My Musical Family - Joy Riggs

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My great-grandfather, Bandmaster G. Oliver Riggs, right, gives a cornet lesson to my dad, William J. Riggs, near Bemidji, Minnesota, in the early 1940s.
Updated: 2 hours 32 sec ago

Crazy for Comets

Thu, 04/17/2014 - 6:32pm
I confess, I did not get up early the other morning to catch a glimpse of the “blood moon” lunar eclipse. But I followed the news coverage with interest, and I have also followed people’s excitement about the event with interest. No matter how much we learn about the universe, and no matter how much our technology changes and evolves, it hasn’t taken away the sense of wonder that comes from looking up at the sky at a natural phenomenon that only happens once in a blue – or red – moon.

One of the cool moon photos I saw online was this multi-exposure photo taken by Star Tribune photographer Brian Peterson that shows the progression of the eclipse – the first total lunar eclipse visible in the continental United States since December 2011.

The images in this Star Tribune photo were taken between 1 a.m. and  2:46 a.m. on April 15, 2014.With thoughts of celestial bodies already floating around in my mind, I was surprised yesterday to discover – in the midst of researching my great-grandfather’s connection to Tacoma, Washington – that in the spring of 1910, people in the United States were going crazy for comets.

I will explain. But first, a bit of background. I have been working on a scene in my book about G. Oliver’s experience in Tacoma, the one time in his career that he failed to successfully organize a band. To try to make sense of what happened and why he failed, I spent some time last weekend reading Tacoma newspaper clippings in the Riggs family scrapbook. Most of them are dated and are from the Tacoma Daily News, but they are not pasted in the book chronologically, which makes it more challenging to trace the sequence of events.

Tacoma had a handful of newspapers in 1910, as most cities did back then, and yesterday I discovered that old issues of the Tacoma Times can be accessed for free online through the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America website.

I spent several hours paging through the newspaper online to see if it had also covered the band situation. I realized right away that the Tacoma Times, founded in 1903 by Edward Willis Scripps, had a much different feel than its rival, the Tacoma Daily News. It seemed geared more toward a working-class audience interested in labor issues. Disturbing crime-related headlines were often splashed across its front page, and it contained many eye-catching illustrations and editorial cartoons.

Through my reading, I learned that the time G. Oliver spent in Washington state coincided with the appearance of not just one, but two comets.

In mid-January of 1910, while he held the job of director of a city band in Grand Forks, North Dakota, G. Oliver traveled to Tacoma to meet with businessmen in that city. He proposed to organize a new concert band of up to 50 members that would help promote the growing city and would provide entertainment for residents. The Tacoma Daily News reported on Jan. 20 and 21 that local businessmen were meeting with a “bandleader of considerable reputation in the east” but did not disclose his name. The article did not explain how long G. Oliver was in the city, but it probably was not more than a few days, because he would have been missed in Grand Forks.

The Tacoma Times mentioned nothing of this, but a few days later it printed its first of several articles about the sighting of a comet. The front page article, “Many Tacomans Saw Comet,” said, “A comet was visible for half an hour above the western horizon about 6 o’clock last night. Its size and brilliance caused many to think that Halley’s Comet had arrived ahead of schedule. The comet is a fast traveler and soon disappeared below the horizon, leaving a luminous trail in its wake. The heavenly visitor has been reported ‘seen’ from all parts of the country during the past few days.”

The comet coverage in the Times continued: the stories described the comet as a crimson-orange color, noted that people in California were planning their suppers around the timing of the comet, and quoted an astronomer as saying that the huge comet, which later was called the Daylight Comet, “is the largest foreign body ever in the solar system so far as is known since the art of writing was discovered. ... This comet is magnificent beyond all powers of description. We are now making history that will endure for the ages.”

I am not up on my comet history, so I did a quick search and discovered that, indeed, the comet that appeared in January 1910 is one of the greatest comets recorded in history. So far. (If you’re interested in reading more about the Great Comet of 1910, check out this blog post.)

The appearance of this comet whetted people’s appetites for what was yet to come in May – an appearance of Halley’s Comet, which had not been seen since 1835. Many people looked forward to the event with great excitement, although there were some people who worried it would bring about the destruction of the earth.

Halley’s Comet inspired songs, including this one by Harry Lincoln.Some of you might already know about Mark Twain’s connection to Halley’s Comet. He was born in 1835 shortly after the comet appeared, and in 1909 he said:

I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: “Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.

He died on April 21, 1910, and within a week, the comet was close enough to be seen with the naked eye.

By the time of Twain’s death, G. Oliver had quit his job in Grand Forks and had been in Tacoma for three weeks, trying to organize the new band. He received the support of the businessmen and many musicians, but others took offense to the idea of an outsider from a smaller eastern city coming in and taking charge. G. Oliver’s attempts to stir up support, including an April 17 concert in Wright Park – exactly 104 years ago today! – attracted a large crowd and did get a brief mention in the Tacoma Times.

An article about the April 17 band concert in Tacoma’s Wright Park.But what really got the Times excited was feeding people daily information about the coming Halley’s Comet, due to arrive on May 18. Even the newspaper’s society columnist, Cynthia Grey, contributed to the coverage. One of my favorite research finds yesterday was her lengthy article about how one could plan a comet-themed surprise party for the evening of May 17.

It included this description:

The guests gather in a circle just before the time we are supposed to begin our bath in the comet’s tail, and write their wills. Reading the wills is funny, as each would will each something to fit his peculiarities. The one who writes the cleverest gets a copy of the Essays of Marcus Aurelius, the stoic, done up in an asbestos package as a prize.

Suddenly, the light is turned down. The hostess whispers, “The comet is coming!” and in bursts a figure (daddy or little brother) clad in a sheet smeared with phosphorus. If he can’t get this paint he can flash pocket electric lamps under his covering of thin cloth. The comet runs into everybody and everything, kissing the girls and slapping the men, and runs out.

Grey suggested that guests come dressed as Greek gods, and her recommended menu included stuffed egg salad on lettuce, punch and two kinds of cake: angel food and devil’s cake.

“The person enacting ‘the comet’ proposes the toast of Epicurus, ‘Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die,’ she wrote. “Of course, if anybody seriously thinks the world’s coming to an end, he might not care to attend such a party. But most of us think we’ll still be alive May 18 ... whatever happens we all want to stay up to have the experience that will be historic under any circumstances.”

The approaching comet also caused some people to reflect upon the changes that the United States had experienced during the previous 75 years. In a May 16 piece in the Tacoma Times, the writer wondered whether the comet would recognize the place. “... What changes the railroads made! Then came the telegraph, the telephone; then wireless, automobiles; and we are now learning to fly! What will the earth be like when Halley’s Comet comes back in 1985?”

The top half of the front page of the Tacoma Times from May 18, 1910.May 18, 1910, came and went, and people survived (except for Mark Twain). But the band effort did not have a happy ending for G. Oliver. When it became clear by early June that Tacoma was not an environment where his directing star could shine brightly, he left – just like a comet – and returned to the Midwest.

I am sad to say that I don’ t remember doing anything special the last time Halley’s Comet was visible in the United States. It happened in 1986 (not 1985), when I was a senior in high school. Fortunately, I have lots of time to get ready for its next appearance, in 2061, when I will be 93 years old. I plan to have a huge party, and you are all invited. But be advised, it’s BYOP – Bring Your Own Phosphorus.

Categories: Citizens

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