On Aug. 21, 2017, a total solar eclipse will cross the United States from coast to coast for the first time in 99 years, tracing a path from Oregon to South Carolina. During an earlier eclipse in 1878, some Americans misinterpreted the sight as more than astronomical. The following is adapted from David Baron’s new book, American Eclipse: A Nation’s Epic Race to Catch the Shadow of the Moon and Win the Glory of the World.
Some would claim that the tragedy’s fateful course had been set several months earlier, in the winter of 1878. “That was the coldest weather I have [ever] gone against,” one longtime Texan remembered, recalling that Dallas had witnessed something exotic that season: ice-skating. “They built brush and log fires all around the lake to keep from freezing while they were taking in the novel spectacle.” Another local told how, after the ice had melted and the earth had thawed, the Texas summer brought another portentous phenomenon, a plague of grasshoppers. “[They] passed up nothing that was green. There were millions on millions of them.” The cold snap and the locust swarms lodged in the minds of individuals who were prone to reading biblical significance into natural events. To them, these were signs that the world was soon to end.
Predictions of the world’s imminent demise were not uncommon in 19th century America. In the 1830s and early 1840s, followers of the millenarian preacher William Miller filled enormous tents to hear of the awesome day of Christ’s return, when “the earth will be dashed to pieces” and Jesus “will destroy the bodies of the living wicked by fire.” By means of an elaborate formula, Miller calculated when Judgment Day would occur, which he established as October 22, 1844—a date that became known as the Great Disappointment after the Lord did not come to retrieve his faithful, foiling the hopes of those who had climbed rooftops to prepare for their ascent into heaven. Later, the Adventist preacher Nelson H. Barbour revised Miller’s calculations and offered a new forecast that he published in the book Evidences for the Coming of the Lord in 1873, yet another year that passed without Christ’s longed-for return. By the mid-1870s, Dwight Moody, a shoe salesman turned evangelist who preached to standing-room-only crowds, steered a wiser, potentially less humiliating course. He fixed no specific date for the Rapture but implored his audiences simply to be ready at all times. “The trump of God may be sounded, for anything we know, before I finish this sermon,” he intoned.
For those on the lookout for the Second Coming, celestial trumpets would not be the only harbinger of Christ’s return. According to the Book of Matthew, just before Jesus appeared “in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory,” another sign would manifest itself: at that moment, Christ proclaimed, “shall the sun be darkened.”
On the scorching afternoon of July 29, 1878, in a landscape recently transformed from open range to farmland, the people of Johnson County were cultivating their fields. This part of North Central Texas was a mix of West and South, cowboys and cotton. The region had seen its share of slaveholding, and although the Emancipation Proclamation had ostensibly abolished the practice, for many freedmen it felt as if slavery had continued. Without property of their own, black laborers, forced to sharecrop from white landlords, still slept in rough-hewn shacks, woke before dawn, and worked interminable hours—from “can’t see to can’t see”—for scant reward.
What had motivated one Ephraim Miller to journey to this hardscrabble part of Texas some six months earlier is not recorded, but he had come from West Tennessee, a region that in this era saw a great exodus of “Exodusters,” former slaves fleeing racial violence and economic oppression. Arriving in Texas, Miller rented a small prairie farm near the old Johnson County seat of Buchanan, with an eastward view of the Cross Timbers—dense oak woods that provided lumber for fences, plow handles, and coffins. With a wife and four children—the eldest a son, about ten—Miller was said to be prospering, at least enough to afford a recent purchase, a hatchet.
That July day had begun unremarkably, an overcast morning yielding to scattered storm clouds in the afternoon. The air was thick and hot, and lightning flashed against the summer horizon. As the sun inched westward and the hour approached four, the Texans noticed peculiarities in their surroundings. A farmer near Waco puzzled at a sight beneath his cottonwoods: the specks of light between the shadows of the leaves bizarrely turned to crescents, miniature moons dappling the ground. In Dallas, a woman on the banks of the Trinity heard the melancholy croaking of frogs.
On the plains to the northwest, a 9-year-old boy caught sight of bats flying aberrantly in the afternoon. The oppressive heat began to lift as the quality of daylight shifted. The squat homes, the cornstalks, the barbed-wire fencing—everything took on an air of unreality, seemingly thrown into bold relief. The landscape dimmed—not turning gray, as if beneath cloud cover, but a faint yellow, as if lit by a fading kerosene lamp. Fireflies winked on. A star suddenly materialized, then two. The air stopped moving. The birds ceased their chatter. Then a few final ripples of light rushed over the ground—and darkness descended.
Fear swept over the fields. A man fell to his knees in supplication, between the handles of his plow. Others fled toward church. Looking up, the people of Johnson County saw an unfamiliar sky; the sun was gone, replaced by a magnificent ring of golden light—a halo. This heavenly crown was finely textured, as if made from spun silk, with hints of ruby at its base and luminous, pearly wings projecting toward the east and west.
It was then that Ephraim Miller was seen running toward home, hatchet in hand. A devout man, Miller had been heard to say that morning that he had learned the world would end that very evening, and if so, he intended to be “so sound asleep that Gabriel’s trumpet wouldn’t wake him.” He apparently wished to avoid the apocalypse and to speed his passage to the hereafter. He did not plan to go alone. Entering the house, he encountered his son and struck hard with the axe. The boy fell, gasping for life in a pool of blood. Miller’s young daughters—age 2 and 4—wailed and hid beneath the bed, while his littlest child, an infant, crawled on the floor. Clutching a new razor with his right hand, Miller climbed a ladder to the tiny attic. There, closer to the kingdom of heaven, he cut his own throat from ear to ear. Then he fell back to earth beside his dying son.
Miller’s wife, witnessing the murder-suicide, screamed and burst out the back door. “Come on, sweet chariot,” she cried as she wrung her hands, crossing a cotton field in the deep twilight at the end of time.
For millennia, total solar eclipses have awed, frightened, and inspired.
In the sixth century b.c., in Asia Minor, two warring powers—the Medes and the Lydians—laid down their weapons after six years of fighting when confronted by the sudden darkness of an eclipse. (The soldiers were “zealous to make peace,” Herodotus relates.) In a.d. 840, in Europe, a total eclipse so unnerved Holy Roman Emperor Louis the Pious—who had long been anxious about strange events in the heavens—that, according to an advisor, the emperor “began to waste away by refusing food” and died a month later, plunging his realm into civil war. In 1806, in North America, the appearance of a “black sun”—an omen predicted by the Shawnee prophet Tenskwatawa—emboldened a Native American uprising that his brother Tecumseh would lead against the United States in the War of 1812. The novelist James Fenimore Cooper, whose tales of wilderness adventure would captivate the nation, witnessed that same eclipse in upstate New York, and years later he recalled it vividly. “I shall only say that I have passed a varied and eventful life, that it has been my fortune to see earth, heavens, ocean, and man in most of their aspects,” he wrote, “but never have I beheld any spectacle which so plainly manifested the majesty of the Creator, or so forcibly taught the lesson of humility to man as a total eclipse of the sun.”
Now, in 2017, this humbling spectacle will visit a very different United States. Toting smartphones and clad in synthetic fibers, millions of Americans will travel to the path of the eclipse by air and interstate highway. They will consider themselves knowledgeable and worldly, more sophisticated surely than their forebears, who viewed the same sight with superstition and religious fervor. These modern Americans will act as if they are heading to an athletic event, eager to watch the moon conquer the sun. They will learn, however, that a total eclipse is no spectator sport. It is a primal experience that connects us to the universe and also bridges the span of history.
The world may not end on August 21, but lives will change. Some who stand in the path of the moon’s shadow will look up and find God. Others will discover a passion for science, a desire to understand the workings of the sun and solar system. All, meanwhile, will gain a new sense of kinship with generations of the past and future. A total eclipse baffles the mind and pierces the soul, as it always has and always will. It reminds us of our common, fragile humanity.
Excerpted from American Eclipse: A Nation’s Epic Race to Catch the Shadow of the Moon and Win the Glory of the World by David Baron. Copyright © 2017 by David Baron. With permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.