THE VIRGIN AND THE COMET - PART I
By Guy W. Moore
Guy W. Moore is a native Oklahoman. He received his MA degree in History at the University of Oklahoma. He is a member of the National Capital Astronomers. He wrote this article especially for the Halley’s Comet Watch Newsletter.
Perhaps the most intriguing story surviving from the visit of Comet Halley in 1910 concerns the Oklahoma virgin who was nearly sacrificed to save the world when it came in contact with the Comet’s tail.
So far as I can learn British science writer Nigel Calder deserves the credit (or blame) for dusting off this tale in 1981 in his book, The Comet is Coming (Calder may have gotten it from Philippe Veron, who wrote of the tale in a book published two years before his. ED.) George Will cited it in a Newsweek column, August 3, 1981, warning that “Oklahomans should lock up their daughters.” Others picked up the item and they may be pardoned because Calder said, in straightforward language, “In 20th Century Oklahoma, at the apparition of Halley in 1910, the sheriffs arrived just in time to prevent the sacrifice of a virgin by demented Americans calling themselves Select Followers.”
But is the story factual?
The story first appeared on May 19, 1910 in at least two newspapers far from the alleged scene of the action, Aline, Oklahoma. The Washington Post ran it on the front page and it reads as follows:
Sacrifice of Girl Stopped
Fanatics About to Offer Up Girl To Foil Comet When Posse Arrives
Special to the Washington Post.
Aline, Okla. May 18 – Miss Jane Warfield, 16 years old, was today rescued from a band of religious fanatics 25 miles southwest of this place. She was about to be offered up as a sacrifice to make a blood atonement that the sins of the world might be forgiven.
The sheriff of Dewey county was told that the “Select Followers” had given out that their leader, Henry Heinman, had received a revelation that the world was to end following the contact of the tail of the comet, and that the only thing to avert the comet was a blood sacrifice. To save the world the sacrifice was planned, the lot falling to Jane Warfield.
Sheriff Hughes, with a posse of 60 men, reached the dell in the Glass Mountains just as the sacrifice was being prepared. The Warfield girl was clad in white, wearing a wreath of roses. Her hands were bound, and Heinman was in front of her with a long, keen hunting knife in his hand. About him were grouped about 40 of his followers.
A similar story appeared on page 2 of the New York Daily Tribune of the same date but it credited Sheriff Hughes with six deputies rather than a posse of 60. It also added that “the sect came to Dewey County two years ago, led by Heinman, who is said to be from Leesburg, Ohio, and a graduate of an Ohio University.”
Curiously, the story appeared in the Oklahoma City Times one day later, May 20, 1910, and reads as follows:
Aline, Okla., May 19. Jane Warfield, a pretty nineteen-year-olddd farmer girl, living near here was rescued after a hand-to-hand conflict between members of the sheriff of Alfalfa county posse and Henry Heinman’s religious fanatics Wednesday evening just as the girl was about to be offered as a blood sacrifice for the atonement of the world’s sins in order that Halley’s comet might not destroy the earth.
The girl, nude and partially unconscious, was tied to a stake in the center of a dancing group of the crazed followers of Heiman and within a few minutes was to have been stabbed and bled to death. Heinman’s chief prophet was ready to perform the deed.
It was known in the community that the much-heralded approach of Halley’s comet and the threatened danger attached to its appearance had affected the fanatics and frequent meetings were being held. All their secrets are closely guarded and it was not until the girl was tied to the stake that the authorities became aware of the intended sacrifice.
Posse Starts Out.
A posse was immediately formed and proceeding to the meeting ground of the fanatics the girl was rescued and given medical attention. Followers of Heinman attempted to fight the officers, but they were overcome with little difficulty. Heinman was arrested and placed in the county jail.
Heinman instigated the act by telling his companions that the comet meant the end of the world and the sacrifice was necessary for their atonement.
An inquiry to the Oklahoma Historical Society elicited additional information, including still another version of the events that may or may not have happened on Wednesday night, May 18, 1910. The Cherokee Republican on May 27, 1910, ran the story but gives a clue as to the source, in some introductory paragraphs by the editor, Walter Ferguson. The Republican headlined the story this way:
Special Sent from Aline Last Week
The following weird dispatch was sent from Aline last week to the Oklahoma City Times. It “listens” suspiciously like Ed Marchant who is known to be hiding near the Big tree at that place. It is supposed that the chimerical and fanciful brain of the noted dopester was suffering from acute inertia and that he relieved the inactivity by unwinding the story. Following is the harrowing story, not a word of which is true as a matter of course.
Aline, Okla. May 20 – Jane Warfield, a 16-year-old girl, rescued from a band of religious fanatics twenty-five miles southwest of Aline when she was about to be offered up as a sacrifice to make blood atonement that the sins of the world might be forgiven, has been brought here for safe keeping.
The sheriff of Dewey county had been informed that the band of religious enthusiasts know (sic) as the Select Followers had given out that their leader, Henry Heinman, had received a revelation from God that the world would end and the heavens would be rolled up like a scroll following the contact of the tail of the comet, that the only thing that would avert the disaster was a blood sacrifice; that in order to save the world a sacrifice had been planned and the lot had fallen to Jane Warfield.
Sheriff Hughes had kept trace of their movements closely and finally determined that he should be on the scene. With a posse of six men he reached the dell in the Gloss Mountains just as the sacrifice was being prepared and only in time to rescue the young woman who was offered to save the world.
The Warfield girl was clad in spotless white, with a wreath of white roses about her head. Her hands were bound and Heinman was standing in front of her with a long, keen hunting knife in his hand. About him were groups of his followers, about forty in all.
The Select Followers believe that sin has passed from them and that they can handle serpents and drink poison without evil effects. For some time Heinman has been telling them in his sermons that the world would end on the 18th day of May, and the comet now in the sky would sweep with pestilential gases across the earth eliminating all animal life.
Heinman is a religious fanatic and the girl who was to be offered as a sacrifice is his stepdaughter. He gave out that he had received a revelation that he was to sacrifice the girl and thus avert the world calamity. Sheriff Hughes had placed the girl in the hands of safe parties and Heiman (sic) will be held to await action of investigating officers.
The sect of Select Followers came into the neighborhood of the present residence two years ago, led by Heiman (sic), who is said to be from near Leesburg, and a graduate of some Ohio university. At one time he was a disciple of Harmon, the Free Thinker, and it is rumored that many of Harmon’s ideas have been carried out in the form of worship of the band headed by Heinman. Heretofore they had been looked upon as harmless, the wildness of their religious utterances only being held against them.
It has been learned that many of them had several weeks ago burned much of their personal belongings, because the world was to end with the contact of the comet’s tail.
The conflict in details in these various stories is obvious. Whether the intended victim was 16 or 19 years of age, nude or clad in white, whether the event took place in Alfalfa County or in Dewey County. Aline is in Alfalfa County; Dewey is two counties away. According to the Oklahoma Historical Society, the only Warfield listed in the Alfalfa County index to the 1910 Oklahoma Census is Minnie Warfield, age 18, born in Kansas, who is enumerated with her brother-in-law, Will H. Alberding. The Oklahoma Red Book (1912) (the first edition of the Directory of Oklahoma) lists a D.A. Hughey as sheriff of Alfalfa County in 1910. The Aline Chronoscope never mentioned the story. The position of the Oklahoma Historical Society is simply stated. “None of the above considerations confirm or deny the Jane Warfield story.”
But the Cherokee Republican, which ran the only account to be found in the Alfalfa County newspapers, branded the story a hoax.
It is clear that the Republican editor, Walter Ferguson, was confident that he knew the perpetrator to be one Ed Marchant. Perhaps someone will visit Aline and try to find a Marchant family member who will once and for all declare the story a hoax. Assuming it was a hoax, as is probable, how was it possible for Ed Marchant to send a “special” and get it used? Was he a small town stringer for local newspapers? Was he sometimes used by the wire services? Will the morgues of the Washington Post or the Oklahoma Times (now the Daily Oklahoman-Oklahoma City Times) credit that “special” dispatch from Aline to an individual? The fact that no one has unearthed a follow-up story in any newspaper suggests that the editors were taken in by a good story – as perhaps science writer Calder and others have been taken in more recently.
For the information contained herein, I am indebted to Ruth Freitag of the Library of Congress, who since the publication of her Halley’s Comet Bibliography, has become the lightning rod for all serious students of Halley lore. I am particularly indebted to Mr. B. Basore, Library Assistant, Oklahoma Historical Society, for the Cherokee Republican and other pertinent data concerning Minnie Warfield, Sheriff Hughey and other matters.