190 years ago tonight, Leonid shower produced “the night the stars fell”

Woodcut of 1833 Leonid shower from 1889 Seventh Day Adventist publication

This year, the famous Leonid meteor shower will be free of moonlight on the shower’s peak at about 1:30 AM, November 18, according to Earthsky.org. 

As impressive as this year’s shower may be, it’s unlikely to compare to 190 years ago tonight, AKA “the night the stars fell” in a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon that for many, including Vermont-born Mormon leader Joseph Smith, signified the end of the world. 

Vermont History Explorer reports that “on this night Vermonters were treated to a great meteor shower. A witness in Reading, Vermont, described it like this: The meteoric shower of November 13, 1833, was one of the most wonderful sights I ever witnessed. The night was perfectly clear, and about ten o’clock the display began. Thousands of meteors fell, some of them of dazzling brilliance. The flashing was incessant, many of the same time falling in all directions. Some were awakened from sleep by the glare, and the superstitious thought that the end of the world had come.”

The Leonids are famous because their meteor showers, or storms, can be among the most spectacular, Wikipedia reports. Because of the storm of 1833 and the developments in scientific thought of the time (see for example the identification of Halley’s Comet), the Leonids have had a major effect on the scientific study of meteors, which had previously been thought to be atmospheric phenomena. 

Although it has been suggested the Leonid meteor shower and storms have been noted in ancient times, it was the meteor storm of November 12-13, 1833 that broke into people’s modern-day awareness. One estimate of the peak rate is over one hundred thousand meteors an hour, while another, done as the storm abated, estimated in excess of 240,000 meteors during the nine hours of the storm, over the entire region of North America east of the Rocky Mountains.

It was marked by several nations of Native Americans: the Cheyenne established a peace treaty and the Lakota calendar was reset. Many Native American birthdays were calculated by reference to the 1833 Leonid event.

Abolitionists including Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass as well as slave-owners took note.and others. The New York Evening Post carried a series of articles on the event including reports from Canada to Jamaica, it made news in several states beyond New York and, though it appeared in North America, was talked about in Europe.

The journalism of the event tended to rise above the partisan debates of the time and reviewed facts as they could be sought out. Abraham Lincoln commented on it years later. 

Near Independence, Missouri, in Clay County, a refugee Mormon community watched the meteor shower on the banks of the Missouri River after having been driven from their homes by local settlers. Joseph Smith, the founder and first leader of Mormonism, afterwards noted in his journal for November 1833 his belief that this event was “a litteral fulfillment of the word of God” and a harbinger of the imminent second coming of Christ. 

Categories: History