In summer’s waning days in 1881, New Englanders read about hope for President Garfield‘s recovery from a gunshot wound suffered two months earlier, an imminent rising of the Apache Nation in the West, and a baseball game between the “Bostons” and the “Worcesters”, where unfavorable weather “kept away all spectators” and worries that Pike, the center fielder for the Worcesters, must have been “sold out” since the errors he made had given a win to the Boston team.
That all changed when the skies darkened shortly after dawn on Tuesday, September 6, 1881 – throughout all six New England states. In the “forenoon,” as they called their mornings then, witnesses watched a “London fog” envelop their homes and roads. This London fog soon took on a yellowish hue. New Englanders worried that they were seeing the beginnings of a hurricane coming. They began to talk about their “Yellow Day”. The name stuck. Those among the more superstitious remembered Mother Shipton‘s apocalyptic prophecies with apprehension and hoped that they were not witnessing the end of the world.
By noon, the skies had darkened to the point that birds were seen roosting, and people, so accustomed to relying on natural light during their nineteenth-century days, reached for “artificial lights” to light their offices and homes. Early afternoon trains left Boston with lamps lit, and the railroad men were seen leaving the depots with their lit lanterns in-hand, a scene usually only seen on evening and night trains. People began to compare Yellow Day with Black Friday, New England’s darkest day, that had occurred in 1780, more than a century earlier.
In Massachusetts, in Fall River and in Lowell, students left school early. Mills throughout New England either lit their ‘artificial lights’ or followed suit, sending their employees out into the oddly darkened streets. Mills that relied on artificial lighting took on an unearthly glow as their gas lights were lit during the day. Instead of their usual yellow glow, gas lighting took on a brilliant white glow in the strange light of the day. Outside, lamplighters lit street lamps on the cities’ main roads. In agricultural communities like West Barnstable, farm work stopped for the day, as farmers watched cattle stop feeding and hens roost early. Witnesses began to describe the Yellow Tuesday skies as looking like something that one would see when peering through smoked or stained glass.
The air became still, and calm, during that Tuesday, and people remarked about the odd tinge that colors took on as the day wore on. Plants were particularly brilliant – the odd light sharpening their green and blue hues. Lawns, usually a mundane green, took on brilliant color, and looked oddly bluish, in the day’s strange light. Yellow objects appeared colorless and white, and the color in red objects popped, while blue objects became ghostly. People in the street looked sickly and yellowish. Overhead, birds flew low in the skies.
So many Bostonians rushed to the Equitable Building to view the strange day from its high roof that the roof had to be closed to further visitors in the afternoon. People sought explanations for what they were witnessing. The calmest theories blamed forest fires raging in Canada or Michigan, combining with fog and overcast skies in New England. Surely, the “saffron curtain” blanketing New England’s skies was a combination of that fog and smoke passing high above the surface of the earth, people reasoned. But, no one smelled smoke. Others attributed the yellowish hue to large amounts of pollen in the air from pine and fir trees. Many fretted about the skies, and more than a few feared that the Judgement Day was at hand. Some took this even further. Groups of Second Adventists in Worcester, Woonsocket, and Hartford were seen wearing their ascension robes to local schoolhouses where they awaited the world’s end. More than a few whispered that the “saffron curtain” was the sign of a divine judgement for the July 1881 shooting that had left President Garfield ailing in New Jersey.
As the afternoon wore on toward 5 PM, the smoke began to dissipate, and by 8 PM, stars sparkled in the clear skies above New England. New Englanders compared the Yellow Day of 1881 to the Dark Day of a century before, in 1780. Black Friday of 1780, as it was known, followed an odd and severe winter of 1779-1780 where New Englanders frequently saw auroral displays and large spots appearing on the sun. Snow, four feet deep, lasted from mid-November until April. After that cold, long winter, a vast blackness opened the day on Friday, May 19, 1780, across New England, and extended beyond its borders into northern Pennsylvania and well into Canada. The Massachusetts Spy reported that sunlight at high noon was about as bright as clear, bright moonlight.
In its aftermath, 1881’s Yellow Tuesday joined the 18th century’s Black Friday in lists of oddly memorable New England days. The causes behind the odd skies of that September day were eventually traced to smoke that had travelled eastward from Michigan’s massive “Thumb Fire” that had burnt over a million acres of woodlands in Michigan’s Thumb Area (Pictured, at left) all on one day, the day before. Yellow Tuesday long lived on in regional lore, but left everyday conversation soon after with President Garfield’s death on September 19.
6 thoughts on “New England’s Yellow Day of 1881: A Saffron Curtain Descends”
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