Radio hoax caused panic Drama: Listeners believed 'War of the Worlds' broadcast was a report of a real Martian invasion.


Oct. 30, 1938, was a typical cool autumn Sunday as Baltimoreans relished the news that Hopkins had defeated Haverford College, 7-6, after Charlie Rudo scored on an 80-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. On the other hand, Navy and Penn had slugged it out through four grinding periods to a scoreless tie.

Headlines in The Sun promised that the War Admiral-Seabiscuit match race that Tuesday would open a "Brilliant Meeting" at Pimlico Race Course, while Brenda Frazier, New York's "glamour deb," had attended the Velvet Ball that weekend.

The news from abroad was unsettling, as England's Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain attempted to "satisfy Germany's renewed colonial demands."

After dinner, as Baltimoreans turned on their radios, the prime-time selection at 8 p.m. included "Edgar Bergen, ventriloquist: Charlie McCarthy; Don Ameche, director" on WFBR with "Out of the West" on WBAL and the "Westminster Presbyterian Church" airing over WCBM.

For the more adventuresome was Orson Welles' Mercury Theater of the Air presentation of H. G. Wells' novel "The War of the Worlds," carried locally by WCAO.

It would prove to be a historic hour of radio that perpetrated a colossal Halloween joke on gullible radio listeners from coast to coast and managed to scare the daylights out of most of them.

After a routine weather forecast, the announcer said, "We take you now to the Meridian Room in the Park Plaza in downtown New York for the music of Ramon Raquello and his orchestra."

As the music started, the announcer broke in with a bulletin.

"We interrupt our program of dance music to bring you a special bulletin from the Intercontinental Radio News. Twenty minutes before 8, Professor Farrell, of the Mount Jennings Observatory, Chicago, Ill., reports observing several explosions of incandescent gas occurring at regular intervals on the planet Mars."

An object was reported "moving toward the Earth with enormous velocity, like a jet of blue gas shot from a gun."

The announcer concluded by saying, "We return you now to our New York studio."

Despite the announcement at the beginning of the broadcast -- later repeated four times -- that it was an adaptation and dramatization of "The War of the Worlds," the panic was on.

Another interruption featured a report from Princeton, N.J., where a "scientist" attempted to explain the phenomenon. Dance music and more bulletins followed, with increasing frequency until an announcer on the spot said that a "giant tube of metal" had landed in Grover's Mills, N.J.

His incredulous voice intoned, "Look! The darn thing's unscrewing. Keep back I tell you. Maybe there's men in it. It's red hot. Keep those idiots back."

Suddenly, the Martians began crawling out with "death-ray guns" in their hands and killed 200 as "a heavy black fog -- of extreme density, nature unknown," headed toward New York City.

And now the show took on the tone of a breaking news story.

"The governor of New Jersey has declared martial law," and then a reporter in New York City declared, "All communications with New Jersey are closed. Our Army wiped out. Cylinders from Mars are falling all over the country. One outside Buffalo, another Chicago -- St. Louis. The bells you hear ringing are to warn the people to evacuate the city as the Martians approach."

"Just as the continent was 'toppling' into oblivion, the real announcer cut in to explain that the audience had been listening to a dramatization of Wells' book," reported The Evening Sun the next day.

However, the panic showed no signs of abatement.

Donald Kirkley, Sunpapers' drama critic, recalled the events of that night in a 1957 article in The Sun.

"I answered an insistent ringing of the doorbell, and was confronted by a white-faced, shaking lady who occupied the next apartment. 'New Jersey is being attacked by Martians,' she assured me. 'Everybody is being killed. I heard it on the radio -- on a newscast. You work for the Sunpapers -- please do tell me what to do.' "

"I started shaking, too, and made a bee-line for the telephone," wrote Kirkley.

"A long minute went by before I was connected with The Sun's operator. She was tired already from repeating what was to be repeated for another two hours: 'It was only a radio play. There has been no invasion. It was only make-believe,' " he wrote.

Before they ceased keeping count, 550 panicky and hysterical calls had been received by the newspapers' operators. They eventually stopped saying "Hello" and merely answered, "It's a radio show."

A Mount Pleasant Avenue resident raced into the street and screamed words that echoed all over the nation: "The world is coming to an end! I just heard it on the radio!"

The Eastern Shore town of Preston was "gripped by mass hysteria," while a Baltimore couple vainly tried to reach their daughter by telephone in New York. When the line suddenly went dead, the man shouted, "My God, it's true." His wife fainted.

The Sun's headline the next day captured the nation's sentiments: "Thousands Flee, Pray And Weep As Radio War Play Panics U.S."

While Federal Communications Commission chairman Frank P. McNinch called for an investigation into the broadcast, Orson Welles, who declared himself "just stunned by the reaction," expressed "deep regret" over the agitation that the broadcast had caused.

CBS released a statement that said, "We regret that some listeners to the Orson Welles' Mercury Theater of the Air program last night mistook fantasy for fact."

Samuel Shapiro, a Baltimore jeweler, suffered a heart attack during the broadcast and died two weeks later at Sinai Hospital. Dr. Israel J. Feinglos, who treated Shapiro, said his death was "due to sudden excitement precipitating a heart attack," which was brought on by the news that Martians had invaded New Jersey.

Pub Date: 10/26/97

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