Episode 4: Fantastic Flammarion Facts – W4W

Jenn tells the terrifying tail of a turn of the century comet. Aaron tells patrons how they can protect themselves from the comet death.

Episode 4: Fantastic Flammarion Facts
Interesting If True, Episode 4: Fantastic Flammarion Facts

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Welcome to Interesting If True, where we take turns telling tantalizing tales. I’m your host this week, Jenn, and with me, as always, my bearded and bedraggled co hosts Aaron, Shea, and Steve,

I’m Aaron, and this week I learned that while a comatose state is one of inactivity, a comet only has a coma when it’s active!

I’m Shea, and this week I learned that mandatory temperature screenings will be required for fans attending the Foreigner reunion concert.IIT If you’re hot blooded they’ll check it and see.

I’m Steve and while I’ve heard that man cannot live on bread alone, now that Aaron gave me his old bread machine, I might just give it a try.

Camille Claims Comet is Coming Calamitously

I’m Jenn and I want to welcome you to a story of weird history…ree…ree…ree.

This is a timely tale. In fact Monday, day of recording, May 18th of this year, is the supposed 110th anniversary of this particular cosmic event (well, the earthly part is debatable, but I’ll get to that). Yes, if we rewind to the year 1910, we will discover that the heavenly visitor, Halley’s Comet, was making its roughly-every-76-years visit to our skies.

Now Halley’s Comet was, of course, no stranger to our ancestors. It’s considered a ‘short-period’ comet, or a comet with regular visits of 200 years or less. In fact, Halley’s is the only short period comet that is visible to the naked human eye, and the only that is possible to witness twice in a human lifetime. Since it’s last buzzing of Earth was 1986, I’m hoping I might make it a twice-r. (I was 6, and if I can keep my crappy immune system in check…)

As a quick informational aside: the comet is named for Edmond Halley, a 17th century astronomer who was the first to realize the comet appeared in regular intervals.

Of course, there’s a rich human history surrounding the appearance of comets, usually involving everyone losing their minds in terror. At least, that is, until more recent times. And by recent, I don’t exactly mean the 1910 visit. Nope, the 1910 arrival definitely had its share of comet-induced pandemonium.

Why were people in such an uproar in this relatively recent time period? Well, as we are always, continuously reminded, humans as a group just can’t seem to understand science. And in this particular case, it was pretty crappy science.

It was in early April of 1910 that French astronomer, Camille Flammarion (a Harry Potter character yet to be written), announces that the materials in the comet’s tail, most notably ‘cyanogen’, were highly poisonous and, since this was an unusually close pass of the comet, it spelled certain doom to inhabitants of Earth. I’m not exaggerating on his message. A direct quote from Flammarion (my unicorn slash fan fiction pseudonym):

“The comet’s tail,” said Flammarion (a fire bender), “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.”

Well, that sucks.

From the Frederick, MD Newspost:

“In April 1910, the conjecture screamed across newspapers far and wide…As the dreaded month of May approached the panic was real.

Europe’s reaction was mixed. In Italy, the poor gathered nightly to “hiss and hoot” the comet away, believing the apparition was causing the cold, wet and wintry May weather. Beset with anxiety, the former sultan of Turkey refused to eat for the days prior to the comet’s arrival. In Baden, Germany, farmers decided not to sow their spring crops. The comet was also blamed for the severe storms in northwest Europe and snowstorms in Iceland…the inhabitants of Russia took a more pessimistic view of things. In Siberia, all business was halted. The 300,000 inhabitants of Irkutsk were reported to be in a constant state of terror with farmers burning their barns for fuel.”

(I included the Russian part just so Aaron can utilize his accent.)

But don’t worry, back in the good ole US of A, not to be outdone by no Europe or Eurasia, we also got a little nuts. Again from the Frederick, MD Newspost:

“In Chicago, many people sealed their doors and windows to keep out the deadly gas. Several Detroit residents witnessed a homing pigeon die in flight and fall to the street below. A calamity ensued as men and women rushed about in great excitement screaming “It’s the gas, it’s the gas.”

But birds weren’t the only things dropping dead.

Ruth Jordon of Talladega, Ala., was summoned to her front door, saw the comet and expired. Apparently the same fate awaited a gentleman when shown the celestial visitor from a nearby depot platform.

Scores of comet-induced suicides were reported in several states.

If death didn’t get you, insanity did. James Klein of Somerville, N.J., was found in the street “scantly clad,” raving about being pursued by the comet’s tail. Then there was the unfortunately named Paul Hammerton of California.

Hammerton was a prospector brooding over the effects of the comet’s visit, so he got out some nails and proceeded to crucify himself. By the time other miners heard his cries he had succeeded in nailing both feet and one hand to the makeshift cross. Although he was in intense agony he pleaded with his rescuers to let him be.”

Finally, Oklahoma decided it was time it threw its hat into the ring. Dying homing pigeons? DIY crucifixions? Hold my beer.

On May 20th, 1910, the Oklahoma City Times ran a story under the headline ‘Girl Rescued from Death at Gory Stake’. It wasn’t long before Okie papers throughout the state carried the story of The Select Followers, a religious sect, led by Henry Heinman.

Quoted newspaper clipping
Clipping from Salina Daily Union, 1910.

Heinman claimed that God had alerted him to the world’s end, courtesy of the approaching comet, and only a blood sacrifice would avert the disaster.

‘Jane Warfield, a pretty nineteen-year-old farmer girl, living near here was rescued after a hand-to-hand conflict between members of the sheriff of Alfalfa county posse and Henry Heinman’s religious fanatics Wednesday evening just as the girl was about to be offered as a blood sacrifice for the atonement of the world’s sins in order that Halley’s comet might not destroy the earth.

The girl, nude and partially unconscious, was tied to a stake in the center of a dancing group of the crazed followers of Heiman and within a few minutes was to have been stabbed and bled to death. Heinman’s chief prophet was ready to perform the deed.

It was known in the community that the much-heralded approach of Halley’s comet and the threatened danger attached to its appearance had affected the fanatics and frequent meetings were being held. All their secrets are closely guarded and it was not until the girl was tied to the stake that the authorities became aware of the intended sacrifice.’

Holy crap! How exciting! A posse of Okie-Alfalfa County cowboys rescues a white clad virgin from certain sacrifice! One would almost think it was..too good…to be true.

It turns out the tale, which is still reported today in some publications as at least somewhat factual, was thought to be the brainchild of Edgar Benton Merchant, a lawyer, newspaper publisher and editor of the Aline Chronoscope from 1901 until his death in 1919. At the time of the comet, he was an older man living in Aline, OK. According to several sources he was imaginative and inventive, with a sneaky sense of humor, and it was assumed he came up with the story and his wife, Ellen, a type-setter and reporter helped to make it an event. There was apparently a whole group of people ready to make the hoax a reality, and the ‘is it or isn’t it’ remained in the town for years.

So I suppose the moral of the story is: Oklahoma didn’t actually get wrapped up in 1910 religious, wacko hysteria. They’re just liar-liars, pants on comet fires.

Midshow Bumper

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Aaron’s Completely Cosher Comet Pills!

With a “C”!

  • Selling Hope By Kristin O’Donnell Tubb: https://amzn.to/3cUGIqb (Amazon Affiliate Link)
  • https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/06/the-killer-comet/588031/
  • https://www.wired.com/2015/01/fantastically-wrong-halleys-comet/
  • https://www.denverpost.com/2010/05/25/halleys-comet-100-years-ago/
  • Pics from https://gizmodo.com/stunning-depictions-of-ancient-comets-that-scared-the-h-1640330614

Thanks to Jenn for telling the listeners the fantastic tale of Halley’s Comet. Now, because you’re the best people, I’m going to tell you how to protect yourself from it.

That’s right, so you don’t get Bopped by an intergalactic Hail Mary you should shoe…maker … it over to your nearest purveyor of holistic health to thwart Halley’s attempts to cause you and family harm. Why, just a moment of comet-exposure is enough to melt your face, make your kids gay, and turn the country over to the commies.

Or at least, that was the feeling in 1910.

See, Halley’s Comet has a history of murdering people, like Harold II, the last Angelo-Saxon King of Great Britain (as long as we don’t carry the 1… and the Battle of Hastings), and Edward VII…

But why worry? Because cyanogen, that’s why.

See, turn-of-the-century scientists in 1910 had just started using spectroscopes allowing the discovery of cyanogen in the tail of Halley’s Comet. If that sounds ominous, that’s because it is-ish. Aside from accounting for the trail’s greenish hue, it also means that a core component in the Halley’s Comet trail is Cyanide.

People at the time were particularly worried about Cyanide as it had just taken the #1 most murdery-chemical spot in the cultural awareness. Previously arsenic was the scariest, but now there Cyanide… from space!

Astronomers had announced Earth would pass through Halley’s tale—caliente—on between the hours of 11:20 pm May 18th and 1:20am May 19th, 1910. Which, of course, the end of the world. Rumors flew far and wide, even without the internet, of the forthcoming global floods for example. And so, the good people of Italy for example, took to standing on Rooftops or bridges to avoid the sure-to-rise tides.

The comet was also said to carry influenza. Hot off the heels of it being yee-olde sick time people were worried about where the next outbreak would could form and space seemed as good a source as any. It was silly of course, now we know that viruses can’t all survive the vacuum and radiations of space… which is why the comet gives off 5G electro-magnetic frequencies that convert Earth’s oxygen into Covid. Duh.

Many farmers were so sure Halley’s would end the world that many in the US and other nations like GB, Germany, and France just didn’t bother planting crops.

And because the public now knew two things, that Halley’s Comet was partially made of Cyanide, and that we’d be passing through its tail, really, the public knew three things: that we’d all soon be dead from the Cyanide rain entering and making poisonous Earth’s atmosphere.

Just like that a market was created. According to Selling Hope, by Kristin O’Donnell Tubb, Amazon book link in the show notes, “Comet-protecting umbrella” were sold. You know, to keep the poisonous space-rain off your head… because meteorites can’t breach fabric.

Of course gas masks were big and so was protective clothing, whatever that meant. From Wired:

“A shepherd in Washington State was reported to have gone insane with worry about the comet, while in California a prospector nailed his feet and one hand to a cross and, despite his agony, pleaded with rescuers to let him remain there.”

Organizations in the United States printed leaflets with advice:

“Warning to the Inhabitants of the City: “Close your windows and keep indoors for the Earth will soon pass through the tail of the terrible Comet and its poisonous gases will fill the heavens!”

More to our point though was the development and release of “anti-Comet Pills”.

In the Port formerly known as Au-Prince, Haiti, a medicine man was reported as selling “anti-comet pills, guaranteed to stave off all malevolent effects of Mr. Halley’s visitor” for a mere $1.00 per pill.”

It should be noted that a buck in 1910 would get you a hat, a dozen eggs, a pound of butter, a pound of cornmeal, and a tube of Sanitol toothpaste. Or, the brand new invention of a teddy bear.

Once news broke of the Haitian pills the rest of the world got on board. Fraudsters hawked anti-comet pills, with one brand promising to be “an elixir for escaping the wrath of the heavens,” and two Texan’s were at the center of the American cure-all for comets.

The most famous of them being Hope’s Anit-Comet Pills from Texas. The pills were, of course, little more than sugar and whatever else people in 1910 figured was safe to eat for no reason.

Some hawksters would even sell you pills for as little as 25 cents. The pills themselves were of course nonsense and weren’t going to protect you from anything, not that there was space gas to worry about anyway.

Of course the Comet came and without murdering people with poisonous gas. The pill hawkers said , of course that meant that their pills worked.

Normally this story would be exclusive to subscribers at Patreon.com/iit,but we wanted to release the first few shows to everyone to give you an idea of what you can get for as little as a dollar a show.


I’m Jenn, Thanks to all our listeners, supporters, and my co-hosts: Aaron, Shea, & Steve. Find out more about the show, social links, and contact information at InterestingIfTrue.com.

Music for this episode, Retro, was created by Wayne Jones and was used with permission.
The opinions, views and nonsense expressed in this show are those of the hosts only and do not represent any other people, organizations, or lifeforms. All rights reserved, Interesting If True 2020.

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