If you are in the death care field, it is impossible to ignore the fact that there is often a correlation between some type of national emergency and unfortunate fatalities.
One such large emergency that stands out because it (luckily) did not produce either much crime, or any reported fatalities, occurred 52 years ago this week.
On November 9th, 1965, a huge power failure occurred when all of New York state, portions of seven neighboring states, and some of eastern Canada experienced what has been termed “The Great Northeastern Blackout.” It began at the height of rush hour, trapping almost a million people in New York subways and freeways – thousands more in buildings, elevators, and trains. Altogether, some 30 million people in 80,000 square miles were without electricity for about 13 hours.
The impact was widespread: railroad service was halted, and airplanes, after circling darkened airports, had to seek out landings elsewhere. Given the time period, popular theories about the cause of the blackout ranged from Cold War issues to UFO’s. Actually, it was caused by the tripping of a transmission line near Ontario, Canada. Power was gradually restored everywhere by the next morning.
The true time that New York went dark was 5:27pm. Oddly, some Big Apple neighborhoods were totally unaffected.
Television stations in the New York Metropolitan area went down, as did many radio stations, as the largest transmitter in the area, located on top of the Empire State Building, lost power.
Somewhat humorously, radio stations lost power very gradually – song, jingles, and even voices began fading, slowly at first, until they fizzled out completely.
Amazingly, there was very little crime: 10,000 National Guardsmen and 5,000 off duty policemen were called out to prevent looting, but only a handful of incidents were reported. Among the exceptions, there were problems at the maximum security area of the Walpole State Prison. Inmates rioted for three hours, destroying all manner of property; state troopers eventually stopped the riot with teargas.
As the night progressed there was one positive – a bright, full moon lighted up a relatively cloudless sky, providing enough illumination for weary commuters to reach their homes.
In the aftermath, many cultural references cropped up, including a movie titled, “Where Were You When the Lights Went Out?” The dated 1960’s plotting in the film is obvious: a cooperate embezzler, played by Robert Morse, unwittingly falls asleep next to a prominent stage actress, played by Doris Day. Romantic complications ensue. The movie grossed almost 8 million at the box office, landing it 16th highest grossing film in 1968 (good luck trying to make a movie for 8 million today).
Another memorable tribute to ingenuity occurred during the blackout when the New York Times, using presses in New Jersey, was able to produce a 10 page issue the following day.
Many false anecdotes surfaced following the blackout. The most well-known is the myth that 9 months later, there was surge in births in the New York area: romantic, but birth rates were actually pretty normal.
Perhaps the most humorous story occurred in Conway, New Hampshire, where an 11 year old, Jay Hounsell, on his way home from school, smacked a telephone pole with a huge stick. Instantly, power failed everywhere. Hounsell ran home to tell his mother — she later reported that she wasn’t sure he hadn’t done something, but “it didn’t seem possible that a whack on a telephone pole could put out the whole gizmo.” She was right, as mothers usually know best.
All in all, it was an exciting, frustrating evening for much of the East Coast of the United States.