Thomas Jefferson Papers

Edward Hansford and John L. Clarke to Thomas Jefferson, 31 July 1813

From Edward Hansford and John L. Clarke

Portsmouth Va July 31st 1813.

most honorable Sir,

We the subscribers most earnestly solicit, that your honor will give us your opinion, on the following extraordinary Phenomenon Viz:  

At hour on the night of the 25th instant, we saw in the South a Ball of fire full as large as the sun at Maridian which was frequently obscured within the space of ten minutes by a smoke emitted from its own body, but ultimately retained its briliancy, and form1 during that period, but with apparent agitation. It then assumed the form of a Turtle which also appeared to be much agitated and as frequently obscured by a similar smoke. It descended obliquely to the West, and raised again perpendicular to its original hight which was on or about 75 degrees. It then assumed the shape of a human skeleton which was frequently obscured by a like smoke and as frequently descended and ascended—It then assumed the form of a Scotch Highlander arrayed for battle and extremely agitated, and ultimately passed to the West and disappeared2 in its own smoke. we are honorable

Sir with Sentiments of very high respect & esteem Your most Obedient very humble Servts
Edward Hansford, Keeper of the Washington Tavern in the Town of Portsmouth Virginia—
John L. Clarke, of Baltimore

RC (DLC); in an unidentified hand, signed by Hansford and Clarke; at head of text: “Thomas Jefferson M.A.”; addressed: “Thomas Jefferson Esqr Monticello Virginia”; franked; postmarked Portsmouth, 1 Aug., and Charlottesville, 26 Aug.; endorsed by TJ as received 14 Sept. 1813 and so recorded in SJL.

Edward Hansford, tavern keeper, carpenter, and joiner, was harbormaster for the Norfolk and Portsmouth district by 1805 (Norfolk Co. Deed Book, 27:48–9; JHD description begins Journal of the House of Delegates of the Commonwealth of Virginia description ends [1805–06 sess.], 36 [19 Dec. 1805]; DNA: RG 29, CS, Norfolk Co., Portsmouth, 1810).

John L. Clarke (ca. 1777–1816), a native of Newport, Rhode Island, had recently been discharged as a master or midshipman in the United States Navy. He was a sea captain residing in Baltimore at the time of his death (Callahan, U.S. Navy description begins Edward W. Callahan, List of Officers of the Navy of the United States and of the Marine Corps from 1775 to 1900, 1901, repr. 1969 description ends , 116; The United States Kalendar, and Army and Navy Register, for 1813 [New York, 1813], 44; The Baltimore Directory and Register for the Year 1816 [Baltimore, 1816], 42; Newport Mercury, 3 Feb. 1816).

1Manuscript: “from.”

2Reworked from “disappointed.”

Index Entries

  • Clarke, John L.; identified search
  • Clarke, John L.; letters from search
  • Clarke, John L.; witnesses unusual atmospheric phenomenon search
  • Hansford, Edward; identified search
  • Hansford, Edward; letters from search
  • Hansford, Edward; witnesses unusual atmospheric phenomenon search
  • meteorological observations; unusual atmospheric phenomenon reported at Portsmouth, Va. search
  • Portsmouth, Va.; unusual atmospheric phenomenon reported from search
  • Portsmouth, Va.; Washington Tavern search
  • Washington Tavern (Portsmouth, Va.) search