Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Night the Stars Fell

“It seemed as if all the stars in heaven were being hurled from their places and cast unto the earth.” -- unknown newspaper clipping in the Shankland Nashville History Scrapbook

Every year in mid-November, the Earth bears witness to the Leonid meteor shower. This phenomenon occurs when the Earth moves through debris left by the Tempel-Tuttle comet. The first recorded instance of this marvel occurred on Nov. 12 and Nov. 13, 1833, when the world was dazzled by the appearance of the Leonids.

In 1833, the meteor shower was most visible in the Deep South; particularly in Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and Louisiana. Many people, having witnessed nothing so sensational before, began to say the sky was falling and dubbed the night of Nov. 12 “the night the stars fell.”

“Many persons believed that the world was coming to an end, as thousands of visible meteors passed through the skies.” -- unknown newspaper clipping [believed to be an 1899 edition of The Nashville American] in the Shankland Nashville History Scrapbook

At the time, the world was in the midst of the Second Great Awakening. A lot of people believed that the falling of the stars indicated that the second coming of Christ was drawing near. Describing the public reaction in the Aug. 24, 1917 edition of The Camden Chronicle, a Mrs. Kee reported that “when the ‘stars fell’ the people fell to their knees praying and that for a period they lived free from sin.” Another newspaper account (from the Shankland Nashville History Scrapbook) stated that “The vulgar, as usual, were much affrighted, and some thought the last great day of accounts was ushering in.”

Eyewitness reports stated that the meteor shower looked like “a rain of fire, not stars.” In a newspaper article discussing the event, one gentleman from Blackshear, Georgia compared it to working in foundries and blacksmith shops. “The only stars I saw were just as one sees when molten iron is running into or from a ladle, or when iron with a welding heat is withdrawn from the forge.”

Shankland Scrapbook images - Mrs. E. S. Shankland Nashville History Scrapbook, ca. 1800-1932

Witnessing something so spectacular wasn't quickly forgotten. The May 2, 1919 edition of The (Memphis) News Scimitar includes an obituary for Emanuel Anderson. Anderson was reported to be 108 years old when he died. A former slave brought from Virginia to Mississippi in 1823, he recollected the meteor shower for the rest of his long life. “He remembered distictinctly [sic] the year of the meteoric shower of 1833, which is commonly known as the year that the stars fell.”

Mr. Anderson was not alone in his remembrances. In the slave narratives (compiled by the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s), many former slaves recalled the event that was not only celestial but also terrestrial because, when the “stars fell,” great cracks were left in the earth. The narrative of Abraham Jones describes big cracks being left in the ground. He said it was dangerous for people to walk around at night because they might fall into a crack. Mr. Jones describes one crack as being “two feet across” and so deep they could not touch the bottom with a long pole. The October 25, 1866 edition of The (Memphis) Public Ledger reported that the “meteoric displays” were “characterized by the fall of meteorites, which, rushing towards the surface of the earth with a loud noise, penetrated beneath it several feet.”

Since that first November night in 1833, the falling of the stars has captivated many generations. In a 1947 letter to Samuel C. Williams, Charles N. Kimball writes about his fascination with this event. Mr. Kimball states that he has heard his “Grandfather relate that when this occurred his grandparents opened the door of the cabin so that he could look out and see the ‘stars falling.''” Kimball goes on to say that he is “greatly interested in the accounts of the unusual display of the Leonid meteors of Nov. 12, 1833” and he has “assembled some reference concerning it.” He sent his research sources to Williams with the wish that Williams “will obtain some entertainment and pleasure from perusing them.”

Time has not diminished mankind’s enthrallment with this experience. In the years since the event, numerous songs, books, poems and artworks have been produced to commemorate it. The song, “Stars Fell on Alabama,” has become an anthem to Southerners and, from 2002 to 2009, the state of Alabama added the slogan to their license plates.

Shooting Star Quilt, undated, Quilts of Tennessee Collection

This year, scientists predict that the Leonids will peak on Nov. 17 and Nov.18. So, get outside, look toward Leo, and see if you can catch a falling star.

To read more about this and other strange occurrences (like the so-called "Rain of Blood") in Tennessee, check out the “Myth-cellaneous” section of the “Tennessee Myths and Legends” exhibit on TSLA’s website:

The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State

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