On March 25, 1811, an astronomer named Honore Flaugergues was scanning the night skies over his home in Viviers, France, when he suddenly sighted something odd. A glowing ball sat low on the horizon to the south and moved northward each night as it brightened. Over the next 16 months, people the world over watched the Great Comet as it passed earth on its 3,757-year orbit. Only Comet Hale-Bopp in 1997 was visible longer in recorded history, and it was not as large. The Great Comet of 1811 must have been a magnificent sight, for its diameter was roughly the same as that of the sun. The tail was 110 million miles long, split into two branches like a crescent with the head at the center.
Today we know that comets are made from dust, rocks, and frozen methane, ammonia, and water. In the Regency, men of science knew them for anomalies in the solar system. People of a less scientific bent considered them omens of either good, or dire, fortune. Napoleon, for example, saw the comet as a sign of his divine right to conquer. He chose that winter to invade Russia, where the weather and valiant Russian people offered him his first major defeat.
In the United States, on the other hand, cults prepared for the end of the world. Particularly in the Ohio and Kentucky wilderness, people feared the worst. Of course, they’d had a rough year by any account. A summer drought killed the crops, and tornadoes and hurricanes plagued the area. Native American uprisings, a massive suicide by squirrels trying to swim the Ohio River, and a total eclipse of the sun on September 17 might have given anyone pause. However, what really shook things up was the Great Madrid earthquake.
The Great Madrid earthquake, centered in Madrid, Missouri, in December 1811 was felt all the way to Boston and changed the course of the Mississippi River for a time. It was the largest earthquake in the U.S. history, estimated to be at least 8.0 on the Richter scale (which had yet to be invented). The Louisiana Gazette and Daily Advertiser (New Orleans) said that the shake was possibly caused by the Great Comet passing westward and striking the “mountain in California.” Either that or God was visiting His wrath on northern areas beyond Natchez, which they deemed as particularly lawless.
An earlier earthquake in Cape Town, Africa, on June 2, 1811, was also blamed on the comet, which had been seen in the skies every night since May 12. People were certain the Cape was going to be annihilated. Today’s scholars even blame the comet for helping to inspire the Luddite riots in England in April 1811.
On there’s an excuse if I ever heard one: “I cannot favor you with a dance, Mr. Jones. The Great Comet was visible tonight, and I do not dare take the chance of something dire happening in this set.”