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Great Comet of 1811, II

November 2, 2011

The Great Comet of 1811 put on quite a spectacle, even though it never came close to either Earth or the Sun.

To many people, the appearance of this unusual celestial visitor in the night sky portended doom. The comet passed closest to Earth on October 20th. Two months later, on December 16th, the first of three extraordinary earthquakes struck the midwestern and southern United States. These quakes were so intense they shook even New England, and for a time parts of the Mississippi River flowed backward. The temblors may have been magnitude 7 or 8 — strong enough to cause significant damage. And some people blamed them on the comet.

Europe fared even worse. Napoleon saw the comet as a good omen. It encouraged him to invade Russia. But that proved disastrous not only to that country but also to his Napoleon’s own empire. Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy mentions the Great Comet of 1811 in his epic “War and Peace.” And shortly after the comet’s appearance, war broke out between the United States and England. Again, some people blamed the comet.

Others, though, viewed the Great Comet of 1811 more favorably. European weather that year was perfect for the vineyards, and wine from 1811 turned out to be an excellent vintage. Long after the comet was gone, people referred to this vintage as “Comet Wine” — in honor of a harvest imbued with the helpful tonic of the Great Comet of 1811.

Tomorrow: getting back in the game.


Script by Ken Croswell, Copyright 2011


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