WILL-O’-THE-WISP DOOM

On the night of May 18, 1910, the mood in New York City ranged from that of convivial excitement to that of sheer terror. Thousands gathered on the roofs of apartment buildings and hotels in eager anticipation, while others sought refuge in places of worship. To the accompaniment of mandolins, tearful crowds sang hymns along Elizabeth Street or marched in procession down Mulberry Street, candles in hand and praying, while kids in other parts of town were playing. Over 20,000 persons huddled together on the Williamsburg Bridge and just as many in Central Park while parties were forming elsewhere. Hordes of men stood home that day, refusing to work, choosing instead to spend the time with their families while to other men it was only another business day.

The tension had been building up for nearly two months with reports of darkish rain falling on Bermuda, huge meteors crashing into California and hail storms and heat waves simultaneously hitting Europe while an enormous earthquake struck Costa Rica. Chicken farmers, from all parts of the world, told of chicks being born with two heads. In Maine, 14 of Robert Perry’s sled dogs inexplicably dropped dead. The world was abuzz with a multitude of rather strange and unusual occurrences but arguably the strangest or most singular occurred on May 6 when England’s King Edward VII suddenly fell ill and died. In Bermuda’s Fort Hamilton, a 101 gun salute was fired to honor the dead king; at the very instant the 101st shot was fired, at 3:52 a.m., a bright, vaporous specter was noticed in the sky: Halley’s Comet had made its reappearance.

Halley’s Comet (or Comet Halley after astronomer Edmond Halley) was on its scheduled 76-year passage through the inner-solar system. First observed around 280 BC, it’s the only comet both visible to the naked eye and guaranteed to return within the span of a human lifetime. In fact, in one of history’s greatest coincidences, Mark Twain was born when the comet appeared in 1835 and died in April of 1910 when the comet was again nearing the Earth.

Comets, forever objects of mystery and fascination in general, Halley’s Comet, due to its frequent reappearances, became a favorite harbinger of foreboding and doom for the superstitious in particular. Earlier in the nineteenth century, Edgar Allan Poe‘s “The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion” (the author’s take on Adventist preacher William Miller‘s predictions) featured a comet that destroys the world. In fact, the last time Halley’s Comet appeared in 1835, the second (and worse) of New York City’s two “great fires” had occurred. These and other things would have worried many of the uneducated on that May night.

A few scientists, themselves deficient in their understanding of comets, unwittingly supported the underlying fears and anxieties of the city’s immigrant population. They began to circulate reports that Halley’s Comet was composed of poisonous cyanogens, almost certain to snuff out life on Earth when it crashed through the comet’s tail.

Street vendors were everywhere, open for business even on Doomsday, hawking such nonsense as anti-comet pills and protective helmets to frightened citizens. Householders boarded up their windows, stuffed blankets in their doorjambs, to protect against the imminent toxic fumes. Dies Irae Actuaries calculated that the world would come to an end sometime between 10:20 p.m. and midnight on Wednesday, May 28 (presumably Eastern Standard Time)…give or take a few minutes.

Of course, midnight came and went and everyone and everything remained intact as Halley’s Comet continued brightly on its way through the heavens. By 3 a.m. police were clearing the crowds out of places like Central Park and Columbus Circle, off bridges and streets, and any other place they chose to make their last stand. Two casualties were attributed to the comet: a sixteen year old girl, attending a rooftop “comet party,” who fell to her death from the four-story roof; a 40-year-old woman who suffered a nervous collapse, led away to an asylum babbling that she’d follow the comet anywhere.

The death and ruin New Yorkers feared would come the very next year…not from the sky but rather from human greed and corruption in the city’s worst pre-911 fire: the Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire. In less than five years, human insanity would reveal itself to the world in the Great War before a still greater war superseded it. The brilliance as well as the stupidity, the greatness as well as the shame, of the twentieth century made Halley’s Comet’s reappearance in 1986 just another spectacular event in a long list of spectacular events for us to observe.

Source: “Doomsday” (p.32)  BIG TOWN, BIG TIME: A NEW YORK EPIC by Jay Maeder

Note: I HIGHLY recommend this book to one and all who love or like, or have the slightest interest in, anything or everything about NYC.

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