Credit: Edmund Weiß/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Historical Insights The Night the Stars Fell

Especially in densely populated cities along the East Coast, many reported seeing the shooting stars emerging from the Leo constellation, giving the shower its name: the Leonid meteor shower. 1833, Niagara Falls, New York. Credit: Edmund Weiß/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The Night the Stars Fell

In the hours just before dawn in November 1833, the skies across the United States were lit up by thousands of meteors.

Though meteor showers are common, no one predicted the explosion of shooting stars that illuminated the night sky on November 12, 1833. Just before dawn, people threw on clothes and gathered in roads and fields to watch the 150,000 meteors (about 30 per second) dance in plain view during the storm’s peak. One eyewitness told the Pantagraph newspaper in Illinois that, “the very heavens seemed to be ablaze.” Though many were spellbound, not all rejoiced in the cosmic celebration. At the time, the South was a hotbed for the national religious revival known as the Second Great Awakening. Some awoke terrified, fearing it was the End of Days, as predicted by a Bible verse: “and the stars of heaven shall fall.” But in the weeks following, newspapers demystified the showers with science.