Sunday, March 23, 2008

from The Eclectic Magazine, 1857

Passing by several meteoric showers, more or less remarkable, we come to the most stupendous hitherto witnessed—that of the 13th of November, 1833; which, being the third in successive years, all occurring in the same month, and on the same day of the month, seemed to intimate periodicity, and originated the title of the November meteors. The night of the 12th was singularly fine. Not a cloud obscured the sky. Toward midnight the spectacle commenced, and was at its height between four and six o'clock in the morning. It was seen all over the United States, from the Canadian lakes to the West Indies, and from about longitude 61° in the Atlantic Ocean, to that of 100° in the center of Mexico. It included the three classes of forms previously mentioned—phosphoric lines, large fire-balls, and luminous bodies of irregular shape.

One of the latter, observed in the state of Ohio, resembled a brilliant pruning-hook, apparently about twenty feet long by eighteen inches broad. It was distinctly visible in the north-east more than an hour, and gradually declined toward the horizon till it disappeared.

Another, of tabular contour, appeared near the zenith, over the Falls of Niagara, and remained stationary for a considerable time, emitting large streams of light. The roar of the cataract, the wild dash and incessant plunging of the waters below it, with the fiery storm overhead, combined to form a scene of unequaled sublimity. Some persons died of fright. Many thought that the Last Great Day had come. In the slave States, the terror of the negroes was extreme. "I was suddenly awakened," says a planter in South-Carolina, "by the most distressing cries that ever fell on my ears. Shrieks of horror and cries for mercy I could hear from most of the negroes of three plantations, amounting to from six to eight hundred. While listening for the cause, I heard a faint voice near the door calling my name. I arose, and, taking my sword, stood at the door. At this moment I heard the same voice still beseeching me to rise, and saying, 'Oh! master! the world is on fire!'

"I then opened the door, and it is difficult to say which excited me most, the awfulness of the scene, or the distressed shrieks of the negroes. Upward of one hundred l ay prostrate on the ground—some speechless, and some with the bitterest cries, but most with their hands raised, imploring God to save the world and them. The scene was truly awful; for never did rain fall much thicker than the meteors fell toward the earth. East, west, north, and south, it was the same."

An observer at Boston compared them, when at the maximum, to half the number of flakes seen in the air during an ordinary snow-storm. When they became less dense, so as to admit of being individualized, he counted 650 in fifteen minutes, in a vertical zone which did not include a tenth part of the visible horizon; and this number, in his opinion, was not more than two thirds of the whole. Thus there would be 866 in his circumscribed zone, which gives 8660 for the entire hemisphere every quarter of an hour, or 34,640 per hour; and as the phenomenon continued seven hours, the grand total of falling stars and meteors visible at Boston on this memorable night exceeded 240,000.

Some of the meteors were evidently bodies of considerable size. Several fire-balls were observed apparently as large as the full moon. Dr. Smith of North-Carolina, who was traveling all night on professional business, thus describes one: "In size it appeared somewhat larger than the full moon rising. I was startled by the splendid light in which the surrounding scene was exhibited, rendering even small objects quite visible; but I heard no noise, although every sense seemed to be suddenly aroused, in sympathy with the violent impression on the sight."

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