The mood at the beginning of 1816 was actully quite positive despite the harsh winiter that most of Europe experienced. In the United States, the end of the War of 1812 seemed like a good sign for the future while the European countries were equally upbeat about the final defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo. But disturbing omens began intruding on the popular consciousness soon enough. On April 29, 1816, an enormous sunspot became clearly visible to anyone looking directly at the sun and persisted for nearly a week. Described by one contemporary source as looking like "a spider, having parts extended from the main body," the length was estimated at being more than 40,000 miles. Other sunspots also became visible to the casual observer, something nobody had ever seen before. While sunspot activity had been commonly observed by astronomers looking at the sun through telescopes, the rise in sunspot activity that was so easily seen by anyone looking upward made people nervous.
Despite various attempts at an explanation, nobody linked the sunspot activity to the optical effects of the fine aerosol cloud that Tambora had released into the stratosphere. All that anyone could say for certain was that something very strange was happening. It is probably not surprising that many people regarded the rise in sunspots as a sign from the heavens that a disaster was coming. Frightened sources began suggesting that the sunspots would eventually spread and blot out the sun entirely, thus plunging the Earth into "the unutterable darkness that characterized the primitive chaos.” While the editors of the North American Review denied that the end of the world was at hand, an editorial did acknowledge that ""We have remarked at different times during the present season, on days when the sky was perfectly clear, that there was a degree of feebleness and dimness in the Sun’s rays, not unlike the effect produced by a partial eclipse.”
If there was little real panic at first, it was likely because the winter of 1815-1816 was actually rather mild in many places. The aerosol cloud from Tambora disrupted weather patterns and shifted polar winds from their usual paths. This led to unseasonally warm temperatures in much of North America even as Europe was subjected to a bitterly cold winter. While the price of food had soared in the months following Waterloo, the United States was largely spared the food riots that had broken out in parts of Europe.
By the spring of 1816, things became far worse. New England began reporting snowstorms in May with frost covering the ground and ruining crops. From Maine to New York, thick ice formed over ponds and cattle were unable to graze in fields. Even shipping traffic in the Great Lakes became difficult due to the ice that blocked regular routes. A mild winter had led many farmers to hope for a good year for crops but the unseasonal weather changed that. Political tensions added to the general unease being felt on both sides of the Atlantic.
For many religious people, the Year Without A Summer was only the latest in a series of "portents" that made them uneasy. The year 1811 had already been considered to be a "year of wonders" that included an extremely bright comet and a total eclipse of the sun (two traditional signs that something dire was about to happen). The year was capped off by a massive earthquake had struck northeast Arkansas and stretched down to Memphis Tennessee on December 16, 1811. The aftershocks continued well into 1812 with a second earthquake on February 7 which completely destroyed the town of New Madrid, Missouri.
With the memory of the damage that had been caused still being fresh in many memories, the unseasonal weather appeared to be part of a pattern of disasters suggesting that the end of the world was at hand. As Washington Irving later wrote, the numerous signs of disaster "filled the imagination with dreams of horror and apprehensions of sinister and dreadful events." Evangelistic preachers were openly proclaiming the apocalypse and warning anyone listening to them to repent.
While scientists attempted to come up with more rational explanations for what was happening,, religious revivals became a common sight throughout 1816 and 1817. Congregations swelled with new members across the United States. In the meantime, predictions of impending doom became more common in Europe. An astronomer in Bologna reporting on the extraordinary rise in sunspots concluded that the sun would eventually be snuffed out leading to the world ending on July 18. The panic that this prediction caused led to the astronomer's arrest in the hope of silencing him. But other prophets of doom soon joined in as well. A priest in Naples announced that the city would be destroyed by a rain of fire and that "those who escaped the fire were to be devoured by serpents." He was arrested too.
As the July 18 date grew closer, the panic spread across many parts of Europe. The continued gloomy weather did nothing to reassure anybody and churches were filled to capacity. In the town of Liege, “an enormous mass of clouds appearing … in the shape of a huge mountain over the city” triggered mass panic that took time and military intervention to settle. And it was hardly the only town where troops needed to be called in to control the crowds. Even in a pre-Internet era, news of the Italian prophecy still spread across the Atlantic with muted panic occurring in the United States as well.
Even when July 18 came and went with no apocalypse, the continuing gloomy weather brought little relief. Hailstorms and overcast conditions added to the sense that the apocalypse was still on the way, if a little delayed. Massive crop failures occurred across much of Europe and agricultural regions were particularly hard hit. In the United States, many farmers lost their livelihood and were forced to travel west to try their luck elsewhere. The Second Great Awakening that had been triggered by New England's Dark Day in 1780 was already underway and the new religious movements that sprang up during this period found no shortage of new believers, especially since so many farm families found themselves dealing with ruined crops and bizarre weather that seemed like a sign from God.
And things were even worse in Europe. The price of wheat skyrocketed and farmers saw their crops drenched by flooding and unseasonal storms. Religious processions were held in France and other Catholic countries to pray for better weather but the public mood grew even uglier with no real relief in sight.
It was during the summer of 1816 and the gloom that had settled over much of the world was at its peak when a remarkable group of travelers arrived at the Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva for a writing retreat. Along with George Gordon Byron (better known as Lord Byron), the group also included Percy Bysshe Shelley and his mistress Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, their physician Dr. John William Polidori, and fellow writer Clare Claremont. Though they were all facing their own personal problems (particularly Shelley who had left his wife for Mary Godwin), the general pall of the Year Without A Summer certainly contributed to the gothic atmosphere of the villa where they were staying. As Mary Shelley would recall years afterwards, "It proved a wet, ungenial summer, and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house."
After being inspired by reading a collection of ghost stories, it was Byron who made his famous challenge that each one of them present should write a ghost story. Based on that challenge, the various writers managed to produce some of the most memorable works in the English language. And the most influential.
Not only did Mary Shelley write the story that would later become Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, which was arguablyy the first science fiction novel, but John William Polidori would eventually write his own horror novel, The Vampyre, based on Byron's contribution. As the first vampire novel of its kind, Polidori's story would later inspire Bram Stoker's Dracula and essentially launch the entire vampire horror genre.
While both Byron and Percy Shelley wrote relatively conventional ghost stories, Byron was also inspired to write one of his most memorable, and bleakest, works. The poem, Darkness, published that same year, is an apocalyptic vision of the last man on Earth describing "a dream, which was not all a dream" in which the sun had been extinguished and the moon was gone completely. Every possible source of warmth has been exhausted as even the forests had been burned for heat by the few remaining survivors. Mass starvation had wiped out most of the human race "and the pang of famine fed upon all entrails--men Died, and their bones were tombless as their flesh; The meagre by the meagre were devoured."
After the last survivors die fighting each other, nothing remains but darkness as the Earth is rendered "Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless." Interestingly enough, Mary Shelley would also publish an apocalyptic novel, The Last Man, in 1826, which would contain many of the same themes though she never referred to the Year Without A Summer as a source of inspiration as Byron did.
But Byron and his fellow travelers were hardly the only ones affected by the gloomy weather.
To be continued