The True Stories Behind Historical Mass Panics


Humans are rational creatures… for the most part. There have been plenty of times when common sense went out the window and large groups of people fell prey to panic, paranoia, and mass delusion. 

A famous example is the Salem witch trials when an entire town became convinced that witches had infiltrated their community. Consequently, they killed over 20 people to put an end to the nefarious coven which, by the way, never existed. Of course, they are hardly the only ones who gave into their hysteria.

8. The New England Vampire Panic

Throughout the 19th century, New England saw multiple outbreaks of tuberculosis, or consumption as it was called back then. Rhode Island was the epicenter, but it spread to surrounding states and, in rural areas, there was a belief among many people that the illness was caused by vampires. 

This superstition was born out of the fact that consumption often spread to the relatives of someone who died from the illness. Of course, today we know that this is because tuberculosis is caused by bacteria which spread much easier to people who live in close quarters together. But, back then, people believed it was because the dead came back to life and targeted their living relatives. The extreme weight loss and gaunt appearance of people with tuberculosis enhanced their viewpoint that a supernatural creature was feeding on their life force.

To stop the dead from rising, the process was straightforward – their body was exhumed, their heart was removed and burned. Sometimes, organs like the liver or the lungs were also incinerated. This was typically done in private by the surviving family members, although sometimes the entire village took part. 

Due to the inherent personal nature of the process, not many examples are known today, but there are enough to show that this was an ordinary practice throughout parts of New England for over a hundred years. One of the first documented cases was Rachel Harris in the 1790s. The first wife of a deacon, her husband exhumed her corpse and burned her organs when his second wife started exhibited symptoms of tuberculosis. And perhaps the most famous case was that of a 19-year-old girl named Mercy Brown which occurred a century later.

These beliefs were predominant in rural areas and were typically mocked by the press as the stupid superstitions of backwoods people. Even writer Henry David Thoreau mentioned in a journal entry hearing about a family in Vermont that burned the organs of their deceased relatives, concluding that “the savage in man is never quite eradicated.”

7. The Halifax Slasher

Over 80 years ago, the town of Halifax in England was terrorized by a madman known as the Halifax Slasher who attacked people in the streets. Scotland Yard got involved and launched a massive manhunt not seen there since the days of Jack the Ripper. And just like the Ripper, the Halifax Slasher was never caught or identified. However, this was most likely due to the fact that the Slasher never existed.

The first reports came in November 1938. Two women in their early 20s were attacked by a lunatic wielding some kind of blade. Just five days later, another woman said that a man lunged at her and cut her wrist with a razor. The fourth victim was a man named Clayton Aspinall and, by the time he had been attacked, the town was already in fear of the assailant dubbed the “Halifax Slasher” by the press. 

At least four other people also claimed to have fallen prey to the Slasher in Halifax and attack reports started coming in from other cities. There was a growing panic sweeping the country that, perhaps, there was an entire gang of slashers out there terrorizing English citizens.

Then, something curious happened. One of the victims, Beatrice Sorrell, admitted that she cut herself after an argument with her man. Other similar confessions soon followed and the police eventually concluded that the Halifax Slasher never existed. 

6. The Hammersmith Ghost

On January 3, 1804, a man named either Thomas or James Milwood was walking through the Hammersmith district of London at night. He encountered another man named Francis Smith who saw Milwood, panicked, pulled out his gun and shot him dead. Smith approached the body in confusion and, after realizing that he had just killed a man, turned himself in to the authorities. His defense was that he thought he was being attacked by the Hammersmith ghost.

Towards the end of 1803, reports of a ghost prowling through Hammersmith terrified the locals. There were plenty of origin stories for this apparition, but the most prevalent one said that the ghost was a man who committed suicide and, against church norms, was buried in consecrated ground in the churchyard. Many people claimed to have seen the phantom and, allegedly, some even died of fright upon encountering the Hammersmith ghost. 

Back to Milwood, he worked as a bricklayer and was in the habit of wearing white flannel clothes and a white apron on the job. During the trial, his mother-in-law testified that several other people had been frightened when they met Milwood at night and she advised him to wear a coat to avoid any potential danger.

The exact danger she warned against happened when Smith left the pub one night and saw the ghostly figure of Milwood approaching him. Smith was charged with murder, found guilty and sentenced to death, later commutted to one year of hard labor. Besides the sheer oddity of his case, it actually ended up setting a precedent in British law regarding whether self-defense applied or not when the person was acting based on a mistaken belief. In other words, was Smith culpable if he genuinely thought he was being attacked by a ghost.

As for the actual Hammersmith ghost, he turned out to be a shoemaker who wanted to scare his apprentice. He never wilfully frightened anyone else, though, and certainly didn’t scare anyone to death. Those tales just spread through mass panic.

5. The Seattle Windshield Pitting Epidemic

A very bizarre phenomenon was reported throughout Washington State in 1954 – people noticed that their windshields were damaged and had holes, pits, and scratches on them, but had no idea who or what caused them.

The first reported observations seemed to have occurred in the city of Bellingham in late March. The phenomenon soon spread to nearby communities like Mount Vernon and Anacortes and started making national headlines when it reached Seattle.

Initially, people thought it was just vandals with BB guns, but the large scale of the event suggested there would have to be dozens, even hundreds of hoodlums going around shooting windshields throughout the state. 

Other possible explanations included sand fleas, cosmic rays, nuclear bomb testing, and a million-watt radio transmitter which had been recently installed at the nearby Jim Creek Naval Radio Station. By April, word of the epidemic had reached Allan Pomeroy, the Mayor of Seattle, who contacted the state governor who, in turn, ran this up the flagpole all the way to President Dwight Eisenhower.

The sheriff’s department inspected 15,000 cars and found that 3,000 of them had pitted windows. However, a panel of scientists observed that, by far, most instances of pitting happened on older cars. They concluded that most affected motorists had previously damaged their windshields through normal wear and tear and were just then noticing due to the reported epidemic. A representative for Seattle’s crime lab dismissed the phenomenon as “5 percent hoodlum-ism, and 95 percent public hysteria.”

4. The Kissing Bug Scare

Kissing bugs are insects part of the Triatominae family found predominantly in the Americas. Most species in the family feed on blood from vertebrates which they gain access to by biting through soft skin like the lips, hence the name. Some of them are very dangerous because they can spread Chagas disease. These are typically found in Central and South America, though, and the majority of kissing bugs in the United States are mostly harmless. However, they did cause a massive scare over a hundred years ago that made people fear that they were the victims of an epidemic.

It all started with one article published in the Washington Post on June 20, 1899. Police reporter James McElhone noticed that there was an unusually high number of people treated at the hospital for “bug bites”, even though none of the patients actually saw these bugs. From that, McElhone wrote a sensationalistic article which warned of insect attacks sweeping over the nation “like a plague”, injecting victims with dangerous poison. His article was picked up by other newspapers and, soon enough, it was a major story all through the country.

The frenzy lasted for about two months, time during which at least 100 cases were mentioned in the media. For a short while, the “kissing bug” became the most feared creature in the United States as people began attributing every bite or swelling on the face to the dreaded insect. Many people managed to capture their “attackers” and brought them to entomologists for analysis. To their surprise, they often discovered that what they captured were regular beetles, or houseflies, or bees. Chief entomologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Leland Howard labeled the scare as a “newspaper epidemic.” As soon as the media moved on to the next story, reports of these “kissing bug” attacks immediately subsided.

3. The Mad Gasser of Mattoon

In September 1944, the town of Mattoon, Illinois, was under siege by a madman who preyed on unsuspecting people by filling their homes with poisonous gas. Victims reported smelling strange odors which were soon accompanied by nausea, vomiting, headaches, and even leg paralysis. The gas attacks lasted for about two weeks and then they disappeared forever. Although there were over 20 cases reported, police concluded that they were all the work of mass hysteria and that the Mad Gasser never actually existed.

The criminal, also referred to as the “Anesthetic Prowler” in the media, first made headlines after an attack on September 1. In a small place like Mattoon, he soon became the talk of the whole town. New reports of gas attacks came in fast, oftentimes several in one day. 

The police chief soon had to call in help from the state police and the Army’s Chemical Corps. They were never able to find out the identity of the Mad Gasser or what kind of gas was used in his attacks. The Illinois Crime Bureau soon concluded that the criminal was not actually real. It all started with one woman’s overactive imagination and devolved into hysteria. Newspapers helped fan the flames of paranoia, as did the constant concern over World War II.

Today, the Mad Gasser of Mattoon is taught as a classic example of mass hysteria in college psychology classes. And yet there are still people who claim he was a real person. One of the suspects was Farley Llewellyen, a local outcast with a genius IQ and a talent for chemistry. Police never looked into him seriously for the gas attacks. 

2. The Great Fear

The late 18th century was a tumultuous time in France. The revolution started in 1789, brought down the monarchy and forever changed the history of Europe. Among the chaos, a mass panic emerged known as the Great Fear or “la Grande Peur” in its original French. Rumors of a conspiracy spread which said that the aristocracy intended to quell any unrest by starving the lower classes to death. In return, many peasants and townspeople banded together and attacked manor houses, driving the lords away from their homes. Consequently, the National Assembly abolished the feudal system in an attempt to stop the uprisings.  

The exact rumors surrounding this “famine plot” varied from region to region, but they generally involved large bands of brigands who traveled from one area to another and burned down the fields of crops. Modern historians suggested that, while some raiders may have roamed the countryside, their main goal was to steal and eat the food, not destroy it, and they weren’t in large enough numbers to pose a serious threat and they were certainly not employed by the aristocracy.

Historian Mary Matossian put forward the idea that the mass hysteria was caused by ergot poisoning. This has long been a favorite explanation for many such cases like the Salem witch trials and the number one entry on our list. Therefore, it is not surprising that someone would apply it to the Great Fear.

Ergot is a group of fungi, the most notorious of all being Claviceps purpurea which grows on rye and can contaminate food products made from its grain. People who consume ergot can experience symptoms such as delusions, violent spasms, and hallucinations. Other historians don’t think this was the case here. They are more inclined to believe the Great Fear was born out of a single rumor which grew exponentially as it spread to more and more towns.

1. The Dancing Plague

In 1518, the Holy Roman Empire had a very bizarre problem to deal with in Strasbourg – hundreds of people had started dancing and refused to stop for any reason. The only ones who would end their cavorting ways were the people who collapsed due to exhaustion or, in extreme cases, even dropped dead of strokes or heart attacks.

It all started one day in July with a single woman, noted in the record books as Frau Troffea. She danced without rest for six days straight and, by the end of the week, had gotten a few dozen other people to join in on the action. At the height of the panic, the dancing plague claimed over 400 participants.

The size of the non-stop party was likely exacerbated by the local authorities. Not knowing how to handle the event, they consulted doctors who concluded that this strange behavior was caused by “hot blood.” The only solution was more dancing. Therefore, the local council built a stage, hired musicians and kept the guildhalls open day and night. This didn’t seem to deter or cure anyone and, instead, only enabled more people to dance themselves to death. Authorities then took the dancers to a shrine dedicated to St Vitus and perform religious ceremonies, but it’s hard to tell if this had any effect, either. It appears the dancing plague simply petered out over the following weeks.

This was not the first case of dancing mania, but it remains the largest and most famous. And, like the others, we still aren’t sure what caused it. There are a few theories. Ergot poisoning is one of them, as we mentioned, but it doesn’t explain why all sufferers had the same reaction and how all those sick people had the energy to dance for days on end.

It is possible that all the people affected entered a trance state brought on by extreme psychological stress. Even by Middle Ages standards, the poor residents of Strasbourg did not have a pleasant life in 1518 as they were overwhelmed by bad harvests, leprosy, plague, and syphilis. 

Or it could be that the dancing panic of 1518 remains one of, if not the most compelling and bewildering case of mass hysteria in history.

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