The Great Comet Scare of 1910

In the early years of the 20th century, there was fear that the world was soon to end. Otherwise rational people barricaded themselves in cellars, bought placebo pills to save them from poison, and looked into the skies with dread. The papers at the time were full of news of the hysteria, and even sometimes gave it themselves. Mass prayers were held in the churches. Many assumed the end was near.

The cause? Halley's Comet making one of its rare but regular passes by the earth. With the new scientific equipment of the era, astronomers were able to study the comet much more closely than before and observe many of the properties of it and its long tail. This observation revealed that much of the tail consisted of cyanogen, a deeply poisonous gas. The astronomers also determined that Earth might well briefly pass through the tail of the comet. They quickly determined that this would be harmless, however, and told people that the only thing to expect was that sunsets would possibly somewhat more vivid for a while.

However, the media and the public didn't entirely pick up on the harmlessness of the pass-through, and just focused on the fact that the Earth would be passing through a cloud of poisonous gas. Soon, hysteria began to build as people grew more and more fearful that poison would envelop the world. Scientists tried to reassure the public that the gas was so widely distributed that it would be unnoticeable, but the papers often failed to actually report that fact, and panic continued to mount.

As the event drew nearer, things grew worse and worse. Con artists were able to sell pills that they claimed were �comet pills' to protect people from the gas. Regular prayer vigils were held in churches across the nation. The death of Mark Twain was implied to be connected somehow to the arrival of the comet. A shadow over one town drove people into a brief mass panic. Newspapers reported constantly on any news related to the comet � where the tail would hit the Earth, when it would be visible, and the like. When the time finally came for the pass itself, people barricaded themselves in their houses, filling any cracks or gaps with old rags to prevent any air from outside getting into the house.

In the end, the Earth and its people rather obviously survived. The hysteria faded as Halley's Comet made its way back off into its distant and complicated orbit, and nobody died from the gases in its tail.

The hysteria that resulted from such a harmless event serves to illustrate the need for accurate reporting and for public calm. The passing of a comet should be seen as a beautiful and majestic event, not a source of fear. The distortions of the truth and the mass hysteria that lead to the 1910 comet panic should be avoided and comets should be appreciated as the wonders of nature that they are.

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