Walt Whitman Meteor Mystery Solved by Astronomer Sleuths

Thelong-standing mystery over exactly what famed poet Walt Whitman saw streakingthough the sky 150 years ago has apparently been solved by a team of bookwormastronomers.

Followinga trail that began with a 19th century painting and led to hundreds ofnewspaper reports, the researchers discovered that the "strange hugemeteor-procession" mentioned in Whitman's noted collection "Leaves ofGrass" indeed refers to a rare procession of earth-grazingmeteors that occurred in 1860.

"Meteorprocessions are so rare most people have never heard of them," said Texas StateUniversity physics professor Donald Olson, who worked on the investigation."There was one in 1783 and a Canadian fireball procession in 1913. Those wereall the meteor processions we knew of."

Earth-grazingmeteors unmasked

Earth-grazers enter the atmosphere at low angle, from the pointof view of a given skywatcher, and appear to scoot slowly and dramaticallyalong the horizon. They're much different than meteors appearing overheadand shooting swiftly toward the horizon

Foryears, Whitman?s description had been alternately attributed to several events,including: The 1833 Leonid meteor shower, the 1858 Leonids shower and a famous1859 fireball. [MoreLeonid meteor shower photos.]

Butthe timeframe of the poem, which is titled "Year of the Meteor," listed under"1859-1860," and includes a definite reference to the Great Comet of 1860,conflicted with the 1833 sighting.

Evidencefor the1858 sighting was also weakened when the date of a separate meteorshower observation by Whitman was corrected from 1858 to 1833. Additionally, afireball is only one blaze in the sky, while a meteor procession exhibitsmultiple blazing objects.

Olsonand his team describe their astronomical investigation in the July 2010 editionof "Sky & Telescope"magazine.

Paintingshows the way

Asingle painting by 19th century landscape artist Frederic Church was thehappenstance clue in solving the puzzle behind Whitman?s reference. Titled "TheMeteor of 1860" and picturing a procession of meteors through the night?s sky,the work was glimpsed by Olson on the back cover of an art exhibition catalog.

Uponvisiting Church?s house in New England and a research library that containedold diaries of a friend, the team learned that Church lived in Catskill, NY, inJuly 1860, when the painting was produced.

Thatdate allowed the researchers to focus their study on the time period's newspapers,which surprisingly enough verified the sighting of an Earth-grazing meteorduring the evening of July 20, 1860.

Breakingapart in the atmosphere, the meteor split into multiple fireballs that burnedoverhead in skies visible from the Great Lakes to New York State.?

TheNew York Times, Smithsonian, and Harper?s Weekly all covered the event, withScientific American calling it "the largest meteor that has ever been seen."

Accordingto Olson, the eyewitness accounts from town newspapers alone totaled in thehundreds and provided enough information about the meteor?s changing locationfor the team to extrapolate its route.???

"Fromall the observations in towns up and down the Hudson River Valley, we?re ableto determine the meteor?s appearance down to the hour and minute," Olson said."Church observed it at 9:49 p.m. when the meteor passed overhead, and WaltWhitman would?ve seen it at the same time, give or take one minute."

"Areally cool part is that the Catskill newspaper describes it as dividing intotwo parts with scintillations, exactly like the painting," said co-researcherAva G. Pope, an Honors Program at Texas State University who contributed to theproject.

Despiteits extreme rarity as an astronomical phenomenon and its heavy documentation inthe day?s newspapers and magazines, the event was forgotten by the mid-20th century,researchers said in a statement.

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Contributing Writer

Zoe Macintosh is a science writer who covered human spaceflight, astronomy and science for Space.com in 2010. She also covered general science for Space.com's sister site Live Science. Zoe studied English literature and physics at Smith College, where she also wrote for the Smith Sophian. Her work has also appeared in the National Association of Science Writers website.