This post was written by cataloger Catherine Falzone.
The American Historical Manuscript Collection (AHMC) contains a wealth of manuscript materials by Americans both famous and obscure. For April’s “AHMC of the Month,” we turn to someone from the latter category: amateur astronomer James H. Gardiner (approximately 1845-1889) of Newburgh, N.Y.
In a letter to James Wells from March 12, 1863, a teenage Gardiner reproduces an article from a local newspaper that describes his discovery of a comet that he observed at Newburgh on January 23 and February 14, 1863. Harvard astronomer George Phillips Bond (1825-1865) had confirmed in a letter from Feb. 28, 1863, that Gardiner is “beyond doubt the discoverer,” and had requested to see his calculations. Gardiner claims to have been upset that this article appeared in the newspaper without his knowledge or consent—a “geological society” he belonged to had it printed because the members thought he would be too modest to do so himself. But as he has reproduced the article in full for his friend, and writes about trying to track down copies for himself, perhaps he was not as modest as the geological society thought. He closes his letter with the (probably tongue-in-cheek) phrase “I remain your persecuted Galileo.”
This letter also displays Gardiner’s sense of humor. A fire in a Newburgh cotton factory resulted in frozen pieces of cotton sticking to firefighters’ wet coats, as he shows in his drawing. Apparently this looked so funny that Wells would have laughed so hard that he would’ve “wet [him]self” and felt like he “had been eating ginger bread for a week.”
Gardiner’s keen interest in astronomical and meteorological observation is clear in the detailed weather notebook he kept for 1866. In the page below for April 1866, he carefully noted the hygrometer and barometer readings for each day, along with observations of the clouds, wind, and rain. On this day 150 years ago, the temperature reached 72 degrees Fahrenheit and dropped to 38.
Based on observations by G. Kimball, Gardiner gives dates for the blossoming and ripening of fruits for 1866: currant bushes, plum trees, strawberries, muskmelons, grapes, crab apples, chestnuts, etc. He also records the dates and times of rainbows, the depth of snow; instances of fogs, sheet lightning, and aurora borealis; and the abundance of locusts and grasshoppers.
This collection would be of interest to someone researching amateur scientists in New York State, comet sightings, or the weather for a certain day in 1866, or for anyone who wants to imagine what it is like to fight a fire while an astronomer laughs at you.
Cataloging of the American Historical Manuscript Collection (AHMC), a group of 12,000 small and unique manuscript collections, is made possible by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, the Peck Stacpoole Foundation, and the Pine Tree Foundation of New York.