Copyright 2007 Starry Mirror and Glen Ward

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He recalled being in the desert searching for treasure when he saw two elephants and some people he didn't recognize. Then they vanished and he saw a woman and a child. The woman vanished and a cat appeared. Then he remembered being in a van and going to a hotel room with no glass in the windows. A loud sound forced him toward the window, and a voice said, "let's go to the beach."


Burnham recovered somewhat in his sister's mobile home, but he refused to seek work and his royalty checks were miniscule. He pinned his hopes on a Japanese version of his book, which he believed would bring him at least $10,000. After much waiting, the check arrived, and it was for only $500. Burnham was devastated.


In May 1986, Burnham disappeared for good. His sisters had no idea of where he had gone.


In the late 1980's and early '90's, an old man in San Diego would set up shop along the beach and sell paintings of cats which he had made. He looked like any other bum any made little effort to sell the paintings. He attended lectures at a local planetarium, but the staff there had no idea they had an astronomy superstar in their midst. Burnham's shy personality made it impossible for him to capitalize off of his well-known name, and to top it off another Robert Burnham was then editor of Astronomy magazine. Most people assumed that the giant Handbook had been written by the latter Burnham.


On March 9, 1993, Burnham entered San Diego's Mercy Hospital. He suffered from a host of ailments, foremost of which were advanced heart disease and gangrene of the foot. On March 20, he died. A check of the Social Security number revealed he was a veteran, and his ashes were interred in a military cemetary. The name on the headstone was mispelled.


Burnham's sisters didn't find out that their brother was dead until two years later. A private detective searched for his Social Security number and found that he had died.


Senior Editor Glen Ward had this to say about Robert Burham : "When I read the handbooks, I imagined being Burnham, with a full time job at the Lowell Observatory, observing the sky every night, and I expected that he surely had lived a perfect life. The reality was far different."


Perhaps Burnham's own words to Sky & Telescope Magazine in 1982 can best sum up his life, and the lives of many like him in a country like the United States : "I have devoted over two decades of my life to astronomy, and my Celestial Handbook has been called a modern classic. I am the discoverer of six comets, not to mention thousands of new proper-motion stars, which my colleagues and I found during a 21-year proper-motion survey at Lowell Observatory. As a result of all these accomplishments, my income has rarely risen much above the poverty level. . . ."