New York City,

March 7, 1898.



“The light is the sword of war that presages conflict,” said one of the street preachers in Union Square. “It appeared in the sky before the Revolution! It appeared in 1861, before the Civil War.”

Hundreds of men, still alive in New York, swore they had seen a light, just like the flaming sword, in various places in the South, just before the Civil War. Some even said that President Lincoln’s assassination was “presaged by a strange meteoric display.”

“It’s a bad omen!” shouted one of the ad hoc congregants. “Many people seen it just before President Garfield was assassinated!”

“No,” shouted a rival preacher. “It’s the sword of the Lord and Gideon,” One man, in the center of a knot of twenty people, suggested that

“The sign means war between the United States and Spain,” declared a man in the center of a knot of twenty people. “New York will surely suffer in that struggle!”

In Madison Square a similar scene unfolded when a group of Black laborers gathered about another street preacher.

“It is the pillar of flame which led Israel through the wilderness!”

His auditors, occupied with more terrestrial concerns, remained skeptical.

“It’s probably just a new electric sign on upper Broadway,” said one man.

“It’s probably just another fire in Harlem,” rejoined another.

The side walks of New York teemed with people; the same was true on the Brooklyn Bridge. Those who could not, or dared not, go into the streets leaned from the windows of the tenements, offices, and uptown hotels to gaze into the sky. They, too, were unable to comprehend what they were witnessing.


“Fiery Sword” Over New York.


The confluence of celestial events began earlier that evening with the appearance of a lunar halo. Though certainly out of the ordinary, this in itself was not much of a spectacle. It was the luminescence of  the giant cross which appeared affixed to the surface of the moon, and the “four arms of white light,” which beamed in the heavens. Then came the bank of fiery red clouds. The phenomenon did not end there. Above the clouds, many miles closer, an unbroken perpendicular shaft of fiery-red light appeared over the western sky of New York. The clouds began to glow with a brilliance that extended from the Atlantic Highlands to the Hackensack Meadows.“ It appeared like a beam flashed from a searchlight without preliminary design,” wrote The New York World, “but it was not a searchlight.” Other witnesses described it as a giant “sword of living flame,“ which shined like iron at white heat. It remained, perfectly steady, in vertical suspension in mid-heaven. Soon the luminous clouds melted into a deeper crimson, but the “flaming sword” grew increasingly brighter.

Throughout the week scholars and philosophers turned to their books to find analogous phenomena in history. Celestial warnings which agitated their ancestors, “turned the fate of empires, and changed the condition of the peoples of earth.” Those who remembered their history told those who would listen, about the portent that illuminated the heavens above Constantine which “guided him from the blackness ofpaganism to Christian victories.” There were those who recalled the story of the strange light which appeared in the sky when Napoleon was born, who, it was said,  “always watched the heavens before his great battles for a blood-stained star, which he believed would be his fall.” On March 13,  The New York World stated:


Have the epoch-making changes of the world a counterpart, a reflection in the cosmic regions surrounding it? Are there relations between the visible and invisible that measure time and eternity? Is there a correspondence between this little grey earth and the mighty universe more intimate, more personal than is set forth in the natural laws which scientific men have codified? Vast are the achievements of modern science, they can be routed by the questions of a child. The unknown is so huge, so tremendous that exact knowledge is pitifully beside it. Is the belief that these portents in the heavens are reflections of some powerful influence, possibly of psychic force, more wonderful than telephone or telegraph or railroad, or a score of other modern developments would have been to the ancient Greeks and Romans? History is filled with authenticated appearances of marvelous phenomena in the heavens which preceded or followed extraordinary events. There are many who will accept nothing they cannot see with their own eyes. The flaming sword of last Monday night was a fact, not a figment of the imagination. It was seen by millions from Long Branch to Albany.


Three weeks earlier, on February 15, 1898, an explosion sank the U.S.S. Maine, an American battleship, in harbor of Havana, Cuba. The tragedy galvanized the people of the United States to go to War with Spain. By the close of that year, America would extend consolidate an imperial position that extended beyond the limits of continental North America.

Is there a causal link between the movements in the sky and events on earth? That’s up to the individual to decide. In the spirit of “whys” not “whats,” let’s turn to the summer of 1874, another moment in the pivot of American empire, and examine more omens (celestial and otherwise.)


The summer of 1874 began with General George Armstrong Custer’s Black Hills Expedition. The discovery of gold ushered in a new era of westward expansion, and an escalation of hostilities between the Sioux and the Federal Government. To most Americans, this was the natural progression of the young nation’s destiny.


It could be said that 1874 was the time when science and religion made a split in the West. John W. Draper states in History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science (1874):


Whoever has had an opportunity of becoming acquainted with the mental condition of the intelligent classes in Europe and America must have perceived that there is a great and rapidly increasing departure from the public religious faith. So widespread and so powerful is this secession, that it can neither be treated with contempt nor with punishment. […] The time is rapidly approaching when it will give rise to serious political results.


“The history of Science is not a mere record of isolated discoveries,” Draper added, “it is a narrative of the conflict of two contending powers—the expansive force of the human intellect on one side and the compression arising from faith and human interests on the other.”

The idea was that advancements of modern science meant that humanity was no longer at the mercy of nature, or even a part of it; humanity could now disrupt the cycles of nature, control it.

Nature, nevertheless, remained indifferent, and continued operating without indulging the hubris of humanity.

First came the plague of locusts. In the summer of 1874, over 12-trillion Rocky Mountain locusts—the greatest concentration of insect ever recorded—ravaged the American West. Famine and death followed. “The plague of grasshoppers is simply one of the results of a disturbed balance of the forces of nature,” one paper astutely noted. It added:


Ordinarily the birds hold the insect world in check:—the supply of insect food determines the multiplication of the birds, just as the abundance of food resulting from civilization, determines the rate of growth of the human family […] The development of the grasshopper tribe is upon very much the same principle. They breed upon the great treeless inter-continental plains. Where there are no groves of trees there are few insectivorous birds; for the groves are necessary to the birds, both for food and shelter from the fierce winds. Hence there is nothing to interfere with the increase of the grasshoppers. If then, we will suppose that each grasshopper lays one hundred eggs, and that there is nothing to destroy these, and they come to maturity, and multiply at the same ratio, then a little calculation will show that the progeny of one grasshopper will in five years amount to ten billions; and having eaten bare the plains where they were born, they hover into the regions bordering the forests; and in the language of the Bible, “while the country before them is a Garden of Eden, the land behind them is a desolate wilderness.”


As Mark Twain wrote in the Gilded Age, which incidentally had its New York debut in the summer of 1874: “If you should rear a duck in the heart of the Sahara no doubt it would swim if you brought it to the Nile.” In other word, there was the descriptive reality of nature, and the prescriptive reality of the learned. As Twain also stated: “Education consists mainly in what we have unlearned.”


For another example we might turn to the Westminster Dog Show, which began in New York’s Westminster Hotel in 1877. The domestication from a wolf to a dog is one thing, but to manipulate the species into fashionable news breeds is quite another story.

In early-June 1874 there was the Hydrophobia (rabies) outbreak in New York. Francis Butler, a Brooklyn dog-fancier, and first owner of a Great Dane in America, was among those who fell victim to the disease. One newspaper at the time states:


We shall doubtless have a renewal of those disgusting and demoralizing scenes which used to be so common in New York in former times, when the Mayor annually recognized by proclamation the ancient superstition about the Dog Days. That there was some occult connection between the ascendency of the star Sirius in the heavens, and the ravages of hydrophobia on earth, was believed, without question, by the old school of City Fathers.


What the paper is referring to was an ancient belief that was recycled through the ages.   Sirius, also known as the “Dog Star,” derived its name from Siris, the Ethiopian name for the Nile. Its rising warned the Egyptians that the annual overflow was near at hand. Situated in the constellation, Canis Major (the Greater Dog,) its appearance was passed down as an indicator that “rabies season” was at hand. This was known as the “Dog Days of Summer.” Among the “magical cures” preserved in modernity is to “swallow the hair from the animal’s tail […] that bit them.” Or “hair of the dog” in other words.


The next event that summer was the arrival of Coggia’s comet. With it came another resurgence of old superstitions—much to the dismay of the scientists. The word comet comes to us from the Greek kometes, meaning “long-haired,” and has long been viewed as a bad omen among cultures around the world. The opinion which circulated extensively in the summer of 1874 was that the appearance Coggia’s unheralded comet was a sure indication “that grim-visaged war [was] about to desolate the country.” The Civil War, it was remembered, “fairly opened when it became visible.” As The Boston Evening Transcript explained:


It [was] a dozen years since a comet [had] appeared in the heavens as bright as this one. The last was Tuttle’s comet of meteor celebrity, one of that trio of great comets whose splendor made them and their epoch memorable. It appeared at the end of the summer of 1862, while our nation was plunged in the civil war. The pale, mysterious stranger, stranger shaped like a scimitar, looked from his serene heights among the stars on a country deluged with fratricidal blood and sorrow. Its menacing aspect and position, and our domestic troubles, recalled vividly to memory Milton’s sublime description of the terrors excited by comets in the middle ages: “In th’ arctic sky, and from his horrid hair shakes pestilence and war.” What Coggia’s comet may portend, in these piping times of peace, we leave for those skilled in these matters to determine.


Coggia’s Coment.


As mentioned above, this was not a culturally-specific anxiety. David E. Curtis, a correspondent on Custer Expedition to the Black Hills writes:


Our Sioux and Arickarees tell us that the comet, which we have seen very plainly this last three or four nights (July 11) up near the Dipper, may exercise a potent influence—whether or malign, they, however, are not not decided—upon Indian affairs generally and our expedition in particular. Sifting their stories they come down to this: For the past year or so the prophets of the Sioux have been unrelentingly preaching a crusade of extermination against the whites, and adding as an argument, the further to influence their ferocity, that the spirits of the dead are upon a war-path. Thrilling accounts have been given of the nightly appearance of dead braves horsed on coursers of fire, lamenting the degeneracy of their sons who allow their places of sepulture to be violated by the whites and their hunting grounds to be taken away. The comet may be pressed into the service by some of the more artful of these prophets and be exhibited as proof of the wrath of Manitou with the pale faces and an earnest of supernatural support in the war. On the other hand,—and the interpreters and hunters share in the belief,—it is stated that by the Indians, as generally by the ignorant, superstitions, and uncivilized, the comet is always accepted as a token of divine displeasure and impending woe, so that the comet is likely to prove our valuable ally. Anyhow, there it is as I write, a nebulous streak upon the northern skies.



The summer of 1874 also saw the appearance of U.F.O.’s “freak lightning,” which was said to be more “destructive to life and property in the United States during twelve days of the present month, than at any given time of equal length for a great many years.” Many men, women, and children were killed or permanently injured. Houses that were struck and demolished as quickly as if they had been constructed of paper soaked in powder. Giant trees were split into fragments and torn from their roots like reeds. Some accounts from the New York papers of the time give us a better insight:



During the thunder storm on Friday evening, July 10, the lightning entered one of the rooms of my house in which upon a table my violin was lying, striking upon the strings of the violin and snapping them all except the G string, upon which it played about for an instant and then, as if repelled by its vibration, seemed to pass out at the window. No damage was done to the violin except the snapping of the strings, nor was any other article in the room or house damaged. The sounds when the violin was struck by the lightning resembled guitar playing or pizzicato.



The family…had been killed by lightning, and were probably sitting on the bed when the bolt came. Mr. Harrison was badly burned about the head and face and one wrist was burned half off, while his clothing was entirely burned away, but there was no visible mark of the lightning upon him. Mrs. Harrison was struck upon the breast, and the electric fluid had evidently come out at the foot, while it is possible that the child might have been suffocated as it lay, stunned, under the mother’s body, but one of its arms was badly gashed open. The house, a small cottage, stood near a tall tree, which first received the bolt, after which the lightning seemed to have divided, part going down the tree into the ground and part into the house, passing through the plaster and leaving a hole in the ceiling the size or a stove-pipe directly over the bed. About half the end of the house was torn away, and there were marks in several places showing where the lightning entered the ground.



The fact that there has been much of what is known as ball-lightning may account in a measure for the failure of lightning-rods to protect some of the buildings struck […] this rare form of lightning prevailed for hours, causing a considerable loss of property and human lives. One correspondent who witnessed it gives this description:

“A whirling cloud descended until it seemed to rest upon the earth, and darkness, black as midnight, enveloped every thing within its scope. The cloud was circular and moved as if impelled by a cyclone that circled around the center surface. While it continued, objects twenty feet distant were imperceptible, and a smell like burning wood pervaded the atmosphere. This was caused by the incessant flashes of lightning, which, on the lines of railway, assumed the form of moving balls of fire, following each other in quick succession, and easting a lurid, blue glare through the darkness.”


Still another report states the lightning, “assumed the form of moving balls of fire, [followed] each other in quick succession, and [cast] a lurid, blue glare through the darkness.” One such thunderbolt reportedly struck the wooden top of one an oil-tank in Weehawken, New Jersey, across the Hudson River. One eyewitness claimed the lighting “seemed to circle around the woodwork in a blaze, and instantly [leaped] to the next tank-cover, setting both on fire.” 


From the perspective of the New York Herald we have this insight:


There is nothing new in saying that people at most times arrive at conclusions without having the remotest idea of the actual facts upon which the premises are based. This is trues not only of material things but even of affairs of a different order; and so the world goes along, evil for the most part and always suspicious. Even the poor comet, about which nobody seems to know anything, has been unjustly blamed for what it was not at all answerable. The celestial observations which [The New York] Herald men had already made upon the comet might well have prepared the public for placidity in regard to the alleged destructiveness of that heavenly body; but the public is an obstreperous animal, which will persist in adhering to extraordinary and most ridiculous theories for a while. The recent heavy showers we had have caused a tremendous sensation among the nervous portions of the community. What will not peals of thunder and flashes of lightning—which seem like descended meteors—do upon the minds of guilty consciences, which have been mocking in verbiage the people who go to church looking upon the church as a help to the end.” Inquiries at various places and among well known scientists reveal the fact, for the benefit of those most in terror, that the comet has nothing at all to do with the recent heavy rains.


I’m inclined to believe that these experiences are ore than simple mass-hysteria, though that may be a certain “ghost tone” added to these events. To my mind, it seems an anxiety produced by tensions resulting from the dual-impulse for control (progress,) and submission/safety (tradition,) both individually and socially, and to varying degrees.

The cyclic return of comets, etc. represents, in some measure, the sway which nature still has over humanity. The century after 1874 would see would see the control of cycles; sunlight and moonlight dimmed with electric lights; industrial farming ended seasons; pharmaceuticals even changed the cycles in our own bodies, stripping us of that metronome of connection. It’s well-worth investigating all the disastrous historic events that are attributed to Halley’s Comet when it makes its 80 year regular return. The timing of its cyclical return mirrors the Strauss–Howe Generational Theory surprisingly well. These celestial events may not be causal, but they’re a good reminder of the cosmic-cadence.


I’ll end this little survey with a clipping from September 2, 1905 issue of The New York World. It tells an incident which occurred over New York during the time when Theodore Roosevelt was hosting Japanese and Russian delegates fore the Treaty of Portsmouth. The paper states:


The hundreds of thousands who saw what appeared to be a gigantic sky-rocket shooting across the sky above New York last evening may rest assured they witnessed the flight of the most remarkable shooting star that has been turned loose in this vicinity in many years. From the fact that the meteorite broke just as it appeared to be about to strike the earth, resolving itself into thousands of brilliant whirling fragments convinced nearly everybody who saw it that it was a piece of fireworks.

Confirmation of the fact that the spectacle was furnished by a meteorite comes to The Evening World today in the shape of letters from different sections of the city, indicating that it was seen in an area practically comprehending all of New York.

People on the streets in Harlem were attracted by the swiftly traveling meteorite at about 7:30 o’clock. At the same lime it was seen by Thomas A. Grady and many others residing In Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn.

For an hour after the passage of the star it was talked of on every corner. So extravagant in their descriptions were those who had seen it that persons who had been indoors were frankly incredulous. The attention of those on the streets, in cars and trains and in the parks at 7:30 o’clock was attracted by a sudden brightening of the atmosphere as It by a stroke of lightning. Instinctively every eye glanced toward the star.

In the northeastern havens an immense ball of white fire seemed to be dropping from the zenith. One of The Evening Worlds correspondents describes it as being as big as a football. It was moving with tremendous speed and leaving behind a white nebulous trail that faded slowly

As the spectators gazed spellbound, the projectile broke like a gigantic shell. Fragments were hurled in every direction. All listened for the sound of the explosion, but none was heard.

There was a flash of blinding white light as the star broke, the luminous pieces faded to dull red and disappeared entirely. […]

Nothing has so excited Little Italy on the upper fast side in months. By the superstitious the passage of the star was considered to be the portent of some great calamity. Students of the occult prophesy that it means a break in the peace negotiations at Portsmouth, and a resumption of the war with Spain. Others maintain that it indicates some great danger to New York or the United States.

It was recalled that just before the war with Spain seven years ago, the flaming sword appeared in the sky over this city. The passage of the star last night was the most impressive sight the heavens have afforded since that time.






“Is The Comet An Ill-Omen?” The Buffalo Commercial. (Buffalo, New York) July 15, 1861.

“Hydrophobia.” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. (Brooklyn, New York) March 8, 1872.

“Dogs.” The New York Tribune. (New York, New York) June 11, 1874.

“Death From Hydrophobia.” The New York Times. (New York, New York) June 18, 1874.

 “Coggia’s Comet.” The Boston Evening Transcript. (Boston, Massachusetts) June 24, 1874.

“Mad Dogs.” The New York Times. (New York, New York) June 28, 1874.

 “The Comet Come.” The New York Herald. (New York, New York.) July 2, 1874.

“Destructive Fires.” The New York Times. (New York, New York.) July 12, 1874.

“The Storm.” The New York Times. (New York, New York.) July 12, 1874.

“The Recent Rain Storms.” The New York Herald. (New York, New York) July 14 ,1874.

“Strange Freak Of Lightning.” The New York Herald. (New York, New York) July 14, 1874.

“A Deadly Thunderbolt.” The Buffalo Commercial. (Buffalo, New York) July 15, 1874.

“Dangers Of Lightning.” The New York Times. (New York, New York) July 15, 1874.

“Farewell Nights.” The New York Herald. (New York, New York) July 15, 1874.

“The Grasshoppers” The Anti-Monopolist (Saint Paul, Minn.) August 13, 1874.

“Dogs.” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. (Brooklyn, New York) July 19, 1878.

“Strange Light In The Sky.” The New York Times. (New York, New York) March 8, 1898.

“Fiery Signs In The Sky.” The Sun. (New York, New York) March 8, 1898.

“Portents In The Sky.” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. (Brooklyn, New York) March 8, 1898.

“A Fiery Red Sword.” The Brooklyn Citizen. (Brooklyn, New York) March 8, 1898.

“Flaming Sword Is Seen.” The Inter-Ocean. (Chicago, Illinois) March 9, 1898.

“Fiery Sword In The Sky Draws All Eyes.” The World. (New York, New York) March 8, 1898.

“Awe-Inspiring Portents Of War Seen In The Skies.” The World. (New York, New York) March 13, 1898.

“Ball Of Fire Sweeping Sky Excites City.” The Evening World. (New York, New York) September 2, 1905.

Curtis, David E. “Custer in Camp.” The New York World. (New York, New York) August 2, 1874.

Draper, John William. History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science. Appleton’s & Co. New York, New York. (1874): i-xvi.

Keane, Patrick J. Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason. University of Missouri Press. Columbia, Missouri. (2005): 204.

Ronnberg, Ami; Martin, Kathleen. (eds.) The Book Of Symbols: Reflections On Archetypal Images. Taschen. Cologne, Germany. (2010): 34.

Twain, Mark; Warner, Charles Dudley. The Gilded Age. American Publishing Company. Hartford, Connecticut. (1874): 201.

Ulmer, Rivka. Egyptian Cultural Icons in Midrash. Vol. XXIII. Walter de Gruyter. Berlin, Germany. (2009): 45.

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