The 1791 earthquake that was CT’s largest ever recorded—and the legend that “predicted” it
May 9, 2023
A stranger is said to have arrived in East Haddam at some point in the 1700s. No one knows when for sure. His name was Dr. Steal, but in later decades that would be misspelled as Steele. Some said he was an alchemist, others called him a wizard. Whatever he was, it was clear he understood forces beyond this world, and it was those forces that had drawn him to Connecticut.
For some time before the stranger’s arrival, the town of East Haddam had been plagued by eruptions of strange and haunting noises that sounded to some as though the earth itself were an animal crying out in pain. These sounds seemed to emanate from the area of town now known as Moodus, a name derived from a longer Native American term for “place of bad noises.”
The cataclysmic cacophony had brought Steal to town. After locals gave him directions to the Salmon River, he searched where it met with the Moodus River and dug out two carbuncles, mystical stones that had infected the land and were the source of the mysterious noises. Dr. Steal departed with the stones but warned that there were seedlings buried in the same wet sand that would eventually grow, and the sounds would return.
This piece of Connecticut folklore explains the Moodus Noises, a phenomenon that has been observed off and on throughout the region’s history and which we now know is caused by earthquakes. But the first known version of Dr. Steal’s story appeared in 1790 in a letter that was published in New London’s Connecticut Gazette. The following year the murmurs in the earth would indeed return, but this time with more fury than they had before or since.
On May 16, 1791, the earthquake started “with two very heavy shocks in quick succession,” recalled one contemporary witness, according to the Today in Connecticut History website. “The first was the most powerful; the earth appeared to undergo very violent convulsions. The stone walls were shaken down, chimnies [sic] were untopped, doors which were latched were thrown open, and a fissure in the ground of several rods in extent was afterward discovered.”
The quake, the worst Connecticut has witnessed in recorded history, came on an unusually clear and moonlit night. On a boat in what is modern-day Clinton, a ship’s captain reported seeing fish jump out of the water. More minor shocks were felt as far away as Boston and New York City.
Seismologists today estimate that the quake would have registered between 4.4 and 5 on the Richter scale. While the epicenter is impossible to identify for certain, many believe it originated in the Moodus area of East Haddam.
As I researched the story of the May 16 earthquake, I came across the story of Dr. Steal. Noting the timing between its emergence and the earthquake, I could not help but wonder: Had the story of Dr. Steal predicted the quake?
The short answer is almost certainly not, though the timing is undeniably eerie. The story of Dr. Steal is fiction, and perhaps more to the point, it follows a folklore motif that predates the version of the tale told in Connecticut. “The story of a learned man who enters a river, mountain, or underground chamber to discover a treasure — often a carbuncle — was a notable folk narrative in Europe from the medieval period. It continued well into the age of exploration and colonization,” writes University of Massachusetts Amherst folklore professor Stephen Gencarella in his book Spooky Trails and Tall Tales Connecticut. “The legend of Doctor Steele presumably hitched a ride with sailors or with immigrants — carbuncle lore was extremely widespread in Ireland, for example. These motifs mixed with regional lore and inspired variants with local flair.”
References to the Moodus Noises predate the emergence of the tale of Steal. However, the Moodus Noises are not as clearly connected to Indigenous culture as European colonists depicted. “Archaeological evidence and land deeds from the late 1600s suggest that the area served as a seasonal camp and hunting ground for a number of Indigenous people, including the Wangunk, Mohegan, Pequot, and Niantic,” Gencarella writes. “We do not know with certainty what stories these people told about the noises, but the Mohegan Medicine Woman Gladys Tantaquidgeon once speculated that a culture hero, Moshup, might have played a role.”
This lack of certainty about the native traditions associated with the noises didn’t stop generations of European settlers from making up supposedly Indigenous legends about the noises that often contained colonial and racist overtones.
As for the story of Steal and his mysterious errand in Moodus, that too would be repeated and take on new forms many times over the years, including in an 1819 poem by John Gardiner Calkins Brainard. The Moodus Noises would also be heard again throughout the years including during quakes in 2011 and 2015. While the story of Steal is only a story, if you happen to hear of a mysterious stranger arriving in Moodus and digging up a stone near where the Salmon and Moodus rivers meet, it might be time to find refuge in a sturdy doorway.
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