Halley’s Comet visits the earth every seventy-five years. Since the dawn of civilization, humans had believed comets were evil portents. In 1705, Edmond Halley liberated humanity from these primordial superstitions (or so it was thought), proving that Newtonian mechanics rather than the will of the gods brought comets into our celestial neighborhood. Despite this scientific advance, when Halley’s Comet returned in 1910 and astronomers announced that our planet would pass through its poisonous tail, newspapers gleefully provoked a global hysteria that unfolded with tragic consequences.
In Comet Madness, author and historian Richard J. Goodrich examines the 1910 appearance of Halley’s Comet and the ensuing frenzy sparked by media manipulation, bogus science, and outright deception. The result is a fascinating and illuminating narrative history that underscores how we behave in the face of potential calamity – then and now.
As the comet neared Earth, scientists and journalists alike scrambled to get the story straight as citizens the world over panicked. Popular astronomer Camille Flammarion attempted to allay fears in a newspaper article, but the media ignored his true position that passage would be harmless; weather prophet Irl Hicks, publisher of an annual, pseudo-scientific almanac, announced that the comet would disrupt the world’s weather; religious leaders thumbed the Bible’s Book of Revelation and wondered if the comet presaged the apocalypse. Newspapers, confident that there was gold in these alternate theories, gave every crackpot a megaphone, increasing circulation and stoking international hysteria.
As a result, workmen shelved their tools, farmers refused to plant crops they would never harvest, and formerly reliable people stopped paying their creditors. More opportunistic citizens opened “comet insurance” plans. Others suffered mental breakdowns, and some took their own lives.
Comet Madness reveals how humans confront the unknown, how scientists learn about the world we inhabit, and how certain people—from outright hucksters to opportunistic journalists—harness fear to produce a profit.
Richard J. Goodrich earned his Ph. D, at St. Andrews and spent twenty years teaching ancient history in Britain and the United States. The author of six academic books, he now writes about early twentieth century history. Visit the author at www.RichardJGoodrich.com.
NetGalley Review: 4 stars
Last updated on 18 Sep 2022
"Well done book. The research couldn't have been done better. WOW, a lot of hard work went into this!"—James Gragson, educator at University of Kansas City Springfield
NetGalley Review: 5 stars
Last updated on 21 Sep 2022
"Comet Madness: How the 1910 Return of Halley's Comet (Almost) Destroyed Civilization by Richard Goodrich is an amazingly researched book about the media storm that surrounded the aforementioned 1910 Halley's Comet. Despite scientists' repeated and longsuffering assurances that Halley's Comet was not going to collide with Earth directly, or change weather patterns and set off earthquakes and volcanoes, or have its' tail envelope the world with cyanogen gases that would kill everyone by way of rapturous joy.
The book is filled with true (and fictional) stories that were published by newspapers trying to incite fear in the public to sell more copies. Goodrich also tries his best to clear Camille Flammarion's name, as he was an astronomer to whom newspapers often purposefully either misquoted or falsely attributed fantastical theories of the comet's effects on Earth.
Go ahead and pick up a copy of Comet Madness and enjoy the tale of how the world was (almost) destroyed."—Elizabeth McLaughlin, librarian at the Lee County Library System
Last updated on 10 Oct 2022
"What's more dangerous than a comet? Bad science and bogus journalism, apparently.
Comet Madness by Richard Goodrich centers on the 1910 Visit of Halley's Comet. Goodrich takes a look at how the media created an absolute frenzy around...well, not much of anything but misrepresentations and crackpot theories. If you are a person who walks around these days saying, "fake news" then this book is clearly for you. Goodrich pulls no punches in blaming the media for some of the crazy, sad, and heartbreaking actions people took due to yellow journalism.
The book is mostly a chronicle of scientific theories about what Halley's Comet would (or mostly would not) do on it's visit to Earth. Goodrich clearly did a lot of research and he scoured numerous newspapers to dredge up the stories of people refusing to pay bills, praying harder than ever, or in the worst cases, harming themselves. Some parts are sad and some parts are downright hilarious.
The wild veering between a sad story and then a witty retort to a reporter can make the book feel disjointed at times. Also, while it is not the point of the book, I would have liked a chapter solely devoted to the actual facts around the comet. These are minor nitpicks. It is still a very enjoyable read.
(This book was provided as an advance copy by Netgalley and Rowman & Littlefield. The full review will be posted to HistoryNerdsUnited.com on 2/14/2023.)"—Brendan Dowd, History Nerds United
"Goodrich vividly shows how little it took “to drive some Americans back to the fears and superstitions of a prescientific world.” This slice of history fascinates."-Publishers Weekly
“In a comprehensive overview of the literature that documented these apparitions at the time, CometMadness offers a thorough sweep through the musings of those foretelling the reasons behind a comet’s appearance and the consequences likely to befall the world from its fiery presence. Author and historian Richard J Goodrich relates how civilisations reacted to the foretelling and subsequent sighting of a new arrival in the heavens. With the use of intriguing and often whimsical comet-based quotes to head up each chapter, he neatly catalogues in a flowing dialogue how centuries of archive material generally paint a desperate picture heralded by a comet’s presence, of widespread fear among all walks of life.”—BBC Sky at Night Magazine
“Goodrich takes a look at how the media created an absolute frenzy around...well, not much of anything but misrepresentations and crackpot theories. If you are a person who walks around these days saying, "fake news" then this book is clearly for you.”—Brendan Dowd, History Nerds United
“Comet Madness is a fascinating look at historical issues that we still struggle with today — media overhype, the tension between the scientific process and the need for headlines and, yes, not knowing what’s in the skies above us.”—Elizabeth Held, What to Read If
“This is an excellent read all round, for science and astronomy buffs particularly, but sociologists, anthropologists, and indeed anyone interested in media and its influence on culture will find it fascinating.”—Patricia G., NetGalley Review
“A fascinating account of a time when everyone thought they had the inside source, or the real scoop on a situation, didn't and countless innocent and gullible people paid the cost...Recommended for both science readers and people interested in both media and how rumors and bad science can become so ingrained in people's heads and hearts.”—Dan O., NetGalley Review
“Go ahead and pick up a copy of Comet Madness and enjoy the tale of how the world was (almost) destroyed.”—Elizabeth M., NetGalley Review