<br><h3> Chapter One </h3> <b>EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED</b> <p> <p> Darkness clung to the early morning sky of December 14, 1807, as Judge Nathan Wheeler set about on his morning stroll. He walked his land every day, finding refuge in the quiet of his Weston, Connecticut, farm. <p> Suddenly the heavens above Wheeler's farm exploded as a fireball raced across the onyx sky. Everything lit up—his home, his barns, the trees, the blue stone walls. <p> Looking up toward the northern part of the sky, Judge Wheeler watched the fiery sphere pass behind a cloud, partly obscuring it. Ever observant, the judge thought its edges seemed similar to the sun when covered by the sheerest of mists. The ball rose up from the north and moved in a direction parallel to the horizon. As it traveled, the object slowly climbed toward the west. Judge Wheeler saw it flash with intensity as it passed through clear spots of sky. A shadow of pale light attended the great circle like a train on a wedding dress. Less than a minute later, Wheeler heard three incredible explosions, like an artillery barrage. A succession of rapid reports followed, which he described as similar to a cannonball rolling across the floor. Then the rumble died away, and like the last ember in the hearth, the glow grew more and more until the night sky snuffed it out entirely, leaving only sparks and smoke in its wake. <p> This abrupt incursion of a luminous object rocked Wheeler's world. Perhaps, just for a moment, he thought a star had come loose and hurled itself across the heavens, bent upon destruction, according to some myth or legend. <p> <p> * * * <p> <p> The Luiseño Indians of California thought meteors were stars that suddenly moved, and the Eastern Pomo tribe of northern California believed meteors were fire from heaven. According to the Menominee tribe of the Great Lakes, when a star falls from the sky, it leaves a fiery trail. The trace of that trail returns to its point of origin to shine again. The Indians sometimes found the small stars where they had fallen in the grass. <p> <p> * * * <p> <p> The small town of Weston lies folded into the hills of Connecticut's southeast corner, about forty-five miles from the New York State line. Located less than ten miles from Fairfield and the coast of Long Island Sound, Weston is, as one earlier settler said, "From the sea a day's walke into the country." <p> As part of the Appalachians known as the Western Connecticut Highlands, Weston wears a slightly craggy face. Steep hills, numerous brooks, and a river or two give the town texture, while isolated pockets of forests stand among the hills and glens. In these remote enclaves, one can envision the moccasin-clad feet of Native Americans who once trod here, before entirely succumbing to the early English settlers. <p> In 1635, citing religious differences, Roger Ludlow, an Englishman and former deputy governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, left the realm of the Pilgrims for "fairer fields." The devout Puritan decided that his future lay southwest toward Connecticut, and so he set off with a band of like-minded people. After scouting out several potential sites, Ludlow settled on the coast of Long Island Sound, in a spot called Uncoway, or "place beyond." When Ludlow and his band arrived, thousands of Native Americans had called Uncoway home for generations. The Pequot Indians didn't welcome the new arrivals. Eventually tensions with the Europeans over trade and territory ruptured into a full-scale war in 1636. Ludlow and his compatriots defeated the Pequots in 1637, in the first of many such wars in the northeast until King Philip's War in 1675, which decimated Native American tribes in New England. <p> After the Pequot War ended, an uneasy peace returned to the region. The Connecticut General Court, pleased by Roger Ludlow's victory, granted him permission to build a more permanent town on the narrow stretch of coastal land. So in 1639, with teakettles, hatchets, and other accoutrements serving as currency, Ludlow purchased a tract of well-cleared, fertile land from the Paugussett tribe. Ludlow sent word to other colonists from Massachusetts Bay and invited them to live there, to settle and work the loamy soil. <p> Life in this newly created Eden wouldn't long endure. Religious differences soon arose, and the very issues that provoked Ludlow to set forth from Massachusetts several decades earlier now impelled some recent arrivals to leave. They left the shores of the Long Island Sound to seek their own land north and west of Fairfield. These people wanted to create their own ecclesiastical society. And so they formed a new parish called Norfield. In time, this pocket of land came to be known as Weston. <p> To live in Weston meant choosing a hardscrabble life. Residents were almost wholly severed from the social and religious fabric of Fairfield, a far more established and hence more secure community. Because of this, many Englishmen who settled in Weston in the early 1700s lived there part-time. At night they slept in roughly assembled lean-tos and during the day they tilled the unyielding land. Eventually, traveling back and forth between Fairfield and Weston proved too fatiguing for even the hardiest of these men. They decided to leave behind their friends and families, meetinghouses and schools in order to settle once and for all in Weston. These people became known as "outlivers," for they chose to live in the backcountry, or, as those on the coast called it, the interior. <p> In 1790, about 2,500 people lived in Weston, one of the poorest towns in all of Connecticut. Eventually the settlement boasted nine grain mills, twelve saw mills, one forge iron manufacturer, four distilleries, four tanneries, three carding machines, three fulling mills, fourteen mercantile stores, three doctors, and one attorney. Self-sufficiency defined the outlivers. <p> Westonites, like most rural people across the nation, adhered to the cycle of the seasons. Chance occasionally punctuated their strict routine: the chance of sickness and death, the chance of marriage and birth, or the chance of weather and nature. Fevers occurred often, unexpected and violent weather destroyed crops, and on rare instances strange insects arrived in cargo from far-flung ports and decimated carefully planted crops. <p> Simply arriving in the world had its own perils. One in eight women died in childbirth in the seventeenth century, and one in ten children died before reaching a fifth birthday. Uncertainty and superstition filled the nine months of a woman's pregnancy. People believed children could be disfigured if a pregnant woman gazed on a horrible specter or if a loud noise startled her. Some whispered that an expectant mother's mere glance at the moon might condemn her child to a life of lunacy or insomnia. <p> Aside from church life, natural cycles conferred order upon the lives of many Westonites. The phases of the moon and the "great celestial wheel of the zodiac" ruled so many lives. <p> Everyone remained tethered to farm life, even professionals such as attorneys and doctors. Talk revolved around the agricultural year: haying in the summer, repair work in the winter. Though these men and women worked with plants and animals daily, they understood little about the true workings of weather or most things relating to nature. They farmed using practices passed on to them through the generations. Most people behaved according to Old World cultural ideas; many believed astronomical events influenced human affairs. After all, the prevailing culture rooted itself in faith. <p> Superstitions and old wives' tales swayed townsfolk. For instance, in early America it was said cats that sat with their backs to the fire foretold a cold snap. People learned to read the skies, examining halos around the moon and calculating how quickly the clouds moved. Adages, anecdotes, and rhymes guided lives. So when science finally took hold of this new nation, people began to understand the great unknown of America's physical makeup. Up until then, revolution had been the priority. <p> <p> * * * <p> <p> Dr. Isaac Bronson sat snugly inside his stagecoach as it rolled along the Post Road from New York City to Connecticut on the morning of December 14, 1807. Bronson looked forward to relaxing in his new country home in Fairfield. He longed to gaze upon the familiar stone walls bordering the property. He loved the coach house and the barn fashioned from the blue stone native to the region. Bronson would wait until spring to see his beloved white dogwood trees bloom. <p> Born in 1760, Dr. Bronson was the son of a highly respected farmer and his wife, Isaac and Mary Bronson. Shortly before his sixteenth birthday, Bronson apprenticed himself to Dr. Lemuel Hopkins, who practiced medicine in Litchfield and Waterbury. Much of the professional practice involved bloodletting to treat a wide range of illnesses, including fevers. <p> In 1779, at the age of nineteen, Bronson received a warrant as a junior surgeon, or surgeon's mate, to the Connecticut troops. The young man served under the command of Colonel Elisha Sheldon in the Second Regiment Light Dragoons. Because of Sheldon's frailty, Bronson assumed the senior surgeon's position and performed all the medical duties required for several wartime campaigns. "It is a matter of history that the English officer when acknowledging his identity, requested that an express should be sent to New York for his valet and valise, and that in the interim he requested Colonel Bronson to loan him 'a change of linen.'" <p> Bronson honed his surgical skills during the war, a grisly residency, to be sure. After being steeped in so much carnage, Bronson traded medicine for commerce once the war ended. He traveled first to Europe and then to India before settling in Philadelphia. After spending some time working as a banker in Philadelphia, Bronson moved to New York City. Growing ever more prosperous, he purchased property on Greenfield Hill in Fairfield in 1796. In 1807, the year of the great Weston Fall, Bronson busied himself establishing a bank in Bridgeport, Connecticut. He and his son Frederic maintained their New York financial and social connections, but they summered in Fairfield. <p> Deep in thought as he traveled the morning of December 14, Bronson became startled. Suddenly, the inside of his coach blazed. Not knowing if they were under attack, the doctor was instantly revived as the field surgeon during the American Revolution. He urged his driver to make haste. A minute later three terrible explosions sounded, with several smaller ones following suit. Whizzing noises filled the air as rock fragments crashed down on the roof of the horse-drawn coach. Later, he learned the vibrations rattled windows in their casements and shook the very foundations of houses nearly fifty miles away. <p> <p> * * * <p> <p> Were no one watching, the globe's fiery minuet would have sputtered and died as it fell to Earth, extinguished for all time. Instead, scores of people watched this predawn dance. The extraordinary happening awakened people all along the Hudson River, as far north as Albany. The show lit up the sky over the rolling hills that undulated across the western part of Connecticut and into the neighboring state of New York. The display stunned people as far away as Rutland, Vermont, located more than 220 miles from Weston. It astounded farmers trudging through the snow and frightened bleary-eyed school children staring at their breakfasts. The explosions terrified horses and caught milkmaids off guard. <p> "I was at the west door of my house on Monday morning, the fourteenth of December 1807, about day light, and perceiving the sky suddenly illuminated, I raised my eyes and beheld a meteor of a circular form, in the southwesterly part of the heavens, rapidly descending to the south, leaving behind it a vivid sparkling train of light," recalled William Page, Esq., in Rutland, Vermont. <p> The atmosphere near the south part of the horizon was very hazy, but the passage of the meteor behind the clouds was visible, until it descended below the mountains, about twenty miles south of this place. There were white fleecy clouds scattered about the sky, but none so dense as to obscure the tract of the meteor. I now lament that I did not make more particular observations at the time, and I should probably until this day have considered it to be what is commonly called a 'falling star,' had I not read in the New York papers an account of the explosion of a meteor, and the falling of some meteoric stones near New Haven, Connecticut, which, by recurring to circumstances, then fresh in my recollection, I found to be on the same morning I observed the meteor at Rutland. <p> <p> Mr. Page eyeballed the fireball to be less than a quarter in size of the moon's diameter. He trembled before its scarlet hue and marveled at its light trail, which seemed to measure roughly eight times the length of its diameter. <p> <p> * * * <p> <p> In Ridgefield, Samuel G. Goodrich, fourteen years old, woke early the morning of December 14, 1807, to stoke the kitchen fire. Suddenly light filled the room. He looked outside the window and gaped as a brilliant ball of fire nearly the size of the moon scuttered across the sky, northwest to southeast. Then, passing its zenith, it descended toward Earth and, with a trio of explosions, burst into fiery fragments. <p> "My father, who saw the light and heard the sounds, declared it to be a meteor of extraordinary magnitude," Goodrich said. Writing under the pen name Peter Parley, he left behind some colorful recollections. "It was noticed all over the town, and caused great excitement. On the following day, the news came that huge fragments of stone had fallen in the adjacent town of Weston, some eight or ten miles southeast of Ridgefield. The story spread far and wide, and some of the professors of Yale College came to the place, and examined the fragments of this strange visitor from the skies." <p> Everyone in the neighborhood heard the stones rush through the air and felt the shock when they struck Earth. One stone, weighing two hundred pounds, smashed against a rock. The rock splintered, its huge fragments plowing the ground for a hundred feet. Later the two professors Benjamin Silliman and James Kingsley took another twenty-five-pound piece back to New Haven. The professors estimated this meteor to be half a mile in diameter and to have traveled through the heavens at a rate of two or three hundred miles a minute. <p> Some of Goodrich's neighbors believed the folklore about the meteor. One man, a sixty-year-old lieutenant, thought "these phenomena are animals revolving in the orbits of space between the heavenly bodies. Occasionally, one of them comes too near Earth, rushing through our atmosphere with immense velocity, takes fire and explodes!" <p> Shortly after the Weston Fall, the lieutenant knocked on Goodrich's door. Agitated, he asked to speak with Goodrich's father. The lieutenant entertained the Goodrich family with the most outlandish description. <p> "In this case of meteors, I suppose them to be covered with some softer substance; for it frequently happens that a jelly-like matter comes down with meteoric stones. This resembles coagulated blood; and thus what is called bloody rain or snow has often fallen over great spaces of country. Now, when the chemists analyze these things—the stones, which I consider the bones; and the jelly, which I consider the fat: and the rain, which I consider the blood—they find them all to consist of the same elements: that is, silex, iron, nickel, &c. None but my animal theory will harmonize all these phenomena, sir." <p> The lieutenant's depiction was not altogether surprising. During this period, most people continued to seek direction in the heavens. Housewives no longer faced accusations of witchcraft if the butter failed to churn, but no one gave it a second thought if a neighbor planted radishes on a downward angle at the decrease of the moon. This mirrored the plant's tapered shape. No one looked askance at a farmer who planted his crops during the dark of the moon, or at a farmer who believed the optimal time to plant was while the moon waxed. Many people still looked to the moon's cycle to determine the most auspicious time to wean a baby or a calf. <p> Belief in natural magic lingered in these rural towns like morning dew on the grass. People believed the sun and planets directly affected their earthly lives. As they had during the Middle Ages, many people believed special powers of attraction and repulsion, like a magnet, connected the human body to the universe. Some kept their eyes on the skies in early America, particularly in New England, where several published astronomical almanacs assisted stargazers. Almanacs ranked as the best-selling publications in early nineteenth-century America. Each year, thousands of almanacs sold. Inside, page after page of astrology awaited eager readers. These almanacs contained information such as moon phases, tide tables, planting times, and the setting of religious holidays. Almanacs also had chronologies of world history, poems, and, of course, essays on the workings of the celestial sphere. <p> The relative isolation of Weston contributed to the poor state of farming. Transporting goods and services between settlements was inefficient and at times dangerous. Therefore the populace, like those in rural towns across the young nation, became bonded to their daily tasks. Westonites made everything, whether they ground flour at the gristmill for bread or felled trees to turn into lumber for homes and barns. The Saugatuck and Aspetuck Rivers powered the mills and yielded fish for food. <p> Even professionals such as lawyers or schoolteachers farmed small garden plots or several fields. Many households also had woodlots located just outside of town where they harvested lumber and gathered firewood. Most everyone raised pigs, poultry, and cattle. In addition, the town produced maple sugar and syrup, and many settlers kept bees. They concocted tealike drinks from raspberry and blackberry leaves and brewed ersatz coffee from chestnuts and bread. They would rarely buy salt, molasses, rum, tea, or coffee. A barter economy prevailed; one man might lend draft horses to proprietors to pay off a debt, while another man might build a wall to repay a handyman who repaired his barn door. The townspeople relied on each other. <p> Early nineteenth-century Americans dwelt in a universe defined by its small scale, scarcity, and slowness. People, goods, and information moved like molasses. Farmers happily lived in familiar circles. Yet, news of the nation's affairs did reach rural enclaves. Inhabitants were particularly concerned with commerce and representation in Congress. They paid attention to maritime news, weather, and information about smallpox or yellow fever outbreaks. New England newspapers also noted sermons and cited texts. The <i>New England Courant</i> devoted pages to "Speeches, Addresses, Proclamations, and other public Notifications." Yet because eking out an existence sapped the strength of most, improving one's daily circumstances was not a priority. <p> <p> * * * <p> <p> Just before it pricked a hole through the atmosphere's thin skin, the meteor traveled at between forty and fifty thousand miles per hour. The unbelievable shock of hitting Earth's atmosphere blew its mass into countless fragments. According to eyewitness testimony, the fireball remained visible for an estimated thirty seconds, a considerable amount of time for such a phenomenon to grace the skies. <p> Many people offered their observations for the historical record. A Mrs. Gardner, whose first name has been lost to time, lived in Wenham, Massachusetts. Heeding Benjamin Franklin's advice of early to bed, early to rise, Gardner routinely woke well before sun-up. Her feet tread across the cold pine boards toward the window of her bedroom, which opened westward for the purpose of observing the weather. This had been her unvarying habit for years. Save for a thin smear of clouds in the west, the sky dawned clear. Peering out her bedroom window, Gardner watched in astonishment as a fiery orb sped boldly across the sky. This intelligent lady observed the event with great attention, corroborating testimony that described the sphere as appearing to be roughly half the size of the full moon. <p> Mrs. Gardner watched the meteor scamper over the southern part of the barn, which sat squarely in front of her bedroom window. Its well-defined disc resembled the moon so much, Gardner feared for the moon. <p> "Where was the moon going to?" she asked. Gardner soon realized her mistake. She closely watched the body travel in a direction nearly parallel to the horizon. Then, heading south, it vanished behind a cloud that seemed suspended over her neighbor's farm. <p> Mrs. Gardner watched the meteor for nearly thirty seconds. At times thin, broken clouds blocked its view from her eyes. Its velocity did not appear to be so great as that of shooting stars, or at least, what she had heard of shooting stars. Unlike some eyewitnesses, she didn't glimpse the light trail but said "its color was more vivid than that of the moon." <p> <p> * * * <p> <p> The moon did not disappear. Instead, the meteorite roared through the sky, scaring some Connecticut cows. They fled their fields. When farmer Elijah Seeley went to check his cattle he found that they had gone missing. A quick search revealed them shivering in a neighboring pasture. The terrified bovines crossed the other side of that most ubiquitous New England fixture—the rambling blue stone wall. No matter how terrible the weather had ever been on Seeley's farm, his cows had never left home before—where those stone walls, nearly three feet high, surrounded his pastures. <p> People rose before the sun brightened the morning skies and safely ensconced themselves in their homes shortly before night settled. Most families read the Bible and prayed before meals without benefit of artificial light. Candles were a necessity, but they were used sparingly. <p> Upon waking, Seeley quickly dressed in his blue- and white-checked woolen shirt, buckskin breeches, white woolen stockings, and double-soled cowhide shoes. The cold morning air bit, so he donned a pair of old stockings, minus the feet, as leggings. Over that, he layered his drugget, a plain cloth vest. Of course, he didn't step outside without his cloth greatcoat and woolen cap. Under the strengthening light of day, Seeley called for his wife. She wore similar attire, though instead of breeches, she wore a plain quilted gown, and midcalf boots of tanned calfskin. <p> Like Seeley, most Weston households supported themselves through subsistence farming. After bringing the cows home and making sure they were safely in the barn, the couple pushed a wheelbarrow to the fall site. A tumult of meteor fragments lay strewn about the field. They carted away pieces of the black-crusted stones, which greatly differed from the usual crop of rocks otherwise known as New England potatoes. <p> The hard soil of glacial till—a mix of sand and silt spread over gneissic and granite rock—coupled with the town's hilly terrain made farming hard. Stone walls divided fields, but still "the surface of most of them [fields] was dotted with gathered heaps of stones and rocks, thus clearing spaces for cultivation." As such, Weston cattle were not rotund. The moist, cool climate meant farmers could grow onions, potatoes, corn, oats, rye, and hay. <p> <i>(Continues...)</i> <p> <p> <!-- copyright notice --> <br></pre> <blockquote><hr noshade size='1'><font size='-2'> Excerpted from <b>A PROFESSOR, A PRESIDENT, AND A METEOR</b> by <b>CATHRYN J. PRINCE</b> Copyright © 2011 by Cathryn J. Prince . Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.<br>Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.