This answer to Any record of the Earth passing through the tail (not trail) of a comet? mentions

Earth passed through the tail of Halley's Comet in 1910. It caused a bit of a panic due to claims that cyanogen detected in the tail would cause harm: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halley%27s_Comet#1910

and links to the February 8, 1910 New York Times item Comet's poisonous tail; Yerkes Observatory Finds Cyanogen in Spectrum of Halley's Comet which includes the following sentence:

Only once, as far as known, has the earth passed directly through the tail of a comet, and at that time no unusual phenomena were noticed except that there were abundant showers of meteors.

Question: What comet's tail did Earth pass through before Halley's? This should be a recorded historic event, but it wouldn't necessarily have to have been recognized as such at the time. The goal here is to figure out most likely what event is being described in the quoted sentence.

Comet's poisonous tail https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1910/02/08/104920328.pdf (click for larger)


The quotation is probably referring to The Great Comet of 1861.

According to this Wikipedia article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C/1861_J1

The comet may have interacted with the Earth in an almost unprecedented way. For two days, when the comet was at its closest, the Earth was actually within the comet's tail, and streams of cometary material converging towards the distant nucleus could be seen.

This was reported in newspapers at that time:


and also prior to the close approach of Borelli's Comet in 1903.


From this archive of C/1861 J1 (Great Comet of 1861) from http://cometography.com/lcomets/1861j1.html

C/1861 J1 (Great Comet of 1861)

Further reading:

  • $\begingroup$ Excellent first answer, thank you! Yes this must be it! I've added some additional links for further reading, I hope you don't mind. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Nov 9 '20 at 2:23

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