New-York Historical Society

Of the late, tremendous tornado. Or not.

Detail of capsized ships (broadside SY1792 no. 29)

This city and vicinity were exceedingly alarmed, last Sabbath, about four o’clock, P.M. by a tremendous westerly tornado, which continued about 20 minutes, twisting off limbs of trees, unroofing houses, and tumbling down chimnies [sic] … Terrible was the havoc on the water….

Sound familiar? Except for the unorthodox spelling, this newspaper account of wild weather reads like any published in recent months, but it ran originally on July 4, 1792: “last Sabbath” was July 1st — 219 years ago today — and “this city,” surprisingly, was New York.

The storm’s fury is recounted by a broadside with a long, chilling title beneath a row of twenty black coffins: A True and Particular Narrative of the late Tremendous TORNADO, or HURRICANE, at Philadelphia and New-York, on Sabbath-Day, July 1, 1792: When several Pleasure-Boats were lost in the Harbor of the latter, and Thirty Men, Women and Children, (taking their Pleasure on that Sacred Day) were unhappily drowned in Neptune’s raging and tempestous [sic] Element!!!!!!! (Boston: Ezekiel Russell, 1792).

Black mourning borders frame this woeful tale (broadside SY1792 no. 29)

The terminology applied to this ferocious event — tornado vs. hurricane — was typically imprecise for the time. According to David M. Ludlum, author of Early American Tornadoes, 1586-1870, it was likely neither a tornado nor a hurricane, but, rather, a squall line, or an assemblage of severe thunderstorms that sometimes forms ahead of a cold front, bringing heavy rains, lightning, hail, and excessive winds. Squall lines can produce tornadoes and waterspouts, but it seems no contemporary description included a funnel cloud, hence Ludlum’s reluctance.

Whatever its name, the 1792 storm was deadly. Thirty boaters drowned when their vessels capsized (note the broadside’s woodcut ships, printed upside-down). A whole family perished off Yellow Hook (present-day Bay Ridge), and a sloop carrying sixteen passengers lost all but one to the depths. They tempted fate by sailing on Sunday, or so clucked the anonymous poet of the maudlin “New-York Tragedy” that rounds out the broadside:

A warning great and solemn call / To keep GOD’s Sabbaths one and all; / As on that sacred Day they fell, / And did ascend to Heaven or Hell.

Detail of Grim Reaper (broadside SY1792 no. 29)

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