The Flagman and the Skeleton: A Vision in the Sun


The Flagman and the Skeleton: A Vision in the Sun Pirate flag with skeleton

The Flagman and the Skeleton: A Vision in the Sun Pirate flag with skeleton

Things in the Sky are a Fortean favorite. Previously we’ve looked at tales of celestial appearances such as images of Queen Victoria and Grover Cleveland, the Virgin Mary appearing to a fisherman, mysterious airships, and marching angels over Ohio.

From the time of the War of 1812 comes a story of an unusually vivid three-day vision, observed by many onboard HMS Majestic, then lying off Boston. Captain John Hayes was well-known officer of the Royal Navy and was later “celebrated for a brilliant piece of seamanship whereby H.M.S. “Majestic,” was saved from wreck on a lee shore on the enemy’s coast during the war with France.”


The following, (copied from the Sun paper) contains a further account of a singular phenomenon already related.

Other papers, we understand, both in America and England have noticed the remarkable circumstance to which we are now alluding. The following is an authentic and correct account, for the truth of which, Captain Hayes, of his majesty’s ship Majestic; now lying in Plymouth harbor, and the whole of his officers and ship’s company, may be appealed to:

On the morning of the 27th August, 1813, the Majestic being then off Boston, the men on board observed, at the rising of the sun, the complete figure of a man in the centre of that luminary, with a flag divided by three lines, in his hand. He was at first on his back, but as day advanced, he gradually assumed an erect posture, and at midday stood upright. Towards evening he as gradually declined, descending with his flag head foremost. We have seen a drawing of the phenomenon, and nothing can be more correct than the human figure, its dress complete and the flag.

On the 28th, it retained the same outline, but had become a skeleton.

On the 29th the figure was disjointed, and its parts gradually assumed the appearance of six separate flags, united in a circle by an apparent cord or line. After this, nothing more was observed on the sun’s disk, but a few small spots.

The American papers, we believe, notice only the extraordinary appearance of the Sun on the above mentioned days. Perhaps the observers on that continent were not in a position to catch the precise appearance which the particles of matter presented to the ship’s company of the Majestic.

There could be no optical delusion on the occasion, as the phenomenon was observed by so many different eyes, and for so long a time. The first figure was seen during the whole of the 27th, the skeleton the whole of the 28th, and the six flags during a great part of the 29th.

The above is an occurrence which may merit the attention of the philosophic. It is singular, we conceive, but nothing miraculous or portentous. Indeed, as the sun is the centre of a system of planets, several of which are much larger, and probably more important than ours, we do not know why the common luminary should shape his face, or have it shaped for him, so as to indicate the particular occurrences on this earth.

The sun is, no doubt, a material luminous body—perhaps liable to an internal irregular motion of tis parts; at least, this phenomenon would seem to prove it so; and most people have observed how frequently the ignited cinders of a common fire present, at different times, the various appearances of men, trees, horses, houses &c.,

The evidence, however, for the phenomenon itself, we must again add, is of the most undoubted and respectable kind. We have seen, and have by us, copies of drawings made by Captain Hayes on the occasion. London Sun.

American Beacon [Norfolk, VA] 22 September 1815: p. 2

Oh, to have copies of those drawings!

This incident was referred to in a letter written to his wife at Plymouth by Captain H. le F. Senhouse, Flag-Captain to Rear-Admiral Sir Henry Hotham, commanding the British Fleet off the coast of France in 1815.

H.M. Superb, off Ile d d’Yeu, June 14th, 1815.

We have little news here, excepting that we have discovered an eagle on the sun’s disk which has amused us for three or four days past. It is in the act of flying, and is so noble a bird for its size that it may well be assumed as a good omen by the French Chief Napoleon. I do not know whether you ever heard that Captain Hayes of the Majestic discovered a full length figure of a man bearing a tricolor flag on the sun’s disk about the time that Napoleon received his signal overthrow at Leipsic. Sir Henry Hotham showed me the representation yesterday…. Macmillan’s Magazine, Volume 76, Sept. 1897

The image of the man and flag from the first article has become a tricolor flag and an omen of Napoleonic defeat. The eagle reminds me of the giant “firebird” that perched on a steamboat reported here. I am fascinated by the dissolution of the vision-man into skeleton that reminds me of some of Carlos Mirabelli’s materializations: skeleton to solid flesh and back to skeleton. But how did anyone look at the sun long enough to identify the figures? Was this some kind of sun dog?

Could the image be in the Hayes or Hotham family papers still? And are there other versions–published or unpublished–of this vision out there? Signal with flags to chriswoodyard8 AT

I tried to find the logbook of the Majestic, but was unable to access the site where some logbooks are available.

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 murderess 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 Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.



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