The Day It Rained Eels

I was recently researching diadromous fish in Alabama, and came across a freaky old story about a a seemingly mythical incident near Birmingham. I did some digging, and found a newspaper article from 1892 that might just have an ounce of truth to it…

It Rained Strange Eels

New York Sun May 29th, 1892, p. 25

“Birmingham, May 20 ­– Coalburg, a hamlet lying eight miles southeast of this city reports a curious shower a few nights since. Toward evening the village seemed covered with a dense cloud, so black as to threaten a storm, but it was to be seen that there was neither wind nor heavy rain. This cloud continued to hover above the town until nearly 11 o’clock that night, when it began to shower lightly, and something in the sound of the rain striking the people as strange, they went out to see what was falling, when it was seen that the ground was covered with what was at first taken to be snakes, which caused great alarm, until several of the creatures were caught by more inquisitive or outrageous spirits, when it was seen that they were young eels. The largest seen were nearly a foot in length, but the majority of them were only a few inches.

Old fishermen of the vicinity declare that the eels were of a species not to be found in the country except on the southern Pacific coast, though plentiful in Mexico and Central America. It appeared that there were none of the creatures to be found more than a few hundred feet beyond the limits of the hamlet, but witnesses declare that even within that limited circuit there must have fallen millions of them. The people have been much annoyed since by the heaps of dead eels, which render the town almost uninhabitable, but the farmers are using them as a fertilizer.”

Although descriptive, there is a lot of mystery in this story. What kind of eels were they really, and how could fish just fall from the sky? I’m not the first person to investigate this – the Southern Mysteries podcast did some digging, and even got confirmation from ADCNR biologist Steve Rider that eels were present in Alabama at the time. But, let’s dig a little deeper just for fun.

The old fishermen of the vicinity probably thought the eels were Pacific lamprey, which are native to the Pacific coast of North America, and migrate into freshwater to spawn in May (the month of the incident). However, I’m more inclined to agree with Steve Rider. I think the fishermen were mistaken and these eels were in fact American eel Anguilla rostrata which are native to Alabama. Based on the description of their size in the article, they were probably in the elver life stage, migrating upstream to grow into mature adults. Throughout their range, Anguilla species are famous for massive migrations of juveniles from their marine birth place into brackish and freshwater. Eels are in decline now, but in 1892, they were probably abundant in Alabama because there were no dams to impede their migrations. Therefore, it’s not all that unbelievable that “millions” of elvers were in the rivers near Birmingham. Check out this video featuring Troy Tuckey of VIMS to see just how massive an eel migration can be, and why this species is now in decline.

You might be thinking, “Yeah okay Hank, they sound like American eels alright, and it could have been a lot of them, but how do you expect me to believe that it could rain fish at all?” Well, “fish rain” is a more common phenomenon than you might think, and examples of it can be found all over the world. Most meteorologists attribute it to some kind of waterspout that sucks up a school of fish, spins them around in the air, and litters an area nearby. This hilariously dramatic BBC piece from 1999 explains exactly how it works:

Do you believe the story, or do you think it’s just another crazy fisherman’s tale? How do you think New Yorkers reacted to this article in 1892? Let us know what you think in the comments.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. David Seybold says:

    The first thing I would do is check local/ regional newspapers at that time to see if a waterspout had been reported. Such an event would be extremely newsworthy and of interest to readers.

    1. You should do it! Let us know what you find!

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