Carroll County Times
Carroll County Lifestyles

Kevin Dayhoff: Frankenstein, 1816 and the year without summer

As we enter the summer season in Maryland, many backyard cookout conversations have centered upon predictions of what will the summer be like this year?

For those who may wonder, about the annals of weather history, in 1816 there really was a “year without summer.” In the book, “Legacy of the Land,” by Carol Lee, she explains that “the year without summer” caused quite a bit of hardship in Carroll County. According to Lee, “Farmers in Maryland and elsewhere would remember 1816 as … ‘eighteen hundred and starve-to-death.’” In 1816 there were freezing temperatures well into June.


For Carroll County, the year without summer followed the equally disastrous economic collapse caused by the War of 1812, with Great Britain, which witnessed the naval blockade of the Chesapeake Bay which “cut off trade, [and] stopped the mill wheels,” Lee wrote.

“Then in 1815, after the Treaty of Ghent restored peace between Britain and the United States, England enacted ‘Corn Laws’ that placed [a] prohibitive tariff on American wheat products. … The export market virtually disappeared.”


So, you may ask, what in the world caused the year without summer? It is a fascinating story that begged for more research after portions of this discussion were the topic of a shorter article I wrote for the Sun published in 2009.

According to the article “Blast from the Past” by Robert Evans in the July 2002 edition of Smithsonian magazine, the agricultural and economic catastrophe of 1816 was a volcanic winter, caused by eruptions the year before of Mount Tambora on the island of Sumbawa, in what we now know as Indonesia.

Evans describes the eruption as the “most destructive explosion on earth in the past 10,000 years” which “blasted 12 cubic miles of gases, dust and rock into the atmosphere” and killed an “estimated 90,000 people on Sumbawa and neighboring Lombok.”

In addition to the resulting crop failure, famine, and economic collapse, the volcanic winter had widespread psychological and sociological impacts that are still felt, to a certain degree, to this very day.

Thomas Jefferson, reports Evans, “having retired to Monticello after completing his second term as President, had such a poor corn crop that year that he applied for a $1,000 loan.”

The volcanic winter spurred the westward expansion of the United States: “Thousands left New England for what they hoped would be a more hospitable climate west of the Ohio River. Partly as a result of such migration, Indiana became a state in 1816 and Illinois in 1818.”

In Europe, , the disastrous weather caused widespread crop failures and prompted many folks to pack up and leave for America. “It rained nonstop in Ireland for eight weeks. The potato crop failed. Famine ensued,” Evans wrote. There were food riots in Europe in 1816 and 1817.

It was in May of the damp and dark year of 1816 that the the storybook life of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley and an assorted cadre of writers came together in Switzerland. This historic gathering stimulated Gothic imaginings that still entertain us. It is widely reported that the 18-year-old Mary Shelley began working on “Frankenstein,” an early example of science fiction, on June 13, 1816.


Mary Godwin was born on Aug. 30, 1797. Her father was William Godwin, a political anarchist. Her mother was Mary Wollstonecraft, a women’s rights activist. In 1814, Mary Godwin began a relationship with a friend of her father’s, Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was already married.

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According to an article in the ‘British Library,’ “At the age of 16, Mary [ran away] to Italy with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. ... Each encouraged the other’s writing ...” Mary Godwin married Percy Shelley in December 1816 after the suicide of Shelley’s wife.

According to numerous accounts, on May 14, 1816, Mary Wollstonecraft, Percy Shelley, and the poet Lord George Gordon Byron, who was having an affair with Mary’s now pregnant stepsister, Claire Clairmont, arrived at a chalet, the Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva, Switzerland, with Lord Byron’s personal physician, John William Polidori.

The terrible weather kept all of the writers together inside for long hours of conversation. According to an account by Mary Shelley, “Many and long were the conversations between Lord Byron and Shelley to which I was a devout but nearly silent listener.”

One of the conversation included the reading of Fantasmagoriana, a collection of German horror stories. When the evening concluded, Byron challenged everyone to write their own horror story. The evening caused Mary Shelley to have a nightmare that inspired the idea for the novel, “Frankenstein.”

According to the 2002 article in Smithsonian magazine, “The mood was captured in Byron’s ‘Darkness,’ a narrative poem set when the ‘bright sun was extinguish’d’ … John Polidori wrote The Vampyre, and the future Mary Shelley … began work on her novel, ‘Frankenstein,’ about a well-meaning scientist who creates a nameless monster from body parts and brings it to life by a jolt of laboratory-harnessed lightning.”


Shelley wrote that “Frankenstein” was primarily an entertainment to “quicken the beatings of the heart.” Evans, however, notes that “Frankenstein” has long-since served as a cautionary allegory that serves “as a warning not to overlook the consequences of humanity’s tampering with nature.”

Hmmm. Think about it.