New England's Dark Day
A Witness Account
On May 12, 1780, at high noon, darkness prevailed over most of Massachusetts. The event quickly became known as New England's Dark Day, and was caused by millions of tons of soot that were ejected into the atmosphere by a massive forest fire in Ontario, Canada. People were very religious and superstitious at that time, and it was believed by many that the Darkness was caused by the will of God. The following is a letter published in the May 25, 1780 Continental Journal about New England's Dark Day:
"As the darkness which happened on the last Friday was unusual, and to many people surprising, it will no doubt gratify the public, to have the observations which have been made in various parts communicated; In this way we may learn the extent, and perhaps ascertain the cause of so remarkable a Phenomenon; With these views send you the inclosed.
The observations from the first coming on of the darkness, to four o'clock, P.M. were made by several gentlemen of liberal education at the house of the Rev. Mr. CUTLER, of Ipswich Hamlet — There are some things worth noticing before and after this time. The Hemisphere for several days had been greatly obscured with smoke and vapor, so that the Sun and Moon appeared unusually red.
On Thursday afternoon and in the evening a thick cloud lay along at the south and south-west, the wind small. Friday morning early the Sun appeared red, as it had done for several days before, the wind about south-west, a light breeze, and the clouds from the south-west came over between eight and nine o'clock, the Sun was quite shut in, and it began to shower, the clouds continuing to rise from the south-west, and thicken from the thickness of the clouds; and the confusion which attended their motions, we expected a violent gust of wind and rain, the wind however, near the earth continued small, and it rained but little.
About eleven o'clock the darkness was such as to demand our attention, and put us upon making observations — At half past eleven in a room with three windows, 24 panes each all open towards the south-east and south, large print could not be read by persons of good eyes. About twelve o'clock the windows being still open, a candle cast a shade so well defined on the wall, as that profiles were taken with as much ease as they could have been in the night — About one o'clock a glin of light which had continued till this time in the east, shut in, and the darkness was greater than it had been for any time before. — Between one and two o'clock, the wind from the west freshened a little and a glin appeared in that quarter.
We dined about two, the windows all open, and two candles burning on the table. In the time of the greatest darkness some of the dunghill fowls went to their roost; Cocks crowed in answer to one another as they commonly do in the night; Wood cocks which are night birds, whistled as they do only in the dark; Frogs peeped — In short there was the appearance of midnight at noon-day — About three o'clock the light in the west increased, the motion of the clouds more quick, their colour higher and more brassy than at any time before: There appeared to be quick flashes or coruscations, not unlike the Aurora Borealis, — Between three or four o'clock we were out and perceived a strong sooty smell, some of the company were confident a chimney in the neighborhood must be burning, others conjectured the smell was more like that of burnt leaves. — About half past four our company which had past an unexpected night very cheerfully together broke up.
I will now give you what I noticed afterwards. — I found the people at the tavern near by much agitated, among other things which gave them surprise, they mentioned the strange appearance and smell of the rain-water which they had saved in tube; upon examining the water I found a light scum over it, which rubbing between my thumb and finger, I found to be nothing but the black ashes of burnt leaves, the water gave the same strong sooty smell which we had observed in the air; and confirmed me in my opinion, that the smell mentioned above was occasioned by the smoke, or very small particles of burnt leaves, which had obscured the Hemisphere for several days past, and were now brought down by the rain. The appearance last mentioned served to corroborate the Hypothesis on which we had endeavored to account for the unusual darkness. The vast body of smoke from the woods which had been burning for many days, mixing with the common exhalations from the earth and water, and condensed by the action of winds from opposite points, may perhaps be sufficient causes to produce the surprising darkness.
The wind in the evening passed round further north where a black cloud lay, and gave us reason to expect a sudden gust from that quarter: The wind brought that body of smoke and vapor over us in the evening (at Salem) and perhaps it never was darker since the children of Israel left the house of bondage. This gross darkness held till about one o'clock although the moon had felled but the day before.
Between one and two the wind freshened up at north-east, and drove the smoke and clouds away which had given distress to thousands, and alarmed the brute creation."