The Darkest Day in New England’s History

Imagine waking up late into the day and looking out your window and seeing what appears to be night blanketing the outdoors.  As you step outside you see other people are indeed moving about their daily activities, but as you look into the sky you do not see the sun, the moon, the stars, or anything.  Sheltering your arms in your hands from the chilling wind you begin to wonder why the sun, reliable on every other day of your life, failed to rise that morning.  On May 19, 1780 New England went through just this scenario.

Postmen did their rounds by lantern light, roosters crowed to no avail as the sun failed to arrive, and people were terrified the lack of light was a portent of doom spreading across the Earth.  The electric telegraph was largely not in use yet, so people had to largely rely on word of mouth and written word to discover what was going on in the world around them.  The lack of a telegraph kept the people of New England on that day from understanding that the mysterious phenomenon was isolated more or less to their state.  As the news spread in the coming days, New Englanders were surprised to hear that the day of dark had not spread far beyond the state’s borders.  And people in other states were equally surprised to hear it happened in the first place.

So what could block out the sun for an entire state during the course of a whole day?  Experts started weighing in shortly after the event happened two hundred and thirty years ago and haven’t stopped since.  Initial reports coming from other states suggested it may have been nothing more than incredibly heavy cloud cover.  But as many in the state suggested, there was nothing to this phenomenon that suggested rain cloud.  There was no storm, and even the heaviest of rain clouds will show some sort of light coming from the sky either through the clouds or from the horizons.  The dark described by many New Englanders was a pervasive and all encompassing darkness comparable to night on a new moon with heavy cloud cover shutting out any chance of light from the stars to come through.

Another explanation suggests fires raging west of the state had gotten out of control and released a heavy thick smoke into the air.  This smoke, according to the theory, dissipated long before reaching any of the areas far east of New England’s borders and didn’t create anything more appreciable than scattered clouds in the sky.  A study in 2008 by the MU College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources Tree Ring Laboratory confirmed that indeed in that year massive wildfires had spread in Canada, and could have in theory contributed or even caused the darkness altogether.

But there are still other theories, and elements to the story that may not be explained so easily.  Why was the sighting isolated to one state?  And why didn’t anyone see the edge of the darkness?