Alabama Heritage Magazine Looks at When Stars Fell on Alabama

  • March 15th, 2000

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — On the night of Nov.12, 1833, gamblers, thieves and other assorted sinners along the east coast of the United States traded in the instruments of their debauchery in exchange for prayerbooks, so sure were they that the end was near. The stars were falling from the sky; certainly, they must have thought the earthly world was doomed.

Alas, the world was not coming to a close. The dramatic display was a meteor storm — one of the most intense in recorded history — and, as John Hall writes in the winter 2000 issue of Alabama Heritage, “its memory seemed to stick with Alabamians long after it was forgotten elsewhere.”

Those fortunate enough to be awake that night saw what the Florence Gazette reported as “thousands of luminous bodiesÖshooting across the firmament in every directionÖThere was little wind and not a trace of clouds, and the meteors succeeded each other in quick succession,” producing “a remarkable scene of natural grandeur, which may be more readily conceived than described.” Later in the century, historian R.M. Devens listed the display as one of the 100 most memorable events in American history.

Of course, little was known about meteor storms and their origins in 1833. Those who did not attribute the display to supernatural causes were likely to blame the weather. Not until Yale mathematician Denison Olmsted discovered that the display had originated from outer space, did the great storm of 1833 start to be demythologized. Using geometry, Olmsted discovered that the flares had not initiated from a single point in the sky, but had moved in parallel lines. The key to unlocking the cycle of meteor storms had been found. Meteor displays were soon understood to be the result of the earth passing through the debris of comet trails.

Even though the 1833 meteors only appeared to come from the constellation Leo, scientists gave them the Latin name for their apparent place of origin: the Leonids. Subsequently, other meteor showers were also named for the constellations from which they appeared to issue: the Gemminids from Gemini, the Taurids from Taurus, and so forth.

Alabamians, who have long treasured their association with the 1833 storm, will not have another easy opportunity to view a Leonid storm from some time. Whether upcoming displays will rival the storm of 1833 is another question. Still, any display will no doubt be met with the same awe and wonderóafter all, itís not everyday the stars rain from the sky.

John Hall, retired from the Alabama Museum of Natural History, where he was the head naturalist for many years, is now Executive Director of the Alabama Museums Association. A frequent contributor to Alabama Heritage, Hall has written on Hernando de Soto, the Sylacauga meteorite that struck Mrs. Ann Hodges in 1954, and the Wetumpka Astrobleme. His next article for Alabama Heritage will deal with the visit of pioneer botanist William Bartram to the southeast in 1775.

Alabama Heritage is a non-profit quarterly magazine published by The University of Alabama and the University of Alabama at Birmingham. To order the magazine, write Alabama Heritage, Box 870342, Tuscaloosa, AL 35487-0342, or call 205/348-7467.


Sara Martin or T.J. Beitelman, 205/348-7467

The University of Alabama, part of The University of Alabama System, is the state’s flagship university. UA shapes a better world through its teaching, research and service. With a global reputation for excellence, UA provides an inclusive, forward-thinking environment and nearly 200 degree programs on a beautiful, student-centered campus. A leader in cutting-edge research, UA advances discovery, creative inquiry and knowledge through more than 30 research centers. As the state’s largest higher education institution, UA drives economic growth in Alabama and beyond.