150-year-old meteor mystery solved

Harper's Weekly via RareNewspapers.com

An illustration in Harper's Weekly shows the meteor procession that made an impression on Walt Whitman in 1860.

Academic sleuths have used fine art and old newspapers to figure out exactly which meteor Walt Whitman was talking about in his poem "Year of Meteors (1859-60)." It's the latest example of a historical exercise known as "forensic astronomy."

The "strange huge meteor procession" that Whitman saw occurred on July 20, 1860, researchers from Texas State University at San Marcos report in the July 2010 edition of Sky & Telescope magazine. The event inspired not only Whitman, but the famed landscape painter Frederic Church as well - and it was Church's painting that helped solve the mystery.

"This is the 150th anniversary of the event that inspired both Whitman and Church," Texas State physics professor Donald Olson said in a university news release. "It was an Earth-grazing meteor procession."

Whitman's poem, which appears in his masterwork "Leaves of Grass," was the mid-19th-century equivalent of a YouTube mash-up: It combined references to current events (such as abolitionist John Brown's 1859 execution and the 1860 presidential campaign, which he called the "19th Presidentiad") with astronomical observations.

One such skywatching highlight was the "Great Comet of 1860," which Whitman refers to as a "comet that came unannounced out of the north." That well-known dazzler became visible in June of that year and sparked a worldwide sensation. But Whitman also mentioned the strange meteor procession, "dazzling and clear, shooting over our heads." What was that all about?

That was a perfect puzzler for Olson and his colleagues, who have solved other historical mysteries ranging from the running of the first marathon to the vantage point used by photographer Ansel Adams for his famous "Autumn Moon" picture.

In the decades since Whitman wrote his poem, readers have speculated that he was perhaps referring to an 1833 Leonid meteor storm, or the 1858 Leonids, or a famous fireball fall in 1859. None of those was a close match for the kind of procession that the poet described, however. Olson was sure that Whitman was instead referring to an Earth-grazing meteor, which streaks into the upper atmosphere and back out without falling to the ground. Earth-grazers can create a procession of fireworks when they break up into pieces during the flight.

"Meteor processions are so rare most people have never heard of them," Olson said. "There was one in 1783 and a Canadian fireball procession in 1913. Those were all the meteor processions we knew of."

Until, that is, Olson followed up on Church's painting. He had seen a picture of the work, titled "The Meteor of 1860," on the back cover of an exhibition catalog. The scene paralleled Whitman's description of the strange procession, and the catalog gave July 20 as the date of Church's observation.

When Olson and his colleagues did further research, they found out that Church and his wife were honeymooning that summer beneath the same skies that Whitman saw. "We went to a small research library and found old diaries of Theodore Cole, a friend of Church's, from July of 1860," said Texas State student Ava Pope, one of Olson's collaborators. "They tell us Church was, in fact, in Catskill, New York, so he wasn't off in some far distant land."

Further confirmation came when the team went through newspapers from that summer, and found numerous reports about a large Earth-grazing meteor that broke apart on the evening of July 20, 1860, creating a train of fireballs that was visible from the Great Lakes across New York state.

"From all the observations in towns up and down the Hudson River Valley, we're able to determine the meteor's appearance down to the hour and minute," Olson said. "Church observed it at 9:49 p.m. when the meteor passed overhead, and Walt Whitman would've seen it at the same time, give or take one minute."

For Whitman, the short-lived, dazzling meteor encapsulated the age: a year of Southern discontent and Northern foreboding that was "transient and strange."

"Its appearance, right before the Civil War, at a time of growth and anxiety for America, made it a metaphor and a portent in the public imagination," said Marilynn Olson, a Texas State professor of English literature. She and physicist Russell Doescher rounded out the forensic-astronomy team.

Are we in the midst of another "transient and strange" year, "all mottled with evil and good"? If so, prime meteor season is coming up. You can look forward to the Lyrids (peaking June 14-16), the Delta Aquarids and the Capricornids (July 28-30) and one of the best-known meteor showers of the year, the Perseids (peaking Aug. 12-13). Watch out for those Earth-grazers!

Further frontiers in forensic astronomy:

Join the Cosmic Log corps by signing up as my Facebook friend or hooking up on Twitter. And if you really want to be friendly, ask me about "The Case for Pluto."

Discuss this post

This article had me asking "Does anyone sit outside anymore on an evening, and simply watch the night?" It seems as a society we're so wrapped up with the interwebs and American Idol that such a pastime would be rare.

  • 5 votes
Reply#1 - Wed Jun 2, 2010 6:44 PM EDT

You'd be surpises how people(mainly red-neck and others of that nature) have nothing better to do than stargaze... Seriously...

    #1.1 - Thu Jun 3, 2010 1:21 AM EDT

    This article had me asking "Does anyone sit outside anymore on an evening, and simply watch the night?" It seems as a society we're so wrapped up with the interwebs and American Idol that such a pastime would be rare.

    When we meet at the observatory we often discuss this exact problem, and with the exact distractions you mention (American Idol, etc). Far too few people are interested in the natural world and exploring the Universe, and there is a LOT to be explored. The truly sad thing is that our view of the night sky is slowly being destroyed by light pollution, every year a little bit more fades from view, and sadly, many people can't see much in the sky from their homes anymore. When I read about what skywatchers saw in 1860 I wish I could experience what they saw, DARK skies, free from light pollution.

    This article was also of interest to me since we just celebrated the 150th anniversary of the birth of our observatory's namesake, Frank Seagrave.

      #1.2 - Thu Jun 3, 2010 11:17 AM EDT

      hey my family comes from west virginia and i take that "red-neck" term offensively! and yes we do but we have other things to do and stargazing where the skies arent covered in pollution is actually quite nice so shove it!

      • 1 vote
      #1.3 - Fri Jun 4, 2010 3:09 AM EDT

      I was curious to see that an astronomer couldn't spell basic words like cemetery and science

        #1.4 - Sat Jun 5, 2010 5:47 AM EDT

        Sadly, even if I wanted to sit outside and watch the sky, I couldn't. Tampa is no sprawling metropolis by any means. Even out in the suburbs, there is so much light polution that you'd be hard pressed to make out anything other than Polaris, the stars of Orion's belt, and whatever planets may be in view.

          #1.5 - Mon Jun 7, 2010 10:52 PM EDT
          Big BongDeleted

          One year before that in June 1859, the sun expelled a massive ejection that shorted out

          telegraph lines in the US. Reports of northern lights came as far as Florida and the SW states. It was the same type of event that knocked out the eastern power grid in 1989.

            Reply#3 - Wed Jun 2, 2010 9:56 PM EDT

            The Carrington Event... It's gonna happen again in May of 2013 according to solar cycle predictions.

            • 1 vote
            #3.1 - Thu Jun 3, 2010 11:59 AM EDT

            All I can say is get your self one of them nite vision scopes like the one made by nite owl. they reveal more than what you can see other wise. I have spent 3-4 hrs. a nite just looking up through one of them it's fun too. Looking up on a clear nite and it looks like a million stars but look through one of thoughs nite owls and bam trillions more. They sell for around $150.00

              Reply#4 - Thu Jun 3, 2010 2:25 AM EDT

              A good telescope is great also. just hope it's clear the nite of 14-16th of June 2010.

                Reply#5 - Thu Jun 3, 2010 2:34 AM EDT

                Kslater..what do you do at night, rob liquor stores or paint graffiti?

                  Reply#6 - Thu Jun 3, 2010 8:32 AM EDT

                  Actually, I am wondering about an event in 1989 over San Antonio, Texas. That year I was working nights.

                  Standing outside with my boss, around 9:00 or 10:00pm, if forget the exact time, it's been so long ago, we both saw a tremendous, greenish fireball slowing progressing across the sky from west to east. There had to be many people who saw this. However, we never heard or saw anything more about it, in the news or otherwise. I have always wondered about this and why it is never mentioned. It was much to large to escape attention. I can only conclude it was the same thing mentioned in this article, an earth-grazing meteor. I am just amazed it has gone unnoticed and unmentioned.

                    Reply#7 - Thu Jun 3, 2010 8:59 AM EDT

                    Interesting how some sleuths solved the meteor mystery of 1860 digging around in old diaries. Great to see some old knowledge coming to the rescue in this day and age. Great picture from back then that showed the event, even an artist helped to solve the mystery. Nice to see the past being more fully revealed thanks to the hard work of some hardy sleuths.

                    • 1 vote
                    Reply#8 - Thu Jun 3, 2010 9:31 AM EDT

                    You saw a green fireball -- a meteor similar but different.

                      Reply#9 - Thu Jun 3, 2010 12:23 PM EDT

                      Comets and meteors can be spectacular, and it always is FUN to see "shooting stars", as it is to observe other types of meteorological and geological phenomena, so long as there is no danger involved . . .

                      For me, so far, the most memorable meteorological and geological events have been a harvest moon in the 1950s that filled the horizon on a narrow country road when I was a child; a 15-minute continuous shower in the 1970s of shooting starts observed from the side of a mountaintop outside Lake Tahoe, California on a snowy road during new moon soon after a blizzard, which left the air crystal clear; the Comet Kohoutek during the day while driving through the desert in the Southwest; a total eclipse of the moon in the late-1980s, which due to being in an ideal location was as spectacular as the harvest moon of the 1950s; a completely and totally surreal lime green sky with a vivid rainbow in a summer corn field in the late-1950s immediately following an intense electric storm and heavy rain; a saturated fully visible double rainbow spanning a green meadow in the early 1980s; a pink sky at dawn dotted with high-altitude marshmallow clouds in the winter during the 1960s; a solar eclipse in the mid-1990s during which I discovered entirely due to a bit of serendipity that once you determine the correct angle, you can create "shadows" of the eclipse on a sidewalk simply by slightly spreading your fingers and then rotating your hand to the correct angle, which you also can do by making a pinhole with your curled index finger and thumb, since every tiny space between your fingers and thumbs that is similar to a pinhole on a piece of paper creates an image on a sidewalk (or any flat and smooth surface) of the sun shining around the edge of the moon; and more recently standing in the middle of the eye of a hurricane and looking upward at a time when the air was so calm and still that nothing other than an occasional bird or insect was moving, as well as soon thereafter nearly everything in the nighttime sky during the few weeks after the hurricane, which among other things knocked-out electric power to the region, thereby ensuring that there were no electric lights at night in an area which spanned several thousand square miles and basically made it possible to observe the nighttime sky as it might have been in the 19th century, although since everyone constantly was running diesel and gasoline powered electric generators to keep their refrigerators operational, because one of the most valued things in the aftermath of a hurricane is ice, it was even more surreal, since at night it sounded as if everyone was mowing their lawn in a strange obsessive-compulsive ritual designed to ensure that every blade of grass was exactly 1.75 inches high for miles and miles and miles, which was all the more strange because there were hundreds of acres of pine trees neatly cropped at a height of approximately 30 feet as if God decided it would be amusing to mow the pine forests with a huge lawnmower . . .

                      And one cannot overemphasize the importance of being in the right place at the right time during optimal viewing conditions for these observations, which is fabulous . . .


                      P. S. Most recently, although I have only seen photographs, the two most spectacular events have been the "Desaguadero" meteor crater in Peru and the perfectly cylindrical, 30-stories deep "sinkhole" that appeared in Guatemala City over the past week in the aftermath of tropical storm Agatha, for sure . . .




                      For sure!

                      • 1 vote
                      Reply#10 - Thu Jun 3, 2010 9:58 PM EDT

                      @ Balendario:

                      Your writing never ceases to amaze me! (not being sarcastic at all.) I always look for your comments. I'm spreading out by getting interested in other subjects and groups. There's so much to take in on newsvine. (wish they would pay me for that endorsement;)

                      Let me know if you want us to be each other's first "friend" on this site. I don't belong to facebook, myspace, etc.--and I don't twitter. You can't be too careful these days.

                      Take care:)

                        Reply#11 - Fri Jun 4, 2010 12:47 PM EDT


                        Being Newsvine "friends" works for me! :)

                        Alan finds some fascinating stuff to report, and "Cosmic Log" certainly is on the list of things I check every day . . .

                        It has been a while since he did an update on the Large Hadron Collider, but I think it is important to keep it in mind, since as the energy levels increase, it becomes more likely that some type of unusual event will occur, which probably already is happening, since there have been some pretty strange events over the past few months . . .

                        And on a related note, I made a bit of progress toward determining what BP really is doing on the "Macondo" well, which I will explain in the discussion I am having with myself in the "Watch the oil spill as it changes" ("Cosmic Log) thread, for sure . . .


                        For sure!

                          #11.1 - Fri Jun 4, 2010 8:00 PM EDT
                          You're in Easy Mode. If you prefer, you can use XHTML Mode instead.
                          As a new user, you may notice a few temporary content restrictions. Click here for more info.