The old Adams County jail wasn’t the most secure of prisons. Early in the morning of November 12, 1833, a convicted murderer was so scared that he broke out of the prison, according to the History of Adams County published in 1886. Though the man was free from prison, he still wore shackles. He ran to the nearest blacksmith shop and filed them off. Then, “as he forgot to come back and give himself up to be hanged, it may be inferred he is still fleeing from the ‘stars’ that do not pursue,” according to the History of Adams County.
Few people probably even noticed the killer’s escape that evening. Their eyes were turned to the heavens watching the reason the man had become scared enough to break out.
“The whole heavens appeared to be illuminated by countless meteors, of different sizes, which darted frequently horizontally, leaving long trains, but generally fell silently to the ground, resembling, as some term it, large flakes of snow, or as if it were ‘snowing stars,’ the Gettysburg Compiler reported.
Many people reported beginning to see the falling stars around dusk the day before but the peak of activity seems to have been in the hours before dawn on the 12th. The Gettysburg Compiler called it “one of the most splendid and awful spectacles the mind can conceive of, was witnessed in the heavens.”
The murderer wasn’t the only one fearing the stars that morning. The Carlisle Volunteer noted that the sight of thousands of fiery trails in the sky started people predicting all sorts of dire consequences. “One remarked it was occasioned by the removal of Deposites from the U.S. Bank!—another, that there would be a division of the Union!!—and a third, that it was a sure sign of the rapid approach of cold weather!!!” the newspaper reported.
It wasn’t a prediction of the Apocolypse, though. The meteor shower was the Leonid Meteor Shower. It is caused in part by the comet Tempel-Tuttle, which had yet to be discovered in 1833. The comet passes the Earth every 33 years and around mid-November of the year that it passes, the Earth moves through the stream of particles and debris that the comet leaves behind.
The 1833 meteor shower was one of the more spectacular ones seen throughout America east of the Rocky Mountains. Many newspapers reported on the event.
The Gettysburg Compiler described it this way: “To form some idea of the phenomenon, the reader may imagine a constant succession of the fire balls, resembling sky rockets, radiating in all directions from a point in the heavens near the zenith, and following the arch of the sky towards the horizon. They proceeded to various distances from the radiating point, leaving after them a vivid streak of light, and usually exploding before they disappeared. The balls were of various sizes and degrees of splendor. The flashes of light, though less intense than lightning, were so bright as to awaken many people in their beds, and many were alarmed, and astonished every person who beheld it.”
The variation in intensity comes from slight variations in the path and size of the dust cloud. The deeper the earth enters it the more spectacular the meteor shower. Other big years for the meteor shower were in 1866 and 1965. No meteors were seen in 1899, which started speculation that the meteor had changed its path. However it returned again in 1932.