Signs and portents.

One thing I keep noticing is how many letters to the editor of the New York Times in 1860 tell about meteors people saw. You don’t see that too much now. But then, the letters describe some serious meteors. One article from August 13 apparently has three descriptions of the same(?) meteor from St. Louis, MO, Charleston, SC, and Rome, TN.

It first appeared in the southeast, and presented the appearance of an ordinary rocket, but as it moved onward it grew in size until at the moment of its disappearance its apparent diameter was equal to the fall moon, The train or tail was not of great length, the whole resembling an elongated cone. All the hues of the rainbow, painted in fire, surrounded it, constantly scattering and throwing off sparks, rivaling in brilliancy the diamond when illumined by the sun.

And here’s another account of possibly the same meteor that night, from Asheville, NC:

On the 2nd of August, 1860, I was at Asheville, Buncombe County, in the picturesque mountain-region of North Carolina.
On the evening of that day I retired to my room a little after ten o’clock. The moon was full and approaching the meridian, and the night was clear and bright. There was a window on the west side of the room covered by a white curtain. The candle having been extinguished, my attention was suddenly arrested by a bright glare of light. It was much brighter than a candle would have made, and seemed like a sheet of flame against the window. With surprise and alarm I went toward the window, but before I reached it the light suddenly changed its color and became beautifully white. The thought at once flashed upon me that it must be a meteor, and I saw its out- line through the curtain as it exploded in the northwest. The light at the moment of explosion seemed as white as that produced by the burning of the metal magnesium. During the whole period that I observed the light it was greater than hundreds of moons would have caused. …

The most easterly notices were from Guiney Post-office, Caroline County, Virginia, and from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and the most westerly, from Montgomery, Alabama, Holly Springs, Mississippi, and Nashville, Tennessee. The telegraphic correspondents said next day that it had been seen simultaneously at New Orleans, Memphis, Cairo, etc. j and while, according to the statement of two of the papers at Nashville, it was seen to the east of that city, it appeal red to pass on the west of Cincinnati, and several other places north and east or it in Ohio.

A letter dated August 9 reports a notable meteor visible from Saratoga, NY. Another dated August 6 reports one from Brooklyn.

Apparently the fall of 1859 through the summer of 1860 was a period of unusually dramatic meteors. An article in the Smithsonian’s blog suggests that another remarkable meteor in July of 1860 may have inspired Walt Whitman’s poem Year of Meteors, 1859-1860.

Walt Whitman Walt Whitman

YEAR of meteors! brooding year!
I would bind in words retrospective, some of your deeds and signs;
I would sing your contest for the 19th Presidentiad;
I would sing how an old man, tall, with white hair, mounted the scaffold in Virginia;
(I was at hand—silent I stood, with teeth shut close—I watch’d;
I stood very near you, old man, when cool and indifferent, but trembling with age and your unheal’d wounds, you mounted the scaffold;)
—I would sing in my copious song your census returns of The States,
The tables of population and products—I would sing of your ships and their cargoes,
The proud black ships of Manhattan, arriving, some fill’d with immigrants, some from the isthmus with cargoes of gold;
Songs thereof would I sing—to all that hitherward comes would I welcome give;
And you would I sing, fair stripling! welcome to you from me, sweet boy of England*!
Remember you surging Manhattan’s crowds, as you pass’d with your cortege of nobles?
There in the crowds stood I, and singled you out with attachment;
I know not why, but I loved you… (and so go forth little song,
Far over sea speed like an arrow, carrying my love all folded,
And find in his palace the youth I love, and drop these lines at his feet;)
—Nor forget I to sing of the wonder, the ship as she swam up my bay,
Well-shaped and stately the Great Eastern swam up my bay, she was 600 feet long,
Her, moving swiftly, surrounded by myriads of small craft, I forget not to sing;
—Nor the comet that came unannounced out of the north, flaring in heaven;
Nor the strange huge meteor procession, dazzling and clear, shooting over our heads,
(A moment, a moment long, it sail’d its balls of unearthly light over our heads,
Then departed, dropt in the night, and was gone;)
—Of such, and fitful as they, I sing—with gleams from them would I gleam and patch these chants;
Your chants, O year all mottled with evil and good! year of forebodings! year of the youth I love!
Year of comets and meteors transient and strange!—lo! even here, one equally transient and strange!
As I flit through you hastily, soon to fall and be gone, what is this book,
What am I myself but one of your meteors?

Not all of Whitman’s meteors are in the sky. The old man on the scaffold, of course, is John Brown. “Deeds and signs” were everywhere that year.

*Oh, BTW, the “sweet boy of England” is no doubt Prince Albert Edward, who visited America in August, 1860. I’ve been ignoring the newspaper reports of his visit. Maybe later.

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