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"The Fowls Retired to Roost" - Newburyport's Day of Darkness

With the near total eclipse expected to pass over Newburyport later today, here's an example of a weird event that struck the Newburyport area and most of New England on May 19, 1780.

On that day the sun came up as usual, but then the skies over New England darkened. In Weston, Massachusetts, merchant Samuel Phillips Savage marveled that a veil the color of cider had descended “over the whole visible heavens.” George Washington, stationed in Connecticut with he Continental Army, reported the "Dark Day" in his diary (though he seems to have gotten the date wrong). He wrote "Heavy & uncommon kind of Clouds--dark & at the same time a bright and reddish kind of light intermixed with them--brightning & darkning alternately. 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 darkness was so complete that candles were required from noon onward. Connecticut’s Joseph Joslin was forced to abandon work on a stone wall for want of light. Savage noted that a neighbor stopped shoveling manure when he realized he couldn’t “discern the difference between the ground and the dung.” “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.”

The Dark Day inspired terror, panic and puzzlement, including those in Newburyport. 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 roost, frightened cattle returned to their stalls, the night birds whistled and frogs peeped as they did at midnight.

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. Lawyer William Pynchon noted that a group of booze-soaked sailors “went hallooing and frolicking through the streets” of Salem 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.”

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.

What caused the Dark Day? 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.

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