In the last edition of the Wayside Pulpit it was suggested that the strange darkness that covered a large area of New England in 1780 was a show of divine anger at what was being engineered at the inauguration of a New Nation. Others have made the same suggestion, but this has been hotly contested by some, saying that in the 200 years since then nothing has transpired to warrant such a conclusion, and that quite the majority of investigators have concluded that the darkness was due to intense forest fires, known to have been burning to the north of the region. In this second part to the investigation, we should like to record all the written evidences from that time, without making further comment. In the next paper, we shall draw some conclusions, based on evidences that may have been missed.
Sir William Herschel, (1738 – 1822) the Astronomer appointed to King George III, discoverer of the planet Uranus, and maker of the world’s largest telescope in those days, had this to say about the dark day –
“The dark day in North America was one of those wonderful phenomena of Nature which will always be read of with interest, but which philosophy is at a loss to explain.”
The “Boston Independent Chronicle” of June 8th 1780 reported the event in the following words –
“During the whole time a sickly, melancholy gloom overcast the face of Nature. Nor was the darkness of the night less uncommon and terrifying than that of the day; notwithstanding there was almost a full moon, no object was discernible, but by the help of some artificial light, which when seen from the neighbouring houses and other places at a distance, appeared through a kind of Egyptian darkness, which seemed almost impervious to the rays. This unusual phenomenon excited the fears and apprehensions of many people. Some considered it as a portentous omen of the wrath of Heaven in vengeance denounced against the land, others as the immediate harbinger of the last day, when ‘the sun shall be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light.'”
In a contemporary edition of the “Memoirs of the American Academy”, we read –
“Candles were lighted up in the houses; the birds having sung their evening songs, disappeared and became silent; the fowls retired to their roosts. The cocks were crowing all around as at break of day; objects could not be distinguished but at a very slight distance, and everything bore the gloom and appearance of night.”
The 1869 edition of “Webster’s Dictionary”, though nearly a century later, is of interest because of its conclusion, as seen in retrospect.
“THE DARK DAY, May 19th 1780 – so called on account of a remarkable darkness on that day extending over all New England. In some places, persons could not see to read common print in the open air for several hours together. Birds sang their evening songs, disappeared, and became silent; fowls went to roost; cattle sought the barnyard; and candles were lighted in the houses. The obscuration began about ten o’clock in the morning, and continued until the middle of the next night, but with differences of degree and duration in different places. For several days previous, the wind had been variable, but chiefly from the south-west and the north-east. The true cause of this remarkable phenomenon is not known.”
R.M.Devens, writing in “Our First Century”, page 89, had this to say –
“Almost, if not altogether alone, as the most mysterious and as yet unexplained phenomenon of its kind, . . . stands the dark day of May 19th 1780, . . . a most unaccountable darkening of the whole visible heavens and atmosphere in New England.”
The following observations were made by Nathan Read, a student at Harvard College, on May 19th, 1780, as recorded in “Weatherwise“, 25, pages 113 – 118 –
“At 10.30 – An uncommon degree of darkness commenced.
At 11.00 – Darkness still increasing. Mr Wigglesworth not able to read in a large Bible by a window. Fowls go to roost as at evening.
At 12.21 – Darkness still increasing. Mr W. not able to read the running title of a large Bible. Candles are in common use. Frogs pipe, and evening birds sing.
By 12.50 the darkness begins to decrease.
At 3.15 the light level has become like that on a day with thick clouds.”
An eyewitness in Massachusetts, described the event in the following way – (taken from William Gordon, “History of the Rise, Progress, and Establishment of the Independence of the U.S.A.” volume 3, page 57.)
“In the morning the sun rose clear, but was soon overcast. The clouds became lowery, and from them, black and ominous, 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, a heavy black cloud spread over the entire sky except a narrow rim at the horizon, and 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. Travellers put up at the nearest farmhouse. ‘What is coming?’ queried every lip and heart. It seemed as if a hurricane was about to dash across the land, or as if it was the day of the consummation of all things. Candles were used; and hearth fires shone as brightly as on a moonless evening in autumn . . . fowls retired to their roosts and went to sleep, cattle gathered at the pasture bars and lowed, frogs peeped, birds sang their evening songs, and bats flew about. But the humans knew that night had not come. In most parts of the country it was so great in the daytime, that the people could not tell the hour by either watch or clock, nor dine, nor manage their domestic business, without the light of candles. The extent of the darkness was extraordinary. It was observed as far east as Falmouth. To the westward it reached to the farthest part ofConnecticut, and to Albany. To the southward, it was observed along the seacoasts; and to the north as far as the American settlements extend.”
Bishop Edward Bass, in the neighbourhood of Newbury, Massachusetts, wrote as follows-
“The unusual darkness set in about 10.40 a.m. and lasted all day, though varying: the obscurity was deepest about 12 to 1 o’clock. Afterwards there was a larger glint at the horizon, which made it somewhat lighter. It was, however, at the lightest, darker I think than a moonlight night. The sky had a strange yellowish, and at time reddish appearance. The night was the darkest I remember to have seen, till about midnight, when a slight breeze sprung up from the northwest, after which it soon began to grow light. At Falmouth, Casco Bay, it was not dark at all. Upon Piscataqua River, Berwick,Dover, and so forth, it was very rainy . . . but not uncommonly dark as I am told by a person who travelled there that day. I hear of the darkness at Danbury, in Connecticut. It did not extend to North River.”
The Rev. Elam Potter, another eyewitness, expressed himself in the following way in his sermon, preached on Sunday 28th May 1780.
“Specially I mention that wonderful darkness on the 19th May last. Then, as in our text, the sun was darkened; such a darkness as was probably never known since the crucifixion of our Lord. People left their work in the house and in the field; travellers stopped; schools broke up at 11 o’clock; people lighted candles at noon-day and the fire shone as at night. Some people, I am told, were in dismay, and thought whether the Day of Judgment was not drawing on. A great part of the following night also was singularly dark. The moon, though in the full, gave no light, as in our text – – -“. (The minister was of course referring to passages such as Joel 3:15, and Matthew 24:29, which speak of the time of the Second Advent.)
At Salem, Massachusetts, Rev. Nathaniel Whittaker preached a sermon maintaining the darkness was a divine rebuke to the people for their sins. And in various other places, ministers preached similar messages, based on texts such as Isaiah 13:10, Ezekiel 32:7-8, Joel 2:31, and Revelation 6:12. (This report was taken from Joseph Ashbrook’s article on the New England Dark Day, in “Sky and Telescope”, April 1964. It could be that he gleaned his information from “The Essex Antiquarian” of April 1899, volume 3, No 4, pages 53-54)
Dr Samuel Tenney of Exeter, New Hampshire, a Judge, wrote a letter in December 1785, which is recorded in “Massachusetts Historical Society Collections” 1792, 1st series, volume 1, page 97 –
“I could not help conceiving at the time, that if every luminous body in the Universe had been shrouded in impenetrable darkness, or struck out of existence, 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. Though at nine o’clock that night the moon rose to the full, it had not the least effect to dispel the deathlike shadows. After midnight the darkness disappeared, and the moon, when first visible, had the appearance of blood.”
Another eye-witness, Dr Jeremy Belknap of Boston, wrote in a letter –
“The forenoon had been cloudy, and about 10 or 11 o’clock the clouds assumed a strange yellowish hue, which tinted all the landscape. An hour later the light began to fail, and by 1 o’clock the darkness was so great that candles were lighted and kept burning all afternoon. 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.”
Isaiah Thomas, writing in the “Massachusetts Spy, or, American Oracle of Liberty” volume 10, Number 472, May 25th 1780 –
“The intense darkness of the day was succeeded, an hour or two before evening, by a partially clear sky, and the sun appeared, though it was still obscured by the black heavy mist. After sundown, the clouds came again overhead, and it grew dark very fast. Nor was the darkness of the night less uncommon and terrifying than that of the day; notwithstanding there was almost a full moon, no object was discernible but by the help of some artificial light, which, when seen from the neighbouring houses and other places at a distance, appeared through a kind of Egyptian darkness which seemed almost impervious to the rays.”
The next report comes from the diary of one Phineas Sprague of Melrose, Massachusetts –
“Friday, May the 19th 1780. – This day was the most Remarkable day that my eyes ever beheld. . . . About ten oclock it began to Rain and grew vere dark and at 12 it was almost as dark as Nite so that wee was obliged to lite our candelsand Eate our dinner by candel lite at Noon day. But between 1 and 2 oclock it grew lite again but in the Evening the cloud caim over us again. The moon was about the full [but] it was the darkest Nite that ever was seen by us in the World.”
Finally, we must make reference to the Connecticut legislature, which was in session that day at Hartford. The Journal of the state House of Representatives reads –
“None could see to read or write in the House, or even at a window, or distinguish persons at a small distance, or perceive any distinction of dress in the circle of attendants. Therefore, at 11 o’clock adjourned the House till 2 o’clock, afternoon. In a neighboring room, the governor’s council was also in session, and a motion to adjourn was proposed. But Col. Abraham Davenport objected with firm dignity: ‘Either the day of judgment is at hand or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause for adjournment. If it is, I wish to be found in the line of my duty. I wish candles to be brought.'” (Quoted in “Sky and Telescope”, 27:219, 1964)
Based on this incident, John Greenleaf Whittier, the “Quaker Poet” (1807 – 1892) wrote a poem entitled “Abraham Davenport” in which were penned the following lines –
‘Twas on a May day of the far old year
Seventeen hundred and eighty, that there fell
Over the bloom and sweet life of the spring,
Over the fresh earth and the heaven of noon,
A horror of great darkness – – –
Men prayed, and women wept: all ears grew sharp
To hear the doom blast of the trumpet shatter
The black sky, that the dreadful face of Christ
Might look from the rent clouds, not as He looked
A loving guest at Bethany, but stern
As Justice and inexorable as Law.
In addition to the sources quoted, the following sources have been used in this compilation.
“Tornados, Dark Days, Anomalous Precipitation, and Related Weather Phenomena,” by William R. Corliss, 1983.
“Handbook of Unusual Natural Phenomena” by William R. Corliss, 1986.
“Historic Storms of New England” by Sidney Perley, pages 105 – 114
“Bible Study Monthly”, Volume 51, 1974, page 58, article entitled “Darkness at the Crucifixion” by the Editor, Albert O. Hudson. Also several personal letters from Mr Hudson to us.
“Christ’s Glorious Return” by Rev. Brown Galloway, pages 68 – 74.
Personal help, greatly appreciated, from Ian Seymour, whose article in “Astronomy Now” Nov. 1999, set in motion a chain of correspondence by which I was able to find much useful information.