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Apocalypse in Historic Perspective

One century, one decade, a year, and a day before our current publication date, Mark Twain died. A day earlier Halley’s Comet had reached perihelion (the point at which a comet’s orbit is closest to the sun). Twain (Samuel Clemens) was one of those people who came in and went out with Halley’s Comet. His birth occurred two weeks after the comet’s 1835 perihelion (peri meaning near, helios being the Greek word for sun).

I have been fortunate enough in my lifetime to have twice attended Hal Holbrook’s one man show Mark Twain Tonight. The performances used Twain’s own words so, of course, there were quotes from Huck Finn and other memorable characters, but most striking were Twain’s biting remarks about Congress and big business, as apt today as over a century ago. Holbrook (best known for his portrayal of “Deep Throat” in the film version of All the President’s Men) has now lived two decades longer than Samuel Clemens. In 2017, after fifty-three years of portraying the writer on stage, Holbrook retired his Mark Twain Tonight production. The actor is ninety-five as of this writing. 

Though Halley’s Comet appeared precisely as William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066 and Earth had passed directly through its tail, creating a series of cloudy days in its wake, the comet hasn’t come close to the impact of phenomena like earthquakes and tsunamis... or pandemics. The 1918-1919 influenza killed fifty million people worldwide (some studies estimate a death toll nearly double that conservative figure). 

During Shakespeare's lifetime, the plague of 1563 killed approximately one-quarter of London's citizens. Significant outbreaks occurred at least three more times before 1603, when the Bard again survived another scourge of plague that reduced England's capital city's population by about 25%.

The plague known as the Black Death ravaged Asia, North Africa and Europe from 1347 through 1351. Documentary evidence was obviously sketchier then, but the worldwide population dropped from about 475 million to about 350 million. As much as sixty percent of Europe's human life may have been wiped out.

In case you are worried about the length the shelter in place regulations may last, go back two centuries and a half decade to consider the years 1815-1816. In April, 1815 the Tambora volcano on Sumbawa Island, east of Java (in what is now Indonesia), erupted with such force it blew away half of its own mountain. Sulfuric ash spewed so densely into the stratosphere, complete darkness reigned for nearly three days four hundred miles away. Of Sumbawa's twelve thousand inhabitants, only twenty-six survived the initial eruption. Subsequent aftershock earthquakes and tsunamis killed tens of thousands more in the region. The volcanic aerosol clouds from the blast encircled the globe then lingered. During the summer of 1816, more than a year after the eruption, a persistent dry fog hovered in many areas throughout Europe and the United States. Snow blanketed the East Coast states in June. Late spring and summer frost set off crop failures, famine and widespread disease. A generation before the potato famine, eight hundred thousand people in Ireland contracted typhus.

Out of every ill some good will come.  Starvation and death took its toll on farm animals as well in 1816. The problem in Northern Europe proved particularly devastating, in some locales crippling the economy. To counter the lack of horses as a means of transportation in Germany, Baron Karl von Drais invented the first truly functional bicycle. The horrific weather in the British Isles in 1815-16 may well have given Mary Shelley the inspiration for the ice and snow sequences that frame Frankenstein. She traveled to Geneva to spend “a wet, ungenial” summer during 1816. While in Switzerland she met Lord Byron whose poem “Darkness” begins, “I had a dream, which was not all a dream. The bright sun was extinguish’d…”

In other words, if things don't get worse, they could be (and have been) worse.


  1. Frank Casian April 22, 2020

    ALWAYS a great read Malcom…TY
    and as always, be well!

  2. Mark W. Laszlo April 23, 2020

    Malcom McDonald,

    good piece, with a great (conditional) conclusion.
    Unlike many who predict(ed) the end of the world,
    you are too reasonable to be proved wrong either

    I saw Hal Holbrook’s show 44 years ago, when he
    was smooth faced & needed a grey wig to depict Clemmons. Before he walked on stage, smoke
    rings appeared, blown from his pipe in the wings.

    One Clemmons anecdote i remember from then
    (paraphrased): A missionary & his wife shipped to
    a cannibal island. The ship captain said he’d come
    back to see how they were in 2 years. When he
    returned, he met the cannibal chief & asked
    ‘Since i brought missionaries to you, are you now
    Christians?’ The chief replied “Oh yes. We are
    Christians now. We ate the missionaries’.

    Malcom, your ending is too good to follow with
    any predictions from me now. Both true & equivocal,
    it provokes a gallows humor laugh. And when most
    needed, that suffices.

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