Summer of 1816, or, Who Knew?


My officemate at MIT has on her wall a call for papers about the Summer of 1816: Creativity and Turmoil. As she is, among other things a Shelley scholar, that year is right up her alley, so to speak, since in 1816 Percy and Mary Shelley were doing exciting things, most notably telling each other horror stories that eventually led to Frankenstein. Apparently major volcanic activity in 1815 caused major global cooling that led to a huge agricultural disaster, leading 1816 to be called the Year Without a Summer.

To put this in some kind of perspective, Jane Austen’s novel Emma came out in 1815. In the following year, Rossini’s The Barber of Seville premiered in Rome. Also the stethoscope was invented. I think of this now in part because I have been thinking about what we get taught in history, and how the Great Man Tradition of history is still running the show, even though social history (how people lived) and material history (what things people lived with) are lively trends in historical studies.

But I have looked at my high school world history textbook, and it segues from World War I to the Depression to the things that led to World War II without ever mentioning the Spanish flu that killed 500 million people worldwide between January 1918 and December 1920. But apparently that is less important to know about than World War I which only killed 10 million or so in twice the time, because it’s not political.

There’s a lot goes on we don’t get told. Or perhaps it is more apt to say that some of the things we get told are wrong. Think about the poem, “Paul Revere’s Ride” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.


Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.

He said to his friend, “If the British march
By land or sea from the town to-night,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch
Of the North Church tower as a signal light,–
One if by land, and two if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country folk to be up and to arm.”

Then he said “Good-night!” and with muffled oar
Silently rowed to the Charlestown shore,
Just as the moon rose over the bay,
Where swinging wide at her moorings lay
The Somerset, British man-of-war;
A phantom ship, with each mast and spar
Across the moon like a prison bar,
And a huge black hulk, that was magnified
By its own reflection in the tide.

Meanwhile, his friend through alley and street
Wanders and watches, with eager ears,
Till in the silence around him he hears
The muster of men at the barrack door,
The sound of arms, and the tramp of feet,
And the measured tread of the grenadiers,
Marching down to their boats on the shore.

Then he climbed the tower of the Old North Church,
By the wooden stairs, with stealthy tread,
To the belfry chamber overhead,
And startled the pigeons from their perch
On the sombre rafters, that round him made
Masses and moving shapes of shade,–
By the trembling ladder, steep and tall,
To the highest window in the wall,
Where he paused to listen and look down
A moment on the roofs of the town
And the moonlight flowing over all.

Beneath, in the churchyard, lay the dead,
In their night encampment on the hill,
Wrapped in silence so deep and still
That he could hear, like a sentinel’s tread,
The watchful night-wind, as it went
Creeping along from tent to tent,
And seeming to whisper, “All is well!”
A moment only he feels the spell
Of the place and the hour, and the secret dread
Of the lonely belfry and the dead;
For suddenly all his thoughts are bent
On a shadowy something far away,
Where the river widens to meet the bay,–
A line of black that bends and floats
On the rising tide like a bridge of boats.

Meanwhile, impatient to mount and ride,
Booted and spurred, with a heavy stride
On the opposite shore walked Paul Revere.
Now he patted his horse’s side,
Now he gazed at the landscape far and near,
Then, impetuous, stamped the earth,
And turned and tightened his saddle girth;
But mostly he watched with eager search
The belfry tower of the Old North Church,
As it rose above the graves on the hill,
Lonely and spectral and sombre and still.
And lo! as he looks, on the belfry’s height
A glimmer, and then a gleam of light!
He springs to the saddle, the bridle he turns,
But lingers and gazes, till full on his sight
A second lamp in the belfry burns.

A hurry of hoofs in a village street,
A shape in the moonlight, a bulk in the dark,
And beneath, from the pebbles, in passing, a spark
Struck out by a steed flying fearless and fleet;
That was all! And yet, through the gloom and the light,
The fate of a nation was riding that night;
And the spark struck out by that steed, in his flight,
Kindled the land into flame with its heat.
He has left the village and mounted the steep,
And beneath him, tranquil and broad and deep,
Is the Mystic, meeting the ocean tides;
And under the alders that skirt its edge,
Now soft on the sand, now loud on the ledge,
Is heard the tramp of his steed as he rides.

It was twelve by the village clock
When he crossed the bridge into Medford town.
He heard the crowing of the cock,
And the barking of the farmer’s dog,
And felt the damp of the river fog,
That rises after the sun goes down.

It was one by the village clock,
When he galloped into Lexington.
He saw the gilded weathercock
Swim in the moonlight as he passed,
And the meeting-house windows, black and bare,
Gaze at him with a spectral glare,
As if they already stood aghast
At the bloody work they would look upon.

It was two by the village clock,
When he came to the bridge in Concord town.
He heard the bleating of the flock,
And the twitter of birds among the trees,
And felt the breath of the morning breeze
Blowing over the meadow brown.
And one was safe and asleep in his bed
Who at the bridge would be first to fall,
Who that day would be lying dead,
Pierced by a British musket ball.

You know the rest. In the books you have read
How the British Regulars fired and fled,—
How the farmers gave them ball for ball,
>From behind each fence and farmyard wall,
Chasing the redcoats down the lane,
Then crossing the fields to emerge again
Under the trees at the turn of the road,
And only pausing to fire and load.

So through the night rode Paul Revere;
And so through the night went his cry of alarm
To every Middlesex village and farm,—
A cry of defiance, and not of fear,
A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door,
And a word that shall echo for evermore!
For, borne on the night-wind of the Past,
Through all our history, to the last,
In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
The people will waken and listen to hear
The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,
And the midnight message of Paul Revere.


“Historians say Longfellow probably knew most of this when he wrote his poem. He had access to Revere’s written recollections, but he seems to have ignored them. “I think he told it the way he did because it’s simpler and more dramatic,” says Patrick Leehey, research director at the Paul Revere House in Boston.” (qtd. in Ewers)


“1918 Flu Pandemic.” Wikipedia. 3 Sept. 2015. Web. 1 Oct. 2015.

Ewers, Justin. “Rewriting the Legend of Paul Revere.” U.S. News & World Report.

27 June 2008. Web. 5 Oct. 2015.

3 comments on “Summer of 1816, or, Who Knew?

  1. Steven D. Lind says:

    The Inflenza epidemic claimed the life of The Rev. Harold Bellows Drew, my great uncle (and your great great uncle) in Iowa. His brother Charles went out and accompanied Harold’s body back to Connecticut where he is buried with his mother and father in Dayville.


  2. PJS says:

    See also “The Tempest-toss’d Summer of 1816: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” by John Clubbe:

    Liked by 1 person

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