Today’s post is by Larry Shockley, Archives Specialist in the Office of Innovation.
On October 30th, 1938 a “Very grave and serious situation” occurred in Trenton, New Jersey that, according to city manager Paul Morton, “crippled the communication facilities” of their police department. According to Morton, 2000 phone calls were received in 2 hours with many callers concerned that relatives had been killed in the “catastrophe” that was broadcast over WABC radio.
Written on October 31st, 1938, and received by the Federal Communications Commission the next day, Letter From Paul Morton (NAID: 596224) from General Correspondence of the Federal Communications Commission is one of hundreds of such letters received by the FCC in the months following the broadcast.
The source of this “Tremendous Excitement” was WABC Radio’s broadcast of Orson Welles and Mercury Theater on The Air’s production of War of The Worlds.
Now, 84 years later, this radio adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel of the same name, is a fascinating study into the usage of mass media propaganda and the intellectual and cultural climate of the era.
Despite the program gaining such an adverse reception from thousands of listeners, proof that not ALL listeners of this broadcast were frightened by its content was received almost simultaneously.
Written November 1st, 1938 and received three days later, Letter from J. V. Yaukey (NAID: 596223) from General Correspondence of the Federal Communications Commission, shows that some listeners enjoyed the program.
In his letter, Mr Yawkey stated:
“I was one of the thousands who heard this program and did not jump out of the window, did not attempt suicide, did not break my arm while beating a hasty retreat from my apartment, did not anticipate a horrible death, did not hear the Martians “rapping at my chamber door”, did not see the monsters landing in war-like regalia in the park across the street, but sat serenely entertained no end by the fine portrayal of a fine play.”
83 years later Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater on the Air broadcast of War of The Worlds stands as proof of the quote widely and perhaps inaccurately attributed to Abraham Lincoln:
“You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”