Leonid shower (lee-uh-nid) meteor storm of 1833 was of truly superlative strength. One estimate is over one hundred thousand meteors an hour (lee-uh-nids) are a prolific meteor shower associated with the comet Tempel-Tuttle. The Leonids get their name from the location of their radiant in the constellation Leo: the meteors appear to stream from that point in the sky.
The Alexandria Gazette reported on Thursday morning, Nov. 14, 1833: “A most unusual and interesting atmospherical phenomenon was observed here yesterday morning, from some time before day break till broad daylight, in a continuous display of brilliant Meteors or shooting stars as they are usually called. . . . At times, it is said that it almost seemed as if a shower of fire was descending from the heavens . . . the brilliant flashes would shoot . . . rendering every object around distinctly visible. The ‘shooting of the stars’ commenced about twelve o’clock. . . . Persons in the country and passengers in stages coming into town yesterday before day, speak of the appearance of the heavens with wonder and admiration.”
Slaves and their masters were also scared and worried. Family history tells of a plantation owner who gathered all his slaves during the height of the storm and told them to where he had sold their kin.
A slave, Harriet Powers, grew up hearing preachers and kinfolk relate stories about the meteor shower of 1833, which had happened four years before her birth. As a young woman, Harriet crafted a picture quilt depicting the meteor shower and other events. She wrote,” The people were frighten and thought the end of time has come. . . . The varmints rushed out of their beds.”Meteor showers are named for the constellation with which they are associated.
The 1833 meteor shower was named Leonid for the constellation Leo. After this meteor shower, both amateurs and scientists began to study meteor showers in earnest. People on the East Coast and as far west as the Rocky Mountains witnessed this shower. Yale astronomy professor Denison Olmsted wrote his impression of this phenomenon in the New Haven Daily Journal and asked others to submit their impressions. Soon, he found himself the collector of interpretations and information surrounding the Leonid meteor shower of 1833.
Scientists discovered that the Leonid meteor shower occurs every November. The greatest intensity of the shower occurs approximately every 33 years, when the orbit of the comet Tempel-Tuttle comes closest to the sun, whose gravitational pull causes a larger shower of meteors to reach Earth.
The greatest Leonid meteor shower of recent times occurred in Nov. 1966, with as many as 100,000 meteors an hour.
Even Abraham Lincoln was in awe of the 1833 meteor shower. Walt Whitman wrote of Lincoln’s experience. During the Civil War, concerned northern bankers asked President Lincoln about the stability of the Union. Lincoln told a story of how years earlier he had been awakened by a meteor shower. (Historians surmise that Lincoln was referring to the 1833 shower.) Lincoln related how others had screamed that the end of the world was at hand. Then he said, “But looking back of them (the falling stars) in the heavens, I saw all the grand old constellations with which I was so well acquainted, fixed and true in their places. Gentlemen, the world did not come to an end then, nor will the Union now.”