14 April 2011

The Weather 99 & 146 Years ago Tonight

Posted by Dan Satterfield

Two dramatic historical events happened on this day, and while neither was attributed to the weather, knowing what the conditions were is historically interesting. I think it adds some understanding of what it must have been like for those who were present at these events, so here is a re-write from last year on this day:


Being a history and science buff, I’ve often wondered what the weather and the sky looked like at great moments in history, and today is one of those dates.

At 13 minutes past 10 PM on Friday April 14, 1865, a gunshot rang out in Fords Theater (at Tenth and E street) in Washington and Abraham Lincoln was mortally wounded.

Forty seven years later, almost to the minute, a lookout shouted “iceberg, dead ahead!” on the Royal Mail Ship Titanic.

I’ve been researching the weather on the day Lincoln was shot, on and off, for quite a few years. It was a beautiful spring day that started with some fog and a heavy due. At the moment John Wilkes Booth fired the fatal shot, it was mostly cloudy with temps. likely in the 50’s. When Secretary of State Stanton uttered the words “Now he belongs to the ages”, (at 7 AM. Saturday) a cool and steady rain was falling in Washington.

Jim Bishop, in the book The Day Lincoln Was Shot, reports a full moon rising at the time. This is incorrect, since the moon was nearly full, but in the gibbous phase.

It IS possible to show the exact position of the stars at the moment the shot rang out in Washington. I used Stellarium to set the date and time along with the location of Washington, and the pictures below are where the stars, the moon and the planet were at that moment, when viewed from the street out front of Ford’s Theater.

The sky over Washington at 10:14 pm Friday April 14 1865. Notice the moon low in the East-Southeast. Click image for a bigger image.
Looking North at 10:14 PM in Washington April 14th 1865. Notice the big dipper high in the sky. Clouds were likely obscuring the stars somewhat at the time. Image from Stellarium.
The Moon phase at the moment President Lincoln was shot. Click image for higher resolution.

The weather at the moment of Titanic’s sinking is quite well known, a large polar high was right on top of the ship that night. The sea was described by many witnesses as like glass, and it’s thought this had something to do with not seeing the berg until it was too late. Waves would have splashed against the ice berg and perhaps made it more visible but no one can say for sure.

There was no moon that night and the air temperature was a little below freezing but, unfortunately, the water was hardly any warmer.

Below is the sky that was visible at the moment the ship hit the iceberg (Skies were completely clear with no wind).

You can see the Big Dipper on the middle left in the image and bright Vega high in the sky. Cassiopeia is visible to the right, low in the northeast sky.

Cold stars in a cold sea.