On May 19, 1780, the sun came up as usual, but then the skies over New England darkened as far north as Portland, Maine, and as far south as New Jersey. There George Washington, fighting the Revolutionary War, reported the Dark Day in his diary (though he seems to have gotten the date wrong). “Heavy & uncommon kind of Clouds–dark & at the same time a bright and reddish kind of light intermixed with them–brightning & darkning alternately,” Washington wrote. “This continued till afternoon when the sun began to appear. The Wind in the Morning was Easterly. After that it got to the Westward.”
The Dark Day inspired terror, panic and puzzlement. Men prayed and women wept. Thousands left off work and took to taverns and churches for solace. Children were sent home from school. Bewildered chickens went to their roosts, frightened cattle returned to their stalls, the night birds whistled and frogs peeped as they did at midnight.
Was it an eclipse? A blazing star? The transit of Venus? In Salem, the Rev. Nathaniel Whitaker thundered the Dark Day was a rebuke from the Almighty for the sins of the congregation. Some wrung their hands and listened for the sound of trumpets announcing Judgment Day.
An anonymous poet wrote,
Nineteenth of May, a gloomy day,
when darkness veil’d the sky /
The sun’s decline may be a sign,
some great event is nigh /
The sun had risen a deep, brassy red. A ‘strange enchanting hue’ robed the rocks, trees, buildings and water, wrote Sidney Perley, 19th-century Salem historian. Rainwater gave off a strong sooty smell and a black scum floated on rivers, especially the Merrimack, reported Richard Miller Devens in Our First Century. Boston smelled like a malt-house or a coal-kin.
A few minutes after 9:00 a.m., wrote Perley, ‘a dark dense cloud gradually rose out of the West and spread itself until the heavens were entirely covered, except at the horizon, where a narrow rim of light remained.’
Abraham Davenport earned lasting fame for his response:
I am against adjournment. The day of judgment is either approaching, or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause for an adjournment; if it is, I choose to be found doing my duty. I wish therefore that candles may be brought.
Twilight of the Gods?
Many other news and diary accounts described the strange phenomenon.
John Greenleaf Whittier wrote a poem about the Dark Day in 1873 that began:
‘T was 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, like the night
In day of which the Norland sagas tell, —
The Twilight of the Gods.
It concluded with an homage to Davenport’s courage:
And there he stands in memory to this day,
Erect, self-poised, a rugged face, half seen
Against the background of unnatural dark,
A witness to the ages as they pass,
That simple duty hath no place for fear.
In 1960, U.S. Sen. John F. Kennedy mentioned the Dark Day during a campaign speech in North Carolina. He got some of the facts wrong, but praised Davenport.
“I hope in a dark and uncertain period in our own country that we, too, may bring candles to help light our country’s way,” Kennedy said .
Then The Sun Came Out
Joseph Dow, historian of Hampton, N.H., nailed the cause of the Dark Day in the 19th century, a conjecture confirmed in the 21st. It was a combination of clouds, fog and smoke. “For some days previous the air had been filed with smoke, arising, it was supposed, from extensive fires, somewhere raging in the woods,” wrote Dow.
“Prevailing westerly winds had spread the smoke over a very great extent of country. On the morning of the 19th, the wind, though variable, was principally from the eastward, and brought with it a dense fog from the ocean. This meeting and mingling with the clouds and smoke formed a mass almost impervious to light. The darkness became noticeable a little before eleven o’clock, and rapidly increased.”
Around midnight, a light breeze sprang up, blowing away the clouds and vapors, wrote Dow. Moonlight illumined the earth.
The next day, the sun came out as usual.
Scientific research into old trees in the Algonquin Highlands, Ontario, concluded the Dark Day resulted from a massive wildfire in Canadian forests. Scientists found charcoal and resin – ‘fire scars’ — in the growth rings of the trees.
This story was updated in 2020.