I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
In 1881, Harper’s Magazine reported on a strange occurrence a century earlier: “On that day the darkness began at 10 o’clock in the morning, and lasted until the following midnight. Birds went to roost, cocks crowed at mid-day as at midnight, and animals were plainly terrified.”
The sun vanished and at night the stars could not be seen. Even George Washington, campaigning in New Jersey during the Revolutionary War, noted the event in his diary. What was it that caused the unnatural dusk to descend in the middle of the day? Theories abound.
The Day of Judgement
At the time of the “Dark Day” the most plausible explanation seemed to be that it signalled the apocalypse.
According to The Smithsonian, a veteran of the Revolutionary War said “People [came] out wringing their hands and howling, the Day of Judgement is come.”
The idea that the end times were upon them was bolstered by the fact that the sun and moon had glowed red and the sky had a yellowish tint for a few days before the darkness descended.
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.
Mike Dash, who wrote about the phenomenon in his 1998 book Borderlands, says Protestantism was deeply ingrained the U.S. north-east at the time, producing a society transfixed by “guilt, sin, and redemption.”
The Bible made it clear that the end was nigh:
- The King James Bible puts it this way (Matthew 24:29): “… shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from Heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken.”
- Revelation 6:12 also has a warning that the end of the world was near: “…and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood.”
For the devout Christians who believed in the literal truth of the Bible the portent was obvious. Thousands of people left their work; the pious headed for church while many others found comfort in taverns.
Abraham Davenport’s Defiance
Legislators in the Connecticut state capital, Hartford, were toiling away at their duties when the sky started to darken. Trembling at the thought of the approaching cataclysm the law makers called for a halt to proceedings.
But, Abraham Davenport would have none of it; the politician defied the feared annihilation. He said if the final judgement was indeed upon them then he wanted to be seen doing his duty and called for candles to be lit.
Davenport’s brave resolve was celebrated in verse by John Greenleaf Whittier in 1868:
“… Meanwhile in the old State House, dim as ghosts,
Sat the lawgivers of Connecticut,
Trembling beneath their legislative robes.
‘It is the Lord’s Great Day! Let us adjourn,’
Some said; and then, as if with one accord,
All eyes were turned to Abraham Davenport.
He rose, slow cleaving with his steady voice
The intolerable hush. ‘This well may be
The Day of Judgement which the world awaits;
But be it so or not, I only know
My present duty, and my Lord’s command
To occupy till He come. So at the post
Where He hast set me in His providence,
I choose, for one, to meet Him face to face,
No faithless servant frightened from my task,
But ready when the Lord of the harvest calls;
And therefore, with all reverence, I would say,
Let God do His work, we will see to ours.
Bring in the candles.’ And they brought them in…”
As it turned out, May 19, 1780 was not the end of the world. But, what was it?
Dark Day Theories
If it wasn't Armageddon it had to be something less divinely ordered.
Tom de Castella of BBC News Magazine examined and demolished many theories about what caused the Dark Day:
- A dust cloud from a crashing meteorite? Thomas Choularton, professor of atmospheric science at the University of Manchester, says this is unlikely but “you can’t rule it out completely.”
- Solar eclipse? The dates of these are known and nothing matches the New England event.
- Volcanic ash cloud? Prof. Choularton says no, as there is no record of an eruption at the time.
- Time lord? Fans of Dr. Who have suggested Gallifreyans might have been up to some sort of mischief. Conventional science is silent on this idea.
- Forest Fires? The weight of scientific inquiry falls on this explanation.
Study of Tree Rings
The forest fire cause was dismissed early on as “simple and absurd,” even though at the time at least one person proposed it. Surely, a blaze of the magnitude needed to dim a good portion of the continent would have been noticed.
But recently, scientists studying tree rings say a massive inferno in Canada may be to blame for New England’s Dark Day.
Erin McMurry is a research assistant in the Missouri University College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources Tree Ring Laboratory. She told Science Daily “We think of tree rings as ecological artefacts. We know how to date the rings and create a chronology, so we can tell when there has been a fire or a drought occurred and unlock the history the tree has been holding for years.”
Scorches on trees that survive a forest fire mark the date of the blaze. The researchers found such evidence of a major fire in the Algonquin Highlands of southern Ontario in 1780.
And, on the day in question an easterly wind drove a huge, thick bank of Atlantic fog on shore and combined with smoke to blot out the sun. Overnight, the wind shifted and the next morning dawned with no apocalypse.
Not for the end-timers. They cling to their belief that the Dark Day remains one of the biblical prophecies of the second coming of Christ.
- William Corliss was a physicist and a collector of anomalous events. During a lifetime of pouring through scientific journals he found references to 46 incidences of dark days occurring between 1091 and 1971.
- In 1960, then Senator John F. Kennedy was campaigning for the presidency in North Carolina. He praised Abraham Davenport and added “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.” Words that have never been more applicable than today.
- “Editor’s Easy Chair.” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, 1881, page 944.
- “Black Skies over New England.” Mark Strauss, Smithsonian Magazine, November 12, 2009.
- “What Caused the Mystery of the Dark Day? Tom de Castella, BBC News Magazine, May 18, 2012.
- “Abraham Davenport & the Dark Day.” Stamford Historical Society, undated.
- “Mystery of Infamous ‘New England Dark Day’ Solved by Tree Rings.” Science Daily, June 9, 2008.
- “The New England Dark Day of 1780.”New England Historical Society, 2019.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor