Betty Hill was the New Hampshire social worker who, along with husband Barney, claimed to have been abducted by aliens from outer space on a moonlit night 43 years ago. Their story, through circumstances not of their making, attained worldwide notoriety.
Carl Sagan, the Pulitzer Prize-winning astronomer, was among the Hills' debunkers, yet he considered their story noteworthy. It was, he wrote, "the first alien abduction story in the modern genre," the template for countless subsequent accounts of earthlings encountering intelligent beings from the outer limits.
After reluctantly going public with her experience, Hill, who died of cancer at her Portsmouth, N.H., home Oct. 17 at age 85, became a celebrity on the UFO circuit. She was known as the "first lady of UFOs," the "grandmother of all abductions."
The most thoroughly investigated, if still controversial, case in the history of alleged extraterrestrial encounters began in 1961 when the Hills said they were kidnapped by gray, cat-eyed humanoids in New Hampshire's White Mountains. At the time of the incident, they remembered nothing except that they had spied a strange object in the sky.
Later, beset by nightmares and other stress-related ailments, the couple underwent hypnosis by a reputable psychiatrist who did not believe in UFOs but concluded that the Hills were telling the truth as they knew it.
Their story was recounted in the 1966 book "The Interrupted Journey" by John G. Fuller and in a 1975 television movie, "The UFO Incident," that starred Estelle Parsons and James Earl Jones as the abductees.
The movie opened a spigot in the culture. Sagan, writing in his 1996 book "The Demon-Haunted World," noted that reports of aliens capturing humans and taking them aboard oddly shaped spacecraft were "comparatively rare" before 1975. After the movie about the Hills came out, however, such accounts proliferated, fulfilling tabloid dreams, if nothing else.
Sagan, who interviewed the Hills for several hours, was impressed by their sincerity. Betty Hill, in particular, could also be acerbic and, in her own way, a skeptic.
She said the 1961 incident was the only time she had personal contact with aliens, and she scoffed at people who insisted they had had multiple visits from travelers light-years away.
"If you were to believe the numbers of people who are claiming [repeated contact with aliens]," Hill told an interviewer several years ago, "it would figure out to 3,000 to 5,000 abductions in the United States alone every night. There wouldn't be room for planes to fly."
At the same time, Hill claimed to have sighted and photographed UFOs many times. And she said anyone could, if they knew where to look: not high in the sky but at treetop level.
She had no such savvy back in 1961. On the night of Sept. 19, she and Barney, a postal worker, were driving home through the White Mountains after an impromptu vacation in Niagara Falls. They were traveling on a nearly deserted two-lane highway south of Lancaster, N.H., when, Betty said, she noticed a steady glow in the sky that was getting bigger and brighter. She thought it was a planet or a star. Barney, irritated at her billowing excitement, said it was probably just a stray airplane.
Whatever it was, it appeared to be following them. They stopped the car for a closer look.
What they said happened next changed their lives.
The flying object was noiseless. It appeared to be spinning. It was as big as a jet but shaped like a pancake.
Barney left Betty in the car and ran into an utterly dark field with their binoculars. As he related later under hypnosis, when the craft angled toward him, he could make out half a dozen figures staring at him through its windows. For a moment he felt paralyzed, then ran screaming back to the car. He and Betty heard beeping sounds just before "an odd tingling drowsiness," as Fuller later described it, came over them.
The next thing they knew, they were 35 miles from where they had heard the beeps. When they arrived home at 5 a.m. they realized that the trip had taken longer than they had expected. They had lost two hours and did not know why.
They were also baffled by a broken strap on the binoculars, deep scuff marks on the tops of Barney's best shoes, Betty's stained and torn dress, and strange circular markings on the trunk of the car that made the needle of a compass jump wildly.
Several days later, Betty began having a dream of being with Barney when they ran into a roadblock on a lonely stretch of highway. They were put into a trance and escorted by a group of men who were all dressed alike onto a weirdly shaped vehicle. Then they were taken into separate rooms for physical exams. Betty was probed with needles, including one through her navel that the men said was to test for pregnancy, years before the advent of amniocentesis. They also took hair, skin and nail samples.
Her dream would mirror the account she would give two years later in sessions with Boston psychiatrist Dr. Benjamin Simon, an expert in medical hypnosis who was known for his success helping World War II veterans overcome combat trauma.
Simon at first wondered if the anxiety that both Hills evinced stemmed from pressures on them as an interracial couple. Barney was an African American of Ethiopian heritage, Betty a Caucasian whose family tree could be traced back to the 1600s in New England. In the early 1960s, just before the civil rights movement exploded, mixed unions were uncommon. But Simon found the Hills well adjusted in their marriage.
After seeing them for six months, the psychiatrist concluded that the Hills' amnesia about the hours they lost on that night in 1961 "appeared to encompass an incredible experience on the part of both of the Hills." Whether the experience had been fantasy or reality Simon could not say, but he told Fuller later that he was convinced they had not been lying. He speculated that it had been a kind of shared dream, an explanation that Sagan, after listening to recordings of their sessions with Simon, believed was a likely explanation.
The Hills had reported their experience to UFO investigators but had no interest in going public with their story until a Boston newspaper obtained transcripts of their sessions with Simon and published a series of articles in 1965. The stories were so sensational that they decided to work with Fuller on a book.
Barney died of a stroke in 1969 at age 46. Betty became a popular speaker at UFO conventions. She announced in 1991, on the 30th anniversary of her alien encounter, that she was retiring from the scene, but she never really did.
Unlike some in the movement, she was not afraid to disparage people she considered crackpots. She wrote a book, self-published in 1995, called "A Common Sense Approach to UFOs," in which she decried the abuse of hypnosis among UFO seekers.
"She was very strong-willed. She was feisty. And she was kind to a fault," said Peter Geremia, director of the New Hampshire chapter of the Mutual UFO Network, an organization devoted to the scientific study of UFOs.
Hill knew that some people considered her crazy. After all, here was a woman who would turn her face to the heavens and wave or say hi to mysterious beings she could not see but believed were up there. She thought of them as little different from Magellan, Columbus or other explorers from bygone eras.
"Don't be afraid," she once wrote reassuringly. "They don't hurt anybody. If they wanted to conquer us, they could."