The year 1858 was one of turmoil and wonder. One hundred and fifty years ago the world was coming together. The United States signed a commercial treaty with hitherto self-isolated Japan, gold seekers rushed to Pike’s Peak, there was talk of a railroad to California, and the first briefly successful transatlantic telegraph cable was laid.
The world was also coming apart, or at least rearranging itself in unfamiliar ways. The British Crown abolished the East India Company and began to imperialize the subcontinent. Progress towards emancipation of Russian serfs accelerated, while in the United States, the dispute over slavery intensified. Bernadette of Lourdes believed she saw the Virgin Mary.
In Illinois, a skinny, tall, lawyer with considerable insight but not much national experience was campaigning in a crucial election to be sent to Washington.
And all around the world that fall people looked up at an immense, luminous, white bar across the night sky and wondered what it might mean.
The comet they pondered was first observed by 41-year-old Italian astronomer Giovanni Battista Donati in June 1858. Its nearest approach to earth was on Oct. 10, 1858, when it had grown enormously long and highly visible.
Joseph Le Conte, later the first great natural scientist on the faculty of the University of California, was then a South Carolina academic and doctor, comfortable with the science and society of the South. He was profoundly affected by Donati’s Comet.
“In October, 1858, appeared the splendid comet of Donati, the most magnificent celestial phenomenon I had ever seen,” he recalled in his autobiography. “With what wonder and intense yearning I gazed at it every night! From early boyhood this upward yearning of my soul as if it would go out of me has always affected me in the presence of the starry heavens, especially when I gazed at the bright evening star. This yearning now returned upon me in the presence of this glorious comet.”
Donati’s was one of the earliest “modern” comets. It was the first to be photographed, by astronomers at Harvard, and its behavior was carefully detailed by observers. For three weeks, for example, the comet was seen to throw off “halos” every 4.6 hours, strengthening the theory that comets were like spinning snowballs, not clouds of free-floating small particles.
The night was curiously thick with comets in the 19th century, especially when compared to the recent past. In the late 20th century, the urban cometscenti snickered at the visual bust of ballyhooed Kohoutek in 1973, yawned at the predictable but unexpectedly pale return of Halley’s Comet in 1986, and were only briefly awed by Hale-Bopp in 1997.
But for Americans of the early and mid-1800s the dark sky was a clear palette for a spectacular succession of comets; in addition to Donati’s in 1858, “great” ones visible to the naked eye came in 1811, 1843, 1846 (with a double nucleus, returning in 1852), 1853, 1861 (a comet with six visible “tails”), 1874, 1882, all punctuated and ending with two visits of Halley’s Comet in 1835 and 1910.
Comets then were still, even in the United States, seen with suspicious awe and fear. The Great Comet of 1811—the most vividly visible until Donati’s appeared in 1858—was regarded by some as the precursor of the War of 1812.
“In all countries and in all times the apparition of a comet has been considered as a presage: a presage fortunate or unfortunate according to the circumstances, the popular state of mind, the prevailing degree of superstition, the imbecility of princes or the calculation of courtiers,” Amèdée Guillemin wrote in 1877 in a thick tome on cometary science and history.
“The people looked to comets, earthquakes, storms, and prairie fires as the peculiarly awful language of God,” wrote one historian of the Middle Western American frontier of that era. “Such signs convinced the pioneers they were to be God’s chosen instruments in His ineffable plans.”
“Across the prairie sky in the year 1858 there came in Illinois cloudy weather for a long time and when it cleared there was seen on the blue mist sheeting of the sky a traveling tail of fire, a new silver arrow among the old yellow stars,” wrote historian Archer Shaw.
“The people had known it was coming; the men of the books had said it would come…at least two and perhaps three thousand years this silver arrow had been tracking its way, a wanderer, not at all responsible in the way that fixed stars and the sun and the moon are responsible, a mover and a goer into new and unknown ways.”
“The comet blazes in the evening sky with a luster which is nightly increasing,” reported the Illinois State Register; “nightly there are thousands of eyes turned towards it.”
Francis Grierson, who grew up in Illinois in the 1850s, would later describe a revival meeting in which a preacher proclaimed, “brethering, the Lord hez passed the time when He shakes yer cornfields en yer haystacks by a little puff o’wind. He hez opened the roof o’ Heaven so ye can all see what’s a-comin.’…Under ye the yearth hez been shuck, over ye the stars air beginnin’ te shift en wander. A besom o’ destruction ’ll overtake them thet’s on the wrong side in this here fight!”
The preacher climaxed, Grierson remembered, with this declaration: “He shell send them a saviour, en a great one, en he shell deliver them … ask yerselves who it air thet’s a-cryin’ for deliverance … Why, thar ain’t but one people a-cryin’ for deliverance, en they are the slaves down thar in Egypt!”
He didn’t mean down at the southern tip of Illinois, in Cairo. But across that still young state, through its cities, hamlets, prairies, and woodlands, grassroots preaching helped set the stage, for immense public interest in both the comet and the volatile politics of the nation.
Among the comet watchers was Abraham Lincoln who “greatly admired this strange visitor,” one observer said, and stayed up to look at it for a solid hour one night. Stephen Douglas, his debate opponent in the United States Senate campaign that summer and fall, took similar interest.
“It was in this year of the comet that Lincoln was fixing his thoughts on the fact that nothing stays fixed,” historian Shaw wrote. “Up among the fixed stars and steady constellations are explosions and offshoots of comets, sprays of comets.
“For Lincoln, the year of the comet was one filled with burning struggle.”
“If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could better judge what to do, and how to do it…A house divided against itself cannot stand,” Lincoln told the state Republican convention that June, as he was nominated for Senate, in a speech some of his prudent friends had advised him not to deliver.
“I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free … Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new, North as well as South.”
“In simple Bible language … and in longer words of piercing precision,” wrote Shaw the historian, “he had spoken thought as fresh, beautiful, and terrible as Donati’s Comet with its tail of fire in the sky. What he had said was easy to say and to understand, a common-sense telling of what millions of anxious hearts wanted told.”
What would, one wonders, the self-proclaimed “Party of Lincoln” say if a comet appeared over Illinois this fall as a new, boldly speaking, young leader rose up out of that state? Would they place him and themselves on the side of change? We can only imagine. Perhaps they would claim the comet was actually pointed towards Alaska.
Lincoln distinguished himself in his debates with Douglas, but lost his bid to become Senator from Illinois. But his “House Divided” speech and the debates made him nationally famous. Two years later he would defeat Douglas in a national election, and win the Presidency.
And Grierson wrote of one later evening in that politically poignant fall of 1858, after the debates were done, “…just above the horizon, poised like an aerial plume in the deep indigo blue, the vanishing comet waned amidst a wilderness of glittering lights under a shimmering crown of stars.”