Space Invader

The aftermath of a meteorite strike in 1950s Alabama

01 January, 2016

“Everything began with the Alabama story for me,” the photographer Regine Petersen said. In 2010, Petersen read about Ann Hodges, one of the very few humans known to have been struck by a meteorite fragment. Hodges suffered the strike in 1954, when a black rock weighing over four kilograms crashed through the roof of her house in Oak Grove, Alabama, bounced off a radio, and hit her on her side as she was napping. Petersen, who was born in Germany and was living in London at the time, was fascinated. “I gave up my home in London and travelled to make the work,” she said.

That work became Stars Fell on Alabama, one part of a three-part series on meteorite strikes that she titled Find a Fallen Star. Of the others, one part looks at two children who found a meteorite piece in Germany, in 1958, and the other at nomadic herders who discovered one in Rajasthan, in 2006.

Hodges escaped lasting physical harm, but the strike left her with other forms of trauma. She became a minor celebrity in the United States after Life magazine ran a photo showing a large bruise on her hip, but for Hodges, Petersen said, this was a “public humiliation.” The stone became a coveted object, and though Hodges and her husband claimed ownership in hopes of profiting from its sale, their landlady and the US Air Force also asserted claims to it. The Hodges eventually secured the rock after paying a settlement to the landlady, but by then interest had waned and they could not find a buyer.

But while Hodges’s story received national attention, another encounter with a piece from the same meteorite went almost unnoticed. On the day after Hodges was struck, Julius McKinney, a poor black farmer, discovered a slightly smaller rock while out collecting firewood with his mule, a few miles away from Hodges’s house. “McKinney was scared that the meteorite might be taken away from him,” Petersen explained, “which is why he kept it secret at first.” According to some sources, he later sold it for enough money to buy a car, a house, and some land.

In Petersen’s eyes, McKinney and Hodges were both, in different ways, victims of the prejudices of 1950s America. McKinney’s fear of losing his meteorite chunk gave Petersen “a feeling for the times, for how it must have been prior to the Civil Rights movement.” In the accounts of Hodges’s ordeal, Petersen said, the voices of “the men surrounding her … get heard instead of hers.”

Petersen’s account of Hodges’s experience mixes multiple types of archival material with photographs she took on a trip to Oak Grove in 2012. Her depiction of McKinney’s story is more dependent on original photography than archival work, because there was much less information recorded about him. “It took me a lot of time and effort to find the one newspaper article with the McKinney image,” she said.

In 2011, while she was working on Stars Fell, Petersen had her own encounter with a meteorite when she travelled to a desert in Arizona that had seen a meteor shower in 1912. She stumbled upon a small meteorite fragment lying in the sand. “I found it just amazing to find a piece which had been lying on that same ground even before my grandfather was born, still with its black crust intact,” she said. “That little stone was like a window, and a whole new perspective opened up.”