Leonid Meteors 1996
Leonid Meteors
(12 Nov 1799)

On 12 Nov 1799, the first known US written record of a meteor shower was recorded by Andrew Ellicott. On 12 Nov 1833, many observers clearly reported a meteor shower that seemed to radiate from a spot in Leo and that, as the constellation moved slowly westward during the night, the radiant point moved with it (though this is simply an effect of perspective). The recurrent phenomenon became known as the Leonid Meteor Shower.

“About two o'clock in the morning, I was called up to see the shooting stars, (as it is vulgarly termed,) the phenomenon was grand and awful, the whole heavens appeared as if illuminated with skyrockets, flying in an infinity of directions, and I was in constant expectation of some of them falling on the vessel. They continued until put out by the light of the sun after day break. This phenomenon extended over a large portion of the West India islands, and was observed as far north as St. Mary's, where it appeared as brilliant as with us.”
— Andrew Ellicott
reported in his shipboard journal on 12 Nov 1799

“Meteor succeeded meteor in such rapid succession that it was impossible to count them; at times the sky seemed full of them, and the earth was illuminated as with a morning light. ...Those who were so fortunate as to witness the scene describe it as brilliant beyond conception.”
Boston Transcript
Boston, Massachusetts, 13 Nov 1833
as quoted in The Heavens on Fire, by Mark Littmann

“A more magnificent and splendid spectacle was never presented.”
Alexandria Gazette
Alexandria, Virginia, 14 Nov 1833
as quoted in The Heavens on Fire, by Mark Littmann

“Forcible we were reminded of that remarkable passage in Revelations which speaks of the great red dragon ... drawing the third part of the stars of heaven and casting them [down] to the earth ... That figure appeared to be fully painted on the broad canopy of the sky - spread over with sheets of light and thick with streams of rolling fire. There was scarcely a place in the firmament which was not filled at every instant with these falling stars. ... The most perfect master of language would fail of conveying to others a full picture of this extraordinary and uncommon appearance...”
Salt River Journal
Bowling Green, Missouri, 20 Nov 1833
as quoted in The Heavens on Fire, by Mark Littmann

“The most grand and brilliant celestial phenomenon ever beheld and recorded by man.”
— Richard Devens
(1876)
as quoted in The Heavens on Fire, by Mark Littmann

“It seemed to rain fire..”
Baltimore, Maryland
as quoted in The Heavens on Fire, by Mark Littmann

“For those who were up before dawn yesterday witnesses a most glorious sight - one glance at which which 'were worth ten years of common life.'”
Charleston, South Carolina
as quoted in The Heavens on Fire, by Mark Littmann

“From 3 to 5 o'clock the scene was truly magnificent - thousands upon thousands [of meteors] were darting about in all directions without an instant's cessation. It was so light that upon first awaking many thought that the city was on fire.”
Natchez, Missouri
as quoted in The Heavens on Fire, by Mark Littmann

“The celestial exhibition of yesterday morning is noticed in the Philadelphia papers, but it is evident, but it is evident from their accounts that it fell far short in both the number of meteors and the brilliancy of their light of the splendors visible in our city. A correspondent of the [Philadelphia] National Gazette estimates their number at two thousand one hundred and sixty in the compass of two hours and a half. More than that number were visible here within every ten minutes of that period, and it was as difficult to count them as the number of raindrops.”
New York
as quoted in The Heavens on Fire, by Mark Littmann

“The negroes [in] the South who saw the phenomenon describe it as 'snowing fire': they generally thought the Judgment day had come.”
Hartford, Connecticut
as quoted in The Heavens on Fire, by Mark Littmann

“I was suddenly awakened by the most distressing cries that ever fell on my ears. Shrieks of horror and cries for mercy I could hear from most of the negroes of three plantations, amounting in all to about six or eight hundred. While earnestly listening for the cause, I heard a faint voice near the door calling my name. I arose and, taking my sword, stood at the door. At this moment, I heard the same voice still beseeching me to rise, and saying 'O my God, the world is on fire.' I then opened the door and it is difficult to say which excited me the most - the awfulness of the scene of the distressed cries of the negroes. Upwards of one hundred lay prostrate on the ground - some speechless and some with the bitterest cries, but most 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 towards the earth; east, west, north, and south, it was the same.”
Combahee, South Carolina
as quoted in The Heavens on Fire, by Mark Littmann

“...to use the striking expression of an untaught son of Africa, 'like it was snowing stars.' ... The scene was truly awful and indescribably sublime; .. it carried at the bosoms of many terror and consternation. Some imagined the world was coming to an end and began to pray; and a gentleman from the country states that such was the alarm produced in the neighborhood where he was [that] the welkin everywhere around him resounded with cries of distress.”
Raleigh, North Carolina
as quoted in The Heavens on Fire, by Mark Littmann

“They all appeared to move outward from a common centre, at or neat the zenith. At times, they completely filled the whole heavens with beautiful brilliant streams  of light, extending to the horizon. I do not mean that all the trains actually extended from the zenith to the horizon, but that the lines of light were so directed that if extended backwards, they would all converge to a point in the zenith. Their appearance was often so incessant that all the stars of the firmament seemed to be darting from their places. Many persons thought a shower of fire was falling...”
— Reverend Hector Humphreys
Annapolis Republican
Annapolis, Maryland
as quoted in The Heavens on Fire, by Mark Littmann


Carl Sagan Thumbnail In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) -- Carl Sagan
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