Solar Eclipse 1860

With all the attention on the August 21 eclipse across the U.S., I wondered about eclipses in the 19th century. Not quite the same buzz for weeks beforehand, no special glasses or tips on how to photograph it with a smartphone. On the other hand, by the mid-1800s, not the same "the earth is ending" fear of centuries past. 

According to a list compiled by NASA, a total of 263 solar eclipses occurred worldwide in the 1800s, 63 of which were total. If I am reading the maps correctly, total eclipses in Julia Wilbur's lifetime (1815-1895) passed over the U.S. in 1806, 1869, and 1878, but the paths were fairly narrow. No West Coast to East Coast swath like we will see (or not see) next week.

According to a book written in 1900, Total Eclipses of the Sun by Mabel Loomis Todd:

the first total eclipse to visit North America, since astronomy had begun to be scientifically cultivated in the United States, took place 18th July 1860. Its track passed over the northwest corner of the Pacific States, thence northeasterly through British American [no Canada until 1867] and Labrador, crossing the Atlantic Ocean to traverse the Spanish peninsula southeasterly.... 

Therefore, the U.S. experienced the phenomenon as a partial eclipse. Several expeditions went north to Labrador in high hopes ("a thorough eclipse programme was mapped out for the entire expedition, including something for every one to do, even officers and seamen," according to Todd). An overcast sky in North America thwarted their plans, although photographs of a total eclipse in Spain survive.

 NASA map depicts the eclipses that occurred when Julia Wilbur was living in and near Rochester. The July 18, 1860, total eclipse passed the closest to her when she was living on her family's farm in Rush..

NASA map depicts the eclipses that occurred when Julia Wilbur was living in and near Rochester. The July 18, 1860, total eclipse passed the closest to her when she was living on her family's farm in Rush..

Known in Advance

Unlike in days gone by, by 1860, astronomers could calculate and thus anticipate a coming eclipse. In January of that year, the press was already reporting on the date and path of the June eclipse. The day after it occurred, the Evening Star reported, "the eclipse came off yesterday morning, according to programme and was another proof of the reliability of astronomical science. Smoked glass and all other opaque substances were at a high figure in the market."

Julia Wilbur's Eclipse

In 1860 in Rush, NY, Julia Wilbur was in a difficult period of her life, trying without success to see the young daughter of her deceased sister. She had spent the day on the road and stopped to record in her diary:

Eclipse of the Sun this morning. I watched it till I thought it had a baleful effect on me, for I felt so depressed.

Any truth to that "baleful" effect? No research, but even the NASA site concedes:

There is no evidence that eclipses have any physical effect on humans. However, eclipses have always been capable of producing profound psychological effects. For millennia, solar eclipses have been interpreted as portents of doom by virtually every known civilization. These have stimulated responses that run the gamut from human sacrifices to feelings of awe and bewilderment. Although there are no direct physical effects involving known forces, the consequences of the induced human psychological states have indeed led to physical effects. 

About Mabel Todd Loomis 

Not relevant to the eclipse itself, but I got to wondering how a woman in 1900 wrote a book about eclipses. I looked up the author (dare I say for the time, "authoress"), Mabel Loomis Todd. I got quite a surprise. Her husband was an astronomer--no, that's not the surprising part. Rather, she had a long-time affair with the brother of Emily Dickinson and became rather contentiously involved in editing and publishing Dickinson's poems after her death. Perhaps those baleful eclipses affected her, too.