November 13, 1833: The Night the Stars Fell Down

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Podcast Transcript

In the early morning of November 13, 1833, one of the greatest astronomical spectacles in recorded history took place.

It was seen by millions of people, and no one was sure what was happening. Some thought it was the end of the world or judgment day. 

Both common people and scientists recorded the event, and it turned out that the explanation for what happened was just an extraordinary occurrence of a very ordinary event.

Learn more about the Night the Stars Fell Down on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

If you have ever spent an evening looking up at the night sky, there is a good chance you might have seen a shooting star. 

Shooting stars are very brief. They might only last a second or two, but they light up the sky. They are infrequent enough that in some cultures, when you see one, you are told to make a wish. 

If you are very fortunate, you might be able to witness several of them per minute.

Those of you who have seen a shooting star firsthand will probably have a greater appreciation for the events I’m about to describe in this episode. For those who haven’t seen one, I can only recommend going out some evening when the sky is dark and seeing one for yourself.

The event I’m going to be describing in this episode is fundamentally the same as when you see a shooting star, except it was many, many orders of magnitude bigger. 

The event in question began on the evening of November 12, 1833. 

As night set in over the southern and eastern United States, people were witness to what we would today call a meteor shower. There were multiple shooting stars going off each minute. Not a lot, but more than average and enough to be noticeable. 

Certain nothing to record for posterity and to be worth doing a podcast about almost 200 years after the fact. 

However, as the evening progressed, something changed. The number of shooting stars in the sky increased…..dramatically. 

Most people went to bed, but by about 3 am, something remarkable was happening. There were shooting stars everywhere. The entire sky was filled with shooting stars. 

Agnes Clerke, 19th century astronomer, later described the events of that night by saying, 

“The sky was scored in every direction with shining tracks and illuminated with majestic fireballs. At Boston, the frequency of meteors was estimated to be about half that of flakes of snow in an average snowstorm. Their numbers … were quite beyond counting; but as it waned, a reckoning was attempted, from which it was computed, on the basis of that much-diminished rate, that 240,000 must have been visible during the nine hours they continued to fall.”

Rooms were lit up even though it was the dead of night. People who witnessed this began waking up everyone in their homes and all of their neighbors to witness this sight. 

There were an estimated 30 to 50 shooting stars per second that could be seen, each of which left a bright streak in the sky. 

No one had ever seen anything like this before because, as far as we know, nothing like this had ever happened before. 

There were later reports of this event which came in from as far north as Canada, as far west as Missouri, and as far south as Jamaica. People probably saw it over a much larger region than that. 

Historical figures of the era, such as Frederick Douglas and Abraham Lincoln, all later recalled witnessing the event.  Harriet Tubman later said what she saw that evening gave her the inspiration always to follow the north star to freedom.

Native people witnessed the event and thought that it was a sign. The Lakota people used the event to reset their calendar. 

The Pawnee people had been astute observers of the sky for centuries and had noted a pattern in meteor showers. They were one of the few people who were expecting what happened.

Members of the Cheyenne tribe killed a white buffalo during the meteor storm and then signed a peace treaty on its skin. 

Most people thought there was some religious significance to the event. A group of Mormon refugees in Clay County, Missouri, was witness to what happened. Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon religion, noted in his diary that he thought it was “a litteral [sic] fulfillment of the word of God” and thought it was a sign that the second coming of Jesus was at hand. 

Many people thought that the meteor shower was the literal end of the world or judgment day. This was due to a passage in the Book of Revelations, which describes the opening of seals at the end of times. 

In particular, Revelations 6, verse 13 says, “And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs when she is shaken of a mighty wind.”

The United States was in the middle of a movement at that time known as the Great Awakening. It was a Protestant religious revival that made people exceptionally aware of end time prophecies.

What was interesting was the response of many slave owners having witnessed this event. One man in Missouri who was going to be sold at a slave market the next day was instantly freed when his captors saw the lights in the sky. 

Perhaps the best tale came from a woman named Amanda Young, who was enslaved at the time. She was probably only about eight years old when it happened, but it became part of an oral history that was passed along in her family for generations. 

Her great-great-granddaughter, the genealogist Angela Walton-Raji, recounts the story that her great-great-grandmother passed down using the language that she would have spoke. 

“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.”

There is a lot to unpack in that story, but the slave owners knew that they had done something wrong and sought to make amends when they thought the end was near and would be judged on their actions. 

It was, of course, not the end of the world. 

In the days that followed, reports began appearing in newspapers all over the country. 

No one was really sure what happened. This wasn’t the sort of thing that astronomers usually paid attention to because meteor showers were so brief and so random it was very difficult to study. 

One man, an American scientist by the name of Denison Olmsted, took it upon himself to figure out the mystery. 

He gathered newspaper clippings and accounts of the event in the weeks following. It was one of the first known examples of what we would call crowdsourcing. He found that it wasn’t observed in Europe, so It wasn’t something that was global in nature.

He also found that the shooting stars seemed to have originated somewhere in the constellation Leo.

By January of 1834, not even two months after the event in question, he sent his findings to the American Journal of Science and Arts. 

He speculated that the meteors were a cloud of particles in space, and what everyone witnessed was the Earth passing through the cloud. 

His paper was the beginning of meteor science. 

Others continued what Denison Olmsted started and figured out more about what happened in 1833.

It turns out that regular people had been documenting meteor showers for years, and there was a pattern to how they appeared. 

What we know today is that the 1833 event was an extreme version of an annual occurrence known as the Leonid Meteor Shower.  Every year around November 17th, give or take a few days, an above-average number of meteors will appear in the sky. 

Every 33 years, however, there is an uptick in activity with exceptionally heavy meteor showers. The 1833 event was one such case.

A few years after the 1833 event, astronomers discovered the 33-year cycle and predicted another major event would occur in 1866, and that is exactly what happened. 

The 1866 event wasn’t nearly as strong as the 1833 event, but there were hundreds of meteors that could be seen each minute over the skies of Europe. 

The reason for the 33-year cycle has to do with an interaction of the orbit of the comet Temple-Tuttle.  As the comet passes the orbit of the Earth, it leaves a cloud of dust behind it. The strong meteor showers are the result of when the comet crossed the orbit of the Earth centuries earlier. 

For example, the 1866 meteor shower was the result of the 1733 comet. 

Olmsted was right about what shooting stars were. We now know that a shooting star is caused by a meteoroid, which is a rocky object in space, entering the Earth’s atmosphere to become a meteor. 

The vast vast majority of meteors are smaller than a grain of sand, which is why they burn up so quickly. They burn up because of their incredibly high speeds and the friction from hitting the Earth’s atmosphere. 

If a meteor is larger enough to make it all the way to the surface, it is known as a meteorite. 

The Night the Stars Fell Down was most famously used as inspiration almost a century later for the song titled “Stars Fell on Alabama,” written by Frank Perkins with lyrics by Mitchell Parish.

Stars Fell on Alabama has been considered one of the standards of popular music in the 20th century and has been recorded by dozens and dozens of artists, including Bing Crosby; Ella Fitzgerald; Louis Armstrong; John Coltrane; Bob Dylan; Billie Holiday; Dean Martin; Frank Sinatra; Doris Day; Mel Torme; Harry Connick Jr.; and many, many others.

The Night the Stars Fell Down was a singular event that was remembered by everyone who experienced it. Now that we know the pattern and the cause of it, we are able to predict when the next major meteor showers will occur on the 33-year cycle. 

So, set a reminder in your calendar for November 17, 2034.  If you are in the right part of the world with clear skies, you might be able to witness one of the most spectacular shows in the heavens. 

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener Runar over on Podcast Republic. They write:

Love it. Been listening since March and joined the completion club today. I drive passanger trains in southeast Norway. It’s just great listening to this podcast while sipping a good cup of coffee while the sun rises and the day starts.

Takk skal du ha, Runar!  I’m honored to be able to keep you company while you are transporting the good people of Norway every day. By the way, if you stop by the Oslo chapter completionist club later this year around Christmas, we will be serving Lutefisk.

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.