The most famous individual to emerge from the “Dark Day” was Abraham Davenport, a member of the Connecticut legislature, which was in session when the sky blackened. Members of the legislature, fearing the apocalypse had come, moved for adjournment. Davenport is said to have responded: “The day of judgment is either approaching, or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause of an adjournment; if it is, I choose to be found doing my duty. I wish therefore that candles may be brought.” The New England poet John Greenleaf Whittier commemorated Davenport in a poem first published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1866.
6. Finding Omens in the Great Pyramid of Giza
A.D. 1881 was a banner year for apocalyptic expectations. For starters, there was the prediction of “Mother Shipton,” a 16th-century British soothsayer whose prophecies were first published in 1641. A later edition, published in 1862, included the prediction: “The world to an end shall come; in eighteen hundred and eighty one.” However, the book’s author, Charles Hindley, admitted that this and other prophecies (including the invention of the telegraph and the steam engine) were added as a hoax in an apparent attempt to boost book sales.
Writing in an 1881 edition of Harper’s Magazine, an unnamed author lamented, “I fear it will be impossible… to deliver the English masses from this unhappy piece of miseducation.” However, on a more hopeful note, the article added: “I am assured by friends of mine employed in the British Museum that for months that institution has been fairly besieged by people anxious to know if there be any such manuscript as that referred to, or if the predictions are genuine.” Nonetheless, the 1911 edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica noted that the 1881 end-of-the-world prophecy was “the cause of the most poignant alarm throughout rural England in that year, the people deserting their houses, and spending the night in prayer in the fields, churches and chapels.”
Supporting “evidence” for an apocalypse in 1881 came from an unlikely source: the Great Pyramid of Giza. Charles Piazzi Smyth, the Astronomer Royal for Scotland, became convinced that the pyramid had been built not by the Egyptians but by an Old Testament patriarch (perhaps Noah) under divine guidance. As such, Smyth saw theological implications in just about every measurement of the Great Pyramid, including a calculation for the End of Days.
Smyth’s research was satirized in a January 5, 1881, column in the New York Times: “In the great gallery of the pyramid… there are precisely eighteen hundred and eighty-one notches… hence if the pyramid is trustworthy and really knows its business, we have arrived at the last year of the earth. There are a vast number of people who believe in this remarkable theory of the pyramid, and they are one and all perfectly sure that the pyramid cannot tell a lie… in case they should happen to be disappointed and to be under the unpleasant necessity of making New Year’s calls in the snow on the First of January 1882, they will probably blaspheme the pyramid and lose all faith in man and stones.”
7. Beware of Halley’s Comet
Comets have long been viewed as portents of doom—and the reappearance of Halley’s comet in 1910 was no exception. Early that year, British and Irish writers opined that the comet was a harbinger of a forthcoming invasion by Germany. Some Parisians blamed the comet for a massive flood of the Seine River that devastated their city.
But full-fledged panic would erupt when Chicago’s Yerkes Observatory announced in February 1910 that it had detected a poisonous gas called cyanogen in Halley’s tail. The New York Times reported that the noted French astronomer, Camille Flammarion believed the gas “would impregnate that atmosphere and possibly snuff out all life on the planet.”
Most scientists sought to reassure the public. The famed astronomer Percival Lowell explained that the gases making up Halley’s tail were “so rarefied as to be thinner than any vacuum.”