Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Newlywed Toledoan sees Great Comet of 1843

Many of us can remember the comet Hale-Bopp, which appeared in the skies of Toledo (and much of the rest of the world) in the winter of 1996-97. The brightest comet in years, Hale-Bopp made for amazing comet-gazing. I well remember viewing the comet from the playground of Grove Patterson School in West Toledo. A friend of mine who drove between Toledo and Ann Arbor daily said that motorists on US 23 were stopping on the berm to ogle the comet. It was so much more spectacular than Comet Kohoutek in 1973 and the disappointing return of Haley’s Comet in 1986. I doubt there will be such an amazing comet show again in my lifetime.

Another comet visited the earth and Toledo in 1843. A letter from a Toledo newlywed named Carry to a relative in Connecticut includes this sentence: I almost forgot to ask you if you had seen the comet - it seems to be the most fashionable of any thing I know of. You can not go out without being asked have you seen the comet? The “Great Comet of 1843” was a comet that passed Earth on March 6, 1843. Widely observed and notable for a long “tail,” the Great Comet attracted worldwide attention. In fact, a religious movement broke out in New England that believed the comet presaged the end of the world. How a Toledo housewife viewed what would become the story of the year is summarized here.

We don’t know the full name of our Toledo comet gazer. She didn’t sign her full name, so we know her only as “Carry.” Carry was from Connecticust, and was related to the Stroud family. In October of 1842 she had married a man named William: Everyone thinks, I suppose, they have the best husband in the world and I am just sure I have the very best- so you asked my advice on the subject. I will say I never was so happy as I am now or have been since one Monday morning in Oct 1842 – and my advice to you is if you can find as good a man as I have got do you give him a chase and don’t quit chasing till you get him. Now if that is not good advice I can not give any. Carry was delighted by marriage and domestic life: … I am getting quite expert – I can mend Coats shirts & everything belonging to a gentleman’s wardrobe-…. The letter is full of chitchat about friends, taking a trip to Detroit, and so forth. Her life in Toledo, that little village on the edge of a swamp, seemed quite happy.

But there were omens. Besides the comet, there had been a dreadfully cold winter: Do you have a long cold winter or rather have you had? It has been very cold indeed here. The Cattle hogs and sheep are starving to death all around us. I do not think so much of the cold as I am so accustomed to it. Carry does not say in her letter whether she saw these natural phenomenon as harbingers of doom. But certainly some of her fellow Ohioans, and others in the United States saw the comet as a sign of the end of the world.

In the village of Low Hampton, New York, there lived a veteran of the War of 1812 named William Miller (1782-1849). Miller, like many veterans, had his faith shaken by his wartime experiences. In an effort to recapture his faith, he began to study the prophecies of Daniel. By 1822 he was convinced that Christ would return to Earth in 1844. He gathered followers, who were numerous enough to start a newspaper, and convinced other clergymen. By 1843, a new religious movement, “Millerism,” had established itself around the teachings of William Miller. After several revisions, Miller’s followers established October 22, 1844 as the date of the end of the world. Not knowing how to prepare, people stocked their cellars with food and supplies; others, preparing to go to heaven, saw no need to prepare. But when the world did not end, the days following October 22 were referred to as the “Great Disappointment.” Some of Miller’s disciples went on to found what is today known as the Seventh Day Adventist Church. But for the most part, Miller’s followers were disappointed and bewildered.

Many Millerites had seen The Great Comet of 1843 as a heavenly sign that the end was coming. There were several omens to be seen in the America of that time: meteor showers in 1833, a financial panic in 1837, the death of President William Henry Harrison on 1841. “Carry” herself mentions an ominously hard winter. People in the nineteenth century were predisposed to look for “signs” in a mostly inscrutable world. Carry in Toledo reported the comet as a source of conversation; many others looked more warily to the skies.

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