Okay, we’ve got good news, bad news: Tonight you’ll see something beautiful and astonishing. Then you just might die horribly. Such was what residents of Santa Rosa and elsewhere expected as they awaited the appearance of Halley’s Comet in May, 1910.
This would be no faint astronomical drive-by; the comet would be unusually close to Earth, which meant it would be easily visible without a telescope and even take up a large swath of the sky – just before daybreak on May 16, the tail was measured at 90 degrees long. It promised to be quite a show and Santa Rosans didn’t want to miss it, although the best viewing time would be after three in the morning. So many people called the Press Democrat requesting a wakeup call if the comet was visible that the paper assigned a “Comet Editor” to collect phone numbers.
Like people in the rest of the country, locals began planning “comet parties” lasting through all or most of the night. The PD ran a tongue-in-cheek item about what to wear at a comet party: “If the party is in the nature of a private or family reunion the guests may go more or less decollete, or simply in ‘nightie…'” The gossip columnist noted some were actually having little parties with friends, starting with a midnight snack followed by a few hands of cards until it was time to wander out to the yard or porch. Those with autos drove out in the country. One man was nearly arrested for climbing the big rubble pile of bricks at the corner of 4th and D streets (which also reveals that debris still remained downtown more than four years after the great earthquake).
Halley’s big show actually gave two performances; early May, as it was approaching us from the sun and only visible in the pre-dawn hours, and then from May 20 onwards, visible between 8PM and midnight. The latter was less exciting except there happened to be a lunar total eclipse one night; time travelers, set your dials for 9PM on May 23, 1910, and bring a good camera (and please, don’t apply annoying Instagram filters to the picture). But for two nights in the middle of all this, the comet wasn’t visible at all as the Earth passed right through the comet’s tail. And that was when every living thing on the planet was killed. From the San Francisco Call:
BOSTON, Mass.. Feb. 7.— A telegram received here today from Yerkes observatory states that the spectra of Halley’s comet shows very prominent cyanogen bands. The fact that cyanogen is present in the comet has been communicated to Camille Flammarion, the distinguished French scientist, and is causing a great deal of discussion as to the probable effect on the earth should it pass through the comet’s tail. Flammarion is of the opinion that cyanogen gas would impregnate the atmosphere and possibly snuff out all life on the planet.
A version of that wire service story appeared in papers everywhere three months before the comet became prominent, giving the public plenty of time to figure out that cyanogen was more or less deadly cyanide, and it couldn’t be good for your cute little planet to be swimming in the stuff for seven long hours. Unfortunately, no newspaper explained (as far as I can find) that Earth would be only in the edge of the tail so it really was more like wading than swimming, and that everyone survived quite nicely a much more serious contact with a comet tail in 1861.
But the papers really failed by warning about the end of the world just on the reputation of Camille Flammarion, described in some places as “one of the greatest living scientists” and an “eminent astronomer.” True, he had been a founder of the Astronomical Society of France in the 1880s, but now he was a 68 year-old card-carrying crackpot who not only believed there were canals on Mars, but that the weather there was quite nice and supersmart Martians were hoping we’d pick up the phone and communicate with them. Oh, and he had written a novel about the world ending because of a comet.
The threat wasn’t real, but the fear of it drove a few mad. At least two people supposedly dropped dead at the sight of the comet. A man in Arizona was scared it was chasing him. A watchman at a San Bernardino mine believed it was going to hit the earth, and thought for some reason the best thing to do was nail both hands to posts; after nailing one of them he discovered he no longer could manage to hold a hammer and rescuers found him in great distress.
Mostly, however, folks seemed to dismiss the risk or acknowledged it with a nervous chuckle. The society columnist for a Washington paper offered a bit of doggerel suitable for an invitation:
On the seventeenth night of May, don’t fail
To come and dash with me
Into Halley’s comet’s streaming tail,
If we die, we’ll croak in glee.
A merry crowd will gather here
(If it is a dancing party, add the lines:)
Into the gases we’ll go prancing,
Sadly, local humorist Tom Gregory didn’t address this possibility in his item on comet party etiquette. What does one wear for an end of the world get-together? Something more formal than a “nightie?” Something less?
PRESS DEMOCRAT RUNS A “COMET BUREAU”
“Won’t you please phone me when the comet appears?”
Many people know that the newspaper men in the Press Democrat office necessarily keep late hours, and the above show the kind of requests that have been coming into this office galore for several days past. Shortly after three o’clock this morning when the comet was visible something like a score of telephones rang in different houses in response to the request to tell when the comet appeared. If you want to be called let the Comet Editor know, and if there are not too many of you, you will be called all right.– Press Democrat, May 12, 1910NOT A BURGLAR; ONLY LOOKING AT COMET
In a large vacant space formerly occupied by the Athenaeum and Hahmann building, Police Officer George Matthews about 3 o’clock on Tuesday morning noticed a man acting very suspiciously. He was dodging in and out among the piles of brick. Every once in a while he climbed up on top of the brick pile. Then he assumed a crouching attitude. Then he would gaze upward into space. Matthews investigated with due precaution and discovered that the man, acting so suspiciously was none other than “Bud” Parks, who had left his bed early in the morning to take a peep at Halley’s comet and his movements among the brick-piles was for the purpose of getting as good a view as possible of the sight in the heavens.– Press Democrat, May 13, 1910WHAT TO WEAR AT THE COMET PARTIES
The social editor of the Press Democrat was requested to give in detail what one should wear at Comet parties. The query was passed on to Tom Gregory for answer. The answer:
“If the party is in the nature of a private or family reunion the guests may go more or less decollete, or simply in “nightie.” If the lawn has been sprinkled and the starry visitor with caudal of asteroids cannot be received from the door or window, it is well to hunt up a pair of slippers. Should the reception take place up on the next block, the decollete should be supplemented with a shawl or “hubby’s” overcoat. If the “nightie” is retained it may as well be covered with a bath-robe. Should the bath-robe be unable to be found–as may be the case–the piano cover or a rug will be a practical substitute. Whatever worn it might be well to meet the comet on blocks where the street lights burn dim. The comet will give enough illumination for his own exhibition.”– Press Democrat, May 15, 1910
“Mr. and Mrs.——-” request the pleasure of your company. To see the Comet. From twelve-thirty to three-thirty, morning.”
There is no mistaking the fact that Mr. Halley, astronomically and socially, furnished considerable diversion to the social calendar of Santa Rosa last week as far as late at night and early morning functions are concerned, and while the invitations may not have been quite as formal as the one suggested–having been mainly to the response of the tinkling of the phone-bell — the “R. S. V. P.s have not resulted in the disappointment of host or hostesses.
The assemblies have been held principally on porches, in front yards, street corners, or any place of vantage in easy access; decorations Nature as revealed in rose blooms and moonlight. I might add that the gowns worn in some instances had a rainbowy effect, but everybody wanted to see the Comet and no time was given for the preparation of party dresses.
In several instances Santa Rosa set the social pace in informal comet parties, where friends have gathered about half-past twelve to enjoy light lunches, play a few games of euchre or five hundred, and wile the time away until the watch on the outside announced Halley’s big sight in the heavens was ready for the evening. Several ladies and gentlemen who own automobiles, have driven into the country so as to get a better view of the comet without the near-earth dash of light furnished by the electrics in town interfering.
For several mornings to come Halley’s comet will continue to promote star gazing and it is affording lots of fun, too.– “Society Gossip,” Press Democrat, May 15, 1910
NO STING WAS IN THE COMET’S TAILThis Journal’s Observer Notes the Unseen Transit of Halley’s Star Attraction Across Sonoma County
It cannot be said that the comet’s tail is The Light That Failed because it didn’t hit us with any perceptible results. Even the scare Professor Halley’s mysterious illumination shed around on humanity was not amiss, not a miss. Even the sinner in a general way, I mean the sinner not in any special line of sinning, when he heard that he and his frailties would be shown up in the white flame of that burning thing, did doubtless cease his unrighteous work, even if it was only while he was scurrying for his comet-tail-proof cellar. As per arrangement made a million more or less years ago–and concurred in by this journal a few days ago, the Halley contribution to astronomy began to brush its light across Sonoma county at 5 P. M. Wednesday. Accurately speaking, it was not quite as per arrangement, the agreement with the professor being that the transit would begin earlier in the day. But the starry combination when it reached the near neighborhood of the planet Venus boggled and slowed down on its orbit…
…The earth entered the tail 16,000,000 miles from the nucleus and fully as many more miles of the light-flood swept over us to be lost in the void beyond the globe. They are millionaires in the matter of miles out in the measureless interstellar territory. Distance is no object, when they mark off a star’s stunt through the solar spaces. And they are as prodigal with time as an American city official is with the public coin. While the sun, comet, earth and Santa Rosa were in conjunction–for seven hours–the illuminant particles of the tail, making a fleece of light as thin and as bodiless as vacuum, were washing us in their unknown white fire. The composition is unknown, although for several centuries every astronomer under the sun has been giving us a different chemical formula of it so simple that any drug store clerk could have a comet-tail of his own. We have been told that it largely contains cyanide of potassium, or hydrocyanic acid, or prussic acid, or oil of bitter almonds, or–or cyanogen (which is the word I am trying to get; still, the others belong to the same family). Cyanogen is the active principal of prussic acid and will kill even at long range, if not taken in exceedingly homeopathic doses with a physician and a pretty professional nurse at hand for emergencies. During the transit no person in Santa Rosa experienced any prussic acid sensations, although several living in the eastern portion of the city said they smelt bitter almonds, I imagine it was the tannery.
Regarding the disasters, cataclysms, holocausts and other unpleasant happening attendant upon comets, none has been reported to this office at this writing. There is no evidence relevant, competent and material, that the troubles of Mr. Taft are in any manner connected with Halley or his periodical phenomenon; of the Ballinger or Wickersham may be attributed to the cyanogen in the comet’s tail. Col. [Teddy] Roosevelts’s appearance in Europe simultaneously with the starry wonder is not universally accepted as one of the prognostications of peril. The proposed visit of Mr. Hearst to England during the national mourning time for the dead Edward [VII, King of England] may be significant of two sad events bumping together…It was reported from Sebastopol that the auroral display was “on” in the southwestern heavens, but investigation proved that it was only a brush fire on the Blucher Rancho. A startling rumor flashed down from Fulton that a man in that town had been struck by a meteorolite [sic]. Later advices somewhat modified the account and told that he had been kicked by a vicious mule. At least in the county there was no sting in the comet’s tail. Notwithstanding other observers and other localities are now trying to discredit the tail part of the show, we do not. If we are to believe that a pile of rocks, 100,000,000 miles in diameter has traveled on its elliptical orbit 4,000,000,000 miles, swishing its tail 32,000,000 miles long and 13,000,000 miles wide, and is halted by Venus when 14,000,000 miles distant from that charming lady star–I say, when we are handed all these millions and millions of miles to get over before we can get to even “a reasonable doubt” of our own insanity and when we are told that a flood of light composed of nothing, and more vacant than vacuum, blown here and there by the mere undulations of sunshine, will touch us, and we get that through our “cocoanuts,” why,–it DID touch us, and we will stick to the belief as tenaciously as the cat that sat down on the flypaper.
Tom Gregory, Observer.– Press Democrat, May 20, 1910