Panic Outbreaks That Shaped History and Controlled the Masses

Panic Outbreaks That Shaped History and Controlled the Masses

Khalid Elhassan - May 22, 2021

Mass panic outbreaks can shape historic events – for worse, but sometimes for the better. On the bad side, as is true for most panic outbreaks, the results are awful. The Salem Witch Trials and other literal witch-hunts are prime examples. Sometimes, however, there is a silver lining, as occurred in 1789 when a mass panic driven by false rumors ended feudalism in France. Following are thirty fascinating things about such historic mass panics.

Panic Outbreaks That Shaped History and Controlled the Masses
Caricature of the peasants and other commoners of the Third Estate carrying the First Estate’s clergy and the Second Estate’s aristocrats on its back. Gallica Digital Library

30. The Aptly Named “Great Fear” That Swept Through Revolutionary France

Ancien regime France’s peasants and urban poor, abused for centuries, came to see their aristocratic oppressors as more than a parasitic class that lived in luxury off their toil and sweat. Many began viewing them as demonic, doing evil for the sake of being evil. Conspiracy theories abounded about what the elites were up to, chief among them the Pacte de Famine, or Famine Plot. It was born of a poor understanding of the economics of supply and demand. From 1715 – 1789, France’s population had increased by 6 million, from 22 million to 28 million, without a similar increase in grain output. Higher demand for the same amount of grain led to higher prices.

Panic Outbreaks That Shaped History and Controlled the Masses
Lower classes storming and pillaging a mansion in Strasbourg on July 21st, 1789, at the start of The Great Fear. Gallica Digital Library

However, many attributed the price increases not to basic economics, but to a plot by the elites to deliberately withhold grain in order to starve the poor into subservience. In 1789, grain shortages led to higher bread prices that hit the lower classes hard. In their distress, the poor’s belief in the Famine Plot evolved to include not only diabolical schemes to starve them but to murder and burn them as well. Driven by a panic aptly named “The Great” Fear, France’s poor took matters into their own hands and went after the elites. To be fair, France’s upper classes had it coming for centuries of exploitation. However, they were innocent of the Hunger Plot.

Panic Outbreaks That Shaped History and Controlled the Masses
The storming of the Bastille. Wikimedia

29. Mass Panic Caused by False Rumors and Fake News Saved the French Revolution

The 1789 French Revolution is often viewed through the lens of Paris, the dramatic events that took place there, and the key figures who grabbed the limelight in the French capital. However, without support from the peasants – the bulk of France’s population – or at least their consent to doing away with the aristocratic order, the revolution would probably have fizzled. Ironically, peasant support did not result from their understanding and approval of what was going on in Paris. Instead, it was caused by a flood of fake news and rumors that drove them into a panic. To wit, the elites were putting the final touches on the Famine Plot.

Panic Outbreaks That Shaped History and Controlled the Masses
The Tennis Court Oath, by Jacques-Louis David, commemorating the refusal of the Third Estate’s representatives to disband when order to do so by King Louis XVI. Wikimedia

The peasants believed that, in order to force them back into submission and obedience, the aristocrats had already engineered grain shortages to starve and debilitate them. That was not enough, however. To speed things up, the nobility had also summoned foreigners to burn the peasants’ crops, and hired bandits to loot their meager possessions, abuse and have their way with the women, murder the men, and burn their houses. The peasants might not have understood the Enlightenment ideals and issues being debated in Paris in 1789. They understood, however, the fear of evil elites plotting to harm them. So they acted, and in so doing, supercharged and saved the French Revolution.

Panic Outbreaks That Shaped History and Controlled the Masses
Peasants and other commoners storming and burning manorial houses and church estates during the panic known as The Great Fear. Histoire Francaise

28. A Mass Panic That Actually Did Some Good

From July 22 to August 6, 1789, what came to be known as “The Great Fear” swept rural France. Armed peasant, sometimes supported by artisans and local bourgeoisie, went after aristocratic estates, as well as those of privileged clergy. Their chief aim was to find and burn documents that granted the nobility and clergy their privileges. However, they were not above burning aristocratic manor houses, church estates, or assailing nobles and clerics. Their panic-driven actions often caused more panic. Armed peasant bands, out to save the peasantry from the elites, were often mistaken by other peasants for bandits and foreigners supposedly hired by the elites to carry out the Famine Plot.

Panic Outbreaks That Shaped History and Controlled the Masses
The French National Constituent Assembly’s meeting of August 4th, 1789, in which feudalism was abolished. Musee de la Revolution Francaise

So they armed themselves, or if already armed, redoubled their vigilance and hatred of the aristocrats and clergy who had hired the bandits and foreign marauders seen roaming the countryside. To appease the peasants and help avert further rural unrest, the newly-created National Constituent Assembly abolished the feudal regime and its privileges on August 4, 1789. So the Great Fear turned out to be one of those rare instances in which a mass panic, caused by false rumors and fake news, produced something good. The abolition of feudalism brought the rural turmoil to an end, but peasant unrest kept boiling over in various parts of France for years afterward.

Panic Outbreaks That Shaped History and Controlled the Masses
Cromwell’s soldiers rampaging through Drogheda, Ireland, in 1649. Fears of Irish soldiers doing the same in England created a mass panic in 1688. Flickr

27. Things Were Tense Between the English and Irish for Centuries

Ever since the English invaded and began to colonize Ireland in the twelfth, relations between the two peoples have ranged from uneasy, to tense, to outright murderous. Things went from bad to worse when King Henry VIII took England out of the Catholic fold, which added a new layer of religious tensions between the still-Catholic Irish, and the now-Protestant English. Sectarian strife, and the depredations of Oliver Cromwell in Ireland in the seventeenth century, did not improve things. Nor did English fears after Cromwell’s death, that the restored Stuart monarchs might use Irish soldiers to create a tyranny and force England back into Catholicism.

That created no end of trouble for King James II of England (reigned 1685 – 1688). From the start of his reign, resentment simmered against James II, a Catholic, as his mostly Protestant subjects decried and feared his perceived machinations to reinstate Catholicism. Public resentment was kept in check, however, because the elderly monarch had no son. The English just had to bear with him until he died, and was succeeded by his staunchly Protestant daughter Mary, and her even more staunchly Protestant husband, William of Orange. Then, in the autumn of his life, James’ wife gave birth to a baby boy.

Panic Outbreaks That Shaped History and Controlled the Masses
Seventeenth-century soldiers of Montrose’s Irish Brigade. Fears of men such as these rampaging throughout England created a panic. Warlord Games

26. When Fear of the Irish Gripped England

English Protestants’ willingness to put up with the Catholic King James II ended in 1688, when the aging monarch unexpectedly had a son. At a stroke, that removed the option of running out the clock and waiting for the king’s eventual death and replacement by a Protestant successor. The simmering resentments came to a boil, and set in motion the Glorious Revolution in 1688. It ended when James II fled England and was replaced by his Protestant daughter Mary II and her husband, William III. However, in the period between James’ flight and the enthronement of William and Mary, there were no government Fears of anarchy and lawless violence gripped the country. The greatest manifestation of such fears was a mass panic known as “The Irish Fright”. It centered around an Irish army that James II had brought from Ireland to England towards the end of his reign, to prop up his tottering throne. That army was greatly resented and feared by the English. Many recalled, and most believed, the (sometimes exaggerated) stories of widespread Irish massacres and depravities against Protestants during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, that had accompanied the English Civil War a few decades earlier. Many in England were thus primed to believe that the Irish were predisposed to savagery and capable of any atrocity.

Panic Outbreaks That Shaped History and Controlled the Masses
Irish soldiers at the Battle of Aberdeen, 1644, by Peter Dennis. Helion and Company

25. Fake News of Irish Atrocities Created a Mass Panic That Swept England

Against the backdrop of memories – or fake stories – about Irish savagery, dark rumors began circulating in December 1688. Specifically, the Catholic Irish forces quartered in England were preparing to fall upon the Protestant English to massacre, rape, and loot, to avenge the ouster of the Catholic King James II. A mass panic that became known as The Irish Fright began in earnest on the night of December 13th, when news arrived at Westminster that the ravening Irish were marching on London. Fake news of preparations for atrocities were quickly followed by fake news of actual atrocities. False reports, claiming that the Irish were putting English towns to the torch and massacring the inhabitants, swiftly spread.

Panic Outbreaks That Shaped History and Controlled the Masses
The arrival of William of Orange, who became King William III of England, was met with great rejoicing by the English. Historical Portraits

Terrified English in London and surrounding shires rushed to arm themselves and form militias, erect fortifications, and patrol the countryside to guard against the imminent arrival of bloodthirsty Irish. The panic finally subsided when it became clear that no atrocities had occurred. It now seems that the rumors were part of organized propaganda by opponents of James II, to discredit him and burnish his son-in-law, William of Orange. When the latter landed in England at the head of a mostly foreign army, he was not greeted as an invader. Instead, his arrival was met with raptures, as a savior not only of the Protestant faith but of the Protestants themselves from the feared Irish.

Panic Outbreaks That Shaped History and Controlled the Masses
Fears of a maniacal slasher running around Halifax led to mass panic. Hip Wallpaper

24. The 1938 Panic That Gripped an English Town

Halifax, England, was gripped by a bout of collective hysteria and mass public panic in 1938. It lasted for about two weeks and revolved around an imaginary attacker who targeted local women. It all began on the night of November 16, 1938, when two young female employees of a local mill were attacked by an unknown man. They rushed to a nearby house for aid, with blood streaming down their heads from a wound apparently caused by a razor blade.

Police were called, a report was filed, and disquietude spread throughout the community. As described by the Halifax Courier, the local newspaper: ” Until the culprit is found and effectively dealt with there is not likely to be much peace of mind, not only [locally] but further afield. The affair has created a tremendous sensation and it has thoroughly upset the people“. Such an attack in relatively quiet Halifax was understandably alarming. Alarm grew into panic when reports of similar attacks began pouring in.

Panic Outbreaks That Shaped History and Controlled the Masses
Police took in and questioned many people while looking for the nonexistent Halifax Slasher. How Stuff Works

23. Fears of an Active “Slasher” Shut Down the Halifax Region

Five days after the reported razor attack on two Halifax women, another young woman in the vicinity reported being attacked by a man. It left her with a deep and clean-cut to her wrist, as if from a razor. Despite a clear description of the attacker, police had no luck finding him. When three days later another victim stepped forward, the authorities turned to the public for leads, and the local newspaper carried the headline: “£10 police reward for arrest of Halifax ‘Slasher’“.

The news that there was a “Slasher” on the loose was shocking. It did not take long for mass hysteria and widespread public panic to get its clutches on the good people of Halifax and the surrounding region. Even as Scotland Yard was called in to help the local police, businesses shut down. The panic grew apace as more and more reports, and rumors of reports, all of them unfounded, came pouring of new attacks by the Slasher in nearby towns.

Panic Outbreaks That Shaped History and Controlled the Masses
Police wasted significant time and resources trying to find an imaginary Halifax Slasher. Hulton Archive

22. This Bout of Widespread Hysteria Was Driven by False Reports

As panic gripped Halifax and surrounding towns, wild-eyed vigilante groups were set up and started patrolling the region. They set upon and beat up many an innocent stranger, based on the suspicion that he was the Slasher. When another woman alleged that she had been attacked, a Good Samaritan who tried to help was wrongly accused by vigilantes of being the Slasher. He was attacked by a mob, and it took the intervention of police, who escorted him home, to save his life.

The mass hysteria finally began to subside on November 29, 1938, when one of the “victims” of the Slasher admitted that his injuries were self-inflicted. Other supposed victims soon confessed that they, too, had made up the attacks. After 9 of 12 victims confessed to self-harm, Scotland Yard concluded that there had never been a “Halifax Slasher” and closed the investigation. Five locals who had filed false reports were arrested and charged, and four of them ended up doing time in prison for public mischief.

Panic Outbreaks That Shaped History and Controlled the Masses
Taipei, Taiwan, also fell into panic because of a nonexistent slasher. Taiwan News

21. Bouts of Collective Hysteria About Slashers Occurred All Over the World

Halifax was not alone in falling to mass panic about a slasher, as similar bouts of collective hysteria from around the world demonstrate. For example, the population of Taipei, Taiwan, was terrorized for a fortnight in 1956 by rumors of a crazed slasher roaming the streets. He supposedly sliced people with a razor blade as he brushed past them, then disappeared into the city’s crowds and teeming throngs. About twenty-one victims stepped forward, mostly poor and poorly-educated people from the lower classes.

An example of how rumors helped fuel the mass panic was that of an older Taiwanese gentleman who told police that he had been slashed by a stranger. However, a medical examination revealed that the injury was caused by a blunt object and could not have resulted from a razor. The “victim” then admitted that he did not really know how he had been injured, but assumed that he must have been slashed “because of all the talk going around“.

Panic Outbreaks That Shaped History and Controlled the Masses
Taipei crowd. Taiwan News

20. Sensationalist Press Fueled a Mass Panic

Another example of a Taipei phantom slasher attack was caused by incompetent doctors, who examined another older gentleman who showed up with a laceration on his wrist. When the patient casually mentioned that a stranger had brushed against him around the same time that he noticed the bleeding, the doctors put two and two together, and came up with nine. They attributed the wound to the feared slasher, and contacted police. Further examination by more competent doctors revealed that the laceration was simply an old wound that had been reopened by scratching.

In reality, there had never been a slasher. It was just a case of mass delusion and hysteria, amplified by sensationalist press reporting. After thorough investigation, police concluded that the “victims” had simply suffered the kinds of everyday accidental cuts and slight injuries that most people endure every now and then without hardly noticing. However, in the fevered atmosphere of the slasher panic, people attributed any rip in their clothes or scratch on their bodies to a surreptitious attack from an imaginary maniac. As described by the police investigation’s final report, out of twenty-one reported slasher “victims”: “five were innocent false reports, seven were self-inflicted cuts, eight were due to cuts other than razors, and one was a complete fantasy“.

Panic Outbreaks That Shaped History and Controlled the Masses
Bust of Aristotle, who did a ‘kids these days’ rant more than 2300 years ago. Encyclopedia Britannica

19. A Moral Panic Over Youth Fashion Led to a Racist Riot

Kids these days” is a complaint that has been around for ages. Indeed, few things are as predictable as older generations getting into a snit about the mannerisms, morals, and supposed softness of the young. Take this gem from the past: “Whither are the manly vigour and athletic appearance of our forefathers flown? Can these be their legitimate heirs? Surely, no; a race of effeminate, self-admiring, emaciated fribbles can never have descended in a direct line from the heroes of Potiers and Agincourt…” It appeared in a 1771 edition of Town and Country Magazine.

One can go back further, to the first century BC, when Horace complained that: “The beardless youth… does not foresee what is useful, squandering his money“. Or go back even further, to Aristotle in the fourth century BC, when he wrote: “[Young people] are high-minded because they have not yet been humbled by life, nor have they experienced the force of circumstances. … They think they know everything, and are always quite sure about it“. Few snits against the young, however, have resulted in widespread rioting like that caused by the moral panic, below.

Panic Outbreaks That Shaped History and Controlled the Masses
Black kid Ray McGhee in a zoot suit, circa 1942. Florida Memory

18. The Fashionable Suits That Rubbed the Old and the Racist the Wrong Way

Zoot suits were all the rage among America’s hip and fashionable in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The outsized zoots had a distinctive look, with a long coat featuring wide lapels and broad shoulder pads, and pegged trousers that were high-waisted, wide-legged, and tight cuffed. Pointy French-style shoes, plus a watch chain dangling from the belt to the knees, then back to a side pocket, were de rigueur. Finally, a pork pie hat or fedora, color-coordinated and sometimes with a long feather, completed the getup. Zoots were first associated with African-Americans in Harlem, Chicago, and Detroit, then crossed over after they were popularized by Jazz singers and entertainers.

Panic Outbreaks That Shaped History and Controlled the Masses
Still from 1943’s ‘Stormy Weather’, with Cab Calloway in a zoot suit. Smithsonian Magazine

Zoots also became hugely popular among Italian-Americans, Latinos, and Filipinos. While also worn by many whites, the zoot suit’s “ethnic” origins and aura did not sit well with many of the straitlaced and traditional, or just plain racist. They were luxury items, whose making required a lot of materials and significant tailoring effort. That became problematic when America entered World War II. The US War Production Board criticized zoots for wasting materials and production time better used in the war effort. All those factors combined to create a moral panic centered on the flashy outfits.

Panic Outbreaks That Shaped History and Controlled the Masses
White teenagers in zoot suits, 1942. Aventuras na Historia

17. The Violent Backlash Against a Fashionable Suit

Young zoot suit wearers saw the getup as a declaration of their individuality, freedom, or rebelliousness. Others saw them as self-indulgent and unpatriotic extravagances during wartime. Life magazine did a feature on youth sporting zoots in 1942, and concluded that: “they were solid arguments for lowering the Army draft age to include 18-year-olds“. Other media joined in with sensational accounts that wildly exaggerated the costs and price tags of zoots. The result was a backlash. Those clad in the outfits were publicly berated or even physically attacked. Cops sometimes stopped and hassled zoot wearers, and ruined their suits by slashing them. However, the backlash’s greatest manifestation occurred in Los Angeles in June 1943, in what came to be known as the Zoot Suit Riots.

Panic Outbreaks That Shaped History and Controlled the Masses
Mexican-American teenagers in zoot suits. Yes Magazine

In the preceding year, local newspapers had whipped up racial tensions, and created a moral panic by harping on a non-existent “crime wave”, allegedly caused by Mexican-American youths. Soon, a media campaign was in full swing, calling for action against “zoot suiters”. LA police responded with frequent roundups and arrests of hundreds of young Mexican-Americans, guilty of nothing more than wearing oversized outfits. Tensions were further exacerbated by the murder conviction of 9 young Mexican-Americans, following a controversial trial amidst a wave of anti-Mexican-American hysteria. The trial was a travesty, and the convictions were overturned on appeal. In the meantime, however, racism against Mexican-Americans reached a peak in LA.

Panic Outbreaks That Shaped History and Controlled the Masses
Servicemen rampaging during the Zoot Suit Riots. History

16. The Fashion That Caused Widespread Rioting and Civil Unrest

During WWII, Los Angeles became a major military hub, as hundreds of thousands of servicemen were stationed there or passed through en route to other postings. To many white military personnel, the wearing of zoot suits was viewed as a public flouting of the war effort. Mexican-Americans came to be seen as unpatriotic – even though they were actually overrepresented in America’s armed forces and served at a higher rate than whites. Mexican-Americans also had one of the highest percentages of Medal of Honor recipients.

Panic Outbreaks That Shaped History and Controlled the Masses
Mexican-American kids stripped and beaten by US servicemen during Los Angeles’ Zoot Suit Riot. Associated Press

Rioting erupted in June of 1943, when mobs of white soldiers and sailors roamed LA, and beat up allegedly “unpatriotic” Mexican-American’s wearing zoot suits. While the rioters focused on Latino youths, young African-Americans and Filipinos were also targeted. Copycat riots by whites against Latinos spread throughout California to San Diego and Oakland, then across the country to Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York City. It was the first time in American history that fashion caused literal rioting and widespread civil unrest.

Panic Outbreaks That Shaped History and Controlled the Masses
Engraving of the Hammersmith Ghost in an 1804 magazine. Wikimedia

15. The Hammersmith Ghost Panic

Early nineteenth-century London was swept by a tragicomic bout of collective hysteria about ghosts. It started out comic enough but ended up on the tragic end of the spectrum. It was kicked off in November 1803, when reports began circulating of ghost sightings in the Hammersmith district of West London. Many thought that the ghost was of a recent suicide buried in Hammersmith’s churchyard. That was in line with a widespread contemporary belief that suicides should not be buried in consecrated grounds because their souls would find no rest there.

Those who claimed to have seen the ghost described it as being very tall, and dressed all in white. Some witnesses added horns and glass eyes to the description. Alarm at the sightings quickly grew to widespread panic, and then mass hysteria, as more and more people stepped forward. New witnesses reported that they had not only seen the Hammersmith Ghost but had been attacked by it as well. In response, fearful citizens took to arms and began patrolling the neighborhood.

Panic Outbreaks That Shaped History and Controlled the Masses
Bricklayer Thomas Millwood was mistaken for a ghost, and shot dead. Crime Magazine

14. A Prank That Led to Tragedy

The patrolling of the Hammersmith district by armed vigilantes led to tragedy on January 3, 1804. That night, one of the armed citizens, Francis Smith, was on patrol when he came across a bricklayer, Thomas Millwood, returning home from a visit to his parents. Millwood was wearing the typical clothing of his trade: white pants, white shirt, and white apron. You can see where this is headed. Smith leveled his shotgun at what he took to be a ghost, and shot Millwood in the face, killing him instantly.

Smith was arrested and tried for willful murder. The presiding judge instructed the jury that establishing malice was not necessary for a conviction and that all killings were either murder or manslaughter, absent extenuating circumstances that were not present here. Smith was duly convicted, then sentenced to death. The sentence was subsequently commuted to a year’s hard labor. As to the Hammersmith “ghost”, it later turned out to have been a prank by an elderly local shoemaker, who wore the guise to frighten his apprentice.

Panic Outbreaks That Shaped History and Controlled the Masses
Antoinette Bourignon. Rijks Museum

13. A Girls School’s Witchcraft Panic

Antoinette Bourignon was a pious but mentally unstable seventeenth-century Frenchwoman, who founded a boarding school for girls in Lille, France. One day in 1639, when she entered a classroom, Madam Bourignon imagined that she saw a swarm of little black angels flying around the schoolgirls’ heads. Alarmed, she told the children to beware the devil, whose little black imps were buzzing all around them. Over time, she grew more and more obsessed with the imps hovering around her wards’ heads, and warned the schoolgirls daily to watch out for the Devil. Soon, the impressionable children came to believe that there were, indeed, little black demons flying all around them.

Before long, Satan and satanic possession were the sole topic of conversation. One of the girls ran away, too scared to stay in a school infested with little black devils who might possess her at any moment, as Madam Bourignon and her staff never tired of warning the students. When she was brought back, the girl claimed that she had not run away, but had been carried away by the Devil, and that she was a witch and had been one since she was seven-years-old. That absurd babbling by a child kicked off a witchcraft panic that threatened the lives of dozens of children.

Panic Outbreaks That Shaped History and Controlled the Masses
Antoinette Bourignon triggered a panic that almost got her students burned at the stake. Edinburgh Live

12. A Religious Nut Educator Who Almost Got Dozens of Her Students Burned at the Stake for Witchcraft

When news spread in Madam Bourignon’s school that a student had confessed to being a witch, about fifty other schoolgirls started having fits. When they came to, they joined in a “me, too!” rush, and claimed to be witches as well. In their clamor to confess, the children competed to outdo each other as they described their supposed dark and fell deeds. Some claimed to ride on broomsticks. They were topped by others, who claimed they could pass through keyholes. They were trumped in turn by other girls’ claims that they feasted on the flesh of babies, or attended the Domdaniel, a gathering of the demons.

As a result, a formal investigation was launched. Some of Lille’s clergy and citizens were skeptical, but most thought that the children’s confessions were valid, and that an example should be made by burning all fifty schoolgirls at the stake as witches. Their lives were only spared after some of the skeptical clergy, aghast at what was about to happen, insisted that the investigators dig in deeper. It was only then that they discovered what the school’s headmistress had done to fill the girls’ heads with thoughts of demonic possession. The children were absolved, and the blame was shifted to Madam Bourignon. She barely escaped punishment after the authorities, unsure of her sanity and tired of the whole affair, ended the investigation.

Panic Outbreaks That Shaped History and Controlled the Masses
Attention-seeking girls faked having fits, and threw Salem into a panic. Wikimedia

11. History’s Most Notorious Bout of Mass Panic

The Salem Witch Panic of 1692 – 1693 took place against a cultural and religious background that was predisposed to believe in the supernatural. Witchcraft is laughable to most today, but in seventeenth-century Colonial America, and especially in Salem and the Massachusetts Bay Colony, it was taken quite seriously. The belief that the Devil could grant witches extraordinary powers in return for their loyalty, and that witchcraft could be used to inflict harm on the good and godly, was taken for granted.

What is probably history’s most famous, or infamous, bout of collective hysteria began in January 1692, when the nine-year-old-year-old daughter and eleven-year-old niece of Salem’s reverend started having screaming fits. During those bouts, they contorted themselves into unnatural positions, threw things, and made weird noises. A local doctor examined the children but found no signs of a physical ailment to explain the behavior. So he blamed it on the supernatural. Soon, another young girl, aged eleven, started exhibiting similar symptoms.

Panic Outbreaks That Shaped History and Controlled the Masses
Illustration of Tituba, by John W. Ehninger. Houghton Mifflin & Company

10. A False Confession That Triggered Public Hysteria and Opened the Floodgates of False Accusations

When magistrates questioned the weirdly-acting Salem girls, they claimed that they had been bewitched. The supposed culprits were three women of low social standing: Tituba, an indigenous South American indentured servant of Salem’s reverend, an elderly impoverished woman named Sarah Osborne, and a homeless beggar named Sarah Good. Osborne and Good protested their innocence, but for whatever reason – perhaps because of torture or perhaps because she was given a promise of leniency – Tituba confessed to having been visited by the Devil.

Tituba described the Devil as a black man who had visited her and asked her to sign a book that made her a witch. She admitted that she had signed, and thus became a witch, and then went on to point the finger at other “witches”. Tituba’s confession and accusations caused mass panic and collective hysteria throughout Salem and the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In the following months, a flood of accusations came pouring in from all points of the compass.

Panic Outbreaks That Shaped History and Controlled the Masses
‘Examination of a Witch’, by T. H. Matteson, 1853. The Art Newspaper

9. The More Far-Fetched the Accusations, the More They Strengthened Rather Than Weakened the Belief in Witchcraft

It mattered little just how credible the accusations of witchcraft that flew around Salem and the Massachusetts Bay Colony were. Indeed, the more farfetched the accusations were, the more they solidified the public’s belief in the potency of witchcraft, and enhanced the mass hysteria and panic. When the godly and regular churchgoer Martha Corey was accused of witchcraft, it did not give the good people of Salem pause. Instead, it redoubled their fears: if solid citizen Martha Corey could be a witch, then anybody could be a witch.

On May 27, 1692, the colony’s governor ordered that a special court be established in order to try the accused. Its first victim was Bridget Bishop, an older woman who was known as a gossip, and who had a reputation for promiscuity. Her protestations of innocence were unavailing, and she was convicted, sentenced to death, and hanged on June 10, in what became known as Gallows Hill. Five more were convicted and hanged in July, another five in August, and eight more that September.

Panic Outbreaks That Shaped History and Controlled the Masses
The Salem Witch Trials were travesties of justice, without minimal due process. Vox

8. A Cautionary Tale of Collective Hysteria and Public Panic

The Salem Witch Trials were marked by a lack of due process. Most jarring to modern sensibilities was the use of “spectral evidence” – basically, testimony by witnesses that they dreamt or had a vision that the spirit or “spectre” of the accused witch did them harm. Thus, an accuser’s dream or vision that “Jane Doe bit, hit, and punched me“, became admissible evidence that Jane Doe had actually bit, hit, and punched the accuser. Even if the unfortunate Doe was nowhere near the accuser that day, her spectre was. Respected theologian and reverend Cotton Mather wrote the court cautioning against the use of spectral evidence, but he was ignored.

Panic Outbreaks That Shaped History and Controlled the Masses
The hanging of Bridget Bishop, condemned at the Salem Witch Trials. Amazonia

The colony’s governor finally shut down the trials and the ever-expanding circle of accusations when his own wife was accused of being a witch. By then, the widespread panic had gotten over 200 people accused of witchcraft, and 20 had already been hanged. Eventually, the authorities admitted that the trials had been a mistake, and compensated the families of the wrongly convicted victims. The Salem panic and resultant trials became synonymous with paranoia and injustice, and stand today as a cautionary tale about the dangers of religious extremism, false accusations, and the lack of due process.

More from Salem Witch Trial:

Panic Outbreaks That Shaped History and Controlled the Masses
Philip IV of Spain, by Diego Velazquez. The Frick Collection

7. When Rumors of Mass Poisoning Led to Mass Panic

In the seventeenth century, people throughout much of Europe were highly susceptible to fears of poisoning. Such fears sometimes mushroomed into episodes of mass panic. Specifically, people fretted that nefarious others planned to spread a plague throughout Christendom via sinister means, such as sorcery and witchcraft, or mysterious “poisonous gasses”. Those standing fears spiked into widespread panic and collective hysteria in the city of Milan, Italy, in 1629, when its governor received an alarming message from King Philip IV of Spain.

The royal message warned the authorities to be on the lookout for four Frenchman who had escaped from a Spanish prison. They might be en route to Milan, His Majesty noted, in order to spread the plague via “poisonous and pestilential ointments“. The result was mounting tensions in Milan, as alarmed citizens kept a wary lookout for suspicious characters. The public’s concern grew steadily, and the Milanese grew steadily more stressed out and frazzled as fears mounted of an imminent poisoning. The city sat thus on a powder keg for months, before it finally erupted into a mass panic that came to be known as “The Great Poisoning Scare of Milan”.

Panic Outbreaks That Shaped History and Controlled the Masses
Milan in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Wikimedia

6. Collective Hysteria Sweeps Through a City

Milan’s mass poisoning panic started on the night of May 17, 1629, when some citizens reported seeing mysterious people placing what appeared to be poison in a cathedral partition. The city’s health officials went to the cathedral but found no signs of poisoning. The following morning, the Milanese woke up to an eerie discovery: all doors on the city’s main streets had been marked with a mysterious daub. When health officials inspected the daubs, they found nothing harmful in them.

The authorities concluded that the daubs were a prank by mischievous actors with a sick sense of humor, getting some laughs out of the citizens’ fears. Official reassurances were unavailing, however. Many Milanese, already on edge for months, took the mysterious daubs as a sign that the expected poison attack had finally arrived, and mass hysteria swept the city. As panic got a grip on the populace, the good people of Milan saw things that weren’t there and interpreted innocent acts in the most sinister ways possible.

Panic Outbreaks That Shaped History and Controlled the Masses
Fears of mass poisoning created a mass panic in Milan. Listverse

5. In the Grip of Unchecked Panic, the Milanese Accused All and Sundry of Nefarious Acts

As fears in Milan mounted, mushroomed, and exploded into an unchecked panic, accusations of poisoning were hurled at random innocents, ranging from passersby on the streets, to various nobles. Before long, the Milanese, firmly in the clutches of a collective hysteria that grew exponentially with each passing day, took to pointing fingers at all and sundry. Even the most absurd accusations, including ones alleging that famous and powerful people from far away were seen in Milan personally committing acts of poisoning, were taken seriously.

Supposed culprits included Cardinal Richelieu of France, and General Wallenstein, commander of the armies of the Holy Roman Empire in the then-raging Thirty Years War. The Milanese could do nothing to Cardinal Richelieu or General Wallenstein, but they could do plenty – and did – to innocent people in their midst. Early victims included an elderly man who was seen wiping a bench in church before he sat down. A mob of fear-crazed women accused him of poisoning the seat, and seized and violently assailed him in church. They then dragged him to the magistrates and continued to beat him so badly on the way that he died before they got there.

Panic Outbreaks That Shaped History and Controlled the Masses
The execution of suspected poisoners and plague spreaders in Milan. Getty Images

4. Collective Hysteria Got So Bad in Milan That People Began to Voluntarily Accuse Themselves

Innocent victims of Milan’s poisoning panic included a pharmacist, whose potions led to accusations of his being in league with the Devil. After prolonged torture and stretching on the rack, he changed his protestations of innocence to a confession of guilt, and repeated whatever his torturers wanted to hear in order to end the pain. He admitted to helping the Devil and foreigners poison the city, and named accomplices who were innocent of any crime. They in turn were arrested and tortured, and to end their suffering, they named yet more innocents. Their torture produced more false confessions and the naming of more innocent “accomplices”, in a process that dragged in more and more victims.

All were tried, were convicted based on the confessions extracted under torture, and were executed. As the mass hysteria and mounting insanity tightened its grip on the fevered city, a high number of Milanese stepped forward to accuse… themselves. Many went to the magistrates and voluntarily confessed to amazing supernatural deeds, and described meetings with the Devil, witches, sorcerers, and sundry practitioners of black magic, in which they plotted to poison city. As reported, “The number of persons who confessed that they were employed by the Devil to distribute poison is almost incredible“. Many were executed based on their voluntary false confessions.

Panic Outbreaks That Shaped History and Controlled the Masses
Virginia McMartin, owner of the McMartin preschool, was falsely accused of absurd acts. NY Daily News

3. The Kindergarten Abuse Hysteria That Transformed the Lives of Innocents Into Living Hells

In 1983, Judy Johnson, a mentally unstable mother of a kindergarten toddler, accused Ray Buckey, an employee of the McMartin preschool in Manhattan Beach, California, of having molested her child. When questioned, the child let loose with a flood of fantastic allegations. They included that people in the day school had sex with animals, that Ray Buckey’s mother and preschool owner Virginia McMartin had perforated a child under the arm with a power drill, and that “Ray flew in the air“.

Panic Outbreaks That Shaped History and Controlled the Masses
The McMartin preschool. Investigation Discovery

Understandably, the police were skeptical about such claims. However, out of an abundance of caution, they sent a letter to the parents of other toddlers at the school, and asked them question their children about abuses at McMartin. As parents talked to their kids and other parents, other accusations of child abuse began trickling in. Soon, police were inundated with a flood of wild, weird, and increasingly incredible accusations of molestation and other abuses at the preschool, that stretched credulity.

Panic Outbreaks That Shaped History and Controlled the Masses
Virginia McMartin and Ray Bucky. Daily News

2. Incredible Allegations Did Not Stop This Investigation From Proceeding

The hysteria that engulfed the McMartin preschool took place against a backdrop of growing public panic about child molestation in America’s preschools. Social workers were brought in to gather more information, and between a combination of incompetence and leading questions, the children’s accusations grew steadily wilder and more bizarre. In addition to claiming that they had been molested by McMartin preschool employees Ray Buckey and his mother Virginia McMartin, the children alleged that they had been made to participate in satanic rites.

Examples of such rites included drinking the blood of a baby, whom the children had witnessed being sacrificed in church. The preschoolers also said that they saw witches fly, that they had been abused in a hot air balloon, and in (nonexistent) tunnels beneath the preschool. One child claimed to have been molested by actor Chuck Norris. Other children added that, after being abused in secret rooms, they were flushed down toilets, then cleaned up and presented to their parents.

Panic Outbreaks That Shaped History and Controlled the Masses
Ira Reiner, the Los Angeles District Attorney who led – and lost – an absurd prosecution against the McMartin school staff. LA Police Reserve Foundation

1. Mass Hysteria and an Unscrupulous District Attorney Combined to Produce America’s Most Expensive Criminal Trial

Although the McMartin preschool accusations were incredible, they came at a time when America was gripped by widespread panic about demonic rituals involving the abuse of children. Such rituals were supposedly connected to satanic worship and dark magic, so the bizarre McMartin allegations found fertile soil in which to grow. With elections drawing near, ambitious Los Angeles District Attorney Ira Reiner unscrupulously sought to capitalize on the mounting public hysteria. So he slapped Ray Buckey and his mother Virginia McMartin with 208 counts of child molestation.

Panic Outbreaks That Shaped History and Controlled the Masses
Ray Bucky and hist mother, Virginia McMartin, at their trial. How Stuff Works

Buckey and his mother were arrested in 1984, and the investigation lasted for three years. Mother and son were then put through a three-year-trial, that lasted from 1987 to 1990. It was the longest and most expensive criminal trial in American history. At its conclusion, a jury acquitted Virginia McMartin of all charges, while Ray Buckey was acquitted of 52 of 65 charges, with the jury deadlocked on the remaining counts 10 to 2 in favor of acquittal. Those charges were then dropped, and the McMartin preschool hysteria and trial concluded without a single conviction.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Bartholomew, Robert E. – Little Green Men, Meowing Nuns and Head-Hunting Panics: A Study of Mass Psychogenic Illness and Social Delusion (2001)

Bartholomew, Robert E., and Rickard, Bob – Mass Hysteria in Schools: A Worldwide History Since 1566 (2014)

BBC – People Have Always Whinged About Young Adults. Here’s Proof

Brown, David – A Guide to the Salem Witchcraft Hysteria of 1692 (1984)

Business Insider, March 10th, 2014 – How a Bogus Sex Abuse Accusation Fueled a Nationwide Hysteria

Destination Salem – Salem Witch Trials

Encyclopedia Britannica – Salem Witch Trials

Evans, Hilary, and Bartholomew, Roberts – Outbreak! The Encyclopedia of Extraordinary Social Behavior: Milan Poisoning Scare (2009)

History Collection – Mistakes That Changed History

Lefebvre, Georges – The Great Fear of 1789: Rural Panic in Revolutionary France (1973 English Translation)

Londonist – The Time Somebody Shot a Ghost Dead in Hammersmith

Mexican Studies, Vol. 16, No. 2, Summer, 2000 – The Los Angeles ‘Zoot Suit Riots’ Revisited: Mexican and Latin American Perspectives

Pagan, Eduardo Obregon – Murder at the Sleepy Lagoon: Zoot Suits, Race, and Riot in Wartime LA (2004)

Schama, Simon – Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (1990)

Social Problems Journal, Vol. 12, No. 3, Winter 1965 – The Phantom Slasher of Taipei: Mass Hysteria in a Non-Western Society

Social Science History, Volume 24, Number 1, Spring 2000 – Los Angeles Geopolitics and the Zoot Suit Riot, 1943

University of London Institute of Historical Research, Volume 55, Issue 32, November, 1982 – The Irish Fright of 1688: Real Violence and Imagined Massacre

Wikipedia – Irish Fright

Wikipedia – McMartin Preschool Trial

Wikipedia – Salem Witch Trials

Yorkshire Post, September 21st, 2017 – How the Curious Case of the Halifax Slasher Caused a Mass Outbreak of Hysteria

History Collection – The 1970s Witchcraft Trial and Other Oddities in Witch History