The Grey Lady Ghost of Bath



What is it about ghosts and theatres? There seems to be something about the excitement and intense emotions of a show that encourages spirits to hang around, like afterlife groupies hoping to get invited backstage.

Theatres in England are rife with ghosts and psychic phenomena. And a lot of these ghosts are known individually as the “Grey Lady,” which I think shows a distressing lack of originality among the deceased thespian community! 

There are “Grey Lady” ghosts in the Theatre Royal of York, the Theatre Royal of Brighton, and the Theatre Royal in Bath. 

Bath's Theatre Royal
For this post, let's look at the Theatre Royal in Bath. From what I can tell, the whole  place is crawling with ghosts and poltergeists.

This theater's “Grey Lady” smells of jasmine and appears in 18th century gowns, her hair adorned with feathers. The story goes that she committed suicide, though there are three different accounts as to why.

In one account she killed herself after her lover died in a duel. Another story has it that she was in love with an actor, and she would sit in one of the top boxes to watch him perform. When he didn’t return her love, she killed herself. 

The third version also involves unrequited love between an actor and a theatergoer, except the lady was the actor and it was the theatergoer who spurned her.  

Consistent in all three accounts is the suicide. In most versions the lady hangs herself behind a door. However, at least one variation has the lady jumping to her death from a high window 

Bath's "Grey Lady" manifests itself as a smoky apparition, either solid or wispy, and is sometimes seen in the corridor of the theater’s Dress Circle. However, the ghost's usual haunt is the top left box, facing the stage. She doesn’t seem to bother anybody, but people who have seen her report feeling depressed and miserable, as if she somehow transferred her despair to them.

But that’s not all the spooky stuff going on in the Theatre Royal. There’s the Phantom Doorman lurking by the entrance, believed to be the ghost of a man who once worked at the theater. Only cast members have seen him.

Inside the Theatre Royal in 1864
And the Garrick’s Head public house, adjacent to the theater, has its share of strange phenomenon, too. 

The pub is in the building that was once the grand home of Richard "Beau" Nash, a famous dandy in Georgian England. 

Nash is best known for his role as the Master of Ceremonies and undisputed social leader of Bath when the spa town was a fashionable destination in the 18th century. 

Like the Theatre Royal, the Garrick’s Head is also  haunted by the Grey Lady. There is other paranormal activity there as well. Every year a blood stain mysteriously appears in the exact same spot on the pub's floor. And once, in the 1990s, a cash register was violently hurled several feet across the bar by an unseen force.

But there’s one more ghost in the Theatre Royal that deserves a mention. In 1948, a dead tortoiseshell butterfly was found on stage while the company was preparing to mount a children’s pantomime. Shortly after the dead butterfly was discovered, the show’s manager and producer, Reg Maddox, dropped dead of a heart attack on stage while lighting a scene. 

You might think there would be a scary ghost story to follow. But apparently Maddox haunts the theater in the form of a benevolent butterfly. Seeing the winged insect fluttering in the rafters before a pantomime means the performance will be a hit. And tortoiseshell butterflies seem to show up out of nowhere, to greet visiting stars or encourage performers. In fact, every time Reg the butterfly ghost makes an appearance it’s greeted with affection. 

I wish all ghosts were so nice!




Next time: More tales of hauntings, just in time for Halloween!

**

Sources for this post include:

"The Butterfly, Grey Lady and other Ghosts... - The Theatre Royal - Bath, Somerset," Waymarking.com

"The Garrick's Head Inn, Bath, England," Ghost-Story.co.uk

**

Ghost image by ariadne-a-mazed from Pixabay 

Other images courtesy of Pixabay and Wikimedia Commons




Michaelmas Day

St Michael in action - defeating Lucifer



Mark your calendars  -- September 29 is Michaelmas Day, a day rich in religious and secular traditions in British culture.

A holy day since medieval times,  Michaelmas is also one of Britain’s four “quarter days,” a way to divide up the year. Traditionally, quarter days were when law courts and universities began their terms, magistrates were elected, rents were due, and servants were hired.

Quarter days not only represent holy days on the Catholic/Anglican liturgical calendar, but are closely associated with the change of seasons as well. They are:

  • Lady Day, March 25 (Feast of the Assumption) just after the Spring Equinox
  • Midsummer Day, June 24 (Feast of St. John the Baptist) just after the Summer Solstice
  • Michaelmas Day, September 29, (Feast of St. Michael and All Angels), just after the Autumn Equinox
  • Christmas Day, December 25 (Feast of the Nativity) just after the Winter Solstice

The Michaelmas quarter day was especially important because it marked the successful completion of the harvest and signaled the start of a productive new farming cycle. 

Like her contemporaries, Jane Austen would have been familiar with quarter days, especially Michaelmas – after all, her father was not only a clergyman but a farmer as well. 

Austen mentions Michaelmas in the opening pages of Pride and Prejudice, when Mrs. Bennet gossips about her new neighbor, Mr. Bingley:

“Why, my dear, you must know, Mrs. Long says that Netherfield is taken by a young man of large fortune from the north of England; that he came down on Monday in a chaise and four to see the place, and was so much delighted with it that he agreed with Mr. Morris immediately; that he is to take possession before Michaelmas, and some of his servants are to be in the house by the end of next week.”

In religious tradition, St. Michael the Archangel battled Lucifer and his fallen angels, so as a mighty warrior he's a good choice to  protect mankind against the encroaching darkness, and potentially evil forces, of the autumn and winter. (We all know what kind of evil spirits Halloween can unleash!)

A traditional Michaelmas feast includes a roast goose, along with whatever remains of the just-completed harvest. 

Why a goose? Well, as the saying goes: “eat a goose on Michaelmas Day, want not for money all the year.” 

Another bit of folklore says you shouldn’t eat blackberries after Michaelmas Day. The reason? Because they were cursed by the devil.

The story goes that when St. Michael threw Lucifer out of heaven, the devil landed on a thorny blackberry bush. In retribution, Satan, not known for his even temper, did all sorts of things to the berries – stomped them, scorched them with his fiery breath, even relieved himself on them – to make the the fruit dry, sour and just plain inedible. 

So, along with the goose, a blackberry pie is traditionally baked, to use up all the berries before Michaelmas Day. 

Finally, Michaelmas Day is often represented by the Michaelmas daisy. This pretty flower provides a burst of color in autumn that outlasts most other blooms as winter approaches.  

“The Michaelmas Daisies, among dede weeds,
Bloom for St Michael’s valorous deeds.
And seems the last of flowers that stood,
Till the feast of St. Simon and St. Jude.”

(The Feast of St. Simon and St. Jude is on October 28.)

It makes sense that a Michaelmas daisy, the last flower of the year, is  seen as a symbol of farewell. So, this Wednesday, I’ll get a jump start on New Year’s Day by saying farewell to 2021. (Frankly, it wasn’t that much of an improvement on 2020!) and look forward to a happier and more productive 2022. 




Sources for this post include:
  • "What is it About . . . Michaelmas," British Heritage Travel Magazine, September - October 2021
  • "Michaelmas," by Ben Johnson, Historic UK
Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Pixabay

At First Sight Saturday

 



I hope you are enjoying cooler weather and glorious fall color, brought by the Autumn Equinox. After an especially hot summer bedeviled by wildfires here in the Pacific Northwest, I am more than happy to welcome fall and the rain it brings.

I also very happy to announce that I am a guest today on At First Sight Saturday, a blog by author Rue Allyn. In her post for this Saturday, Rue is kindly featuring my Regency romance, Lord Peter’s Page, which is now available for purchase on Amazon Books.

To give you an idea of what my book is about, here is a short blurb:

"The match between Baron Finbury’s daughter Charlotte and Lord Satterly seems ideal to everyone but Charlotte. She longs for Cyril, the older brother of a friend. Desperate to escape the arranged marriage, Charlotte runs away from her parent’s Mayfair home on the night of a grand soirée to announce her engagement.

Disguised as a boy, she stows away in a carriage bound for Bath, where her sympathetic aunt lives. At the reins is Lord Peter Randolph, son of the Duke of Wickersham, and his friend Geordie. Hidden in the carriage, Charlotte hopes to get to Bath undetected by the men, but a carriage accident and an unplanned night at an inn makes that plan go awry.

Lord Peter soon sees through her disguise, but not before “the boy” proves to be a hopeless assistant, unable to polish a boot or tie a cravat. When Lord Peter discovers his clumsy page is a young miss, he goes to extraordinary lengths to protect her reputation, even bringing home to his family’s estate where she is accused of stealing the family rubies.  

As Charlotte struggles to clear her name, she realizes the naïve affection she felt for Cyril is nothing compared to the passion she develops for Lord Peter. But is it too late for Lord Peter’s “page” to win his heart?"

***

For an excerpt from my story and more info, please visit Rue's blog, At First Saturday with Maureen Mackey.   

Happy reading!




Cats in art and history

"The Cat's Lunch," by Marguerite Gérard, circa 1800


Following my recent post about the “dog days of summer”, with its focus on dogs in the Regency, I couldn’t let cats be ignored.

My tabby Zelda would never forgive me.

And, as it turns out, historically artists seem to have liked capturing a cat on canvas as much they enjoyed creating a good dog portrait. 

That's not surprising. Cats were every bit as appreciated by our ancestors as dogs.

Barn cat on a break from work (Montanabw, CC BY-SA 3.0)

For thousands of years cats have been valued for the efficient way they control the pests that eat and/or contaminate crops. No self-respecting farmer would be caught without cats in the barn to protect the grain stored there. 

When it comes to small animals, cats are like furry little hitmen, hunting and killing mice and rats with deadly precision. Plus, their feline pheromones prevent more rodents from moving in to fill the population gap. This efficiency is why there's archaeological evidence that cats were domesticated as early as 7500 BC for agricultural purposes. 

But what about other uses for a cat? Did people during the Regency and beyond keep cats as pets?

Apparently, they did, and proof of the cat-human bond still exists. Just as they did with their dogs, people in centuries past paid artists to immortalize their cats in oils. 

Here are a few examples:



This is Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd Earl of Southampton, with a cat in the Tower of London in 1603. Southampton led a colorful life; he was a patron of the arts, a solider, a courtier, a brawler and was even briefly imprisoned for his role in the Essex Rebellion of 1601. He was also charming and celebrated for his good looks; scholars think that Southampton was the "Fair Youth" mentioned in  Shakespeare's sonnets. 

Still, the haughty tuxedo cat behind him is clearly unimpressed by the handsome earl and with a penetrating glare tries to upstage Southampton in the portrait. 

Eighteenth-century artists like Jean-Baptiste Perronneau painted aristocratic women with their pet cats:



And little girls with their kittens:




Even in the 18th century, before the advent of pet stores selling outfits for cats and dogs, people loved to dress up their cats and take a picture or in this case, an oil painting. And just like now, cats weren't thrilled about it.



Wearing a collar with bells (oh! the inhumanity!) this disgruntled cat looks ready to rebel and jump out of its mistress's arms. 


This kitty looks more resigned to wearing a fluffy bow around its neck, but if I were this cat's mistress I'd sleep with one eye open. 

As for the Regency period itself, we don’t know if Jane Austen was ever tempted by the feel of soft fur or the sound of a contented purr to keep a cat as a pet. However, I like to think Jane was fond of cats; after all, they are the perfect writer's companion.

And we do have proof that Austen was not immune to feline charms. In one of her letters describing her family’s move to a residence in Bath circa 1799, she gives favorable mention to “a little black kitten [that] runs about the Staircase” of her new lodgings.


Cats during the Regency or beyond could be hard-working farm hands or a rich woman's pampered darling. Then, as now, they could be sweet, scary, affectionate, or indifferent - and all on the same day. But as any cat owner will tell you, it's extremely easy to get attached to a cat, and once that happens, there's no letting go. That was as true for the Earl of Southampton in 1603 as it is today.

As the renowned Regency poet and cat lover Percy Bysshe Shelley said: 

"When my cats aren’t happy, I’m not happy. Not because I care about their mood but because I know they’re just sitting there thinking up ways to get even."

Well said, Percy!


***

Images courtesy of Pixabay and Wikimedia Commons

The Dog Days of Summer



We’re almost at the end of the “dog days of summer” here in the States, which runs from the beginning of July through August 11. Despite the cute photo above, the dog days of summer has nothing to do with canines. 

This time of the year gets its name from the stars. 

At this point in the summer, the Sun is in the same part of the sky as Sirius the Dog Star, part of the constellation Canis Major (“Big Dog”). Sirius is the brightest star that can be seen from Earth, and it rises and sets with the Sun during the dog days of summer.

The dog days of summer are also traditionally the hottest days of the season, a sultry, sleepy and slow time of the year, especially before the days of widespread air conditioning. But I think the dog days are also a good time to celebrate the bond between humans and their pets, a bond that has existed since cave men allowed dogs to lay down by their fires.

Regency dog portraits

Just like today, people in the Regency loved their dogs. And one of the chief ways we know this is by the portraits they left behind.  


Here's a painting of a dog, clearly someone's beloved pet (you can tell by the fancy cushion) from 1801. It was rare in the early 19th century for someone to pay for a pet portrait, and it must have been expensive, too. But all that mattered to this dog's owner was creating a permanent keepsake of his best friend.

And here's a 1795 portrait by Spanish artist Francisco de Goya of a young woman and her dog. You can tell this little white dog was special to her - she's taken care to tie a red bow around its tail that matches the red bow on her white dress. Talk about coordinating your dog to your ensemble!




Royal pups

Dogs are often favored by royalty. I think it could be because dogs seldom seek political favors, they're loyal, faithful and know how to keep secrets. (I wish I could say the same about my cat.) 

Here's a portrait of a young Princess Victoria a few years before she became Queen, with her beloved spaniel, Dash:




Britain's current monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, is well known for her life-long love of dogs, and the Pembroke Welsh Corgi breed in particular. I have to admit, the Queen's favorite  is pretty adorable.

A Pembroke Welsh Corgi

Jane Austen's dogs

Though there's no evidence that Jane Austen herself ever had a canine companion, she must have been very aware of them. Dogs abound in her novels. 

Lady Bertram in Mansfield Park has a companion dog, Pug, which we know is female because Lady Bertram offers Fanny a puppy from Pug's next litter. 


Illustration from 1903 edition of
Mansfield Park, showing Lady Bertram with
 a Pug on her lap and Fanny at her side

Jane's choice of dog for her book was probably an easy one. Pugs were a popular companion breed during the Regency.

For example, here's a young Regency miss who must have insisted her portrait include her faithful friend, which she is clearly cuddling. I wonder how long the dog stayed still for the artist?



In Sense and Sensibility, Marianne's crush, John Willoughby, has two Pointers, no doubt for hunting. And in Northanger Abbey, Austen mentions that Henry Tilney has a Newfoundland puppy and several terriers. 


Two Pointers in a landscape, 1805. This pair could have
belonged to Tilney!

Whimsical dogs

Finally, a piece on dogs in portraits can't ignore the "dogs playing poker" paintings, which date back to 1894, nearly 130 years ago. 

Now these poker-playing dogs are clearly Victorian, but who's to say that dogs during the Regency didn't play popular Regency card games like whist or loo? When no one was looking, of course. 

This famous series of oil paintings was done by a New Yorker, Cassius Marcellus Coolidge. Unfortunately for Coolidge, many art critics think these paintings are the epitome of tacky. I doubt they will ever be exhibited in the Louvre. 

But don't bet against these dogs just yet, or their enduring appeal. 

Though you may think these paintings are too kitschy to be taken seriously by an art collector, consider this: One of Coolidge's original works sold for a cool $658,000 at a Sotheby's auction in 2015. 

That gives these canines the last laugh, and enough money to buy a lot of poker chips for their next game.





So, as Autumn beckons and Summer comes to a close, you don't have to say goodbye to the dog days of summer. When you allow a dog to enter your life and touch your heart, every day is a dog day. 





Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Pixabay

The Year Without a Summer, Part 2 : Consequences

 

"Two Men by the Sea," by Caspar David Friedrich. Painted in 1817,
 it shows how much the Mt. Tambora eruption darkened the European sky.

The effects of the Mt. Tambora eruption in 1815 weren't felt in Europe and North America until 1816 and lasted for a number of years. At the time, no one understood that the change in weather patterns was due to a volcanic eruption in the Dutch East Indies, almost 10,000 miles away. It wasn't until the last half of the 20th century that scientists conclusively demonstrated the global cooling effects of volcanic eruptions. 


"Landscape with Rainbow," also by Caspar David Friedrich. Painted in 1810,
 this picture shows how clear the skies were before the volcanic event. 


Immediate effects of the 1815 eruption

The earliest indication that the weather patterns were changing came in December of 1815, with the changes becoming obvious by the time spring and summer arrived. Though Asia experienced an abnormal monsoon season and there was a famine in China, the most dramatic effects of the Mt. Tambora eruption were observed in the U.K., Western Europe, the Atlantic regions of Canada, and New England. 

Europe 

July of 1816 was the coldest on record in England, and the year itself was the 11th coldest, with the third coldest summer, since 1659. These temperatures contributed to August frosts in England and Europe, and the flooding of major rivers, including the Rhine, due to abnormal storms and unusually heavy rain.

In December of 1815, red and yellow snow fell in record amounts near the Adriatic coast. Fearing that  event was an ominous sign from God, the residents held a religious procession. That winter also saw unusual amounts of snow and freezing rain in the Abruzzo region. Intense blizzards blanketed Hungary, and because of the ash in the atmosphere, the snow that fell was brown.

People were already experiencing food shortages across Europe in the aftermath of the long Napoleonic Wars. But the lowered temperatures and heavy rainfall resulting from the Mt. Tambora blast caused the oat, wheat and potato harvests to fail, resulting in famine across Britain and Ireland. In Germany, the lack of food was especially acute. 


For Jane Austen, the summer of 1816 was rainy and miserable. Writing to her nephew about the weather that summer, she said “It is really too bad, & has been for a long time, much worse than anybody can bear, & I begin to think it will never be fine again.”  She also recounted a conversation with a neighbor where she noted “of its’ being bad weather for the Hay – & he returned me the comfort of its’ being much worse for the Wheat.”

Across Europe food prices skyrocketed, and not knowing the cause of the spike, the hungry protested in front of bakeries and grain markets. Riots followed, with arson and looting. Though riots during times of food scarcity weren’t uncommon, the food riots of 1816-17 were some of the most violent since the French Revolution. 

And that wasn’t the end of the miseries. Famine and malnourishment breed disease, and between 1816 and 1819 major typhus epidemics broke out across Europe, especially in Italy, Switzerland, Scotland, and Ireland. As the disease spread throughout Great Britain and Ireland it killed more than 65,000 people. 
 
North America

Abnormal weather afflicted the newly minted United States of America as well. A “dry fog” hung over the eastern states in the spring and summer of 1816. It reddened the sky and darkened the sun, and neither wind nor rain could disperse it. But the real problem was the summer cold and drought that damaged and killed crops, especially corn, causing widespread food shortages.

Frost, snow and ice made an unseasonable appearance that summer in the U.S. Similar to Italy and Hungary, Maryland’s snow was discolored  –  brown, bluish and yellow. In Lebanon, New York, the temperature dipped below freezing nearly every day during May, and in early June the ground froze. In Pennsylvania, there was ice in the rivers and lakes during July and August, and Virginia saw frost in August. Across the new country, the unusual cold was accompanied by lack of rain.

“We have had the most extraordinary year of drought and cold ever known in the history of America,” Thomas Jefferson wrote to a friend. “The summer, too, has been as cold as a moderate winter.” 


Long-term effects 

The summer of 1816 made a deep impression on those who lived through it, and led to the development of scientific and technological innovations, cultural movements and the birth of  a new literary genre. 

Here are a few examples of how that year affected society in lasting ways::

Science

Justus von Liebig was only 13 years old and living in Darmstadt during the summer of 1816. He saw first-hand the famine-caused suffering, especially severe in Germany. The starvation he must have witnessed as a child surely influenced his life and inspired his work in agriculture to prevent future famines. 

 As an adult, Liebig became a scientist, studying biological and agricultural chemistry, and today he is considered one of the founders of organic chemistry. Because of Liebig's innovations in plant nutrition and mineral fertilizers, the famine of 1816 was described as the "last great subsistence crisis in the Western world" by John Dexter Post in his 1977 book.

Another German,  prolific inventor Baron Karl von Drais, observed the crop failures caused by the disrupted weather patterns of 1816 and pondered their effect on the horse-based transportation system of the time. Due to scarcity, the price of oats climbed, and since oats were needed to feed horses, the cost of travel increased as well.

Karl Drais on his invention in 1819



So, Drais went to work and invented his “Laufmaschine,” (also called a velocipede, draisine, hobby horse or dandy horse), a simple two-wheeled machine that has evolved into today's bicycles and motorcycles. 

Von Drais' machine didn't have pedals but it was one of the first examples of mechanized personal transport. His first ride, on Baden’s best road in June of 1817, covered a distance of 4.3 miles and took a little more than an hour. Nevertheless, that ride was a major milestone in the development of horseless transportation. 

The settlement of the American West

Some Americans fleeing the dire consequences of the unpredictable summer of 1816  (including crop failures, famine, forest fires, flooding, drought, frost  and snow) left their New England homes and migrated to the Northwest Territory. As a result of this population influx, Indiana became a state in 1816 and Illinois followed two years later.  Looking for a better life, these farm families were the beginning of the settlement of the American West, and helped establish what became known as America's Heartland. 

One such family, led by Joseph Smith, left Vermont for Palmyra in Western New York, setting off a chain of events that eventually led to the Book of Mormon being published and the establishment of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Literature

Image from the 1831 edition of
Frankenstein
Lord Byron and his friend John William Polidori, who was Byron's personal physician and also a writer, passed the summer of 1816 in Switzerland at the Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva. In June they were visited by the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley with his 18-year-old wife Mary, and Claire Clairmont, Mary's step-sister and Byron's mistress.

Kept indoors by the incessant rain, the group decided to hold a contest to see who could create the best scary story.  

Mary's story became the first draft of the horror classic, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus, which she published in 1818.

Byron told a story about a vampire, which prompted Polidori to write The Vampyre in 1819. Polidori's novella has since inspired countless vampire romance stories, including The Twilight Saga by Stephenie Meyer, creating a new sub-genre of gothic fantasy fiction - the romantic vampire.

Also that during that cold and rainy summer, Byron wrote a poem titled "Darkness." It is perhaps the most evocative contemporary account of what that summer must have felt like to the people who lived through it: 

The bright sun was extinguish'd, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went—and came, and brought no day,
And men forgot their passions in the dread 
Of this their desolation . . .

The poem goes on to great detail describing global devastation, including forest fires, famine, and widespread death resulting from this darkness, ending with these lines:

The winds were wither'd in the stagnant air,
And the clouds perish'd; Darkness had no need
Of aid from them—She was the Universe.


The aerosol veil that covered the earth after the eruption of Mt. Tambora in 1815 eventually dissipated, letting the sun's rays once again shine through the earth's atmosphere. However, today our heavy use of fossil-burning fuels, which started with the advent of the Industrial Revolution and has been intensifying ever since, is creating its own climate change with potentially catastrophic consequences. 

Unlike 1816's volcano-caused aerosol veil,  today's climate changes won't go away by themselves.



Can we reverse the effects of our man-made climate change? I believe if we come together as inhabitants of Planet Earth, putting aside our superficial differences and employing our human determination, resourcefulness and intelligence, we can solve this problem for ourselves and the benefit of future generations. 

We have to. We can't afford to fail.

**

Sources for this post include:

  • The Year Without Summer: 1816 and the Volcano That Darkened the World and Changed History, by William K. Klingaman and Nicholas P. Klingaman, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2013
  • The Regency Years, During Which Jane Austen Writes, Napoleon Fights, Byron Makes Love and Britain Becomes Modern, by Robert Morrison, W.W. Norton & Company, New York and London, 2019 
  • "Mount Tambora and the Year Without a Summer," UCAR Center for Science Education

Images courtesy of Pixabay and Wikimedia Commons

"The Year Without a Summer, Part 1: Cause of a Major Regency Climate Change


Who doesn’t love warm summer weather? Summer is the perfect time for walking barefoot in the grass, outdoor picnics and going to the beach. 

Where I live in the Pacific Northwest, summer has turned from a friend to a foe. Temperatures in Portland, Oregon, reached an unbelievable 116 degrees in June, and at least 200 people and about a billion marine animals died in the Pacific Northwest during our historic heat wave.

And across the U.S. this summer, wildfires are raging and heat records are shattering. 

Climate change, due to the “greenhouse effect” caused by burning fossil fuels, is the most likely culprit for these climate abnormalities. 

But climate change can have other causes and effects. For example, one year during the Regency people suffered when the sun wouldn’t shine and temperatures plummeted. The sky was dark and the world was cold. 

It was 1816, known as the year without a summer.

The Eruption of Mt. Tambora

The reason for the “year without a summer” was another climate disaster – a massive volcanic eruption. And this disaster had lasting repercussions. 

Sumbawa, a small island in Indonesia (known as the Dutch East Indies during the Regency) is approximately 10,000 miles from Boston, Massachusetts, and almost 8,000 miles distant from London, England. I’d guess that most people living in the United States and the United Kingdom at that time were scarcely aware of the island's existence. 

But on April 5, 1815, a volcano on Sumbawa, Mt. Tambora, erupted violently with a series of blasts. Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, the Lt. Governor of Java, was at his post 800 miles away when he heard what he thought was a volley of cannon fire.  

Sailors onboard ships at sea heard the blasts, and believed a battle was taking place. Fields composed of pumice, some as large as three miles wide, covered the South Indian Ocean like icebergs.

Then, five days later Mt. Tambora erupted again, and this time the blast was even worse. Three huge columns of fire rose in the air, coming together at the top, spewing ash, debris and molten rock while lava streamed down the mountainside. 

Estimated radius of volcanic ashfall in 1815 from Mt. Tambora 
(Taken from a NASA image, CC BY-SA 3.0)

About 12,000 people lived close to the mountain, and almost all were dead within 24 hours. Twenty miles away from the blast site, villages were covered in ash that was 40 inches thick. Hundreds of miles away, layers of dust ruined crops, killed cattle, fish and other wildlife, and poisoned water. 

Famine and disease came next, causing even more destruction, until the death toll in Indonesia reached at least 90,000 people. 

All told, the eruption of Mt. Tambora in 1815 killed hundreds of thousands of people, either directly or indirectly. It is still the largest volcanic eruption ever witnessed or recorded, ten times more violent than the eruption of Mt. Krakatoa in 1883. The Mt. Tambora eruption released a burst of volcanic energy equal to exploding 33 gigatons of TNT. 

Climate Effects

When Mt. Tambora blew, about three to four thousand feet blasted right off the top of the mountain. Ash and tephra (fragments of magma and other minerals) from the eruption shot into the earth’s stratosphere and were dispersed by winds around the globe, forming an almost invisible aerosol veil that scattered sunlight, effectively blocking the sun’s rays and lowering temperatures around the world. 

Map showing European temperature abnormalities during the summer
 of 1816, data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration 
(authored by Giorgiogp2, CC BY_SA 3.0)

Although the aerosol veil reflected only about one-half to one percent of the incoming energy of the sun, that percentage was enough to cool temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere by approximately 3 degrees Fahrenheit. And that 3-degree reduction was enough to change weather patterns and wreak agricultural destruction on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. 

But the effects of the Mt. Tambora eruption were not felt in Europe and North America for many months. It wasn’t until the spring and summer of 1816 that the change in climate began to become quite noticeable. 

Popular beliefs 

Persistent rain, flooding, frost and snowfall during the summer months in Europe and North America were some of the climate abnormalities caused by the volcanic blast. 

Other effects included drought and raging forest fires, crop failures and famine. To people living in the Northern Hemisphere in 1816, the world must have seemed as though it were turned upside down. 

Unaware of what was causing these climate abnormalities, some people, especially in New England, saw it as the work of witchcraft, or a punishment from God, or at the very least, signs of a coming apocalypse. 

And these beliefs, along with the frightening change in climate, set off a chain of events and innovations that still affect our lives today.


Come back next week for Part 2: The long-lasting effects that “the year without a summer” had on science, literature, and the settling of the American West.


Sources for this post include:

  • The Year Without Summer: 1816 and the Volcano That Darkened the World and Changed History, by William K. Klingaman and Nicholas P. Klingaman, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2013
  • The Regency Years, During Which Jane Austen Writes, Napoleon Fights, Byron Makes Love and Britain Becomes Modern, by Robert Morrison, W.W. Norton & Company, New York and London, 2019 
  • "Mount Tambora and the Year Without a Summer," UCAR Center for Science Education

Images courtesy of Pixabay and Wikimedia Commons

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