The Solar Eclipse…of 1887

Today, 21 August 2017, much of the United States will be in the path for viewing a solar eclipse. I wondered if the event would be scary for young children that don’t yet understand the scientific concept of what is happening. Then again, even when you do understand it, seeing the sun blotted out is still a little unsettling. I looked to see if there was a similar eclipse that my ancestors may have witnessed, and there was.

On August 19, 1887 a total solar eclipse was visible in Europe, Asia, and the Arctic. The path of totality stretched over Germany and Poland (and all the way to Japan). It occurred very early in the morning, just after sunrise. Where were my ancestors on this date?

My Bavarian great-grandparents were teenagers at the time. Josef Bergmeister was 14 years old and living in Regensburg with his family including a sister (17), brother (11), and two half-brothers who were just toddlers (1 and 2). Miles away in Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm, Josef’s future wife, Maria Echerer, was 12 years old and had several younger brothers and sisters. I can imagine that at that age it would have been a very exciting event. I’m not sure what the weather was like in their hometowns that day, but in Berlin, north of where they lived, it was reported that its 1.3 million residents were disappointed due to severe cloudy weather.

In Poland, my Piątkowski great-grandfather, Jan, was 16 years old and living in Warsaw with his parents and sisters. His future wife, Rozalia Kieswetter, was 21 years old and also lived in the city with many brothers and sisters. Warsaw was not in the path of totality, and many residents traveled to Vilnius to get a better glimpse of the event. Apparently the weather was better there. According to the Polish version of the eclipse’s Wikipedia page, the eclipse was described in a letter to a magazine as follows (translation by Google Translate):

“The sun disk was surrounded by a bright, silvery crown and with rays of uneven length; By using the binoculars they were able to see mainly at the bottom of the sun, red explosions, appearing and disappearing momentarily – they were shaped like tongues or slightly curly tails.”

A painting of the 1887 solar eclipse by Wilhelm Kranz

Elsewhere in Poland, my great-grandfather Józef Zawodny and his future wife, Wacława Ślesiński, were only 7 years old and both living in the area near Wilczyn. My final set of great-grandparents, Ludwik Pater and Elżbieta Miller, were not yet born! But, their parents were living in Żyrardów near Warsaw. Antonina Pater, my great-great grandmother, was about 7.5 months pregnant at the time with her daughter, Franciszka. The Miller’s already had three children under the age of six. Given the bad “reviews” of the eclipse due to weather, they may not have seen anything at all.

One of Poland’s literary greats, Bolesław Prus, witnessed the eclipse and wrote about it for a newspaper. But he also incorporated it into one of his famous novels, Faraon (Pharaoh), written in 1895. In the climactic scene of the novel, Pharoah’s nemesis uses his knowledge of the coming eclipse to pretend that he has actual power over the sun (Mark Twain would steal Prus’ idea in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court!).

I had to laugh at the fact that weather ruined the eclipse in 1887. Living in Philadelphia, nearly every time we’re scheduled to witness a solar or lunar eclipse, or an event like a comet or meteor shower, we tend to have bad weather (not so for today’s forecast). So I sympathize with the Europeans of 1887!

I did find one other interesting note in reviewing data on past solar eclipses. In 1925, all of my great-grandparents described above (included the two that weren’t yet born in 1887) were living in Philadelphia (one was deceased by then) and had teenagers, my future grandparents. There was a solar eclipse visible in Philadelphia on January 24, 1925. I can imagine my grandparents being told, “Back when I was your age, we had an eclipse back home. Not much to see though…”

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One thought on “The Solar Eclipse…of 1887

  1. Wow. It is extraordinary that you know where your great-grandparents where during that eclipse! And you pose an interesting question, I wonder what they thought of this happening? Did they have enough information to know that it was an reoccurring event or did they think it was going to be something disastrous? And your grandparents got to see an eclipse as well? The technology that must have changed from one to another must have impressed your great-grandparents. Thank you for sharing that!

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