May 19, 2015

It Happened on May 19th

Dark Day in New England, 1780

It didn't happen entirely without warning. For the previous few days the sky had had a yellowish tinge and the sun had been uncommonly red. Rainwater had a strange, oily feel to it, and there was a strange smell in the air. Even the moon had a red cast to it.

Still, it was a shock for New Englanders on May 19th, when the sun disappeared altogether. The first reports came from Rupert, New York. There, the darkness came on between 10 and 11 in the morning, and by noon it was as dark as night. At Harvard College, a student noted that by 12:45, he was unable to read his pocket watch. Farm animals returned to their barns and birds began singing their evening songs. Roosters crowed. People eating their midday meals had to do so by candlelight.

Many thought it was the end of the world. Since there was no rapid communication, no one had any idea how wide-spread the darkness was. They wondered if the sun would ever rise again.

In Hartford, Connecticut, the legislature was meeting. Many members, thinking the world was at an end, voted to adjourn. One member, Abraham Davenport, voted against it. He said, "The day of judgment is either approaching, or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause of adjournment; if it is, I choose to be found doing my duty. I wish therefore that candles may be brought."

That night, there was no moon visible, and no stars. Many spent the night in prayer, preparing for the end. They were filled with relief when the sun did indeed rise again the next morning.

The Dark Day was experienced as far north as Portland, Maine, and as far south as New Jersey. Today it is believed that the cause was a massive wildfire that took place in Eastern Ontario.

Death of "James Tiptree, Jr.", 1987

Alice Sheldon
It was well-known that "James Tiptree" was a pseudonym, but nearly everyone assumed the science fiction author was a man. Robert Silverberg remarked that, based on Tiptree's works, he could not possibly be a woman. Harlan Ellison once stated, in an introduction to an anthology, that "Wilhelm is the woman to beat this year, but Tiptree is the man." It all just seemed so obvious.

James Tiptree, Jr., however, was the pseudonym of Alice Bradley Sheldon, who began writing under it in her 52nd year. In her early life she had been a graphic artist, painter, and art critic. At the age of 27 she enlisted in the US Army Air Force and worked in photo-intelligence.

After retiring from the military, she started a small business with her husband, and began writing (under her own name.) She and her husband both worked for the CIA for a few years. After resigning from the CIA, she went to college, and received a Bachelor of Arts, and then a doctorate in Experimental Psychology.

With all this education and life experience under her belt, she then turned to writing science fiction. She chose the name Tiptree from a brand of marmalade. The "Jr." was her husband's idea. She chose a male name, she said, because she wanted to "slip by less observed. I've had too many experiences in my life of being the first woman in some damned occupation."

Sheldon freely revealed biographical details of her life to her readers -- except for her gender. Her biography was frequently printed, and "Tiptree" was known to be a pseudonym. Obviously, she never made public appearances.

"Tiptree" made the mistake of mentioning in a letter that "his" mother had died in Chicago and was also a writer. This led fans to the obituary pages, and Sheldon's true identity was soon revealed. It didn't seem to affect her popularity as a writer much.

Sheldon committed suicide on May 19, 1987 at the age of 71. She had first killed her 84-year-old husband, who was ill and nearly blind. The couple was found in their home, hand-in-hand in bed. A suicide note that Sheldon had composed years earlier was found with them.

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