235 days ago today, on 19 May 1780, New England experienced a mysterious “Dark Day”. The sky was reported as dark or yellow, and the sun was reported as red or completely obscured. Ash filled rain fell from the sky in some areas, and some reported the smell of smoke in the air. For many it was taken as a possible sign of the coming apocalypse. Today it is believed that massive forest fires in and near present-day Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario were the cause of New England’s Dark Day. Tales from that day were passed down for generations.
Over one hundred years later, Plymouth writer Jane Goodwin Austin [not THE Jane Austen] included a chapter about New England’s Dark Day in her 1890 novel Dr. LeBaron and His Daughters: A Story of the Old Colony. Austin’s book is both a delight and a challenge to interpret today, as a modern Plymouth historian. Austin was fascinated by local history and genealogy, and enjoyed reading old records and letters, parts of which often make their way into her work. But she also loved gathering supernatural tales from Plymouth’s “old folks” – which often had a least a kernel of truth to them. Austin then often re-interpreted or further exaggerated these tales as well, so attempting to get to the original “truth” of these superstitious tales, if ever there was truth to the matter, can be tricky.
The chapters of Dr. LeBaron and His Daughters are woven throughout with the fictional tale of Plymouth witch “Mother Crewe” (although she was probably a much-exaggerated composite of several women of Plymouth who were called witches in the 18th century – a blog post for another day!). Austin’s “Dark Day” chapter culminates in Mother Crewe’s death, in which her reputation was in part restored by rescuing a lost boy (a fictional Butler child), before she died in the Plympton graveyard, atop the grave of her (fictional) daughter Bathsheba.
Beyond the fictional tale of Mother Crewe, Austin’s chapter “The Dark Day” is a good example of her walking the line between truth and fiction or exaggeration. Much of her physical description of the day surely had some basis in tales passed down.
“The strange yellow light and sultry murk of the air, so oppressive in its earlier hours, steadily increased as the day drew toward night… Darkness had now fully fallen, a darkness so intense that it seemed ponderous and palpable rather than the mere absence of light… The Day of Judgment has come! was the cry of those who believed, and non-believers no longer scoffed at such possibilities, but gazed upon each other with bewildered and anguished doubt”.
Austin portrays a humorous anecdote in which Plymouth’s minister Chandler Robbins chides Deacon Foster on the Dark Day – which while perhaps had some original basis in truth, is made impossible by the fact that Deacon Thomas Foster had died of smallpox several years prior to the Dark Day. At Deacon Thomas Foster’s death, however, he was in the midst of a scandal, in which the majority of the parishioners were determined to sever his appointment as deacon due to his Loyalist beliefs during the Revolutionary War.
Parson Robbins, whose wide reading and correspondence told him that such phenomena had occurred before, and were attributed to natural causes, whether those might be astral, or volcanic, or atmospheric, or merely the effect of vast forest fires, went busily from house to house, imparting this information to his people… finally… he desisted, and when [Deacon Foster] interrupted him with, “No use kicking against the pricks, Parson, nor in denyin’ the power of an angry God to destroy a wicked world,” [Robbins] suddenly changed his based, and exclaimed, “You are right, Brother Foster, and since the Day of Doom is at hand, it behooves us sinners to hasten our repentance, and bring forth works meet for acceptance. Have you ever paid Widow Doten for that cow?”
“It died on my hands, Parson!” expostulated the deacon in a whine of mingled wrath and terror.
“You had owned it a week, and if you are about to be called into judgment-”
“I’ll pay her, Parson, I’ll pay her! Here, I’ll get out the money now. There, there’s twenty good silver dollars, and if you’ll come along with me I’ll give it to her this minute. It won’t make any difference to either of us by this time tomorrow.”
“Yes, it will make a great difference to your soul, brother”
“Oh yes, yes. Well, come along, and ye – don’t it look a little mite clearer than it did?”
“It is a little lighter for you,” replied the parson, significantly; and the Widow Doten received her money…[once] the peril was over… the widow bestowed her dollars in the old teapot on the top shelf of the china-closet, and the deacon mediated how he should regain possession of them either as a loan, an investment, or by the sale of some unseasoned swamp-wood, which might, by a little “deaconing”, be made to pass for sound oak.
Apparently Plymoutheans could hold grudges for more than a century!