The Martian Chronicles
Published: 1998-10-01

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Two important themes in "The Gas Chamber of Sherlock Holmes" are that the mass gassing claims grew in part out of hysteria about poison gas usage, and in part out the repetition of gassing rumors over the radio, particularly the state-controlled BBC in Britain. A pre-war incident where these two themes converged was the notorious "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast of October 30, 1938. The following contemporaneous newspaper clippings and quotes from Martian Invasion "survivors" derive from Howard Koch’s The Panic Broadcast, New York: Avon, NY, 1970:

THE NEW YORK WORLD TELEGRAM, November 1, 1938

"It is strange and disturbing that thousands of Americans, secure in their homes on a quiet Sunday evening, could be scared out of their wits by a radio dramatization of H. G. Welles' fantastic old story, The War of the Worlds. [....] Mr. [Orson] Welles did not plan deliberately to demoralize his audience. But nerves made jittery by actual, though almost incredible, threats of war and disaster, had prepared a great many American radio listeners to believe the completely incredible ‘news’ that Martian hordes were here.

“Of course, it could never happen again. But we don't agree with those who are arguing that the Sunday night scare shows a need for strict government censorship of radio programs. On the contrary, we think it is evidence of how dangerous political control of radio might become. If so many people could be misled unintentionally, when the purpose was merely to entertain, what could designing politicians not do through control of broadcasting stations."

THE NEW YORK TIMES, October 31, 1938 Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama as Fact "Despite the fantastic nature of the reported occurrences, the program, coming after the recent war scare in Europe and a period in which the radio frequently interrupted regularly scheduled programs to report developments in the Czechoslovak situation, caused fright and panic throughout the area of the broadcast. [....] Many sought first to verify the reports. But large numbers, obviously in a state of terror, asked how they could follow the broadcast's advice and flee from the city, 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 had been worrying residents of London and Paris during the tense days before the Munich agreement.” [....]

[....] “The incident at Hedden Terrace and Hawthorne Avenue, in Newark, one of the most dramatic in the area, caused a tie-up in traffic for blocks around. The more than twenty families there apparently believed a ‘gas attack’ had started and so reported to the police. An ambulance, three radio cars, and a police emergency squad of eight men were sent to the scene with full inhalator apparatus. They found the families with wet cloths on their faces contorted with hysteria. The police calmed them, halted those who were attempting to move furniture on their cars and after a time were able to clear the traffic snarl. [....] East Orange police headquarters received more than 200 calls from persons who wanted to know what to do to escape the ‘gas.’"

"MARS PANIC" USEFUL (column by Hugh S. Johnson, November 2, 1938)

"... the incident is highly significant. It reveals dramatically a state of public mind. Too many people have been led by outright propaganda to believe in some new and magic power of air attack and other developments in the weapons of war.”

MR. WELLES AND MASS DELUSION (column by Dorothy Thompson, November 2, 1938)

"The immediate moral is apparent if the whole incident is viewed in reason: no political body must ever, under any circumstances, obtain a monopoly of radio.

“The second moral is that our popular and university education is failing to train reason and logic, even in the educated.

“The third is that the popularization of science has led to gullibility and new superstitions, rather than to skepticism and the really scientific attitude of mind.

“The fourth is that the power of mass suggestion is the most potent force today and that the political demagogue is more powerful than all the economic forces.”

A SURVIVOR SEES GERMANS (Koch, op. cit., p. 103)

"The announcer said a meteor had fallen from Mars and I was sure he thought that but in the back of my head I had an idea that the meteor was just a camouflage. It was really an airplane like a zeppelin that looked like a meteor and the Germans were attacking us with gas bombs."

ANOTHER SURVIVOR REMEMBERS (Koch, op. cit., p. 89)

"My wife and I were driving through the redwood forest in Northern California when the broadcast came over our car radio. At first it was just New Jersey but soon the things were landing all over, even in California. There was no escape. All we could think of was to try to get back to LA to see our children once more. And be with them when it happened. We went right by gas stations but I forgot we were low on gas. In the middle of the forest our gas ran out. There was nothing to do. We just sat holding hands expecting any minute to see those Martian monsters appear over the tops of the trees. When Orson said it was a Halloween prank, it was like being reprieved on the way to the gas chamber."


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Author(s): Samuel Crowell
Title: The Martian Chronicles
Sources: Smith's Report, no. 58, October 1998, pp. 6f.
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Published: 1998-10-01
First posted on CODOH: Oct. 28, 2015, 5:36 a.m.
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