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In the village of Gittisham, Devon, England, in the 18th century, lived a woman named Joanna Southcott.  Southcott became convinced that she had supernatural powers and began selling seals of the lord, essentially tickets to heaven, which people bought.  She declared that she was “the woman of the apocalypse” as foretold in the Bible and that she would give birth to the new Messiah on Oct 19, 1841, despite the fact that she was 64 years old.  My name’s…

We’re living through a more-uncertain-than-usual time right now.  I wouldn’t say it’s the end of the world, but others might, and have.  History is rife with people who claim to have been told or worked out on their own when the end of days is coming.  The list on wikipedia is 24 page-downs, and that’s really only focusing on Judeo-Christian prophecies. Everyone was peasant girls, to monks, to the mathematician who popularised the use of the decimal point had a theory.

Cotton Mather, the influential Puritan minister who played a decisive role in the Salem witch trials, proclaimed in 1691 that doomsday would occur in 1697, basing the date on current events that he interpreted as the fulfillment of biblical prophesies.  When 1697 passed by relatively uneventfully, Mather changed his forecast first to 1736, then to 1716 and finally to 1717. Mather didn’t make any more predictions between 1717 and his death in 1728, but he was still certain that the end was near.

Jonas Wendell, along with other Adventist preachers, predicted the Second Coming of Christ would occur in 1873 or ‘74.  After the prediction did not bear out, Nelson H. Bardour reinterpreted the prediction to mean that Jesus *had in fact returned in 1874, but he was invisible.  That does make it harder to disprove, I’ll grant you.  

Then there was Mother Shipton, the witch of York, a fascinating blend of historical figure and embellished character.  Born Ursula Southeuil during a thunderstorm in a cave in 1488 to a teenage mother who refused to name her father, Mother Shipton looked every bit the iconic witch–warty skin, hunched posture, hooked nose, the works.  She made a number of predictions, all of them in verse, like Shakespear’s weird sisters in MacBeth. She is said to have predicted Henry the 8th’s dissolution of the monasteries, the Great Fire of London, the reign of Elizabeth I, and even possibly the invention of airplanes and the telephone.  But the first written version of her predictions didn’t come out until 80 years after her death, and some authors have admitted they added to what she supposedly said. So we don’t really know if Mother Shipton said “The world to an end shall come In eighteen hundred and eighty one,” but we can be fairly certain that it didn’t.  The cave in which she was born is now a tourist attraction, along with the nearby petrifying well. Items placed in the well are said to turn to stone and that’s a loose interpretation rather than an outright fable. The water in the well has a very high mineral content and those minerals will attach themselves to anything in the water, making it look like the object is turning to stone.

Bonus fact: The witches in MacBeth are referred to as the weird sisters, but were originally called the way-ward sisters, meaning good women who’d lost their way and been seduced by the allure of magic.

Doomsday predictions could come from the highest offices in the land, but that didn’t make them any more true.  Pope Sylvester II became pope in 999 CE. With the auspicious-sounding date of the year 1,000 looming, Sylvester and a number of other Christian leaders foretold the coming of Jesus at the turn of the millennium, and many people believed it.  Like really believed. There were riots in the streets, thousands of Christians flocked to the holy city of Jerusalem, and many attended what was expected to be a particularly interesting midnight mass at St. Peter’s Basilica on New Year’s Eve.  When the morning of January 1 arrived and it was clear the world was not ending, Sylvester and the other Christian leaders revised their prediction. Have you picked up on that trend yet? If judgement day didn’t kick off on the anniversary of Jesus’ birth, it must be for the anniversary of his death.  So Pope Sylvester II declared the world would end in 1033, but he was already 54 and sure enough didn’t have to hear any gainsaying when the apocalypse didn’t come a second time, because he’s been dead for thirty years.  

A century later, Pope Innocent III had a less obvious and markedly less nice reason for his end-time prophecy.  Innocent blamed the Muslims. Christians and Muslims have never really gotten along, and Innocent viewed Muslims as agents of Satan.  To his mind, the apocalypse would occur 666 years after the founding of Islam, which would put it in 1284. He too died well before he could see how wrong he was.  

Predicting the end of the world requires perseverance.  If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. You’ve got to stick with it, like the founder of the Worldwide Church of God, Herbert Armstrong.  Along with his sons Richard and Garner, Armstrong picked up quite a following even before claiming the world would end in 1936 and only members of his church would be saved.  The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl probably made it easy for people to believe our collective ticket was about to get punched. Armstrong next turned his sights to 1943, where the second war to end all wars lent credence to his doomsday claims.  When life settled into post-war normal, Armstrong amended his prediction to 1972, a significant margin of error. People sold all their possessions to pay for their travel to Petra in Jordan, which most of us know as the resting place of the Holy Grail from the third and *final Indiana Jones movie, where they would be safe from WWIII, which Armstrong said would be all of Europe led by Germany against the US and UK.  WWIII didn’t begin in 1972 or the amended date of 1975.

In December 1954, aChicago Tribune headline read, “Doctor Warns of Disasters in World Tuesday — Worst to Come in 1955 He Declares.”  The doctor was just passing along the prediction made by Dorothy Martin, a 54-year-old housewife from Oak Park, Ill. Martin believed that aliens from the planet Clarion had beamed messages into her brain, informing her that a massive flood would soon destroy the planet.  Her prophecies attracted a small group of followers, including the doctor, who called themselves “Seekers.” Many of the Seelers had quit their jobs, sold their belongings, and removed any metal from their bodies, which Martin said would be essential for boarding the ship. They gathered at Martin’s home on Christmas Eve, 1955, singing carols while they waited to be beamed to safety.  This wasn’t the first time the group had gathered for their exodus. The aliens were supposed to come on the 17th, but didn’t. Then the 18th, the 21st and finally the 24th. As Christmas Eve wore on, Martin’s followers became increasingly impatient. Finally, at 4:45 a.m. on Christmas Day, Martin announced that God had been so impressed by their actions that he would no longer destroy the Earth.  Nice recovery.  

Though Martin had few followers, their experience has left a lasting legacy.  The group has been infiltrated, if you will, by a small group of psychologists and students from the University of Minnesota, led by social psychologist Leon Festinger.  Festinger wrote about the whole ordeal in “When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World.” It was in this book that he began to explore something you’ve probably heard of–cognitive dissonance.  That is when two disparate ideas exist in your head at one time and you feel uncomfortable until you can make them fit somehow. Festinger observed cognitive dissonance in the Seekers who had to repeatedly convince themselves that Martin was right, even after seeing with their own eyes that she wasn’t.


The early part of the 19th century was the golden age of doomsday prophets.  Seriously, every time you turned around, there was another preacher with a set date for the Millenium.  Millenium in this context means 1,000 years after Jesus returns to earth, not 1,000 by the calendar. Presbetyrian preacher Christopher Love thought an earthquake was going to wipe most people out in 1805; John Wesley, founder of the Methodist church, thought it would be 1836; George Rapp, founder of the Harmony Society, insisted Jesus would be back in his lifetime, even *while he was dying; Jonas Wendell said it would be 1873 and went that didn’t pan out, one of this followers said Jesus *had come back, but he was invisible. 

A stand-out in the crowded arena was Harriet Livermore.  Livermore was the daughter of a US Congressman and a popular preacher, particularly for a woman.  She toured first New England, then much of the rest of the country. Her tour included speaking in front of the House of Representatives in DC not once, not twice, but four times.  Her sermons were pretty standard Protestant fare, until 1831, when Livermore read a published letter by Jew-turned-Christian Joseph Wolff, who wrote that the Lord “would … stand upon the Mount of Olives, in A.D. 1847.”  Livermore was so taken with Wolff’s letter that she had two thousand copies made. Wolff was probably also the source of Livermore’s most out-there belief. She insisted that Native Americans were the lost tribes of Israel and that she should Christianize them.  The government was less keen on her one-woman crusade, even before she went to Congress to petition them to “return” the Native Americans to Jerusalem. Her beliefs became increasingly bizarre and she found herself pushed out of even the most fringe movements. When you’re too weird for people who think the world is ending next month, you know you’re pretty weird.

The most bizarre example was one where the people believed, but the prophet did not.  Presenting, the Prophet Hen of Leeds. Yes, I said hen, as in a chicken of the female persuasion.  This chicken was hatched in Leeds in the southern part of the north of England, or in the northern part of the south, depending on where you draw the line, and in 1806, the people there were sure that the end was nigh.  A chicken had started laying eggs etched with the message Christ is coming on them. It was misspelled, missing the H in Christ, but they didn’t let themselves get bogged down in the details.

The hen belonged to a local woman named Mary Bateman.  Bateman began life as a serving girl, before deciding to supplement her income with a bit of petty theft, being caught and sacked.  She then set up shop as a teller of fortunes and seller of potions, charms, and curatives. Bateman was good at what she did, or at least good at convincing people that she was good at what she did, and she grew to have some acclaim.  She still wasn’t above a petty con, though, once going about town soliciting donations for a family that had been burned out of their house, but keeping the money for herself. With a reputation like that, you’d think people would be suspicious of an apparent miracle happening in her vicinity, but they don’t appear to have been.

So how was she doing it?  How was Bateman getting a chicken to lay eggs with apocalyptic messages?  Bateman was taking the regular old eggs and writing on them with concentrated vinegar.  Vinegar is acetic acid, and egg shells are made of calcium carbonate. The vinegar dissolves the calcium carbonate into calcium acetate, which can easily be rinsed away.  Remember when your science teacher left an egg in vinegar and the shell disappeared? Same principle. Bateman then, and this is the cherry on top of the crazy sundae, put the egg *back *in the chicken.  That was people could witness the egg being laid, for further credibility.  

But a man from town eventually figured out what she was doing and Bateman was hanged.  Not for the egg hoax; there were no laws against making false doomsday prophecies. That same year, a woman named Rebecca Perigo and her husband William hired Bateman to lift a curse from Rebecca.  Bateman then began secretly poisoning the couple, possibly so she could miraculously “cure” them, but Rebecca died and William caught wise and went to the police. After her conviction, Bateman claimed she was pregnant to stay the execution, but a dozen matrons were charged with examining her and declared she was lying.  Who could have guessed? Bateman was hanged in 1809, and earned the name, The Yorkshire Witch, a name both unfair and not even that unique, since it sounds like Ursula Southiel’s sobriquet, The Witch of York. At least the chicken had better branding for what she’d been through, going down in history as “The Prophet Hen of Leeds.”

One of the 19th century doomsday prophets actually left a lasting impression, through something called The Great Disappointment.  If you’re going to be disappointed, you might as well be disappointed greatly. The doom-sayer in this round was one William Miller and his followers, the Millerites.  Born to a baptist family in 1782, Miller lived a normal farm-y life until 1816, when he became obsessed with the afterlife, possibly from having served during the war of 1812.  He spent the next fifteen years searching his Bible for an answer, though he wasn’t so myopic that he missed the various millenial movements that were springing up around the country.  Whether it was due to anxiety over the worsening economic climate (the Panic of 1837 had led to a terrible recession), political uncertainty (the tension that would lead to the Civil War breaking out was already being felt), or lingering anxiety over New England’s Dark Day (a day that went pitch black at noon and no, it wasn’t a solar eclipse), but people were really open to the idea of the world ended and numerous religious figures stepped up with prophecies.  

Miller believed Jesus would come and everything would be pretty keen for the believers.  For the rest of us, though, the Earth would be “cleansed by fire, the elements will melt with fervent heat, … the bodies of the wicked will be burned to ashes,” and their spirits would be “banished from the Earth, shut up in the pit.”  So that’ll be fun. Along with Isaac Newton and a host of other scholars, William Miller examined apocalyptic works such as the Book of Daniel and Revelation to calculate when the Second Coming would occur. Working from Daniel 8:14 “Until two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed”, Miller determined that the Second Coming would occur on March 23, 1843.   He kept the information close to the vest, not to prevent a panic, but because he expected to be publicly ridiculed. It might have stayed within his first sphere of influence if not for Joshua Vaughan Himes.

Himes, a Boston minister and zealous evangelist, invited Miller to give a sermon in 1839 which led to numerous other invitations from other ministers.   Not only did this lead to Miller’s message being heard by thousands of people, but other ministers (including Himes) began preaching the warning about imminent judgment.  Not everyone was on board, though. Newspapers began reporting on Miller’s appearances, blaming Miller for cases of insanity or suicide that they claimed his message caused.  Miller’s membership got a boost when an extremely bright comet appeared in the sky in 1843 and scared the [bleep] out of people though Miller didn’t tie the comet into his message.  

After another going-over of the math, Miller and his followers moved the date of the Second Coming to April 23, 1843.  As the date approached, the crowds got bigger and the detractors got louder, worried people would stop working if they thought the world was going to end.  April 23 came. And went. Miller went back to the Bible and started recalculating. Concluding that he had made a mistake by relying on solar years instead of lunar years–sure, that was the problem–he recalculated it would be spring of the next year instead.  More people became Millerites as that year passed.  

Spring came and went as usual.  Undaunted, Miller insisted that the Second Coming would happen in the fall instead.  One Millerite, S.S. Snow, opined it would be October 22, since it would fall on Yom Kippur.   Miller had his doubts, but allowed his followers to convince him. After two failed predictions, some members had left, many of the ministers who’d supported Miller were suddenly silent, and even the newspapers weren’t bothering anymore.  October 22 gave way to October 23 and that was all she wrote for the Millerite movement. A few die-hards tried to explain away the conspicuous lack of apocalypse, but the rest suffered “the Great Disappointment”. Miller and Himes turned their attention to raising money for Millerites who had impoverished themselves by quitting their jobs and giving away their possessions because *somebody told them those things wouldn’t matter.

The Millerite movement limped along for a while under Joshua Himes.  He and his son established the Adventist movement, before he gave up and went back to being Episcopalian.  He left behind not only Advent Christians as well as the Seventh-Day Adventists, who are certainly still out there.  They must be; somebody’s buying all that Postum. Adventist hadn’t learned their lesson about doomsday predictions, though.  One Jonathan Cummings’ predicted Christ would return in 1854 and William Thurman’s prediction that it would happen in 1875. At least fewer people listened those times. 

(speaking of listening) LRR, REVIEWs4GOOD (Until April 17, Podchaser, the imdb of podcasts, will donate $.25 to Meals on Wheels America‘s COVID-19 Response Fund for EVERY podcast or episode review on!   And they’ll double it every time the podcaster replies, which you know I’ll do! So head over to this week to review your favorite shows.) , PROMO

Comets have caused quite a few doomsday predictions, religious and otherwise.  Comets were predicted to crash into or otherwise mess up the Earth in 1719, 1736, 1986, and 2011, and were supposed to bring the apocalypse in 1974  When Halley’s comet was coming around in 1910, some believed it was an omen of an imminent invasion of Britain by Germany (ooh, so close) and was blamed for flooding the Seine in Paris.  Thankfully, scientists were more rational. Just kidding. Astronomer Camille Flammerion nearly caused a panic with his theory that the tail of Halley’s comet was made of a cyanogen, which it was, that Earth was going to pass through the tail of the comet, which it did, snuffing out all life on Earth, which it didn’t.  Though it was a good financial quarter for you if you owned a factory that made gas masks. 

The most famous comet-related prophecy, at least for my generation, was the Hale-Bopp comet and the Heaven’s Gate cult.  The situation would come to a 24 hr news cycle-dominating head in 1997, but the story actually begins in the early 1970s, as so many bad ideas do.  That was when the group’s founders, Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles, met, perhaps in a drama class, perhaps in a psychiatric institution where Applewhite was a patient, it depends on whose version you’re reading.  Either way, the two were taken with each other, renamed themselves Bo and Peep, for .. reasons, and set out on a six-month-long road trip across the United States. Around 1974, they assembled a group called “the crew,” which bounced around SoCal for the next two decades.  In September 1975, Bo, Beep, and the crew visited the small town of Waldport, Oregon, to give a lecture about how U.F.O.s were going to make contact with the human race. At first the town thought it was a joke, but soon, 20 people packed up and left with the crew. That doesn’t sound like very many, but it was 1 in 30 residents of that little town.  

The cult’s philosophy could be summed up as UFO’s grafted onto Applewhite’s Presbyterian upbringing–God is an alien and Applewhite was the second coming.  Aside from abandoning their family and friends and giving the group all their money, which is Cult 101, members had to cleanse their bodies of the impure things.  For this they used the Master Cleanse, invented in the 1940s by Stanley Burroughs. One member who left the group told Newsweek they drank nothing but the mix of lemonade, cayenne pepper and maple syrup for three months.  I could’ve told you juice cleanse are nuts. Sexual thought were right out Between that and the Next Level, where they were going, being a genderless plane of existence, so male members, Applewhite included, were castrated.

Their bodies were referred to as containers and members were originally told that they would exit their “containers” when the aliens beamed them up or their bodies would be beamed up too.  After Nettles died of cancer, Applewhite amended his teachings to say that they would be given a new body in the Next Level, so they would have to leave their bodies. The aliens would be flying in the tail of the Hale-Bopp comet, which would be closest to the Earth in late March, 1997.  The 39 remaining members, including Applewhite, wearing black track suits and sneakers, ate apple sauce laced with barbiturates and washed it down with vodka. They then put bags over their heads, purple shrouds over their bodies, and laid down to leave their earthly vehicles behind. They didn’t all go at once, but rather staggered it over three days so they could take turns helping one another.  As they saw it, they weren’t killing themselves, just getting rid of their pesky bodies so they could join the aliens.  

There was one detail about this horrific incident that I didn’t know until this week, which I think will bring the mood back up a little.  Applewhite and Nettles were huge sci-fi nerds–Star Wars, Close Encounters, Star Trek, you name it–resulting in theories like the virgin Mary had been taken aboard a spaceship and impregnated and that’s where Jesus came from.  The cult members died wearing patches that said “Heaven’s Gate Away Team,” a reference to the group of important characters and one disposable Red Shirt to beamed down to alien planets in Star Trek.

Bonus fact: Heaven’s Gate was also the name of the movie that bankrupted United Artist studios when the director’s insistence on period accuracy tripled the budget and bogged down filming.  By the 6th day, they were already 5 days behind schedule.

Heaven’s Gate wasn’t a modern outlier.  Apart from the whole 2012 faff with the Mayan calendar, there have been a number of supposed dates for the end of the world or the Rapture or what have you.  Multiple predictions were made by Harold Camping, CEO and talent on the Christian Family Radio network. Programming began as standard hymns and readings, but then things started to get weird.  Camping’s first big prediction was that the rapture to occur on September 4 or 6, 1994. Left himself a little wiggle room there, as well as in the title of his book, ​1994?​. 1994 came and went, but that didn’t seem to damage Camping’s credibility with Family Radio listeners.  He went back to his math, which we’ll get into shortly, because it’s bonkers, and decided the date *had to be May 21, 2011. According to Family Radio’s website, “The Bible guarantees it!” First will come a massive earthquake, powerful enough to throw open all graves. Then will follow a slow dying off of all nonbelievers until the end of the world.”  This was supposed to begin at Christmas Island in the south Pacific at 6pm, going around the world with earthquakes and tsunamis at 6pm local time. Family Radio and Camping’s followers funded a huge publicity campaign to warn people–park bench ads around the country, over 3,000 billboards around the world, and a five-RV caravan to tour America and Canada, handing out pamphlets to unbelievers.  One ardent believer gave up the better part of his retirement, almost $150,000, to spread the word. What would money matter after he was Raptured anyway? People quit their jobs, took their kids out of school, ran up huge credit card bills, and did other unadvisable things that sound like fun when you think the world is about to end.

Even true believers had to reevaluate things when, on May 22, the world was still here.  There are plenty of videos on YouTube of that very moment. You have to feel bad for the fellow that spent his life savings, [clip].   Camping back-peddled and claimed he meant final judgement was on May 21, but the actual apocalypse wasn’t until October 21. By that point, the believers had stopped believing and it didn’t seem sporting to make fun of them anymore.  Mr. Camping said he was “flabbergasted” that his predictions had been wrong. How could his math have been wrong? Here’s the math he used. People who got higher than a D in Algebra, both times, can double-check his figures.

He started with April 1st 33 CE as the date of the cruxification–seems arbitrary, but what do I know.  He then took the numbers 17 for heaven, 10 for completeness, and 5 for atonement because one Bible verse mentions ½ a shekel or .5 shekel.  K. Multiply them together, square the result and you get 722,500. That’s the number of days between the crucifixion and the second coming.  His math did account for leap years, but I don’t know if Camping, or anyone else who calculated the end of days, accounted for things like the shift to the Julian calendar, when the Roman empire negated 11 days, just skipped right over them.  Another thing all the Biblical mathletes seem to have missed in a verse in the book of Matthew that specifically says no man can know when the end is coming, so it’s actually heretical to claim that you do.

The math of basic economics caught up with Camping and Family Radio.  They’d spent huge sums of money, both corporate and donated, on the awareness campaign.   After the hat-trick of failures, plus another ten I didn’t even get into, donations all but stopped and the network was drowning in debt.  The world finally ended for Harold Camping on December 15, 2013, when he died after a fall at age 92.  

Joann Southcott wasn’t a con artist as far we can tell.  She believed in what she was saying, as did her followers.  Southcott died two months after the messiah’s projected due date, having demonstrably never been pregnant.  Her followers refused to bury her, believing she would rise from the dead. When it became clearly obvious from even a cursory visual (an olfactory) inspection that she was *not going to be reanimated, the group agreed to bury her.  Southcott left behind a locked box full of predictions, which could only be opened in a time of national crisis and in the presence of all 24 Anglican bishops. The box was supposedly opened by a psychic researcher and found to contain ordinary papers, a lottery ticket, and a pistol.


Rumor, Fear and the Madness of Crowds, By J.P. Chaplin, Courier Dover Publications, 2015