Unravelling the Mystery of New England’s Day of Darkness

At 10:00 a.m. on May 19, 1780, the people of New England thought that Judgment Day was upon them. The sky turned black as night, flowers began folding their petals, and fowls returned to their coops to roost. The moon shined an eerie blood-red as darkness engulfed towns and cities from Maine to New Jersey, spreading fear and chaos in its wake. The event became known as “New England’s Dark Day.”

Numerous eye-witness accounts recorded in diaries, poems, and books describe the panic that ensued as daylight dwindled and darkness persisted well into the evening. Eventually, even the moon and stars were fully obscured by the blackness.

The poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote of this memorable day in “The Complete Poetical Works of John Greenleaf Whittier” (1873):

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.
Men prayed, and women wept; all ears grew sharp
To hear the doom-blast of the trumpet shatter
The black sky.

Artist’s depiction of mid-morning conditions during the Dark Day of May 19, 1780 (from ‘Our First History,’ by Richard Devens, 1876).

Artist’s depiction of mid-morning conditions during the Dark Day of May 19, 1780 (from ‘Our First History,’ by Richard Devens, 1876).

Judgment Day
The confusion and fear over this strange phenomena was exacerbated by the lack of communications. There were no telegraphs or radios back then and thus no way of knowing what was going on and what was causing the darkness. In the absence of information and explanation, people turned to their religious teachings.

Biblical phrases such as: “The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and the terrible day of the Lord come” (Joel 2:31) and “The sun became black… and the whole moon became as blood. The stars of the sky fell to Earth…” (Revelation 6:12-13), caused people to believe that Judgement Day had arrived. Witness accounts report people walking down the streets shouting that the day had come. At the time, the inhabitants of New England were deeply religious Protestants who believed that natural events were signs of God’s intentions.

A full red moon. The people of New England believed that Judgment Day was upon them and this was bolstered by the fact that the moon glowed red.

A full red moon. The people of New England believed that Judgment Day was upon them and this was bolstered by the fact that the moon glowed red. (Sudhamshu Hebbar / Flickr)

The Cause of Darkness
In the decades and centuries following the mysterious event, many theories were put forward to explain the darkness that descended over New England that fateful day, now over 230 years ago. Hypotheses included a solar eclipse, thunderstorm, volcanic eruption, fire, an atmosphere charged with reflecting layers of vapours, sunlight obscured by a great mountain, or meteor strike.

Over time, many of these suggestions were ruled out–astronomical records determined there was no eclipse at that time, and historical records excluded a thunderstorm. Thomas Choularton, professor of atmospheric science at the University of Manchester, said that there is no record of volcanic activity occurring in 1780, making an ash cloud covering the sun unlikely.

Unable to find a satisfactory explanation, Sir John Herschel, English mathematician and astronomer declared: “The dark day in North America was one of those wonderful phenomena of nature which philosophy is at a loss to explain.”

Science Finds an Answer
Finally, more than two centuries after New England’s Dark Day, science solved the enduring mystery. In 2008, the University of Missouriannounced that evidence from tree rings in Ontario revealed that massive wildfires in Canada, which occurred in 1780, were the likely cause of New England’s darkness.

“The patterns in tree rings tell a story,” said Erin McMurry, research assistant in the MU College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources Tree Ring Laboratory, according to the university’s newspaper. “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.”

Evidence from tree rings suggests that wildfires caused New England’s Dark Day.

Evidence from tree rings suggests that wildfires caused New England’s Dark Day. (Geograph.ie)

In a paper titled “Fire Scars Reveal Source of New England’s 1780 Dark Day,” published in the International Journal of Wildland Fire, scientists explained that the fires produced columns of thick smoke that extended into the upper atmosphere and combined with fog to affect atmospheric conditions hundreds of miles away.

The research is supported by witness accounts that described an ashy scent in the area. Geographer Jeremy Belknap of Boston wrote in a letter of 1780 to Ebenezer Hazard that the air had the “smell of a malt-house or a coal-kiln,” and he described how water bodies appeared sooty and black.

McMurry said that the study provided “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.”

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