Skip to comments.A Mysterious Darkness: The Day the Sun Went Out in New England
Posted on 05/20/2005 9:46:07 AM PDT by quidnunc
The nineteenth day of May, 1780, began in New England like any other pretty, late-spring morning. Fruit blossoms dangled heavy in the warm, newly risen sun. The scent of nectar brought drowsy honeybees from their straw hives. The dawn chorus of songbirds chirped and echoed across the sleepy countryside as farm laborers yoked their horses to heavy wooden ploughs and carts ready for the day ahead. But by mid-morning the pastoral calm would be turned on its head. Laborers and schoolchildren would be scurrying home for shelter. By noon, birds would be roosting in the trees and bats would be taking to the sullen skies. A mysterious darkness descended over a large swath of New England a darkness so dense and unnaturally black and fearful that the God-fearing folks of the northeast felt in their bones that the Day of Judgment had finally arrived.
With the benefit of more than two hundred years, hindsight, it is probably fair to say that the good people of New England were a little deceived, at least as far as the timing of the biblical prophecy. But what of the cause of such a phenomenon that managed to put the fear of death into so many people? These many years later, is there any way of knowing just exactly what transpired that bright May morning?
There are written accounts of what people saw and heard that day. Most of the witnesses agree that the course of events started about 10:30 that morning. A Massachusetts resident reported:
In the morning the sun rose clear, but was soon overcast. The clouds became black and ominous, and as they soon appeared, lightning flashed, thunder rolled, and a little rain fell. Toward nine o'clock, the clouds became thinner, and assumed a brassy or coppery appearance, and earth, rocks, trees, buildings, water, and persons were changed by this strange unearthly light. A few minutes later it was as dark as it usually is at nine o'clock on a summer evening. Fear, anxiety, and awe gradually filled the minds of the people. Women stood at the door, looking out upon the dark landscape; men returned from their labor in the fields; the carpenter left his tools, the blacksmith his forge, the tradesman his counter. Schools were dismissed, and tremblingly the children fled homeward . "What is coming?" queried every lip and heart.
At eleven of the clock the Connecticut Governor's Council was meeting in Hartford. When the darkness became overwhelming, it was suggested the men adjourn their deliberations. Colonel Abraham Davenport objected. "Either the Day of Judgment is at hand or it is not," he said. "If it is not, there is no cause for adjournment. If it is, I wish to be found in the line of my duty. Bring me candles."
The sketchy information available says that the Darkness stretched south from on the Canadian border to Falmouth on Cape Cod in the east, covering most of Vermont, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and the area west to Albany. This was no localized phenomenon.
"The obscurity was deepest about 12 to 1 o'clock," wrote Bishop Edward Bass, a Massachusetts man of the cloth. "It was however, at the lightest, darker I think than a moonlit night." New Hampshire Judge Dr. Samuel Tenney said, "The darkness could not have been more complete. A sheet of white paper held within a few inches of the eye was equally invisible with the blackest velvet." And an enterprising young Harvard student, Nathan Reid, recorded that by 11:00 A.M. a Mr. Wigglesworth couldn't read a Bible when standing by the window. By 12:21 P.M. the blackness was so intense he couldn't even read the title page.
In several accounts of that morning are embellishments of the general theme: "A melancholy gloom overcast the face of Nature"; "Birds sang their evening songs, disappeared, and became silent; fowls went to roost; cattle sought the barnyard; and candles were lighted in the houses."
By the time mid-afternoon rolled around, and the gloom began to dissipate, the populace must have breathed a sigh of relief. And by early' evening there was a hint of sunshine to raise beleaguered spirits. But the ordeal was not over.
As soon as the sun had bedded itself in the west, clouds rolled in, and dusk turned to night at a furious pace. Even the light from an almost-full moon was snuffed out. Imagine the trepidation these New Englanders felt. Just when they thought the ordeal of the day was over, an inexplicable, bat-black witching hour was upon them.
It was described as "a kind of Egyptian darkness which seemed almost impervious to the rays." In fact, different accounts talk about an Egyptian darkness, described in the Book of Exodus, that Moses rustled up as an encore to the plague of locusts that forced pharaoh to release the Israelites. Perhaps New England's Day of Darkness didn't have quite the historical clout of the Moses episode, yet whatever was to blame for these weird goings on, the effect was to stay in many minds for many years. "It was the darkest Nite that ever was seen by us in the World," said Phineas Sprague of Melrose, Massachusetts. The Boston Chronicle nodded in agreement and trotted out the Day of Judgment theory: "a portentous omen of the wrath of Heaven in vengeance denounced against the land the immediate harbinger of the last day, when the sun shall be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light."
This biblical prophecy of a Great Darkness that foretells the end of the world goes back to the Old Testament's Book of Joel, and crops up later in the Gospel of St. Matthew in slightly different form. "The sun," Joel said, "shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood before the terrible day of the Lord come."
May 19, 1780, did in fact produce several eyewitness reports of the sky's "strange yellowish and at times reddish appearance" as well as the moon later appearing like blood. Of course, how much of this embellishment was recorded after the fact cannot be known. Molding reality to fit prophecy is not unheard of But history tells us that New Englanders awoke next morning May 20, 1780 to a world that was familiar and delightful. And they were still alive. The Day of Judgment had, it appeared, come and gone. Or maybe it hadn't come after all. Maybe there is another explanation for that dark day and even darker night?
The first idea that comes to a rational mind is to determine whether the darkness could have been caused by a solar eclipse. The degree of darkness, if not a figment of overactive imaginations, would have matched such an event. NASA has a complete record of solar and lunar eclipses stretching back to 1999 B.C. But a scan of the data shows no solar eclipse in sight that May 19. A lunar eclipse covering 96.7 percent of the surface of the full moon apparently a pretty rare occurrence had taken place the previous night, May 18. Though it is fanciful to dwell on this slight coincidence, there is little mileage to be gained.
Next we turn to evidence that extreme weather was to blame. Today, whenever we discuss extremes of weather, we talk about "since record keeping began." In the United States, comprehensive meteorological records started in the mid-1800s. May 19, 1780, didn't make the cut. Even a glance at eyewitness accounts shows that an enormous thunderstorm enveloped the region. "Weird coppery light," "black and ominous" clouds, thunder and lightning and rain are surefire signs. But there must have been more. New Englanders would have recognized a thunderstorm, so why the panic? They wouldn't be quaking in their boots at the mere rumble of thunder. If the evidence is to be believed, the darkness was almost total. Yet, for meteorologists, it is inconceivable that a thunderstorm, even on the grandest scale, with 35,000 feet of the blackest cumulonimbus cloud stacked up over New England, could have caused such a frightening total blackout.
There is a suggestion that smoke from forest fires could have been the cause. It has been said that fires were burning to the north. But to blanket the entire area with smog so thick as to blot out the sun and the moon would have required a fire that gave even Hell a run for its money. Nor would it just appear for twenty-four hours and vanish. What's more, a fire of that magnitude would have left traces in the backwoods. But no such trace seems to exist. Yet it has to be said that some of the descriptions tally with the idea of sunlight filtered through dense smoke. Just remember the last bonfire you lit in your yard. ''Yellowish,'' "coppery red" smoke against the sun. But then there is a nagging question that still lingers, a bit like wood smoke: Wouldn't they have smelled it?
There is a letter from a Boston resident, Dr. Jeremy Belknap, who wrote, "The atmosphere was not simply dark, but seemed full of the smell of a malt-house or a coal-kiln . The precipitation that fell was found to be thick, dark and sooty." Both these observations are intriguing. The sooty fallout seems to add fuel to the forest-fire suggestion, but the smells described do not. The pungent odor that comes from coal burning is sulfur. What's more, malt houses and brewing equipment have long been sanitized with sulfur compounds, so perhaps what the good doctor remembered was a nasty nose-full of sulfur dioxide. By contrast, there's no evidence of even a whiff of smoke from a forest fire. No one in New England that day complained that the smell of wood smoke was everywhere. So perhaps it was something else.
In 1783 an Icelandic volcano, Lakuggar, exploded, spewing out three cubic miles of lava, covering an area almost four times the size of Washington, D.C., to a depth of seventy feet. For long months, day and night, smoke belched from the very guts of the Earth into the atmosphere. Iceland was devastated. Half the island's horses and cattle died. Eighty percent of the country's sheep two hundred thousand animals perished, and one quarter of the human population died of hunger as a result. But the smoke that snuffed out the northern sun wasn't just a local disaster. For two long years all of Europe had an extension of winter. Benjamin Franklin, the United States's [sic] first ambassador to France, remarked on the "greatly diminished summer" that resulted from the eruption. In addition, "The winter of 1783-84 was more severe than any that had happened for many years." The thick smoke spread far and wide. In Italy, you could look at the summer sun directly through the gloom. It's said that the smoke was even seen as far away as Syria, more than three thousand miles southeast of Iceland.
So, the intriguing question is: Could the Mysterious Darkness of May 19, 1780, have been the result of smoke from a volcanic explosion? The answer is: Possibly. Certainly the sulfurous smell of the coal-kiln would make sense. But what about the volcano? New England is not renowned for fiery, Lord of the Rings volcanic vistas. But at the other side of the North American continent, the west coast Cascade Range still has active volcanoes that are part of the so-called Ring of Fire circling the Pacific Ocean. Mount St. Helens is the best known, with its spectacular eruption May 18, 1980, exactly two hundred years less a day after New England's blackness. Another active volcano is Glacier Peak. And guess what? According to the United States Geological Service, and some native legends, Glacier Peak last blew its top "sometime in the middle of the eighteenth century." The exact date is a mystery. It would be decades before the white man set eyes on this magnificent range of mountains. But the year of 1780 is in the ball park.
So unseen by paleface eyes, the gas and volcanic ash of an erupting Glacier Peak might have filled the western sky, rising tens of miles into the air, before being swept across the continent by the jet stream. The theory is just as plausible as the forest fires, if not more so. Imagine dark, thunder-laden skies hanging heavy, mixed with layers of volcanic debris, miles thick, stretching into the stratosphere. As it rolls eastward over New England, the darkness deepens, some might say into the realm of myth and legend. But then the thunderous deluge begins, and acid rain, with that unmistakable smell of sulfur the "Brimstone" of old, the very sign of Hell itself falls from the sky, bringing with it a sooty, well-traveled volcanic ash.
Fact or fiction?
Who can say?
Andrew Gardner, who writes on Canada's Salt Spring Island, contributed to the spring 2004 journal an article on Spain's participation in the American Revolution.
Typical volcanic plume effects on the atmosphere. The copper colored sky in a dead givaway.
How about a huge asteroid very close to the earth?
It was Bush's fault, women and minorities were affected most etc.
I can just imagine what went through their heads 200 years back.
"How about a huge asteroid very close to the earth?"
I've read an account from the middle ages, during the period of the Black Death, that have been interpreted as just that, a close pass by a large asteroid. "Awesome in its blackness," with wild tidal disruptions, and it reportedly made a horrible sound. I wish I could recall where I read this, but it was originally written in English, so that pins it down somewhat. This New England report does not match up with that; volcanic ash seems more plausible.
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"Typical volcanic plume effects on the atmosphere. The copper colored sky in a dead givaway."
Honest query: Would the effects of a volcanic plume that could cause such a blackout in a fairly large area only last for several hours, then apparently be completely gone the next day?
This fascinates me. I am saving the article and responses on a word document for further study.
Thanks for your comment.
Gotta love that Calvinist work ethic. :-)
A volcano is also believed to have caused a nuclear winter effect which resulted in the infamous "Year Without A Summer" in 1816, aka "Eighteen hundred and froze to death."
That was my first thought--forest fire.
History ping. Note to self: cross reference to gen. database
Thanks! I was talking about this with my Dad the other day and he wanted to read more about it!
You Rang. Covered here:
Halliburton did it! If the Republicans stay in power the country will be enveloped in darkness!
Mr. Wigglesworth couldn't then, but wouldn't be allowed to now.
Vast oval cloud of dense volcanic ash 300 miles wide, 500 miles long, travelling 10 miles up, pushed along by the jet stream.
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