Wiggins' Storm

In September 1882 a letter was published, in the Ottawa Citizen:

A great storm will strike this planet on the 9th of March next. It will first be felt in the Northern Pacific, and will cross the meridian of Ottawa at noon (5 o’clock p.m. London time) of Sunday, March 11th, 1883. No vessel smaller than a Cunarder will be able to live in this tempest. India, the South of Europe, England, and especially the North American continent, will be the theatre of its ravages. As all the low lands on the Atlantic will be submerged, I advise shipbuilders to place their prospective vessels high upon the stocks, and farmers having loose valuables, as hay, cattle, etc., to remove them to a place of safety. I beg further most respectfully to appeal to the honourable Minister of Marine that he will peremptorily order up the storm drums on all the Canadian coast not later than the 20th of February, and thus permit no vessel to leave harbour. If this is not done hundreds of lives will be lost and millions’ worth of property destroyed.

The warning, by E. Stone Wiggins, was carried by the Associated Press, and appeared in newspapers in the United States and Europe. Wiggins wrote to various promient people and organizations conveying his warning, and published "Wiggins Storm Herald, with Almanac."

As the date for the predicted catastrophe approached, newspaper coverage intensified.

The New York Times poured scorn when a storm he predicted for February 9th failed to appear.

Fishermen refused to go to sea.

When a gale stuck on March 6th, Wiggins was asked if his storm had come early. He replied it was "one of the celestial warriors running to battle… moving to position to join with the great storm.", and reiterated that he was expecting the greatest possible storm on this planet.

Advertisers took advantage of the hype.

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Advertisements from the Ottawa Citizen, March 12, 1883

Did Wiggins storm come?  Winds attained 38 miles per hour at Halifax and 47 mph at Yarmouth, virtually the same as for the gale a few days earlier.

The Hamilton Times wrote editorially: "If Wiggins had merely promised an ordinary March blow, as a result of his consulting the planets, no one could have found fault with him. As in the majority of past years, the weather has been stormy for a few days back, but no great damage has resulted, and the terrible calamities prophesied by the assistant of Sir Leonard Tilley are nowhere evident. Wiggins has no more right to claim verification of his prognostications because the weather was squally on Friday and Saturday last than the Times would have to credit prescience if it now asserted that the dog days would come in July and August."

A few weeks later Wiggins made his own assessment, greeted with more scorn by the New York Times.

 


Ottawa’s Weather Prophet

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Ezekiel Stone Wiggins was born in the Grand Lake area of New Brunswick on December 4th, 1839, the son of Daniel Slocum Wiggins and Elizabeth Titus Stone, both of United Empire Loyalist descent. He received secondary education in Ontario, and probably remained to become a teacher in Mariposa township — it was from there he married his cousin, Susan Anna Wiggins in 1862. In 1864 he published "The Architecture of the Heavens" proposing the unusual theory that there is no light in interplanetary space, only in the atmosphere of the planets. This led him to conclude that "worlds may revolve near us, but having no atmosphere may be forever hidden from the view of the astronomer." "Universalism Unfounded" followed in 1867 advocating a literal interpretation of the Bible.

He taught in Ingersoll, Oxford County, and was first principal of the Institute for the Education of the Blind in Brantford from 1871 to 1874. Following his father’s death in 1873 he returned to New Brunswick and established his own school for boys in Saint John. He became politically active, unsuccessfully running for political office, then moved to Ottawa and a job with the Federal Finance Department.

Wiggins avocation became storm prophecy and starting in 1881 he earned an international reputation..

His most widely known prophecy, for a March 1883 storm, was a public event, if not a successful prediction.

He refined his prediction techniques, and wrote to the New York Tribune on June 3rd 1884 postulating the existence of one or more invisible moons in order to explain deficiencies in his forecasts. A rebuff from the scientific community came in an editorial in The American Meteorological Journal:

"Mr. Wiggins assumes that weather and earthquakes depend on the moon and, when the moon will not do the work required of it, he freely adds another moon or two. Evidently the method is capable of indefinite expansion; a hundred invisible moons can be added if necessary, and with these he can account for anything. The simplicity and adaptability of this method needs no further illustration. We note that an additional advantage is that it disposes of all anxious labor and worry which most scientific investigators have to go through in adjusting their theories to known principles. We proceed, with sincere regret, to deprive Mr. Wiggins of the right of priority to his method. The fact is that it has been employed by operators of his class from time immemorial. But, though he loses his priority in discovery and method, he can not be deprived of the colossal imagination nor of the heroic contempt for logic, which are displayed with unmistakable clearness in his whole letter and in his previous publications, and his graceful disregard of the usually accepted principles of science are worthy of our highest admiration."

He persisted with storm forecasts but evidently became disillusioned with his lack of success. For a while Wiggins dropped into relative obscurity. He built a home in Britannia Bay, an Ottawa suburb, and served as President of the local yacht club.

In the 1900s he regained some prominence being quoted on various subjects in the Ottawa media. Headlines included "Professor Wiggins says the Sun is Inhabited", "Second Moon in the Heavens Responsible for Cold Weather in the Opinion of Prof. Wiggins". The Toronto Star responded: "Prof. Wiggins claims to have seen two moons lately, but lots of people in Ottawa get that way every night."

Wiggins remained a public servant with the Finance Department until two years before his death in 1910.  Newspapers were factual in their obituaries, emphasizing the positive --  "one of the most unique figures to come before the public eye in Canada."

In later years articles with titles like "Weather Seer Still Not Matched" gave a rosy picture of his weather prophecies —"tornadoes and blizzards which he pinpointed … struck precisely when and where he warned!"

 


Newspaper Coverage

New York Times: Saturday, February 10 1883

WIGGINS

Of course WIGGINS’S storm was a failure. Every sensible person knew that it was impossible that WIGGINS could foresee weeks in advance what sort of weather we should have on a given day. Nevertheless, there were thousands of people who, prior to yesterday, has a lurking faith in WIGGINS, and thought that perhaps he might be a true prophet. What WIGGINS really did was to take the chances that in a particularly stormy month there would be a storm on a given day. A timid prophet would have hedged, and instead of prophesying a storm on the 9th of February, would have prophesied a storm between the 7th and the 12th of the month. Such a prophet would very likely have hit the truth, but he would have received little credit for it, since nobody expects five consecutive days of pleasant weather in February. WIGGINS, on the other hand, selected the 9th of February, and no other day, as the date of his particular storm, knowing that if there should be a storm on that day his reputation would be made and no argument could shake the public faith in him. Had his prediction been fulfilled, probably half the people in this country would have believed in the terrible storm which he has also predicted for some day in March, and the approach of that day would have caused a real panic. WIGGINS knew that VENNOR had fallen into disrepute by making too cautious prophecies, and he resolved to stake everything on the success of a single prediction. Fortunately for the public peace of mind, he has failed, and henceforth he may prophesy ten hours a day without getting anybody to pay attention to him or to buy the almanac which bears his name.

The most curious feature of the WIGGINS incident – to speak after the manner of Frenchmen – is the unquestioning faith which the public has placed in the existence of WIGGINS. Even those who have doubted his prophecies have never doubted his existence. That there is some one who wrote the original WIGGINS prophecy of storms in March and February is undoubtedly true, for nothing – except, perhaps, a political speech in defense of protection – writes itself. But to believe that this unknown and utterly obscure writer of a newspaper paragraph is a great Canadian astronomer named WIGGINS, with a real telescope and a practical familiarity with transits of Venus, is impossible to any thinking man.

In the first place, "Wiggins" is clearly impossible. Even DICKENS could not make people believe in the existence of "Stiggins," and though the man would have been thought probable had he been called by almost any other name, he has always been regarded as a wild caricature simply because of his improbable name. There may be a "Higgins" who is an astronomer, and it is barely possible that there is a "Biggins" engaged say, in the livery-stable business, or possibly in the tinware trade. But when we are called upon to believe in a "Wiggins," too great a demand is made upon our credulity. No child crushed under the name of Wiggins could possibly reach maturity. Such a name would crush all ambition and interest in life out of a boy, and if by a chance a boy Wiggins ever did arrive at a man’s estate he would lose no time in formally changing his name and adopting a new one less offensive to decency and more worthy of belief.

Granting, for the sake of argument, that a Wiggins is possible, how can any one permit himself to believe in the existence of an astronomer Wiggins? An astronomer is a man who is sent at the cost of the nation on scientific picnics in connection with the transits of Venus, and who employs his time between successive transits in discovering new asteroids. No Wiggins ever went on an astronomical picnic. The astronomers engaged in such recreation are naturally careful in the selection of their associates. It is necessary that the public should believe that astronomy and not "junketing" is the ruling passion of observers of transits, and hence astronomers always wear names which give them an air of respectability. The presence of a Wiggins in a transit expedition would throw suspicion on the whole affair People would instantly say that the person calling himself Wiggins was clearly passing under an assumed name, and that instead of being a learned astronomer, he was, in all probability, a faro-dealer or a cornet-player hired by the real astronomers to aid in making their hours of relaxation pleasant. No person called Wiggins ever took part in a transit picnic, and hence we are very nearly justified in concluding that there is no astronomer of that name.

Moreover, the records of science may be challenged in vain to produce a single asteroid discovered by WIGGINS. The names of the discoverers of asteroids can be found in almost any almanac, but the name of WIGGINS is not among them, This pretended astronomer with the impossible name has never observed a transit of Venus, never discovered an asteroid, never quarrelled with another astronomer over the discovery of a new comet, and, in short, never given any signs of astronomical existence. The conclusion that there is no such astronomer as WIGGINS is inevitable, and it is a conclusion that every one ought to have arrived at long ago.

The impudence of the alleged WIGGINS is so great as to almost atone for his existence. The newspaper paragraph writer who conceived the idea of calling himself WIGGINS, of pretending to be an astronomer, and of prophesying a terrible storm for a fixed date has every qualification for making a brilliant success either as a plumber, a book agent, or a Congressman employed by Mr. ROACH to build up American shipping by forbidding Americans to own ships.

New York Times: Thursday, Feb 22, 1883

Scared by a Weather Prophet

GLOUCESTER, M, Feb 21.—Wiggins’s prediction of a terrible storm from March 9 to 12 has deterred a number of Captains and crews (returned Georges Banks men) from making the next trip, which would bring them on the Banks at the time of the storm. The women are urging the men to stay at home, and it is feared that the idleness will become general among the Georges men, and the best time in the season for a good catch will be lost.

New York Times: Wednesday May 2, 1883

THE GHOST OF WIGGINS

STONE WIGGINS, the Canadian seer, astrologist, and weather prophet, rises superior to fate. He would have us believe that he is really a WIGGINS, and actuary, and not a mere abstraction. He has written a letter, dated at OTTAWA, April 27, 1883, and sent out in proof-slips to the newspapers of the United States. This document is signed "E. STONE WIGGINS," as if this were the name of a real person. It has repeatedly been proved, to the complete satisfaction of scientific persons of various nationalities, and of various degrees of dullness, that there never was a WIGGINS. And even admitting, for the sake of illustration, that a man bearing that remarkable name did actually exist in science, it was demonstrated tot he satisfaction of the majority of the human race that if there was a WIGGINS, and he did really write prophecies which bore his name, he should have been called ANANIAS and not E. STONE. Nevertheless, here comes this preposterous person, claiming to be E. STONE WIGGINS, and pretending that his lying prophecies were fulfilled. We sometimes hear of a variety of assurance known as "brazen check." This is an example of adamant.

The special occasion for the appearance of the letter from the alleged WIGGINS is a proposition to make the usual annual appropriation for the Canadian Meteorological Bureau. Meteorological bureaus, WIGGINS incidentally remarks, are a failure, because they are "utterly unable to predict a single hour in advance the approach of a great and dangerous storm." This is a heavy indictment of meteorological bureaus. Without stopping to inquire as to its truth, we must see that the only safety of a world lying in meteorological darkness and ignorance is WIGGINS. Of what avail is it that the meteorological bureaus watch the course of storms, and note the variations of the wind gauge and the barometer? WIGGINS says that all of these are rubbish. One must study the stars and observe the planetary forces, if he would know what weather to expect from day to day. Our costly apparatus, the telegraphic lines that convey observations from point to point with the rapidity of lightning, and all the paraphernalia which scientific men have invented to grasp the subtle influences pervading the earth and its atmosphere, must be discarded. What we really need is a multiplication of WIGGINSES. In place of Signal Service observers, we should have a WIGGINS at each available station. The, and not until then, we shall be able to forecast the weather.

But the sublimity of assurance is reached when WIGGINS calmly proceeds to characterize his predicted cataclysm of March 9,10 and 11 as an accomplished fact. Canadian frigidity can be no cooler than this. The Wiggins prophecy is not yet two moons old. Even the tender children have not forgotten the direful catastrophes which the Canadian seer declared would fall upon this devoted sphere. There was to be a double procession of storms travelling across this continent from the Pacific to the Atlantic; tidal waves in the Indian Ocean and the bay of Bengal; tornadoes, hurricanes, and things generally going to everlasting smash. There was the usual harmless March gale. A vessel was wrecked, as vessels are wrecked every day in the year, and an old lady on the Bay of Chaleurs lost a whole week’s washing by the blow. And now, when, several greater and unheralded (by WIGGINS) storms have come and gone, WIGGINS lifts up his voice as blithely as if he not been threatened with death by the angry sea-farers whom he deceived. He chatters about the earth’s centre of gravity, the moon’s conjunction with the sun, and the attractive powers of heavenly bodies. WIGGINS lags superfluous. If there ever was a Wiggins, he is dead and buried fathoms deep. It is a gross impertinence that he should revisit the pale glimpses of the moon which he has slandered, His bones are marrowless; there is no speculation in his almanac,

© 1999-2001, John D. Reid

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