Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from John Wheatcroft, Sr., 29 September 1803

From John Wheatcroft, Sr.

Ardennes près Caen
6 Vendemaire An XII.
[i.e. 29 Sep. 1803]


Being convinced that a Virtuous, & good Republican, and an amiable & friendly man is approachable at all times; I take the liberty of addressing you in your present elevated situation; knowing that you are an excellent naturalist, & a friend to the Sciences, I conceived an authentic account of a very curious & interesting phenomenon which has lately presented itself in this neighbourhood could not be dissagreeable to you.—a phenomenon that will scarcely be credited, out of the country where it happened, & where exists in this moment several thousands eye witnesses of the fact. The Institute National, were doubtfull themselves, of it’s reality, & sent one of their members M. Biot an excellent naturalist, on the Spot, to collect the testimonies of the people resident there, & now they as well as all France are perfectly convinced of its verity. The inclosed is a copious extract of M. Biot’s report, which I have faithfully translated; to which I have added, the opinnions of the French Astronomers, and chimists, & communicated to me by M. La Lande the Astronomer, in a conversation I had with him on the Subject. I have also added another hypothesis, of my own, which has I believe the advantage of novelty, if it has no other merit.

If this communication should afford you a moments entertainment, I shall be exceedingly happy, and if you think it merits communicating to your American Philos. Society, you will do me great honour, in being the means of presenting it, or of procuring it’s publication in any way you think proper.

In respect to myself, I have since the violence of the revolution has subsided, sat me down quietly on a little Farm, near Caen, where I have been employed in Agricultural, Philosophical, & Literary pursuits, but still hope I shall be able some day, to realize my long wished project, of visiting the United States; among others, one of my strongest inducements, is that of paying you my respects in person.

I am Sr. with constant wishes for the prosperity of yourself, and the United States. Your most Devoted Hmble. Servant

J. Wheatcroft père

RC (DLC); English date supplied; addressed: “His Excellency Thomas Jefferson President of the United States of America”; endorsed by TJ as received 25 Feb. 1804 and so recorded in SJL. Enclosure: “An Account of a Meteor which passed over Normandy, and let fall a Shower of Stones, in the environs of Laigle. Apr. 26th. 1803. at 1 OClock in the afternoon. with some conjectures on the cause of this phenomenon”; in two parts, the first part consisting of Wheatcroft’s translation of an extract from a letter written to the minister of the interior by Jean Baptiste Biot, who reports that he has spoken to a number of people in 20 hamlets in the region around L’Aigle and examined several of the stones that reportedly fell from the sky; the rocks are unlike anything previously collected in that region; they were hot when they hit the ground, and the larger ones still have a sulfurous smell; the many witnesses’ accounts are all consistent, and from them Biot concludes that a fireball was seen over an area 30 leagues in diameter and that explosive noises in the sky lasted four or five minutes; the stones fell in an elliptically shaped area two and a half leagues long and one league wide; in the second part of the manuscript, titled “Conjectures on the Origin of the Meteor of L’aigle,” Wheatcroft takes issue with French scientists who suggest that the rocks came from a volcanic eruption on the moon or formed in the earth’s atmosphere; his own theory is that the meteoric stones could be pieces of a comet; Wheatcroft signs himself as “Associate of the Academy of Sciences, Arts, & Belles Lettres of Caen” (MS in same; entirely in Wheatcroft’s hand).

biot’s report: Biot, who at the time was a professor of mathematical physics, had been a corresponding member of the National Institute since 1800 and became a full member in April 1803. That month, the minister of the interior—the chemist Jean Antoine Chaptal—sent Biot to investigate the meteorites at L’Aigle. Biot presented his report to the National Institute in July (DSB description begins Charles C. Gillispie, ed., Dictionary of Scientific Biography, New York, 1970-80, 16 vols. description ends , 2:133-4; Tulard, Dictionnaire Napoléon description begins Jean Tulard, Dictionnaire Napoléon, Paris, 1987 description ends , 219, 401).

on a little farm: Wheatcroft previously lived at Le Havre, where TJ became acquainted with him in 1784, upon TJ’s arrival in France. In the fall of 1789, as TJ and his daughters were leaving Europe, Wheatcroft with his wife and daughter entertained them in Le Havre, and Wheatcroft took charge of some shipments of wine and personal items for them. Prior to the letter printed above, the last correspondence between Wheatcroft and TJ consisted of several letters from Wheatcroft in 1793, including two written at Le Havre that have not been found, one of them of 29 Aug., recorded in SJL as received on 11 Nov., the other dated 28 Oct. and received on 14 Feb. 1794. In 1794 and 1795, Wheatcroft’s son, also named John, manufactured soap at Le Havre and was the landlord and friend of Mary Wollstonecraft and Gilbert Imlay (Claire Tomalin, The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft [London, 1974; repr. 1992], 213, 218-19; Janet Todd, ed., The Collected Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft [New York, 2003], 245n, 252n, 285n, 288; Vol. 7:395; Vol. 15:491-2, 494-6, 498-9, 518-19; Vol. 25:548-9; Vol. 26:443).

Wheatcroft’s intellectual pursuits included studying the aurora borealis, magnetic variation, water vapor, and the effects of sunlight on colors (Monthly Magazine; or, British Register, 18 [1804], 32; Royal Society, Catalogue of Scientific Papers [1800-1863], 6 [1872], 343).

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