OK, let’s make this final act a short one. To borrow from the godmother of rock and roll, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, during the year without a summer there were strange things happening every day. During the long long winter Hungary had brown snow. Red snow fell, intermittently in the north of what is now Italy. To anyone in the vicinity of the recent Australian bushfires, including New Zealanders on 5th January 2020 when the sky turned an unbelievable amber hue – the sunsets were otherworldly in the year without a summer. In the North East of the USA, particularly around New England strange things were happening every day. Throughout spring and summer 1816 a ‘dry fog’ settled over much of the area, turning the sky red all day long. Wind wouldn’t move the fog on, nor would rain dampen it. On June 6th 1816 snow fell in Albany, New York and Dennysville, Maine – in the middle of what would usually be summer.
Frosts settled in the fields, particularly in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and upstate New York; ruining crops throughout the region, as early as May 1816. In July ice began to form in rivers and lakes in Pennsylvania. By August 1816 frosts were killing two thirds of corn crops as far south as Virginia – including recently retired president Thomas Jefferson’s plantation, Monticello. This upheaval was a major push factor leading to many farming families packing their lives into wagons and heading for pastures new.
In Norwich, Vermont the Smith family, previously from Sharon, Vermont and struggling as it was to maintain their 100 acre farm, were driven off the land due to crop failure. Mr Smith senior had set his stop loss point as a third year of ruined crops, and the year without a summer obliged. By March their apricot trees had been hit by a heavy frost, and all crops were wiped out. The Smiths headed for Palmyra, New York, a 300 mile journey in the middle of the summer snowstorms. One of the Smith family, Joseph Jr, hobbling all the way on crutches, due to a bone infection caught several years earlier.
Now I’m not going to explore this one too much further, as it has always been supposition the year without a summer had a massive impact on young Joseph, and the turn he would make a little later in life – just imagine if the world suddenly turned surreal, and if you were religiously inclined. Imagine maybe you weren’t terribly religious, but lived in a time when science could not explain the supposedly eschatological weather raging across the world – well something like the year without a summer my just provide you with your Damascene moment.
The Smith family made their way down to Palmyra, in the midst of an area which became known as the ‘Burned over district’ – a collection of towns in the west of the state, which became populated by many evacuees from New England whose farms had failed, and some of whom had divergent religious beliefs to begin with – and who became a hotbed in the years following for what came to be known as ‘the second great awakening – a radical, largely protestant religious revival in the area.
Joseph Smith was a little different from these groups. In the spring of 1820, Smith would later claim he was wandering through a place he would later name ‘the sacred grove’. He was wondering just which newfangled religious group he should join when he claims some great evil nearly overcame him – but literally Deus ex machina, God and Jesus flew down from the heavens to tell him not to join any of them, because they were all fakes. Of course in 1823 an angel called Moroni apparently flew down to tell him of a new bible he himself must bring into existence, via a golden book, a magical breastplate, and magic stones which had been buried in a hill near his home.
This Joseph Smith, fifth son of Joseph Smith Snr, charged over his life multiple times for dishonesty offences and disorderly behavior. The man who conspired to murder a Missouri Governor, and who would meet his own end being shot to death by an angry mob while held in jail for treason- would go on to create the Mormon church. Perhaps I have not dug deeply enough into the man’s writings to say Smith himself listed 1816 as an influence on his philosophical outlook, but one has to wonder. What can be said for certain is the resettlement caused by Mt Tambora in the Northeastern United States created an enclave of religious radicalism – from which the church of latter day saints emerged.