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1865 Solar Eclipse Excitement in Indianapolis

Unless you have been under a rock, you have likely heard that Indianapolis will witness a total eclipse of the sun on April 8. This will be the first total eclipse to darken the land where Indianapolis and Marion County now sit since, depending on where you were in the county, the years 831 and 1205. A total eclipse did cover a large section of southern and western Indiana in 1869, although the cut-off line where totality was visible was just south of Indianapolis. Another total eclipse was visible to the north of Indianapolis in 1806.


While total eclipses, where the moon entirely covers the sun’s disc, are rare, Indiana has seen numerous partial and annular eclipses. The latter is a type of eclipse where the moon is entirely over the disc of the sun, but due to its positioning, the moon is smaller than the sun's disc, resulting in the so called “ring of fire” around the edges of the moon.


Calvin Fletcher, lover of eclipses. Credit: Indiana Historical Society

An annular eclipse occurred in 1865 and was widely viewed around Indianapolis and other parts of the state, although it only appeared as a partial event here. Local newspapers reported on the event, and we have additional observations and comments on this eclipse thanks to Calvin Fletcher, and his ever-present diaries.  Fletcher was fascinated by eclipses, both of the lunar and solar variety. Almanacs and other publications routinely published when an eclipse would occur and Fletcher always made time to view them if possible. His first experience appears to have been the total eclipse of 1806, which tracked across northern Indiana and across New England, including Vermont, where Fletcher, then 8 years old, observed the spectacle while at school a few miles from his family’s farm. He later described what the experience was like: “It was a solemn occasion to me. The birds went to roost. It seemed to me as dark as the last twilight & when the eclipse began to pass off, the chickens crowed & the birds began to sing as at early dawn.”


The 1865 eclipse took place on Thursday, October 19. Fletcher’s diary entry for the day was a late entry, written a few days after the event, on the 22nd. Fletcher recorded that while his two sons, Billy and Keyes, and a family friend were at the home around 8:30 am, he noted that “things looked gloomy” outside despite the early hour. Fletcher reminded those present that it was the eclipse that created “such sombre hew.” Fletcher asked Darnel, an acquaintance of the family who was often around the household, to fetch a tool to use to view the eclipse:


“I sent him for a bucket & we filled it with water. It was a little cloudy or at least clouds flit across the disk of the sun & moon but mainly took off the glare of the sun so we could see the progress of obscuration without injury to the eyes except occasional clearing away the clouds. Also we had an excellent view from the shadow in the bucket of water.”


Fletcher had used the bucket method of viewing the eclipse during past events. The eclipse had just begun early in the morning and did not reach its maximum coverage until the latter part of the morning:


“We watched the progress from 8 ½ till near 11. The obscuration was such at its greatest, so as to make the leaves on the trees (now remarkably green not having but one frost to effect them) and everything looked as sombre as 15 or 20 minutes after sun down.”


There had been some newspaper coverage about the eclipse prior to October 19, and local newspapers also reported on the event itself. The Daily Sentinel’s report was similar to that from Fletcher and described how the light cloud cover allowed spectators to view the eclipse “very distinctly with the naked eye.”


Indianapolis eclipse history calvin fletcher
Credit: Indianapolis Daily Sentinel, October 20, 1865

Despite deferring to the Indianapolis Journal, the other major newspaper in Indianapolis at the time, for a more scientific analysis, the Journal merely printed a short mention of the eclipse.


Based on other reports it appears that thick cloud cover thwarted views elsewhere in Indiana, particularly to the east and south of the city. Reports from Greencastle indicated that the eclipse occurred "according to programme," but cloud cover prevented viewing of the eclipse. A similar report came from Richmond, with its local newspaper sarcastically saying the eclipse was a "popular failure," and asking astronomers "to have it tried over again under better auspices."


No local Indianapolis newspapers provided any illustration of the eclipse, and photos of eclipses were rare at the time. The first such photo had been taken 15 years before in Prussia, so sketches were the most common method to record images of the eclipse. A few newspapers outside of Indianapolis did include locally produced images of the eclipse, most notably Crawfordsville, which avoided the cloud cover reported in Greencastle, 30 miles to the south. The October 26 edition of the Crawfordsville Weekly Journal provided an illustration, showing the sun nearly covered by the moon, but also noting that the eclipse was annular, characterized by a ring of light around the moon. The newspaper also marveled at the science of astronomy: “The calculation of eclipses by astronomers with perfect accuracy both as to time and character, for years and centuries in advance of their occurrence, has ever been regarded as one of the highest achievements of human intellect. The verification of those predictions justly increase our admiration for the sublime science of astronomy.”


Crawfordsville Weekly Journal: October 26, 1865

Not to be outdone, the Crawfordsville Review (yes, the town had two newspapers) also provided eclipse coverage on October 28, and its own illustration of the event, prepared by Professor John Campbell of Wabash College.



The newspaper heaped praise on Prof Campbell and his "splendid diagram," and stated that it was "a grand triumph of skill and should encourage the artist in further attempts to illustrate with his pencil and graver any additional celestial object or phenomena that may be noticed by the Professor in his searching glances through space." Whether there was sarcastic intent to this report from the Review is unclear.


As noted above, large sections of Indiana would be under a total solar eclipse in 1869, while adjacent areas, including Indianapolis, would see a partial eclipse. However, Calvin Fletcher would not view that eclipse, and his report on the 1865 event would be the last eclipse report in his diary. He died in May of 1866 due to injuries sustained in a fall from his horse.



Sources


Gayle Thornbrough, ed. et al, The Diary of Calvin Fletcher (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1978), vols. 1 and 9.


Greencastle Banner: October 21, 1865


Richmond Palladium: October 26, 1865


Crawfordsville Review: October 28, 1865


Crawfordsville Weekly Journal: October 26, 1865


Indianapolis Dailey Sentinel: October 20, 1865


Indianapolis Journal: October 20, 1865







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