Excerpts from "the first rough draft of history" as reported in
The Washington Post on this date in the 20th century.
What some have come to mistakenly regard as an elaborate Halloween hoax was in reality nothing more than Orson Welles's vivid radio dramatization of the H.G. Wells tale "The War of the Worlds." The broadcast was so immediate and realistic, however, that many Americans actually believed New Jersey was under violent attack by Martians. An excerpt from The Post of Oct. 31, 1938:
By Marshall Andrews
Americans know today the chilling terror of sudden war, of meeting invasion from another world, unsuspecting and unready.
Between 8 and 9 o'clock last night listeners on the Columbia Broadcasting System network, especially those who came in late, gave way to apprehension, then stark terror. They heard, as if it were actually taking place, the description of an attack on New Jersey by horrible monsters who crashed down from Mars in a flaming meteor.
So unnerved were Americans at the prospect of invasion that at least two persons suffered heart attacks, hundreds fainted, men and women fled their homes, would-be fighters volunteered, hysteria swept the Nation for a long and fearful hour.
In their terror they telephoned and telegraphed relatives in the East, called friends for moral support, swamped police, newspapers, and radio stations with breathless queries. Federal, State and municipal offices were hard put to it calming frightened thousands.
At police headquarters here, in every precinct, in offices of the Park police, morning newspapers and Station WJSV, switchboards blazed with insistent lights.
Terrified, tearful voices asked, "What's it all about? Is it safe to stay here? Have they called the Army, the Navy, the Marines?"
They wanted to know if anyone were yet alive in New Jersey, if New York were being evacuated, if Washington would be in danger before morning. For an hour hysterical pandemonium gripped the Nation's Capital and the Nation itself.
Strangely enough, questioners who learned they were listening to a Nation-wide broadcast of H.G. Wells' fantastic story, "The War of the Worlds," as dramatized by Orson Welles for his Mercury Theater, were not relieved. They were angry, fiercely angry, and many demanded that police be called to halt the broadcast.
But police, even if they could have done anything, were having their own troubles. The Washington Detective Bureau called WJSV to get the latest, and said efforts were being made to reach police in New York. But at the same time, New York police, unable to contact the C.B.S. studio through its overtaxed switchboard, had sent a scout car for information.
So burdened were New Jersey State police that they finally put a reassuring message on their teletype, explaining the situation and instructing troopers to calm excited citizens.
In New York, physicians and nurses telephoned police to volunteer their services. In Washington, managers of two grocery chains asked WJSV if extra food supplies were needed in New Jersey and New York.
WJSV answered 470 telephone calls in that hectic hour. The Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Co. said that in the same time 9,000 calls were placed for the station, which its switchboard was unable to handle. Newark police received 2,000 calls.
This series runs on the back page of the comics Monday through Saturday. The entire series is available at www.washingtonpost.com