Snippy The Horse: The Birth of a Meme
by Christopher O’Brien
A notable 50-year anniversary passed by this week with not even a whisper. Anniversaries of the weird and the macabre are not normally celebrated, but in this case, I thought it was appropriate to revisit one of the most perplexing and iconic unsolved mysteries of all times: The “Snippy the Horse” case.
The most well-known unexplained livestock death ever reported, the so-called “Snippy the Horse” case is considered to be the first widely publicized unexplained livestock death. The horse probably died (or was killed) and disfigured on the night of September 7th, 1967. Peripheral to the case were the dozens of UFO sightings that were also reported during that eventful fall that have inexorably linked mysterious livestock deaths with the UFO phenomenon.
The “Snippy Case,” has become a thing of legend among paranormal enthusiasts and in the two months following the horse’s unfortunately horrific demise, the news item was picked up by the wire services and it became a sensational international news story. Reporters from as far away as England, France, Germany joined North American journalists at the site in the San Luis Valley during that fall 50-years ago. The site attracted the curious who flocked to the remote King Ranch location by the hundreds. Today, if you gaze down on the meadow where the horse lay that Fall of 1967, on Google Earth, you can still see the hardened dirt path that led out to the location—a quarter-mile west of county road 150. I am indebted to David Perkins and the late Tom “Godfather of Mutology” Adams for much of my research into this iconic case.
Setting The Stage
First a little history and some background on the location and the principles involved: The case occurred in south-central Colorado’s San Luis Valley. I spent 13 years there—much of my time was spent investigating current reports and researching the regions’ colorful history. The SLV is the world’s largest alpine valley and the valley floor sits at over 7,000 in elevation. Completely surrounded by mountains—some that rise to over 14,000-feet—I consider this remote, majestic region to be a perfect cultural petrié dish of sociological study. Isolated physically and culturally from the culture-at-large, the SLV is the subject of my first three books, The Mysterious Valley, Enter the Valley, and Secrets of the Mysterious Valley.
The Mormon Urraca pioneers settled the western slope of the 14,000-foot Blanca Massif (which dominates the mid-eastern part of the SLV) in the late 1870s and one of those hardy families was the Kings, who homesteaded a 2,000-acre cattle ranch that extended down from the foot of the mountains out onto the valley floor. The upper ranch had a small cabin on the original homestead site and the main ranch house was located five miles away out in the valley, ten miles southeast of the Great Sand Dunes. The King Ranch sat on some of the earliest meadows known to have been visited by humans in the lower 48 states.
The Kings were a hard-working cattle family, putting in long hours sun-up to sun-down in one of the valley’s most picturesque areas. Eighty-five-year-old widow Agnes King was the King Family matriarch and she lived with her two sons, Harry and Ben and a daughter named Nellie. Ben King was a self-styled mountain man who could identify every animal and plant in the San Luis Valley and name every creek that flowed down the western slope of the Sangres. Harry was the King Ranch boss, running cattle and tending to the ranch’s daily affairs. Nellie, married to Iowa native Berle Lewis, lived with her husband in the cabin on the upper ranch.
The Kings and Lewis were truly salt-of-the-earth ranchers with a documented family history of witnessing unusual celestial events, i.e., sighting by C.M. Lewis, Agnes’ deceased husband, of the spectacular Alamosa Aereolite strike in the fall of 1898 on the Baca Ranch—about 20 miles north of the Snippy site.
What on Earth Happened?
Here is what we know about the demise of the horse dubbed by the press as “Snippy.” It was a blustery morning, September 8, 1967, and Harry King noticed that only two of their three horses were outside waiting for grain and water. Thinking this unusual, he headed out to feed them. He claimed later that he had sensed something was wrong and he was right: Lady, Nellie’s three-year-old young mare, was nowhere to be found.
After waiting until the following morning for her to show up, Harry went searching for the missing horse. After an hour, he spotted something laying in a meadow a quarter-mile north of the main ranch house and it raised the hair on his neck. Lady’s corpse was missing all the tissue from her shoulders to the tip of her nose, the exposed bones glistening, bleached white, like they had been in the desert sun for years. The flesh, muscles, tendons, meat and hide were missing from the tip of the nose to a wide circular cut just above the horses’ shoulders. Atypical, no other case to my knowledge before, or since, has featured this description of complete cranial and neck disfigurement. According to Berle Lewis, the skull and neck bones were “as white a sheet of paper…as if they’d laid out in the desert sun 30-years.” The animal lay on its left side, facing east in a damp meadow located about one-quarter-mile west of Road 150, a two-lane, heavily traveled dirt road that went north another six or so miles to the Great Sand Dunes National Monument. There were no scavenger or predator tracks, bird-droppings or evidence of how the horse had died and then was subsequently disfigured. Over the next month or so the bones began to turn a rosy pink color and the bleached white appearance faded. This is the time frame when the most famous photographs of Snippy were snapped.
It had rained off an on during the first week of September and the ground was still soft and muddy in places. This made ascertaining track evidence relatively easy. Harry King determined that the three horses had been running full speed headed southeast toward the ranch house and Lady had been “cut from the herd,” then veered away from the other two, who continued on toward the house. Lady’s tracks continued galloping for several hundred yards, by King’s estimate, where they then inexplicably stopped in full gallop.
Ii is interesting to note that the “official” story diverges at this point into two distinct versions. Version one is supported by several newspaper articles; Coral Lorenzen’s Fate article and Berle Lewis’ account. It says the carcass was found over 100 feet farther along the meadow. Version two, supported by several articles and Don Richmond’s original Aerial Phenomenon Research Organization’s (APRO) investigation, stated that the tracks went in a tight circle several times, like something was circling around the horse, and that the corpse was found only 20 feet away from Lady’s circling tracks. This discrepancy has never been resolved one way or another to my knowledge.
A careful examination of the area a week later by Nellie, Harry, Berle and friends, found what appeared to be four burned areas in the ground at four, nine, 13 and 21-feet away from the carcass to the northwest. Shaped like an upside-down question mark, the burn marks in the ground were found to the southeast ranging 40 to 50 feet from the body. Five 18-inch-wide, by 8-inch-deep “giant horse tracks” were punched into the ground and were found among some flattened appearing chico bushes located near the body.
Nellie called Alamosa County Sheriff Ben Phillips to report the strange death of her horse. Phillips immediately upon hearing the description branded the horse’s death a “lightning strike” and didn’t bother to drive out to the scene to investigate. He later admitted that it was odd that the horse had no evidence of burn-marks usually associated with a lightning strike.
Nellie and the rest of the family, however, were convinced that something highly irregular had happened to her horse. She was well aware of the several UFO sightings in the weeks prior to her horse’s demise and she and Berle, and close friends, had experienced sightings that previous spring.
The UFO Connection
The day before the horse disappeared, Agnes King had reported seeing a large bright object flying over the King Ranch corrals that allegedly sheared off the top of one fence post before flying off. Elderly Agnes had been doing the dishes in the kitchen during the day when she glanced out the window and saw the silvery object. She didn’t have her glasses on so she wasn’t able to get a clear, focused look at whatever-it-was. One would think the Nellie would have been impressed by her mother’s claim. And she was. A regional paper quoted Nellie as saying, “Flying saucers killed my horse!” The publicity generated by the horse’s death really brought the UFO watchers and the generally curious into the San Luis Valley in droves. A group of Adams State College students even repainted a billboard outside of Alamosa to read, “The Flying Saucer Capital of the World.”
Nocturnal lights proved extremely elusive but more photographs were captured during the fall of ’67. In October, two college students from Pueblo, Colorado, Bill McPhedries and a friend, with the help of APRO investigator, Don Richmond, photographed mysterious lights over the Great Sand Dunes as they stood on the porch of the Lewis cabin, high above the valley floor. They had first noticed them in the Dry Lakes area, five miles due west of their vantage point. They seemed to hover close to the ground before flying off toward the dunes—passing just to the west of the Snippy site. Brilliant white and red, they seemed to the three observers to be under intelligent control. The photographs appeared in the Pueblo Chieftain along with a story by Pearl Nicholas.
Nellie was positive the strange lights and objects she and others had seen, and reported, were somehow involved. I have noted many of these San Luis Valley, CO reports in my ’Mysterious Valley’ books that didn’t garner the same attention as Snippy’s death. But, at the end of the first week of October 1967, Nellie’s longtime friend Pearl Mellon Nicholas, society editor for the Valley Courier let the strange death of the horse out of the barn. During the next four weeks, the “Snippy” the horse story emerged quickly from the local to the regional, national and international newspaper press.
From the Horse’s Mouth
On March 12, 1993, I down with Berle Lewis, Nellie’s husband, for a video tape interview when he agreed to meet with me at the Great Sand Dunes Country Club maintenance shop where he worked. This was my first full-length video interview conducted for my first book, The Mysterious Valley and is the only full-length interview conducted with him. I found him to be very credible and matter-of-fact—a straight shooter and was immediately struck by his colorful, casually humorous demeanor. This was offset by the honest and matter-of-fact way he described many unusual and some downright unbelievable stories from the late 1960s.
“Berle, when did you first start hearing about UFOs and strange lights being seen around here?” I began.
“After ’67, in August.”
“So all the sightings started just before the whole Snippy episode?”
“It all started right there. I never paid no attention to it ’till after the horse was killed.”
“Until it happened right in your back yard?”
“You might say the backyard, it happened right out back of the house.” Berle laughed.
“Ok, lets get in a little bit and talk about Snippy, or Lady, I mean. The press changed the horse’s name, I guess Snippy was a more colorful name?”
“I never corrected them when it came out. I kinda smiled and said hell, Snippy’s all right with me, Snippy was the horse I rode on, Lady was her colt [sic], so it’s kinda funny the way it turned out. They called the colt “Snippy,” and the horse I had Lady, so I never corrected them.”
“What did you, Nellie and Harry think when you found the horse?”
“We had no idea what caused it because I know nobody with a knife could cut that meat so smooth and nobody could ever take the meat off the bones where it was as white as that piece of paper over there. Now I don’t give a darn who you are, there’s not a butcher of any kind that can make that bone look like it’s sat there for years! The eyeballs were gone, the tongue was gone, the esophagus was gone, and the windpipe was gone. All the hair, the mane hair and hide on the neck, clear down to where the collar fit. But that cut, completely around, was smooth! It’s just impossible to cut it that way!” I inquired about the smell.
“Well, it just hung over the horse really, it seemed to be floating in the area.”
“Nellie was quoted as saying it smelled like embalming fluid.”
“Naw, I wouldn’t say it was embalming fluid, I’ve smelled plenty of that. It was like medicine. That’s the way I’d put it but I don’t know what kind of medicine.”
“Do you have any idea how they removed the brain out of the skull?”
“Hell, I know how the skull got cut open, I was there and I held the light for the guy that cut it open.”
“And there was no brain in there?”
“It was dry!”
“So there was no opening in the cranial cavity?”
“The was no opening of any kind.”
“How about the green glob that looked like a chicken liver that Nellie found?”
“Well, I don’t know what that was, I’ll be darned if I do. [She touched and got burnt.] It was like an acid burn, but there was no smell of acid or burnt hair.”
“When you look back at the Snippy incident, and understand that Snippy was the first [publicized] livestock mutilation from all over the world, what do you think about that?”
“Well, I never thought nothing about it.” Berle lifted his hat and scratched his head quizzically. “I guess, with the whole deal, I thought sooner or later I would learn what happened but hell, it’s been almost 30 years.”
“I read somewhere that Harry found a bull and calf he owned blinded right around the time of Snippy.”
“He had a bull that was blind all right, it happened about a month or so before.”
“A month before Snippy?”
”Yes, it just went blind. It was never tied to anything… but this one calf, his head looked like a basketball. His nose, off the end of a basketball, if you can figure out what that looked like. His hooves were about that long (he extended his hands about a foot apart) and they looked like sled runners. He had an awful time walking. The ears looked like they’d been frosted off, and his body didn’t look like it had developed like it should have. We never tied the calf in with anything else.”
“Did he ever have a vet look at it?
“I don’t think he ever did.”
“Was it born that way?”
“Well, not really, I don’t think so, nobody ever said anything about it. But as he got older, why he just got worse. So, that one time, he just shot the thing and I drug it off into the bushes.”
I was impressed by Berle’s amazing recall of the events that had taken place over 25 years before. I asked him why his wife Nellie told reporters she was convinced that flying saucers had killed her horse.
“I don’t think she was convinced it was UFOs or anything like that, but she knew it was something that we don’t know about killed the horse. Now, I know it was something we, I don’t know about, killed the horse. I figured after all these years I’d have the answers to it, but I don’t have any answers. As far as I’m concerned, an unidentified object killed the horse! It wasn’t anything natural. Couldn’t be natural.”
The Lewis’ were initially reluctant to go public with the story. Word about the case spread like wildfire locally during the first three weeks after the horses discovery, and curious locals began showing up at the site. Initially, Harry tried to confine the visitors to a small area near the body to maintain the integrity of the scene, but this proved impossible as first dozens and then hundreds of onlookers made the trek out to the meadow to see the horse.
Nellie’s nephew Don Hard, a high-school student at the time, was one of the first family members to hear of the strange death of Nellie’s horse and he went out to see for himself “what all the fuss was about.” He is still impressed at what he saw:
“It looked like the horse had been picked up or something because tracks were quite a ways from where it was lying. It was found in a meadow under real strange circumstances. The flesh was missing from its head up. Its spinal cord was missing; its brains were missing. Organs were missing; the bones were white like they’d been layin’ a long time. The meat was totally cleaned off the bones. Anybody that’s ever butchered something, you can’t scrape the meat off clean out in a field… I guess what impressed me was the esophagus was cut clean also and that’s kind of a hard, bony type thing. We’ve butchered cattle before and it didn’t look like something just anybody could do. The bones were still clean and white as if they’d been on the desert or in the sun for quite a while.”
Later on I returned to look at it. We’d looked at it several times, but later on it kind of grew a black growth around the ground. We didn’t see any other incisions on the horse, yet they say the blood was missing and the organs were missing. I didn’t see any scavengers or birds or anything on it. On our ranch we have cattle and if a cow dies pretty quick the coyotes dig a hole in it and eat it
It seemed to [Nellie] like some kind of high technology had done it, rather than something someone could pull off as a prank. I didn’t think it was a prank. I don’t see how something could be done that precisely, to use precision to cut the flesh and the esophagus; take the spinal cord without damaging the bones. It just seems like something out of this world.
I’ve had a theory that maybe the government has such technology. It could be the government experimenting with new weapons because they did fly around the Valley at low altitude trying to evade radar. It was just practice flying, but you could imagine the pilot with a new weapon sayin’ ‘let’s try this out and see what happens.’
The extent of the “flap” of 1967 through 1969’s UFO, military and mute activity in the San Luis Valley and elsewhere has become blurred through time. I tried for years to gain access to Valley Courier editor Pearl Nicholas’ extensive listing of UFO reports from the 1967-1970 time periods when hundreds of sightings occurred, but surviving family members have resisted my requests for access. As a result, a vast majority of these strange events have become lost effectively beyond our reach, surviving within word-of-mouth tales and family legends. Facts have been mixed-up, added upon, deleted, forgotten and inexorably altered. Even the primary eyewitnesses, who should be able to effectively clarify the events they witnessed, may have contributed inadvertently to creation of mythos, folklore or a cultural meme by their fuzzy recollection of these unusual events.
Again, I would argue that the Snippy The Horse case is our ground zero—located at the beginning of the cultural meme called “the cattle mutilation phenomenon”— the initial ingredient fueling the fodder of a new myth and legend. Is this a classic example of a primary meme, or building block in an aspect of culture? A keystone in the building of the edifice of religious and/or mythological belief, or a “memeplex.”
As late Fall of ‘67 word of the Snippy case faded in the culture, it was replaced by a bucolic glow brought on by a rapidly changing culture tuning in turning on and dropping acid. The baby boomers were being awakened to new possibilities, the Beatles were recording Magical Mystery Tour, and a contentious US presidential election of 1968 was heating up as a meat-grinder war was being escalated in SE Asia. And cattle and other animals continued to be reported as “mutilated.” By 1975 cases were being reported nightly across the Mid-West and Rocky Mountain states, and 50-years later, no one has convincingly explained who or what has been perpetrating tens-of-thousands of livestock deaths on grazing lands around the world.
Snippy is for sale. The articulated bones have been preserved and are being offered for sale. Would make a great lawn ornament or maybe a neck-tie rack…
For a complete examination of the case and extended interviews w/ Berle and Nellie Lewis, read Stalking the Herd, chapter three: “Oh Lord defend us from our defenders.”