34.6 million miles distant, the Red Planet is our nearest neighbor in the solar system. It was the God of Death to the Babylonians of 3000BC, lending its name to the war gods of Greek and Roman antiquity alike.
In the 19th century, amateur astronomer Percival Lowell was convinced that he saw canals on Mars, evidence of some great civilization. In 1898, H.G. Wells published a book about a Martian invasion of earth, beginning with a landing in England. On this day in 1938, the Mercury Theater of the Air brought that story to life.
The radio drama began with a statement that what followed was fictional. The warning was repeated at the 40 and 55-minute mark, and again at the end of the broadcast. It began with a weather report, and then went to a dance band remote, featuring “Ramon Raquello and his orchestra”. The music was periodically interrupted by live “news” flashes, beginning with strange explosions on Mars. Producer Orson Welles made his first radio appearance as the “famous” (but non-existent) Princeton Professor Dr. Richard Pierson, who dismissed speculation about life on Mars.
A short time later, another “news flash” reported that there had been a fiery crash in Grovers Mill, NJ. What was originally thought to be a meteorite was revealed to be a rocket machine as a tentacled, pulsating Martian unscrewed the hatch and incinerated the crowd with a death ray.
The dramatic technique was brilliant. Welles had his cast listen to the Hindenburg tape, explaining that was the “feel” that he wanted in his broadcast. Fictional on-the-spot reporter Carl Phillips describes the death ray in the same rising crescendo, only to be cut off in mid-sentence as it’s turned on him.
The 60-minute play unfolds with Martians wiping out a militia unit sent against them, and finally attacking New York City with poison gas.
Despite repeated notices that the broadcast was fictional, it’s been estimated that as many as 1.2 million thought the news was real. According to Grovers Mill folklore, a local named William Dock shot a water tower, mistaking it for a Martian in the moonlight. Traffic was jammed in both directions in the little town, as locals tried to get out, and curiosity seekers came to see what a Martian looked like.
The New York Times reported on Oct. 31, “In Newark, in a single block at Heddon Terrace and Hawthorne Avenue, more than 20 families rushed out of their houses with wet handkerchiefs and towels over their faces to flee from what they believed was to be a gas raid. Some began moving household furniture”.
The USA Today newspaper, reporting on the 75th anniversary of the broadcast, reported “The broadcast … disrupted households, interrupted religious services, created traffic jams and clogged communications systems,”
Then as today, supposed “victims” of the broadcast and their lawyers lined up to get paid for “mental anguish” and “personal injury”. All suits were dismissed, except for a claim for a pair of black men’s shoes, size 9B, by a Massachusetts man who had spent his shoe money to escape the Martians. Welles thought the man should be paid.
In the end, the War of the Worlds was what the broadcast described itself to be. A Halloween concoction. The equivalent of dressing up in a sheet, jumping out of a bush and saying, ‘Boo!’.