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Comet hysteria was all the rage a century ago

Published May 08. 2010 09:00AM

In 1910, Halley's Comet caused a hysteria America had never before seen. The comet was named for British astronomer Edmond Halley, who was the first to determine its orbit and accurately predict its return to the Earth's night sky.

As Halley's approached the sun in 1910, astronomers announced that Earth would actually pass through its tail during May of that year. They suggested the possibility of some spectacular sunsets, which was innocent enough. Some doomsayers, however, had other opinions.

There was a prelude to Halley's Comet early in the year. The Daylight Comet of 1910 first appeared in January but it faded from view by the time Halley's showed up in the morning sky in mid-April.

The Tamaqua Courier began preparing readers for the big event. In February, the writer of an article titled The Comet Hunter proclaimed that 'No man can remain impassive."

He was right. Songs were composed and poetry written to welcome the arrival of Halley's comet. There was also money to be made in the rare event and advertisers cashed in on the circus-like atmosphere.

One slogan by Bird's Custard and Pears' Soap, boasted, "Pears' soap is visible day and night all over the world."

In Paris, restaurateurs prepared "comet suppers" for the great occasion, and comet postcards and souvenirs also sold well. "Comet Parties" became the latest Paris fad. Printed invitations requested "the honor of your presence to spend the night of May 18 on the occasion of Halley's comet passing the earth."

These were formal affairs.

"Men are asked to wear pale blue evening dresses and ladies to don gowns 'the color of the firmament," the article stated.

Snake-oil salesmen and swindlers, looking to make a fast buck, were also common. Some crooks sold anti-cyanide "comet pills"(at $1 per pill), which were actually made of a harmless combination of sugar and quinine. This, they were told, would help them withstand the gases of the comet's tail.

In Haiti a voodoo doctor sold comet pills "to ward off the evil influences" of the comet. Leather gas masks and "Comet Protecting Umbrellas" also sold well.

The most spectacular visible feature of the comet was its tail (the word comet itself means "long-haired star.") Scientists and astronomers of the day didn't know how the tail worked, but thanks to the 1908 appearance of Morehouse's Comet, some were able to analyze it by using a new science called spectroscopy.

They determined that it contained poisonous cyanogen gas. When astronomers calculated that the Earth would pass directly through comet Halley's tail two years later, the fear was that the gas would saturate the Earth's atmosphere and kill every living thing.

There was also a fear that the comet would cause deadly influenza. In Chicago, women reportedly sealed up doors and windows to keep out the toxic vapor.

Astronomers reassured the public that there was no danger. For one thing, they pointed out that the head of the comet would come no closer to us than 24 million kilometers. Some scientists thought that a meteor shower or an aurora was possible, but most believed there would be no observable effects at all.

Unfortunately, few newspapers published this information, and the public imagination was free to run wild, thus producing a mass hysteria. Even some farmers, known for their practicality, were too busy preparing for the "end of the world" to plant their crops.

One paper from Louisville reported that "Preparations for the end of the world are being made today by the ignorant persons through central and eastern parts of Kentucky." Near Memphis, Tenn., one "prophet" proclaimed that the comet would destroy the world at noon on May the 18th.

In Philadelphia, the Rev. Abraham Lincoln Johnson's "revival meetings" foretold of the destruction the comet would bring. According to newspaper reports, the congregation was "reduced to a paroxysm of fear."

The Boston American reported that one reader, Mr. J.J. Sanders of Prescott, Arizona, refused to accept the newspaper's assurance that the comet won't hurt anybody, stating that: "I may be wrong, but I do not think so. I have warned our people to look for earthquakes on the night of May 18."

The newspaper, however, remained a calm voice against such dire predictions.

"Others believe that if the comet doesn't cause earthquakes it will cause diseases or fill our atmosphere with deadly gas and kill us all off. None of these things will happen," a Boston writer assured. "The comet will end its visit to our solar system as it has done hundreds of thousands of times before in the history of our young earth. Then it will go off, carrying with it its tail, twenty to forty millions miles long, and we shall get over our excitement."

Next week: Locals get ready

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