Articles

The Panic Over Halley’s Comet

When the most famous comet in the heavens zoomed near the earth, sulphur rained down on Newfoundland, a mirage appeared over Niagara and scientists who should have known better scared the wits out of people all over the world

BILL STEPHENSON May 14 1955
Articles

The Panic Over Halley’s Comet

When the most famous comet in the heavens zoomed near the earth, sulphur rained down on Newfoundland, a mirage appeared over Niagara and scientists who should have known better scared the wits out of people all over the world

BILL STEPHENSON May 14 1955

AS YOU READ THESE LINES a mass of cosmic dust with a broad diaphanous tail millions of miles long is hurtling towards (he earth at about fifty miles a second. There is no immediate reason for excitement or alarm. Halley’s Comet, as this particular space speck is called— for the seventeenth-century Englishman, Edmund Halley, who first plotted its path— will not be within even telescopic range of our planet for at least another thirty years.

The last time Halley’s Comet lit up our sky was' in the early months of 1910. Interest in its approach was dimmed at first, by other more down-toearth events. Ex-President, Theodore Roosevelt, after a hunting trip in Africa, interrupted a triumphal European tour for an urgent meeting with Kaiser Wilhelm; and already a crazy ditty, When Willie Kisses Teddy at the Bahnhof in Berlin, was lampooning the forthcoming encounter. King Edward VII of England had just wished Captain Robert Falcon Scott Godspeed on his expedition to the South Pole. Chauncey Olcott was making stirring anti-British speeches in the U. S. Senate, jeopardizing the proposed IJ. S.-Canada reciprocity treaty on which Prime Minister Laurier and Governor-General Earl Grey had just reached tentative agreement.

Madame Melba, Lillian Russell and Enrico Caruso were commanding top fees. Mark Twain was on his death bed, while an astonishingly spry Florence Nightingale was accepting the felicitations of the world on reaching her ninetieth birthday. Harvey Hawley Grippen had lately buried bis wife Cora in the cellar, but he was not yet under suspicion of killing her.

To the civilized world of 1910, comets were no more of a mystery than they are today. Granted, few people had ever actually seen one. But then, few had ever seen one of those germs Professor Robert Koch was always talking about, yet no one doubted they existed. To see comets or germs you needed a telescope or a microscope.

Amateur astronomers, of whom there were thousands in every Western country, knew quite a lot about comets. They knew comets are the most numerous class of objects in the solar system; that they move in regular orbits around the sun; and that each consists of an irregularly shaped head and a long, nebulous and glowing tail. The word “comet” is derived from the Greek coma (hair) because the ancients likened the glowing tail to a woman’s flowing hair.

Comets are often confused with meteors or shooting stars. The difference is that meteors are visible only for a few seconds, while comets can be seen off and on for months.

A Prophecy of Ghastly Death

Of Halley’s Comet astronomers knew that it was the largest and brightest of the periodic comets and the only one visible to the naked eye; that it returned to the solar system every seventy-six years or so; and that its return had been observed twenty-seven times since 240 BC.

Through these rational, early twentieth-century days, Halley’s famous comet should have flashed brilliantly, exciting the admiration, gratitude and pride of earthlings privileged to witness its once-in-a-lifetime passage. By no account should it have unduly upset an age already blasé about such marvels as wireless, flying machines and the horseless carriage.

It would probably not have upset them, but fora French astronomer named Flammarion. After studying the heavenly wanderer through telescope and spectroscope from its first appearance on Sept. 11, 1909, Flammarion, almost on the eve of the comet’s closest approach to earth, published what he considered a pertinent bit of scientific data.

“The comet’s tail,” said Flammarion, “is composed of deadly cyanogen and other gases, including hydrogen. If the earth should pass through this tail, either the hydrogen will ignite, blasting earth asunder in a gigantic explosion, or the comet gases will sweep aside our own atmosphere, reacting with the nitrogen to form the familiar laughing gas, nitrous oxide, and suffocating all animal life in a ghastly parody of death.”

This opinion, which could have been scotched at birth by any eminent scientist familiar with the extremely nebulous nature of the comet’s tail, was unfortunately given added credence by the pronouncement of a distinguished countryman of Flammarion astronomy Professor Deslandres, of the University of Dijon.

Said Deslandres, with what he undoubtedly felt was admirable professional caution: “The hypothesis that the gas (in the comet’s tail) is liable to affect terrestrial atmosphere would not be at all absurd.”

Within days these two statements, seized upon by delighted newsmen and grossly exaggerated, had been flashed by wireless across the world. Everyone who heard the story had only to search his own sky to find verification: a glowing dot brighter than most stars, though not nearly so bright as the moon. Soon its tail was visible, that dread tail that would snuff out all life on earth, if the story proved true. Each night watchers could see the head looming larger. Now they didn’t have to search for it. Now the tail glowed brighter. The comet had never come this close to earth before, tfie story said. What if it should smash right into the earth, and that terrible tail swept into every home and field, suffocating men, women and children without mercy?

The end result of two morsels of pseudoscientific speculation and a rash of sensational journalism was a panic that swept the uncivilized portions of the globe like a plague, and even thudded on North America’s shores with a force that could not be scoffed away.

At the peak of the frenzy, in the first three weeks of May 1910, entire communities of Negroes in the Deep South refused to work in field or mill, and gathered in shivering terrified thousands to await the heaven-sent holocaust. Indian tribes in western Canada danced almost-forgotten rituals to ward off the glowing menace. Newspaper services reported that Moslems had accepted the fiery stranger as a messenger from Allah, and were awaiting only a further sign to launch a holy war on the infidel.

Peasants in West China, according to other correspondents, were lopping off their queues as a gesture of emancipation as they broke out in open antidynastic demonstrations. Russian muzhiks near St. Petersburg, accepting their lot with characteristic fatalism, simply sat in their fields and starved.

In New York’s teeming Little Italy, a cruel prankster launched a homemade fire balloon from the roof of a tenement into a crowded street. When the balloon exploded, five hundred fright-maddened people trampled one another in a hysterical effort to escape.

A sheriff’s posse thirty miles south of Aline, Okla., was just in time to prevent Henry Heineman, leader of a religious cult called the Select Followers, from plunging a knife into the breast of sixteen-year-old Jane Warfield. The girl, clad in snow-white garments, with a crown of white roses about her head, had been chosen as a human sacrifice to make “a blood atonement” for the sins of the world. It was God’s wish, said Heineman, revealed only to him, for without such a sacrifice “the world would end and the heavens he rolled up like a scroll following contact with the tail of the Comet.”

This is Halley's Comet streaking across the North American sky on May 18, 1910. In Montreal, it was noted, there was a rush to borrow money.

In Jersey City a well-born young woman was restrained at the water’s edge from her avowed desire to “follow the comet where’er it should lead.” Winnipeg inexplicably found itself in the midst of an epidemic of suicides, chiefly of newly arrived immigrants.

In Pittsburgh Mrs. Clementian Derienzo looked out of the window and saw a dark cloud on the horizon. Rushing into the street, she herded eighteen bewildered school children into her living room, locked the door and then shot herself through the brain.

And at 14 St. Elizabeth Street in Montreal, a sudden gust of wind slamming a door shut caused invalid Delphine Gaulin to leap to her feet screaming “The comet has struck!” before slumping to the floor, dead.

The unreasoning terror that gradually gripped parts of the sane practical world of 1910 was not new in the long catalogue of the comet’s appearances over the earth. What undoubtedly made it more widespread than ever before was the speedy communication facilities created by a science that should have quelled rather than fanned the flame of fear. In its 1910 role, however, science was only being consistent with its medieval equivalent.

For the ancient Hebrews wrote in the Talmud of “a star which rises every seventy years and causes sailors to lose their bearings.” Aristotle told of such a visitor from space appearing over Aegos Potami in 467 BC, identified it correctly as a comet, but refrained from attributing to the comet the downfall of Athens at this same spot sixty-three years later.

Seneca, the Roman philosopher, also identified comets as true heavenly bodies, subject to whatever laws governed the movement of such bodies.

It might have been reasonably expected from such auspicious beginnings that the real nature and characteristics of comets would speedily have been uncovered by an enlightened Western science. Quite the contrary. Between Roman times and the seventeenthcentury Britain of Edmund Halley, European astrologers, kings and clergy used every manner of humbug and chicanery to convince their gullible peoples that comets were not regular heavenly bodies, but special messengers from heaven to them alone, ready to do their bidding and smite any subject who got out of line.

Edmund Halley, who was to end all this buncombe, was a gentleman of some means and a genius for mathematics, born in London on Oct. 29, 1656. When Peter the Great toured England to learn how a modern state actually functioned, he and Halley became fast friends. The Englishman undertook to show the royal visitor civilization at first hand. History records that after a whole night of partaking of civilization’s benefits at a local tavern, Peter I, Gzar of all the Russians, trundled Edmund Halley, English gentleman, all the way home in a wheelbarrow, causing severe damage to several hedges, for which Peter subsequently paid.

Halley was also an intimate and staunch supporter of Isaac Newton. He paid for the publication of Newton’s famous Principia, in which the young physicist outlined his celebrated theory of the laws of gravity. In the Principia Newton proved that the path of a body in space could be calculated mathematically. Halley and Newton realized at almost the same time that the observed movements of the comets conformed to Newton’s calculations.

Both men had carefully studied the great comet of 1682. Applying the new theory to their observations at that time, they surmised that perhaps some comets moved around the sun in elongated ellipses or parabolas (“conic sections” as they are called). Perhaps the only time man glimpsed them was during the small fraction of their orbit in the solar system.

This supposition led Halley to collect the observations made of comet appearances for more than three hundred years back. In those days, Halley knew, people spent a lot of time outdoors, so that anything strange in the heavens was bound to be noticed and studied. A Spanish monk’s careful fixing of a comet’s position on one night might jibe nicely with a Dutch squire’s rule-of-thumb observations on a subsequent date. An English knight’s pamphlet on a “hairy star’s” path might it or conflict with a Roman work on the same comet.

Since only three points of reference are required to compute the probable orbit of any heavenly body, Halley was not at all surprised to find in 1704 that he had gathered enough data to compute the orbits of twenty-four comets, starting with that of the year 1337. When he had done so he noticed that three oí these—those of 1531, 1607 and 1682—had almost identical orbits.

He concluded that these three were one and the same comet, doing a regular circuit of the solar system every seventy-six years or so. The slight differences in time could be ascribed to the influence of powerful planets on the comet’s orbit.

“If tie Comet should return . . . about the year 1758,” said Halley, now Astronomer Royal of England, “posterity will not refuse to acknowledge that this was first discovered by an Englishman.”

A Contemptible Refusal

Halley was almost around to see his prediction come true. In 1720. at the age of sixty-four, he undertook to observe the moon through a complete series of its nodes—a period of eighteen years—and actually completed the project. He died in 1742 at eighty-five, firmly reiterating his belief that the comet would appear within the next seventeen years.

As the prophesied time drew near, expectation reached a fever pitch among astronomers on both sides of the Atlantic. Some, reviewing Halley’s thinking, calculated that Halley had erred slightly, and that his comet—by now they were calling it “Halley’s Comet”—would be visible in 1757, instead of the following year.

A comet did appear in September of 1757, but its characteristics were woefully short of the glories attributed by Halley to his comet. Blame for the apparent failure fell, illogically, not on the living astronomers but on the dead Halley.

On Christmas Day 1758, George Palitzch, a farmer and amateur astronomer who lived near Dresden, Germany, picked up the first glow of the approaching comet on a powerful telescope he had made. He recorded the discovery privately in his diary. Three weeks passed before Messier, the greatest French astronomer of his day, located the comet. He immediately reported it to his chief, Delisle, director of the Observatory of Paris. The latter, “through contemptible motives” never quite brought out even during the official enquiry before the French Academy some months later, refused to allow Messier to announce his discovery to the world. It was therefore well into April 1759 before fog-girt England and distant America knew that Halley’s Comet had appeared exactly as the great English astronomer had predicted.

When British scientists did learn of ds appearance and had confirmed it with their own eyes, they were deeply moved. A flood of articles appeared eulogizing Halley and castigating the French for their vindictiveness. One of these appeared in the April 1759 issue of Gentleman’s Magazine between an article by B. Franklin on The Effects of Electricity in Paralytic Cases and a Mr. Smeaton’s Remarks on the Difference of Temperament of Air Between Edystone and Plymouth. Written by a Herr Klinkenburg, of The Hague, the essay claimed that the dismal comet of September 1757 could not possibly have been the one predicted by Halley. Comments on this article in other journals somehow inferred from this that it had been French astronomers who had tried to make a fool of Halley. At this the bitterness broke out afresh.

Meanwhile there was a great rush to trace the appearances of Halley’s Comet at seventy-six-year intervals before 1531. Thus historians soon claimed it was Halley’s Comet that lit up the sky when Methuselah died in 2616 BC and again in 240 BC when Rome defeated Carthage. Seventy-six years later it appeared when Judas Maccabaeus entered Jerusalem. A year or two of discrepancy in dates was loosely attributed by historians to “the influence of the planets.”

Halley’s Comet, they now noticed, appeared sometimes in different shapes in different parts of the world. Therefore, beyond a doubt, it was the legendary “Sword of Fire” that hung suspended over Jerusalem in 66 AD shortly before the city was destroyed by Titus. It was undoubtedly too the same heavenly herald which announced in 451 the forthcoming demise of Attila, “The Scourge of God,” two years later.

In the French town of Bayeux, travelers saw the comet in 1066 and reported its brilliance to be one quarter that of the moon itself. William the Conqueror—publicly attributing bis defeat of Harold partly to his astral ally’s aid—caused his Queen Mathilda to incorporate the then unnamed comet in the Bayeux tapestry she was supervising. This world-famous objet d'art, still on display in the Bayeux museum, is two hundred and thirtyone feet long and twenty inches wide. Among the hundreds of different scenes of the conquest worked in the fine linen with eight different shades of worsted, is one showing William and his men gazing confidently up at a comet with a hairy tail. Across from William is Harold, looking up at the same comet in terror. Under the comet is inscribed the Latin phrase, lsti mirantst ellam, which loosely translated means “They marvel at the star.”

Tennyson made use of the information supplied by astronomer-historians in his long drama, Harold. Just before the fatal battle of Hastings, King Harold is made to stand looking up at the comet and declaim,

Lo! there once more—
This is the seventh night
You grimly-glaring,
Treble-brandished scourge of England . . .

The comet was nowhere around when the Turks captured Constantinople in 1453, but showed up three years later when they turned their wrath on Belgrade. It appeared once more in the shape of a sword, this time in conjunction with the moon in its crescent phase, and the combination was so much like the familiar Turkish emblem that all concerned, for some reason, took it as a bad omen for the Turks, who lost heart and gave up the siege.

When the list of the comet’s appearances was fairly complete, even the most naive citizen of the eighteenth century could discern one fact through the murk: the comet had often appeared when great events were occurring on earth. But far more often it had appeared when nothing at all of importance was taking place. The comet then was governed only by natural laws. This premise was perhaps the greatest contribution made by astronomy to the humanities in almost two thousand years.

The 1835 appearance of Halley’s Cornet was right on schedule, some astronomers being only a week or so out in computing its perihelion (closest point to the sun). By 1910 this margin for error had been cut to two and a half days and two Englishmen shared a thousand-mark reward from a Cernían organization for computing the closest date.

By 1910, too, every astronomy freshman knew there were at least sixty comets, each making visits to our solar system at intervals of less than eighty years. There were hundreds more, of course, that came at greater intervals, some possibly every million years or so. There were Donati’s Comet with its two-thousand-year round trip, Faye’s, at 7.3 years, and everyone owning a telescope could glimpse each 3.3 years that veritable commuter, Encke’s Comet. None compared in size or brightness with Halley’s.

With all these data the world should hardly have expected the kind of fireworks it experienced during the third visit of the comet since it was identified.

What made the terror so universal perhaps was that it appealed both to educated and unlearned people. The educated were impressed by the reasoning of astronomers Flammarion and Deslandres, and with the fact that no scientist of any calibre had actually denied that the earth would probably pass through the comet’s tail on May 18. 'The unlettered saw only the flaming orb growing brighter, and where in another age their fears might have passed unnoticed, now they were kept alive by daily bulletins from newspaper correspondents. The two fears served as fuel for each other, though all literate men openly scoffed at the idea that the comet was a portent of human disaster. Their reasoned scepticism was in for a severe strain.

Deslandres gave out his tentative endorsement of Flammarion’s holocaust theory on May 5, 1910. On May 6, King Edward VII died suddenly, an earthquake killed fifteen hundred people in Costa Rica and bubonic plague broke out in Amoy, China. Within two more days a hundred and twenty-five men died in a coal mine near Birmingham, Ala., and a hundred and thirty-seven miners perished in another colliery at Whitehaven, England.

In vain did newspapers point out that King Edward had been secretly ill for some time and that earthquakes were an annual affair in Costa Rica. In vain did students at the Sorbonne subject themselves to stronger and stronger doses of cyanogen—the gas supposed to make up the comet’s tail

to prove it would take a very strong dose indeed to affect humans. Too late did eminent scientists declare that the whole multimillion-mile-long tail of the comet was so fine it could he packed into a woman’s portmanteau. A celestial cobweb, they called it, nothing wrapped up in naught. They pointed out belatedly that the dimmest stars could he seen through the comet’s tail, that it contained fewer molecules than the most complete vacuum ever created in a laboratory. They predicted blithely that the earth would probably notice nothing as it passed through the tail, if it passed through the tail.

But the time for such assurances was past.

In Hamilton, Bermuda, as the last thunder of the guns welcoming the new King George V died away in pre-dawn darkness, the comet was seen by hundreds of dock workers to glow at head and tail. Work stopped immediately. Wailing with fear the Negro population paraded the streets, predicting dire events and a dread war that would shake the world during George V’s reign, if the world survived that long.

At Harbour La Cou, Nfld., and at Burin, two hundred miles east of there, the comet appeared in a blood-red sky from which rained sulphur, covering the districts to depths of a quarter inch or more. Off Gaspé, too, the frightened skipper of the freighter Minnie Maud reported his ship enveloped in a dense : cloud of sulphur for more than an hour, making any sort of navigation impos; sible. Neither of these phenomena has ever been explained.

Now a self-styled U. S. prophet J named Lee Spangler, who had pre: dieted to the day the San Francisco earthquake, the death of Victoria and the assassination of President McKinley, stepped into the limelight once | more. It was true, he said, that the reign of King George V would be disastrous for humanity, if it. should survive. That was extremely unlikely, however, because his inner voice told him that the earth would not pass through the tail of the comet but would collide with the comet’s head!

Now the deep-seated fear leaped in hearts hitherto indifferent to all argument, and every unexpected local disaster was wildly traced to the baleful effect of the comet. On Sunday, May 8, four tons of virite, a powerful explosive, blew up at the General Explosives Plant in Hull, Que. The blast killed a dozen people and injured scores more in the immediate area, and broke almost every window on Sparks Street in Ottawa, three quarters of a mile away. The first thought in everyone’s mind, newspapers reported, was “The comet has struck!”

People tumbled wildly into the streets, expecting momentarily a second shock that would annihilate them all. Eight men rushed out of a hotel on Queen Street in Ottawa still clutching the poker hands they had just been dealt. All turned back, a trifle sadly according to eyewitnesses, when they saw it wasn’t the comet after all.

In Carleton Place, forty miles west of Ottawa, fire leveled part of the business section. The crackling of the flames, the screams of those in danger and the terrified whinnying of the horses startled many from their beds convinced that the comet had slammed them into the next world.

A porter touching the outside of the Alberta Hotel in Wetaskiwin was killed by an electric shock. Though it was later shown that faulty wiring had caused the fatality, many were convinced the comet had done it.

Residents of Duluth and Superior, Wis.—though laughing sheepishly as they did so—were vacating the houses nearest the shore of Lake Superior, fearing a tidal wave if the comet should strike. In Nebraska, lightning rods were torn from the roofs of barns and houses in case they should “attract the comet.” In South Africa, riots broke out in the Rand when it was learned that the wife of a diamond-mine manager was spending the time until the comet should strike at the bottom of her husband’s mine. And in Johannesburg, as in many other cities of the world, appeared a pathetic newspaper advertisement:

Gentleman having secured several cylinders of oxygen and having bricked up a spacious room, wishes to meet others who would share the expenses for Wednesday night (May 18). Numbers to be strictly limited.

The idea, as many Parisians who were doing the same thing said, was that if they could survive the first suffocating blast of the comet they stood a good chance of being alone in a thinly populated world when the comet had passed.

It was with some dismay therefore that The Times, surveying the scene from London, was moved to report on May 13 that “even the cultured people of France are said to await the comet’s approach with dread.”

Of course there were many people who paid no attention whatever to the imminent visit of the strange comet, many prominent, newspapers that ignored the whole thing as far as possible. And then there was the humorous side. Hotels in Brockville, Ont., reported a definite slackening off among “the timid drinkers”; every bank, post office and church received its share of conscience money from people eager to ease long-standing guilt; and a bartender named Tom Sharkey, of East 14th Street, New York, attained local immortality by his “discovery” that cyanogen gas is soluble in alcohol and plain water.

“Drink nothing but plain-water highballs, me buckos,” Tom roared at all his patrons, “and you’ll live to be a hundred!”

Four scientists headed by Professor David Todd, of Amherst College in Massachusetts, went aloft in a balloon to get a better look at the comet. They never did see it, for a heavy cloud bank rolled in. Moreover, a twenty-milean-hour wind blew them two hundred and fifty miles off their course, depositing them early next morning almost on the main street of St. Hyacinthe, Que.

Who’d Collect the Debts

Making the best of a bad job, the scientists sent their balloon back by rail, and then motored into Montreal. There they laid claim to the trophy offered by the Automobile and Aero Club of Canada for the balloon that should leave either Massachusetts, Connecticut or New York State (south of Poughkeepsie) and land nearest Dominion Square, Montreal, in the years 1909 and 1910.

“You must wait till the end of the year,” they were primly informed. “After all, someone else might come closer.”

The Toronto jewelry firm of Ryrie Brothers announced in the local papers the sale of “Halley’s Comet Jewelry” described as “tie pins and brooches set with opals, moonstones or peridots. Peridot is of meteoric origin and is the fashionable stone this season.” Another Toronto firm, Sherman and Margrave, was prepared to send anyone —on receipt of fifteen cents in coin —a detailed sky map of Halley’s Comet and the solar system. This prompted the Globe to comment editorially, “One wonders at the conceit of the inhabitants of earth, which planet is relatively a mere bubble on a boundless sea.”

The occupants of a rail car traveling between Niagara Falls and St. Catharines asked the conductor to dim the lights so they might look for the comet. When he did so, however, they saw no comet but an island in the sky, complete with houses, lakes and trees. One of the pássengers claimed it was a mirage of Hanlan’s Point near Toronto.

In Istanbul, Turkey, the police took the heaven-sent opportunity presented when the entire population crowded the roof tops to pray each night, to round up ferocious dogs that the citizens had always kept them from capturing.

In Montreal a group of hatters told newspapermen that the so-called hysteria was not nearly so bad as the papers would have the public believe. “There has been no appreciable increase in the purchase of headgear,” they declared, “as there naturally would be if the public feared the comet’s approach.” A finance company that specialized in lending money to young couples to start them off in married life reported, on the other hand, a vast increase in the number of loans. This they offered as proof of a sublime confidence in the future.

“Not so,” said the Gazette. “Rather does it suggest a devil-may-care attitude, for if the comet should prove fatal to life on this planet, who would be around to collect these debts?”

In Virginia it was reported, “Halley’s Comet did more in one week for the church than all the revivals and camp meetings in a decade. Never before . . . have so many new members got the religious fervor at one time.” Many residents of Cleveland obtained groceries and then refused to pay for them, arguing that the end of the world would make money useless.

As the fateful day — May 18— dawned, an expectant stillness gripped many parts of the world. Most newspapers by now featured the comet on page one. They gave daily accounts of its speed (1,678 miles a minute), its distance from the earth (only a few million miles) and the local time it was expected to make contact with the earth. About 9 a.m. an Italian named Luigi Ciefice, who had secretly murdered his neighbor Patrick Cahill three days before, was taken into custody by police in Newark, N.J., not for murder, but as a suspected member of the Black Hand, which had recently tried to blackmail Caruso. All morning Ciefice submitted to questioning without the slightest sign of wilting. At noon he was taken to a cell, where he saw a daily paper for the first time in weeks.

The result, even to blase Newark police, was most unexpected.

“He became like a madman,” the chief told reporters later. “He fell on his knees and prayed . . . crying out frantically for someone to come and hear his confession. ‘The world is coming to an end,’ he yelled, ‘All the people will be killed. I will be killed.

I cannot die without confessing I killed Patrick Cahill. 1 put him in the ground behind my house.’

“He’s mad but he’s right,” the chief concluded. “We found the body right where he said it would be.”

At an oil refinery a few miles away in Bayonne three hundred workers laid down their tools and spent the rest of the day in a nearby church. Across the Hudson the four great bridges poured millions of people into Manhattan, a milling, chattering yet unexpectedly subdued mob of people.

At 5 p.m., the earth officially made contact with the tail of the comet. A whole world held its breath. Five hours was the time calculated for the earth to traverse the tail completely. What would those five hours bring?

The answer was not long in coming: Nothing, absolutely nothing!

If, as scientists said, the tail of a comet was nothing wrapped up in naught, then the long-awaited meeting of earth and comet was nothing wrapped up in naught, suspended in less than nothing.

Toronto saw only a faint aurora. Winnipeg glimpsed no sign of the comet itself, but was treated to a fine display of Northern Lights. Magnetic instruments at the Dominion Observatory in Ottawa registered a deflection of fortytwo minutes of a degree, but there was no visible disturbance. Even in Europe, where the comet was plainly visible, it was reported in a different part of the sky and at a different time from that predicted by astronomers. What’s more, it had lost its tail.

The following day, to add to the confusion, the comet produced a broad spectrum of light across the face of the sun at high noon. The astronomers’ only explanation was that the earth must have passed between two sections of the comet’s tail.

The newspapers had a field day.

“Those who feared for the earth when the comet’s tail enveloped it were concerned about the wrong factor,” said the Montreal Gazette. “Earth came out of the encounter without harm. The comet lost its tail. Earths must be dangerous to comets.”

The Toronto Globe chuckled just as heartily. “The approach of a few million cubic miles of gas in Halley’s Comet,” the paper declared ironically, “did not perceptibly affect the quotation of gas shares on the Toronto Exchange.”

“Now you fellows who crawled into gopher holes to escape the baleful effects of the comet,” admonished the Calgary News, “come on out!”

The Victoria Times reminded its readers that it had predicted weeks before that no collision would take place between earth and comet.

The Yale observatory now came lamely forward with its theory that the tail of the comet had bent away from the earth just prior to the passage. Other astronomers swore that the earth had not yet passed through the tail, but might do so in days to follow. The Dominion Observatory claimed that some mysterious change caused the comet’s lack of lustre. They would not elaborate.

Among the flood of letters received by the Montreal Gazette was one the editors felt they must print, for it said just about what they themselves were thinking.

“Science itself,” wrote the subscriber bitterly, “will be discredited through the ostentatious parade of imbecility we have just witnessed.”

In the days that followed many humans got a glimpse of the spectacle they had expected on May IS. A lunar eclipse on May 24 enabled thousands to witness the breathtaking beauty of the comet against a dark sky. By May 26, the comet had even regained its lost tail. Comet parties, which had folded for lack of heavenly support, became popular again. The Niagara Navigation Company’s excursion steamer Corona, which had journeyed almost empty from Toronto to Lewiston for several nights, now had to ask its clients to make reservations to see “the supremely brilliant comet.”

But the heart had gone out of it. The anticlimax, after weeks of buildup, was like a physical letdown. True, daily bulletins still traced the comet’s return course to outer space. People were interested to learn that it would

travel some three billion miles, passing Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and even its mother planet, Neptune, at ever-slackening speed, before swinging earthward again. And they marveled that it would still be within camera and telescope range until June 1911.

But by mid-June 1910, when it passed from ordinary human eyesight, Halley’s Comet was already forgotten. For a brief while it had caused men to relive their dim primeval terrors. Now it sped on its own mysterious way, unheeding, a silent wraith on an eternal pilgrimage.