The Firebird on the Steamboat

Russian firebird

Russian firebird


A Fire Bird on the Jackstaff of a Steam-boat.

We have been placed in possession of the details of a story which we should treat as the workings of a disordered imagination, were it not that clear-headed and collected gentlemen assure us of their truth. They are, substantially, as follows: During the storm that preceded the eclipse a fire bird, about the size of a full grown grey eagle, perched itself on the top of the jackstaff of the steamer General Anderson. Its shape was well and sharply defined, and from its outlines there emanated constant luminous or phosphorescent rays or jets. When this strange apparition perched upon the jackstaff, and how it disappeared, are not known to a single individual on the boat We were at first disposed to believe it an optical illusion, but this idea was dissipated by the assurance that it maintained its position during an interval of fifteen or twenty minutes—a sufficient length of time to allow of a deliberate view and study of all the details.

The entire crew on watch saw it, the more superstitious portion declaring it an ill-omen. This portion firmly believing that the fiery visitor came to warn them of the burning of the boat, came ashore at Cairo, in a state of almost pitiable trepidation, feeling that they had made a narrow escape indeed.

What this ignigenous object was we shall not attempt to say. It is something new in the history of inland navigation. Nearly every astonishing marine “yarn” we ever read was embellished with a description of luminous balls of light that settled on the tips of the main-mast; but well-defined and undoubted fire-birds on the jack-staffs of Mississippi steamers have been preserved for this age of earthquakes, eclipses, meteors, and unnatural wonders generally.

The Cairo [IL] Evening Bulletin 11 August 1869: p. 3

Well, what do we make of this? Is it a marine “yarn?” A real luminous bird, after the manner of the luminous owls of Norfolk? The article is ambiguous about whether it flew away or simply dissolved. The ship was a real one: the General Anderson was described as “one of the largest vessels in the fleet” in accounts of the Mississippi campaign of the Civil War, June 9-August 17, 1863 and in 1867 her connections are described in Appleton’s Illustrated Railway and Steam Navigation Guide. Cairo was an important steamboat port.

The eclipse was the total solar eclipse of 7 August 1869, partially visible across North America.

“The eclipse at Springfield, Ill., was a startling phenomenon. The sky was perfectly clear. Professor Pearce, of Harvard, had charge of the observatories, which were made near the city reservoir. A hundred photographs of the eclipse were taken by Mr. Black, of Boston. When the total obscuration took place, the heavens and the earth presented a scene of awful sublimity. A brilliant amber-colored corona appeared around the sun and moon, shooting rays of light outward in all directions, when the whole horizon was illuminated with a light of the same color…A brilliant rose-colored flame, or protuberance, was noticed on the western limb of the sun during the period of total obscuration.” Daily Albany [NY] Argus 10 August 1869: p. 2

Given the strange coloration that occurs during some eclipses, it is no wonder people were nervous:

At Cairo, at the moment of greatest obscuration, objects presented an unnatural yellow hue, somewhat resembling the effect sometimes produced by heavy clouds before a thunder storm. Cincinnati [OH] Commercial 18 August 1869

To cover the rest of the possible ill-omens, there were a number of large earthquakes in late 1868 (Manilla and Mexico) and early 1869 (Persia, New Brunswick, the Bay of Bengal)  The papers were also full of speculation about the “Big One” hitting the Pacific coast. Large and brilliant meteors were reported in March, April, and May of 1869. I haven’t gone looking for unnatural wonders. Perhaps not unexpectedly there were some very destructive earthquakes in Peru in October of 1869 and some startling ones in New England, also in October.

If you are ignorant of maritime terminology, as I am, the jack-staff is a flagstaff at the bow of a vessel where the small flag known as a “jack” is flown.

I had a bit of trouble figuring out what a “grey eagle” was, but finally found Geranoaetus melanoleucus, the Grey or Chilean Eagle. It isn’t really an eagle, but a buzzard–the black-chested eagle-buzzard, to give it its common name today. There’s just one teensy problem: the bird lives in South America. It does not appear to visit the states.

And yet there are many—scores, really—of stories of “grey eagles” captured and killed. They seem to have been both pervasive and immense. Here are a few samples.


Mr. A.W. Stanhope, of Midway, while driving to Lexington from that place Wednesday, captured a grey eagle in Fayette county, a few miles from Lexington. The bird was sitting upon a fence and was captured alive. The eagle measured six feet seven inches from tip to tip and war [sic] blind in one eye. Morning Herald [Lexington, KY] 18 January 1896: p. 2

Kills Immense Grey Eagle.

Creston, Ia., Nov. 19. Harry Roe killed a large grey eagle near this place yesterday that measured seven feet from tip to tip. He wounded the bird with the shot from his gun, and finally killed it with a club after a desperate fight. The bird is not a native of this section, and how it got here is a mystery, but it is thought to have followed a flock of wild ducks from the north. It will be stuffed and kept as a curiosity. It was capable of carrying away a sheep or dog in its talons. Omaha [NE] World Herald 20 November 1902: p. 2


Wells, Me., Oct. 19 Bert Hubbard of Wells shot a grey eagle the other day which measures 8 feet and 4 inches across the wings and was one of the most perfect specimens ever obtained on the Maine coast. The beak and claws were very dangerous looking weapons. Boston [MA] Journal 20 October 1904: p.1 2


We are indebted to our friend, Mr. J.J. Leslie, of Richhill township, this County, for an account of the killing of a large Grey Eagle, on the farm of W.S. Bebout, in that township. This bird had been committing some depredations upon lambs and barn yard fowls in the neighborhood. On the last day of July, a Mr. Macday gave it two shots, when it was captured. This noble bird measured seven feet six inches from tip to tip of its wings. Mr. Leslie communicated the intelligence of its capture by means of a pen made from a quill of the eagle’s wing. We would not object to having a few of “those same.” Waynesburgh Messenger. Washington [PA] Reporter 25 August 1869: p. 4


Perryville, Ky., March 30. “Dead Shot Bill” Elliott, the crack sportsman, who is known as one of the best field shots in this section of the State, has succeeded in killing a gray eagle, measuring nearly seven feet. Bald eagles have been seen heretofore, but this is the first grey eagle seen in this county. Morning Herald [Lexington, KY] 1 April 1900: p. 8

Note the wide range of the birds and their great wing-spans. I’m not a birder and can only identify the most basic of our feathered friends as they are being carried off by the local Cooper’s Hawk. This doesn’t seem big enough to be the fabled Thunderbird. Any ideas on what this large and luminous creature causing such a flap on the General Anderson might have been? Wing answers to Chriswoodyard8 AT

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murdereress Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching

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