THE VIRGIN AND THE COMET – PART II (CODA)
In the June Halley’s Comet Watch NEWSLETTER (Vol. 4, No. 3, pp 4-5) a comparison was made of the several often contradictory accounts of the story that an Oklahoma virgin was almost sacrificed to Halley’s Comet to save the world when the earth passed through the Comet’s tail in May, 1910. The editor of the Cherokee REPUBLICAN, Walter Ferguson, when he ran the story, said not a word of it was true and he attributed the tale to one Ed Marchant.
Additional investigation provides interesting data:
In summary, there was never a Henry Heinman, nor a “victim” Jane Warfield, nor a “Sheriff Hughes,” so far as extant records go.
It is difficult to prove that something DID NOT happen, but when ALL of the existing evidence is negative, we can be fairly positive that it did not. That is the case here.
To understand why the story was used in various newspapers of the day one has only to read those newspapers; they were daily recording events of hysteria, suicides, heart attacks and incidents of madness, all attributed to the Comet. The WASHINGTON STAR put the matter in perspective when it ran the story about the near “virgin sacrifice” as part of a long story headlined “Earth Dwellers Hunt Caves/Pray and Try to Evade Comet. Negroes Abandon Work and Keep to Churches’ Miners Stay Underground; Blood Sacrifice of Girl Averted; Joker Makes Shooting Star” (STAR, May 19, p.4).
Two recent books – Jerred Metz’s HALLEY’S COMET, 1910:FIRE IN THE SKY and the NEW YORK TIMES GUIDE TO THE RETURN OF HALLEY’S COMET – share with 1985 readers some of the excitement, dread and helplessness inspired by the Comet at its last appearance. Metz vividly recreates this in the “Events” section of his book.
Edgar Benton Merchant (1885-1919) was a successful lawyer, newspaper publisher and editor of the ALINE CHRONOSCOPE from 1901 until his death; he and his wife were appointed official hosts at the Oklahoma Building for the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904; and he was a representative to the Oklahoma Constitutional Convention that helped make Oklahoma the 46th State in the U.S. in 1907. An indication of his tongue-in-the-cheek sense of humor may be gleaned from the entry concerning him in the 1910 Oklahoma Census wherein his occupation is given as “Laborer, gen.” That is, general laborer. One who knew him as an elderly man recalls that he had a sense of humor and that he was inventive and imaginative, publishing several stories about a wooded park near Aline and that often the stories involved Indians – one such tale concerning a Peace Treaty of Indian Tribes signed under a huge cottonwood tree in the park (no doubt the “Big tree” referred to by Walter Ferguson). In all probability he invented the yarn about the virgin and the Comet as an amusement and afterwards forgot it. His wife, Ellen, used to hand-set type and was a reporter in her own right, but she was more formal, reserved than the genial Ed. Perhaps she censored the yarn from their own paper, the CHRONOSCOPE – but that is pure speculation.
This piece could not have been written without the generous cooperation of several people. First of all was Mrs. Rosalie Hasty, life-long resident of Aline, who was familiar with the tale when I approached her. She had heard it at some social function she had attended and had taken it to an uncle who was a young boy in 1910 and who did in fact recall the story, but he did not know if it was fact or fiction.
Mrs. Hasty put me in touch with a remarkable lady, Mrs. H. L. Elliott, 75, also a life-long resident of Aline who knew Mr. Marchant and who lived with Mrs. Marchant while going to High School. (Mrs. Marchant died in August, 1967, just one week short of her 101st birthday.) Mrs. Elliott is a member of the County, State and National Historical Societies. In good part through her efforts Aline can claim the only original, preserved so house in the West – all others are imitations or restorations – built by her father, Marshal McCully, in 1894. She is the source of my information (all too briefly summarized here) concerning the Marchants.
A thorough researcher, Mrs. Elliott points out that the alleged site of the sacrifice in the Glass Mountains would not be under the jurisdiction of either the sheriff of Alfalfa or Dewey County but of the sheriff of Major County. George Hughey is also aware of this and both are continuing to dig into the records from this angle. If anything is brought to light the readers of this NEWSLETTER will be informed of it.
Mr. Steve Brooker, present editor of the Cherokee REPUBLICAN, ran my “Letter to the Editor” requesting assistance in contacting any surviving relative of either Marchant or Ferguson. That was the link that brought a response from Mr. Marc Kliewer of La Jolla, CA, who put me in touch with Walter Ferguson’s son, Dr. Thomas B. Ferguson of St. Louis’ Chest Service, Inc.
Dr. Thomas Ferguson responded as reported above and kindly referred my correspondence concerning the virgin and the Comet on to George Hughey, whose comments also appear above.
I am indebted, too, to Leonard Downie, Jr., Managing Editor of the WASHINGTON POST, who referred my inquiry concerning the virgin and the Comet to an assistant librarian, Ms. Kim Klein, who reported as quoted above.
Mr. B. Basore, Library Assistant, Oklahoma Historical Society, was helpful on two occasions and generous in the expenditure of his time.
Ruth Freitag of the Library of Congress was, as always, an invaluable source for any aspect of the Halley’s Comet story.
Finally, I would like to thank Joseph Laufer of this NEWSLETTER for encouraging the research needed to prove (as conclusively as possible, 75 years late) that this aspect of Halleyana is a clever hoax.
Editor's Note: This article was followed by one more in the series, which can be found in the December, 1985 issue.