Answer Man

‘Dark Day’ panicked New Englanders in 1780

Q. In the BND’s “Today in History” column last Tuesday, there was a small item that briefly mentioned a mysterious darkness that enveloped much of New England and part of Canada on May 19, 1780. Do you more information about this?

— Gracia Schlafly, of Columbia

A. It was 1913 when poet Joyce Kilmer gushed, “I think I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree.”

Had they known what was befalling them, folks in the northeast probably would not have been so rapturous with their praise in 1780. As it so happened, many thought the rapture might be at hand when a massive forest fire turned day into night on May 19.

At least, that seems to be the consensus answer many experts have reached after nearly 250 years of hot debate over the cause of a most terrifying mystery.

From written documents, the earliest report of the strange darkness came from Rupert, N.Y., where the sun already was obscured at sunrise. From Portland, Maine, to New Jersey along with much of eastern Canada, similar eyewitness accounts would pile up over the coming days.

“This extraordinary darkness came on between the hours of 10 and 11 a.m. and continued till the middle of the next night,” Samuel Williams, a professor in Cambridge, Mass., reported.

At Harvard, the dimming was reported to have started at 10:30 a.m., peaking at 12:45 and abating a little by 1:10, although skies remained heavily overcast the rest of the day. At 2 p.m. in Ipswich, Mass, people told of roosters crowing, woodcocks whistling and frogs peeping as if night had fallen.

According to witness accounts in a modern issue of Celebrate Boston, witnesses reported a strong sooty smell and rainwater with a light film consisting of burnt leaves and ash. In a 1918 War Department Monthly Record Review, there were eyewitness accounts of ash and cinders falling on parts of New Hampshire to a depth of 6 inches. And, when night did fall, the moon rose as a red ball in the sky.

With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight and modern science, we know now that those folks back then should have expected some odd atmospheric event. For several days before the Dark Day, as it has come to be known, the New England sun had had a reddish glow and the sky had a yellow tint. Something unusual most likely was on the way. No big deal.

But think of what life was like back in 1780 when you might have been a settler living on the edge of a vast unknown continent. For many, a red sun and moon pointed to the end of times — especially in this heavily Protestant area where belief centered on guilt, sin and redemption, historian Mike Dash once told the BBC. Right there in Matthew 24:29 it says, “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light ... and then (all the tribes of the earth) will see the son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.”

“At the time, natural events — even birds fighting in the sky — were a sign of God’s intentions,” Dash said. “The Dark Day would have seemed like a warning to man.”

Some tried to soldier through. When most of the Connecticut Legislature wanted to throw in the towel and run for the hills, Abraham Davenport tried to rally their resolve by declaring, “I am against adjournment. The day of judgment is either approaching, or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause for an adjournment. If it is, I choose to be found doing my duty. I wish therefore that candles may be brought.” (His courage that day would be memorialized in John Greenleaf Whittier’s 1866 poem “Abraham Davenport.”)

Others — especially close followers of Seventh-Day Adventist leader Ellen White — have since viewed the event as one of the fulfillments of biblical prophecy. Besides, they would argue, scientists fought for two centuries without a satisfactory explanation. It couldn’t have been a solar eclipse, there was no known volcanic activity at the time and the likelihood of a large meteorite slamming into some remote region seems unlikely.

Finally, in 2007, four experts from the Department of Forestry at the University of Missouri and the U.S. Forestry Service in Columbia said they had solved the riddle: In the International Journal of Wildland Fire, they published a detailed five-page article blaming the Dark Day on large wildfires in the region.

And they had proof: When a tree survives a fire and continues to grow, it leaves a record of its trauma as a scar mark in its growth rings. The Mizzou academics said they found extensive examples of such scar tissue that dated to 1780. So like the 1977 Sanford Townsend Band hit, it was the result of smoke from a distant fire, they said.

It all fits, say others who have since climbed on the forest fire bandwagon. There was a drought at the time, making such a fire more likely. Residents noted soot and ash on the river, and Jeremy Belknap of Boston wrote the air had the “smell of a malt-house or a coal-kin.”

“I’ve witnessed minor fires in Australia where you get a very eerie light,” Dr. Will Black, a Plymouth University geography professor told the BBC. “The bigger the fire, the darker it’s going to get.”

As a result, the 1780 event is hardly unique. The late physicist William Corliss found at least 46 such dark days around the world from 1091 to 1971 — including one in 1950 when a forest fire in Alberta caused some alarm not unlike that seen two centuries earlier.

“If you’d woken up at noon you’d have believed it was midnight,” David Phillips, a Canadian climatologist said at the time. “People thought it was a nuclear attack or a solar eclipse.”

To read the full scientific piece, see www.nrs.fs.fed.us/pubs/jrnl/2007/nrs_2007_mcmurry_001.pdf.

Today’s trivia

Who coined the phrase, “Practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty”?

Answer to Sunday’s trivia: Can you imagine sailing across the Pacific Ocean on a boat made of balsa wood? That’s what famed Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl did in 1947. The main body of his Kon-Tiki raft consisted of nine balsa tree trunks that were 45 feet long and 2 feet in diameter. He also used pine splashboards and centerboard and a steering oar fashioned from mangrove wood and fir.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427, rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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