THE NIGHT THE STARS FELL
On any given clear night you can see roughly 1500 stars with the naked eye. On a cold November night in the year 1833, residents of the Eastern United States began to believe that the sky really was falling. It was on that night, one hundred and seventy nine years ago tonight, when it seemed that at least thirty thousand and as many as many as two hundred thousand stars were falling every hour. And, if the skies are clear this Saturday night you will get a chance to see just a small glimpse of what people all over the country saw on ‘the night the stars fell.
For billions of years, the comet Tempel-Tuttle has been orbiting the Sun. Every thirty three years or so, the Earth passes through the densest section of the tail of Tempel-Tuttle. Although the number of visible meteors currently is substantially lower than in 1833, the resulting meteor shower, called the Leonids, comes to a peak on November 17 of each year.
In the days leading up to November 13, 1833, the weather in Georgia had been somewhat mercurial. On a rather warm Saturday and part of Sunday a steady rain fell. After a Monday morning fog evaporated, the skies cleared. As the sun began to set on Tuesday afternoon, temperatures began to plummet. Wednesday, like Tuesday, was a perfectly clear, crisp autumn day. As the Sun set, a thin crescent moon hung low in the sky.
Once the moon disappeared below the western horizon, the pitch black sky was speckled with its usual compliment of stars and planets. All was normal or so it seemed.
Then about 9:00 that evening and continuing until the Sun came up the next morning, thousands and thousands of stars came screaming out of the calm, northeastern sky appearing to emanate out of the constellation of Leo, the Lion, traveling at an estimated 156,000 miles per hour.
Those who believed in a higher being were sure that Judgment Day was at hand. Few, if any, people realized what was really happening.
“The stars descended like snowfall to Earth,” an Augusta resident recalled.
“We were awaked by a neighbor, who had been aroused in a similar manner by one who supposed the World was coming to an end, as the stars were falling. The whole heavens were lighted by falling meteors, as thick and constant as the flakes which usher in a snow storm, ” a Georgia newspaper editor wrote.
“Stars fell like snow flakes and fireballs darted back and forth in the heavens, like children at play, making a grand and awe-inspiring display,” recalled Rev. William Pate, of Turner County.
Settlers came from as far as 15 miles away to visit Rev. Pate’s home. They stayed up all night singing hymns and praying as Reverend Pate read the scriptures. Many confessed their most secret sins that remarkable night, truly fearing that the world was coming to an end.
In an Alabama Heritage Magazine article in 2000, it was written that in a town in Georgia many profane people "were frightened to their knees, dust-covered Bibles were opened and dice and cards were thrown to the flames.”
A resident of Butler’s Island near Darien, Georgia wrote, “There were innumerable meteors in the skies, all apparently emanating from a focus directly overhead to every point of the compass, of various sizes and degrees of brilliancy, occasioned probably by their different distances.”
One Morgan County farmer was transformed by the celestial phenomenon. As the shower intensified, the man ran out of his house, dressed only in his shirt and undergarments exclaiming, “The world is now actually coming to an end, for the stars are falling.” His Negro servant ran after him as his master scrambled to take cover under the house.
The farmers’ wife followed him outside and chastised her husband for his lack of courage. The challenged the terrified farmer to come out and live or die with his family. After he mustered the courage to come back outside, he gazed into the wondrous sight of thousands of burning meteors and vowed to himself and to God, “Well, this one thing I do know, escape or not - live long or die soon, I never will drink another drop of liquor.”
Some Georgians thought the meteor shower had a more sinister political purpose than an astronomical phenomenon. A full scale political war between George M. Troup, of Laurens County, and John Clarke had been raging for more than a dozen years. Troup had been narrowly defeated by Clarke in two elections in the early 1820s. Troup won a narrow victory of his own in 1823 and was narrowly reelected again in 1825 in the first popular vote gubernatorial election in Georgia history.
Following Clark’s death from yellow fever in October 1832, the struggle between the two rivals seemed to wane or simply shift to other members of the bitterly divided Democratic-Republican party.
On Friday, November 8, five days before the meteor shower, Troup tendered his written resignation from the United States Senate from his Valdosta home in eastern Laurens County. The first written accounts of the political icon’s leaving the Senate two years early circulating throughout the capital in Milledgeville on the 13th. Although Troup maintained that his resignation was for purely personal reasons, some of his more ardent supporters thought that the evening’s spectacle was a sign of retribution if Clark’s followers regained political power in the state.
The longest lasting legacy of that starry, starry falling night was the beginning of the concentrated study of meteors and the causes of meteors storms in particular.
So venture outside early this Sunday morning sit back and relax and turn your eyes upward and eastward and try to catch a glimpse of one of the grandest of nature’s fireworks, the Leonid Meteor Shower. And, maybe one day, about 21 years or so from now, we all will witness the grand and glorious view of the night the stars fell.