The Stars Fell on Abe and Frederick

image The 1833 Leonids (Source: Wikipedia)

Word on the street is there's a meteor shower set for late Tuesday night, peaking at 2 am EST on January 4th [1]. The meteors in question are the Quadrantids, which often go unnoticed for two good reasons. Reason the first: apparently [2], they are usually pretty awful. Unlike the "good" meteor showers, the Quadrantids are bright and pretty for only a few hours (instead of a few days). This means that a lot of the time, we just miss them. Reason the second: they have a lame name [3]. But this year, they should be pretty good if the weather is right. Now, there's lots of neat physics to talk about with meteors, but that's not why I bring it up. This has all just been flimsy pretext so I could share a historical anecdote about a meteor shower. Trickery, indeed. Those who feel cheated are free to leave now with heads held high. Those still around (Hi, Mom!) will hear about the night in 1833 when the stars fell on Alabama (and the rest of the country, too). The Leonids typically put on a pretty good show, but their showing in 1833 was so dramatic that the term "meteor shower" was coined to describe what was happening. The 1833 Leonids were truly one for the ages and made such an impression that people were often able to remember when events happened by their relation to the night when "the stars fell." It was in this use as a "calendar anchor" that I first heard of this particular meteor shower. While home for the holiday I was reading Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, one of the later autobiographies written by the former slave and noted abolitionist. Recounting when he was moved from Baltimore to a plantation on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Douglass writes:

I went to St. Michaels to live in March, 1833. I know the year, because it was the one succeeding the first cholera in Baltimore, and was also the year of that strange phenomenon when the heavens seemed about to part with their starry train. I witnessed this gorgeous spectacle, and was awe-struck. The air seemed filled with bright descending messengers from the sky. It was about daybreak when I saw this sublime scene. I was not without the suggestion, at the moment, that it might be the harbinger of the coming of the Son of Man; and in my then state of mind I was prepared to hail Him as my friend and deliverer. I had read that the "stars shall fall from heaven," and they were now falling. I was suffering very much in my mind. It did seem that every time the young tendrils of my affection became attached they were rudely broken by some unnatural outside power; and I was looking away to heaven for the rest denied me on earth.

Douglass wrote these words almost 50 years after the fact and it is evident that the meteor shower clearly had an effect on him. By this time (at age 15), Douglass had already made up his mind to escape from slavery. Three years later, he made a failed attempt. Two years after that, in 1838, Frederick Douglass escaped to the North and became an influential abolitionist. After reading the above passage from Douglass, I wondered who else may have seen the 1833 Leonids. After a bit of research, I found a paper by Olson & Jasinski (1999) which provides an excerpt from Walt Whitman recounting a story told by Abraham Lincoln. Whitman writes:

In the gloomiest period of the war, he [Lincoln] had a call from a large delegation of bank presidents. In the talk after business was settled, one of the big Dons asked Mr. Lincoln if his confidence in the permanency of the Union was not beginning to be shaken — whereupon the homely President told a little story. “When I was a young man in Illinois,” said he, “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 witnessed the 1833 meteor shower and was still telling stories about it 30 years later.

So what's the point of this whole story? Is there any significance to the fact that the man who escaped slavery to tell the world of its evils and "The Great Emancipator" both saw the same meteor shower? Probably not. Tons of people saw it.

Regardless, it is interesting to think about. Though these men would cross paths several times over the next 30 years, the earliest memory they shared was of a night in 1833, when a 15 year old slave in Maryland and a 24 year old boarder in Illinois watched the stars fall from the sky.

[1] I use "Tuesday night" here to mean, of course, "Wednesday morning." [back]

[2] I say "apparently" because I have never heard of these guys before, so this is all Wikipedia, baby! [back]

[3] Like other meteor showers, the Quadrantids take their name from the constellation from which the meteors seem to emerge. In this case, Quadrans Mural: The Mural Quadrant. Unfortunately for Quadrans Mural, the constellations dumped it like the planets dumped Pluto. [back]


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