The Night the Stars Fell

When I was a young man in Illinois I boarded for a time with a Deacon of the Presbyterian church. One night I was roused from my sleep by a rap at the door, & I heard the Deacon’s voice exclaiming ‘Arise, Abraham, the day of judgment has come!’ I sprang from my bed & rushed to the window, and saw the stars falling in great showers! But looking back of them in the heavens I saw all the grand old constellations with which I was so well acquainted, fixed and true in their places. Gentlemen, the world did not come to an end then, nor will the Union now.

–Abraham Lincoln, as quoted by Walt Whitman

We name meteor showers by the constellations from which they seem to emanate.

This method works for two reasons. The first relates to the source of the showers: comets. Meteors occur because of dust particles that cleave from comets. Sometimes these particles are visible to the naked eye, forming tails. When our planet passes through debris from a comet, the dust burns up in our atmosphere, creating celestial fireworks. Though it’s intuitive to view comets and their tails as distinct objects moving through the solar system, they actually trace a line of dust on their orbits. As a comet swings around the sun, it leaves pieces of itself along the way. Therefore, when Earth passes through the orbital line of the comet we get meteor showers. The planet tends to cross these orbits around the same time each year.

Similarly, constellations are in the same spot in the firmaments each year at the same time. Add the two together and you get an annual meteor shower that appears to come from a star grouping. If the display originates from Gemini, we call it the Geminids. Each year in November, one of the most spectacular exhibitions transpires in the form of the Leonids, streaming from the constellation Leo, thanks to the comet Tempel-Tuttle.

Approximately every 33 years, the Leonids produce a tremendous outburst, known as a meteor storm. Annual events tend to be stronger when the Earth passes through the orbit of a comet just after the iceball has moved through the region. In recorded history, one such Leonid storm stands above the rest.

In 1833, much of the planet awakened in awe during The Night the Stars Fell.
A meteor during the peak of the 2009 Leonid Meteor Shower - photo by Navicore

During normal years, one could expect to see between 10 and 40 meteors per hour when the Leonid shower is at its peak. Strong displays might hit 100 per hour or more. During the 33-year storms, if conditions are right, an observer might view 1,000 shooting stars per hour. A truly phenomenal experience.

In 1833, the meteor storm became a veritable meteor hurricane. Some estimates place the peak rate at 100,000 meteors per hour! Since we obviously lack photographic or video evidence of this event, astronomical historians skeptically consider single accounts. The aggregate reporting of 1833 astonishingly describes similar experiences, lending a lot of credibility to a number that seems impossibly lofty. By all accounts, the Night the Stars Fell produced an inimitable astronomical phenomenon.

A depiction of the 1833 meteor storm by Adolf Vollmy

In the early hours of 13 November 1833, sleepers across North America awakened to a seeming apocalypse. Shooting stars produced so much light that people believed fires roared through their houses, only to realize the illumination came from the heavens. Some reports purport one could read a newspaper by the light of the storm.  In a far more religiously superstitious period, the populace thought the storm to be an omen of the utmost seriousness.

Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, thought the storm was “a litteral [sic] fulfillment of the word of God” and that the Second Coming of Jesus Christ was at hand.

Enslaved people in the American South, many living outside, fell prostrate during the storm. The story of Amanda Young passed through generations:

“Somebody in the quarters started yellin’ in the middle of the night to come out and to look up at the sky. We went outside and there they was a fallin’ everywhere! Big stars coming down real close to the groun’ and just before they hit the ground they would burn up! We was all scared. Some o’ the folks was screamin’, and some was prayin’. We all made so much noise, the white folks came out to see what was happenin’. They looked up and then they got scared, too.

“But then the white folks started callin’ all the slaves together, and for no reason, they started tellin’ some of the slaves who their mothers and fathers was, and who they’d been sold to and where. The old folks was so glad to hear where their people went. They made sure we all knew what happened…you see, they thought it was Judgement Day.”

A woodcutting of the 1833 event

Some wondered if the storm had brought upon Civil War to the United States. Predating the conflict by three decades, the event nonetheless remained lodged in the minds of many important players from the era. Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass both noted the event in their writings. Walt Whitman recalled hearing Abraham Lincoln use the storm as a metaphor for the salvation of the Union during the war.

Native Americans, always in tune with the outdoors, reacted with wonderment to the storm. The Cheyenne, warring at the time, signed a peace treaty after the harbinger the sky brought. The Lakota reset their calendar, counting time itself from the Night the Stars Fell. For many years hence, Indigenous people from North America calculated birthdays based on the storm.

In Virginia, Samuel Rogers watched the spectacle:

“I heard one of the children cry out, in a voice expressive of alarm: “Come to the door, father, the world is surely coming to an end.” Another exclaimed: “See! The whole heavens are on fire! All the stars are falling!” These cries brought us all into the open yard, to gaze upon the grandest and most beautiful scene my eyes have ever beheld. It did appear as if every star had left its moorings, and was drifting rapidly in a westerly direction, leaving behind a track of light which remained visible for several seconds.”

The Night the Stars Fell over Niagara Falls

Beyond the personal impacts, the storm altered science in regard to meteor showers.

Before 1833, scientists generally perceived showers to be atmospheric phenomena (i.e. something that started in our sky, perhaps like lightning). Astronomer Denison Olmsted spent weeks collecting information from across the country. All statements pointed toward Leo as the origin of the storm. He speculated that the meteors did not begin in our atmosphere, but instead somehow came from space. With observations made during November 1833 and historical reports, scientists predicted that another major storm would occur in 1866. When a large event transpired then, meteor science had a major victory.

The event continued to reverberate through the lore of the United States. William Faulkner included the storm in his short story “The Bear.” Cormac McCarthy weaved it into Blood Meridian: “Night of your birth. Thirty-three. The Leonids they were called. God how the stars did fall. I looked for blackness, holes in the heavens. The Dipper stove.”

Each November, the Leonids show up to bless our skies. The last major storm happened in 1966 when thousands of meteors streaked through the skies per minute during a 15-minute peak. The periodicity of the storms means we are currently about a decade away from the next possible fireworks show. Until then, though the stars won’t fall on the level of 1833, each November will provide a glorious spree of fiery trails.

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