My informant is fond of this superstition because of his love of astronomy. It was passed to him by a friend, who received it from his mother. They lived in Denver, Colorado, at the time.
This superstition originated and probably only existed during the passage of Halley’s comet in 1910. The mother of my informant’s friend was around 5 or 6 years old when the superstition was being practiced.
“It was believed throughout history that comets were a sign of doom and destruction. Halley’s comet was pretty spectacular in 1910–it was really impressive. And scientifically they knew at the time that the comet’s tail was releasing cyanide gas. But people were afraid of being gassed by cyanide from the comet’s tail, so at night they would put wet towels under their doors and windows to protect themselves from it.
This superstition around the passage of Halley’s comet gives us an interesting look into how the American public uses scientific information. My informant tells me that in 1910, during the passing of the comet, scientists had already figured out that its tail was releasing cyanide gas and that the release of this gas would have no effect on us. Instead of using the information they were given to make an informed choice, the people of Denver started the practice of protecting themselves with wet towels because it gave them a false sense of security. I find this interesting because it relates to issues we face in present times, with people who publicly argue against the COVID-19 vaccine. These people are given the same information as everyone else but refuse to acknowledge the science behind vaccines and take cover behind the illusion that they’re safer without it. The most comical thing, however, is that if Halley’s comet were to poison people with its cyanide release, they would have all died anyway. After all, the comet was present in the daytime during its passage, too.