12 of History's Most Baffling Mass Hysteria Outbreaks
12 of History’s Most Baffling Mass Hysteria Outbreaks

12 of History’s Most Baffling Mass Hysteria Outbreaks

Khalid Elhassan - November 28, 2017

12 of History’s Most Baffling Mass Hysteria Outbreaks
William of Orange being welcomed to England during the Glorious Revolution. Emaze

Irish Fright of 1688

From the start of his reign, resentment simmered against Britain’s Catholic King James II, as his mostly Protestant subjects decried and feared his perceived machinations to restore Catholicism to the realm. The resentment was kept under control, however, as the concerned populace reasoned that the elderly monarch had no son, and when he died, would be succeeded by his staunchly Protestant daughter Mary, and her even more staunchly Protestant husband, William of Orange.

In 1688, however, king James unexpectedly had a son, removing at a stroke the option of running out the clock and waiting for the king’s eventual death and replacement by a Protestant successor. The simmering resentments came to a boil, setting in motion the Glorious Revolution that ended with the flight of King James II and his replacement on the British throne by his daughter Mary II and her husband William III.

In the interregnum between James’ flight and his replacement by William and Mary, there was no government and fears of anarchy and lawless violence gripped the country. The greatest manifestation of those fears came to be known as the Irish Fright, which centered around an Irish army that James II had brought to England towards the end of his reign in an attempt to prop up his tottering throne. That army was greatly resented and feared by the English, many of whom recalled and most of whom believed the (sometimes exaggerated) stories of widespread Irish massacres and depravities against Protestants during the Civil War a few decades earlier.

Many English people were thus primed to believe that the Irish were predisposed to savagery and capable of any atrocity. Against that backdrop, rumors began circulating in December of 1688 that the Catholic Irish forces quartered in England were readying themselves to fall upon the English to massacre, rape, and loot, to avenge the ouster of the Catholic king James. The Irish Fright began in earnest on the night of December 13th, 1688, when news arrived at Westminster that the ravening Irish were marching on London.

Fake news of preparations for atrocities were quickly followed by fake news of actual atrocities, as false reports that the Irish were putting English towns to the torch and massacring the inhabitants spread. The panicked English in London and surrounding shires rushed to arm themselves and form militias, erect fortifications, and patrol the countryside to guard against the imminent arrival of imaginary hordes of bloodthirsty Irish.

The Irish Fright subsided after a few days, and in hindsight, it seems that the rumors were begun, or at least spread, as part of an organized propaganda campaign by opponents of James II to further discredit his cause and to buttress that of William of Orange. When the latter landed in England at the head of a mostly foreign army, he was greeted not as an invader, but with raptures as a savior not only of the Protestant faith, but of the Protestants themselves from the feared depredations of the Irish.

12 of History’s Most Baffling Mass Hysteria Outbreaks
Accusers in the grip of mass hysteria swooning in court during Salem Witch Trials. How Stuff Works

Salem Witch Trials

Perhaps history’s most famous or infamous case of mass hysteria, the Salem Witch craze of 1692 – 1693 took place against a cultural and religious background that was predisposed to believe in the supernatural. While witchcraft is laughable to most today, in seventeenth-century Colonial America, and especially in Salem and the Massachusetts Bay Colony, it was taken quite seriously. The belief that the Devil could grant witches extraordinary powers in return for their loyalty, and that witchcraft could be used to inflict harm on the good and godly, was taken for granted.

It began in January of 1692 when the 9-year-old daughter and 11-year-old niece of Salem’s reverend started having screaming fits, during which they contorted themselves into unnatural positions, threw things, and made weird noises. A local doctor, finding no signs of physical ailment, blamed it on the supernatural. Soon, another young girl, aged 11, started exhibiting similar symptoms.

Examined by magistrates, the girls accused three women of bewitching them: the reverend’s black slave, Tituba, an elderly impoverished woman named Sarah Osborne, and a homeless beggar named Sarah Good. Osborne and Good protested their innocence, but for whatever reason – perhaps torture or perhaps a promise of leniency – Tituba confessed to having been visited by the Devil, whom she described as a black man who asked her to sign a book. Admitting that she signed, Tituba went on to point the finger at other “witches”.

The mass hysteria then erupted, and over the following months, a flood of accusations came pouring in, and the more farfetched they were, the more they solidified the populace’s belief in the potency of witchcraft and enhanced the panic. When the godly and regular churchgoer Martha Corey was accused of witchcraft, rather than give the good people of Salem pause, it merely redoubled their fears: if solid citizen Martha Corey could be a witch, then anybody could be a witch.

On May 27th, the colony’s governor ordered the establishment of a special court to try the accused, and its first victim was Bridget Bishop, an older woman known as gossip and with a reputation for promiscuity. Her protestations of innocence were unavailing, and she was convicted, sentenced to death, and hanged on June 10th in what became known as Gallows Hill. Five more were convicted and hanged in July, another five in August, and eight more that September.

The trials were marked by a lack of due process, and the use of “spectral evidence” – basically, testimony by witnesses that they dreamt or had a vision that the spirit or “spectre” of the accused witch did them harm. Thus, an accuser’s dream or vision that “Jane Doe bit, hit, and punched me“, was admissible evidence in court that Jane Doe had actually bit, hit, and punched the accuser, even if the unfortunate Doe was nowhere near the accuser that day – her spectre was. Respected theologian and reverend Cotton Mathers wrote the court cautioning against the use of spectral evidence, but was ignored.

The colony’s governor finally put an end to the trials and their ever-expanding circle of accusations when his own wife was accused of being a witch, by which point 200 people had been accused of witchcraft, and 20 had already been hanged. Eventually, the authorities admitted that the trials had been a mistake, and compensated the families of the wrongly convicted victims of the witch hunt. Thereafter, the Salem mass hysteria and resultant trials became synonymous with paranoia and injustice, and stand today as a cautionary tale about the dangers of religious extremism, false accusations, and the lack of due process.

12 of History’s Most Baffling Mass Hysteria Outbreaks
The killing of Thomas Millwood during the Hammersmith Ghost Hysteria. Crime Magazine

Hammersmith Ghost Hysteria

In November of 1803, reports began circulating of ghost sightings in the Hammersmith district in west London. Many thought that the ghost was that of a recent suicide buried in Hammersmith’s churchyard, which was in line with a widespread contemporary belief that suicides should not be buried in consecrated grounds, because their souls would then find no rest there.

The ghost was described by all who saw it as being very tall and dressed all in white, with some witnesses adding horns and glass eyes to the description. Alarm at the sightings quickly grew to widespread panic, and then mass hysteria, as more and more people stepped forward to report that they had not only seen the Hammersmith ghost, but had been attacked by it as well. In response, fearful citizens took to arms and began patrolling the neighborhood.

On the night of January 3rd, 1804, one of the armed citizens, Francis Smith, was on patrol when he came across a bricklayer, Thomas Millwood, returning home from a visit to his parents while clad in the typical clothing of his trade: white pants, white shirt, and white apron. Leveling his shotgun at what he took to be the ghost, Smith shot Millwood in the face, killing him instantly.

Smith was arrested and tried for willful murder. The presiding judge instructed the jury that establishing malice was not necessary for a conviction, and that all killings were either murder or manslaughter, absent extenuating circumstances that were not present here. Smith was duly convicted, then sentenced to death, which sentence was subsequently commuted to a year’s hard labor. As to the Hammersmith “ghost”, it later emerged that it was an elderly local shoemaker who wore the guise to frighten his apprentice.

12 of History’s Most Baffling Mass Hysteria Outbreaks
Police questioned many people while looking for the Halifax Slasher. How Stuff Works

The Halifax Slasher

In 1938, the town of Halifax in England was gripped by a mass hysteria that lasted for about two weeks, during which an imaginary attacker fell upon local women. It all began on the night of November 16th, 1938, when two young female employees of a local mill were attacked by an unknown man, and rushed to a nearby house for aid, with blood streaming down their heads from a wound apparently caused by a razor blade.

Police were called, a report was filed, and disquietude spread throughout the community. As described by the Halifax Courier, the local newspaper: “Until the culprit is found and effectively dealt with there is not likely to be much peace of mind, not only [locally] but further afield. The affair has created a tremendous sensation and it has thoroughly upset the people“.

Five days later, another young woman in the vicinity reported being attacked by a man, who left her with a deep and clean-cut to her wrist, as if from a razor. Notwithstanding a clear description of the attacker, police had no luck finding him. When three days later another victim stepped forward, the authorities turned to the public for leads, and the local newspaper carried the headline: “£10 police reward for the arrest of Halifax ‘Slasher’“.

With news that a “Slasher” was in their midst, mass hysteria gripped the community. Even as Scotland Yard was called in to help the local police, businesses in Halifax and its surroundings shut down. The panic grew apace as more and more reports, and rumors of reports, all of them unfounded, came pouring of new attacks by the Slasher in surrounding towns.

Out on the streets, wild-eyed vigilante groups were set up and started patrolling the region, which set upon and beat up many a stranger whom they came upon and mistakenly assumed was the Slasher. After a woman alleged that she had been attacked, a local Good Samaritan who had gone to help ended up being wrongly accused by vigilantes of being the Slasher, and was set upon by a mob. Only the intervention of police, who escorted him home, saved his life.

The mass hysteria finally began to subside when, on November 29th, one of the “victims” of the Halifax Slasher admitted that his injuries had been self-inflicted. Other supposed victims soon confessed that they, too, had made up the attacks, and after 9 of 12 “victims” confessed to self-harm, Scotland Yard concluded that there had never been a “Halifax Slasher” and closed the investigation. Five locals who had filed false reports were arrested and charged, of whom four ended up doing time in prison for public mischief.

12 of History’s Most Baffling Mass Hysteria Outbreaks
The crowded city streets of Taipei. Shutterstock

The Taipei Slasher

For a fortnight in 1956, the population of Taipei in Taiwan was terrorized by rumors of a crazed slasher roaming the streets, surreptitiously slicing people with a razor blade as he brushed past them, then disappearing into the crowds and teeming throngs of the city. About twenty-one victims were reported, mostly poor and poorly educated people from the lower classes.

A typical example was that of an older gentleman who told police that he had been slashed by a stranger. After a medical examination revealed that the injury was caused by a blunt object and could not have resulted from a razor, the “victim” admitted that he did not really know how he had been injured, but assumed that he must have been slashed “because of all the talk going around“.

Another example of a phantom slasher attack was caused by incompetent doctors who examined another older gentleman who showed up with a laceration on his wrist. When the patient casually mentioned that a stranger had brushed against him around the same time that he noticed the bleeding, the doctors put two and two together and came up with nine, attributed the wound to the feared slasher, and contacted police. A follow-up examination by more competent doctors revealed that the laceration was simply an old wound that had been reopened by scratching.

In reality, there had never been a slasher, but simply a mass delusion or hysteria, amplified by sensationalist press reporting. After thorough investigation, police concluded that the “victims” had simply suffered the kinds of everyday accidental cuts and slight injuries that most people endure from time to time without hardly noticing. In the fevered atmosphere of the slasher scare, people simply attributed any rip in their clothes or scratch on their bodies to a surreptitious attack from the imaginary slasher. As the final report of the police investigation put it, out of twenty-one reported “victims” of the crazed slasher: “five were innocent false reports, seven were self-inflicted cuts, eight were due to cuts other than razors, and one was a complete fantasy“.

12 of History’s Most Baffling Mass Hysteria Outbreaks
Schoolgirls in former Tanganyika, modern Tanzania. Baobab

Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic

In 1962 a mass hysteria episode, in which people started laughing uncontrollably, began in the village of Kashasha on the western shore of Lake Victoria in Tanganyika (modern Tanzania) and quickly spread throughout the surrounding region. By the time it subsided months later, the mass hysteria had affected thousands of people, and led to the closure of 14 schools.

It all started on January 30th, 1962, when a girl in a missionary boarding school had a fit of anxiety-induced laughter, and started cackling uncontrollably. She was soon joined by two of her friends, and it was not long before the contagion had spread and engulfed the school. Within a short time, 95 out of the school’s 159 students were also laughing uncontrollably. It got bad enough that the schoolgirls were unable to concentrate, and the school was forced to shut down 6 weeks later.

The afflicted students took their mass hysteria with them when they were sent back to their families, and within a short time of returning home, the contagion had spread from the schoolgirls to the surrounding community. Before long, students in other schools in the region were afflicted as well. The symptoms consisted in the main of recurring bouts of uncontrollable laughing and crying that lasted from a few hours to over two weeks, combined with a general restlessness, aimless running around, and the occasional resort to aggressive violence. Doctors could find no physical cause for the contagion.

By the time the mass hysteria subsided about a year later, 14 schools had closed down, and thousands had been afflicted. Subsequent investigation attributed the initial outbreak to stress among the schoolgirls, who found themselves in an alien environment within the missionary-run boarding school – the outbreak affected only the schoolgirls, without touching any of the teachers or staff. Beyond the school, the surrounding population was dealing with the stress and uncertainty of their country’s future, as Tanganyika had gained its independence only a month before the mass hysteria eruption.

12 of History’s Most Baffling Mass Hysteria Outbreaks
Ray Buckey and his mother Peggy McMartin during their trial. How Stuff Works

McMartin Preschool Child Abuse Hysteria

In 1983, a mentally unstable mother accused Ray Buckey, an employee of the McMartin preschool in Manhattan Beach, California, of raping her child. She also went on to add that people in the day school had sex with animals, that Ray Buckey’s mother and preschool owner Peggy McMartin had perforated a child under the arm with a power drill, and that “Ray flew in the air”.

Police were skeptical, but nonetheless sent a letter to other parents at the school, asking them to question their children about abuses at the school. As parents talked to their children and other parents, other accusations of child sexual abuse began trickling in, and soon turned to into a flood of wild, weird, and increasingly incredible accusations of sexual abuse that stretched credulity amidst a mass hysteria of false accusations.

Social workers were brought in to gather more information, and between a combination of incompetence and leading questions, the children’s accusations grew steadily wilder and more bizarre. In addition to being molested by Ray Buckey and his mother Peggy McMartin, the children alleged that they had been made to participate in satanic rites in which they were forced to drink the blood of a baby whom they had witnessed being sacrificed in church.

The children also said that they saw witches fly, that they had been abused in a hot air balloon and in (nonexistent) tunnels beneath the preschool, and one child claimed to have been sexually molested by actor Chuck Norris. Other children added that, after being abused in secret rooms, they were flushed down toilets, then cleaned up and presented to their parents.

Although the accusations were incredible, they came at a time when the country was in the grip of widespread fears of ritual sexual abuse of children, connected in some way to satanic worship and dark magic rites. With elections drawing near, ambitious Los Angeles District Attorney Ira Reiner unscrupulously sought to capitalize on the mounting public hysteria, and slapped Ray Buckey and his mother Peggy McMartin with 208 counts of child molestation.

Buckey and his mother were arrested in 1984, and the investigation lasted for three years, until 1987. Mother and son were then put through a 3-year trial, which lasted from 1987 to 1990. It was the longest and most expensive criminal trial in American history. At its conclusion, a jury acquitted Peggy McMartin of all charges, while Ray Buckey was acquitted of 52 of 65 charges, with the jury deadlocked on the remaining counts 10 to 2 in favor of acquittal. Those charges were then dropped, and the mass hysteria and subsequent trial concluded without a single conviction.


Sources For Further Reading:

Ozy – Mass Psychogenic Illness: From Dancing Plagues to Meowing Nuns

How Stuff Works – 10 Strangest Mass Hysterias

History Collection – American Hysteria: 5 Witch Hunts That Rocked the U.S. in the 20th Century

Medium – The Plague That Made People Dance Themselves to Death

BBC Culture – The Town That Nearly Danced Itself to Death

Library of Congress – The Case of a Ghost Haunted England for Over Two Hundred Years

History of Yesterday – Mass Hysteria and Murder: The Tale of the Hammersmith Ghost

STRANGE ATTRACTOR – The Ballad of the Halifax Slasher

Taiwan News – Taipei MRT Slasher Attacks Two Victims Within a Week

WNYC – The Trial That Unleashed Child Abuse Hysteria

History – The Mcmartin Preschool Trials

Oxygen – Everything You Need To Know About The Infamous McMartin Preschool Sex Abuse Case Mentioned In ‘Outcry’

LA Times – McMartin Case Cast Wide, Dark Shadow: Charges, Suspicion Resulted in 7 Area Preschools Closing