It was on this day in 1938 that a cylindrical Martian spaceship landed in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, and began incinerating onlookers with an alien heat ray, an event that was covered by the Columbia Broadcasting System and its affiliated stations, and that caused widespread alarm and mass hysteria. News of the attack interrupted a program of live dance music, the reports growing more frequent and ominous as the hour wore on, until the New Jersey state militia had been obliterated and three Martian tripod battle machines began ravaging the landscape.
Of course, the broadcast was a hoax, a cleverly crafted Halloween prank composed of simulated on-the-spot news bulletins based on the H.G. Wells novel, The War of the Worlds. The broadcast had been prefaced with the announcement that what would follow was a dramatic presentation by Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre on the Air, but many listeners missed the introduction and panic ensued. People in New Jersey fled the area convinced they could smell poison gas and see fiery flashes from the tripods in the distance. But no, it was just New Jersey.
It has been estimated that of the 6 million people who heard the original broadcast, more than 1.5 million believed it to be true and more than a million others were genuinely terrified, and contemporary accounts tell of police stations swamped with calls. Isn’t that fun? Within a month there were more than 12,000 newspaper articles on the broadcast and its impact, and as far away as Germany Adolf Hitler is said to have cited it as “evidence of the decadence and corrupt condition of democracy.” Many listeners sued the network for mental anguish, claims that were all denied save one for a pair of size nine black shoes, by a man from Massachusetts who complained he’d had to spend what he’d saved for new shoes to escape the invading Martians. Orson insisted that that claim be reimbursed.
Orson and the Mercury Theatre were censured, but the broadcast secured Orson an instant, notorious fame. In 1988, Grover’s Mills, New Jersey, celebrated its hour of fame by installing a Martian Landing Site monument near Grover’s Mill Pond, not far from the remains of a water tower shot to pieces by its frightened residents 50 years before.
Ah, the good old days.