Here is a picture of the clipper ship Tornado as she might have appeared after a whirlwind struck her a thousand miles west of Cape Horn. She was on her way from San Francisco to New York in 1852 when the weather began to turn sour. “The whirlwind struck her at 2 A. M., Sept. 11th, 33 days out, and when nearly half way to New York. The shock was instantaneous. The bowsprit was broken off close to the knight-heads, and the whole of it carried inboard on the port side. The foremast instantly followed it, close to the deck, being lifted from between the mainstays so that the heel of it grazed the house, and went over the side, tearing away the main and monkey rails.”

The whole mess had to be cut adrift, and the mainmast was damaged as well; but Captain Mumford managed to jury-rig the ship and make it all the way to New York without putting in to any port for repairs, which he apparently did not trust Latin Americans to do properly. The insurance companies responsible for the ship presented him with a beautiful silver service, the showpiece of which was a solid silver salver with the picture above engraved on it, so that every time he used it he might be reminded of the worst night of his life.

There are two heroes in this story. The first is Captain Mumford, who brought the clipper safely to her destination. The second is Maturin Ballou, the editor of Gleason’s Pictorial, who managed to tell the whole story without once expressing any amusement at the fact that a clipper named Tornado was hit by a whirlwind, or even mentioning that coincidence at all.


  1. von Hindenburg says:

    If I may, sir, there is one typo in this fascinating story, possibly caused by an automatic text converter program. The ‘knighthead’ is a vertical frame member which helps to brace the bowsprit. A ‘knight-bead’ is the rosary that a Crusader worries when the Saracens come a-circling.

    • Dr. Boli says:

      Thank you for pointing that out. The correction is made. Optical character recognition is a tool like TNT: it makes the work go much faster, but it must be handled with some care.

  2. Belfry Bat says:

    A Lazy Application of Internettery suggests that “tornado” hadn’t referred to such a Whirlwind until just three years before this incident, but merely meant a Bad Thunderstorm. Perhaps Cpt. M. was Old-fashioned in his descriptions of weather? Books as late as A. Ransome call some of these things “waterspouts”, and we still get that word in Marine Weather Forecasting.

  3. KevinT says:

    Why did the insurers want our beleaguered captain to be constantly reminded of the worst night of his life? Was he not married?

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