OttawaMatters.com, in partnership with the Historical Society of Ottawa, brings you this weekly feature by Director James Powell, highlighting a moment in the city's history.
September 22, 1882
Canadians love to talk about the weather. This undoubtedly reflects the fact that we get a lot of it -- four distinct seasons with a wide variability of rain, snow, wind, and temperature. In Ottawa, temperatures of plus or minus 30 degrees Celsius are not unusual.
Weather-loving Canadians may also be channelling their farming forebears.
During the days before the Weather Network or Environment Canada, when Canada was primarily an agricultural country, the weather really mattered. Livelihoods depended (and still do) on the right mix of sun and rain. For farmers, a reliable weather forecast might mean the difference between a good harvest and crops rotting in the fields. For fishermen, an ability to read the clouds and other signs of approaching storms literally meant life or death. Recall the adage: 'Red sky at night, sailors’ delight. Red sky in morning, sailors take warning.'
It's therefore not surprising that in the years before meteorology became a serious science, famers’ almanacs, which provided detailed weather forecasts, were popular. Any guidance about weather trends, however dubious, was welcomed.
The Old Farmer’s Almanac, founded in 1792, remains in print today. Based on arcane weather lore, its weather predictions are still eagerly read, if not taken seriously.
Back in the 1870s, a well-respected almanac was produced by Henry George Vennor of Montreal. Vennor came to prominence when he accurately predicted a green Christmas for Montreal in 1875. The Vennor Almanac was much sought after throughout North America until Vennor’s premature death in 1884.
As a weather prophet, Vennor was eclipsed by another Canadian, Ottawa’s Dr. Ezekiel Stone Wiggins, who took the weather forecasting business to a whole new level.
On September 22, 1882, he announced in the Ottawa Citizen that:
"A great storm will strike this planet on the 9th of March next. It will first be felt in the Northern Pacific and will cross the meridian of Ottawa at noon (5 o’clock London time) on Sunday, March 11th, 1883. No smaller vessel than a Cunarder [a large passenger ship of the Cunard Line] will be able to live in this tempest. India, the south of Europe, England, and especially the North American continent will be the theatre of its ravages. As all the low lands on the Atlantic will be submerged, I advise ship-builders to place their prospective vessels high up on the stocks, and farmers having loose valuables as hay, cattle, etc., to remove them to a place of safety. I beg further most respectfully to appeal to the Honorable Minister of Marine, that he will peremptorily order up the storm flags on all the Canadian coast not later than the 20th February, and thus permit no vessel to leave harbor. If this is not done hundreds of lives will be lost and millions worth of property destroyed."
In November 1882, Wiggins sent a telegram to President Arthur of the United States in which the doctor reiterated his fantastic prediction. He also fine-tuned his forecast adding that the "planetary force" would especially submerge the coastal lands bordering the Gulf of Mexico and those "washed by the Gulf stream" (i.e. from Florida to the Carolinas) and that the New England States would suffer "severely from the wind and floods." As well, there would be "universal destruction" along the east side of the Rocky Mountains, "owing to the great stratospheric pressure in those regions."
He added that the March 1883 storm would be "the greatest storm that has visited this continent since the days of your illustrious first President." He advised President Arthur to order "all United States ships into safe harbor not later than March 5th till this storm shall have passed."
News of Wiggins’ prophecy was picked up by American newspapers across the United States. There was little commentary about the merits of the forecast, though a few papers noted that "a Toronto press dispatch says Wiggins’ standing as scientific authority is somewhat doubtful."
Some papers gave Wiggins the benefit of that doubt. One Kansas newspaper recalled that before the biblical flood, people had scoffed at Noah and his ark. The newspaper opined that "Wiggins and his kind deserved encouragement."
News of Wiggins’s storm also crossed the Atlantic, and was even reported in New Zealand.
Official reaction to Wiggins’ forecasts were decidedly negative.
Charles Carpmael, director of Canada’s meteorological service based in Toronto, told the Minister, "We have no reason to anticipate any violent disturbance between the 9th and 11th of March." He added, "Mr. Wiggins’ letter is patently absurd."
The American reaction was less restrained.
General W. B. Hazen, the U.S. Chief Signal Officer, said, "Too severe rebuke cannot be inflicted upon those who attempt to deceive or needlessly alarm the people by publishing such statements as that of Mr. Wiggins. Their words are totally untrustworthy and the people should be so informed by those who are familiar with the subjects upon which these prophets presume to speak. Such statements fill lunatic asylums, and those who make them are enemies of society."
Hazen noted that it is difficult to refute such predictions since there are bound to be storms in March on or about the date specified. Over the previous ten years, there had been on average a dozen March storms. He added that meteorology is in its infancy, and that nobody can forecast more than a few days ahead, at most a week.
"All predictions of the weather to be expected a month or more in advance, whether based upon the position of the planets, or of the moon, or upon the number of sun spots, or upon any supposed law of periodicity of natural phenomena, or upon any hypothesis whatever which to-day has its advocates, are as unreliable as predictions of the time when the end of the world shall come."
Despite the official rejection of Wiggins’ prophesy, many people took him seriously, or at least wanted to err on the side of caution despite the fact that Wiggins had no track record of success, beyond what he himself trumpeted in the press.
So who was Dr. E. Stone Wiggins, and why was he so convincing?
Wiggins was born in 1839 in Queens County in central New Brunswick. His family descended from United Empire Loyalists, who had fled north from New York after the American Revolution. Settling in New Brunswick, the family became prosperous merchants. After his early education in New Brunswick, E. Stone Wiggins became a teacher in Ontario, and the author of a book on English grammar for school children. He married his cousin Susan Anna Wiggins, age 16, in 1861.
An amateur astronomer, Wiggins published at the age of only 24, a book titled The Architecture of the Heavens in which he claimed to have discovered that comets travelled through space by virtue of the positive and negative forces of electricity. In the same volume, he postulated the existence of dark planets that emitted no light. (While this might be interpreted as foreshadowing the concept of black holes, in Wiggins’ universe, planets and stars were dark if they had no atmosphere.) For this book, he was apparently awarded an honorary doctorate by some un-named school. He later took second place for a prize among 125 astronomers for an essay on comets.
In 1866, Wiggins was appointed superintendent of schools in Prince Edward County on Lake Ontario. He later attended the Philadelphia School of Medicine and Surgery, obtaining his M.D. in 1869. Returning to Canada, he was awarded a B.A. from Albert College, Ontario. He later became principal of a school for the blind in Brantford.
Returning to New Brunswick in 1874, he established a boys’ school in Saint John.
In 1878, he unsuccessfully ran as the Conservative candidate for Queens County. Sir Leonard Tilley, who was from the same county and who became Finance Minister in the Conservative government of Sir John A. Macdonald, gave Wiggins a post in his department in Ottawa, a position he held until retirement in1908.
Wiggins’ credibility as a weather prognosticator likely derived from the fact that he was a university-educated "astronomer" working for the Canadian government. (What he actually did for the Department of Finance is unclear.)
He was also likeable and articulate, and held a fervent belief in his own forecasting ability. So convinced was he of his prophecy of a storm of biblical proportions that he published the criticisms levelled at him by the Canadian and American government meteorologists in his Wiggins’ Storm Herald with Almanac, 1883, along with his warning messages to the Canadian and American authorities.
As you might imagine, the world watched with bated breath the arrival of Wiggins’ storm.
Fishermen on the east coast pulled in their boats. Passengers on trans-Atlantic liners postponed voyages. The day before his predicted Armageddon, Wiggins announced that the planets were moving into alignment for the great storm.
But on March 9, the weather across Canada was reported as being exceptionally fine. Wiggins still confidently predicted that the storm would hit the following day as heavy meteor showers during the previous two days showed that "an unusual pressure may be expected on the earth."
According to the Globe newspaper, Wiggins couldn’t sleep the five nights before the predicted date of his storm. He also had received threatening letters from people. One said that if there were no storm "he had better secure a lot in the Beechwood Cemetery."
Early in the morning of March 10, a large group of women asked Wiggins where they could find safety. Wiggins assured them that Ottawa would only get the tail end of the storm.
In the event, Ottawa got 18 centimetres of snow on Sunday March 11, the day that he had predicted that the great storm was to pass the meridian of Ottawa -- admittedly not a very pleasant day but hardly an event of biblical proportions.
In Toronto, the Globe reported that the wind was "scarcely ruffling feathers in ladies’ hats." There was no flooding of the eastern seaboard. No lives were lost at sea, and there were no financial losses.
Newspapers denounced Wiggins as a fake and a charlatan.
One paper called him "a contemptible nincompoop who has produced a commotion more injurious to the human family than the kick of Mrs O’Leary’s cow [that caused the Chicago fire]." Another American newspaper said, "Some philanthropic Canadian woman should send Mr. Wiggins a thimble in which to soak his head."
Wiggin’s responded, "It is evident from the failure of my predictions that something is wrong with the solar system if not with the Cosmos."
He hypothesized that there was a dark moon "the invisibility of which may account for its never having been discovered, while its mere existence as a satellite of the earth will explain the apparent failure of my best-predicted storms."
Notwithstanding his failure, Wiggins continued to issue weather forecasts. However, he became discouraged.
In early 1886, he despondently told an Ottawa Journal reporter that although he had foreseen the big storm of the previous October and had been on the way to the press to warn people, he had "turned back too much mental wear and tear to make these predictions even when you know you are right."
Instead of the weather, Wiggins turned to predicting earthquakes, which he believed were also caused by celestial forces.
Following the major Charleston earthquake that struck at the end of August 1886, Wiggins predicted an even larger tremor would hit the southern United States a month later.
Despite his failure to predict the Charleston quake and efforts of newspapers and experts to allay concerns, people became terrified. On the day of his predicted tremor, many people in Atlanta spent the night in churches praying. Shops didn’t open, schools remained deserted, and high buildings were emptied of their occupants.
When no shock materialized there was a "widespread feeling of relief in the community" along with widespread condemnation of Wiggins.
The Moncton Transcript opined that "It is about time Wiggins as a prophet was suppressed and compelled to attend the work for which the country pays him."
Oddly, when Ottawa experienced a minor earthquake in January 1888, Wiggins, the prophet, slept through it.
When asked, Wiggins attributed the tremor to "the sun, which was near the tropic of Capricorn." He added that there would be no serious disturbance for many years, but North America should watch out after August 19, 1904. (The great San Francisco earthquake struck in April 1906.)
Wiggins had many other interesting and entertaining ideas:
- He thought the world was solid and if you dug to its centre, temperatures would drop. Similarly, he believed the closer one got to the sum the lower the temperature.
- He had little sympathy with "the prejudices of the old school men [who] persist in declaring that our moon is a dead planet and is not possessed of an atmosphere."
- He also believed that plesiosaurs, an extinct marine reptile of the Jurassic Period, existed in Rice Lake, Ontario and in the North Atlantic.
- When a meteor fell in upstate New York in 1897, Wiggins thought it contained hieroglyphs that were a message from Martians.
- At one time, he asserted that there would come a time when "generals on the battlefield would converse with each other by merely striking their swords into the ground."
Things he did get right include his forecast that one day a traveller would be able "to converse with his family while trudging his weary way to the northern pole." Hinting at global warming to come, Wiggins claimed that "every man and animal is a stove to raise the temperature." He anticipated that some day one would be able to grown oranges in Canada.
Wiggins and his wife lived on Daly Street for much of their lives in Ottawa.
In the early 1890s, the couple built Arbour House in the then summer resort town of Britannia where they were pillars of the community.
Wiggins was the commodore of the Britannia Yacht Club in 1899.
He died at their summer cottage in 1910. Wiggins was buried in Queens County, New Brunswick at St Luke’s Anglican Church at Youngs Cove. The memorial on his grave reads Professor E. Stone Wiggins B.A., M.A., M.D., L.L.D. Canada’s Distinguished Scientist and Scholar. DEC. 3 1839-AUG. 14 1910. His wife Susie. In 1994, the City of Ottawa designated Arbour House as a heritage property.