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Judgment Day
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New England’s Day Of Darkness – May 19, 1780

By James Donahue

The American colonists were in the midst of the Revolutionary War when the darkness came upon them unexpectedly in mid-day. The date was May 19, 1780. Many people rushed to church believing Judgment Day was at hand.

The darkness was recorded in northeastern Massachusetts, southern New Hampshire and southwestern Maine. The light became dusky throughout most of New England and as far away as New York. General George Washington, who was at Morristown, New Jersey, mentioned it in his diary.

John Herschel, the noted astronomer of that day, wrote: “The dark day in North America was one of those wonderful phenomena of nature which philosophy is at a loss to explain.

“The extent of the darkness was also very remarkable. It was observed at the most easterly regions of New England, westward to the farthest part of Connecticut, and at Albany, N. Y., to the southward, it was observed all along the sea coast, and to the north as far as the American settlements extended.

“It probably far exceeded those boundaries, but the exact limits were never positively known. With regard to its duration, it continued in the neighborhood of Boston for at least fourteen or fifteen hours,” Herschel wrote.

From reports of the day, it can be established that the sun rose that morning and it appeared as if it was going to be a clear and pleasant spring day. But the sun took on an odd hue by about eight o’clock, and it continued to grow darker and darker until it could be seen no longer. By noon the people were alarmed by what they said was “midnight darkness.”

They said birds were confused and began to roost. People took their midday meals by candlelight. And one person in New Hampshire wrote that the darkness was so great that “a sheet of white paper held within a few inches of the eyes was equally invisible with the blackest velvet.”

While the people of New England were confused, dumbfounded and obviously frightened by the strange darkness, if they had the communication network that we enjoy today, the mystery would have been solved in a hurry.

The historical record notes that the day was darkened by a thick pall of smoke from a large forest fire raging in the Canadian wilderness, many miles to the northwest. Erin R. McMurry, of the University of Missouri Forestry Department, co-authored a 2007 report in the International Journal of Wildland Fire that recorded “fire-scar evidence” of a major fire that occurred in the Algonquin Provincial Park in eastern Ontario in the spring of 1780.

Indeed, a forest fire that burned a large portion of Michigan in September, 1880, also sent a pall of smoke that caused the skies over Boston to turn an eerie yellow hue about a day later. Closer, at Sand Beach, Michigan, people were forced to light kerosene lamps to make their way in the streets. One woman wrote: “It got as dark as night ever was known and we light our lamps and kept them lit till the next day. Could not see our hands before our faces outside.”