Submitted by Paul Markovits, St. Louis Eclipse 2017 Task Force Member
The following is an excerpt from The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster’s Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture by Joshua Kendall, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, NY, 2010, pp. 250-251. ISBN-978-0-399-15699-1
“DARKNESS AT NOON!”
“The Great Eclipse of the Sun!” So exclaimed the headlines of America’s leading newspapers in the weeks leading up to Monday, June 16, 1806.
Webster the amateur meteorologist was caught up in the national excitement about this once-in-a-lifetime event. He began giving daily lectures to his wife and children about the meaning of this remarkable phenomenon, thoughts which later worked their way into his 1828 definition of eclipse: “Literally, a defect or failure; hence in astronomy, an interception or obscuration of the light of the sun, moon or other luminous body.”
On the morning of the sixteenth, Webster equipped each of his three girls—Julia, Harriet and Mary—with a piece of smoked glass as they headed off to school. (Emily, the eldest, then sixteen, had completed her education and was visiting her uncle Thomas Dawes in Boston.) He wanted to make sure that they could keep peering into the sky as the moon began to cover the sun that afternoon.
Webster’s girls attended the Union School on Crown Street, which their father had been instrumental in launching in 1801. Pedagogy was Webster’s passion, and when he found out that New Haven lacked an adequate school for ladies, he organized the town’s parents. Within just a couple of years, nearly seventy girls had signed up. At the Union Schools, the girls learned the three Rs as well as sewing. As chairman of the trustees, Webster himself signed the hundred shares that had been sold to raise money for its founding.
As noon approached, Webster’s daughters were eager with anticipation. But suddenly, much to their surprise and consternation, their teacher, Miss Eunice Hall, took away their optical safeguards. Picking up a piece of smoked glass, she held it to her eye and declared, “Oh, I would not have you see it for the world.” Wedded to superstition, Miss Hall had no interest in science instruction. Closing the windows and shutters, the teacher transformed the classroom into a den of darkness. Though study was nearly impossible, Miss Hall did not dismiss the students early. By the time Webster’s daughters arrived back at the Arnold House, it was too late to see even a glimpse of what one paper called “one of the most sublime spectacles this age has produced.” During the eclipse, the particular cast of light shrouded America in a deathlike gloom.
Until that day, Eunice Hall had been highly regarded in and around New Haven. A month earlier, the Connecticut Journal praised her “genius and industry” during the school’s two-day annual exhibition held in the assembly room of the state house. Rebecca, who had attended to watch her girls, was also impressed by Miss Hall’s pedagogical skills. As a result of the teacher’s direction, Rebecca reported to traveling Webster, “The young ladies performed extremely well.”
But Webster was aghast by Miss Hall’s actions on the afternoon of the sixteenth. “A teacher who shows herself so ignorant and tyrannical,” he told his family, “is not fit to instruct children.”
Webster’s second eldest, Julia, the school’s reigning wit, was equally outraged. Indulging her taste for doggerel, she wrote a poem about a cauldron of comestibles to which each student contributed something. The last line featured the person who had ruined her day:
Julia Webster, put in a lobster,
Eunice Hall, ate it all.
According to the family’s account contained in the biography by his granddaughter, Webster immediately withdrew his daughters from the school. But in fact, it was Miss Hall who ended up having to change venues. A month later, the teacher put the following notice in the Connecticut Journal, “Miss Hall… shall discontinue keeping the Union School for young ladies and misses…she intends opening a similar school in New Haven on her own account, where she hopes by an assiduous attention to her school, to merit the approbation of the public and her employers."