New England’s Darkest Day
April 18, 2014

New England’s Darkest Day

It was May 19, 1780, and the skies over New England and parts of Canada grew dark. So dark that the afternoon featured people eating their lunch by candlelight. Birds that normally came out at night were singing, flowers folded up their petals and other animals were acting strangely. Speculation was that a biblical or supernatural event had transpired.

Local citizen believed that judgment day had arrived. Maine was completely in the dark. But northeast Massachusetts, southern New Hampshire and southwest Maine featured the greatest concentration of blackness. With the primitive communication system, the people of the area were entirely unaware of what could have caused this phenomenon.

General George Washington was in New Jersey at the time during the Revolutionary War. He noted that dark day in his journal.

Several days before the actual dark day arrived, the sun in New England appeared to be red and the sky was yellow. During the nights, the moon was also red in color. The first report of the phenomenon was at sunrise in Rupert, New York, when the sun was hidden.

Samuel Williams, a professor from Cambridge, Massachusetts, stated, “This extraordinary darkness came on between the hours of 10 and 11 am and continued till the middle of the next night.” Peak darkness arrived at 2:00 pm. It arrived at Harvard Collage at 10:30 am and lingered all day, peaking at 12:45 pm. At Barnstable, Massachusetts, the darkness blanketed the sky at 2:00 pm and peak blackness occurred at 5:30 pm.

In Ipswich, Massachusetts, animal were confused. Roosters began crowing, frogs peeped and the woodcocks whistled as if it was nighttime. In fact it was only 2:00 pm. The air also smelt of soot and a film of ash covered the puddles of recently fallen rain.

Frank Moore noted in his diary that, “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. There appeared quick flashes or coruscations, not unlike the aurora borealis.”

This happened 234 years ago, but the actual cause wasn’t discovered until 2008 by researchers from the University of Missouri. Evidence from tree rings of the area revealed that most likely a wildfire was the cause of the darkness over New England on that gloomy day.

“The patterns in tree rings tell a story. We think of tree rings as ecological artifacts. 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,” research assistant Erin McMurry said.

“A fire comes along and heat goes through the bark, killing the living tissue. A couple of years later, the bark falls off revealing the wood and an injury to the tree. When looking at the rings, you see charcoal formation on the outside and a resin formation on the top that creates a dark spot,” Richard Guyette, director of the Tree Ring Lab and research associate professor of forestry in the MU School of Natural Resources said.

McMurry added, “This study was a unique opportunity to take historical accounts and combine them with modern technology and the physical historical evidence from the tree rings and solve a mystery with science.”

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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