04 May 2005

The 1833 Leonid Meteor Storm

The Leonid meteor is usually a quiet affair in mid-November with 10-15 meteors per hour. However, it has the potential to produce some amazing storms. This happened most recently in the last few years (some predict two more outbursts in 2006 and 2007), around 1966, 1933, 1899, and 1866, but the most spectacular and well known show was in 1833. Here are some accounts of that storm.

Agnes Clerkes:

On the night of November 12-13, 1833, a tempest of falling stars broke over the Earth... 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.

Walt Whitman (referring to Abraham Lincoln):

...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.

Unknown (from South Carolina):

Upwards of one hundred [people] lay prostrate on the ground, some speechless and others uttering the bitterest moans, but 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.

Samuel Rogers:

I at once sold my little farm in the neighborhood of Antioch, and, having disposed of what stock and stuff I could not take with me, on the 13th of November, 1833, I was ready to start upon the journey for our new home in the West. On the evening of the twelfth, many of our dear friends came into bid us adieu, and they remained until a very late hour, when, after a prayer, the most of them returned to their homes, a few remaining to see us off in the morning.

We had but little rest that night, for, before three o’clock in the morning, we were all aroused from our slumbers, making preparation for an early start. Some one, on looking out of the window, observed that it was almost broad daylight. "That can not be," another answered, "For it is scarcely three o’clock." "I can’t help what the clock says," replied the first speaker, "my eyes can not deceive me; it is almost broad daylight --look for yourselves."

After this little altercation, some one went to the door for the purpose of settling the question. Fortunately, there was not a cloud in the heavens; so by a glance, all was settled. 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.

Some of those wandering stars seemed as large as the full moon, or nearly so, and in some cases they appeared to dash at a rapid rate across the general course of the main body of meteors, leaving in their track a bluish light, which gathered into a thin cloud not unlike a puff of smoke from a tobacco-pipe. Some of the meteors were so bright that they were visible for some time after day had fairly dawned. Imagine large snowflakes drifting over your head, so near you that you can distinguish them, one from the other, and yet so thick in the air as to almost obscure the sky; then imagine each snowflake to be a meteor, leaving behind it a tail like a little comet; these meteors of all sizes, from that of a drop of water to that of a great star, having the size of the full moon in appearance: and you may then have some faint idea of this wonderful scene.

...On our journey we heard little talked of but the "falling of the stars."


  1. We have set out to see meteor showers many night in SoCal. Usually the light of the cities drown out the showers. It is very disappointing, especially to young girls wrapped up in warm blankets at 2 in the morning!

    The northern states have the advantage over us. However, we have found that even the slightest sign of a meteor bring thrills to the most tired of us.

    The most amazing meteor fall I have witnessed was in broad daylight. The bright orange and black fireball crossed the sky with amazing speed, then finaaly burst into a small yet still visable flame and fell to the earth in pieces.

  2. I too live in SoCAL, but am fortunate enough to be in an area where the night sky is amazingly beautiful and affords us the pleasures of those wonderful meteor showers!

    We schedule them and plan to meet out in the driveway, blankets in hand and lay down to see who can count the most.

    Like chronicler, I too have a favorite. We were traveling to Mammoth and it was about 3:00 a.m. and the largest, brightest meteor came flashing across the sky! We were fortunate enough to have stopped the caravan to consult each other when it appeared. The light was so brilliant it lit up the hood of the car and we all turned with plenty of time to see it cross the horizon wagging it's long torch-like tail! Crazy - good!

  3. We're lucky enough to live in a town with little light interference right now, so we took the boys out in front of the house at around 10 PM for the Perseids last August. We saw quite a few meteors.

    I would love to see a fireball.

  4. This is *completely* off topic, but, oh my goodness! When did your blog's name change? I hope it was some time like today, because it completely didn't register with me until Concierge Services over at Itinerary for Marlette & Guiseppe pointed it out...

  5. I changed it about a week ago. I didn't think many people would notice and I didn't point it out since it's the third title I've had in less than three months...

    A lot of people call it Thoughtful Spot anyway. I'm really not too picky. :)