“Arise, Abraham, the day of judgment has come!” These words were shouted by the deacon of a Presbyterian church in a small town in Illinois (I’m not sure whether it was New Salem), as he rapped onthe bedroom door of his lodger.
It must have been the night of November 12/13, 1833, and well after the middle of that night. Perhaps the deacon had been sitting up late to write a sermon or had been roused by panicky voices in the street. The lodger was a farm lad, 24-year-old Abe Lincoln. He sprang from his bed, “rushed to the window, and saw the stars falling in great showers! But looking back of them in the heavens I saw all the grand old constellations with which I was so well acquainted, fixed and true in their places.”
What Lincoln and the deacon were seeing must have been the 1833 shower, or rather storm, of the Leonid meteors: the “shooting stars” that seem to radiate to all parts of the sky from the head of Leo the Lion.
The annual Leonid shower is due this November 17 or 18. That is, the peak is predicted for Nov. 17, 22 hours Universal Time, but as that is 10 PM for Europe and 5 PM for eastern North America, we have to watch in the pre-dawn hours of Nov. 17 or 18. These would be before and after the peak, so the rate of meteors per hour will be lower. In any case, the Leonids vary extremely widely. It could be that we see few or none. Don’t expect this to be one of the rare fantastic storms like 1833 and 1966 – but it’s worth being out to watch at least some of the time, just in case it is. If, by extraordinary luck, the sky looks like this, run around rapping on doors.
Lincoln told the story much later, when he was president of the embattled republic and was receiving a delegation of nervous bank presidents. They asked him whether his confidence in the permanency of the Union was not beginning to be shaken. He answered with this anecdote, and concluded: “Gentlemen, the world did not come to an end then, nor will the Union now.”
At least, that is how, later again, it was recounted by Walt Whitman, in a chapter called “A Lincoln Reminiscence” in his Specimen Days & Collects, first published in 1882. Whitman was in Washington on the day of Lincoln’s second inauguration in March 1865, the month before his assassination. But my friend Alastair McBeath, British meteor expert, remarks: “As Whitman never personally met Lincoln, though they both lived through the Civil War, the quote must be at second-hand, though there is no reason to think that the majority of it is not accurately expressed.” So I guess my telling is at least fifth-hand: you’re getting it from me, from wherever I first read it, from Whitman, from someone else, from Lincoln.