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By Judy Deeter

On summer evenings long ago, I used to sit with my grandmother in her back yard. Together, we looked at the star-filled western Ohio sky. Grandma often pointed out what seemed to be a face on the surface of the Moon, the location of the constellations the Big and Little Dipper, and when she saw a cloud around the Moon, she told me it was going to rain. One time she told me a scary story from her childhood. She said that people once thought that a comet would collide with the Earth and destroy all life here. While I immediately understood most things Grandma told me, it took me decades to fully understand her story about the destruction of life on Earth. What Grandma was talking about is now known as the Halley’s Comet Panic of 1910.

   Halley’s Comet is a comet that passes near to Earth once every 76 years. It is named for English astronomer Edmond Halley, who, in 1705, predicted that the comet would return to Earth in 1758. It came near to Earth that year just as Halley had predicted, and thus was named for him.

   In the early 1900s, a French astronomer named Camille Flammarion discovered through a scientific process known as spectroscopy that the comet’s tail contained cyanide gas (referred to as cyanogen gas at the time of the Panic). He is quoted as saying that when the comet passed by Earth the gas might “impregnate the atmosphere and possibly snuff out all life on the planet.”

   While many scientists dismissed Flammarion’s theory of the end of life on Earth, the possibility that it might happen was published in many newspapers. On June 6, 1907, the Hopkinsville, Kentucky newspaper (the Hopkinsville Kentuckian) ran a story with a drawing showing the comet coming toward Earth and a headline that read: “Will Coming Comet Collide with Earth.” A story of Flammarion’s theory was also published in the New York Times.  

   On April 7, 1910, the Dayton Herald published an article titled “Whole World Watches the Comet’s Approach.” That story listed theories from scientists about what may or may not happen to the Earth as Halley’s Comet came near. It says, “While the wise men are agreed that the tail of Halley’s comet, if it does envelope the earth will do no harm, they also agree they have but little actual knowledge….”

A sketch in the same newspaper of the comet coming toward Earth from The Dayton Herald.

   People everywhere became frightened—some hysterical—as they prepared for what they thought was the end of the world. Some religious leaders also warned that the comet would bring about the end of the world. The date for the comet’s collision with Earth was said to be May 18, 1910. People bought gas masks, “anti-comet” pills (pills made of sugar), umbrellas that could protect them from the harmful gas, and they sealed up their homes.  

   An online post from a podcast by James Dykstra titled “Halley’s Comet Panic of 1910” (at the website says that rather than fear: “Others took a different approach, while still making the comet part of daily life. Songwriters wrote ditties about the comet’s upcoming visit. Pears soap pulled it into their advertising bragging that the soap was ‘visible day and night all over the world’ much like the comet.”  

   A drawing showing the approach of Halley’s Comet to Earth was published in the Dayton Herald newspaper on April 1, 1910. Old reports say that the comet was first seen nationally on April 20, 1910. Local reports of it being seen in the Miami Valley started in early May. The Dayton Herald of May 5, 1910 said residents of West Milton saw the comet on the morning of May 4th. The Miami Union newspaper of May 12, 1910 says, “…as far north as Pleasant Hill the people have seen the comet with the naked eye.”

   On May 18, 1910 (the day the comet was scheduled to hit Earth), The Cincinnati Enquirer newspaper published a story from Chicago titled “Comet Hysteria.” According to that newspaper article, many Chicago residents—particularly women—were suffering from “Comet Hysteria.” It says, “Comets and their ways and habits have been the principal topic discussed on the streets, cars and elevated trains today (May 17, 1910).”

   The May 18, 1910 edition of the Dayton Herald published a column of a variety of things that had been blamed on the comet. It mentioned two chorus girls traveling from Illinois to their home in Ohio wanting to be home “when the world comes to end.” A man in Winsted, Connecticut, who dreamed the comet had hit Earth, threw his clothes, a water pitcher and furniture out a third-story window. He was arrested. Several hundred chickens in Lansing, Michigan died. Their death was blamed on the comet. King Edward VII of England died on May 6, 1910. Though it was reported that he died of pneumonia, many superstitious people linked his death with the comet’s visit.

   An interesting quote was published in the Weekly Republican newspaper in Sidney, Ohio on May 19, 1910—the day after the comet was scheduled to (but did not) collide with Earth. It says, “We have read so much about what scientists think of Halley’s comet. We are curious to know what the comet thinks of the scientists.”

   Grandma and her childhood friends must have been quite frightened when they heard stories that life on Earth was going to end. She certainly never forgot the Halley’s Comet Panic of 1910.

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