Annie Jump Cannon: Account of the Total Eclipse

Photo of Annie Jump Cannon, California, 1923. Reproduced from Harvard University Archives.

[Background Note: Annie Jump Cannon traveled to Virginia Beach, VA to see the total solar eclipse of May 28, 1900. She wrote this journal shortly after observation. The journal is now part of the Papers of Annie Jump Cannon, 1863-1978 collection at the Harvard University Archives (HUGFP 125). This transcription of the original was written by Alex McGrath, 2017. Reproduction courtesy of Harvard University Archives.]

About 6 min. before totality, I turned my back to the sun and faced the west, from whence the shadow was coming. People’s faces had a queer nervous look at this time. Is it any wonder that the colored folks of Virginia Beach search for their preacher to come and pray with them while that “black monster et up the sun”? [sic] One old lady on the roof was holding a large umbrella, and the sun was then a thin crescent of light. I wonder if she held it up during the eclipse..

The rolling darkness was unlike anything I have ever seen. It did not seem like the coming of night on the beach. It was more like the gathering of a mighty storm. The effect on the harbor, on a wooded promontory, and on Hampton Roads in the distance was weird and unnatural. Below us, we are told birds sing at their nests, and the chickens wander to roost. The air grew colder, the fall in the temperature was said to be slight, but I experienced a very chilly sensation as totality approached. This may have been to mental rather than physical conditions. The great shadow was coming with enormous speed from the west.

Under the falls of Niagara, on top of Vesuvius, had before seemed to me to be the times of my life when I was nearest to the forces of nature. But those experiences were nothing to this. One more thought came suddenly just before totality — that the human mind had after all learned to predict this phenomenon. Never before had the human intellect seemed to majestie as when standing before this rapidly vanishing sun and there flashes before the myriad’s eye the long line of searchers after truth who had made it possible for us to-day to be certain of this eclipse.

Torch bearers, indeed, there have been, and Tycho Brahe himself, one of the greatest observers of all ages, is said to have received his wits in astronomy from an eclipse observation. In 1560, when 15 years old: “Something divine that man could know the motions of the heavenly bodies so accurately that they could long before predict their place.”

Another word for this diary. When totality was called, we faced the east. The supreme moment had come. The grandeur and yet the awfulness of that vision cannot be described. A friend aptly remarked “It was like the hand of God raised in mid-air.” We had about 100 seconds of totality, to see so much. The pearly corona, the planet Mercury, flames colored near the sun — who could but give one thought to Copernicus on his deathbed? There was a brilliant glow in the sky near the horizon, an uncanny light on the sea, and several good looks with eyes and binoculars, and the brilliant edge of the sun came forth as if with a mighty bound. A great still was perceived. We had agreed to be silent for 10 minutes to think and write about the observation.

Some say they saw the corona after totality. I was not sure.
The prominences were not stately, perhaps due to sunspots … [ill.]
Skies were clear from Florida to Spain, and thence to Egypt.

Source: Papers of Annie Jump Cannon, 1863-1978, 125.45 Box 1. Eclipse Papers. Some used Jan 7, 1925 “Solar Eclipse:” Diary from 1900 eclipse. Harvard University Archives (HUGFP 125).

Alex McGrath

Archives Assistant at Wolbach Library
Alex is the Archival Assistant at Wolbach.