The Yellow Day of 1881

By Jim Ignasher

Originally published in Your Smithfield Magazine – September, 2011

 endineigh    “The world to an end shall come,
      in eighteen hundred and eighty one.”
      Prophetic quote attributed to Mother Shipton

There have been times throughout history when people were convinced they “knew” something to be true, even though they were wrong.  For example, it was once accepted as an absolute certainty that the world was flat, and if one ventured too far, they could actually fall off.   It wasn’t until 1492 that Christopher Columbus proved this “fact” to be fallacy.   Such can be the case with end-of-the-world prophecies; of which there have been hundreds throughout recorded history.  Believers, convinced the world will end on an appointed date, are usually mystified when nothing happens. However, what is the average person to think when they see “proof” with their own eyes, such as the day the world literally changed colors before growing dark?

Mother Shipton is said to be a sixteenth century prophet who wrote predictions of the future in the form of poetic verse.  Her writings were published many years after her death, leading historians and scholars to debate whether or not all of the predictions attributed to her were her own.  In any case, the above mentioned quote was likely brought to mind on September 6, 1881, when a strange phenomenon occurred in the skies over New England that led some to wonder if the end of the world was at hand.

“The Yellow Day”, as it came to be called, began just like any other, but as the morning wore on, people began to notice that something wasn’t right.  The sun took on a pastel color normally only seen at sunset; and the atmosphere itself appeared to have a yellowish hue that gave one the impression of staring through a pair of tinted eye-glasses. The yellow hue grew stronger, and before long, everything in sight appeared to be painted various shades of yellow, orange, and gold.

The (Woonsocket) Evening Reporter described the yellow sky as being overcast with a dense fog, adding that, “Trees and foliage appeared as if under a powerful electric light.” 

The sight was both beautiful and frightening at the same time, for it was an era before radio and television, satellite weather forecasting, and instant communications. Nobody knew what was happening or why. 

As telegraph operators frantically ticked away at their handsets, they quickly discovered that the strange atmospheric conditions existed far beyond Smithfield; from the Canadian border to the New Jersey shore!

In New York, it was reported that gas jets and gas lights, which usually burned a yellowish color, glowed bright white as if they were electrified, and that the odd coloration of the environment made it hard to judge distances.

Besides the strange colors, odder still was the fact that as the peach-tinted sun rose higher in the sky, it seemed to be growing dimmer instead of brighter.  By 1 p.m. it was so dark that chickens began to roost, and school children became too frightened to learn, prompting teachers to stop classes for the day.  The darkness forced factories to close, allowing workers to head for home or the nearest tavern.  By mid-afternoon the streets were deserted and shops closed for lack of business. 

Some took the opportunity to go to church while others checked the family Bible scanning the chapter on Revelations, which predicts the end of the world.  Although many were understandably frightened, there were no reports of panic – not that it would have done any good to do so anyway.  Churches held late night vigils, and many went to bed that evening frightened of what the following day would bring. 

Thousands spent a fretful night tossing and turning in their beds, while others who chose to remain awake prayed for salvation.  When dawn finally arrived, those brave enough to look outside were thankful to discover that the landscape had returned to normal. Greens were green, blues were blue, and reds were red. Even the sun appeared as it should.  As New Englanders exhaled a collective sigh of relief, their thoughts turned from fear to wonder – what could cause such an event? 

Numerous scientific explanations were put forth ranging from the aurora borealis to the planet Uranus and its proximity to the sun.  However, of all the explanations, the most plausible was that smoke from massive forest fires burning in Michigan had been carried eastward by high-level wind currents over New England. In fact, it was reported two weeks later that more than seven thousand square miles of timber had been destroyed by the flames, with hundreds of lives lost.  Those who had survived the conflagration found themselves destitute and homeless amidst a barren landscape.  As scary as the Yellow Day had been for those in New England, it had been far worse in Michigan.    

Although exceptionally rare, strange occurrences like the Yellow Day were not unheard of in New England.  Slightly more that one-hundred years earlier, what became known as “The Dark Day” descended over the land on Friday, May 19, 1780, causing considerable alarm among the populace, and leading many to believe that the Judgment Day had arrived.    

“The darkness was so great’, a Boston newspaper reported, ‘that a sheet of white paper held within a few inches of the eyes was invisible.”       

Throughout the ages there have been those who have prophesized the end of the world, each convinced they were absolutely right.  Some thought the year 1000 A.D. would usher in the apocalypse; and just to be sure they were on the right side with God, in the year 999 A.D., many who owned property began to donate it to their local church – Terminimundi Apprepinguante – meaning, on the condition that it be returned to them if the end of the world should fail to take place.    

In 1179 one astrologer announced that the world would end in September of 1186.  Apparently his calculations were a little off. 

In 1524 John Stofiler of Germany predicted a second biblical flood would drown the world just as it had in Noah’s time.  When heavy rains began to fall the following February, many began to wonder if they shouldn’t have had an Ark handy.

Leonardo Aretina, another fourteenth century prophet, also predicted global flooding would end civilization, but placed the date more than three centuries in the future as November 15, 1881.     

Prophecies aside, 1881 was certainly a nervous year for those worried about the termination of mankind.  On April 23rd of that year, a rare celestial event took place where the planets Earth, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, all lined up together.  Months earlier, some scientists predicted a cataclysmic collision between the planets would result. Some farmers, believing the world would be gone before harvest time, decided not to bother planting crops that spring. 

Three months later a comet unexpectedly appeared in the sky, leading some to speculate about the disastrous effects which would befall the Earth as it passed through the tail.  And then the Yellow Day happened.       

The 20th century also saw its share of doomsday predictions.  In 1905, a self-proclaimed prophet predicted the world would end On May 2, 1929, or April 9, 1931; he wasn’t sure which.  In 1945, a retired missionary man living in California stated that according to his information, the world would end during the last week of September of that year.  A hoax, believed to have originated in Germany, predicted the world would end on St. Patrick’s Day, 1949. 

The examples mentioned here are but a tiny fraction of the apocalyptic predictions throughout history.  So far, all who have predicted the end of the world have been wrong, and hopefully, things will stay that way.  Just as those living in 1881 were conscious of Mother Shipton’s prediction, we of today are aware of the Mayan calendar date of December 21, 2012, which some fear marks the end of civilization.  However, a California radio evangelist believes the end will come much sooner than that, and points to the fast approaching date of October 21, 2011 as the Judgment Day.  Could he be right?  We’ll have to wait and see.  With that said, remember, if you look to the sky and notice something out of the ordinary, think of the Yellow Day, and don’t panic.  It won’t do any good anyway.      

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