An “extraordinary phenomenon.”
On July 31, 1813, two men wrote a letter to Thomas Jefferson that was one of the strangest pieces of correspondence he ever received.
The men were Edward Hansford, a Virginia tavern keeper, and John L. Clarke, a Navy veteran and sea captain from Baltimore. They didn’t know Jefferson, but they wanted his opinion about an “extraordinary phenomenon” they had witnessed on the night of July 25, 1813 in Portsmouth, Virginia. Today we would call that phenomenon an unidentified flying object or UFO, although it’s unlike any UFO sighting I’ve ever heard about.
In their own words:
“We saw in the south a ball of fire full as large as the sun at meridian which was frequently obscured within the space of ten minutes by a smoke emitted from its own body, but ultimately retained its brilliancy and form during that period with apparent agitation.”
So far this sounds like it could be a meteor, or maybe ball lightning – quite strange and mysterious, but not necessarily something you write Thomas Jefferson about.
Then it starts to get weird:
“It then assumed the form of a turtle which also appeared to be much agitated and as frequently obscured by a similar smoke.”
Again, strange. But if you think about turtles, their shape isn’t that different from a ball. Add a few legs, a head, maybe a tail, and I’m still thinking this whole thing could be electrical plasma doing strange things in the atmosphere.
That’s when things jump to a whole new level:
“It then assumed the shape of a human skeleton which was frequently obscured by a like smoke and as frequently descended and ascended.”
Well, that escalated quickly. Surely this close encounter can’t get any weirder than a thrashing human skeleton, right?
“It then assumed the form of a Scotch Highlander arrayed for battle and extremely agitated, and ultimately passed to the west and disappeared in its own smoke.”
What an oddly specific vision for two men to share. The fact that there were two witnesses suggests that these sights can’t be written off as a deluded hallucination, although I can’t rule out the possibility Hansford and Clarke were an early nineteenth century epistolary improv group… “Ooh, let’s make it turn into a turtle now!” “Yes, and then it transforms into a…bouncing human skeleton! Try and top that!”
If they weren’t playing a bizarre joke on Jefferson – if they were sincere about what they thought they saw – then I’m not sure how to explain it. The best I can come up with are sprites, described by Space.com as “flashes high in the atmosphere triggered by thunderstorms” and a likely explanation for many UFO sightings.
I could definitely see something like this being mistaken for a turtle:
And maybe if you drank all day long like people did back then, this might resemble a human skeleton:
I still can’t explain the highlander, though.
Neither could Thomas Jefferson. In fact, he didn’t even try.
Jefferson never responded to Hansford and Clarke’s letter, which is disappointing because I’d love to see where he would begin. I wonder if he brought it up at one of his dinner parties. I’d like to picture him sipping some wine and saying to his guests, “I received the strangest letter the other day…”
This letter wasn’t even the first time Jefferson was told about a strange phenomenon in the sky, and he was always interested in finding answers to the unexplained.
In an 1822 letter, he wrote:
“Of all the departments of science no one seems to have been less advanced for the last hundred years than that of meteorology…the phenomena of snow, hail, halo, Aurora Borealis, haze, looming, etc. are as yet very imperfectly understood. I am myself an empiric in natural philosophy, suffering my faith to go no further than my facts. I am pleased however to see the efforts of hypothetical speculation because by the collisions of different hypotheses truth may be elicited and science advanced in the end.”
In other words, Jefferson was saying “The truth is out there.”
I haven’t studied ufology much, but I love a good mystery. If you have any idea what else might cause such a sight, I’d love to hear it in the comments.