Page last updated May 15, 2019|
The History Behind This Page
In the late 1700's and early 1800's there was speculation that bright comets seen in 1264 and 1556 were the same comet and if so, that it might reappear in the mid 1800's. A precise calculation published in 1849 showed that if so, the comet should reappear around 1849, give or take ten years, and since it had not reappeared by 1849 that it might be expected within the next ten years. A minor publication (the Liege Almanac
published by a German (or Belgian, since Liege is in Belgium) named Laensberg supposedly stated "about this time, expect a comet" in the Almanac's predictions for the week of June 15, 1857. Almost immediately rumor and gossip turned that entry into a prediction that a gigantic comet would strike the Earth on June 13 of 1857, possibly ending all life on our planet. Needless to say, this caused considerable distress among many members of the public, even though there were efforts to calm people by pointing out that even if the original prediction was correct (which turned out not to be the case), that did not mean that the rumors about a collision with the Earth were in any way correct. For reasons as unknown as how the rumors of catastrophe developed, the fear of imminent destruction struck Paris and its environs particularly hard, and the artist and caricaturist Honoré Daumier took advantage of that fear by publishing numerous cartoons in La Charivari
, a French satirical publication similar in tone and content to the English Punch
. Some parts of this paragraph were included in an article I wrote for the 2020 Yearbook of Astronomy
, titled Cometary Comedy and Chaos
, in which I referred to the cartoons produced by Daumier, and for the reasons discussed in the paragraph below, I created this page as a supplement to that article.
Daumier and his publishers are long gone, and in most countries the cartoons are in the public domain, and thanks to the very kind permission of the Daumier Register
(a site which anyone interested in Daumier or his work will find an invaluable reference), may be shown on this website. However, as is true of most of the images on this site, they cannot be reproduced for any commercial purpose (which includes posting them on websites that contain advertising) without the written consent of the Daumier Register, or of the owners of the original prints that are reproduced there.
In most respects these images fall outside the main purpose of my website, which is to impart astronomical knowledge; but I not only found the images amusing, but also wanted to add some commentary to the individual images which would not be possible if I merely directed the reader to the Daumier Register (though clicking on any Daumier image below will direct you to the original source). So... without further ado, here is a collection of images related to the topic above, and a smattering of others that are also of astronomical interest.
Note About Laensberg
: Although I have no reason to disbelieve the article that attributes the prediction of the appearance of the comet to the Liege Almanac
, the original Martin Laensberg (spelled several different ways) was long dead by 1856 and his Liege Almanac
supposedly ceased publication in 1792. So even though it is quite possible that someone else revived the publication at least temporarily, whether they were actually named Laensberg (and possibly related to the original publisher) or merely adopted that name for the purposes of publication remains if not competely unknown, at least uncertain; but since it is the only reference I have been able to find about where that particular prediction came from, it seems appropriate to at least mention it above, with the caveat given here.
The Nonexistent Comet of 1857 Creates Panic in Paris
(Translations by the Daumier Register in quotes; my comments, if any, in parentheses)
An 1857 French cartoon of uncertain origin (the web pages showing the cartoon seem to have expired)
(Not by Daumier, but showing the alarm raised by public misconceptions of prior publications)
The Comet of 1857; published February 18, 1857
"Adelaide, Adelaide.. I think I can see the comet coming!!.."
"Oh my God... this is the end of the world.... how annoying.
They promised it wouldn't come until June 13!"
(I suppose it would spoil her plans for the weekend.)
The Comet of 1857; published February 23, 1857; titled "Once Again the Comet"
"Is it really true, Monsieur, that there will be a catastrophe on June 13?"
"It looks like it, Marianne... but there is still hope...
this paper for example says, the date has been changed to June 14."
(Oh, goody! Doomsday has been postponed by one day!)
The Comet of 1857; published February 25, 1857
"The Parisians waiting for the arrival of the famous comet."
The Comet of 1857; published March 4, 1857
"I don't want your credits...
The expiration date is on the 15th of June and the world is supposed to end on the 13th."
(Not that it would make much difference if the note ended on the 11th and the world on the 13th.)
The Comet of 1857; published March 7, 1857
"Some say that they are already seeing it!" "Where?" "At Cherbourg..." "With its tail?"
"No, it still hasn't sprouted, but it will not delay, someone says that it already has its hair..."
"I am starting to be quite afraid, Madame Chaffaroud." "So am I, Madame Mistouflot."
The Comet of 1857; published March 11, 1857
"Hello, neighbour... what was all this yelling about... did you see the comet?"
"I thought I had seen it over there... but then it was just the fire from a chimney...
This time we got off with no more than a fright."
The Comet of 1857; published March 13, 1857
"Monsieur, I quit your service, I am going home... I don't want to be here when the world ends."
(Most people would want to be with family and friends when the world ends.)
The Comet of 1857; published March 17, 1857
French: "L'astronome allemand lâchant un fameux canard."
Translation: "The German astronomer releasing a famous duck."
(A pun based on the fact that in French "canard", or quackery, means "duck".
The "German astronomer" is presumably (Herr?) Laensberg)
The Comet of 1857; published March 19, 1857
"Can you see the comet?... just there, at the tip of my finger ... don't lose sight of my finger tip!"
(Otherwise, you might notice that I'm picking your pocket!)
The Comet of 1857; published March 20, 1857
"I am not afraid for me, but if I think of poor Azor who will perish on the 13th of June...
it simply breaks my heart."
(Le petit chien Azor presumably being her best-beloved companion.)
The Comet of 1857; published March 21, 1857
"The streets of Paris are beginning to look like this every night"
(Everyone is scanning the sky, watching for the first visible sign of impending doom.)
The Comet of 1857; thought to have been published March 23, 1857
"They think they can see it coming."
(And are quite reasonably distressed by that thought.)
The Comet of 1857; published March 25, 1857
"Even the planets are watching with interest the arrival of the famous comet."
(The planets being represented by the gods and goddesses associated with their names:
Jupiter, Venus, Mars and Saturn are shown, but not Mercury.)
The Comet of 1857; published April 24, 1857
"Ah, my dear Madame Chaffarou... this surely must be the end...
the comet is coming and the sun is going."
(Monsieur Babinet gave public lectures on astronomy, and apparently in one of them he noted that the Sun would eventually die. Daumier did several cartoons in which he pretended that Babinet had said that it would completely disappear at any moment, and was even conspiring to put it out himself, to verify his prediction. This was undoubtedly a gross exaggeration of whatever Babinet said, but as a satirical cartoonist Daumier had every reason to take such liberties, and no reason to 'hold back'.)
The Comet of 1857; published May 1, 1857
"The Parisians don't quite trust the assurances of Monsieur Babinet
and insist on lying in wait for the comet."
The Comet of 1857; published June 10, 1857
"Parisians already taking their precautions to avoid being roasted by the comet."
The Comet of 1857; published June 12, 1857
"The evening before the 13th of June."
(Anxiously awaiting the end of the world)
The Comet of 1857; published June 15, 1857 (titled "The 14th of June")
"God be praised... June 13 is past... and we are still alive..."
(The couple so worried the evening before happily wake the next morning)
A Spectacular Comet Arrives in 1858
As it happened, in 1858 a real comet appeared in the sky, and not just any comet, but one of the most spectacular and easily visible comets in recorded history — the long-period Comet Donati. As seen in the artistic rendering of the comet immediately below, it was bright enough for both its curved dust tail and its straight gas tails to be seen. Usually, cometary gas tails are only visible in telescopes or photographs, as their faint glow pales in comparison to the comet's coma and the reflected sunlight from the dust tail. In addition, the comet was in the northern portion of the sky (the image shows its head near Arcturus, and the Big Dipper to its right — follow the arc of the handle to the left, and it leads directly to Arcturus, both in the sky and in the image). This meant that it was easily visible for most of the night for weeks on end, even in the neighborhood of brightly lit cities. As seen in the cartoons by Daumier, this gave him another chance to poke fun at the unfortunate Monsieur Babinet and the Parisians.
Comet Donati on October 5, 1858, when its head was near Arcturus
(Image Credit E. Weiß, "Bilderatlas der Sternenwelt", 1888 (from Wikimedia Commons))
Comet Donati; published September 22, 1858
"Monsieur Babinet alerted by his housekeeper of the arrival of the comet."
(A cartoon showing Comet Donati)
Comet Donati; published October 30, 1858
"Ah yes, those comets, they always predict great misfortunes
It doesn't surprise me at all that poor Madame Galuchet suddenly died last night."