Strange Maine

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Monday, August 07, 2006

The Dark Day of 1780

Here is another interesting piece from Marilyn Ricker Bolduc's article "Tales from Lebanon's Past" in Discover Maine magazine.
May 19, 1780 was the day that has been called the dark day in New England. On this day the people in Lebanon said it was so dark at times during the day that they could not see to perform their labor. The sun rose that clear monring, but somewhat obscured by smoke. By 9:00 in the forenoon the sun could not be seen, and the darkness increased rapidly. By about 2:00 the cattle went to the barn and the fowls went to roost. Darkness continued throughout the day, but the next morning the sun rose as usual.

Some people thought that the dark day was caused by dense clouds of smoke in the atmosphere that floated over new England and Canada. The darkness was said to have been even greater in Canada, and the people had to use candles in their dwellings at noon on that day. The darkness was not occasioned by anything in the body of the sun itself because other parts of the world had sunshine as usual. No satisfactory cause was ever found for this phenonmenon for many years.

In the 1980s I was reading Yankee magazine when I came across an interesting article. The article talked about the dark day of May 19, 1780. I was stunned to find out that the dark day was caused by a huge fire in Canada. There was no communication in those day slike there is today, so the dark day in Lebanon had remained a mystery for many years.
Herschel the astronomer described the dramatic effects the event had on the populace of New England. Many Christians and doomsday prophets, then and for many years thereafter, ascribed the event to the fulfillment of an apocalyptic prophecy related in such Bible verses as Rev 6:12 ("The sun became as black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood.") and Joel 2:31 ("The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and the terrible day of the Lord come.")

The intense darkness of the day was succeeded, an hour or two before evening, by a partially clear sky, and the sun appeared, though it was still obscured by the black, heavy mist. But "this interval was followed by a return of the obscuration with greater density, that rendered the first half of the night hideously dark beyond all former experience of the probable million of people who saw it. From soon after sunset until midnight, no ray of light from moon or star penetrated the vault above.

It was pronounced 'the blackness of darkness!'" Said an eye-witness of the scene: "I could not help conceiving, at the time, that if every luminous body in the universe had been shrouded in impenetrable darkness, or struck out of existence, the darkness could not have been more complete." Though the moon that night rose to the full, "it had not the least effect to dispel the death-like shadows." After midnight the darkness disappeared, and the moon, when first visible, had the appearance of blood. [Source]

Whittier enscribed verse telling further of the general mood:
'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.


The Shakers found themselves an object of focus following the event, three years before founding their Sabbathday Lake village in Maine: "Having arrived on the eve of the American Revolution, and being not only British, but pacifists, the Shakers kept a low profile. However, the events of May 19, 1780, the famous 'Dark Day,' brought their testimony to the public. Soon, hundreds of people from New York and Massachusetts were coming to see this peculiar people." [Source]

The Wilder-Holton House in New Hampshire maintains a special place in that state's history, besides its more staid position of being the first two-story home in Coos County, because of its relation to the date:
This structure, erected by Major Jonas Wilder, from boards planed and nails wrought on the site, originally possessing a four-fireplace chimney and Indian shutters, is Coos County's first two-story dwelling. Construction was initiated on the noted "Dark Day" of May 19, 1780, which caused work to cease temporarily. Successively a home, a tavern, a church, and a meeting place, it is now a museum. [Source]

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