Read CHAPTER II of Maria Mitchell: Life‚ Letters‚ and Journals, free online book, by Maria Mitchell, on



Miss Mitchell spent every clear evening on the house-top “sweeping” the heavens.

No matter how many guests there might be in the parlor, Miss Mitchell would slip out, don her regimentals as she called them, and, lantern in hand, mount to the roof.

On the evening of Oc, 1847, there was a party of invited guests at the Mitchell home. As usual, Maria slipped out, ran up to the telescope, and soon returned to the parlor and told her father that she thought she saw a comet. Mr. Mitchell hurried upstairs, stationed himself at the telescope, and as soon as he looked at the object pointed out by his daughter declared it to be a comet. Miss Mitchell, with her usual caution, advised him to say nothing about it until they had observed it long enough to be tolerably sure. But Mr. Mitchell immediately wrote to Professor Bond, at Cambridge, announcing the discovery. On account of stormy weather, the mails did not leave Nantucket until October 3.

Frederick VI., King of Denmark, had offered, De, 1831, a gold medal of the value of twenty ducats to the first discoverer of a telescopic comet. The regulations, as revised and amended, were republished, in April, 1840, in the “Astronomische Nachrichten.”

When this comet was discovered, the king who had offered the medal was dead. The son, Frederick VII., who had succeeded him, had not the interest in science which belonged to his father, but he was prevailed upon to carry out his father’s designs in this particular case.

The same comet had been seen by Father de Vico at Rome, on October 3, at 7.30 P.M., and this fact was immediately communicated by him to Professor Schumacher, at Altona. On the 7th of October, at 9.20 P.M., the comet was observed by Mr. W.R. Dawes, at Kent, England, and on the 11th it was seen by Madame Ruemker, the wife of the director of the observatory at Hamburg.

The following letter from the younger Bond will show the cordial relations existing between the observatory at Cambridge and the smaller station at Nantucket:

Cambridge, Oc, 1847.

Dear Maria: There! I think that is a very amiable beginning, considering the way in which I have been treated by you! If you are going to find any more comets, can you not wait till they are announced by the proper authorities? At least, don’t kidnap another such as this last was.

If my object were to make you fear and tremble, I should tell you that on the evening of the 30th I was sweeping within a few degrees of your prize. I merely throw out the hint for what it is worth.

It has been very interesting to watch the motion of this comet
among the stars with the great refractor; we could almost see it

An account of its passage over the star mentioned by your father when he was here, would make an interesting notice for one of the foreign journals, which we would readily forward.... [Here follow Mr. Bond’s observations.]


Your obedient servant,

G. P. Bond.

Hon. Edward Everett, who at that time was president of Harvard College, took a great interest in the matter, and immediately opened a correspondence with the proper authorities, and sent a notice of the discovery to the “Astronomische Nachrichten.”

The priority of Miss Mitchell’s discovery was immediately admitted throughout Europe.

The King of Denmark very promptly referred the matter to Professor Schumacher, who reported in favor of granting the medal to Miss Mitchell, and the medal was duly struck off and forwarded to Mr. Everett.

Among European astronomers who urged Miss Mitchell’s claim was Admiral Smyth, whom she knew through his “Celestial Cycle,” and who later, on her visit to England, became a warm personal friend. Madame Ruemker, also, sent congratulations.

Mr. Everett announced the receipt of the medal to Miss Mitchell in the following letter:

Cambridge, March 29, 1849.

My dear Miss Mitchell: I have the pleasure to inform you that
your medal arrived by the last steamer; it reached me by mail,
yesterday afternoon.

I went to Boston this morning, hoping to find you at the Adams
House, to put it into your own hand.

As your return to Nantucket prevented this, I, of course, retain
it, subject to your orders, not liking to take the risk again of
its transmission by mail.

Having it in this way in my hand, I have taken the liberty to show it to some friends, such as W.C. Bond, Professor Peirce, the editors of the “Transcript,” and the members of my family,which I hope you will pardon.

I remain, my dear Miss Mitchell, with great regard,

Very faithfully yours,

Edward Everett.

In 1848 Miss Mitchell was elected to membership by the “American Academy of Arts and Sciences,” unanimously; she was the first and only woman ever admitted. In the diploma the printed word “Fellow” is erased, and the words “Honorary Member” inserted by Dr. Asa Gray, who signed the document as secretary. Some years later, however, her name is found in the list of Fellows of this Academy, also of the American Institute and of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. For many years she attended the annual conventions of this last-mentioned association, in which she took great interest.

The extract below refers to one of these meetings, probably that of 1855:

“August 23. It is really amusing to find one’s self lionized in a city where one has visited quietly for years; to see the doors of fashionable mansions open wide to receive you, which never opened before. I suspect that the whole corps of science laughs in its sleeves at the farce.

“The leaders make it pay pretty well. My friend Professor Bache makes the occasions the opportunities for working sundry little wheels, pulleys, and levers; the result of all which is that he gets his enormous appropriations of $400,000 out of Congress, every winter, for the maintenance of the United States Coast Survey.

“For a few days Science reigns supreme,we are feted and complimented to the top of our bent, and although complimenters and complimented must feel that it is only a sort of theatrical performance, for a few days and over, one does enjoy acting the part of greatness for a while! I was tired after three days of it, and glad to take the cars and run away.

“The descent into a commoner was rather sudden. I went alone to Boston, and when I reached out my free pass, the conductor read it through and handed it back, saying in a gruff voice, ’It’s worth nothing; a dollar and a quarter to Boston.’ Think what a downfall! the night before, and

’One blast upon my bugle horn
Were worth a hundred men!’

Now one man alone was my dependence, and that man looked very much inclined to put me out of the car for attempting to pass a ticket that in his eyes was valueless. Of course I took it quietly, and paid the money, merely remarking, ’You will pass a hundred persons on this road in a few days on these same tickets.’

“When I look back on the paper read at this meeting by Mr. J in his uncouth manner, I think when a man is thoroughly in earnest, how careless he is of mere words!

In 1849 Miss Mitchell was asked by the late Admiral Davis, who had just taken charge of the American Nautical Almanac, to act as computer for that work,a proposition to which she gladly assented, and for nineteen years she held that position in addition to her other duties. This, of course, made a very desirable increase to her income, but not necessarily to her expenses. The tables of the planet Venus were assigned to her. In this year, too, she was employed by Professor Bache, of the United States Coast Survey, in the work of an astronomical party at Mount Independence, Maine.

“1853. I was told that Miss Dix wished to see me, and I called upon her. It was dusk, and I did not at once see her; her voice was low, not particularly sweet, but very gentle. She told me that she had heard Professor Henry speak of me, and that Professor Henry was one of her best friends, the truest man she knew. When the lights were brought in I looked at her. She must be past fifty, she is rather small, dresses indifferently, has good features in general, but indifferent eyes. She does not brighten up in countenance in conversing. She is so successful that I suppose there must be a hidden fire somewhere, for heat is a motive power, and her cold manners could never move Legislatures. I saw some outburst of fire when Mrs. Hale’s book was spoken of. It seems Mrs. Hale wrote to her for permission to publish a notice of her, and was decidedly refused; another letter met with the same answer, yet she wrote a ‘Life’ which Miss Dix says is utterly false.

“In her general sympathy for suffering humanity, Miss Dix seems neglectful of the individual interest. She has no family connection but a brother, has never had sisters, and she seemed to take little interest in the persons whom she met. I was surprised at her feeling any desire to see me. She is not strikingly interesting in conversation, because she is so grave, so cold, and so quiet. I asked her if she did not become at times weary and discouraged; and she said, wearied, but not discouraged, for she had met with nothing but success. There is evidently a strong will which carries all before it, not like the sweep of the hurricane, but like the slow, steady, and powerful march of the molten lava.

“It is sad to see a woman sacrificing the ties of the affections even to do good. I have no doubt Miss Dix does much good, but a woman needs a home and the love of other women at least, if she lives without that of man.”

The following entry was made many years after:

“August, 1871. I have just seen Miss Dix again, having met her only once for a few minutes in all the eighteen years. She listened to a story of mine about some girls in need, and then astonished me by an offer she made me.”

“Fe, 1853. I think Dr. Hall [in his ‘Life of Mary Ware’] does wrong when he attempts to encourage the use of the needle. It seems to me that the needle is the chain of woman, and has fettered her more than the laws of the country.

“Once emancipate her from the ’stitch, stitch, stitch,” the industry of which would be commendable if it served any purpose except the gratification of her vanity, and she would have time for studies which would engross as the needle never can. I would as soon put a girl alone into a closet to meditate as give her only the society of her needle. The art of sewing, so far as men learn it, is well enough; that is, to enable a person to take the stitches, and, if necessary, to make her own garments in a strong manner; but the dressmaker should no more be a universal character than the carpenter. Suppose every man should feel it is his duty to do his own mechanical work of all kinds, would society be benefited? would the work be well done? Yet a woman is expected to know how to do all kinds of sewing, all kinds of cooking, all kinds of any woman’s work, and the consequence is that life is passed in learning these only, while the universe of truth beyond remains unentered.

“May 11, 1853. I could not help thinking of Esther [a much-loved cousin who had recently died] a few evenings since when I was observing. A meteor flashed upon me suddenly, very bright, very short-lived; it seemed to me that it was sent for me especially, for it greeted me almost the first instant I looked up, and was gone in a second,it was as fleeting and as beautiful as the smile upon Esther’s face the last time I saw her. I thought when I talked with her about death that, though she could not come to me visibly, she might be able to influence my feelings; but it cannot be, for my faith has been weaker than ever since she died, and my fears have been greater.”

A few pages farther on in the diary appears this poem:


“Living, the hearts of all around
Sought hers as slaves a throne;
  Dying, the reason first we found
The fulness of her own.

“She gave unconsciously the while
    A wealth we all might share
To me the memory of the smile
That last I saw her wear.

“Earth lost from out its meagre store
A bright and precious stone;
Heaven could not be so rich before,
But it has richer grown.”

Sep, 1853.  I am surprised to find the verse which I picked up somewhere and have always admired

“’Oh, reader, had you in your mind
Such stores as silent thought can bring,
Oh, gentle reader, you would find
  A tale in everything

belonging to Wordsworth and to one of Wordsworth’s simple, I am almost ready to say silly, poems. I am in doubt what to think of Wordsworth. I should be ashamed of some of his poems if I had written them myself, and yet there are points of great beauty, and lines which once in the mind will not leave it.

“Oc, 1853. People have to learn sometimes not only how much the heart, but how much the head, can bear. My letter came from Cambridge [the Harvard Observatory], and I had some work to do over. It was a wearyful job, but by dint of shutting myself up all day I did manage to get through with it. The good of my travelling showed itself then, when I was too tired to read, to listen, or to talk; for the beautiful scenery of the West was with me in the evening, instead of the tedious columns of logarithms. It is a blessed thing that these pictures keep in the mind and come out at the needful hour. I did not call them, but they seemed to come forth as a regulator for my tired brain, as if they had been set sentinel-like to watch a proper time to appear.

“November, 1853. There is said to be no up or down in creation, but I think the world must be low, for people who keep themselves constantly before it do a great deal of stooping!

“De, 1853. Last night we had the first meeting of the class in elocution. It was very pleasant, but my deficiency of ear was never more apparent to myself. We had exercises in the ascending scale, and I practised after I came home, with the family as audience. H. says my ear is competent only to vulgar hearing, and I cannot appreciate nice distinctions.... I am sure that I shall never say that if I had been properly educated I should have made a singer, a dancer, or a painterI should have failed less, perhaps, in the last. ... Coloring I might have been good in, for I do think my eyes are better than those of any one I know.

“Fe, 1854. If I should make out a calendar by my feelings of fatigue, I should say there were six Saturdays in the week and one Sunday.

“Mr. somewhat ridicules my plan of reading Milton with a view to his astronomy, but I have found it very pleasant, and have certainly a juster idea of Milton’s variety of greatness than I had before. I have filled several sheets with my annotations on the ‘Paradise Lost,’ which I may find useful if I should ever be obliged to teach, either as a schoolma’am or a lecturer.

“March 2, 1854. I ‘swept’ last night two hours, by three periods. It was a grand nightnot a breath of air, not a fringe of a cloud, all clear, all beautiful. I really enjoy that kind of work, but my back soon becomes tired, long before the cold chills me. I saw two nebulae in Leo with which I was not familiar, and that repaid me for the time. I am always the better for open-air breathing, and was certainly meant for the wandering life of the Indian.

“Sep, 1854. I am just through with a summer, and a summer is to me always a trying ordeal. I have determined not to spend so much time at the Atheneum another season, but to put some one in my place who shall see the strange faces and hear the strange talk.

“How much talk there is about religion! Giles I like the best, for he seems, like myself, to have no settled views, and to be religious only in feeling. He says he has no piety, but a great sense of infinity.

“Yesterday I had a Shaker visitor, and to-day a Catholic; and the more I see and hear, the less do I care about church doctrines. The Catholic, a priest, I have known as an Atheneum visitor for some time. He talked to-day, on my asking him some questions, and talked better than I expected. He is plainly full of intelligence, full of enthusiasm for his religion, and, I suspect, full of bigotry. I do not believe he will die a Catholic priest. A young man of his temperament must find it hard to live without family ties, and I shall expect to hear, if I ever hear of him again, that some good little Irish girl has made him forget his vows.

“My visitors, in other respects, have been of the average sort. Four women have been delighted to make my acquaintancethree men have thought themselves in the presence of a superior being; one offered me twenty-five cents because I reached him the key of the museum. One woman has opened a correspondence with me, and several have told me that they knew friends of mine; two have spoken of me in small letters to small newspapers; one said he didn’t see me, and one said he did! I have become hardened to all; neither compliment nor quarter-dollar rouses any emotion. My fit of humility, which has troubled me all summer, is shaken, however, by the first cool breeze of autumn and the first walk taken without perspiration.

“Sep, 1854. On the evening of the 18th, while ‘sweeping,’ there came into the field the two nebulae in Ursa Major, which I have known for many a year, but which to my surprise now appeared to be three. The upper one, as seen from an inverting telescope, appeared double-headed, like one near the Dolphin, but much more decided than that, the space between the two heads being very plainly discernible and subtending a decided angle. The bright part of this object was clearly the old nebulabut what was the appendage? Had the nebula suddenly changed? Was it a comet, or was it merely a very fine night? Father decided at once for the comet; I hesitated, with my usual cowardice, and forbade his giving it a notice in the newspaper.

“I watched it from 8.30 to 11.30 almost without cessation, and was quite sure at 11.30 that its position had changed with regard to the neighboring stars. I counted its distance from the known nebula several times, but the whole affair was difficult, for there were flying clouds, and sometimes the nebula and comet were too indistinct to be definitely seen.

“The 19th was cloudy and the 20th the same, with the variety of occasional breaks, through which I saw the nebula, but not the comet.

“On the 21st came a circular, and behold Mr. Van Arsdale had seen it on the 13th, but had not been sure of it until the 15th, on account of the clouds.

“I was too well pleased with having really made the discovery to care because I was not first.

“Let the Dutchman have the reward of his sturdier frame and steadier nerves!

“Especially could I be a Christian because the 13th was cloudy, and more especially because I dreaded the responsibility of making the computations, nolens volens, which I must have done to be able to call it mine....

“I made observations for three hours last night, and am almost ill to-day from fatigue; still I have worked all day, trying to reduce the places, and mean to work hard again to-night.

“Sep, 1854. I began to recompute for the comet, with observations of Cambridge and Washington, to-day. I have had a fit of despondency in consequence of being obliged to renounce my own observations as too rough for use. The best that can be said of my life so far is that it has been industrious, and the best that can be said of me is that I have not pretended to what I was not.

“October 10. As soon as I had run through the computations roughly for the comet, so as to make up my mind that by my own observations (which were very wrong) the Perihelion was passed, and nothing more to be hoped for from observations, I seized upon a pleasant day and went to the Cape for an excursion. We went to Yarmouth, Sandwich, and Plymouth, enjoying the novelty of the new car-route. It really seemed like railway travelling on our own island, so much sand and so flat a country.

“The little towns, too, seemed quaint and odd, and the old gray cottages looked as if they belonged to the last century, and were waked from a long nap by the railway whistle.

“I thought Sandwich a beautiful, and Plymouth an interesting, town. I would fain have gone off into some poetical quotation, such as ’The breaking waves dashed high’ or ‘The Pilgrim fathers, where are they?’ but K., who had been there before, desired me not to be absurd, but to step quietly on to the half-buried rock and quietly off. Younger sisters know a deal, so I did as I was bidden to do, and it was just as well not to make myself hoarse without an appreciative audience.

“I liked the picture by Sargent in Pilgrim Hall, but seeing Plymouth on a mild, sunny day, with everything looking bright and pleasant, it was difficult to conceive of the landing of the Pilgrims as an event, or that the settling of such a charming spot required any heroism.

“The picture, of course, represents the dreariness of winter, and my feelings were moved by the chilled appearance of the little children, and the pathetic countenance of little Peregrine White, who, considering that he was born in the harbor, is wonderfully grown up before they are welcomed by Samoset. According to history little Peregrine was born about December 6 and Samoset met them about March 16; so he was three months old, but he is plainly a forward child, for he looks up very knowingly. Such a child had immortality thrust upon him from his birth. It must have had a deadening influence upon him to know that he was a marked man whether he did anything worthy of mark or not. He does not seem to have made any figure after his entrance into the world, though he must have created a great sensation when he came.

“October 17. I have just gone over my comet computations again, and it is humiliating to perceive how very little more I know than I did seven years ago when I first did this kind of work. To be sure, I have only once in the time computed a parabolic orbit; but it seems to me that I know no more in general. I think I am a little better thinker, that I take things less upon trust, but at the same time I trust myself much less. The world of learning is so broad, and the human soul is so limited in power! We reach forth and strain every nerve, but we seize only a bit of the curtain that hides the infinite from us.

“Will it really unroll to us at some future time? Aside from the gratification of the affections in another world, that of the intellect must be great if it is enlarged and its desires are the same.

“No, 1854. Yesterday James Freeman Clarke, the biographer of Margaret Fuller, came into the Atheneum. It was plain that he came to see me and not the institution.... He rushed into talk at once, mostly on people, and asked me about my astronomical labors. As it was a kind of flattery, I repaid it in kind by asking him about Margaret Fuller. He said she did not strike any one as a person of intellect or as a student, for all her faculties were kept so much abreast that none had prominence. I wanted to ask if she was a lovable person, but I did not think he would be an unbiassed judge, she was so much attached to him.

“De, 1854. The love of one’s own sex is precious, for it is neither provoked by vanity nor retained by flattery; it is genuine and sincere. I am grateful that I have had much of this in my life.

“The comet looked in upon us on the 29th. It made a twilight call, looking sunny and bright, as if it had just warmed itself in the equinoctial rays. A boy on the street called my attention to it, but I found on hurrying home that father had already seen it, and had ranged it behind buildings so as to get a rough position.

“It was piping cold, but we went to work in good earnest that night, and the next night on which we could see it, which was not until April.

“I was dreadfully busy, and a host of little annoyances crowded upon me. I had a good star near it in the field of my comet-seeker, but what star?

“On that rested everything, and I could not be sure even from the catalogue, for the comet and the star were so much in the twilight that I could get no good neighboring stars. We called it Arietes, or 707.

“Then came a waxing moon, and we waxed weary in trying to trace the fainter and fainter comet in the mists of twilight and the glare of moonlight.

“Next I broke a screw of my instrument, and found that no screw of that description could be bought in the town.

“I started off to find a man who could make one, and engaged him to do so the next day. The next day was Fast Day; all the world fasted, at least from labor.

“However, the screw was made, and it fitted nicely. The clouds cleared, and we were likely to have a good night. I put up my instrument, but scarcely had the screw-driver touched the new screw than out it flew from its socket, rolled along the floor of the ‘walk,’ dropped quietly through a crack into the gutter of the house-roof. I heard it click, and felt very much like using language unbecoming to a woman’s mouth.

“I put my eye down to the crack, but could not see it. There was but one thing to be done,the floor-boards must come up. I got a hatchet, but could do nothing. I called father; he brought a crowbar and pried up the board, then crawled under it and found the screw. I took good care not to lose it a second time.

“The instrument was fairly mounted when the clouds mounted to keep it company, and the comet and I again parted.

“In all observations, the blowing out of a light by a gust of wind is a very common and very annoying accident; but I once met with a much worse one, for I dropped a chronometer, and it rolled out of its box on to the ground. We picked it up in a great panic, but it had not even altered its rate, as we found by later observations.

“The glaring eyes of the cat, who nightly visited me, were at one time very annoying, and a man who climbed up a fence and spoke to me, in the stillness of the small hours, fairly shook not only my equanimity, but the pencil which I held in my hand. He was quite innocent of any intention to do me harm, but he gave me a great fright.

“The spiders and bugs which swarm in my observing-houses I have rather an attachment for, but they must not crawl over my recording-paper. Rats are my abhorrence, and I learned with pleasure that some poison had been placed under the transit-house.

“One gets attached (if the term may be used) to certain midnight apparitions. The Aurora Borealis is always a pleasant companion; a meteor seems to come like a messenger from departed spirits; and the blossoming of trees in the moonlight becomes a sight looked for with pleasure.

“Aside from the study of astronomy, there is the same enjoyment in a night upon the housetop, with the stars, as in the midst of other grand scenery; there is the same subdued quiet and grateful seriousness; a calm to the troubled spirit, and a hope to the desponding.

“Even astronomers who are as well cared for as are those of Cambridge have their annoyances, and even men as skilled as they are make blunders.

“I have known one of the Bonds, with great effort, turn that huge telescope down to the horizon to make an observation upon a blazing comet seen there, and when he had found it in his glass, find also that it was not a comet, but the nebula of Andromeda, a cluster of stars on which he had spent much time, and which he had made a special object of study.

“De, 1854. They were wonderful men, the early astronomers. That was a great conception, which now seems to us so simple, that the earth turns upon its axis, and a still greater one that it revolves about the sun (to show this last was worth a man’s lifetime, and it really almost cost the life of Galileo). Somehow we are ready to think that they had a wider field than we for speculation, that truth being all unknown it was easier to take the first step in its paths. But is the region of truth limited? Is it not infinite?... We know a few things which were once hidden, and being known they seem easy; but there are the flashings of the Northern Lights’Across the lift they start and shift;’ there is the conical zodiacal beam seen so beautifully in the early evenings of spring and the early mornings of autumn; there are the startling comets, whose use is all unknown; there are the brightening and flickering variable stars, whose cause is all unknown; and the meteoric showersand for all of these the reasons are as clear as for the succession of day and night; they lie just beyond the daily mist of our minds, but our eyes have not yet pierced through it.”