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Radio Listeners in Panic

Radio Listeners in Panic

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Published by Rob Melton

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Published by: Rob Melton on May 11, 2009
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking WarDrama as Fact
This article appeared in the New York Times on Oct. 31, 1938.
A wave of mass hysteria seizedthousands of radio listeners between8:15 and 9:30 o'clock last night when abroadcast of a dramatization of H. G.Wells's fantasy, "The War of the Worlds,"led thousands to believe that aninterplanetary conflict had started withinvading Martians spreading wide deathand destruction in New Jersey and New York. The broadcast, which disruptedhouseholds, interrupted religiousservices, created traffic jams andclogged communications systems, wasmade by Orson Welles, who as the radiocharacter, "The Shadow," used to give"the creeps" to countless child listeners. This time at least a score of adultsrequired medical treatment for shockand hysteria.In Newark, in a single block atHeddon Terrace and Hawthorne Avenue,more than twenty families rushed out of their houses with wet handkerchiefs andtowels over their faces to flee from whatthey believed was to be a gas raid.Some began moving householdfurniture. Throughout New York families lefttheir homes, some to flee to near-byparks. Thousands of persons called thepolice, newspapers and radio stationshere and in other cities of the UnitedStates and Canada seeking advice onprotective measures against the raids. The program was produced by Mr.Welles and the Mercury Theatre on theAir over station WABC and the ColumbiaBroadcasting System's coast-to-coastnetwork, from 8 to 9 o'clock. The radio play, as presented, was tosimulate a regular radio program with a"break-in" for the material of the play. The radio listeners, apparently, missedor did not listen to the introduction,which was: "The Columbia BroadcastingSystem and its affiliated stationspresent Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre on the Air in 'The War of theWorlds' by H. G. Wells." They also failed to associate theprogram with the newspaper listening of the program, announced as "Today:8:00-9:00—Play: H. G. Wells's 'War of the Worlds'—WABC." They ignored threeadditional announcements made duringthe broadcast emphasizing its fictionalnature.Mr. Welles opened the program witha description of the series of which it isa part. The simulated program began. Aweather report was given, prosaically.An announcer remarked that theprogram would be continued from ahotel, with dance music. For a fewmoments a dance program was given inthe usual manner. Then there was a"break-in" with a "flash" about aprofessor at an observatory noting aseries of gas explosions on the planetMars.News bulletins and scene broadcastsfollowed, reporting, with the techniquein which the radio had reported actualevents, the landing of a "meteor" nearPrinceton N. J., "killing" 1,500 persons,the discovery that the "meteor" was a"metal cylinder" containing strangecreatures from Mars armed with "deathrays" to open hostilities against theinhabitants of the earth.Despite the fantastic nature of thereported "occurrences," the program,coming after the recent war scare inEurope and a period in which the radiofrequently had interrupted regularlyscheduled programs to reportdevelopments in the Czechoslovaksituation, caused fright and panicthroughout the area of the broadcast. Telephone lines were tied up with
calls from listeners or persons who hadheard of the broadcasts. Many soughtfirst to verify the reports. But largenumbers, obviously in a state of terror,asked how they could follow thebroadcast's advice and flee from thecity, whether they would be safer in the"gas raid" in the cellar or on the roof,how they could safeguard their children,and many of the questions which hadbeen worrying residents of London andParis during the tense days before theMunich agreement.So many calls came to newspapersand so many newspapers found itadvisable to check on the reportsdespite their fantastic content that TheAssociated Press sent out the followingat 8:48 P. M.:"Note to Editors: Queries tonewspapers from radio listenersthroughout the United States tonight,regarding a reported meteor fall whichkilled a number of New Jerseyites, arethe result of a studio dramatization. TheA. P."Similarly police teletype systemscarried notices to all stationhouses, andpolice short-wave radio stations notifiedpolice radio cars that the event wasimaginary.
Message From the Police
 The New York police sent out thefollowing:"To all receivers: Station WABCinforms us that the broadcast justconcluded over that station was adramatization of a play. No cause foralarm." The New Jersey State Policeteletyped the following:"Note to all receiversWABCbroadcast as drama re this sectionbeing attacked by residents of Mars.Imaginary affair."From one New York theatre amanager reported that a throng of playgoers had rushed from his theatreas a result of the broadcast. He saidthat the wives of two men in theaudience, having heard the broadcast,called the theatre and insisted that theirhusbands be paged. This spread the"news" to others in the audience. The switchboard of 
The New YorTimes
was overwhelmed by the calls. Atotal of 875 were received. One manwho called from Dayton, Ohio, asked,"What time will it be the end of theworld?" A caller from the suburbs saidhe had had a houseful of guests and allhad rushed out to the yard for safety.Warren Dean, a member of theAmerican Legion living in Manhattan,who telephoned to verify the "reports,"expressed indignation which was typicalof that of many callers."I've heard a lot of radio programs,but I've never heard anything as rottenas that," Mr. Dean said. "It was toorealistic for comfort. They broke into adance program with a news flash.Everybody in my house was agitated bythe news. It went on just like press radionews."At 9 o'clock a woman walked into theWest Forty-seventh Street police stationdragging two children, all carrying extraclothing. She said she was ready toleave the city. Police persuaded her tostay.A garbled version of the reportsreached the Dixie Bus terminal, causingofficials there to prepare to change theirschedule on confirmation of "news" of an accident at Princeton on their New Jersey route. Miss Dorothy Brown at theterminal sought verification, however,when the caller refused to talk with thedispatcher, explaining to here that "theworld is coming to an end and I have alot to do."
Harlem Shaken By the "News"
Harlem was shaken by the "news." Thirty men and women rushed into theWest 123d Street police station andtwelve into the West 135th Streetstation saying they had their householdgoods packed and were all ready toleave Harlem if the police would tellthem where to go to be "evacuated."One man insisted he had heard "the
President's voice" over the radioadvising all citizens to leave the cities. The parlor churches in the Negrodistrict, congregations of the smallersects meeting on the ground floors of brownstone houses, took the "news" instride as less faithful parishionersrushed in with it, seeking spiritualconsolation. Evening services became"end of the world" prayer meetings insome.One man ran into the WadsworthAvenue Police Station in WashingtonHeights, white with terror, crossing theHudson River and asking what heshould do. A man came in to the West152d Street Station, seeking trafficdirections. The broadcast became arumor that spread through the districtand many persons stood on streetcorners hoping for a sight of the "battle"in the skies.In Queens the principal questionasked of the switchboard operators atPolice Headquarters was whether "thewave of poison gas will reach as far asQueens." Many said they were allpacked up and ready to leave Queenswhen told to do so.Samuel Tishman of 100 RiversideDrive was one of the multitude that fledinto the street after hearing part of theprogram. He declared that hundreds of persons evacuated their homes fearingthat the "city was being bombed.""I came home at 9:15 P.M. just intime to receive a telephone call from mynephew who was frantic with fear. Hetold me the city was about to bebombed from the air and advised me toget out of the building at once. I turnedon the radio and heard the broadcastwhich corroborated what my nephewhad said, grabbed my hat and coat anda few personal belongings and ran tothe elevator. When I got to the streetthere were hundreds of people millingaround in panic. Most of us ran towardBroadway and it was not until westopped taxi drivers who had heard theentire broadcast on their radios that weknew what it was all about. It was themost asinine stunt I ever heard of.""I heard that broadcast and almosthad a heart attack," said Louis Winklerof 1,322 Clay Avenue, the Bronx. "Ididn't tune it in until the program washalf over, but when I heard the namesand titles of Federal, State andmunicipal officials and when the'Secretary of the Interior' wasintroduced, I was convinced it was theMcCoy. I ran out into the street withscores of others, and found peoplerunning in all directions. The wholething came over as a news broadcastand in my mind it was a pretty crummything to do." The Telegraph Bureau switchboard atpolice headquarters in Manhattan,operated by thirteen men, was soswamped with calls from apprehensivecitizens inquiring about the broadcastthat police business was seriouslyinterfered with.Headquarters, unable to reach theradio station by telephone, sent a radiopatrol car there to ascertain the reasonfor the reaction to the program. Whenthe explanation was given, a policemessage was sent to all precincts in thefive boroughs advising the commandsof the cause.
"They're Bombing New Jersey!"
Patrolman John Morrison was on dutyat the switchboard in the Bronx PoliceHeadquarters when, as he afterwardexpressed it, all the lines became busyat once. Among the first who answeredwas a man who informed him:"They're bombing New Jersey!""How do you know?" PatrolmanMorrison inquired."I heard it on the radio," the voice atthe other end of the wire replied. "ThenI went to the roof and I could see thesmoke from the bombs, drifting overtoward New York. What shall I do?" The patrolman calmed the caller aswell as he could, then answered otherinquiries from persons who wanted toknow whether the reports of a

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