One hundred and forty-five years ago today, on October 5, 1869, a huge gale struck Nova Scotia in the Bay of Fundy area. This colossal storm turned wharves to matchsticks, threw whaling vessels around like bathtub toys and inundated the coastal zones with immense tides–by some reckoning as much as 80 feet above normal. The tides in particular were responsible for much of the human carnage. A cemetery at Hillsborough, New Brunswick is reportedly full of victims of “the tide,” but as is usual with sea storms, death tolls tend to be much higher than reported because many victims’ bodies are not recovered.

The noteworthy thing about the October 1869 gale, aside from its ferocity, was the claim that it had been predicted almost a year in advance. On Christmas Day 1868, a letter to the editor from British Royal Navy lieutenant named Stephen Saxby was published in a London newspaper. Full of information about tides and phases of the moon, Saxby predicted a major storm on the Canadian coast for October 5, 1869:

I now beg leave to the state, with regard to 1869, that at seven a.m., on October 5, the moon will be at that part of her orbit which is nearest to the earth. Her attraction will, therefore, be at its maximum force. At noon of the same day the moon will be on the earth’s equator, a circumstance which never occurs without mark atmospheric disturbance…With your permission, I will, during September next, for the safety of mariners, briefly reminding your readers of this warning. In the meantime there will be time for the repair of unsafe sea walls, and for the circulation of this notice by means of your far-reaching voice, throughout the wide world.

Saxby continued his warnings in the months leading up to the disaster. On October 1 he gave a detailed description of the coming storm, warning of the violence of the “equinoctical gale” that he insisted was coming. The actual course of the storm turned out to be eerily similar to his predictions.

The Saxby Gale of 1869 gets a mention in this video demonstrating the unusual tidal activity in the Bay of Fundy.

Prediction of the weather–especially by looking at celestial events–was something of an obsession with Stephen Saxby. In 1864 he published a book called The Weather System, which, as the title suggests, was a whole rigamarole for predicting storms based on the phases of the moon. He’d tried to interest the Royal Navy and the Royal Observatory in his theories, only to get the cold shoulder. If Saxby sounds eerily like George Mackenzie, the eccentric Scottish weather-watcher from the 1810s who you met on my blog earlier this week, it’s because they were cut from the same cloth. Mackenzie was obsessed with winds; Saxby with the Moon and astrological events. Indeed some described his approach as “astrological meteorology.”

But did Saxby and his “system” really get it right? I’m really not so sure. If you predict a gale in eastern Canada in early October, the chances of being right actually aren’t that remote. This part of the year is extremely tempestuous in northern Atlantic waters. As for the ferocity of the storm, and especially the giant tides, one should note that the Bay of Fundy has the highest tidal range in the world–55 feet in many places. The Saxby Gale set the world’s record for tidal range, that being 71 feet at the height of the storm. Certainly it’s extremely dramatic, but keep in mind that the geography and hydrography of the Bay of Fundy makes it so that tidal storms will be much more severe in their effects there than other places. Curiously the Saxby Gale didn’t do much damage other than the southern and eastern shores of Nova Scotia, where tides are most severe.

bay of fundy

The Bay of Fundy has the most severe tides in the world, resulting in strange geological formations like these.

I think Saxby’s prediction is a prime example of what we now call the “Jeane Dixon effect.” Jeane Dixon was a 20th century tabloid psychic who claimed to have predicted the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1956; when he was in fact assassinated in November 1963 the press began paying a lot of attention to her because she had been “vindicated.” The problem was that Dixon’s prediction was vague to begin with, and she made so many of them that the law of averages suggested she was bound to guess right just by accident at least once. In Saxby’s case, his prediction wasn’t very far-fetched to begin with; the approach of the Moon to the Earth does have a demonstrable effect on tides, and in the exact day and hours of the storm’s approach he was probably just lucky. We also have no idea how many other weather predictions Saxby made that turned out to be wrong. The media never reports on failed psychic predictions, only the ones that appear to be “true.” That was the case in 1869–when psychics and paranormal claims sold papers and magazines–just as it is today.

So much for Stephen Saxby. But his story is interesting at least.

The painting at the top of this article is by James Hamilton (1819-1878).
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