February 24, 2024 | Rome, Italy

Pallies and the Palomar Enigma

By |2018-03-21T18:17:22+01:00May 1st, 2004|"Short Fiction"|
I think it’s mad that this boy has seen the back wall of the universe."

he diary begins this way: “Tonight, Cohoba, the star run was seven to black. As far as the wheel went. As far as the spectrum can be pulled. The comet was a pendant, attached like to a wheel and rotating. Spinning ever faster like a ship’s prop hacking water. Like the oceans left behind. Soon it will be far too hot for us.”

In 1929, Emory Pallies of Mints, Illinois, traveled west to seek employment with George Ellery Hale, who had just completed the world’s most important astronomical device — a 200-inch telescope at Mount Palomar, south of Pasadena, California. Much of the work on the refracting telescope had been undertaken at the California Institute of Technology, and Hale, who was 60 at the time, enlisted several promising students to work at the Mount.

Among them was the 26-year-old Pallies, who had spent most of his life in Mints, a town of 3,000 inhabitants, but had traveled to Washington, D.C., in 1922 to meet Hale. Little is known about Pallies except that he was born to Jefferson Pallies of Mints in 1903. The elder Pallies, whose wife died in childbirth, owned a small clothing goods store and lived in a two-story red-brick house on Fargo Street.

Pallies was raised by his aunt, the teacher Anne Mahoney Sheal, who held a degree in biological and earth sciences from the University of Michigan, where she graduated with honors in 1875. Where Pallies developed his interest in stars and how he came to follow Hale’s illustrious career, are unclear. When his father died in 1918, Pallies attempted to enlist in the army but was discovered to be underage and sent home to Mints.

A recluse in his aunt’s home, Pallies spent most of his spare time cleaning shop windows in town, for which he was paid two cents a window. He occasionally spent nights in his late father’s unoccupied Fargo Street house, which Sheal was willed, but he had no known friends.

A purchase order from the Franklin Merchant and Appliance Wares in Dossing, Michigan, indicates that an Edmond Hallei (but with the last letter more resembling a “y” than an “i”) purchased a four-inch telescope in May 1919.

In a report made public after the Palomar incident of 1930, a team of Washington forensic physicians issued a private memorandum suggesting that Pallies had probably wished to represent himself as Edmond Halley, the English astronomer and mathematician who first saw and charted the course of the comet that still bears his name. In any case, residents of Mints insist that a round, metallic object protruded from the window of the Fargo Street house beginning the summer of 1919.

Pallies absconded from Mints two years later, in May 1921, leaving a note in which he told Sheal that he had “business” in the East. He requested cryptically that she never permit the sale of his father’s empty Fargo Street property. He left these instructions in a separate letter. There is no record Pallies ever returned to Mints.

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation record (titled “Pallies and the Palomar Enigma”), Pallies traveled by train to Chicago and then to Washington, D.C., where in January 1922 he obtained a job as a cook in the Odrey Beef and Steak House on l3th Street.

Hale’s memoirs suggest Pallies may have first attempted to meet him in the spring of 1922, when he noted that his personal secretary began to annoy him with repeated references to a gangly, blond youth who had briefly visited the office and then had written repeated letters insisting on an encounter (most were discarded). The letters obsessively ruminated on the collapse of the universe. Then during a lecture that Hale — who was then director of the Mount Wilson Observatory — gave at Georgetown University, Hale recalls he was addressed by a blond youth who at one point during a conversation with the audience, when he was discussing the theory of an infinite universe, said, “Mr. Hale, don’t you see what’s inside of them, in the middle of the light, the way they move back, when you look?” The young man, whom he remembered for the yellow luster of his hair, left after his interruption.

The remark, Hale said, struck him as curious both because of its suddenness and its unusual acuity. Hale had intended to say that astronomers too often were lax in their study of the movement of starlight, as if mesmerized by telescopic effects. Though in all likelihood his hindsight was marred by subsequent events, Hale later claimed he remembered the same youth from 1925, when he came across a letter requesting a night observer’s job at the Mount Palomar facility. The letter began: “I am the one who asked you to look to the middle of the light.” Pasadena detectives, when re-examining the case, said the letter mentioned by Hale was missing from Hale’s files, if it had ever existed.

When interviewed for the job, Pallies displayed copies of a degree in astronomy from Harvard University, which Hale’s assistants made no effort to verify. They were later discovered to be forgeries and are kept in the Widener Library forgeries collection in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Pallies rented a room with a painting of a railroad engine at the Mount Hotel in South Pasadena and was employed on May 7, 1929 as a night observer. He arrived wearing a white short-sleeved shirt and a narrow tie. He was hired to maneuver the hydraulic trajectory of the vast telescope for the five scientists on regular rotation at the observatory. They were called “scanners” or “gazers.”

In theory, Pallies — who held the midnight-to-six job for sixteen months — had no access to the telescope itself, which rose above his station as high as the superstructure of an ocean liner. Fourteen Mount Palomar employees later signed a deposition stating that Pallies could not possibly have reached the ocular sight or have known how to use it. They pointed out that his expertise lay exclusively “in the execution of the trajectory of the instrument.” In his diaries, discovered posthumously, Pallies labeled his cohorts at the observatory as “small fools retrieved only by Hale’s accomplishment.”

On June 23, 1930, Emory Pallies did not arrive for his customary shift. Ten hours later a maid, who telephoned the police, discovered his body in the Mount Hotel. There were traces of blood near his eyes but no wounds. The Pasadena County Coroner’s Office listed the cause of death as cardiac arrest. The original report, which contained the words “unexplained mass trauma” and a penciled-in references to “blindness and scorching” (source unknown), was not admitted to the public record.

The observatory’s chief security officer, Daniel Pashan, told police that Pallies had kept to himself and had no known acquaintances, except a young, dark-haired woman with whom he took walks occasionally in Pasadena. The FBI revealed the woman to have been Kathrine James Halden — a graphic artist who specialized in murals with stars and planets — and noted in its own report (1933) that she did not return to her Pasadena apartment on the day of Pallies’ death. She was officially reported missing June 27, 1930, though the connection to Pallies was not made. Her family placed paid notices in the Los Angeles Times for five months offering a reward for any information about her whereabouts.

Pallies’ death received a five-inch story in the Pasadena Times. A portion read: “The man died at 27 years of age of no apparent cause, and police suspect he was using drugged substances.” His replacement, Frank E. Byers, began his night shift on June 25.

One week later, Byers, who was 40, shot himself through the right temple in Morrow Park. He left a note that was found in his car, a green Nash. It read only: “Too much light. Mints.” Sergeant Morris Trellow of the San Bernardino Police Department, attempting to make sense of the note, ran a check on Byers and, by coincidence, noticed that Byers’ predecessor Pallies was born in Mints.

With no other leads in the two deaths, Trellow wired Mints, where he spoke to Sheriff Michael Faust, who offered his assistance in learning more about Pallies. Anne Mahoney Sheal, Faust discovered, had moved to Chicago, where he interviewed her and, after what he recorded as a “peculiar conversation,” requested the keys to the Fargo Street house. Sheal refused at first, citing “strange feelings” but finally agreed when Faust explained the nature of the investigation. On July 7, 1930, Sheriff Faust entered the

dilapidated Fargo Street house (it had remained empty) and found three items of interest in the attic: a four-inch telescope, a thick diary and a photograph of a tall, thin woman.

The diary was later confirmed to have been authored by Pallies, with the final entry dated May 10, 1921. It ended with the sentence: “Now I begin, fiction.” After the diary was dispatched to Hale and other experts, Faust was finally authorized to tell a special Senate subcommittee that the diary not only included the exact building specifications of the Palomar observatory a decade before its completion but also correctly described key solar system sightings in precise detail — sightings that were impossible before the 200-inch telescope went into operation.

Faust, who by this time had been interviewed repeatedly by the FBI, was also authorized to tell the committee that the photograph in the Fargo Street room was apparently that of the vanished Kathrine James Halden, who had never in her life visited the state of Illinois, let alone the town of Mints. Moreover, the photograph was taken in 1927, on Halden’s 27th birthday. In the background is the shell of the Palomar Observatory. The sequence of events was, according to the FBI, “not necessarily constant but accurate,” though most find this wording unhelpful.

FBI experts did testify under oath that the room on Fargo Street — which was invaded by a variety of insects — was unlikely to have been touched by anything human before Faust’s entry for a minimum of five years, at least three years before Pallies first met Halden at a Pasadena grocery store and one year before work began on the observatory.

Hale confirmed that while he might indeed have encountered Pallies indirectly at the Georgetown lecture, he never spoke to the youth nor provided anyone with details of the building of the Mount Palomar observatory. In a letter to a colleague in 1931, Hale claimed to have found the whole matter, the deaths and the investigation, deeply unsettling. “What can possibly be known before one knows?” he asked his colleague.

Only Hale, the FBI, Faust and the Senate commission on “Incidents at Mount Palomar” had access to the diaries. “Panic-making,” wrote one FBI agent on a reproduction of the document. Faust quoted relevant portions of the diary to Halden’s parents, attempting to reassure them that Pallies (who had been linked to Kathrine James Halden) had made no mention of the death or disappearance of their daughter. In the last entry in which she is mentioned directly, Pallies wrote, “I have found a star for her with a trellis that is at the barrier of the long wall. Spread across the trellis is the deepest light that is returning from its mission, back upon us this star. As if they could not see the edge of the universe.”

Hale was given the entire text of the diary, which he confided only in piecemeal, careful not to exaggerate the meaning. He told the Senate committee much of the writing was “poetic garble” but paused often under close questioning and frequently repeated the word “troubling.” Asked to elaborate on what precisely he found troubling, Hale said under his breath toward the end of the two-hour long hearing, “I think it’s mad that this boy has seen the back wall of the universe.” There were two transcriptions of the remark. Asked to repeat the comment for the record, Hale said simply: “I think it is mad that this boy has ideas about the universe.” An astronomy student studying Hale’s lifetime work discovered the Senate transcription discrepancy in 1938 and passed it on to him as an amusement. It reached Hale’s address on March 1, 1938, a week after he died in Pasadena.

Folded between the pages of Hale’s will, his wife discovered the following excerpt from Pallies’ diary: “There appears to be a body of stars that are incorrectly believed to accumulate into nebulae. These are not stars at all, because magnified they are floating as if a trillion pinpricks from a waterfall’s finest edge. They represent the furthest point that is returning. They represent the signals coming back. They are the speed of our speed to the galactic wall. They represent the sureness of the belt that tightens around our system’s eyes like the rag before the execution. They are our executioners, lovely blood-eyed lights. Lovely cindery lights.”

On June 23, 1986, an unmanned space probe passing Jupiter returned an infrared photograph of a belt of distant stars that astronomers said seemed to move in countermotion to the expansion of the galaxies, edging toward one another like a collapsing solar system. It was the only photograph of its kind transmitted and considered aberrant. That night, in the small northern California coastal town of Cachucha, the fully-clothed body of a woman in her 20s was found on a stretch of beach. The cause of death was listed as cardiac arrest, though an autopsy revealed what were called “bizarre” levels of radiation. Among her personal effects was a postcard of the Mount Palomar observatory dated “from the 1930s,” according to a news agency report. After six months the California State Missing Persons Office definitively, and privately, identified the body (through dental records) as that of the missing Kathrine James Halden. The information was not made public, and the FBI was invited to enter the case.

Cachucha Sheriff Max Hogarth was instructed not to discuss the FBI’s involvement other than to tell inquiring reporters that the dead woman was a Pasadena prostitute whom national authorities had been seeking in connection with the sale of hallucinogenic drugs. Off the record, however, the sheriff told one reporter, Max Harkes of the Malibu Register, that the case had become a subject of considerable debate among FBI agents.

Over what, Harkes asked?

Hogarth said only that he believed there had been an argument over Halden’s age.

What else? Harkes pressed to know.

Hogarth nervously said he had overheard one agent confiding to another that the woman had burned to death.

But she died at night, Harkes protested.

Hogarth laughed, as did Harkes. They did not discuss the matter further.

— Vancouver-native Samuel Morse lived in Rome from 1989 through 1994, teaching English. He now resides in Mexico City, where he is a freelance features writer for U.S. and British publications.

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