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The Story of the Old Woman Meteorite – Another victim of the Post-Truth Era

The Story of the Old Woman Meteorite

– Another victim of the Post-Truth Era –


It all started innocently enough. It was the early hours of January 5th of this year when I got an email notification from Paul Schwartz that his latest installment of Meteorite Picture of the Day (MPOD) was now up on his website. At the time, I was working on a rough draft of my next “Bob’s Bulletin” article (about another long list of Unclassified USA chondrites), but I was also looking for an excuse to procrastinate. So, I opened the link to MPOD.

In hindsight, that was probably my first mistake.

I knew from Paul’s email to expect a photo of the Old Woman Meteorite (OWM) taken by Paul Gessler. What I didn’t expect to see was Paul Gessler in the photo sitting on top of the good ol’ OWM! He was straddling the 2-ton iron in the same manner as the Slim Pickens’s character in “Dr. Strangelove”! (I knew this wasn’t a coincidence, because the photo was in black&white, as was the Kubrick movie.) I had to chuckle at Paul Gessler’s sense of humor, and I had to appreciate his homage to Slim, because “Dr. Strangelove” is one of my all-time favorite movies. This movie has long been considered “timeless”. And if you consider the movie’s full title, “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”, and the movie’s premise: “about what can happen when the wrong man gets access to the launch codes”, it may become regarded as prophetic, as well.

Note: It is a little known fact that Kubrick filmed a version for the finale that included a massive pie-throwing scene, but he decided to cut it due to current events at that time (1963). I think it is now time for that pie-throwing finale to be resurrected and to be included in the film.

As is the case with most posts to the MPOD, there was a description with additional information. In this case it was three paragraphs that had the heading “From Wikipedia”. The first two paragraphs were very informative, including a detailed description of the meteorite and its recovery. But the third paragraph didn’t seem to fit with the first two, and more importantly, didn’t seem to jive with what I knew about the OWM.

It’s at a point like this where most people would just shrug their shoulders and move on to the next, more interesting topic, or in my case, should get back to the task at hand and continue writing my article, but…. did I tell you how much I like to procrastinate? So, I rationalize that it would only take a minute or two, tops, to check-out the original Wikipedia page. So, it’s off I go surfing the Internet. Not having a direct link to the Wikipedia page, I thought it would be interesting to Google-search “Old Woman Meteorite” just to see what it would list (and I like to see their rankings). Yes, I realize that Google tailors the results to my personal habits on my personal computer, meaning that if I frequent “fake news” websites, Google will rank these fake news websites higher in my “results”. As it so happened, for me, the Wikipedia page for OWM was ranked #1 of all the results.

More to the point, the text on the Wikipedia OWM-page is the same as the text in the MPOD OWM-post, so there is no misquote there.

But now my attention is drawn to the “reference” for the last (3rd) Wikipedia paragraph. The reference for this last paragraph wasn’t included on the MPOD post. For some reason this last paragraph has its own reference. When I checked the Wikipedia page “history“, I found that this 3rd paragraph and reference (#2) were added on “19 December 2013” (eight years after this OWM Wikipedia page was started). Since then, this late addition has been revised numerous times for various reasons. Here is the added paragraph in its original text:

(quote) It was discovered by 3 miners who then staked a legal claim. The claim was ignored and the meteor was confiscated by the US Government department of BLM. [2] (unquote)

I will explain later why these two sentences are totally inaccurate.

And here is the link to the reference for the last paragraph:

“Ref. 2)” – –
That link leads me to the “Desert Explorer” website which is a personal blog for a gentleman with the Internet moniker, Dusty Road. This particular edition is titled: “BATTLE FOR THE OLD WOMAN METEORITE” (Monday, October 01, 2007), which was an attempt to make the legal battle over the OWM somehow interesting. Actually, I agree with the blogger. It is an interesting story. But the point I want to make here is that nothing in this blog supports the statement in the third paragraph of the OWM Wikipedia page that “the BLM confiscated the meteorite”!

After reading this blog it left me wanting to know more details, especially where the author writes, “I don’t know why the finders contacted the Smithsonian Institute”, or this, “To my knowledge nothing was ever published”, and “I don’t know if the miners ever got a finders fee out of the deal”. Yet, I was able to get answers to those questions quickly by simply doing a Google search. (I forgot to mention that this blog does not list any references.) Now in the author’s defense his blog which was written in 2007 (and six years later it was used as the reference) does starts with this disclaimer: “Now I have tried as best I can to be factual but sometimes you hate to let facts get in the way of a good yarn.”

Nowadays you have to constantly ask questions, because everything needs to be questioned. Hopefully you are asking yourself this question: “Why in the world would this blog be considered an adequate reference for a Wikipedia stub? Isn’t there a better source that can be referenced?” And the answer is, YES, there definitely is a better source! (I’ll divulge what I found, but I first want to make the point that it was easier to find a “better source” just by doing a simple Google search than it was to dig-up that “Desert Explorer” blog.) Now you are probably asking yourself, “Why isn’t this ‘better source’ being used as a reference”? To answer that I need to digress and explain the meaning of this new term, “post-truth“.

We are currently living in the “Post-truth Era“, and probably have been for some time. The phrase “Post-truth” has been deemed “the 2016 Word of the Year”. It is defined by Oxford Dictionary as, “Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. In other words (shortened to fit a Twitter message): Post-truth = we don’t need no stinkin’ facts!

The answer to the question, “Why wasn’t the ‘best source’ used as a reference on the OWM Wikipedia stub”, is because the facts in that source don’t coincide with the personal beliefs of individual authors who have an emotional investment with the generally-accepted story about the Old Woman Meteorite. That story being a popular tale about some very relatable protagonists (prospectors) who are swindled out of their treasure by a huge, monolithic antagonist – THE Biggest Antagonist of All Time – the federal government. But if there would be a solid source of information that would possibly contradict any of those closely-held “facts”, why would you ever be inclined to reference that source and risk watering-down such a great story?

The flip-side of “post-truth” is that even when those commonly-held assumptions are revealed to be false because they were based on a misconception, it still doesn’t make a difference. The typical response has been to discount facts, or worse, attack with disinformation until all that’s left is uncertainty. Truth is held under suspicion. This leads people to abandoning facts and opting for whatever they collectively feel has more “truthiness”. And that is where the real problem lies for all of us.

If I have to explain what I mean by that, then you haven’t been paying close attention to current events.

It means that if a culture or society is infected with post-truth it is made vulnerable. The commonly-held values that bind a society are like armor that shields a culture from their enemy’s efforts to bring it down. A post-truth society is one that has a kink in its armor. This vulnerability is susceptible to the weapon of disinformation, which an enemy can use to drive a wedge internally into that society.

Our enemy may no longer boast that one day they will bury us, but they will certainly consider it “mission accomplished” if they can get us to drag ourselves down to their level. And with the weapon of disinformation, they can accomplish that without firing a shot. [1]

Okay, it’s past time to divulge the best source of reference information on the OWM. The defining document is a 2012 paper published in
Meteoritics & Planetary Science (M&PS 47, Nr 5) entitled, “The Old Woman, California, IIAB iron meteorite“. It was written by Howard Plotkin, Roy S. Clark, Jr., Tim McCoy, and Catherine Corrigan.
Yes, I know the first author is from the philosophy department of a Canadian university, and,
Yes, I know all the other authors are from the Smithsonian Institute, so,
Yes, I know this is obviously written from a “Smithsonian” aspect, but,
this is a very fairly-balanced account of the history of the Old Woman Meteorite. So, don’t be a fact-hater, and read this paper for yourself. You will find there were a lot of people involved in this story. Not Big Government, but just individuals. Some individuals were government employees and they may have assumed a greater authority than was their station, but there were also individuals who were at the highest level of federal government who fought bureaucracy and succeeded in bringing fairness to the public they served.

The Old Woman Meteorite

The Old Woman Meteorite found in March 1976. These are the U.S. Marines attempting to air-lift the iron meteorite.
Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Institute Archives (1977).

The Old Woman Meteorite

The late Roy Clarke Jr. (left) and Tim Rose preparing to saw the big cut at the Smithsonian Institute. The first (1979), smaller cut can just barely be seen on the right side of the iron.
Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Institute Archives (1980).

The Old Woman Meteorite
The Old Woman Meteorite at the Desert Discovery Center in Barstow, CA. This is the smaller, first cut surface – Showing a subtle etch pattern.
Image taken by author in 2002.

Back in 1977, while the courts were deciding the variety of suits regarding the OWM, various parties with a vested interest in keeping the OWM in California realized that, regardless of court decisions, it would still be the Secretary of the Department of the Interior that would be a crucial player in the final disposition of the meteorite. They sent letters to the Secretary expressing their concerns and disputed the applicability of the Antiquities Act to meteorites…. [following text is a direct quote from the Plotkin (2012) paper]:

Pressure was also brought to bear upon Cecil Andrus, the Secretary of the Department of the Interior.  On July 12, the Secretary for Resources for the State of California wrote Andrus acknowledging
‘‘the probable legitimacy of the ownership claim of the United States,’’ but claiming that the Antiquities Act,
‘‘if applicable at all to meteorites, clearly allows the display of the Meteorite in ANY public museum.’’
He therefore suggested that Andrus find an arrangement whereby the Smithsonian retained its ownership interest in the meteorite, but allowed it to go on permanent display in the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History (Johnson 1977).

Johnson H. D. 1977. Letter to C. A. Andrus, July 12, SIA, RU329, Box 108.

During that same month…. [another paragraph of text lifted from the Plotkin (2012) paper]:

During the time that the matter was before the court, the San Bernardino County Museum sent Andrus a letter similar to the one he had received from the Secretary for Resources for the State of California, requesting him to reconsider the decision to place the meteorite in the Smithsonian, and allow it to be permanently housed in the San Bernardino museum. On July 28, Senator Alan Cranston wrote a strong letter to Andrus, disputing that the Antiquities Act was a viable legal basis for the federal ‘‘seizure’’ of the meteorite, and suggesting that its removal was ‘‘an affront to common courtesy and to the desires of countless Californians and others in the West to retain custody of the meteorite …’’

He requested that if the court ruled that the U.S. did have legal title to the meteorite, Andrus should
‘‘forgo exercising that right and agree to permit the Old Woman meteorite to remain in California with an appropriate museaum [sic] or scientific institution’’ (Cranston 1977).
Cranston A. 1977. Letter to C. A. Andrus, July 28, RSC Papers.

In August of 1977, Judge Whelan signed an order dismissing the suit brought about by the two finders (and their business partner) of the Old Woman meteorite. The suit was dismissed with prejudice.
Judge Whelan’s ruling (coupled with the strong protests that I described above) quickly prompted a dramatic move on the part of Secretary Andrus. On September 7th 1977, his office in Washington, D.C. dropped a bombshell:

[quote ] ‘‘California will get to keep the Old Woman Meteorite.
Interior Secretary Cecil D. Andrus has decided to grant custody of the three-ton rock to the state in which it was found over a year ago, and has granted authorization to his Secretary of Interior to haul it back to Washington D.C. for display in the Smithsonian Institution’’ (Norton 1977).
Norton O. R. 1977. “There was an old woman.” Lapidary Journal, January: 67.

I find it ironic that the famously conservative Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater was instrumental in getting the Department of Defense to bend their rules and to authorize the Marines to assist the Smithsonian Institute in taking the OWM. Yet, it was the famously liberal California Senator Alan Cranston who was instrumental in getting the federal bureaucracy (Department of Interior) to order the Smithsonian Institute to relinquish the OWM and for it to be permanently displayed in California.

In any case, there is much more that I would like to write about the OWM story, but what I’ve tried to do here is to show the extent of involvement of the BLM in this story, and as you can see, it is very minimal.
All that the BLM did was to house the OWM in one of their offices in California. They didn’t confiscate the OWM.
All that the BLM’s boss (Secretary Andrus) did was to ensure that OWM would be permanently displayed in California.

It’s not that I’m concerned about the BLM being the scapegoat in this story. I feel that the BLM is given too much credit for being an all-powerful government agency, which they aren’t. But what I am very concerned about are individual government employees taking advantage of a misconception and assuming more power than they are authorized.

Having read the Plotkin paper and studied the references to recorded facts, I have found that there are some misconceptions, and even though they may be small ones, I feel they need our immediate attention. Below, is my version of a paragraph (and its reference – to documented facts) that I would prefer to see included on the Wikipedia page for the Old Woman Meteorite:

“The iron meteorite was discovered by 2 prospectors. They (along with a third partner) filed a placer claim on the area where the meteorite was found resting. The Smithsonian Institute disputed their claim of ownership of the meteorite. The 3 claim-stakers filed a suit and all parties went to court. The Smithsonian Institute went forward with moving the meteorite off of the mountain with the help of the U.S. Marine Corps, and it was trucked to a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) facility where it was retained during the lengthy court battles.  After the courts ruled in favor of the U.S. Government, the Secretary of the Interior decreed that, although the Smithsonian was the legally designated curator of the public’s meteorite, it will be placed on long-term loan and displayed in California. [2]

[2] Howard PLOTKIN (2012), “The Old Woman, California, IIAB iron meteorite”

I tried to keep my version of the last paragraph as short as possible, but the story of the Old Woman Meteorite is a story of a long and complicated legal battle. I hope you like my post-post-truth version.
Just doing my part, in some small way, to make America great again.

Now that’s over, I can stop procrastinating and get back to writing my “Bob’s Bulletin” which will now have to become another article for later this year.


[1] Putin’s Real Long Game,
by Molly K. McKew, Politico Magazine, January 01, 2017

Subtitle: The world order we know is already over, and Russia is moving fast to grab the advantage. Can Trump figure out the new war in time to win it?
Information warfare is not about creating an alternate truth, but eroding our basic ability to distinguish truth at all. It is not “propaganda” as we’ve come to think of it, but the less obvious techniques known in Russia as “active measures” and “reflexive control”. Both are designed to make us, the targets, act against our own best interests. [unquote]

[2] Howard PLOTKIN (2012), “The Old Woman, California, IIAB iron meteorite“, in Meteoritics & Planetary Science 47, Nr 5, 929–946 (2012)
Table 1. Abbreviated chronology of important dates in the Old Woman meteorite controversy, 1976–1980

External links:

Old Woman from the Meteoritical Bulletin: the entry for “Old Woman” – as Published in Meteoritical Society – Meteoritical Bulletin, Database.

My previous Bob’s Findings can be found *HERE*

If you would like more information, then “Click” HERE.


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