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The Night the Stars All Fell

by

Sandra Nipper Ratledge

Across the "Bible Belt" in the United States, folks were indoctrinated from their childhood with New Testament theology about the end times or latter days. Most people lived with an expectant and watchful attitude toward the Apocalypse and the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. In many church services, they heard Jesus' warnings about the latter days as recorded in the gospel of Matthew 24:7, "For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom : and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places."

Thus, at one time or other in centuries past, scores of our ancestors have quaked in fear that the world was surely ending. Usually, some terrorizing event triggered in them that most dreadful conclusion. Such a catastrophe might well have been an earthquake comparable to San Francisco's 1906 quake resulting in a great fire that raged for three and a half days.1 Similarly, any devastating event -- for example, one like the deadliest hurricane ever to hit the United States killing 6,000 people and leveling Galveston Island, TX on September 8, 19002 -- left people panic-stricken. In less technologically advanced times, destructive volcanic eruptions like Mt. St. Helen's in Washington, May 18, 1980, have caused similar reactions among residents in the devastated regions.

In addition, comets, colloquially named "shooting stars," have wreaked havoc in the lives of common people throughout recorded history. "In ancient times, and indeed in many places up to present days, they have frequently been regarded as signs from the gods usually portending disaster."3 Probably the most widely known comet is Halley's. It was named for Edmund Halley, a British astronomer, mathematician, and inventor, who observed it in 1682 and later predicted its return within intervals of approximately seventy-six years.4

Chancery Court Records of McMinn County, Tennessee document the appearance of Halley's Comet in 1835 from accounts of eyewitnesses living on farms in the vicinity of Buttram's Methodist Church. Without question, comets and meteors were certainly more observable from the pastoral countryside in 1835 during an era when the world was far less illumined by electrical devices. This memorable astral event is recorded in a suit filed on July 5, 1856, by Simon M. Boggess against Adolphus H. Crow as follows:

Boggess bought land from Crow. Suit concerns a spring on the land, Crow and his witnesses say spring is a good one if kept cleaned out, and Boggess and his witnesses saying it is a wet-weather spring. Boggess asks for compensation. He was of Meigs Co. when deed was made. The land was known as the Goodson quarter and John H. Crow formerly lived there. Goodson bought the land (which adjoins Lewis Stanton's land) from Wm. Hodge who bought from John Kitchens. All witnesses depose in 1857. Annis McCuiston, age forty-six, wife of Robert McCuiston age forty-six, daughter of old man Langford (Lankford) who lived on the land and who died there on Nov. 12, the year the stars fell, twenty-four years ago, and she is sister-in-law to John Kitchens who died recently in the neighorhood. David McCuiston age forty-three deposes that Boggess was partly raised near the land and he put his future father-in-law Samuel McKehan as tenant on the land adjoining the land in dispute. John H. Crow age seventy-seven, William G. (Buck) West age forty-seven and his wife Agnes age forty-seven, William Shook age thirty-five have all lived on the land and Sipley Sowell age fifty-one lives there now. John H. Crow is father of John M. (Jack) Crow and A. H. Crow. 11 Mar. 1857, witness John Kitchen age seventy-nine has known the land ever since the country was settled. Peter Wattenbarger age sixty deposes that old man Lankford died the night the stars shot. Lewis Stanton age forty-one has lived adjoining the land nine years the last time and two years before. Arty (signed Articimea) Stanton, age thirty-eight, wife of Lewis, deposes it has been thirty-six years or more since her father moved to head of Spring Creek. William Brotherton age fifty-five and wife Ann age forty-five are witnesses and there are many others.5

Noted American writer Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, said that he "came in" with Halley's Comet in 1835 and thought it fitting "to go out" when the comet reappeared. Approximately seventy-six years later, just after his death on April 21, 1910, the comet once again blazed across the night skies but this time with a vivid and unusual brightness. This particularly brilliant display on May 19, 1910, was thought to be caused by the movement of Earth through the tail of Halley's Comet.6

Hereabouts in the remote hills and hollows of Monroe, McMinn, and Polk Counties in Southeastern Tennessee, the appearance of such spectacular fireworks in the heavens made people tremble frantically. Upon seeing the radiant shower of "shooting stars," Christians far and wide immediately remembered Jesus' own description of His second coming as recorded in Matthew 24:27, 29, and 30:

For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken : And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven : and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and glory.

Here in the Knobs, common folks were frozen with fear -- aghast that everyone and everything was about to perish. Unnatural times these seemed when phenomena occurred more inexplicable than the occasional flood or tornado. My great-grandmother America "Merky" (Davis) Hampton, age twenty-seven at that time, recounted the eerie details and described the frightening event many years later to my mother. Even my grandmother Azilee Hampton, who was only nine years old in 1910, remembered this frightening experience. Distraught women wailed and wrung their hands in alarm. At night, folks huddled in root cellars for safety. By day, people in the Knobs flocked to churches for prayer services, fell on their knees, repented, and accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. This was a time when the unchurched sought solace in the Everlasting Arms and refuge in religion. Even Christians rededicated their lives to Christ.

As their ancestors recalled the memorable 1835 sighting of Halley's Comet as "the year the stars shot," so folks around Liberty Hill always referred to the 1910 recurrence as "the night the stars all fell." At the beginning of the twentieth century, many people still believed comets were portentous of catastrophes, great upheavals, disasters, and wars. However uncanny it may seem, World War I, "the war to end all wars," followed soon after the 1910 appearance of Halley's Comet.

F O O T N O T E S

1. Lynn Bresler, The Usborne Book of Earth Facts, (Tulsa, OK 1986), p. 33.
2. Mark C. Young, editor, The Guinness Book of World Records 1997, (Stamford, CT 1996), p. 57.
3. "Comet," The Standard International Encyclopedia, 1954, IV, 1093.
4. "Halley, Edmund" The Standard International Encyclopedia, 1954, VIII, 2145.
5. Reba Bayless Boyer, Chancery Court Records of McMinn County, Tennessee, (Athens, TN 1980), pp. 111 - 112.
6. Mark C. Young, editor, The Guinness Book of World Records 1997, (Stamford, CT 1996), p. 49.

"THOU SHALT NOT STEAL." DEUTERONOMY 5 : 19

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Sandra Ratledge

This site is dedicated to the memory of my mother,
Beulah Cline Nipper, a beautiful product of the Knobs.