Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Comet Fever: 1910

Do you remember the 1997 visit of Hale-Bopp comet to our part of the universe? If not, you are not likely to get another chance, as the comet's present orbit requires about 2500 years to complete one revolution. But in 1997 Hale-Bopp attracted a lot of attention. In addition to being newly-discovered and especially bright and visible, Hale-Bopp gained notice for its part in the mass suicide of some 40 persons belonging to a cult called "Heaven's Gate." With confidence that they would be transported to some other life by the comet, the cult's followers committed mass suicide as the comet approached. Perhaps it's just as well, therefore, that Hale-Bopp won't return any time soon.
Halley's Comet, May 15, 1910, photographed at Meeanee Observatory, Napier, New Zealand
Historically, however, the appearance of comets has stirred anxieties and hopes. For example, when Halley's Comet approached planet Earth in 1910, rumors of dire consequences gained traction around the globe. And when cyanogen was discovered in the comet's tail, there was widespread speculation about whether, when Earth passed through the comet's tail, cyanogen might not snuff out all life on the planet. Most scientists scoffed at such fear-mongering, but the public at large responded more dramatically. It got me to wondering: How did the 1910 visit of Halley's Comet play out in Grinnell and across central Iowa? Today's post examines that question.
Scarlet & Black February 26, 1910
With the erection of Goodnow Hall after the 1882 Cyclone, Iowa College had an astronomical observatory, and astronomy courses were taught regularly. Unfortunately, the bright 1910 comet did not make a good subject for the college's 8-inch Clark, small field-of-view telescope, but did offer good opportunities for naked-eye viewing, and this circumstance seems to have encouraged the student paper to alert campus to the viewing possibilities. In a February, 1910 issue the Scarlet and Black pointed out that Grinnell might have the chance to view numerous comets that year. In addition to Halley's, whose roughly 76-year orbit had long been documented, several other comets were expected (if nothing had happened to them since their last appearance). Moreover, in early January a "new" comet had been observed—in daylight—in South Africa. Within a few days a Des Moines astronomer confirmed having observed this very bright, unexpected heavenly visitor, so central Iowans were alert to the developing cast of comets as Halley's approached earth.
Des Moines Register January 20, 1910
Much of the news, however, was devoted to the fears that the comets' coming generated. In mid-March, for instance, the Perry Daily Chief headlined a story about Halley's comet with "Dire Calamities Might Happen," alluding to the cyanogen threat.
San Francisco Call February 8, 1910
The Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican published a miscellany of brief reports on the anxiety with which the comet's approach was being received around the globe ("'Cometitis' Afflicts Many People and Some Queer Things Happen," the headline read): a 10-year-old girl in Illinois was said to have been "seized with a result of fear of the comet...," and when the engine of a mine in Evansville, Indiana failed, panic was reported among the miners, "many of whom thought Halley's comet had struck the earth...." Predictably, reports of fear and irrational behavior frequently focused upon people occupying the social margins, notably "gypsies," Mexicans, negroes, and other people of color. An account datelined Atlanta, for example, alleged that "Dealers in 'conjur' bags in the negro sections of the city carried on a thriving business as the result of the scheduled trip of the earth thru [sic] the comet's tail..." (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican May 10, 1910). Keokuk's Daily Gate-City published a story date-lined Hopkinsville, Kentucky. Here, the newspaper reported,
Several white persons in all walks of life are waiting the event [the comet's tail] with great trepidation and refuse to be comforted. Negroes have given notice on their employers that under no circumstances will they work today, and at least one negro church here will hold an all-night service tonight (May 18, 1910).
Daily Times (Davenport) May 18, 1910
As the comet drew nearer, public anxiety seems to have grown apace. In mid-May Davenport's Daily Times chastised Quad-Cities residents, censuring parents who were too frightened of the comet's impact to allow children out of the house. The Waterloo Courier of May 19 reported that, when a gas range exploded at 5 AM in the Fortner Hotel in Waverly, Iowa, guests panicked, "Fearing the Comet Had Struck Them."

Attention-getting though these reports must have been, many newspapers tried to defuse public fears. For instance, the Ottumwa Tri-Weekly Courier on March 12 published a long interview with the director of the Yerkes Observatory in southern Wisconsin, the chief conclusion of which was that there was no danger of collision between Earth and what the paper called a "wandering planet." Keokuk's Daily Gate-City (March 2, 1910) could not resist a misleading headline—"May 18 Will Be Doomsday"—to an article more accurately described by the sub-head: "There Will Be No Danger."
Of course, so long as there was money to be made, hucksters tried to take advantage. Anti-comet pills were for sale, as were myriad instruments that promised to give earthlings better sight of the comet or protection from the comet's imagined influences. City theaters added to their vaudeville shows presentations devoted to the comet. Davenport's Family Theater, for example, promised that, in addition to the Quaker City Quartette of Singing Blacksmiths, they had secured slides of Halley's Comet: "The World's Coming to An End," the announcement threatened; "Come and See What's Going to Happen" (Davenport Daily Times May 12, 1910). The comet even found popular musical expression in Harry J. Lincoln's "Halley's Comet Rag."
Undated postcard of First Baptist Church, Des Moines, IA
In Des Moines, clergymen had their own take on the import of the appearance of Halley's Comet. The Des Moines Register gave attention to the sermon of Rev. Howland Hanson of the First Baptist Church. Dismissing the petty interests of showmen, fear-mongerers, reporters, and scientists, Hanson urged listeners to use the comet's coming to ponder the fact that
God is greater than the universe he has created. Shall our finite minds therefore despair because our theology fails to solve all the problems of his nature? Shall we who measure distances by miles grow skeptical because we cannot comprehend him who uses the comet's orbit as a unit of measurement? How shallow must that life be that professes to know God whose nature is as much larger than ours as the universe is larger than our tiny earth. Let us therefore expect problems, mysteries, enigmas, insoluble in our little span of life.
"Halley's comet will soon return to his long, long voyage of three quarters of a century," Hanson concluded. "But his brief visit will do us good if only he teach us not to despair if our finite minds cannot explain all the mysteries of God's infinite nature..." (Des Moines Register May 2, 1910).

Two weeks later the Register reported on another clerical reading of the comet. Rev. William Boynton Gage of Highland Park Presbyterian Church was said to have declared Halley's comet "a religious force" that "has made people become more devout church members."
It has worked for righteousness as has no preacher, and religiously is almost as significant as the career of Martin Luther or the life of any other of the churches' great men...Who knows those whom it has made pray? How very many has it converted? Truly it is the [Dwight L.] Moody of the skies. It is the evangelist of the heavens. It is the [Ira D.] Sankey in the chorus of the stars (Des Moines Register May 16, 1910).
To others the arrival of Halley's comet gave cause to party. The Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican reported that, as elsewhere,
Comet Parties were the rage throughout the city Wednesday night...In the west part of town people were out in droves gazing westward in the hope of catching a glimpse of the celestial wanderer...A large party of young people spent the evening at the Country Club [where] dancing was indulged in from 7:30 to 9:30...and lunch was enjoyed at 10 o'clock.
When the comet proved resistant to viewing against the setting sun, party-goers could enjoy "numerous rockets...[that] illuminated the sky over the club house" (May 19, 1910).

Scarlet and Black April 23, 1910
Parties or not, actual viewing of the comet in central Iowa must have proved difficult for many. Although newspapers like the Scarlet and Black published detailed instructions on when the comet would be visible to Iowans (even without telescopes), the paper was careful to note that "It must not be supposed that the comet will be at all brilliant when first seen. It will be only just visible at first, but will rapidly increase in brightness and in apparent size as it comes nearer to the earth during the latter part of April and in May" (Scarlet and Black April 23, 1910).

Weather was also an issue. A report to the Iowa Weather and Crop Service noted that for much of early May, 1910 the weather in the Dubuque area had been "cloudy or hazy most of the time and the comet itself could not be seen." Then forest fires in Minnesota and Wisconsin added haze to the atmosphere. However, at 2:45 a.m. on May 18th,
a remarkably bright and distinct shaft or band of light, now known to have been the comet's tail, appeared, and was visible for three-quarters of an hour. [The following night] The comet's tail appeared in the heavens at the identical hour and in the same location as on the previous night, but it was very much less distinct...It appeared at 2:45 a.m. and disappeared at 3:30 a. m...  (Iowa Weather and Crop Service. Annual Report for 1910 [Des Moines: Emory H. English, State Printer, 1911], 26-28).
Clouds on the 19th obscured further viewing.

The Daily Iowan reported that in Iowa City on the evening of the 18th "weather conditions were excellent for observation [of the comet] but the sun was too near the comet." Professionals had better luck. Mr. G. H. Thomas, for example, told the newspaper that
the comet's tail was followed with great distinctness for a distance of about eighty degrees...The head of the comet was too near the sun to be seen this morning, but immediately before sunrise, the tail swept obliquely southward from the point on the horizon at which both the sun and the head of the comet rose together a few minutes later (Daily Iowan May 19, 1910) 
In Des Moines a Drake University astronomer found the comet successfully May 23-25, then could not capture it again until the 29th-30th, by which time "The comet had changed materially," D. W. Morehouse wrote. "The head presented a knob-shaped appearance, directly behind which projected a cone-shaped tail...composed of streamers, those on the south side being the brightest." By early June Morehouse thought the comet head brighter, but the tail "faint and contorted" (D. W. Morehouse, "Halley's Comet," Popular Astronomy 18[1910]:426).
Popular Astronomy 18(1910): after 426
Marshalltown appears to have had clear skies on May 18th and 19th, but the comet was nevertheless not visible (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican May 17, 1910). Apparently only on May 25th did circumstances combine to give Marshalltowners a clear view; "as yet, however, the comet is a disappointment as far as being visible to the naked eye is concerned," the newspaper remarked (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican May 26, 1910).

When D. W. Brainard (1837-1918) (who left behind one of Hazelwood's most interesting gravestones) submitted to the newspaper his observations on Grinnell's May, 1910 weather, he reported only six cloudy days all month against fifteen clear days, but he did not identify which days were clear and which cloudy (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican June 4, 1910).
Extract from Richard Spire, "Characteristics of the Times and Seasons," p. 49
But Brainard was not the only local who kept track of the weather that spring. Richard Spire (1853-1924), who farmed in Sheridan Township from 1872 to 1910, for almost a quarter-century kept a journal on the "Characteristics of the Times and Seasons." Happily, the journal has survived, is archived in the Drake Community Library Local History collection, and is accessible via Digital Grinnell. Spire did not report on every month, every year, but he did record his summary of the weather for May, 1910, even if his brief report leaves doubt about when the comet could be seen:
May was a cool month...some frost...there was considerable fruit, cherries and plums and apples.. some show for grapes. Much talk about Halley's Comet whose tail would strike the earth on the 18th, many sit up to watch but the illumination was only slight and of short duration... ( 
As Brainard and Spire implied, overcast skies kept the comet out of view in Grinnell for several days, especially mid-May. NOAA historical data report 0.55 inches of rain in the Grinnell area on May 2, a touch of rain on the 7th and 11th, then steady rain from the 15th to the 21st; after a few clear days, the 28th and 29th brought more rain. Consequently, as the Grinnell Herald announced, the comet was not visible in town until May 23 when an eclipse was also on tap. "The eclipse of the moon looked just like any other eclipse," the Herald allowed, "and as for the comet...well, the comet didn't approach in pulchritude the Johannesburg wanderer that hovered around Grinnell a few months ago." Halley's comet, the newspaper continued, "was nothing but a smoky patch of phosphorescence in the heavens" that had no "more tail than an up-to-date bull dog" (Grinnell Herald May 24, 1910; thanks to Dorrie Lalonde and Cheryl Neubert for locating and sending me this file long-distance). With that complaint, the much-anticipated 1910 visit of Halley's comet whimpered to a close.
When Halley's Comet next approached earth in winter 1986, much had changed. The public anxiety of 1910 seems to have been replaced by large-scale disinterest. According to the Iowa Poll, only about 16% of Iowans even bothered to try to find the comet in the sky. "Compared with its last passage in 1910," the Des Moines Register wrote, "Halley's Comet stirred no more interest this time than a child's sparkler at a fireworks display" (April 6, 1986).

The scientific community was much more deeply invested. For one thing, five spacecraft were directed toward the comet, producing a raft of photographs and data. The United States had planned to release a satellite and an orbiting observatory from its space shuttles to be launched in January and March, but the January 28 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger put an end to those plans.

Unsurprisingly, attempts to profit from the comet's visit were visible in 1986, just as they had been in 1910. For example, those who wished might acquire a Halley's Comet collector's spoon; Quad City residents had the chance to buy the 22400 Halleyscope "for closeup viewing of Halley's Comet"; and Iowa City diners might obtain a "Free Halley's Comet Collector's Cup" at the Patio Restaurant in Sycamore Mall.
Des Moines Register January 27, 1986
Back in Grinnell, the comet attracted considerable attention on the college campus. Erection of the Grant O. Gale Observatory in 1984 brought to campus good opportunities for viewing and talking about Halley's Comet. A feature article in a November 22, 1985 edition of the Scarlet and Black reported on a South Lounge talk by astronomer and director of the observatory, Professor Robert Cadmus. A January 31, 1986 article contained an update, including a photograph of Halley's Comet provided by Cadmus. Another of Cadmus's photos was published that month in the Des Moines Register, and in late April Cadmus hosted two open house viewings of the comet at the Gale Observatory (Des Moines Register April 28, 1986).
Grant O. Gale Observatory, Grinnell College
Overall, however, the 1986 visit of Halley's Comet found a world much less troubled by the astral traveler. No reports of mass panic appeared in the press, nor did theologians imbue the comet with moral or spiritual force. Indeed, if the Iowa Poll be believed, the 1986 appearance of Halley's Comet proved a public relations bust, despite the rather impressive achievements of astronomers from around the world. Perhaps, against the backdrop of the region's agrarian crisis and its impact on farmers or, more broadly, the horrific explosion of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, the slim tail in the sky seemed of relatively little import.

Of course, Hale-Bopp and its accompanying tragedy lay in the undiscovered future.

No comments:

Post a Comment