Episode 46: Year Without Summer, Part II

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For many people around the world, 1816 was the oddest summer they ever lived through. Snow from the previous winter was still left in places well into the deep summer; rains and floods lashed central Europe; New England was cold and parched; and nearly everybody worried about what the anomalies were going to do to that season’s crops and foodstuffs. The effects of the strange weather ran deeper, however. It caused some people to be depressed and melancholy; others sought answers in prayers and religion; some, particularly in Europe, literally thought the end of the world was nigh. But everyone filtered the events through their own uniquely human experiences, reflecting a diverse range of reactions and world-views that our scientific understanding of the phenomenon can’t really communicate.

In this episode, the second in the series, you’ll experience a shocking midnight hallucination with Percy Bysshe Shelley; you’ll rub shoulders with recently-exhumed corpses in a New England cemetery; you’ll learn how making end-of-the-world predictions became a police matter in Italy; and you’ll ride along with a simple Massachusetts farmer as he tries to reap his stunted crops in a growing season where nothing was as it should have been. This episode contains threads that connect to various other SD installments, including Episode 14 (Down & Out at Harvard), 21 (Frankenstein), and 8 (Christmas 1814).

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Additional Materials About This Episode

As with the previous installment, it’s quite hard to find “extras” that lend themselves well to this page.

[Above] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, not long before the Year Without Summer. He’s quoted in the episode, and it was his poem “Christabel” that triggered Percy Shelley’s weird hallucination about the woman with eyes in her breasts—an image that appears in the 1986 horror film Gothic, which was profiled in Episode 20. Coleridge was unwell in summer 1816, trying unsuccessfully to kick his addiction to laudanum (opium). He died, possibly in part as a result of his addiction, in 1834.

[Above] Almanacs were ubiquitous in New England in the Second Decade. Their usually anonymous authors prided themselves on predicting the general qualities of seasons in the coming year, and not surprisingly all of them failed to predict the strange events of the Year Without Summer. Almanacs, however, were very useful at disseminating the folkloric and practical knowledge of astronomy, agriculture and husbandry that many people, especially rural farmers, relied upon to navigate their way through the world, and that knowledge was one of the major tools people used to try to make sense of the weather anomalies of 1816.

[Above] Isaiah Thomas, newspaper publisher and diarist; he also published an almanac of his own (and in fact used it as a diary, as many people did). Thomas was best known for his actions during the American Revolution, such as being the first person to read the Declaration of Independence publicly in Boston. By the 1810s he had settled into retirement and was enjoying his administration of the American Antiquarian Society, which he founded in 1812. His diary is a fascinating chronicle of the Year Without Summer, and especially the harsh winter that followed, which will be detailed in the next episode.

All images are believed to be in the public domain.

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