Darkest Hours of the Darkest Day
’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
In day of which the Norland sagas tell,—
The Twilight of the Gods.
- from “Abraham Davenport”, 1866, John Greenleaf Whittier
Night, and its attendant darkness, has been something upon which human kind has placed a sense of foreboding.
Night was the time for the ancients when unseen animals roamed. It was when spirits walked the earth; at certain times of year, such as what evolved into the observance of Halloween, these “things that go bump in the night” were alternately dreaded and pursued. That which cannot be seen or understood tends to bring out the superstitious natures of simple folks.
Perhaps one of the more bizarre events in relatively modern times was when a huge section of America’s New England area was plunged into sudden darkness.
This was not a result of a power outage because it happened at a time in American history when there were no public utilities. Rather, the darkness descended during what should have been daylight on an early Spring morning in May of 1780. The sun was obliterated from the sky by a pall that spread over the land.
And for those that witnessed New England’s Dark Day it may as well have been the End Times, for many thought Armageddon was nigh.
Darkness on the Edge of Town
The morning of May 19, 1780, in Rupert, New York (on the Vermont/New York State border), was an odd one, indeed.
It was spring in New England. Birds should have been chirping; other small animals should have been rousing for the day. Instead, stillness lay across the fields and woodlands surrounding Rupert. Though it was past sunrise, no sun was visible. The sky was black, as black as it had been overnight. Denizens knew it was morning; it was simply that the sun could not be seen. A bleakness obscured everything, darker than an eclipse and nearly as pitch black as night.
As the dark day wore on, thanks to itinerants and other people passing through, reports of what happened in Rupert spread to other nearby towns. Word-of-mouth was rapid, and it was learned that Rupert was not the only area afflicted by this daytime “night”—many other settlements were similarly plunged into darkness.
In Massachusetts the morning had “dawned” with a cloudy sky. A slight reddish hue hung in the air, and thunder rumbled in the distance. An ominous south-west wind prevailed.
The depths of the darkness were not fully appreciated until later in the day. Around 2 PM Eastern Time was the darkest hour, with people lighting candles in their homes to see with any degree of clarity.
“The dunghill fowls went to their roost, cocks crowed in answer to each other as they commonly do in the nights; wood-cocks, which are night birds, whistled as they do only in the dark; frogs peeped; in short, there was the appearance of midnight.”
He also noted that, by 4 PM, “there appeared quick flashes or coruscations, not unlike the aurora borealis”.
The American Revolution (which did not officially end until 1783) was still being fought in many places: on the Eastern Seaboard and in the interior of the nascent United States. The atmospheric conditions, regardless of warfare flotsam, did not go unnoticed.
George Washington, posted in New Jersey at the time, made note in a field diary about the changes in the atmosphere. He stated there were uncommon clouds, “dark and at the same time a bright and reddish kind of light intermixed with them—brightening and darkning [sic] alternately.” One of his soldiers, in a personal journal, also noted that “whippoorwills sung their usual serenade” (something that usually happens at twilight or shortly after dark).unexplained phenomenon frightened those with little or no education (or no appreciation for what the planet can do at a moment’s notice) leapt to the unhealthy and reactionary conclusion that the darkening skies were portends of Armageddon. The Biblical End Times (as directed by the allegorical Book of Revelations in the New Testament) was upon them.
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & the (Tree) Ring of Truth
While many areas suffered through near total black-out conditions, other places were only “grayed out” or experienced a minor diminution of sunlight intensity. The most southerly expanse of blackness barely touched Philadelphia, which experienced only something akin to a heavily overcast day.
Once the darkened conditions ended, in the areas most deeply affected, there remained much speculation. Obviously, there was no Biblical Armageddon in the offing as people awakened the next day to normal weather that included a shining Sun.
The phenomenon remained a mystery until the early 21st Century, over 220 years after the fact. Ignoring the ignorant Christian hysteria of the Armageddon angle, researchers focused instead on the written eyewitness accounts (documented in sources in more modern times as far back as 1950, but sans explanation) of the more rational observers. The descriptions led to the conclusion that the blackening of the skies had to have been caused by a huge forest fire, albeit one not in the immediate environs affected by the black-out.
Tree rings—the annual expansion of a tree’s pithy material capped by outer bark—can tell many things about climate and the environment. These annual growths are revelatory. Relatively thin rings can indicate a year of harsh growing conditions, while a thicker cross-section indicates more favorable growing conditions. Also, trees can show signs of trauma in their internal ring structures—insect damage and other injuries to the bark, such as hack marks or lightning strikes, are “healed over” and stay inside the tree to tell a story to anyone trained to “listen”.
In 2007, a group of investigators (from the University of Missouri’s Department of Forestry among other areas) took a scientific look at the mystery of New England’s Dark Day. Using data gathered by amateur foresters of the 18th Century and other many other sources they discovered that there had been a massive forest fire in the Great Lakes area of the US that also extended into Canada.
The same phenomenon was seen over a century later when Krakatau (or “Krakatoa”) then an active volcano (near the Indonesian Islands chain, and “rebuilding” itself daily) erupted in 1883. The effects of this massive explosive force from the earth’s bowels were global. Blackouts from volcanic ash, heated gasses, and other detritus blanketed the upper atmosphere and negatively affected weather patterns for years (with a colder average temperature). Strange lights were seen in some places, a result of super-heated and ionized particles “flashing” high in the sky.
Today, thanks to mass communications and far less silly interpretations (no one would conclude Armageddon was nigh simply because the sky darkened for a day), such “mysteries” are readily solved and would not take over two centuries to debunk. But, in consideration of the times, perhaps, for witnesses to New England’s Dark Day it meant sure hell-fire and damnation.
Darkness on the Edge of Town (title track, live 1978)
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