- “For the Scrutiny of Science and the Light of Revelation”American Blood Falls
For millennia, showers of blood, known variously as blood falls, rains of blood, and blood rain, have been reported in sources both historical and literary. The earliest record comes from Homer’s Iliad, in which Zeus makes it rain blood “as a portent of slaughter”: “Then, touch’d with grief, the weeping Heavens distill’d / A shower of blood o’er all the fatal field.” Pliny, Livy, and Plutarch mention actual rains of blood and flesh. Cicero recorded these events as well, but doubted their veracity. Cicero, an early proponent of the view that these rains had a natural explanation, was succeeded in the twelfth century by “the great grammarian and natural philosopher” William of Conches, who sought to explain blood falls as the result of the power of wind and the properties of condensed and heated rain.1
The phenomenon continued to be reported throughout Medieval and Renaissance England, France, Germany, Ireland, and Iceland. Contemporary chroniclers seldom recorded detailed descriptions, and the consensus was that they were omens of suffering or terrible transition. When claims of blood falls came to the New World with European settlers, they were disseminated through a powerful new medium, the newspaper. The first known report of an American blood fall was in 1708:
By Letters from Dorchester in South-Carolina of April 7th last we are acquainted, that some of their Indian Traders met with some Indians who informed them that they were being Hunting about 6 or 700 Miles from Dorchester towards the French Settlement at Mobile . . . there fell a Shower of Blood, in which they walk’d up to the Ankles.2
While it is not possible either to prove or disprove these ancient and early era claims, the real benefit of examining them lies elsewhere. In his essay “Observations on Early Medieval Weather in General, Bloody Rain in Particular,” historian Paul Edward Dutton differentiates between climate and weather. Climate, he argues, exists without us. “Weather,” however, “is the atmosphere in contact with us, and exists when we engage it physically and think about it . . . To study [End Page 93] the weather is to study the human.”3 Blood falls, oddly enough, are wonderfully revealing of societal norms.
Blood and meat showers were seen through the competing lenses of superstition and rationality. The former gradually receded as the latter advanced in the nineteenth century, culminating in the best-documented case, which occurred in Chatham County, North Carolina, in 1884. Let us first go back some eight decades previously, when science was scarcely involved.
Blood Falls as Prophecy
At the dawn of the nineteenth century, a newly formed religious group exhibited strange behavior. Known as “Schismatics,” because of their separation from the Presbyterian Church in 1803, they soon acquired another nickname: “The Jerks.” (Today they are known as Shakers.) During enormous camp meetings in Kentucky and Ohio, thousands would drop down, as if dead. Others clapped, leaped around, screamed, and engaged in “exercises which were believed to have been of an involuntary kind.”
In the rolling exercise, as it was called, they appeared to be forcibly thrown down, and to roll over and over like a log, or in a kind of double posture to turn like a wheel. Sometimes they went in this manner through mud and dirt, which was considered very degrading. In the jirking exercise the head appeared to be violently moved towards one shoulder, then the other, and backwards and forwards. Here it may be observed, that during the time they were under these operations, though they were often exposed to imminent danger, yet few received any hurt . . . The jirking exercise was sometimes accompanied, and often succeeded the barking. In this exercise both men and women personated and took the position of a dog, moved about in a horizontal posture upon their hands and feet, growled, snapped their teeth, and barked as if they were affected with the hydrophobia.4
As with most radical sects, the Jerks looked for a divine imprimatur and put special store by the prophecy of Joel: “And ye shall know that I am in the midst of...