4 of the most unusual battles over meteorites, including the time one hit a woman in the hip
It’s as close as we’ll get to Star Wars—meteorites may just be hunks of space rock, but they still excite powerful emotions. Those emotions are behind these four battles over who gets to keep them.
1. Robert Peary sees some great meteorites, so he goes ahead and takes them
For years, the Inuit in Greenland used a meteorite to make their tools. Explorer Robert Peary said the small village was filled with “huge masses of pure, soft iron,” so the famous Arctic explorer decided to bring the so-called iron mountains home with him.
Peary took the meteorites without paying the tribe. For them, it was both a practical and sacred offense, since the iron source had been literally heaven-sent. The rocks were so big that they required building Greenland’s first railroad to move them. This full history is Peary’s tale of how he saw the meteorite and decided to take it home.
Peary sold the pieces for $40,000 to the American Museum of Natural History, and they remain on display there today as the Cape York Meteorite.
2. Neil deGrasse Tyson battles a Native American tribe for a giant meteorite
Years before he was the star of Cosmos, Neil deGrasse Tyson was already director of the Hayden Planetarium. Housed at the American Museum of Natural History, along with the Cape York meteorite, the 15 ton Willamette Meteorite was also under Tyson’s supervision. The problem? A Native American Tribe wanted it back.
Using NAGPRA, an act allowing for the return of sacred objects, the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon asked that the meteorite be returned. The museum argued that the 10,000 year-old rock, purchased from a steel company for $20,600 in 1906, didn’t qualify as a sacred object. Tyson said it was crucial the rock stay in the museum, since “untold numbers of visitors who were turned on to science because of their encounter with this meteorite.”
The group eventually dropped the lawsuit in exchange for a guarantee that the meteorite would be displayed along with a historical marker that noted the tribe’s history with the rock. The museum also started an internship program for Native American students.
It wasn’t the first legal battle over the meteorite—there was also one when it was originally discovered.
3. The meteorite that hit an Alabama woman…and inspired a lawsuit
What would you do if a meteorite hit you in the hip? If you were Ann E. Hodges, you’d sue to keep it.
The Encyclopedia of Alabama has the best summary of the Hodges meteorite story. In 1954, Ann Hodges was taking a nap on her couch when a rock smashed into her hip, leaving a massive bruise. The rock turned out to be a meteorite, and Hodges became the only confirmed person to be struck by one. Hodges had no idea that the pain on her hip was just the beginning.
After she called the police, they took the meteorite and gave it to the Air Force, which promptly sent it to the Smithsonian. Though an Alabama Congressman forced the Smithsonian to return the rock, it was just the beginning of the legal battles. Because Hodges was a renter, her landlord claimed the rock should actually belong to him. Hodges sued and, thanks to a private settlement, finally got back the rock that hit her in the hip.
Her fifteen minutes of fame followed, but she didn’t make big cash off the meteorite, even after all of that work. She donated it to the Alabama Museum of Natural History, where it still is today.
4. A lawsuit for selling meteorites that might not be real
If the previous three items on this list show anything, it’s that people get irrational about real space rocks. So the only rational thing to do is to sell fake ones.
In 2012, the Colorado Attorney General’s office accused a local man, Steven Curry, of selling steel rocks as meteorites. Curry protested that his meteorites were real and a competitor just had it out for him. The veracity of the rocks is still up for debate.
Who’s right? Check out Curry’s videos for yourself—just try not to get in any fights about it.