By Laura Suchan, Executive Director
In Thomas Conant’s book, Upper Canada Sketches, published in 1898, he traces the Conant family’s journey from Devon England, to Massachusetts and eventually to a new life in Canada. The book contains a number of illustrations by artist E.S. Shrapnel, known for his landscape paintings and genre scenes. This article is about the illustration appearing on page 144 entitled “World to Come to An End: Stars are Falling.” All quotations are from Upper Canada Sketches, unless otherwise noted.
In Upper Canada Sketches, Thomas Conant, recounts a mysterious incident that his father, Daniel Conant, witnessed as a young man. On the evening of November 12, 1833 while salmon-spearing from a boat at Port Oshawa, Daniel witnessed an astonishing sight as “globes of fire as big as goose eggs began falling all around his boat.” Unbeknownst to him, he had just witnessed a very intense Leonid Meteor Shower, which occur approximately every 33 years. This particular meteor shower was one of the most prolific of all time, with an estimated 240,000 meteors falling in nine hours.1 The storm was seen everywhere in North America east of the Rocky Mountains. So astonishing was the sight that newspapers in Europe even talked about it. This particular storm eventually led to a theory on the origins of meteors.
Becoming increasingly frightened as the fire-balls continued to fall from the sky, Daniel decided it was a good time to take his salmon and go home. As he reached his home (Lot 6, B.F., East Whitby), he found the whole household awake and watching the spectacle, apparently too “aroused and frightened” to be able to sleep. In time, the meteors appeared to be slowing in intensity, so everyone “went to bed to pass a restless night after the awe-inspiring scene they had witnessed.”
Rising well before the sun next morning, Daniel was surprised to see the sky was still filled with the shooting stars. Quickly, “he called his hired help in the lumbering business, to come down the stairs. They needed not a second invitation.” One man by the name of Shields was so overwhelmed he dropped to his knees and began to pray (you can see him in the illustration). Daniel went out doors and was surprised to note the balls of fire did not burn or hurt. Thomas Conant makes note that everyone in the household was frightened, “Of the grandeur of the unparalleled scene my father said almost nothing, for I am led to think they were all too thoroughly frightened to think of beauty, that being a side issue.”
Daniel decided to visit a neighbor, “a preacher of some renown in the locality.”2 Arriving at his house, Daniel found “the preacher, already awake, was seated at the table beside a tallow dip reading his Bible, with two other neighbors listening and too frightened, he said, to even bid him good morning. He sat and listened to verse after verse and still the stars fell. The preacher gave no explanation or sign.” Noticing day was about to break, Daniel left the preacher’s home and once more ventured outside. On his walk back home, Daniel searched the ground but could find no evidence that the fire balls caused any damage and “what became of the stars that fell he could not conjecture.” A sailor, Horace Hutchinson, wrote a verse (or doggerel as Thomas calls it) about the event,
I well remembered what I see,
In eighteen hundred and thirty-three,
When from the affrighted place I stood
The stars forsook their fixed abode.
The next Leonid Meteor Shower happened in 1866-1867 at which time the Comet Tempel-Tuttle was determined to be the source of the meteors. The next occurrence of a prolific Leonid Meteor Shower is expected in 2033.
About the Illustration
The illustrations E.S. Shrapnel (1847-1920) rendered for Upper Canada Sketches are reminiscent of his work in portraying the landscapes and stories of Canada’s wilderness. Thomas said Shrapnel painted the picture from an actual photograph of the house. Notice how he inserted the praying figure of the hired man Shields in the doorway. Sonya Jones, Curator of Collections at The Robert McLaughlin Gallery, sums up the whimsical nature of Stars are Falling,
This charming folk art piece by Edward Shrapnel clearly captures the awe and fear that would have accompanied a meteor shower at this time. The smoldering meteors on the foreground, the lit up night sky, the body language of the figures, all add a rich narrative to this otherwise simply executed work. Folk art is often effective in telling stories in simple but clear ways.