Death by Eclipse and Other Coronal Curiosities
I don’t know about you, but the upcoming eclipse has me feeling pretty damn jumpy. Other than the fact that the waning light is uncannily like that when a tornado is about to hit, there’s a feeling that the world is at a tipping point and all it would take is the barest weight of the umbra to send it spinning into the abyss….
But it was ever thus. And it is this theme—of eclipsical unease and coronal curiosities that I treat today. It seems that nobody is fond of eclipses but the scientists.
Comment on the Eclipse of June 8th
By William D. Burk
An Eclipse of the Sun or Moon at best can never bring anything good, because the earth is robbed of the Sun’s vital energy or the Moon’s natural energy for the time being. The part of the world where an eclipse is most visible is bound to suffer more than other parts where the eclipse is not visible, and the effect will be more or less so in things or places that are ruled by the sign and Lord of the sign wherein the eclipse falls. Azoth April 1918: p. 236
Eclipse legends are found in many different cultures. One particular subset, found even today, focuses on the well-being of pregnant women and of children. Here are some Caribbean beliefs c. 1900.
HOW ECLIPSES INFLUENCE BABIES
A SUPERSTITIOUS BELIEF IN THE WEST INDIES
THE METHOD OF COUNTERACTING EVIL EFFECTS
Cuba and Porto Rico lay outside the line of totality in the last eclipse of the sun; in fact, the amount of obscuration was rather less than was observed in New-York, or more correctly, than would have been observed if the clouds had permitted. None the less, to the eclipse is to be charged a large amount of infant ill-health and mortality.
In those islands all mothers and nurses have a fear of the evil operation of an eclipse on tender infants. They say that it is a fear that the children will be hit by the eclipse, but if any one should suggest that it is the devil which does the hitting the statement will not be disputed by adult Cubans and Porto Ricans. The only remedy against the malign influence that is know is to strip the babies as soon as the eclipse begins and expose them in the open air unattended until the shadow has passed entirely off the sun. If the child gets a case of pneumonia or bronchitis as the result of the several hours of exposure, it is proof positive that it has been “hit” by the devil behind the astronomical phenomenon; if the baby escapes it is due entirely to the purity of its soul.
When any child is “hit” it is taken first to the “padre” for the expulsion of the devil, and then to the “medico” for the completion of the treatment. In all such cases the approved treatment consists of the administration of an emetic to dislodge the devil of the eclipse and confidence that all will go well under the influence of faith and medicine. On the morning of the eclipse the weather in Cuba, at least on the north shore, was decided raw, and a larger portion of the exposed children took colds and died. Children who are not thus exposed at the time of an eclipse are supposed, according to local superstition, to be “hit” by the eclipse “diabolo” in less manifest ways, and to be beyond these methods of cure. All children who have never been exposed to this treatment must be exposed to the eclipse or take the consequences. New York [NY] Tribune Illustrated Supplement 29 July 1900: p. 13
And from India:
A woman far gone in pregnancy is locked in a room and every entrance to her room is close covered so that no ray of the dimmed sun or moon may reach her. While thus locked up the woman cannot do any work. She cannot dress vegetables or even break a straw or she may maim the limbs of the child in her womb.
If she sees any of the eclipse the child will suffer from eclipse madness or grahan-ghelu. When the eclipse is over every one bathes either at home or in a river or in the sea. They fetch fresh drinking water, purify the house-gods by going through the regular daily worship, take a meal, and present gifts, grain and copper or silver coins to the family priest. Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency, Volume 9, Part 1, 1901: p. 395-6
In the United States, an eclipse and “maternal influence” was blamed for a child’s defective iris.
INFLUENCE OF STRANGE SIGHTS ON PREGNANCY.
Editor Medical Brief:—Already much has been written on “the influence of strange sights on pregnancy,” and I propose contributing one article, touching a very striking case of that kind. Some years ago, about 1808, was requested to see a child teething, and while talking with the mother about the child’s condition my attention was directed to one of the little fellow’s eyes, the mother remarking the while that “about one-half of that eye is darker than the other half and always has been since I first noticed the color of his eyes.” His were dark enough to be called black. On close inspections I found that the eye resembled an eclipse so closely that the impression at once entered my mind that probably the mother had been looking at the sun during an eclipse, and upon inquiry, elicited the fact she had looked long at an eclipse of the sun during the early months of utero-gestation. It was a complete facsimile; the line of disk of the eclipse being perfect and smooth. I may add, it was not discernible at about the distance of one yard from the eye, and did not extend outside of the colored part of eye. The child died since of measles in Grafton, W. Va. J. G., M. D. Medical Brief, Volume 9, 1881: p. 379
Eclipses were cited as a cause of insanity.
ECLIPSE DROVE HIM INSANE; DIED ON WAY TO STATE HOSPITAL
Union City, Jan. 29. Rev. Horatio Carr, of Union township, who went insane at the sight of the eclipse on last Saturday morning, died at 5 p.m. yesterday afternoon while en route to North Warren, where he was being taken to be placed in the state institution for the insane.
Rev. Carr was past 70 years and had been considered “queer” for the past several years, and following the eclipse of the sun he became imbued with the belief that the world was coming to an end. His queer actions became so pronounced that it was thought advisable to take him to Warren for treatment.
On the trip to the state institution, he became very violent, and his weak physical condition, unable to withstand the great shock, caused his death. His body was brought to the Cooper-Crowe undertaking parlors in Union City, and he will be buried from there this afternoon.
Rev. Carr was a graduate of Allegheny college, and despite his “queerness” was a scholarly man and well versed in religion. He is survived by a brother, Samuel Carr of Union City, and several distant relatives. The Kane [PA] Republican 29 January 1925: p. 8
They were also blamed for suicides: An eclipse coupled with the full moon made the consequences even more dire:
ECLIPSE CAUSES SUICIDE
Canton Man Affected by Appearance of the Moon.
Canton, O., Nov. 30. The eclipse and the change of the moon Saturday, it is believed, as the cause that drove Jacob Walser, aged 45, to commit suicide on the J.A. Reed farm, north of town. Walser’s body was found hanging by a strap from the rafters in the barn.
Walser was subject to melancholia every time the moon changed it was said at the Reed home. This had lasted for 10 years, as long as the family had known him. ‘I am feeling bad,” Walser would say whenever the moon changed. Saturday there came the eclipse coupled with the change to the full moon, which had a bad effect upon Walser. Warren [PA] Times Mirror 30 November 1909: p. 3
An eclipse was indirectly the cause of King Rama IV of Thailand’s death and I seem to have heard rumors about a French King and a Roman Emperor who died of terror during eclipses. Several less exalted people were said to have been frightened to death by eclipses in 1869 and 1900.
Frightened to Death by the Eclipse.
Winsboro News and Herald June 14. Fright at the eclipse was the cause of the death of a…woman who died at her home in the Jenkinsville neighborhood a few days ago. At the time of the eclipse the woman was at work in the field, and seeing the peculiar appearance of everything as the eclipse progressed, she, not knowing the cause of it, became terrified and started home. She ran a distance of three miles to her house, and when she reached it she fell down in a convulsion. The convulsions, which were probably caused by the long run and over exertion, continued, and the woman died a day or two ago. Yorkville [SC] Enquirer 23 June 1900: p. 2
KILLED BY THE ECLIPSE
A woman named Mrs. Gifford, living in the northern part of Marion county, died on Saturday from the effects of fright at the eclipse. She had no knowledge of its approach, and was alone at the time it came on, with the exception of a child four weeks old. Terrified at the sight, she seized the child and fled to a neighbor’s a mile distant. When she reached there her reason was gone. A doctor near by was called who pronounced her incurable. She lingered along till Saturday when she died without her reason having returned. Star Tribune [Minneapolis MN] 18 August 1869: p. 1
These ladies may, indeed, have died of fright, but there was a long-standing belief that eclipses could not only weaken the sick, they could kill.
Eclipses are the astronomical phenomena which, in all ages, have produced most vivid impressions on the minds of men. Ramazzini states that during the eclipse of the moon in January, 1693, the mortality among the sick was greatly increased; and many cases of sudden death occurred. According to [Richard] Mead, on the day of the total eclipse of the sun in April, 1725, all the cases of disease were exacerbated.
Baillon relates the following: A number of Parisian physicians were called in consultation to the case of a woman of high rank, at the time of a solar eclipse, but so lightly did they regard her case that they walked out to view the sky. They were, however, quickly recalled, to see her in a comatose condition, which continued until the sun had regained its natural brilliancy.
According to Matthew Faber, chief physician to the Duke of Wurtemberg, a hypochondriac, who was usually very peaceable, became, at the time of a solar eclipse, first extremely sad, and afterwards so very furious that he sallied out from his house with a drawn sword and struck down all those who opposed him….
According to Rawley, Lord [Francis] Bacon fell down with syncope during an eclipse of the moon, and did not recover until the moon’s disk was again clear. One of my own patients has been singularly affected during an eclipse of the moon. As soon as the obscuration commenced, her respiration became slow and her pulse weak; at a more advanced period her pulse rose, but her respiration was almost suspended. Then she fell into a state of utter unconsciousness, without any motion whatever. As the moon passed out of the earth’s shadow, these symptoms gradually disappeared; and after the eclipse had terminated she felt no traces of the disorder. This case has some analogy with that of Lord Bacon. These facts can scarcely be attributed to the imagination. St. Louis Medical and Surgical Journal, Volume 13: p. 514-515
Physician Richard Mead offered some “surprizing” observations:
“What happened January 21, 1693, was very surprizing. For the Moon having been eclipsed that night, the greatest part of the sick died about the very hour of the eclipse: and some were even struck with sudden death.”…
And it is still fresh in the memories of some, that in that memorable eclipse of the Sun, which happened April 22, 1715, and in which the total obscuration lasted here at London three minutes and twenty-three seconds, many sick people found themselves considerably worse during the time: which circumstance people generally wondered at.” The Medical Works of Richard Mead, 1762: p. 188-89
It is axiomatic that animals behaved in strange ways during eclipses, but apparently they, too, were vulnerable to death by eclipse.
Effects of a Solar Eclipse on Animals.—In his report on the eclipse of July 8th, M. [François] Arago mentions in support of a popular notion which he had always disbelieved, that a friend of his put five healthy and lively linnets in a cage together, and fed them immediately before the eclipse. At the end of it three of them were found dead. Other indications of the alarm it produced were seen in a dog which had been long kept fasting, and which was eating hungrily when the eclipse commenced, but left his food as soon as the darkness set in. A colony of ants which had been working actively, suddenly ceased from their labors at the same moment.—Gazette Medicale. Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, 1843: p. 128
While I don’t have a clue about the astrological statements in the following excerpts, eclipses were invariably seen as portents of conflict, particularly by astrologers in the 1910s, who earnestly analyzed the effects of stars, planets, and eclipses on the prospects for war.
If eclipses have effect on international affairs it would seem that the solar eclipse of April 27th, 1912, in 27˚ 5’ Aries was the celestial portent of the GREAT WAR. Though it occurred over two years before the outbreak of that conflict it is the only solar eclipse within a reasonable number of years previous to it whose central line of total eclipse passed directly over the scenes of the greatest carnage in that war subsequently occurring. This line of totality passed through the northwest of France, Belgium, the Baltic and the north of Russia. If we call this a coincidence it is certainly a most remarkable one. Cardan averred that an eclipse of the Sun in Aries portended “terrible wars and slaughter,” and that eclipse certainly lived up to that reputation. As time went on the next warning the world received of the close approach of the conflict was the lunar eclipse of March, 1914, Previous to the solar eclipse of April 17th, 1912, some astrologers, among them Zadkiel, issued warnings of war, but seemed to expect it that same year and as nothing of that kind occurred the eclipse seems to have been forgotten. It would seem that the matter is of sufficient importance to be taken up by proficient mathematical astrologers and the relation between these eclipses and the Great War be established once for all, if such is possible… The Adept, The American Journal of Astrology, December 1920: p. 8
If the central line of totality is significant, what can we expect for those areas darkened by Monday’s event?
This passage tells of the ominous total solar eclipse on 21 August 1914, and explains the lapse of time between the eclipse of 1912 and the outbreak of the Great War:
The Power of Regulus
“As a matter of fact, it was not merely Mars that was ascending at the summer solstice, but Mars in conjunction with a martial star of the first magnitude, Regulus (or ‘a’ Leonis), and this no doubt greatly emphasized the martial influence. It is an astrological theory, to which perhaps some credence should be given, that fixed star effects are of a sudden and dramatic character. It is a curious fact that the eclipse of the sun on August 21st of this year (1914) [a total solar eclipse. The totality was seen in Northern Europe and Asia.] fell on the identical place occupied by Mars and Regulus at the summer solstice. According to the celebrated astrologer, Junctinus, a great eclipse of the Sun in Leo ‘presignifies the motions of armies, death of a king, danger of war, and scarcity of rain…’
It is generally held by astrologers that great wars are heralded by eclipses. The central eclipse of the Sun on April 17, 1912, which occurred in twenty-seven degrees of Aries, was…followed in the middle of October by the outbreak of the Balkan War, exactly at the time when Mars transited the opposition of the place of the eclipse. At the autumn equinox of that year Mars was culminating at Vienna and in the Balkans. An eclipse is traditionally held to rule as many years as it lasts hours [uh-oh…]; the duration of the rule of this eclipse would thus be fully three years. It must not then be assumed that its effect was exhausted by the Balkan War, which as a matter of fact was in its nature merely the forerunner of the present conflagration…. Prophecies and Omens of the Great War, Ralph Shirley, 1915: pp. 63-4
Apparently the bit about the influence of an eclipse lasting as many years as it spans hours goes back to Ptolemy. As Ann Geneva writes in Astrology and the Seventeenth-century Mind: William Lilly and the Language of the Stars,”this timeframe provided astrologers with the necessary leeway to connect natural phenomena to important terrestrial events by extending their statue of limitations.”
Having found a good deal of forteana associated with cholera epidemics, I was surprised that there were far fewer reports of high strangeness in connection with the solar events. I’ve previously reported on a mysterious giant bird associated with an 1869 U.S. eclipse.
My favorite bit of eclipse forteana is this story, reminiscent of the popular lightning daguerreotypes, found etched on or in window glass.
The following singular phenomenon is related by a Nashville paper: A young lady of this city, wearing a highly polished silver pin, was looking at the eclipse considerably, through an ordinary smoked glass, during the time of transit, and afterwards discovered that the eclipse had daguerreotyped itself upon her pin at the time the sun was half obscured the impression remains there permanently, resisting the action of rubbing as well as exposure to the atmosphere. This is a phenomenon for artists to study upon. The South-Western [Shreveport LA] 15 September 1869: p. 4
While we would like to think that the modern world is beyond all superstition about these anomalous scientific events, in 1999, during the Aug. 11 eclipse, a Brazilian police superintendent released three prisoners because he thought that the eclipse would mean the end of the world. (Picui, Brazil), and a baby born during the blackout was killed by its 31-year-old mother, who feared it was cursed. (Strahotin, Romania) Augusta [GA] Chronicle 10 October 1999: p. 2
A number of schools are planning to close on Monday for fear children will damage their eyes. And yesterday I was startled to get a notice from FedEx about possible service interruptions.
FedEx is closely monitoring potential effects of the total solar eclipse on Monday, August 21, 2017. Our first priority is the safety and well-being of our team members, and we will implement contingency plans as necessary. Events of this nature often cause pickup and delivery delays and disruptions for FedEx customers. [They do??]
Other examples of eclipse unease or forteana? Send to chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com, who plans to stay indoors with the curtains tightly drawn.
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.