Every November the earth’s orbit pass­es through a belt of mete­oroids asso­ci­at­ed with the comet Tempel-Tuttle.  This results in mete­or show­ers that appear to orig­i­nate in the con­stel­la­tion Leo, hence the show­ers are referred to as the Leonids. 

Meteoroid par­ti­cles burn up quick­ly in the earth’s atmos­phere.  Traveling in excess of 150,000 miles per hour, they streak across the sky in a blaze of glo­ry.  Commonly, and mis­tak­en­ly, called “shoot­ing stars,” they are actu­al­ly tiny par­ti­cles.  Most are small­er than a grain of sand and weigh in at less than a tenth of an ounce, but they shine briefly as bright as planets.

The Leonid show­ers typ­i­cal­ly pro­duce only about 15 mete­ors an hour for most view­ers.  However, fan­tas­tic mete­or show­ers are seen at inter­vals of approx­i­mate­ly 33 years.  This coin­cides with the peri­od of comet Tempel-Tuttle, which cir­cles the sun once every 33 years.  When the earth pass­es through the comet’s fresh path, the num­bers rise dra­mat­i­cal­ly.  From 1999 to 2001, the show­ers pro­duced an aver­age of 3,000 mete­ors an hour.

One of the most spec­tac­u­lar mete­or dis­plays occurred on the night of November 12–13, 1833.  At the peak, about 2 a.m. on the 13th, it is esti­mat­ed that the rate was over 100,000 mete­ors an hour.

This engraving of the 1833 event by Adolf Vollmy (1888) has been called “the world’s most famous meteor shower picture.”
This engrav­ing of the 1833 event by Adolf Vollmy (1888) has been called “the world’s most famous mete­or show­er picture.”

This hap­pened at a time when the sci­ence of mete­ors was not under­stood.  People thought they real­ly were falling stars.  When they appeared in such pro­fu­sion in 1833, many feared it was a sign from heav­en that the end was near.

And what has this to do with WinCity read­ers? you might ask.  Surprisingly, there are two accounts of the 1833 event from Clark County natives. 

The first was report­ed by Elder Samuel Rogers (1789−1877), who was raised in the Stoner Creek neigh­bor­hood.  He wit­nessed the show­er while liv­ing in Ohio.  On the morn­ing of November 13, the fam­i­ly rose ear­ly to pre­pare for a move far­ther West.  Rogers described the event in his autobiography:

“We were all aroused from our slum­bers, mak­ing prepa­ra­tion for an ear­ly start.  Someone, on look­ing out of the win­dow, observed that it was almost broad day­light. ‘That can­not be,’ anoth­er answered, ‘For it is scarce­ly three o’clock.’  ‘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.

“It must be remem­bered that in the Western States at that day there was not much knowl­edge among the mass­es upon the sub­ject of mete­o­rol­o­gy.  So it will not appear strange that there was wide­spread alarm at this ‘star-shoot­ing,’ so called.  Some real­ly thought that the Judgment Day was at hand, and they fell on their knees in pen­i­tence, con­fess­ing all the sins of their past lives and call­ing upon God to have mercy.”

The 1833 meteor storm over Niagara Falls.  Painting by Edmund Weiss (1888).
The 1833 mete­or storm over Niagara Falls.  Painting by Edmund Weiss (1888).

The sec­ond account was penned by Judge James Flanagan (1820−1906), one of Winchester’s first his­to­ri­ans.  The fol­low­ing is abbre­vi­at­ed from his news­pa­per article:

“It was the grand­est mete­oric dis­play of which there is any record, either in ancient or mod­ern his­to­ry, and none but those who saw it can have any con­cep­tion of its mag­nif­i­cent pro­por­tions.  It was a most awe-inspir­ing sight, and many thought it to be the speedy fore­run­ner of the end of all ter­res­tri­al things.

“The phe­nom­e­non occurred after mid­night on the 13th day of November 1833, the same year of the vis­i­ta­tion of the Asiatic cholera in Kentucky.  The whole heav­ens appeared as if illu­mined by count­less thou­sands of sky rock­ets, and all pre­sent­ed such a grand, sub­lime mete­oric dis­play as had nev­er before, or has ever since, been witnessed.

“Though a mere lad at the time I remem­ber dis­tinct­ly now the sub­se­quent prayer meet­ings that were almost con­stant­ly going on in the church­es of the town and coun­ty.  By many the phe­nom­e­non was regard­ed as super­nat­ur­al, por­ten­tous of some­thing awful to hap­pen, a fore­run­ner of the Millennium.  During the great reli­gious wave which fol­lowed, an inci­dent occurred at the old log church in Goode’s precinct, known as the Log Lick church, of which the writer has a dis­tinct rec­ol­lec­tion.  The lit­tle church was crowd­ed day and night with an eager and earnest peo­ple, singing and pray­ing and ask­ing par­don for their many sins. 

“Now there were a few in the precinct who, look­ing at the mat­ter from a dif­fer­ent stand­point, took no part in the reli­gious mania, among them Thomas F. Donaldson and M. Fritz, who were not­ed as prac­ti­cal jok­ers.  One night the con­gre­ga­tion had gath­ered at the lit­tle church and were lis­ten­ing with fear and trem­bling to the awful warn­ing that the end was near at hand.  Donaldson and Fritz, hav­ing pro­cured a long tin bugle and a lad­der, climbed to the top of the church, and just as the preach­er was exhort­ing his hear­ers to be ready, as Gabriel’s trum­pet might sound at any moment, Donaldson blew a blast ‘both loud and shrill’ on the bugle, and Fritz pro­claimed from the house­top in sten­to­ri­an tones that he was the Angel Gabriel sent to pro­claim the end of the world and sum­mon all nations to arise and come to judgement.

“Hearing all this, the audi­ence inside fell in a promis­cu­ous heap on the floor, some beg­ging for a lit­tle more time, and oth­ers beg­ging for imme­di­ate mer­cy and par­don.  They remained in the church until broad day­light, and when they final­ly mus­tered courage to ven­ture out, the two ‘Gabriels’ were nowhere to be seen, and the old world was stand­ing just as it always had stood.”

We’ll have to wait until about 2033 to wit­ness the next grand Leonid display.

“Remarkable Meteoric Display on the Mississippi,” a depiction of the 1833 Leonid storm from R. M. Devens, Our First Century (1878).
“Remarkable Meteoric Display on the Mississippi,” a depic­tion of the 1833 Leonid storm from R. M. Devens, Our First Century (1878).

Thanks to John Maruskin who dis­cov­ered the Judge Flanagan arti­cle in the local his­to­ry room at the library.  That place is full of surprises.

  • Harry is a Mt. Sterling native who has lived in Clark County since1999. He has a pas­sion for the past and has researched and writ­ten exten­sive­ly about the his­to­ry of this area.