On May 18 and May 19, 1910, Earth passes through the tail of Halley’s Comet during one of its periodic flybys of our planet. Although many view the event as an exciting but harmless wonder, others are convinced that the end is near and act accordingly.
Joy and Fear
“These be sky-gaping days,” began an editorial in the Seattle Star on May 19, 1910, and indeed they were, because during the spring of 1910 Halley’s Comet was making its once every roughly 75-year flyby of the planet Earth, and people were excited and curious. Suddenly astronomers were as popular as baseball players. At social functions people talked knowledgably (or tried to) about orbits and ascending nodes. And wherever they were, people kept their eye on the sky.
But not everyone was so sanguine. Earth was predicted to pass through the comet’s tail for about five hours starting about 7:30 p.m. Pacific Time on the evening of May 18, and while most recognized the encounter would be harmless, some viewed it as a sign of the apocalypse. In New Mexico a wealthy rancher committed suicide rather than experience what he was sure would be the end of the Earth. A sheriff in Oklahoma rescued a girl minutes from being “sacrificed” by her stepfather, identified in Spokane’s Spokesman-Review “as the head of a band of religious fanatics,” in order to stave off the pending global disaster.
The End is Near
Some Washingtonians were equally as adamant that the world would end when Earth came in contact with deadly gas said to be in the comet’s tail. If that didn’t do it, then flaming meteorites raining down from the comet would. Six men were booked into the Seattle jail on May 18, “Driven Insane By The Comet,” trumpeted the Seattle Star headline the next day. Explained the Star, “There was no question in the mind of Jailer Rogers that the six were insane after they described to him calamities the comet was to cause,” adding that two more Seattle men were driven insane by the comet. One of the jailed men said he believed the comet had killed Britain’s King Edward VII, who had died earlier in the month after a series of heart attacks. The man was especially vexed as he claimed King Edward had been a friend of his, and had written him a letter that the comet had burned up. He asked the jailers to look for pieces of it.In Spokane, a dust storm blew up on May 18, and though it was sheer coincidence, some believed it was dust from the comet. Seemingly odd events that happened in the city that day were blamed on the passing orb. The Spokesman-Review reported that Pokey the Poodle suffered a fit and “turned his feet to the sky, and went through such a period of kicking and yelping.” His owner said this had never happened before, and insisted the comet’s effects had caused it. When a horse collapsed on a Spokane street during the day, a passerby declared that it must have been struck by the comet.
“The Comet Is Right Here!”
But other Spokanians took a different view. Enterprising bartenders invented the “comet cocktail,” and some teetotalers who hadn’t imbibed in a while tried it just to soothe their rocky nerves. And early in the evening on May 18, two boys stopped at 1st Avenue and Howard Street in Spokane and began excitedly pointing to the sky. In less than three minutes more than 50 people had joined them and were staring heavenward, wondering what fate was about to befall them. Once they were sure they had a good audience, the boys shouted “rubbernecks!” and gleefully ran away.
Between the dust storm and passing clouds, Spokane’s skies were roiling on the evening of May 18, providing a unearthly view for sky watchers. As darkness fell a woman stood at 1st Avenue and Bernard Street, watching the skies with a male companion, calmly discussing what they were seeing and what, if anything, they might see -- then suddenly she screamed.
"'Good Gawd, Charlie, the comet is right here…Look! Look quick!’ The woman threw her arms about the neck of her male companion and sobbed violently.
"The spectators turned their eyes in the direction indicated by the distraught woman. And then they snickered."Some 300 feet up in the air floated a balloon bearing words that had been painted by an enterprising theatrical man, telling of the week’s attractions” (Spokesman-Review, May 19, 1910, p. 3).