Meteors have a fearful history


Storm: The annual Leonid meteor shower due later this week is a celestial spectacle, but in 1833 some thought it signaled the end of the world.

November 14, 1999|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Abolitionist Frederick Douglass saw them while a slave on Maryland's Eastern Shore. He was filled with awe.

A young Abraham Lincoln saw them after he was rousted from his bed in New Salem, Ill., by a church deacon proclaiming the end of the world.

Across North America, people fell to their knees in prayer or terror, or rose from their beds in wonder at a night sky suddenly filled with falling stars.

It was the Great Leonid Meteor Storm of Nov. 13, 1833. It was decades before scientists came to understand the event as an extreme variant of an annual November meteor shower.

This year's Leonids will arrive early Thursday morning, and many astronomers are hopeful that they will produce a storm like the one that terrified the country in 1833.

For hours on that morning, uncountable firebrands seemed to be erupting in all directions from a celestial fountain near the top of the sky. Few had seen anything like it, and many feared a conflagration or doom.

Dozens of witness accounts were tracked down by astronomy professor Donald W. Olson for his course on "Astronomy in Art, History and Literature" at Southwest Texas State University.

In Mexican-owned California, Capt. Joseph R. Walker was leading a party of 60 trappers and hunters through the Yosemite wilderness to San Francisco Bay. In "The Heavens on Fire: The Great Leonid Meteor Storms," author Mark Littmann presents an account by the party's journal-keeper, who wrote that the men struggled to calm their terrified horses as "the air appeared to be completely thickened with meteors falling toward the Earth."

Great Plains tribes remembered the winter of 1833-1834 as the "storm-of-stars winter." A trader at a post in Racine County, Wis., reported that terrified Indians "awoke me about 12 o'clock by looking into my cabin and exclaiming that `the Great Spirit is at war. Get up and give us powder and lead so that we may join the Great Spirit in the fight.'

"But before I could dress myself, they broke open my store and helped themselves to powder and lead and fired away for dear life, for they supposed they would all die soon."

Morning broke as always, with no sign of a single fire or impact. People gave thanks and returned to their labors. Learned men compared notes and groped for explanations.

Littmann recounts the observations of the Rev. Hector Humphreys, principal of St. John's College in Annapolis, who wrote that he had been awakened by his wife and cries of "Fire!"

"The light was so intense that some sleepers woke up thinking that their dwellings were in flames. The phenomenon must have continued more or less vividly for four or five hours. There was an almost infinite number of meteors. They fell like flakes of snow."

The meteors, Humphreys noticed, "all appeared to move outward from a common centre, at or near the zenith." Others who saw it guessed correctly that this was an illusion of perspective. The meteors were really moving in parallel toward the observer as Earth plowed through them -- like racing head-on into a blizzard.

"It was a perfectly silent and simultaneous dance of the stars," Humphreys said. With no sound, impacts or fire, he concluded that the meteors must be burning up high in the atmosphere. He noted that the crew of a steamboat at Cambridge saw "substantially what was witnessed at Annapolis." There were similar reports from Emmitsburg and Frederick.

Measurements of subsequent meteors proved that they were more than 50 miles high, moving at inconceivable speeds.

In time, the Leonids were shown to occur each November as Earth passes through the dusty trail of a comet. The comet was found when it returned in 1865. It was named Tempel-Tuttle for its discoverers, and the meteors were named for the constellation Leo, from which they seem to spring.

Careful observations and a search of historical records revealed more: Around the time of the comet's return -- every 33 years or so -- the annual meteor "shower" could blossom from perhaps 15 meteors an hour to hundreds or thousands an hour.

It happened in 1799, 1833 and in 1866. And, after great disappointments in 1899 and 1933, it happened again in 1966.

Tempel-Tuttle returned in January 1998, and astronomers hoped for a Leonid storm last November. They saw a remarkable shower, with many spectacular fireballs, but nothing like 1833's. Astronomers' hopes rest on the 1999 Leonids, due Thursday morning after midnight.

If an 1833-type storm does occur, those who witness it will never forget it.

In his autobiography, Frederick Douglass used the 1833 Leonid storm to date a grim passage in his life in slavery. At about age 16, he had been sent from Baltimore to live with a harsh new master near St. Michaels.

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