For several days before May 19, people had noticed unusual activity in the skies over New England. The region had only recently emerged from one of the most bitterly cold winters on record, and while the air was now warmer, it was also thick and heavy. The sun had taken on a reddish hue in the hours surrounding dusk and dawn, and the moon had begun to glow pink at night. General George Washington, who was encamped with his Continental Army in nearby New Jersey, commented on the strange weather in a May 18 diary entry. “Heavy and uncommon kind of clouds,” he wrote, “dark and at the same time a bright and reddish kind of light intermixed with them…”
Despite these unsettling signs, May 19, 1780 started out as a typical, if not gloomy, morning. The skies were cloudy and cool and a light rain was falling over some areas. Across Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut, people rose and began to mill about their towns and farms. It wasn’t until around 8 or 9 a.m. that most noticed something was amiss. A mass of rust-tinted clouds suddenly blew in from the west and began to blot out the still-rising sun. Instead of growing brighter, the skies dimmed and turned hazy and copper-colored. In Weston, Massachusetts, merchant Samuel Phillips Savage marveled that a veil the color of cider had descended “over the whole visible heavens.”
The muddy mass of shadow and fog continued to gather as the morning progressed. Connecticut’s Joseph Joslin was forced to abandon work on a stone wall for want of light, and Savage noted that a neighbor stopped shoveling manure when he realized he couldn’t “discern the difference between the ground and the dung.” By noon, the sun’s disc was completely obscured, leaving much of New England in the grip of a gloomy blackness. Many people were forced to work and take lunch by candlelight. Others simply stared in hushed amazement at the scenes unfolding around them. “The fowls retired to roost,” Harvard professor Samuel Williams wrote, “the cocks were crowing all around, as at break of day; objects could not be distinguished but at a very little distance; and everything bore the appearance of gloom of night.” Cows, believing the sun had set, wandered back to their barnyard stalls. Crickets chirped and frogs croaked. Flowers folded their petals. “The birds of the night were abroad,” Savage wrote, “and by their melancholy notes added to the solemnity of the scene.”
For much of the god-fearing population of New England, the sudden blackout seemed positively biblical. “A very general opinion prevailed that the day of judgment was at hand,” wrote clergyman Timothy Dwight. People rushed to the nearest church to confess their sins and say a prayer. Some even hunted down their local parson and demanded an impromptu sermon. When asked for a spiritual explanation for what was happening, one sardonic reverend supposedly quipped that he “was in the dark about the matter just as you are.”
While the pious took solace in prayer, others made a beeline for the nearest tavern and a much needed drink. In Salem, Massachusetts, lawyer William Pynchon noted that a group of booze-soaked sailors “went hallooing and frolicking through the streets” and encouraged the town’s ladies to strip off their clothes and join them in morbid celebration. “Now you may take off your rolls and high caps,” they said, “and be damned.”
A particularly famous scene unfolded in the Connecticut Governor’s Council. Shaken by the preternatural darkness, some of the politicians suggested ending their meeting early. Councilman Abraham Davenport, a Connecticut militia colonel, would have none of it. “I am against adjournment,” he said. “The day of judgment is either approaching, or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause of an adjournment; if it is, I choose to be found doing my duty. I wish therefore that candles may be brought.” Stirred by these words, the council agreed to continue the session by candlelight. The writer John Greenleaf Whittier would later immortalize Davenport’s courage in an 1866 poem.
Save for a few peeks of sunlight in the afternoon, the shade lingered over the Northeast for the rest of the day. The night that followed was remembered as one of the darkest on record. New Hampshire’s Samuel Tenney deemed it “as gross as ever has been observed since the Almighty fiat gave birth to light…A sheet of white paper held within a few inches of the eyes was equally invisible with the blackest velvet.” People slept fitfully, many of them worried they would never see light again. Much to their relief, the pall had lifted by the following morning.
No sooner had the “Dark Day” passed than a fierce debate erupted in the press. New England’s learned men blamed the premature twilight on everything from the transit of Venus or Mercury to a solar eclipse, a meteor strike and the commingling of airborne vapors. Others chalked it up to divine retribution for the violence of the ongoing American Revolution. In an effort to shed light on its cause, Harvard professor Samuel Williams studied weather data and collected personal accounts of the Dark Day. Along with discovering that it was limited to New England, he also ran across reports of massive forest fires tearing their way through parts of the Northeast. Witnesses in some locales had noted that the Dark Day was accompanied by “thick, dark and sooty” rain and the smell of burnt leaves. Could the shadow have been a cloud of ash and smoke from distant wildfires? Williams and a few others suggested it was possible, but their thesis was dismissed as “simple and absurd” in the papers.
It would take several decades—and several more smoke-induced “dark days”—before the forest fire theory won wide acceptance. It was finally confirmed in 2007, after researchers from the University of Missouri discovered signs of a massive, centuries-old wildfire in the Algonquin Highlands of southern Ontario. “Fire scars” in the rings of the affected trees allowed the team to date the blaze to the spring of 1780. After studying weather reports from the period, they concluded that low barometric pressure and heavy winds had most likely carried smoke into the upper atmosphere and over the Northeast, blotting out the sun. Evidence shows that a similar phenomenon also occurred in 1881, when the haze from fires in Ontario and Michigan reduced sunlight in New England by as much as 90 percent.
This would no doubt have been welcome news in 1780, but without the evidence to convince them otherwise, many continued to regard the Dark Day with a mixture of terror and astonishment. Stories of the blackout entrenched themselves in popular lore, and it was commemorated in dozens of pieces of art and poetry. Preachers referenced it for decades to come, and the newly formed Shaker religion—an offshoot sect of the Quakers—used its apocalyptic overtones to entice new converts to the faith. In May 1781, many New Englanders observed the first anniversary of the mystifying gloom with a day of fasting and prayer.