Many moons ago, when humans saw a meteor shoot across the sky, the common reaction was fear. To them this brilliant sky display was an ominous message from the gods of pending doom — war, famine, death and such. This is what most historians believe.
In the 21st century, however, we endow this heavenly omen with good luck.
Wish upon a star?
How many of us have wished upon a falling star? Or, hummed the ageless Perry Como tune, “Catch a falling star and put it in your pocket ... never let it fade away!”
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Perhaps you don’t think of a shooting star as a meteor but that’s what it is. A meteor is an asteroid or comet (some say even space junk) that is observed as it burns up in the earth’s atmosphere. It makes a spectacular display as it shoot across the sky trailing a streak of light.
So why am I writing about meteors? In an attempt to avoid interviewing someone or researching a topic for this Sunday missive, I pulled out one of my Lazy Files. That’s a stack of off-the-wall subjects I keep for emergencies, with emergency defined here as a brain that doesn’t want to tackle the more demanding “Should Write About This” pile of file folders.
Near the top of the Lazy pile I selected one marked “Meteors.” One big problem, though. It’s empty, as if the documents inside burned up in space like their namesake. Odd, indeed. Scratched on the inside of the empty mantilla folder was a date, May 8, 1916.
Curiosity got the best of this Kat. In an hour of digital research in the old Daily Heralds, a former incarnation of this newspaper, I located the May 8 article and several other early 1900s meteor stories.
Really? 100 years ago?
What immediately struck me was the realization that at the turn of the 20th century, meteor sightings were a big deal. Think about it. Unless someone witnessed it first hand, folks back then could only learn about a recent sighting in newspapers or by word-of-mouth. Radio, television, smart phones and Internet news didn’t exist.
Old news accounts help us step into our proverbial time machines to experience what sightings might be like in early times. I found two May 8, 1916, articles, one from Biloxi, one from Gulfport, although the meteorite was seen across the Mississippi Coast, even in New Orleans.
Report of the time
“Mars, Venus or some other heavenly inhabitant is accused of violating the neutrality laws of Biloxi by firing down a meteor on the citizens of Biloxi about 9 o’clock last night,” one of the articles reads. “The majority of the inhabitants of this city either saw the heavenly phenomena or heard the accompanying roar.
“Those who saw it state that it came from the northeast, going in a southwest direction and that it somewhat resembled a skyrocket in the its flight...its tail spitting fire and dazzling the heavens for a few minutes.”
Note: “Skyrocket” would be a type of fireworks in 1916. America was decades away from the Space Age and making spaceships.
Unnatural light confused many
The Herald also describes the “moving picture show,” where theater patrons were startled by the flash that “lighted up the heavens for a moment as bright as midday.” Many others saw the flashes and heard the bang while in their homes.
Although the U.S. had not yet entered World War I, news pages featured stories on the lighter-than-air German aircraft used for fighting, so not surprisingly “A few people stated that they thought it was an air raid and that Zeppelins were dropping bombs upon a peaceful city.
“The meteor dropped in the gulf with a roar and a splash that could be heard for some distance.”
One Biloxi High School student, W.N. Harkness who claimed some knowledge of astronomy, estimated the meteor was 27 miles from Biloxi. That contradicted reports that a part of the meteor fell on the residence of Dr. A.B. Russ of West Beach.
Nearly every Biloxian saw the light or reported the roar, and debates centered on whether it was really a meteor or an “aeroplane.”
In Gulfport and Ocean Springs, too
An interesting side story of this 1916 incident comes from Gulfport in an article headlined “Meteor Causes Some Confusion.” That report says that following the explosion at about 9 p.m. on a Sunday night, the meteor was divided into three parts. As this was happening, the “large congregation” of a church in Soria City was gathered that night for worship service.
Soria City was then and is now a predominately black neighborhood in Gulfport that continues to this day to fight to keep its historic identity.
“The church, it seems had some dissension in its membership and the minister had just asked for some token from Heaven as to how its growth could be checked when the meteor came in view, throwing the gathering into confusion.”
Unfortunately, the Herald does not say how the Soria City discussion was resolved, but well-timed meteors can give pause for religious thought. That happened in this Ocean Springs report:
“A meteor explosion...awakening Mrs. Hudson Quave from sound slumber who aroused her husband in alarm, to get up and witness with her the end of the world.
“The sound startled the residents in every direction of the town, and one man on the outskirts of the town was struck speechless. Those who saw and heard the explosion compared it to a dynamite blast.”
The Herald also reported meteor sightings in 1910 and 1913, the latter as “one of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring sights ever seen in this part of the country...a huge ball of fire with a green tail.”
That ends my current meteor research. My file on meteors now has six articles in it, but the old Heralds between 1900 and 1950 show more than 600 digital hits on the word “meteor.” Instead of hours of eye-crossing research, I chose to stare at the skies and await a shooting star to make a wish.
Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Mississippi Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or at Southern Possum Tales, P.O. Box 33, Barboursville VA 22923.