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The Halley's Comet Panic of 1910

Edmond Halley (1656-1742) saw his namesake comet when he was 26 years old.

If you were around in 1986, you might remember the excitement surrounding the return of Halley’s Comet.  Halley’s Comet hadn’t been seen since 1910, and 76 years later, it was getting ready to make another pass by Earth.  Many who were excited probably wound up feeling a little disappointed. I’ll admit I was. I was sixteen, and was eager to see a bright ball in the sky with a burning tail lighting up the night.  All we got to see was a small, faint, comet-shaped light in the sky. It turned out that in 1986, the comet passed when the Earth was on the other side of the sun, so there wasn’t much to look at. We knew it was coming, though.  We’ve known this since 1705, when Edmond Halley predicted the comet would return on Christmas night, 1758.  Halley died in 1742, so he never got to see that he was correct—but he was correct. Halley’s calculations show that the comet will pass by Earth every 74 to 79 years, and these passes are predictable. When Halley’s Comet isn’t near Earth, it’s probably far out in the Solar System.  The comet orbits the sun, but in an unusual way. Its pattern is in an oval, and the direction of its orbit is opposite that of the eight planets (and of the other things that also orbit the sun).  The orbit’s farthest point, its aphelion, reaches as far as Pluto, more or less. (Pluto’s orbit isn’t an exact circle, so sometimes the comet heads farther out from Pluto, and sometimes it doesn’t.)  Its closest point to the sun, its perihelion, is somewhere between Mercury and Venus. It’s been doing this for a long time. It’s hard to say just how long. Scientists estimate that the comet has been circling the sun somewhere between 16,000 and 200,000 years. Appearances of Halley’s Comet have been recorded by ancient astronomers in ancient Babylon and China, as well as in medieval Europe.  Halley was the first one to realize that the comet had come before and would come again. Comets used to be considered harbingers of doom.  The reason for this is that compared to the stars in the sky, comets were not predictable. The positions of the stars seemed fixed, and while the planets appeared to move around the sky more (the word planet means “wanderer”), their movements were predictable, too.  Comets disturbed this perceived order, so it was commonly believed that they predicted upheaval on Earth, as well.  In 1066, the appearance of the comet was seen as a bad omen by the English, and remembered as one after the French invaders, led by William the Conqueror, conquered England and killed King Harold II in the process.  Those who felt the arrival of the comet was a bad omen came to see their take on it vindicated. The Bayeux Tapestry, on the other hand, shows the comet as part of their triumphant story, referring to it as a star as bright as the moon that appeared that brightly in the sky for five days.

The Bayeux Tapestry shows Halley’s Comet bringing good news to William, bad news to Harold.

By 1910, this superstition was mostly a thing of the past. Scientists had come to understand that comets were balls of ice and gas that moved through the universe, sometimes in a predictable orbit, sometimes not, but they were no evil omens. Halley’s Comet was swinging by Earth again, but there was nothing to worry about. Still, a good number of people were freaking out. The arrival of the comet sparked sheer panic in many people. But this was 1910, not 1066; the superstition about comets didn’t hold as strongly as it used to (though the appearance of the comet is said to have contributed to unrest in China, and that it led to the collapse of the last dynasty the following year.) Most people didn’t see Halley’s Comet as a harbinger of doom this time, but rather as doom itself. Science might have extinguished superstition for a lot of people, but it inspired terror, as well. French astronomer Camille Flammarion used spectroscopic analysis of images of the comet to determine that its tail was made of cyanogen. Since the comet would be making a close pass to earth in 1910, Flammarion suggested that as the earth passed through the comet’s tail, the gas “would impregnate the atmosphere and possibly snuff out all life on the planet."  

Flammarion grabs headlines in 1910.

Flammarion was not the only scientist talking about the comet, and certainly all scientists did not agree. There was no question that the tail contained plenty of cyanogen, but prevailing scientific thinking held that the gas would be too diffuse to poison the earth’s atmosphere and kill much or all of the life on the planet.
Most scientists assured the public there was nothing to worry about, but panic, doom and disaster are always more interesting. Suddenly a market opened up for “anti-comet pills” and “anti-comet umbrellas”, which were supposed to counter the effects of the poison. Leather gas masks also sold well. These charlatans cleaned up as a worried public bought this protection “just in case” Vendors of anti-comet pills in Haiti were left alone, but a couple men selling the same pills in Texas were arrested for fraud, only to be quickly released as authorities bowed to pressure from a public that still demanded their product. (Later their anti-comet pills were more closely inspected and discovered to be made of nothing but sugar and quinine—harmless, but not likely to help much in the face of a cloud of poison gas of any kind.) A California man nailed his feet and one hand to a cross, and when discovered, begged authorities to leave him there. An Oklahoma religious group called the Sacred Followers asserted that the danger of the comet could only be held off by a virgin sacrifice. The Sacred Followers set out to perform this sacrifice, but local police intervened before the sacrifice took place.

Would you buy an anti-comet pill from this man?  A lot of people did.

Less violent but equally zealous religious ceremonies took place as churches held all-night prayer vigils for their terrified congregations. Panic mounted as doomsayers stirred fears not just of poison gas but of other calamities. One correspondent with the Royal Observatory wrote that the pull of the comet’s gravity would cause massive tides that would empty the Pacific Ocean into the Atlantic as water rushed from ocean to ocean across the Americas, and the Atlantic would sweep across Europe and Africa. (When asked for comment on this theory, the Observatory responded, “No reply.”)

French postcard mocks the “end of the world” comet panic as some brace for the apocalypse while others purchase life preservers in which they can float away to Mars.

Sales of telescopes also soared. Whether you thought the end of world was coming or not, the comet was still interesting to look at. At its closest pass in 1910, Halley’s Comet was still 24 million kilometers away from Earth. Some astronomers said that it was possible we might see a kind of aurora borealis effect from it, but nothing like that happened. The comet came and went, and no one died. Well, not exactly no one. England’s King Edward VII died while the comet was passing by, and many superstitious Britons linked the two events. Another passing was that of Mark Twain, who was born during the previous pass of Halley’s Comet in 1835, and who predicted that when the comet came again, he would die. Twain turned out to be correct about this. Perhaps it diminishes his prophecy to point out that he made it in 1909, but all the same, it was a pretty impressive way to make an exit.
Halley’s Comet is due to return in 2061. Those who were disappointed by its weak showing in 1986 will get another chance to see it, if they’re still around. Next time, the comet should put on a much more impressive show. It will pass even closer to Earth than it did in 1910, so avoid the rush and buy your gas masks now.


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