The Great Dark Day Of 1780

Every year there are several eclipses and 1780 was no exception. Indeed a partial lunar eclipse could be seen from New England, early in the morning on May 18, although only at moonset. The following day was most peculiar, though. It has gone down in history as the Great Dark Day. No one really knows what caused the darkness experienced then, throughout the states in the northeast.

The basic information is clear enough. At about 10 in the morning on May 19 the sky started to dim and by 11 there was darkness all around. It seems that the whole of New England was affected, an area "at least 650 miles in extent" according to contemporary reports. The Sun was blanked to such an extent that it was impossible to read a newspaper. In the context of this book, it is worthwhile to note that the responses of plants and animals were the same as during a solar eclipse. Cows ambled back to their sheds, fowl went to their roosts, bees returned to their hives, other insects went quiet, and flowers closed their petals.

It was not only the Sun that was affected. As there had been a lunar eclipse the day before, obviously the Moon was just past being full. When it rose on the evening of May 19, it was dimmed too. This gloomy state of affairs continued until two o'clock on the morning of May 20, and by four all had returned to normal, except that people were mightily upset. This is what the Boston Independent Chronicle related: "During the whole time a sickly, melancholy gloom overcast the face of Nature. Nor was the darkness of the night less uncommon and terrifying than that of the day; notwithstanding there was almost a full moon, no object was discernible. . . . This unusual phenomenon excited the fears and apprehensions of many people. Some considered it as a portentous omen of the wrath of Heaven in vengeance denounced against the land, others as the immediate harbinger of the last day, when 'the sun shall be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light'." The closing quote there, from the Bible, shows the way many people regarded the dark day in 1780. Indeed the event is still cited by some with strong religious beliefs as having been a sign of the Second Coming.

Five months later the sky went dark again around noontime in New England, but the reason for that is well understood. The eclipse on October 27 was seen by many. For a few, though—the party of ten from Harvard camped in Penobscot Bay and surrounded by an opposing army—the sky did not get as dark as they had hoped or earnestly expected.

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