Wednesday, January 20, 2016

31 March 1907 - Cairns, Queensland, Australia - an Easter Venus?

Hi all,

The recent book "Return to Magonia" by Chris Aubeck and Martin Shough, features a number of observations from Australia. One of these (on pages 228-229) was from North Queensland in 1907, as described in the "Morning Post" Cairns, dated Tuesday 16 April 1907, page 4.

The account

The text of the article reads as follows:

"A brilliant spectacle.
(From Port Douglas 'Record.')

A very brilliant comet was observed from Port Douglas on Easter Sunday morning at about half past three. We presume it was the one predicted by Professor Matteuci to strike the earth with disastrous results at the latter end of last month, and judging by the description given below, must have been perilously close. Our exchanges the Kuranda make no reference whatsoever to the matter, so it appears not to have been a subject of general observation. So far as we can learn the only person in the district fortunate enough to witness the astral body in all its glory were the Misses Hasenkamp, one of whom (Miss Dora) has kindly written the following description for the 'Record.'

At about 3.30am on the 31st March (Easter Sunday morning) I was awakened by my sister Florry calling me to get up and look at the comet.

I arose and saw in the eastern sky a large dazzling bright star which appeared to be as large as a football. Its brilliant light dazzled my eyes for a few seconds. When I looked again it had thousands of small glittering spikes of silvery light, and on the top right hand side of it, a long rod resembling the flame of a candle-light, about two foot in length, appeared with another tail in the shape of a half-circle - which faced down towards the earth - attached to it.

The circle shaped rod had a couple of lights like red hot coals. I was looking at the comet for about a quarter of an hour when it gradually faded away into the sky, and the atmosphere became very cold. The comet again appeared shining as before, the lights on the lower rods getting fainter.

The moon was shining bright all the time and had three black spots on it. The comet was moving very slowly and appeared to be going in the direction of the moon. I watched for about another half hour and then it disappeared altogether. It was the most brilliant sight I ever saw."

What was it?
In looking to identify this "comet,"Aubeck and Shough wrote:
"The interesting and perhaps educative thing about this case is that at the time reported the planet Venus, with a respectable magnitude -3.6 had just risen over the eastern horizon and would have been a prominent sight in the pre-dawn sky, just where the strange object was. The moon was bright, as stated, approximately full and about 30 degrees west of the zenith; and Venus climbing on its normal motion along the ecliptic would have progressed "very slowly in the direction of the moon" until it faded in the daylight. So it is hard not to conclude that Venus was the culprit in this case, and the peculiar structures of rods and red lights must have been an illusion caused by glare or some sort of
ocular or instrumental defect."

Just checking
1. Port Douglas, is north at Cairns, Queensland at latitude 16.5 degrees south; longitude 145.5 degrees east.
2. On the 31 March 1907, sunrise that morning was at 0623 hours. Therefore the start of the 45 minute observation, was almost three hours before sunrise.
3. A check using an electronic sky chart reveals that the Sun was about 41 degrees below the eastern horizon at the time; the moon was at 53 degrees elevation, azimuth 18 degrees north of west; and Venus was on the horizon rising at azimuth 13 degrees south of east.
4. Interestingly, the witnesses did not report seeing both the planet Venus and a "comet."
5. There are some oddities in the account. What are we to make of the observer's description that "The moon was shining bright and had three black spots on it?" It's a pity that we have no idea as to whether or not Dora had been prescribed spectacles, and whether or not she was wearing them at the time.
6. Were the Hasenkamps historical figures?
A search of TROVE electronic newspapers revealed two article mentioning them.
a. Page 4 of the "Townsville Daily Bulletin" dated Tuesday 30 November 1926 stated that a Dora Hasenkamp managed the central Hotel in Port Douglas and indicated that she "...has been in Port Douglas for some time."
b. Page 11 of the "Cairns Post" [Qld:1909-1954] dated 25 May 1933 referenced a Miss Dora Hasenkamp and her sister Flo, who were both included in a wedding party.
Therefore, it would seem that they were historical figures, and that there is not reason to suspect that the letter to the editor is not genuine.
7. I could not locate any weather details for Port Douglas for 31 March 1907.
8. The original account appears to have come from a newspaper named "Port Douglas 'Record." The TROVE collection doesn't have issues of this newspaper.
9. Are there any other local references to comets, that would explain why the 16 April 1907 article referred to what was seen, on 31 March 1907, as "A very brilliant comet?" Indeed there are.
a. On page 3 of the "Morning Post" Cairns, paper dated 27 February 1907, there is a short piece about an approaching comet, citing a Professor Matteuci who "...declares that about the end of March...the comet...will come in contact with the earth's atmosphere, causing some damage."
b. Further discussions about this comet appear on page 6 of the "Morning Post" Cairns dated 11 March 1907; and page 4 of the 22 March 1907 edition of the same paper.
It would appear reasonable, given these three articles about a comet; for the editor of the "Morning Post" Cairns, on the 16 April 1907, to suppose Miss Hasenkamp's observation was that of a "comet."
10. In conclusion, given all of the above information, I support Aubeck's and Shough's view that what was seen was most likely the planet Venus.

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