Friday, May 1, 2020

A matter of historical record: 240 years since New England’s “Dark Day”

By Walter Lunt

It was late morning, a little after 10 a.m., on Friday, May 19, 1780 when a mysterious and unsettling darkness enveloped most of New England and southwest Canada.

Residents, mostly farmers, paused in bewilderment as their day became night; not just a passing dark cloud, but full-fledged darkness. And with it, a change in the air, which turned acrid with the taste and smell of sooty ash. The mysterious circumstance persisted for the rest of the day and all the following night – over 20 consecutive hours.

The bizarre black day of May 19, 1780.Above - before the
mysterious darkness. Below: Noon day darkness.
In his 1916 book “Windham in the Past”, historian Samuel T. Dole described the occurrence this way: “The people (of Windham) were compelled to light candles at noon-day, and a physician whose duties obliged him to be out that night stated that it was so dark he could not see his white handkerchief two feet from his face, although it was the time of the full moon. 

People watched and waited all night in mortal terror, but the next morning the sun rose on a clear and cloudless sky, thus dispelling the darkness of the preceding day and night, and also the gloomy forebodings that had oppressed their minds.”

Newspapers and personal diary accounts of the phenomenon stated, “…that fowls went to their roosts and the whip-poor-wills sung their usual serenade…” It was noted that animals shuffled about nervously; cows returned to their barn stalls, woodchucks whistled, and frogs peeped as if night had just fallen. Wrote one witness, “It was the appearance of midnight at noon-day.”

Many claimed the air, a reddish-hue, tasted and smelled like sooty black ash, a malt-house or a coal kiln; and observed black scum covering the surfaces of streams and ponds. At one point during the day a light rain indicated the presence of a cloud cover above the low curtain of blackness. All that was familiar, and routine was suddenly unravelling.

The young nation was immersed in a bloody rebellion; it had just emerged from a bitter, cold winter; now with the sudden and mysterious darkness, a subtle panic ensued.

To the south, General George Washington was encamped with the continental army in New Jersey. He noted in his journal, “…a dark (day) and at the same time a bright and reddish kind of light…”
Religious groups of the time attributed the mid-day darkness to a variety of causes from stormy weather to the supernatural. Some feared the apocalypse was at their doorstep, an event that represented a harbinger of the ‘last day.’ It was said that many wrung their hands and waited for the sound of trumpets announcing Judgment Day. The Shakers used the occasion to lure the reform-minded over to their newly formed religion. Seventh-day Adventists regarded the darkness as a fulfillment of the prophecy. One historian observed that the northeast was a deeply Protestant society and that people would instinctively look for biblical precedents.

Despite the lack of scientific information in the 18th century, some attributed the phenomenon to natural causes, citing “clouds with highly charged smoke from fires in the back country.” They weren’t wrong, but it would take more than 200 years to prove them right.

Modern day researchers found no evidence of volcanic activity during the time of the dark day. A solar eclipse, which at totality would last only a few minutes, was ruled out. For many decades, a meteor strike was at least considered a possibility.

In the early 2000s, forestry researchers discovered fire scars on the growth rings of trees just north of New England in Canada. Evidence suggested massive wildfires dating to the time of the dark day. A drought, known to have occurred at about the same time, would have increased the likelihood of fire. And prevailing westerly winds from the area would have carried soot-laden weather over New England.

By 2007, it was the consensus of forestry officials, meteorologists and other scientists and historians that New England’s Great Dark Day was the result of a combination of dense forest fire smoke, a thick coastal fog and storm clouds all combining at the same moment in time. Mystery explained, at last.

Dole, the Windham historian, credited poet John Greenleaf Whittier with the most “vivid picture of the occurrence.” In 1866, Whittier wrote:
            ‘Twas on a May-day of the far old year
            Seventeen hundred 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, like the night…
            The low-hung sky
            Was fringed with a dull glow, like that which climbs
            The crater’s sides from the red hell below.
            …bats on leathern wings
            Flitted abroad; the sounds of labor died;
            Men prayed, and women wept; all ears grew sharp
            To hear the doom-blast of the trumpet…

Whittier was also the author of another well-known poem related to Windham history. In “Funeral Tree of the Sokokis”, the famous 19th century poet vividly recounted the final battle between Chief Polin’s Presumpscot band of Wabanakis and the English settlers led by Stephen Manchester. It’s a matter of historical record for another time.  

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