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Film has preserved comet’s last visit

September 28, 1985

Some flocked to church to find faith,

others feared toxic gases from its tail

THERE IS A WONDERFUL time machine that can recreate accurately any event in recent history. This week, I wanted to know what it was like to be back in 1910, and to experience Comet Halley.

The machine is the microfilm reader at the Winnipeg Public Library. For a couple of hours, I cranked through the spools of film showing the Free Press and the Tribune for April, May, and June of 1910. The main event took place in May.

This is history in a manner that no history book can duplicate. Here is exactly the information that I would have had if I had lived In 1910. There is no historian to interpret and rewrite the events. As each day unfolds, I can see the headlines, study the editorials, read the advertisements, and chuckle at the cartoons. It takes you back.

Filled churches

Naturally, I was on the lookout for sensational stories, but surprisingly, they were hard to find.

“Norfolk Va., May 17, 1910 — “Fear of Halley’s Comet has done more to drive people to church than all the revivals held in this section in years. At a big tent meeting in South Norfolk each night this week the entire seating capacity of l,000 was filled and five hundred more persons clamored for standing room. All churches report large attendance and there have been over 50 conversions in one church since Sunday.”

Everyone called it “Halley’s Comet.” Today, astronomers prefer the word “Comet” first, followed by the name of the discoverer.

“Pittsburgh, Pa., May 17, 1910 — After talking strangely for the past two weeks about Halley’s Comet, and having once failed to take her own life in her excitement, Mrs. Clementian Derienzo this afternoon killed herself in the home of a friend by shooting. The suicide was under most peculiar circumstances. Seeing a heavy black cloud approaching, Mrs. Derienzo’s mind evidently gave entirely away and rushing into the street, hurried about eighteen school children into the house where she was stopping, and, locking them in a room, she shot herself through the head, dying instantly.”

Here, in Winnipeg, everyone seemed interested in the comet, but also, calm and very informed. The Free Press ran a daily front bulletin on the progress of the comet.

The path of Comet Halley, relative to the earth, was very different in 1910 than it will be in the coming months. Right now we have emerged from behind the sun and are heading, more or less, toward the approaching comet. On Nov. 27 we will “pass” the comet. We will not be close, the comet will be more than half the distance to the sun away from us. The comet will be its biggest and brightest a couple of months after it goes around the sun. It does not round the sun until Feb. 9. On Nov. 27 we may be close to the comet but you will need at least a small telescope to see it.

After that first pass, we continue to orbit the sun in one direction, and the comet goes around in the other direction. We meet again on April 11 as the comet heads out of the solar system. Once again we are not very close, but this time the comet can be seen in its full glory. Not by us. Here in Winnipeg, the comet is so far south that the head of the comet will not rise above the horizon. People in the southern hemisphere will have a fine show.

In 1910, the public observed the comet between April and June.

Humorist Mark Twain had always said that his life was measured by Halley’s Comet. He was born when the comet was in the sky, and he said that he would depart when it returned. His predictions were right, and he died on April 21, 1910, with Comet Halley glimmering overhead. Winnipeg papers reminded readers that Twain had stayed here for two weeks in 1895.

On May 2, from the top of the Free Press, a faint tail could be seen for the first time. On May 6, the Tribune reported that the King was on his deathbed, and, on May 7, the only news on the front page of the Free Press was “EDWARD VII, KING AND EMPEROR, IS DEAD.”

The comet brightened rapidly and, on May 18, it was expected to be between us and the sun, and the Earth would pass right through the tail.

Passes Earth

Daily Bulletin, May 18, 1910 — “The supreme day for Halley’s Comet. Comet rises and sets close to the sun and may be lost in the bright radiance. Comet passes the Earth, combined speed of the two, 154,800 miles per hour.  As never recorded of its past, nor calculated for its future, the comet’s head transits the sun’s face, and the Earth passes through the tail.”

Around the world, but not in Winnipeg, we read of hysteria caused by people fearing the consequences of cyanogen gas in the comet’s tail. On May 19, the Tribune published a front page cartoon showing the Earth smiling as the comet roars past; with the headline, “NEVER TOUCHED ME.” The Free Press reported “CLOSEST APPROACH OF A COMET TO EARTH HAD NO EFFECT.” Also, “AN AURORA DISPLAY” (Northern Lights), but astronomers say it was merely a coincidence. In early June, the comet dwindled rapidly.

In 1985 Robert Ballantyne was director of the Manitoba Planetarium. His weekly column in the Winnipeg Free Press, called Sky Watch, focused on the return of Comet Halley.

© 1985 Robert Ballantyne and The Winnipeg Free Press

Sky Watch - Robert Ballantyne | Winnipeg Free Press

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