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June 3rd, 2010
Texas State researchers ID meteor storm in Whitman poem

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Frederic Church’s painting, “The Meteor of 1860.” Public domain image.

STAFF REPORT

Texas State researchers have offered the solution to a mystery issuing from the Walt Whitman poem, “Year of Meteors (1859-60)” in his collection, Leaves of Grass.

In the poem, Whitman describes a “strange huge meteor-procession” in vivid detail, However, 20th century scholars struggled to understand exactly what Whitman was describing.

Herewith, the relevant excerpt from the poem:

Nor forget I to sing of the wonder, the ship as she swam up my bay,
Well-shaped and stately the Great Eastern swam up my bay, she was 600 feet long,
Her moving swiftly surrounded by myriads of small craft I forget not
to sing;
Nor the comet that came unannounced out of the north flaring in heaven,
Nor the strange huge meteor-procession dazzling and clear shooting
over our heads,
(A moment, a moment long it sail’d its balls of unearthly light over
our heads,
Then departed, dropt in the night, and was gone;)

The “comet that came unannounced out of the north flaring in heaven,” is easily identified as the Great Comet of 1860. But the identity of the “strange huge meteor-procession dazzling and clear shooting over our heads” had been undetermined until Texas State researchers offered their solution in the July edition of Sky & Telescope magazine, which is on newsstands now.

The Texas State research team consisting of physics faculty members Donald Olson and Russell Doescher, English professor Marilynn S. Olson and honors program student Ava G. Pope said the mystery event was a meteor procession, an extremely rare phenomenon.

“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.”

The trajectory of an Earth-grazing meteor takes it through the Earth’s atmosphere and back out into interplanetary space without ever striking the ground. A meteor procession occurs when a meteor breaks up upon entering the atmosphere, creating multiple meteors traveling in nearly identical paths.

The rarity of meteor processions has been problematic for scholars. Whitman’s description has been ascribed to the 1833 Leonid meteor storm, the 1858 Leonids and a widely-observed fireball in 1859. Texas State researchers easily discounted the 1833 Leonids, as they occured nowhere near the time frame of the poem. The 1858 Leonids also were discounted after the research team discovered a dating error misattributing some of Whitman’s observations of the 1833 Leonids to the latter year.

And it couldn’t have been the 1859 fireball, as it was a single meteor, and not a procession. Additionally, the 1859 fireball was a daylight meteor, whereas Whitman described the procession as happening at night.

The mystery began to unravel a decade ago, when Donald Olson saw a painting on the back cover of an exhibition catalog showing the scene Whitman described. The painting was Frederic Church’s “The Meteor of 1860,” clearly depicting a meteor procession. The catalog also gave the date of Church’s observance: July 20, 1860, well within the timeframe of Whitman’s poem. An accomplished landscape painter, Church was a member of the Hudson River School, living beneath the same skies as Whitman.

“We went to Church’s house, and the people who know him and his art well, who’ve studied him, say, ‘Oh, he wouldn’t have painted it like that based on somebody’s say-so. He must have seen it,'” Olson said. “The artist and his wife, who were honeymooning that summer, kept the painting in their bedroom for many years.”

Said Pope, “We went to a small research library and found old diaries of Theodore Cole, a friend of Church’s, from July of 1860. They tell us Church was, in fact, in Catskill, New York, so he wasn’t off in some far distant land.”

Armed with the new date, the Texas State researchers began reading through newspapers of the time for verification. They found that a large Earth-grazing meteor broke apart on the evening of July 20, 1860, creating a spectacular procession of multiple fireballs visible from the Great Lakes to New York state as it burned through the atmosphere and continued out over the Atlantic Ocean.

“Any town that had a newspaper within all those states is going have a story on this,” Olson said. “We have hundreds of eyewitness accounts, but there are probably hundreds more we don’t even have. 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. 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.”

Some of the most influential American periodicals — including The New York Times, Smithsonian and Harper’s Weekly — devoted major coverage to the event. Countless letters about it were published. Scientific American went so far as to declare it “the largest meteor that has ever been seen.”

Said Pope, “They describe it just as Church painted it. It was visible for about 30 seconds, and passing horizontally, so it was, in fact, an Earth-grazer. A really cool part is that the Catskill newspaper describes it as dividing into two parts with scintillations, exactly like the painting.”

Broad public attention, as well as study by many professional astronomers of the day, made the meteor procession of 1860 one of the single most famous celestial events of its day, and quite possibly the most documented meteor appearance in history. However, memory of the dazzling event faded so much that by the middle of the 20th century scholars were puzzled about what Whitman had actually seen.

“Its appearance, right before the Civil War, at a time of growth and anxiety for America, made it a metaphor and portent in the public imagination,” Marilynn Olson said.

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