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New England’s Yellow Day of 1881 Stokes Fears of Doomsday

The sun rose clear on the morning of Sept. 6, 1881, the Yellow Day, but within an hour the air thickened into a heavy, burnt yellow mist.

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A store in Boston during the 1880s

The strange yellow fog covered New England and beyond, from Millinocket, Maine, south to Virginia and west to Chicago. It made blue flowers look bronze, silenced street vendors, forced farmers to stop work and lamplighters to light streetlamps.

“The golden pall shrouded the city in its embrace, and the weird unreal appearance continued throughout the day,” reported the Boston Globe.

It was twilight at noon – just like the Dark Day a century ago.

Dark Days

On May 19, 1780, the skies darkened shortly after dawn, inspiring terror, panic and puzzlement. George Washington, fighting the American Revolution, noted in his diary, ‘Heavy & uncommon kind of Clouds--dark & at the same time a bright and reddish kind of light intermixed with them.’

The Dark Day of 1780 was only the most famous of the dark days. By the Yellow Day in 1881, at least six other dark days descended on New England. Usually they begin with a gradually increasing gloom until artificial light is necessary. They may last from a half hour to several days.

  • May 12, 1706
  • Oct. 21, 1716 (11 am-11:30 am)
  • Aug. 9 1732
  • July 3, 1814
  • Nov. 6-10, 1819
  • July 8, 1836
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The Dark Day of 1780, detail from mural painted by Works Progress Administration artist Delos Palmer in Stamford, Conn., Old Town Hall.

There would be at least two others, on Sept. 2, 1894 and on Sept 24-30, 1950.

Dark days have happened around the world, but New England easily leads in the phenomena of very dark days, wrote Fred Gordon Plummer in Forest fires: their causes, extent, and effects, with a summary of recorded destruction and loss, a U. S. Forest Service book published in 1915.

The banking up of smoke-laden air causes dark days, wrote Plummer.

"The tracks of many air currents and storm centers converge toward this area from all over the United States, and sometimes meet an opposing storm from the east or northeast,' he wrote. “The greatest forest fires have occurred in the Northern States, and the winds, transporting the smoke eastward, flow over the New England States.”

Most dark days should more properly be called 'yellow days,' wrote Plummer, and even the Dark Day of 1780 was preceded by a gradually increasing yellowness and an odor.

They have other names: dry fogs, Indian summers and colored rains.

The Yellow Day

A tremendous forest fire in Michigan’s thumb-shaped peninsula caused the Yellow Day. A lightning strike started the Thumb Fire, which burned about a million acres, killed 282 people and destroyed 20 villages. It sent smoke, soot and ash eastward high into the air.

An hour after dawn on the Yellow Day in 1881, “the moist air, saturated with smoke and perfectly still, seemed to thicken into a heavy screen of mist, that hung low and was of a strange yellow hue,” according to Harper’s Magazine.

Boston's Equitable Building on Milk Street. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library.

The Yellow Day created strange, even lurid, atmospheric effects. Lights flashed and gleamed with dazzling brightness and distinctive whiteness, reported the Globe.

In the Public Garden, “Flowers of pink turned pure white, and the scene blue of the lobelia became a deep bronze, while flowers of yellow became pearly in their whiteness.”

Quiet descended on city streets: The girls who sold peanuts stopped selling their wares, the fruit vendors stood stock still next to heaps of peaches and grapes and newsboys subdued their shouts.

Out in the country, farm work stopped, hens went to roost and the cattle stopped feeding. Factories closed for the day and teachers in Fall River and Lowell sent children home from school because it was so hard to read and write.

The Yellow Day kept all spectators away from a baseball game between the Bostons and the Worcesters. Instead, throngs of Bostonians rushed to the high roof of the Equitable Building to observe the Yellow Day.

In mid-afternoon, railroad men left depots carrying lanterns, and early afternoon trains lit their lamps. “Nine persons out of ten would have declared that it was evening when it was but 2 O'Clock,” reported the Globe.

End of the World?

A 16th-century English soothsayer named Mother Shipton stoked fears that the Yellow Day meant the end of the world. She had supposedly made prophesies that first appeared in a book in 1641, 80 years after she died. A later edition contained the famous prediction,

The world to an end shall come
In eighteen hundred and eighty one.

Groups of Second Adventists believed the end was coming on the Yellow Day. They wore their ascension robes to local schoolhouses in Worcester, Woonsocket and Hartford to await the world’s end.

A rural deacon believed the end of the world was near, according to Harpers.

His neighbor said, "You allus said you wanted to be in heaven, and I guess you'll be there before dinner. You ought to be happy, anyway."

The air began to clear by 5 pm, and stars twinkled in the sky three house later.

The next day, Sept. 7, 1881, Boston’s temperature hit 102 degrees.

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