Faces Behind the Façades

Peters Observatory

Christian Henry Frederic Peters came to Hamilton in 1858 to head the observatory, bringing to the faculty its first Ph.D. and a colorful past. As reported in Walter Pilkington’s history of the College: “In 1848 he fought with Garibaldi in the revolt against the king of Naples.When the uprising failed, he fled to Malta. On his return to Sicily the following year, the fall of Palermo sent him fleeing to France and thence to Constantinople. The sultan was about to send him on a scientific expedition to Syria and Palestine when the Crimean War intervened. Peters then came to the United States where he worked for a time at the Dudley Observatory in Albany.”

Recognized worldwide for his discovery of asteroids, he was known on campus more for his exploits than for his teaching. “Although several of his students did indeed specialize in astronomy and attained high positions in the field,” Pilkington noted, “most of them remembered only the occasions on which young ladies from the female seminaries in the village came to the observatory to look at the stars through the telescope — with the boys climbing over the roof and hanging their hats on the great equatorial to blot out the stars until Peters, brandishing a pistol, chased them away.”

Just prior to his death in 1890, Peters became involved in a then celebrated lawsuit. He had planned to create a catalogue of stars and enlisted the help of Charles A. Borst, a former student. Borst spent several years completing the project and sought equal, if not more, credit for the work. Peters filed a lawsuit, and the case was tried in the State Supreme Court in Utica with none other than Elihu Root acting for Peters. The judge ruled in Peters’ favor; however, Borst appealed, and Peters died before a new trial could be scheduled.

After his death, the observatory fell into disrepair and was demolished in 1918. The Peters Observatory was built in 1975 and named in his honor.

Christian Henry Frederic Peters
Christian Henry Frederic Peters

Contact Information

Stacey Himmelberger

Editor, Hamilton Alumni Review
198 College Hill Road
Clinton, NY 13323
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