley tells the story in another Gray Barker documentary made in 2009 called, “Shades of Gray.”

For someone who didn’t believe in UFOs, Gray Barker made quite an impact on the field.  He was interesting enough to have two documentaries made about him and is still celebrated in his hometown.  In Clarksburg, WV, the Clarksburg Harrison Public Library has a “Gray Barker Room” which houses collections of magazines he’d published, books, correspondence, photos and even the model used for the “Lost Creek Saucer” film.  He was a hoaxer that was hard to hate.