People Used to Believe Aliens Built Canals on Mars. Here’s Why You Should Care.

“Scientists now declare that the many lines and spots on Mars represent verdure along a most wonderful canal system, which the inhabitants of the planet have constructed for purposes of irrigation.”

No, it’s not the latest finding from NASA’s InSight Mars lander, which successfully touched down on the red planet last month. Instead, the quote comes from a 1907 article in the Los Angeles Times.

While the idea of a Martian-made canal system on Mars seems laughable today, around the turn of the 19th century there was a group of astronomers and scientists who took the idea seriously. In fact, they believed they had proof.

  • Read the full 1907 Los Angeles Times article about Martian-made canals here.

Why Did Astronomers Think Mars Had Canals?

The popularization of the idea of canals on Mars began with the observations of a 19th-century Italian astronomer named Giovanni Schiaparelli. Schiaparelli believed he saw a system of straight lines on the surface of Mars, which he called “canali” in 1877. Although the Italian word can be translated to mean “channels”—which is closer to what Schiaparelli intended—the word got translated in to English as “canals.”

Map of the Mars canals [The Review, 10.27.1898]

Map of the Mars canals (The Review, 10.27.1898)

A wealthy American astronomer named Percival Lowell then performed his own observations of Mars and saw the same type of lines that Schiaparelli saw. But Lowell went one step further than his Italian counterpart. Lowell concluded that if there were “canals” on Mars, they must have been constructed, which in turn meant there must be intelligent beings on the planet who built them.

In the 1890s, Lowell funded the building of the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, as a base for his intensive observations of Mars. He would remain convinced of the existence of artificially constructed canals on Mars for the rest of his life, even speaking about it a month before his death in 1916.

  • Read a Los Angeles Times account of one of Lowell’s last lectures about Mars here.

Did Everyone Buy This Theory?

While Lowell was far from the only astronomer to devote his time to the canals of Mars, not all astronomers agreed with his conclusions. A look through newspapers of the era shows a wide range of other theories.

Of the astronomers and scientists who believed there were canals on Mars, some were like Lowell and concluded the canals were made by intelligent beings. Others believed the so-called canals were actually fissures in the surface, perhaps caused by earthquakes or by collisions with Mars’ natural satellites.

Schiaparelli and Lowell (The Hartford Daily Courant, 08.24.1924)

Schiaparelli and Lowell (The Hartford Daily Courant, 08.24.1924)

Then there were those who didn’t believe there were canals at all. Some of these astronomers theorized that the lines were vegetation growing on the planet. Still others believed that the lines were merely an optical illusion. (This is optical illusion explanation is how the Mars canal phenomenon is most commonly explained today.)

  • Read a 1902 article from the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle about the Mars canal optical illusion here.

The idea of canals on Mars didn’t fade away with Lowell’s death. Well into the 1930s—and even the 1960s to some extent—there were still people who argued for the existence of the canals. It wasn’t until the Mariner 4 space probe sent back the first photos of Mars’ canal-free surface in 1965 that the canal idea truly began to die. (Subsequent missions to Mars would reveal that there are indeed channels and valleys on Mars, but these would not have been visible to the early astronomers.)

Why Should We Care?

The story of the Mars canals is more than just an interesting bit of historical trivia. Its legacy has had a very real effect in areas like pop culture. Author H.G. Wells, for instance, wrote his incredibly influential Martian-invasion novel The War of the Worlds during the height of the Mars canal craze.

The imaginary Mars canals may have even influenced modern space exploration. After all, the people who ran Mariner 4 and other early missions to Mars grew up in the Mars canal era, with all its debate about Mars’ topography and potential to host life. Is it any surprise that people who came of age in this era sent out the first spacecraft that documented the planet’s surface?

Photos of Mars sent back by Mariner 4 (Casper Star-Tribune, 07.20.1965)

Photos of Mars sent back by Mariner 4 (Casper Star-Tribune, 07.20.1965)

The influence of the Mars canals also stretched beyond the red planet into other parts of the solar system. Remember how Percival Lowell built the Lowell Observatory in his quest to study the “canals” on Mars? In 1930, Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto at that same observatory.

  • Read an Arizona Republic article about the discovery of Pluto at Lowell Observatory here.

The story of the canals on Mars is also particularly relevant now, right as NASA’s InSight lander begins gathering new types of data from the planet. It prompts the question: Will InSight make a discovery about Mars that will turn our current understanding of the planet on its head? And if it does, will we look any different to people in the future than those Mars canal astronomers look to us?

Perhaps this advice by a respected astronomer and Mars-canal critic in 1904 still holds true today:

Quote by E. Walter Maunder (The Pittsburg Press, 07.15.1904)

Quote by E. Walter Maunder (The Pittsburg Press, 07.15.1904)

Learn more about the supposed canals on Mars by searching And follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for more interesting historical content like this!

Like this post? Try one of these:

Share using:

Get Your “Tall Hats” Good and Glossy in Chicago

The up-and-coming city of Chicago had the latest innovations for shiny, squeaky clean tall hats. Check out the clipping below for the perfect meld of technology and fashion in this article straight from the papers of 1892:

A new electric machine polishes silk hatsA new electric machine polishes silk hats Thu, May 19, 1892 – Page 1 · Arizona Weekly Republican (Phoenix, Maricopa, Arizona) ·

There are so many glimpses of the past like this one to be found on—try a browse for more!

If you liked this post, you might enjoy these, too:

Speeditis Gets Man a Warrant

“It’s Bean Soup”

Motorcycles on Ice

Share using:

New Papers From New Jersey and Kentucky!

Do you have ancestors from New Jersey or Kentucky? This month we’re excited to announce additions to our archives from these states!

The Coast Star is a weekly paper from the beachside community of Manasquan, New Jersey. Our archives date back to 1899 when the paper was known as The Coast Democrat. The population of Manasquan was just 1,500 back then – small enough that when a local mother wanted to visit a neighbor while her baby napped, she simply called the operator and left the line open so the operator could notify her if the baby cried.

After the turn of the century, beach cottages, many belonging to residents of nearby New York City, began springing up along the New Jersey coast. In 1930, plans were made to dredge the Manasquan inlet and open the waterway for boat traffic. Residents soon found that bootleggers were using the waterway to transport booze (it was the middle of prohibition) and stepped up patrols.

The Ocean Star is published weekly in Point Pleasant, New Jersey, just a couple of miles away from Manasquan and serves the northern Ocean County area. It launched in 1998 and among other news, chronicled heavy damage along the New Jersey coast from Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

The Franklin Favorite hails from Franklin, Kentucky. Our archives date back to 1887 and are a valuable resource for research in Franklin and surrounding communities like Russellville, Richland, Price’s Mill, and Stevenson; and Northern Tennessee towns like Springfield and Orlinda.

The paper reported on local landmark Octagon Hall. The octagon-shaped home was built in 1859 by Andrew Jackson Caldwell and served as a refuge for Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. Caldwell’s son remembered Confederate soldiers camping in the yard. He also recalled the time a weary soldier needed a place to sleep for the night. The family took him in and soon discovered the soldier was Caldwell’s long, lost nephew! 

The Messenger-Inquirer is published in Owensboro, Kentucky. Our archives go back to 1890 when the paper was known as The Messenger. In 1929, The Messenger was sold to the owners of The Owensboro Inquirer. The two papers merged and became known as The Messenger-Inquirer. Now owned by Paxton Media Group, the paper has a rich history in Owensboro.

Like other Kentucky communities, Owensboro’s history is closely tied to the area’s distilleries, and Owensboro has recently been named part of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. The Messenger-Inquirer also covers surrounding communities like Pleasant Ridge, Cleopatra, and Nuckols. The Neighborhood News column is a great place to search for relatives from nearby towns.

Get started searching our updated New Jersey and Kentucky archives today!

Share using:

Elsie Leslie: America’s First Child Star

Before the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, the gleam of studio lights, and wall-sized screens, there was the stage. And just as with movies, the stage brought out the stars. Elsie Leslie Lyde (known as Elsie Leslie) was just one of these, but her youth made her special. She first stepped into the spotlight at only four years old, and within years had gained such celebrity that she’s now considered to be America’s first child star. Elsie Leslie . . . first child starElsie Leslie . . . first child star Sat, Jan 20, 1979 – 10 · The Boston Globe (Boston, Suffolk, Massachusetts, United States of America) ·

America's first child star, Elsie LeslieAmerica’s first child star, Elsie Leslie Sun, Jan 15, 1978 – Page 36 · St. Louis Post-Dispatch (St. Louis, St. Louis, Missouri, United States of America) ·

Childhood Success

Elsie may have had her start in 1885, but it was her charming performance as Little Lord Fauntleroy in 1889 that caught the public eye. She then went on to star in Mark Twain’s “The Prince and the Pauper,” as stated in the article above.

Elsie LeslieElsie Leslie Tue, Jan 8, 1889 – 9 · Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Cook, Illinois, United States of America) ·

Discovery of Elsie LeslieDiscovery of Elsie Leslie Tue, Jan 8, 1889 – 9 · Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Cook, Illinois, United States of America) ·

Elsie LeslieElsie Leslie Sun, Jan 15, 1978 – Page 36 · St. Louis Post-Dispatch (St. Louis, St. Louis, Missouri, United States of America) ·

Famous Friends

With Leslie’s fame came notable friends: the young Eleanor Roosevelt, Helen Keller, and even Mark Twain himself, to name a few. She kept many correspondences with her friends throughout her young acting career and beyond.

Elsie's Famous FriendsElsie’s Famous Friends Sun, Jan 15, 1978 – Page 36 · St. Louis Post-Dispatch (St. Louis, St. Louis, Missouri, United States of America) ·

Taking a Break

In the mid-1890s, Leslie took a break from acting. No one believed it would be a permanent retirement, however, and the public awaited her return with curiosity. Would the young starlet who captured hearts in her youth retain any talent as a mature actress? It’s a question that hangs over the heads of most child actors, even today.

Elsie LeslieElsie Leslie Sat, Feb 15, 1896 – Page 2 · The Chanute Daily Tribune (Chanute, Neosho, Kansas, United States of America) ·

Elsie Leslie rumored to soon return to the stage, 1896Elsie Leslie rumored to soon return to the stage, 1896 Fri, Feb 28, 1896 – 6 · The Press (Kansas City, Kansas, United States of America) ·

Return to the Stage

In 1898, newspapers announced Leslie’s return to acting. The young “Lord Fauntleroy” was now a lovely young woman, starring in roles like Lydia Languish of “The Rivals,” Glory Quayle in “The Christian,” and later as Katherine in “The Taming of the Shrew,” which she played opposite her then-husband Jefferson Winter.

Elsie Leslie as Katherine, Taming of the ShrewElsie Leslie as Katherine, Taming of the Shrew Wed, May 13, 1903 – 6 · The Sun (New York, New York, New York, United States of America) ·

However, though her performances earned mostly favorable reviews, Leslie never quite recaptured the success of her earlier years. Not that she needed it—her childhood fame was said to have set her up nicely.

Find out more about this child prodigy with a search on

Liked this post? You might like these, too:

Margaret Brent, First Suffragette?

Charlotte Cushman—another famous actress of the 1800s

Arthur Conan Doyle and the Cottingley Fairies


Share using:

Death of George Washington – This Week in History

On December 14th, 1799, George Washington dies in bed in his Mount Vernon home with Martha at his side.

General George Washington, departed this life on the 14th December, '99General George Washington, departed this life on the 14th December, ’99 Tue, Dec 31, 1799 – 2 · The Gleaner (Wilkes-Barre, Luzerne, Pennsylvania, United States of America) ·
The ailment that took the life of this incredibly popular president, general, and founding father remains a matter of debate. Only two days before his death Washington rode on horseback, supervising his property in sleet and snow. A sore throat the next day could not keep him from going out again to continue working the land. Unfortunately, his condition rapidly worsened the night of the 13th. Dr. James Craik, the family physician, attended to his sickness throughout the day without success. Washington died the following night.

Washington’s body remained in the house for three days to ensure he was truly dead, by his wishes. His funeral took place in great solemnity on December 18th, when he was buried in his family vault with those who had gone before him.

George Washington's FuneralGeorge Washington’s Funeral Mon, Jan 6, 1800 – 3 · Farmer’s Museum or Literary Gazette (Walpole, New Hampshire, United States of America) ·

Find more on Washington’s life and death with a search on

Share using:

Attack on Pearl Harbor

On this day in 1941, the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor was devastated by a surprise attack that resulted in over 2,400 American deaths. Today we remember and honor those who perished in the attack.

War! Honolulu Paper Headline, Dec 7 1941War! Honolulu Paper Headline, Dec 7 1941 Sun, Dec 7, 1941 – 1 · Honolulu Star-Bulletin (Honolulu, Honolulu, Hawaii, United States of America) ·

War Declared! 3,000 Killed, Wounded | Dec 8. 1941War Declared! 3,000 Killed, Wounded | Dec 8. 1941 Mon, Dec 8, 1941 – Page 1 · The Bismarck Tribune (Bismarck, Burleigh, North Dakota, United States of America) ·

Pearl Harbor Day Thought | Editorial Cartoon 1946Pearl Harbor Day Thought | Editorial Cartoon 1946 Sat, Dec 7, 1946 – 4 · The Austin American (Austin, Travis, Texas, United States of America) ·

Find more on the Pearl Harbor attack and its effects through subsequent years with a search on

Share using:

This Week in History – 21st Amendment Ends Prohibition

With the ratification of the 21st Amendment on December 5, 1933, nationwide prohibition comes to an end. Utah was the last state needed for a three-fourths majority. With their ratification, thirteen years of speakeasies, illicit stills and large-scale bootlegging came to an end…mostly. Several states used state-level temperance laws to prolong prohibition locally. The last dry state was Mississippi, where prohibition lingered until the mid-60s.

Prohibition Ends TonightProhibition Ends Tonight Tue, Dec 5, 1933 – 1 · Public Opinion (Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, United States of America) ·

Prohibition RepealProhibition Repeal Tue, Dec 5, 1933 – Page 1 · The Evening Review (East Liverpool, Columbiana, Ohio) ·

Sidenote: In 1929 Henry Ford claimed he would close his automobile plants if prohibition ended, saying “Gasoline and booze don’t mix; that’s all.”

Find more on the prohibition era with a search on, or browse through the papers of the 1920s.

Share using:

Shackleton Sets Sail: December 5, 1914

On December 5, 1914, Ernest Shackleton, along with 27 crew members, set sail from the tiny whaling village of Grytviken on South Georgia Island. The expedition hoped to make the first crossing of the Antarctic continent. Instead, they encountered horrific gale winds and ice that destroyed their ship Endurance. The men spent nearly two years trekking across ice floes and struggling to stay alive. Miraculously, every man survived! This is the story of Shackleton’s expedition straight from the headlines as it happened.

Soon after leaving Grytviken in December, the Endurance entered the Antarctic ice pack and crossed the Antarctic Circle. In January, Shackleton spotted “200 miles of coastline and great glaciers discharging into the sea.” The crew had reached part of the Antarctic continent they named Caird Coast.

On January 18th, Endurance encountered gale force winds and ice closing in. Forced to take refuge behind a large iceberg, Endurance soon became stuck in ice. Unable to navigate, she drifted for 10 months. At one point, “the pack drove the ship towards a great stranded berg, and we were saved only by a sudden change in the drift,” wrote Shackleton.

Winter turned to spring, followed by summer. Still encased in ice, pressure mounted on Endurance. Her hull creaked and groaned, and by September her beams buckled. Unable to resist the pressure any longer, the sides of the ship opened up. Shackleton wrote, “Endurance hove bodily out the ice and was flung before the gale against masses of up-driven ice.”

Shackleton gave orders to abandon ship. Three lifeboats, dogs and provisions were lowered to the ice. The crew began a trek across the ice, but cracks and pressure ridges made travel precarious. The journey was “further endangered by the presence of killer whales, which would not hesitate to attack any man unfortunate enough to fall in,” wrote Shackleton.

On November 21st, the crew watched as Endurance sank. Relying on a series of camps, the men began a slow march toward open water. The crew survived subfreezing temperatures, hurricane force winds, and food shortages. By spring, Shackleton ordered the dogs shot and eaten. In March, they averted tragedy when a crack opened up separating the crew from their lifeboats. They managed to retrieve them.

After five more long months, they spotted land! Elephant Island appeared on the horizon. The men boarded lifeboats and reached the island after a horrendous seven-day journey. In a last-ditch attempt at rescue, Shackleton and five others set sail for South Georgia Island. They rowed and sailed 800 miles over two weeks in rough seas, bailing out water during the journey. Miraculously they made it. All attention then turned to the rescue of the men on Elephant Island. After three failed attempts, Shackleton’s fourth try was a success! On August 30, 1916, 634 days after leaving South Georgia, the remaining crew of the Endurance was rescued from Elephant Island.

To learn more about Shackleton’s Endurance expedition, search our archives on!


Share using:

Meteorite Mishap in Mrs. Hodges’ Home

May Be First Known CaseMay Be First Known Case Wed, Dec 1, 1954 – 15 · The Journal Times (Racine, Racine, Wisconsin, United States of America) ·

Mrs. Ann Hodges was not the first to claim injury by meteorite, but her unusual story was the first to be verified as true.

The Incident

On November 30, 1954, an explosion in the sky was the only warning the napping Ann would get of the 7-inch, 8 pound meteorite hurtling her way. It crashed through her roof, bounced off a radio, and hit the sleeping woman on her hip.

Meteorite Injures Woman in HomeMeteorite Injures Woman in Home Wed, Dec 1, 1954 – 1 • The Morning Call (Allentown, Lehigh, Pennsylvania, United States of America) •

The Spectacle

The space rock’s impact led to a big bruise and even bigger publicity. Much of the media attention came from the peculiar nature of the event. What are the chances that with all the open, empty space in the world, the meteorite hit a sleeping woman on a couch in Alabama? But more headlines followed when the meteorite was claimed by both the Hodgeses and their landlord, Birdie (Bertie) Guy. A legal dispute followed over who would get the meteorite. Guy eventually settled out of court; she would give up her claim in return for $500. Ultimately the Air Force returned it to Ann and her husband, who would later donate it to the Alabama Museum of Natural History.

Meteorite FragmentMeteorite Fragment Thu, Dec 2, 1954 – 1 • The Montgomery Advertiser (Montgomery, Montgomery, Alabama, United States of America) •

Mrs. Hewlett Hodges and the meteoriteMrs. Hewlett Hodges and the meteorite Thu, Dec 2, 1954 – 3 • Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Pinellas, Florida, United States of America) •

Mrs. Hodges, the hole in her roof, and the meteorite fragmentMrs. Hodges, the hole in her roof, and the meteorite fragment Wed, Dec 1, 1954 – 1 • Alabama Journal (Montgomery, Alabama, United States of America) •

The One in a Million

Ann Hodges remains the only person in history to have been verifiably injured by a meteorite. The offending rock still remains on display in the Alabama museum today, its story summed up in a single line: “Penetrated roof of house and struck Mrs. Hodges on the thigh.”

Find more on the Hodges meteorite and all the many associated headlines with a search on

Share using: