OK, mystery pranksters. It’s been 43 years since the Great Halloween Meteorite Caper of ’78. Your identities have never become widely known. Time to come forward.
Halloween night that year, a group calling itself the Meteorite Cleaning Service staged a distraction at Prince Lucien Campbell Hall. “A strangling man appeared to be hanging from a window of PLC. Campus security went to investigate only to discover the man was in fact a balloon, a shirt, and some pants,” student reporter Jock Hatfield wrote in the Oregon Daily Emerald.
While campus security responded to PLC, the pranksters headed to the Museum of Natural History, then located in what is now Pacific Hall. Their target was on display out front: a life-size, plaster-and-chicken-wire replica of the sixth-largest meteorite found on Earth, the Willamette Meteorite or “Tomanowos,” as named by the Clackamas people.
The next day, “it was immediately evident the meteorite replica was gone,” remembers Alice Parman, then the museum director. Eight hundred pounds of mock rock, 12 feet wide and 6 feet tall, gone, leaving nothing but questions: Why? How? And who?
Edwin Ebbighausen, professor of physics and astronomy, said “the thieves must have used a truck to haul it away, although he didn’t speculate on how they picked it up,” the Emerald reported. “Campus security refuses to comment on the incident. However, the balloon dummy has been seen floating around the security office, according to one officer.”
The replica had a history of “roaming” far from home and making surprise, early-morning reappearances around campus, courtesy of fraternity pranksters, according to Keith Richards, university archivist emeritus.
Three days after Halloween, a poem written on brown paper and signed by the Meteorite Cleaning Service showed up at the EMU grievance center.
There once was a dummy named Ted / Hanging from PLC looking quite dead / Security was attracted / So they got themselves distracted / And we took the meteorite and fled.
The following Monday morning, UO president William Boyd discovered the replica in his driveway, east of campus. “I thought I heard something about 4 o’clock,” Boyd told the Emerald, “but I thought it was my neighbor unloading from an elk trip.”
With the replica blocking his car, Boyd called campus security. The dispatcher thought Boyd said “meter”—as in parking meter—and sent just one staffer, in a small landscaping pickup, to remove a parking meter, only to find the fake meteorite instead.
The university’s 12th president was known to have a great sense of humor—the previous year Boyd had permitted National Lampoon’s Animal House to be filmed on campus—and family and friends speculated he would have seen the prank as all in good fun. (Boyd died December 16, 2020, at the age of 96.)
While Boyd and the staffer were trying to solve their predicament, an anonymous phone call alerted the Emerald that “the meteorite has landed at President Boyd’s,” and a photographer and reporter rushed to the scene. Boyd told them that although he was temporarily delayed for work, “the meteor was only a minor distraction.”
Campus security gave Boyd a lift to his office, then returned with a crew and a flatbed trailer and gave the replica a lift back to the museum.
So, Meteorite Cleaning Service—time to come forward. Who are you?
—By Kristine Deacon, BA ’79, MS ’92 (journalism), a Salem-based freelance writer and historian of the Pacific Northwest
—Images courtesy of the Museum of Natural and Cultural History and Special Collections and University Archives, UO Libraries