Earthquake Terrors! (Snippets 57)


“Despair”, a painting of the aftermath of an earthquake by Edward Deakin, from 1906 (source:

The Royal Society of London Journal is one of the greatest sources of historical information available.  Established in 1665 as the first exclusively scientific journal in the world, it has been in continuous publication ever since.  The remit of the journal has been very wide over the years, so there is plenty to interest an historian.

In January 1753, an article was published in the journal by the Reverend Mathias Plant, titled A Journal of the Shocks of Earthquakes felt near Newbury in New England, from the year 1727 to the year 1741.  These 14 years were a period of extraordinary frequency of seismic activity, and I have selected some of the most interesting extracts from the many dozens of incidences of tremors during those years, plus some concluding thoughts from Plant about how people seemed able to sense an earthquake before it happened:

Oct. 29. 1727, being the Lord’s Day, about 40 minutes past ten the same evening, there came a great rumbling noise; but before the noise was heard, or shock perceived, our bricks upon the hearth rose up about three quarters of a foot, and seemed to fall down and loll the other way, which was in half a minute attended with the noise or burst.  The tops of our chimneys, stone fences, were thrown down; and in some places (in the lower grounds, about three miles from my house, where I dwell) the earth opened, and threw out some hundred loads of earth, of a different colour from that near the surface, something darker than your white marl in England; and in many places, opened dry land into good springs, which remain to this day; and dried up springs, which never came again.  It continued roaring, bursting and shocking our houses all that night.  Though the first was much the loudest and most terrible, yet eight more, that come that night, were loud, and roared like a cannon at distance.  It continued roaring and bursting 12 times in a day and night, until Thursday in the said week, and then was not so frequent; but upon Friday in the evening, and about midnight, and about break of day upon Saturday, three very loud roarings; we had the roaring noise upon Saturday, Sunday, Monday, about 10 in the morning, though much abated in the noise…

Tuesday, Jan 30.  About two in the afternoon, there was a very great roaring, equal to any but the first, for terror: it shook our houses so, as that many people were afraid of their falling down; pewter, etc, was shook off our dressers; the people that were in the Church for evening service, ran out; the lead windows rattled to such a degree, as that I thought they would all be broke.  And there was another shock the same day, about an hour and half after, though much abated…

September 5. 1732.  Tuesday, about noon, we had a severe shock, which was perceived at Boston and Piscataqua, but attended with little or no noise.  THe same earthquake was heard at Mountreal in Canada, at the same time, and about the same hour of the day, and did damage to 185 houses, killed seven persons, and hurt five others; and it was heard there several times afterwards, only in the night, as the newspapers gave us this account…

I thought an exact account of so remarkable a judgment, continued so long, might be acceptable: and although the first night was the most terrible, as the surprize was sudden; yet there never happened one shock amongst us, but what occasioned some alteration at that time in every person’s countenance and constitution; and which way soever any person’s face happened to be, that way the noise of the earthquake appeared to him: and I have frequently, in my conversation with sundry persons, been told by them, that for a few minutes before a shock of it came, they could foretel it by an alteration in their stomachs; occasioned (as I suppose) by an alteration in the air: I attest to the truth of the thing by my own experience.

 I have taken the liberty of editing the text as minimally as possible into something easily readable to a modern reader, without the archaic spellings and 18th Century capitalisation of every noun!

There have been many claims of human ability to sense earthquakes before they happen, with several correct predictions (and plenty of incorrect ones), but the phenomenon has never been proven one way or the other.

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About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
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