Men claimed they'd hit a creature from outer space on a Georgia highway, and people got excited

By their own admission, the three roommates had been out "honky tonking" that night. It was a little after 11 on July 8, 1953, when Edward Watters, 28, Thomas Wilson, 20, and Arnold "Buddy" Payne, 19, found themselves traveling down a lonely stretch of Highway 78 west of Atlanta. Wilson and Payne shouted for Watters to stop. He slammed the brakes, but it was too late. They'd hit something.

The trio later described the scene before them: Two humanlike creatures only a few feet tall raced away. The creatures - "running like men" - reached a red craft waiting in the middle of the highway. It rose sharply, turning a shade of blue as it vanished into the infinite expanse of space.

Stepping out from the truck to survey the damage, Watters, Wilson and Payne found the body of a third creature - incredibly thin and just human enough to be troubling. It seemed that they had indisputable evidence of intelligent life from another planet. And it was dying right in front of them.

The three spent the following day talking to reporters, investigators and representatives of the Air Force. Meanwhile, the Associated Press wrote, "News of their report spread rapidly, and newspapers, radio stations and wire services were kept busy, even before the story was in print, answering queries about 'a man from Mars' and 'a visitor from outer space.' "

Years before this close encounter, plenty of other Georgians had already come to believe in extraterrestrials. In 1948, "great balls of fire" and "flying floors lamps" were reportedly sighted over the skies between Atlanta and Augusta. The following year, a Valdosta housewife claimed to see a red flying saucer hovering in the air. In early 1950, pilots at Atlanta Municipal Airport said they had witnessed an aluminum-colored disk rising silently into the sky.

Just weeks later, U.S. News and World Report released a shocking exposé, claiming that the Navy had developed flying saucers in the 1940s. According to reports, the Navy admitted to engineering one machine of the "general saucer shape," although the piston-engine craft was never flown. The editorial department of the Atlanta Constitution responded to the startling news with cautious optimism, writing, "The 'flying saucer' may be the answer. At any rate, we are glad, if it exists, it belongs to us and not the Russians or the Martians."

In the months leading up to the reported discovery on Highway 78, a steady stream of alien-centric movies premiered at Atlanta's whites-only theaters. "Abbott and Costello Go to Mars" arrived in April. In late June, "It Came From Outer Space" premiered in 3-D. Audiences were hungry for creatures from another planet to distract them from fears of nuclear weapons, Soviet spies and the Korean War. Then came the startling account by the two young barbers and a butcher.

After authorities seized the alleged corpse, the thin, hairless body was examined by Dr. W.A. Mickle of Emory University, who stated, "The lack of hair I cannot account for ... By our criteria, it fits into the simian picture, and the body characteristics are closer to those of the Rhesus monkey than anything else."

Asked by a reporter if the creature could have come from another planet, Mickle replied: "I don't know. I've never been in outer space. If it did, they don't have anything new out there."

The day after their story ran across the country, Watters and his co-conspirators admitted the truth. During a card game, Watters had taken a $10 bet that he could get his picture in the papers. He started telling anyone who would listen that he had recently seen flying saucers.

"I would tell people to look at that thing in the sky," Watters recounted to reporters, "and they would look up and say they saw it, too."

Watters purchased a four-pound monkey for $50 at an Atlanta pet store, bribing the cashier $4 to keep his mouth shut about the transaction. Back at their apartment, Watters, Wilson and Payne anesthetized the monkey with ether before killing it with a bottle to the head. After removing its hair and slicing off its tail, the friends drove out on Highway 78, placed the monkey in the road and waited. Once enough motorists had witnessed the scene, Watters called the Atlanta Constitution to share his discovery. A wire-service reporter managed to spread the story in minutes.

Despite Watters's confession that his UFO was only fiction, reports continued to surface of a strange cone-shaped craft spotted over Atlanta. A commander at the nearby Air Force base refused to believe that Watters was solely responsible for this rash of hysteria.

"Too many people in too many places reported seeing the flying object," Col. Murray Woodbury told a reporter. "It sounds like something was really there."

Watters was fined $40 after a five-minute court hearing for violating a Georgia health and sanitation law that prohibited a carcass from being dumped on a highway. Altogether, the entire charade cost Watters more than $100, minus the $10 he won in the bet.

Letters poured into local papers as people shared their own takes on the hoax. One reader demanded that Watters be prosecuted to the full extent of the law for animal cruelty. Another suggested he be forcefully shaved.

Yet Edgar Rawls of Jacksonville, Florida, wrote, "Let's not be too hard on these boys. They have done a good deed by making people realize that we are yet living in the Dark Ages of superstition and belief in unrealistic and unfounded theories, which so many people refuse to discard." And Paul Garrison of Milledgeville, Georgia, wrote that he was contributing $1 toward the perpetrator's court fine, explaining, "We, 'the people,' have been listening to the same lies about lower taxes, peace in Korea, balanced budget, Republican business administration, etc., for the past six months. I believe anyone who starts a brand-new lie for a change should not be penalized."

Summer faded into fall as the excitement stirred up by the hoax dissipated. By November, sci-fi epic "The War of the Worlds" reached Atlanta's Fox Theater, where it was screened in dazzling Technicolor.

Watters found little peace following his brief notoriety. He was the target of such mockery that he moved his barbershop to Birmingham, Alabama, only two months after his ploy was revealed. He waited a few years before attempting to show his face again in Atlanta, but the ridicule showed no signs of dying down.

"How would you like to be known as the Monkey Man?" Watters asked a reporter at one point. "It got to be a big joke, you know. But jokes can go too far."

Looking back, few put it better than Atlanta Constitution columnist Celestine Sibley, who described the need to believe the unbelievable - if only for a moment.

"Until they got hold of the poor, bashed, wizened, and pathetically human-looking creature, the rest of us forgot the hot weather, the Republicans, the high cost of watermelons, and most of our minor troubles and were children again," Sibley wrote. "We didn't believe he was a man from Mars, but then we did believe it a little."