The Halley’s Comet Panic of 1910

When a comet comes by, how do you react? Is it just another incident, or is it something to be afraid of? See what happens when Halley’s Comet visited in 1910.

Thanks to JJStiano for the music and to Buddy_Nath for the comet image.

Halley’s Comet Panic of 1910

Humanity has always been afraid of the unknown. We worried about monsters of the ocean deep, dragons that hid in dark caves, and unfriendly beings from other worlds. The sudden appearance of heavenly bodies has been a particular source of concern.

I’m James Dykstra, and today on History.icu, we’re going to look at the wrong way to handle the arrival of a comet.

Halley’s Comet is, to us, a familiar object in the sky, It’s true that it only comes around once every 76 years or so, so if you’re under 35 years old you’ve never had the chance to see it. Even so, we know about it, we can predict when it comes, and we are generally comfortable with it.

The comet is named for Edmond Halley, who in the 1700s successfully predicted its return. Unfortunately for him, the comet came back in 1758, 16 years after his death. Still, others recognized his achievement and were happy to name the celestial orb in his honor.

Though the comet’s predictable orbit was only uncovered in the past few hundred years, it has been associated with major events throughout much of its history. In 1066 it flew across Britain mere months before King Harold was defeated by the Norman king William the Conqueror. Some Christians have believed it was the Star that guided the wisemen to see the baby Jesus. In the year 66, Jewish historian Josephus Flavius thought the comet was a sign of the impending destruction of Jerusalem, which happened in the year 70. And in 451, the comet had come and Atilla the Hun lost decisively at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains. I realize there’s all sorts of pr

oblems involved in connecting comets with historical events, but what you have to remember is that at the time people saw the arrival of a comet as a sign of doom. They believed it, even if you don’t.

So in 1910, when the next visit of Halley’s Comet was predicted, there was a lot of precedent for people becoming rather nervous about it. In September of 1909, the True Democrat newspaper of Tallahassee, Florida anticipated the comet’s arrival by noting that in the past it had covered as much as 100 degrees of the sky “standing out like a great living thing of the fire.” In April 1910 the Salt Lake Herald Republican observed that “fear of [the] comet was widespread”  because “strange theories” had been put forward that played to people’s fear of the comet as a harbinger of doom. 

What were those strange theories? The main one observed that the tail of the comet was made of strange gases, and the earth was likely to pass through that tail and those gases. Astronomer Camille Flammarion had learned via the scientific tools of spectroscopy that the tail was made up of cyanogen gas and feared that it would poison everyone on earth.

Other astronomers pointed out that the amount of cyanogen in the tail of Halley’s Comet was miniscule and couldn’t harm anyone, even if we passed directly through it. As logical as that point is, it doesn’t seem to have calmed the fears of those caught up in the crisis. Organizations printed leaflets warning people to keep their windows closed because “poisonous gases will fill the heavens.” And for unclear reasons, some farmers in Wisconsin took the lightning rods off their barns for fear of attracting the comet. School children in Chicago asked for permission to stay home to protect themselves. Somehow home was safer from poisonous gas than school was.

Others took a different approach, while still making the comet part of daily life. Song writers wrote ditties about the comet’s upcoming visit. Pears Soap pulled it into their advertising bragging that the soap was “visible day and night all over the world” much like the comet. 

Slick salesmen sold anti-comet pills, others hawked gas masks, and some sold comet protecting umbrellas to eager audiences. How an umbrella was supposed to save you from a comet isn’t easily explained, but that didn’t stop people from buying them. And when the comet passed by on May 20th, those who’d bought these fantastic devices were fine, as was everybody else.

It all amounted to nothing, and it’s really tempting to laugh at them. But in our time we’ve got all kinds of people believing all kinds of conspiracy theories about covid, the 5G cell phone service, vaccines, the deep state and the list could go on. It’s easy to believe something that seems crazy to others because we live in an uncertain and even scary world. Unpredictable things happen all the time and it’s not hard to let that rattle us. But you have to remember that the enormous cosmos around us has been made in a regular and predictable way. Though we may not always understand the patterns that doesn’t meet life is simply random and chaotic.

And whether it’s ocean monsters, dragons in caves, or beings from other worlds there’s a good way and a bad way to handle the unexpected. 

Other astronomers pointed out that the amount of cyanogen in the tail of Halley’s Comet was miniscule and couldn’t harm anyone, even if we passed directly through it. As logical as that point is, it doesn’t seem to have calmed the fears of those caught up in the crisis. Organizations printed leaflets warning people to keep their windows closed because “poisonous gases will fill the heavens.” And for unclear reasons, some farmers in Wisconsin took the lightning rods off their barns for fear of attracting the comet. School children in Chicago asked for permission to stay home to protect themselves. Somehow home was safer from poisonous gas than school was. Others took a different approach, while still making the comet part of daily life. Song writers wrote ditties about the comet’s upcoming visit. Pears Soap pulled it into their advertising bragging that the soap was “visible day and night all over the world” much like the comet. Slick salesmen sold anti-comet pills, others hawked gas masks, and some sold comet protecting umbrellas to eager audiences. How an umbrella was supposed to save you from a comet isn’t easily explained, but that didn’t stop people from buying them. And when the comet passed by on May 20th, those who’d bought these fantastic devices were fine, as was everybody else. It all amounted to nothing, and it’s really tempting to laugh at them. But in our time we’ve got all kinds of people believing all kinds of conspiracy theories about covid, the 5G cell phone service, vaccines, the deep state and the list could go on. It’s easy to believe something that seems crazy to others because we live in an uncertain and even scary world. Unpredictable things happen all the time and it’s not hard to let that rattle us. But you have to remember that the enormous cosmos around us has been made in a regular and predictable way. Though we may not always understand the patterns that doesn’t meet life is simply random and chaotic. And whether it’s ocean monsters, dragons in caves, or beings from other worlds there’s a good way and a bad way to handle the unexpected.

Halley’s Comet Panic Of 1910
https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85058179/1910-02-05/ed-1/seq-1/#words=Comet+Halley+comet+Flammarion
https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85058140/1910-04-19/ed-1/seq-1/#words=Comet+Halleys+comet
https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn87076843/1910-04-08/ed-1/seq-1/#words=Halley’s+Comet+cyanogen+comet
The Panic Over Halley’s Comet | Maclean’s | MAY 14, 1955
https://www.theguardian.com/science/across-the-universe/2012/dec/20/apocalypse-postponed-halley-comet
Fantastically Wrong: That Time People Thought a Comet Would Gas Us All to Death
https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn95047417/1909-09-03/ed-1/seq-1/#words=comet+Halleys+Halley

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