It may be the Day of Judgment or it may not. If it is not, there is no reason for a postponement; if it is, I choose to be found fulfilling my duty. Therefore, I want candles to be brought’. This is the famous phrase uttered by Abraham Davenport, a member of the Governor’s Council of Connecticut (what would later become the state Senate) on May 19, 1780, when the sky suddenly darkened in New England, and many people began to speculate that it was the Armageddon. What caused this mysterious phenomenon?

When Davenport spoke of not postponing, he was referring to the parliamentary session taking place at that moment, which some colleagues suggested suspending until it was confirmed whether indeed angels were playing trumpets, the dead were rising, and Christ was descending from the clouds.

His display of courage earned him a place in history, immortalized in various poems, such as Edwin Markham’s, published as “A Judgment Hour” in his anthology “The Gates of Paradise and other poems”, or this one by John Greenleaf Whittier, written in 1866 and titled with the protagonist’s name:

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

But, as we were saying, the cool-headedness and commendable sense of duty of that politician had an objective cause, as reported in various media of the time. The first news of the enigmatic celestial darkening came from the city of Rupert (Vermont), where it dawned that way, and then testimonies followed in other New England states as the phenomenon spread at a speed of approximately 40 kilometers per hour: Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and the aforementioned Connecticut.

Geography and chronology may have caught the attention of more than one reader: this episode occurred in the context of the American War of Independence, which began in April 1775 and did not end until September 3, 1783. In other words, when the sky darkened, there were still three years of conflict left, and George Washington himself, who was in New Jersey, noted in his campaign diary the strange appearance of the clouds, with a strange reddish light seeping through them. One of his soldiers also wrote that the nightjars began to sing, something they usually did only at twilight.

Professor Samuel Williams, from Harvard University, Cambridge (Massachusetts), who compiled all the information related to the event when it concluded, wrote that this extraordinary darkness occurred between ten and eleven in the morning and continued until half past midnight. The institution recorded the exact start time as ten-thirty and a peak of darkening at a quarter to one, starting to slightly lighten from ten past one but without subsiding. It also determined the extent from north to south: from Portland (Maine) to New Jersey, although in some places, such as Pennsylvania or Philadelphia, it was barely noticeable.

There were time differences in each place where the sky darkened. Ebenezer Parkham, a minister in Westborough, Massachusetts, confirmed that the least amount of light was around noon, although he did not say when it started; in another place in the same state, Barnstable, darkness arrived at two in the afternoon with a peak at five-thirty. And in Ipswich, also in Massachusetts, witnesses described the disturbance it caused to animals, making them behave as if it were night: birds ceased their chirping, cattle headed for the stable, and frogs began to croak…

It was in this last locality where, in addition, the smell of soot in the air and the presence of suspended ashes were first documented, some of which were remnants of burned leaves up to fifteen centimeters long, confirmed in New Hampshire. In fact, in other places, a certain accumulation of soot was observed on the riverbanks and even in the widespread rain that fell that morning, which implies a significant cloud cover, although a simple fog was not enough to, as we saw at the beginning, light candles in broad daylight. The meteorological information published in the press in the days leading up to it reveals a cycle of low pressure, with storms but warm temperatures.

And it is that what went down in history as the New England’s Dark Day had been preceded by certain signs a few days earlier, with the sky turning red first and then yellow; even during the night, the almost full moon took on a beautiful but unsettling reddish hue, similar to what lunar eclipses show when the satellite, instead of receiving sunlight, is illuminated by the scarlet glow of the Earth’s atmosphere as the blue and green lights scatter (this is known as a blood moon).

All this lacked an explanation at the time; apparently, it was something unprecedented and supernatural, so many turned to religion to make sense of it. Many people, fearful, ran to pray in churches, recalling, for example, the passage from the Gospel of Mark 13:24 regarding the second coming of Christ:

In those days, after that distress, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken. Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.

Some emphasized the Book of Joel, where that minor prophet described the end of the world (3:04): The sun will turn into darkness and the moon into blood, before the great and glorious day of the Lord comes. Others connected the dots and calculated that the 1,260 days (years, in a biblical sense) of papal supremacy mentioned in the Book of Daniel and Revelation ended on May 15, 1780. Interpretations of this kind were not lacking, and Adventists still consider the Dark Day of New England as a premonitory sign of Christ’s return.

And what does science say? Why did the sky darken in that way until the middle of the next night? Obviously, we are talking about something that happened almost two and a half centuries ago, and there is no data available to know for sure. However, the mentioned presence of soot and ashes is already quite significant, so the explanation seems obvious: the smoke from a massive forest fire, perhaps combined with thick fog. This is the hypothesis suggested by researchers from the Department of Forestry at the University of Missouri regarding a huge fire that ravaged part of what is now Algonquin Provincial Park.

Located between Georgian Bay and the Ottawa River in Central Ontario, Canada, it was created in 1893 and covers an area of 7,653 square kilometers, with more than 2,400 lakes and 1,200 kilometers of rivers, as well as extensive areas of deciduous and coniferous forests. Scars on the growth rings of some old trees in the park have been found, indicating quite precisely when they were attacked by flames and pointing precisely to the end of spring in 1780.

Furthermore, in September 1881 – almost exactly a century later – there were new fires in Ontario and Michigan that covered the sky in the northwest of the United States, although not as intensely, but enough to note that the light was one-tenth of normal. In 1950, another significant fire was recorded west of Canada, which was dubbed “The Great Smoke Pall”, covering everything with a dark layer. And in July 2002, a chain of forest fires in the northern part of Quebec sent a thick haze of smoke southward, blackening the skies of Quebec, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Washington, DC.

In other words, devotees of eschatology had to continue waiting for Armageddon.


This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on January 12, 2019. Puedes leer la versión en español en El Día Oscuro de Nueva Inglaterra, el fenómeno registrado en 1780 por George Washington en su diario

Sources

‘Mark well the gloom’. Shedding light of the great Dark Day of 1780 (Thomas J. Campanella)/New England’s Dark Day (Keith C. Heidorn en The Weather Doctor)/The Dark Day (David E. Philips)/Historic storms of New England (Sidney Perley)/Dark Day of May: New England’s 1780 Plunge into Blackness (egdcltd en Info Barrel History)/Wikipedia


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