From Diary of the American Revolution, Vol II. Compiled by Frank Moore and published in 1859.
May 20.—Yesterday we were visited by a most unusual and uncomfortable phenomenon. As early as ten o’clock in the morning, a thick darkness came over the face of the country, so that it was impossible to move about the house without the assistance of a candle. Many persons were much frightened at the sudden darkness, and some thought that judgment-day had come. The cause of this strange appearance is now explained.
A writer in the Boston Country Journal gives the following particular account of the phenomenon:—”As the darkness which happened on last Friday was unusual, and to many people surprising, it will no doubt gratify the public to have the observations which have been made in various parts, communicated. In this way we may learn the extent, and perhaps ascertain the cause, of so remarkable a phenomenon. With these views I send you the enclosed.
“The observations from the first coming on of the darkness to four o’clock P. m., were made by several gentlemen of liberal education, at the house of the Rev. Mr. Cutler, of Ipswich Hamlet. There are some things worth noticing before and after this time. The hemisphere for several days had been greatly obscured with smoke and vapor, so that the sun and moon appeared unusually red. On Thursday afternoon and in the evening, a thick cloud lay along at the south and southwest, the wind small. Friday morning early, the sun appeared as it had done for several days before, the wind about southwest, a light breeze, and the clouds from the south-west came over between eight and nine o’clock; the sun was quite shut in, and it began to shower, the clouds continuing to rise from the south-west, and thicken from the thickness of the clouds, and the confusion which attended their motions. We expected a violent gust of wind and rain; the wind, however, near the earth, continued small, and it rained but little. About eleven o’clock the darkness was such as to demand our attention, and put us upon making observations. At half-past eleven, in a room with three windows, twenty-four panes each, all opened towards the south-east and south, large print could not be read by persons of good eyes. About twelve o’clock, the windows being still open, a candle cast a shade so well defined on the Avail, as that profiles were taken with as much ease as they could have been in the night. About one o’clock, a glimpse of light which had continued till this time in the east, shut in, and the darkness was greater than it had been for any time before. Between one and two o’clock, the wind at the west freshened a little, and a glimpse of light appeared in that quarter. We dined about two, the windows all open, and two candles burning on the table. In this time of the greatest darkness, some of the dunghill fowls went to their roost; cocks crowed in answer to each other, as they commonly do in the night; wood-cocks, which are night birds, whistled as they do only in the dark; frogs peeped; in short, there was the appearance of midnight at noon-day. About three o’clock the light in the west increased, the motion of the clouds more thick, their color higher and more brassy than at any time before; there appeared to be quick flashes or coruscations, not unlike the aurora borealis. Between three and four o’clock we were out and perceived a strong, sooty smell; some of the company were confident a chimney in the neighborhood must be burning; others conjectured the smell was more like that of burned leaves. About half-past four, our company, which had passed an unexpected night very cheerfully together, broke up. I will now give you what I noticed afterwards. I found the people at the tavern near by much agitated. Among other things which gave them much surprise, they mentioned the strange appearance and smell of the rain water, which they had saved in tubs. Upon examining the water, I found a slight scum over it, which, rubbing between my thumb and finger, I found to be nothing but the black ashes of burnt leaves. The water gave the same black, sooty smell which we had observed in the air, and confirmed me in my opinion that the smell mentioned above was occasioned by the smoke, or very small particles of burnt leaves, which had obscured the hemisphere for several days past, and were now brought down by the rain. The appearance last mentioned served to confirm the hypothesis on which we had endeavored to account for the unusual darkness. The vast body of smoke from the woods, which had been burning for many days, mixing with the common exhalations from the earth and water, and condensed by the action of winds from opposite points, may perhaps be sufficient causes to produce the surprising darkness.
“The wind in the evening passed round further north, where a black cloud lay, and gave us reason to expect a sudden gust from that quarter. The wind brought that body of smoke and vapor over us in the evening, (at Salem, Massachusetts,) and perhaps it never was darker since the children of Israel left the house of bondage. This gross darkness held till about one o’clock, although the moon had fulled but the day before.
“Between one and two, the wind freshened up at north-east, and drove the smoke and clouds away, which had given distress to thousands, and alarmed the brute creation.”1
1 “Viator,” in the Country Journal, May 29, and New Jersey Gazette, June 21