A 30-year-old rumor finds new life on the Internet
By DAVID N. BENSON
AUBURN - If only it could be verified, the story floating around on the Internet would be the story of the decade, if not the century.
Just picture it.
NASA scientists, calculating the orbits of the moon, planets and other celestial bodies, discover their computers have come to a screeching halt. A mysterious period of 24 hours is missing and no one at America's space agency knows why.
The answer? The Old Testament story of Joshua, who asked God to hold the sun still in the sky so that his armies could emerge victorious.
NASA scientists, in essence, have proved to be true one of the ancient mysteries of the Bible.
"Isn't it amazing?" several versions of the story now circulating on Internet exclaim.
Even more amazing, you supposedly read it here first. According to some versions of the Internet story, the original source is "The Evening Star, a newspaper published in Spencer, Ind."
That's led to a trickle of e-mail inquiries. People from Massachusetts to Arizona have written in, asking us for more information. Until recently all we have been able to say is that this newspaper is published in Auburn, not Spencer.
The bottom line: The story is an urban legend based on a 30-year-old rumor. It's also the story of one man's word against the entire rest of the world. It's also a story where separating fact from fiction has never been easy.
From the autobiographical material he left behind, Harold Hill led a fascinating life. A high school graduate at 14, Hill achieved his boyhood dream of becoming a chief engineer by the time he was 28. By age 46, he was the president of the Curtis Engine and Equipment Co.
Such great accomplishments would have fulfilled most men, but they left Hill with a sense of emptiness. "They didn't tell me you'd better have psychiatrists on your payroll when you get to be vice-president of your company," Hill wrote, "because your first nervous breakdown is right around the corner. They didn't tell me that you lose all your friends the day you're made active head of your company because everybody is out to steal your job and undermine your reputation."
For solace, Hill turned to drink.
When that failed, he turned to suicide.
When that failed, he turned to God.
God, Hill wrote, sent him to Alcoholics Anonymous. There, he met a fellow engineer who really appeared to have his life together. So much so Hill appeared on the man's doorstep at one o'clock in the morning to ask what his secret was.
The man invited Hill to step inside, opened the Bible and introduced Hill to Jesus Christ.
Although Hill would remain with the Curtis Engine and Equipment Co. until 1981, his conversion to Christianity led to a new career. He would write about a dozen books, including the 1974 title "How to Live Like a King's Kid," the source of much of the biographical material presented here.
On the lecture circuit, his favorite topic was "Science, Philosophy, Evolution and the Bible." That might have been his topic at a Christian camp in Oklahoma in 1968, which is where Hill believed the legend's written history began. Someone - we'll never know who - found his story about NASA scientists finding Joshua's lost day so irresistible that this person typed it up and passed it along.
In 1969, a copy fell into the hands of the wife of the Baptist minister in Spencer, Ind. She in turn gave it to her friend, Mary Kathryn Bryan, a writer for the local newspaper, The Evening World.
The county seat of Owen County, Spencer is located in a triangle marked off by Indianapolis, Bloomington and Terre Haute.
The Evening World comes out five days a week, no Saturdays or Sundays. About 15 years earlier, the paper chucked its wire service. Every column inch has to be local.
Ordinarily Bryan took obituaries and wrote up accounts of weddings, but she also had a column. "The column was odds and ends and whatever came to mind," Bryan said. "I just wrote it whenever I had the time or whenever I had something to say."
On Oct. 10, 1969, "Mary Kay's Kollum," began with a ringing defense of God's existence and concluded with Hill's story of the NASA scientists. The column appeared in its usual spot, the upper-left hand corner of page one.
"I wrote the column and all heck broke loose," she recalled.
On Nov. 3, Bryan entered the hospital for some surgery. "I was off work for about six weeks. And when I got back there were piles and piles of letters on my desk," she said.
Requests were coming in from all over the world. From Australia. From one individual who didn't even speak English. From an insurance company that wanted 1,000 reprints. And 30 years later the requests still come, at the rate of one or two a month, said current editor Thomas L. Douglas.
"When I decided to get rid of them," Bryan remembers. "I threw away a bushelbasketful. There was a request from a sailor boy on the U.S.S. Okinawa. Some of the requests I couldn't read because they were in Russian or Japanese. One woman in Nova Scotia said that if I ever went there I should visit her for tea."
T. Perry Wesley, The Evening World's editor during the late 1960s, found himself so buried in requests for reprints that he had to write up a form letter.
For a while, The Evening World kept track of how many people had asked about the column. After the total reached 1,500, the newspaper gave up trying.
In 1969, the circulation of the paper was 3,008, according to Editor & Publisher Yearbook.
The next boost came from the Bible-Science Newsletter, published at the time in Caldwell, Idaho. On the bottom of page one, the edition of April 15, 1970, carried the story under the headline "The Sun Did Stand Still!"
An editor's note explained the item was sent in by a "Miss Hazel Brown of Baltimore, Maryland who verified it and obtained permission for reprinting. She will send a copy to anyone who will send a large size self-addressed stamped envelope."
Whoever Miss Hazel Brown is, either she or the magazine made the mistake that explains why you are reading this story. Instead of crediting The Evening World, what appeared in print was "The Evening Star of Spencer, Indiana."
If it was someone from Baltimore who made the mistake, it would be the easiest thing in the world to understand. In nearby Washington, the second-largest paper at the time was also known as "The Evening Star."
(The Evening Star of Washington, D.C., changed its name to the Washington Star-News in 1973 and to the Washington Star in 1975. It folded in 1981.)
In 1970, the Bible-Science Newsletter's editors were going all out to reach a goal of 25,000 subscribers. Their influence appears to have been greater than that. In just about every printed account of the Missing Day story, it's The Evening Star, not The Evening World given as the source.
Apparently that's not the only mutation. Sometimes Hill is the bright Sunday School-educated scientist who thinks to look up Joshua in the Bible. Other times he is omitted completely.
Within two short years, the story of the Missing Day had traveled from Oklahoma to Indiana to Maryland to Idaho and countless points in between and beyond. Proving the story has legs, however, still leaves unanswered the important question: Is the story true?
In 1969 and 1970 all roads led back to Harold Hill, who was fairly drowning in requests.
"I think it kind of perturbed him," said Bryan, who maintained a long correspondence with him after her column was published. "It was such a nuisance to him."
In 1974, Hill estimated he had received nearly 5,000 inquiries, in 1984, over 10,000.
Among those making inquiries was Wesley, the Evening World's editor.
"We had asked specifically for information as to when it happened, where and who was present," Wesley writes in The Evening World's information packet.
Along with a personal reply, Hill sent along his form letter. "I have misplaced details regarding names and places but will be glad to forward them when they turn up," the form letter said. "In the meantime, I can only say that had I not considered the information to be reliable, I would not have used it in the first place."
Hill never found his notes. He died in 1987 at the age of 81.
If Hill couldn't find his notes, perhaps NASA could be of more help. Greenbelt, Md., (yes, Greenbelt is one word) is the home of the Goddard Space Flight Center.
Usually inquiries ended up on the desk of James S. Lacy, who worked at Goddard between the years 1962 and 1983. Now 77, he lives in retirement in Irvington, Va.
He remembers the deluge of inquiries, which he said came in from people from all walks of life.
"It went on for one, two or three years. I kept getting so many calls and some people were writing. I thought that instead of talking to me
some of these people should be talking to each other Ã‰ it was that strange," he said.
"It was a common joke for my secretary to stick her head in and say, 'I got another one' or 'I've had three today,'" he added.
His secretary, Patricia Ratkowitz, remembers getting inquiries even before Bryan's column.
"When I first started working there in 1966 we were getting requests and we were still getting requests when I retired in 1994," she said from her home in suburban Annapolis, Md.
"In 1966 I think we got 60 requests a year and then it dwindled off and then it would run in cycles," she said. "There were three requests in 1993. I think once we even had a Congressional - somebody wrote their congressmen and wanted to know."
Eventually Lacy prepared a mimeographed form letter explaining why the event simply couldn't have happened. Although both the originals and the copies seem to have vanished with time, judging from Lacy's recollections and contemporary press clippings, the form letter probably made the following points:
Â¥ At the time Goddard had about 250 of NASA's 310 mainframe computers.
Â¥ Logs were carefully kept of programs that were run and nobody could remember anything like a Lost Day program.
Â¥ No one could have run a Lost Day program without being detected, because at the time computer time cost between $500 and $700 an hour.
Â¥ Hill did indeed do some work for NASA. His company had some contracts to maintain some diesel generators to provide backup power to one of the buildings at Goddard.
"He had very little to do with those diesel generators," Lacy said. "They were only there if we lost prime power. We didn't use them."
Lacy had no ulterior motive in debunking the Missing Day legend. Far from it. During his NASA days, his wife owned a religious bookstore in Alexandria, Va.
As he said in 1970: "Why, man, if this thing turned out to be true, we could do up a brochure on it and people wouldn't stop buying it, it's so fascinating."
No matter how fascinating, many scientists agree the legend simply doesn't make sense, not even on its own terms.
Most of the obvious howlers concern computers. Simply put, a computer wouldn't break down just because it was fed faulty data. Nor would service technicians be called in.
In 1984, Gerardus D. Bouw, the editor of the Bulletin of the Tychonean Society, entered the discussion.
Fully aware of what challenges such a story posed to a computer scientist, Bouw, a computer science professor in Ohio, asked Hill for the name of someone who was present who could answer technical questions.
"I was not the one who came up with the Bible answer, nor do I know the names of those involved," Hill answered. After retelling the story, he concluded, "I'm sorry, that's all I can tell you and hope you can find it useful."
If Hill never offered independent confirmation of his story, he never backed down from it either. As he wrote in "How to Live Like a Kings's Kid," "My inability to furnish documentation of the 'Missing Day' incident in no way detracts from its authenticity. 'God said it - I believe it - that settles it.'"
Joining the debunkers these days is The Bible-Science Newsletter, now published in Zimmerman, Minn., under the umbrella of Creation Moments. True to its motto "Communicating the Truth of Creation," Creation Moments produces radio shorts debunking evolution.
Its director is Ian Taylor.
"Sometimes Christians - and I'm a Christian too - will tell these stories," Taylor said, his voice growing in audible exasperation. "Ministers are the worst offenders. They get up in the pulpit and they will tell these stories, and there's no truth to them. I don't know why they do it. Helps out with the collection plate, I guess."
To Taylor, the Missing Day story ranks with other dubious tales often heard in religious circles. The rebuilding of the temple at Jerusalem. Charles Darwin's deathbed repudiation of his theory of evolution and his conversion to Christianity. The explosion of the vulture population in the Valley of Salt, the better to eat the corpses of those to be killed at Armageddon. All demonstrably false, Taylor said.
"I have been there," Taylor said, "and they are worried about these birds becoming extinct!"
Whether it helps out with the collection plate or not, the story continues to spread. You can almost rest assured that this very moment someone is photocopying, faxing or sitting at a computer getting ready to dispatch the story to a fresh group of people.
Bert Thompson knows this full well.
From his home base in Montgomery, Ala., Thompson edits Reason & Revelation, a Monthly Journal of Christian evidences.
"For years we have been trying to squelch this false story, but it keeps raising its ugly head - over and over and over," Thompson said.
He estimates his office has received 50 inquiries about the story in recent weeks.
But this story has been debunked at nearly every turn. Why won't it just go away?
"The truth never stands in the way of a good story," is how Jan Harold Brunvand signs his e-mail messages. Recently retired from the University of Utah, Brunvand is best known for his studies of urban legends. He has written several books on the subject, including "The Vanishing Hitchhiker" and "The Choking Doberman."
"My slogan, of course, is sort of a joke," Brunvand said. "Seriously, though, people do not really inquire much into the facts or assumptions behind urban legends. They don't ask their neighbor or co-worker to verify anything, nor do they consider the unlikelihood of the events described. Besides, the power of the story itself - suspense, humor, horror, whatever - overrides any tendency to doubt or double-check."
The Missing Day story, Brunvand notes, contains several themes from popular culture: "Science cannot explain everything. Religious writings convey coded eternal truths. The government will cover up what it doesn't want you to know. If it's in print or has some supposed 'authority' backing it, then it must be true," he said.
Anyone who studies the Missing Day legend long enough stumbles across an amazing discovery.
The legend has a history.
In 1936, a Presbyterian minister and creationist named Harry Rimmer wrote a book called "The Harmony of Science and Scripture."
In it, he tells the story of a Bible-doubting astronomer who somehow discovered that the Earth was 24 hours out of schedule. In answer to a challenge by a Christian professor, the astronomer reads the Bible to search for the missing day.
The ending isn't hard to guess. The astronomer finds that Joshua accounts for 23 hours and 20 minutes of the missing day, Hezekiah the remaining 40 minutes.
"When the astronomer found his day of missing time accounted for, he laid down the Book and worshiped its Writer, saying 'Lord, I believe!'" Rimmer wrote.
For proof, Rimmer cites a book C.A. Totten wrote in 1890.
Totten did indeed publish a book that year, "Joshua's Long Day and the Dial of Ahaz." Trouble is, the story of the skeptical astronomer doesn't appear there, say scholars familiar with both works. Totten was a lieutenant in the artillery who taught military tactics part-time at Yale University.
As for his book, "It's a dreary argument from Biblical accounts, hand-waving about ancient calendars, tossing about numbers and calculations which seem to me like going from nowhere to nothing," said Donald Simanek, a retired physics professor from Lock Haven, Pa., who once covered the Harold Hill story for his own small-circulation science journal, The Vector.
Given the similarities between the Rimmer account and the Hill story, suspicious minds might wonder: Did Hill simply update Rimmer by adding computers and the NASA scientists?
In his 1984 letter to Bouw, Hill denied having heard of Totten until after the controversy erupted. In "How To Live Like A King's Kid," Hill said those who accused him of perpetrating a hoax merely gave him a chance to practice forgiveness.
Wrote William Willoughby, a columnist for The Evening Star in Washington D.C.: "People who know Hill, however, don't doubt his word. He has an unflagging reputation for sincerity and integrity."
Brunvand doesn't think Hill was a hoaxster either.
"I suspect Hill, overcome with religious fervor, and gradually updating the Totten material - which he may have encountered second- or third-hand - eventually started believing his own stories," he said. "Once he was committed to them, it would have been hard to back down."
Brunvand points out Hill's repeated insistence that he would look through his notes. "This does not sound to me like a deliberate hoaxer," he said, "but just a serious, if wrongheaded, true believer."
A brief summary of Brunvand's own work on the legend will appear in two forthcoming books. "Too Good to Be True" is due in August and a more elaborate treatment will appear in "The Truth Never Stands in the Way of a Good Story," to be published next year.
Shortly after the publication of "How to Live Like A King's Kid," Mary Kathryn Bryan received an autographed copy. The inscription read, "With great appreciation for opening doors worldwide thru the missing day release whereby scores have met Jesus Christ in a very real way. Harold Hill Jan. 9, 1975."
Every year, The Evening World runs an anniversary story. There are no special plans for the 30th anniversary, though.
Mary Kathryn Bryan is no longer there. She quit in 1973. Now 74, she enjoys her retirement.
Her editor, T. Perry Wesley, is also retired. Almost 94, he suffers from hearing and vision problems. That doesn't keep him from writing an occasional column, however.
A neighbor in her youthful 70s helps him with his correspondence.
At the paper, individual editors have their own e-mail addresses and the paper is moving slowly toward establishing a web site. A web site could help with the occasional inquiries. If the package of materials were scanned in, people could help themselves and save The Evening World the postage.
One thing's clear: This legend is here to stay, at least as long as sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening.
Isn't that amazing!!
Floating around on the Internet is the following urban legend. Although the story sounds like it's something new, the rumor has been around for 30 years.
By the way, this is the legend's first appearance in The Evening Star. We have copied text below from a web page. The only changes we have made concern paragraphing.
Evening Star Article
The following article was copied from the "Evening Star", a newspaper
located in Spencer, Indiana.
Did you know that the space program is busy proving that what has been called myth in the bible is true?
Mr. Harold Hill, President of the Curtis Engine Company in Baltimore, Maryland and a consultant in the space program, relates the following development:
"I think one of the most amazing things that God has for us today happened recently to our astronauts and space scientists at Green Belt, Maryland. They were checking the position of the sun, moon and planets out in space where they would be 100 years and 1,000 years from now. We have to know this so we don't send a satellite up and have it bump into something later on in its orbit . We have to lay out the orbits in terms of the life of the satellite, and where the planets will be so the whole thing will not bog down. They ran the computer measurement back and forth over the centuries and it came to a halt. The computer stopped and put up a red signal, which meant that there was something wrong either with the information fed into it or with the results as compared to the standards. They called in the service department to check it out and they said, "It's perfect." The head of operations said, "What's wrong?" "Well, we have found there is a day missing in space in elapsed time." They scratched their heads and tore their hair. There was no answer. One religious fellow on the team said, "You know, one time when I was in Sunday School they talked about the sun standing still."
They didn't believe him, but they didn't have any other answer, so they said, "show us." He got a Bible and went back to the Book of Joshua where they found a pretty ridiculous statement for anybody who has "common sense." (Joshua 10: 8-14).
There they found the Lord saying to Joshua, "Fear them not, for I have delivered them into your hand; there shall not a man of them stand before you." Joshua was concerned because he was surrounded by the enemy and if darkness fell, they would overpower them. So Joshua asked the sun to stand still. That's right- - - "The sun stood still and the moon stayed and hastened not to go down about a whole day."
The space men said, "There is the missing day."
They checked the computers going back into the time it was written and found it was close, but not close enough. The elapsed time that was missing back in Joshua's day was 23 hours and 20 minutes - not a whole day. They read the Bible and there it was "about (approximately a day).
"These little words in the Bible are important. But they were still in trouble because if you cannot account for 40 minutes you'll still be in trouble 1,000 years from now. Forty minutes had to be found because it can be multiplied many times over in orbits.
This religious fellow also remembered somewhere in the Bible where it said the sun went BACKWARDS. The space men told him he was out of his mind. But, they got out the Book and read these words in II Kings. Hezekiah, on his death-bed, was visited by the prophet Isaiah who told him he was not going to die. Hezekiah asked for the sign of proof. Isaiah said, "Do you want the sun to go ahead ten degrees? Hezekiah said, "It's nothing for the sun to go ahead ten degrees, but let the shadow return backward ten degrees."
Isaiah spoke to the Lord and the Lord brought the shadow ten degrees BACKWARD. Ten degrees is exactly 40 minutes. Twenty-three hours and 20 minutes in Joshua, plus 40 minutes in II Kings (II Kings 20:1-11) make the missing 24 hours the space travelers had to log in the logbook as being the missing day in the universe.
Isn't that amazing!!