Letter: An Atmospheric Phenomenon
A tavern keeper and a visitor from Baltimore send Thomas Jefferson what is perhaps the earliest recorded observation of a UFO in Virginia. They describe a fireball they had recently observed in the sky above Portsmouth, with its successive transformations into the shape of a turtle, a human skeleton, and a Scottish Highlander. Jefferson did not respond.
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 perpendil 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 disappointed disappeared in its own smoke. we are honorable
Sir with Sentiments of very high respect & esteem Your most Obedient very humble Servts
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, 1805 sess. [19 Dec. 1805], 36; DNA: RG 29, CS, Portsmouth, Norfolk Co., 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, 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).
Posted February 2010. Reprinted from The Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series, 6:340-1.