1833, The Night the Sky Fell

Leonids-1833Even though Marion wasn’t officially in existence until 1839, there were already a considerable number of pioneer families occupying various locations throughout Southern Illinois in 1833.

Events occur periodically that seem to “freeze moments in time” and ever after serve as markers for every other event in one’s life. An example, for us today, would be the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 or the events of 9/11/2001. To the very, early pioneer settlers in this section of the U.S., two of those markers would have been the New Madrid earthquake of December of 1811 through February of 1812, for those few pioneers that were around, or, for the next wave of pioneers, the memorable event was the night the sky fell in 1833.

Keep in mind that this event occurred in a time when there was absolutely no artificial lighting, save oil lamps and campfires, to blot out the night skies and also occurred in November when the air is cooler, drier and therefore, more transparent.

Over a three-night span from November 10th through November 12th, 1833, people witnessed what is still considered to be the greatest astronomical spectacle in recorded history. It was November 11th and 12th of that year when countless meteors shot across the night sky, catching many people’s attention and interest. People knelt down and prayed or flocked to churches, thinking that the Day of Judgment was at hand.

Agnes Clerke, an early Victorian astronomy writer recorded a firsthand account of the event, “On the night of November 12-13, 1833, a tempest of falling stars broke over the Earth… The sky was scored in every direction with shining tracks and illuminated with majestic fireballs. At Boston, the frequency of meteors was estimated to be about half that of flakes of snow in an average snowstorm. Their numbers… were quite beyond counting; but as it waned, a reckoning was attempted, from which it was computed, on the basis of that much-diminished rate, that 240,000 must have been visible during the nine hours they continued to fall.”

Just like the New Madrid earthquake of 1811, this event was so far out of the belief system of understanding that most thought that it was “judgment day”, the end of the world.

This was confirmed by an article appearing in the Egyptian Press newspaper published in Marion on October 8, 1898, “Mrs. Susan Norman and John Klope… live about 4 miles east of Marion… Tennessee is their native state, where they were born 12 Aug 1823 and where they lived at the time of the meteoric phenomenon or “shower of stars” in 1833, which they well remember as frightening many people almost to death with the belief that the world was coming to an end.”

John W. Allen’s book “Legends and Lore of Southern Illinois” records the event in the following.

“An interesting story is brought to mind by a broken (grave) marker in an unprotected cemetery located on a farm between the site of Jordan’s Brothers’ Fort or blockhouse, about three miles south and one east of Thompsonville and historic Bethel Church. This burying ground, perhaps the oldest one in Franklin County, has long been deserted and there is no indication that a burial has been made there within a lifetime.

Only one marker that memorializes a soldier who served in one of the earlier wars is left standing. Many are broken and hogs have rooted the pieces about; some have gone into the branch that flows beside the plot.

One of the fallen and broken stones carries the inscription, “Z. Mitchell Died November 13, 1833.” Zadoc, for that was his first name, was an early settler in the vicinity. So far as records and traditions indicate, he was a substantial and exemplary citizen leading a rather quiet and uneventful life. He would doubtless be entirely forgotten had not the time of his death coincided with a most spectacular show of meteorites that came on “the night he lay a corpse.”

No one knew that literally hundreds of “falling stars” would appear. They understood little of the principals involved, but it was an awe-inspiring sight. The loneliness of the thinly settled Illinois country, the natural grief at the loss of an esteemed neighbor, and the general air of solemnity coupled with the dead helped to make the meteoric shower even more impressive in Franklin County.

Neighbors going to pay their respects to the deceased man or to “set up with the corpse” on that November night in 1833, were greatly impressed with the fiery flashes and traces left by the speeding meteorites. “The night that Zadoc Mitchell lay a corpse” and “the night the stars fell” thus became inseparably connected.

For many years after his death, one had only to mention the name of Zadoc Mitchell and the response would be, “He lay a corpse the night the stars fell.” If allusion was made to the meteoric shower, the response would be, “That was the night Zadoc Mitchell lay a corpse.” They were much like the method used to designate time in the South in relation to the Civil War, when the expressions “befo’ de wah” and “afta’ da wah” were commonly used to date events”

All of our ancestors who were alive during this period of time anywhere in North America east of the Rockies would have been acutely aware of  and impacted by this event. How it affected them is anyone’s guess, but for the most part, I am willing to bet it scared the tar out of them and at the very least, I’m sure they didn’t forget it anytime soon.

Leonid Meteor Shower Facts

The Leonids are famous because their meteor showers, or storms, can be among the most spectacular. Because of the superlative storm of 1833 and the recent developments in scientific thought of the time the Leonids have had a major effect on the development of the scientific study of meteors which had previously been thought to be atmospheric phenomena.

The meteor storm of 1833 was of truly superlative strength. One estimate is over one hundred thousand meteors an hour, but another, done as the storm abated, estimated in excess of two hundred thousand meteors an hour over the entire region of North America east of the Rocky Mountains. It was marked by the Native Americans, abolitionists like Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and others.

Near Independence, Missouri, it was taken as a sign to push the growing Mormon community out of the area. The founder and first leader of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, noted in his journal that this event was a literal fulfillment of the word of God and a sure sign that the coming of Christ is close at hand.

Denison Olmsted explained the event most accurately. After spending the last weeks of 1833 collecting information he presented his findings in January 1834 to the American Journal of Science and Arts, published in January–April 1834, and January 1836. He noted the shower was of short duration and was not seen in Europe, and that the meteors radiated from a point in the constellation of Leo and he speculated the meteors had originated from a cloud of particles in space.  

Accounts of the 1866 repeat of the Leonids counted hundreds per minute/a few thousand per hr in Europe. The Leonids were again seen in 1867, when moonlight reduced the rates to 1000 per hour. Another strong appearance of the Leonids in 1868 reached an intensity of 1000 per hour in dark skies. It was in 1866–67 that information on Comet Tempel-Tuttle was gathered pointing it out as the source of the meteor shower.  When the storms failed to return in 1899, it was generally thought that the dust had moved on and storms were a thing of the past.

The Leonids is a prolific meteor shower associated with the comet Tempel-Tuttle. The Leonids get their name from the location of their radiant in the constellation Leo: the meteors appear to radiate from that point in the sky. They peak in the month of November.

Earth moves through the meteoroid stream of particles left from the passages of a comet. The stream comprises solid particles, known as meteoroids, ejected by the comet as its frozen gases evaporate under the heat of the Sun when it is close enough – typically closer than Jupiter’s orbit. The Leonids are a fast moving stream which encounter the path of Earth and impact at 72 km/s.  Larger Leonids which are about 10 mm across have a mass of half a gram and are known for generating bright (apparent magnitude -1.5) meteors. An annual Leonid shower may deposit 12 or 13 tons of particles across the entire planet.

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(Data extracted from “Legends and Lore of Southern Illinois” by John W. Allen; Egyptian Press article dated October 8, 1898; Wikipedia; compiled by Sam Lattuca on 11/23/2013)


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