People have long looked into the night sky for signs and omen to predict catastrophic events. Although we now know that celestial events, like eclipses and comets, do not have the power to change the course of human history, that hasn’t stopped people from viewing celestial events as harbingers of doom.
Even celestial events that we know are going to happen can trigger panic and crazy prophecies. That was certainly the case in 1910 when the world awaited the return of the most famous periodic comet, Halley’s Comet. People at the time knew it was coming, but Halley’s Comet still sparked fears. And, of course, there were plenty of people who sought to capitalize on those fears.
The Earth is frequently visited by comets, but none are as well-known as Halley’s Comet. That’s because it is the only returning comet that can be seen with the naked eye. Astronomers call Halley’s Comet a “short-period comet”. It follows an elliptical path that brings it near our planet every 75 to 79 years.
Although we have textual records and reports to tell us that early astronomers were aware of Halley’s Comet as far back as 240 BC, it didn’t get its name until 1705 when Edmond Halley, an English astronomer, successfully predicted the comet’s return after calculating its orbital path.
A Warning from Above
Halley’s Comet is made up of ice and gas. It does not have the ability to change the outcome of human activity, however the comet’s periodic return did sometimes coincide with important historical events.
For example, Halley’s Comet was in the sky in 451 when Attila the Hun was defeated at the Battle of Catalaunian Plains. It also passed by during the 1066 Battle of Hastings. When Genghis Khan and his Mongolian Army invaded Europe in 1222 and the Ottomans invaded the Balkans in 1456, the comet was making its pass of the Earth.
The 1910 Appearance of Halley’s Comet
Halley’s Comet made an appearance in 1910 and, thanks to scientific advancements and modern means of communication, most people knew it was coming. This would be the first time individuals and astronomers would be able to photograph the comet, so excitement was high. Until a French astronomer made an ominous comment.
Camille Flammarion noted that on May 19, 1910, the Earth would pass through the gaseous tail of Halley’s comet. Flammarion pointed out that it had recently been discovered that the tail contained cyanogen, a toxic gas. The gas, Flammarion said, could “impregnate the atmosphere and snuff out all life on the planet.” Widespread panic ensued.
Astronomers on Damage Control
Flammarion quickly walked back his comment and other astronomers added that there was no danger to the public. But rumors ran rampant that Halley’s Comet would bring a slew of disasters with it.
Whales and sharks, they believed, would take over the Sahara Desert. The Seine River in France and the Mississippi River in the United States would overflow their banks and flood the land. People feared that world leaders, like King Edward VII and President William Howard Taft, would be assassinated.
Quacks and Cons
All this fear brought the quacks, con artists, and charlatans out of the woodwork. Fake doctors sold “anti-comet” pills – which were just sugar pills – that they claimed would neutralize the poisonous gas from the comet. One product was labeled, “an elixir for escaping the wrath of the heavens.”
People believed they were following the science and being proactive about preventing their destruction by purchasing these products. In fact, when a couple of con men were jailed in Texas for selling “anti-comet pills”, the public went wild. They demanded the men be released so they could buy more of the “life saving” medication.
Keeping Out the Comet Vapors
When stores could no longer keep gas masks on the shelves. Quick-thinking con artists whipped up their own face coverings that, they claimed, would keep wearers from breathing in the harmful vapors from Halley’s Comet’s tail. Eager people panic-bought these masks as quickly as the con artists could make them.
People were even advised to take precautions in their own homes to keep the gas from seeping in. Con artists and hoaxers offered special cloth that, they claimed, could absorb the comet’s vapors. People were advised to stuff the cloth under their doors, into their chimneys, and in all keyholes and cracks in order to keep the vapors out.
Anti-Comet Umbrellas and Unsafe Drinking Water
It was even possible to buy “anti-comet umbrellas” to protect against unseen particles raining down from Halley’s Comet. There were plenty of people who refused to go outside without their anti-comet umbrella out of fear.
In rural China, people stored pails of water in their homes ahead of Halley’s Comet’s arrival. It was rumored that the gas from the comet’s tail would contaminate the drinking water.
One Group Even Wanted to Sacrifice a Virgin
As nutty as it sounds, the fear surrounding the coming of Halley’s Comet was so strong that people were willing to go to extremes to protect themselves … and all of mankind. A religious group in Oklahoma called the Sacred Followers hoped to save the world from the evils that Halley’s Comet was sure to bring.
According to newspaper reports from the time, the Sacred Followers set plans in motion to sacrifice a virgin. Seriously! Thankfully for the unsuspecting victim, someone in the group tipped off the police. The ritual sacrifice was stopped before anyone was hurt.
The Comet Didn’t Bring the Predicted Doom
No, the arrival of Halley’s Comet in 1910 did not end in a worldwide cataclysm. No one died of comet poisoning and no virgins were sacrificed. But for one famous American, the appearance of Halley’s Comet was prophetic.
Writer Mark Twain was born in 1835, just weeks after Halley’s Comet passed the Earth. Ahead of the comet’s 1910 return, Twain joked, “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it.” And he did. Twain died on April 21, 1910, the day after Halley’s Comet arrival.