On this Day:
On May 19, 1780, the sun came up as usual, but then the skies over New England darkened as far north as Portland, Maine, and as far south as New Jersey. There, George Washington, fighting the Revolutionary War, reported the Dark Day in his diary (though he seems to have gotten the date wrong). “Heavy & uncommon kind of Clouds–dark & at the same time a bright and reddish kind of light intermixed with them–brightning & darkning alternately,” Washington wrote. “This continued till afternoon when the sun began to appear. The Wind in the Morning was Easterly. After that it got to the Westward.”
The Dark Day inspired terror, panic and puzzlement. Men prayed and women wept. Thousands left off work and took to taverns and churches for solace. Children were sent home from school. Bewildered chickens went to their roosts, frightened cattle returned to their stalls, the night birds whistled and frogs peeped as they did at midnight.
Was it an eclipse? A blazing star? The transit of Venus? In Salem, the Rev. Nathaniel Whitaker thundered the Dark Day was a rebuke from the Almighty for the sins of the congregation. Some wrung their hands and listened for the sound of trumpets announcing Judgment Day.
An anonymous poet wrote,
Nineteenth of May, a gloomy day,
when darkness veil’d the sky /
The sun’s decline may be a sign,
some great event is nigh /
The sun had risen a deep, brassy red. A ‘strange enchanting hue’ robed the rocks, trees, buildings and water, wrote Sidney Perley, 19th-century Salem historian. Rainwater gave off a strong sooty smell and a black scum floated on rivers, especially the Merrimack, reported Richard Miller Devens in Our First Century. Boston smelled like a malt-house or a coal-kin.
A few minutes after 9:00 a.m., wrote Perley, ‘a dark dense cloud gradually rose out of the West and spread itself until the heavens were entirely covered, except at the horizon, where a narrow rim of light remained.’
‘The skies over New England and New Jersey were as black as the boots of the British soldiers.’
In Connecticut, members of the Legislature, called the State Council, feared the Dark Day signified the Day of Judgment. Some member clamoured to adjourn the session.
Abraham Davenport earned lasting fame for his response:
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.
Twilight of the Gods?
Many other news and diary accounts described the strange phenomenon.
John Greenleaf Whittier wrote a poem about the Dark Day in 1873 that began:
‘T was 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
In day of which the Norland sagas tell, —
The Twilight of the Gods.
It concluded with an homage to Davenport’s courage:
And there he stands in memory to this day,
Erect, self-poised, a rugged face, half seen
Against the background of unnatural dark,
A witness to the ages as they pass,
That simple duty hath no place for fear.
In 1960, U.S. Sen. John F. Kennedy mentioned the Dark Day during a campaign speech in North Carolina. He got some of the facts wrong, but praised Davenport.
“I hope in a dark and uncertain period in our own country that we, too, may bring candles to help light our country’s way,” Kennedy said .
Then the Sun Came Out
Joseph Dow, historian of Hampton, N.H., nailed the cause of the Dark Day in the 19th century, a conjecture confirmed in the 21st. It was a combination of clouds, fog and smoke. “For some days previous the air had been filed with smoke, arising, it was supposed, from extensive fires, somewhere raging in the woods,” wrote Dow.
“Prevailing westerly winds had spread the smoke over a very great extent of country. On the morning of the 19th, the wind, though variable, was principally from the eastward, and brought with it a dense fog from the ocean. This meeting and mingling with the clouds and smoke formed a mass almost impervious to light. The darkness became noticeable a little before eleven o’clock, and rapidly increased.”
Around midnight, a light breeze sprang up, blowing away the clouds and vapours, wrote Dow. Moonlight illumined the earth.
The next day, the sun came out as usual.
In about 1886 a former slave named Harriet Powers crafted a quilt with one of its panels dedicated to New England’s Dark Day, and in 1934, during the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration (later renamed the Works Project Administration) commissioned Stamford, Connecticut artist Delos Palmer to capture Dark Day in a painting. For those people lighting candles in total darkness in the middle of the afternoon on May 19, 1780, there was nothing like it. It would forever be known as Dark Day.
In 2007, a team of researchers from the University of Missouri Tree Ring Laboratory published its conclusion that indeed, winds and low barometric pressure forced smoke from a fire in Ontario’s Algonquin Highlands into the upper atmosphere and pushed it hundreds of miles into New England. In the International Journal of Wild Land Fire, scientists explained how they came to this conclusion based on studying “fire scars” on tree rings. Albeit rare, there have been other “dark days,” including one on Oct. 19, 1762.
First, a Story:
Why is the moon so grumpy?
It’s just going through one of its phases…
Second, a Song:
Courtesy of The Folklorist and YouTube.com: New England’s Dark Day. Panic spreads across New England after a mysterious event causes day to turn into night. We hope you enjoy this!
Thought for the Day:
“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.” – Abraham Davenport
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Have a great day!
Dave & Colleen
© 2022 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky