Early nineteenth-century London was swept by a tragicomic bout of collective hysteria about ghosts. It started out comic enough but ended up on the tragic end of the spectrum. It was kicked off in November 1803, when reports began circulating of ghost sightings in the Hammersmith district of West London. Many thought that the ghost was of a recent suicide buried in Hammersmith’s churchyard. That was in line with a widespread contemporary belief that suicides should not be buried in consecrated grounds because their souls would find no rest there.
Those who claimed to have seen the ghost described it as being very tall, and dressed all in white. Some witnesses added 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. New witnesses reported 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.
The patrolling of the Hammersmith district by armed vigilantes led to tragedy on January 3, 1804. That night, 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. Millwood was wearing the typical clothing of his trade: white pants, white shirt, and white apron. You can see where this is headed. Smith leveled his shotgun at what he took to be a ghost, and 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. The sentence was subsequently commuted to a year’s hard labor. As to the Hammersmith “ghost”, it later turned out to have been a prank by an elderly local shoemaker, who wore the guise to frighten his apprentice.
Antoinette Bourignon was a pious but mentally unstable seventeenth-century Frenchwoman, who founded a boarding school for girls in Lille, France. One day in 1639, when she entered a classroom, Madam Bourignon imagined that she saw a swarm of little black angels flying around the schoolgirls’ heads. Alarmed, she told the children to beware the devil, whose little black imps were buzzing all around them. Over time, she grew more and more obsessed with the imps hovering around her wards’ heads, and warned the schoolgirls daily to watch out for the Devil. Soon, the impressionable children came to believe that there were, indeed, little black demons flying all around them.
Before long, Satan and satanic possession were the sole topic of conversation. One of the girls ran away, too scared to stay in a school infested with little black devils who might possess her at any moment, as Madam Bourignon and her staff never tired of warning the students. When she was brought back, the girl claimed that she had not run away, but had been carried away by the Devil, and that she was a witch and had been one since she was seven-years-old. That absurd babbling by a child kicked off a witchcraft panic that threatened the lives of dozens of children.
12. A Religious Nut Educator Who Almost Got Dozens of Her Students Burned at the Stake for Witchcraft
When news spread in Madam Bourignon’s school that a student had confessed to being a witch, about fifty other schoolgirls started having fits. When they came to, they joined in a “me, too!” rush, and claimed to be witches as well. In their clamor to confess, the children competed to outdo each other as they described their supposed dark and fell deeds. Some claimed to ride on broomsticks. They were topped by others, who claimed they could pass through keyholes. They were trumped in turn by other girls’ claims that they feasted on the flesh of babies, or attended the Domdaniel, a gathering of the demons.
As a result, a formal investigation was launched. Some of Lille’s clergy and citizens were skeptical, but most thought that the children’s confessions were valid, and that an example should be made by burning all fifty schoolgirls at the stake as witches. Their lives were only spared after some of the skeptical clergy, aghast at what was about to happen, insisted that the investigators dig in deeper. It was only then that they discovered what the school’s headmistress had done to fill the girls’ heads with thoughts of demonic possession. The children were absolved, and the blame was shifted to Madam Bourignon. She barely escaped punishment after the authorities, unsure of her sanity and tired of the whole affair, ended the investigation.
The Salem Witch Panic of 1692 – 1693 took place against a cultural and religious background that was predisposed to believe in the supernatural. Witchcraft is laughable to most today, but 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.
What is probably history’s most famous, or infamous, bout of collective hysteria began in January 1692, when the nine-year-old-year-old daughter and eleven-year-old niece of Salem’s reverend started having screaming fits. During those bouts, they contorted themselves into unnatural positions, threw things, and made weird noises. A local doctor examined the children but found no signs of a physical ailment to explain the behavior. So he blamed it on the supernatural. Soon, another young girl, aged eleven, started exhibiting similar symptoms.
10. A False Confession That Triggered Public Hysteria and Opened the Floodgates of False Accusations
When magistrates questioned the weirdly-acting Salem girls, they claimed that they had been bewitched. The supposed culprits were three women of low social standing: Tituba, an indigenous South American indentured servant of Salem’s reverend, 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 because of torture or perhaps because she was given a promise of leniency – Tituba confessed to having been visited by the Devil.
Tituba described the Devil as a black man who had visited her and asked her to sign a book that made her a witch. She admitted that she had signed, and thus became a witch, and then went on to point the finger at other “witches”. Tituba’s confession and accusations caused mass panic and collective hysteria throughout Salem and the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In the following months, a flood of accusations came pouring in from all points of the compass.
9. The More Far-Fetched the Accusations, the More They Strengthened Rather Than Weakened the Belief in Witchcraft
It mattered little just how credible the accusations of witchcraft that flew around Salem and the Massachusetts Bay Colony were. Indeed, the more farfetched the accusations were, the more they solidified the public’s belief in the potency of witchcraft, and enhanced the mass hysteria and panic. When the godly and regular churchgoer Martha Corey was accused of witchcraft, it did not give the good people of Salem pause. Instead, it redoubled their fears: if solid citizen Martha Corey could be a witch, then anybody could be a witch.
On May 27, 1692, the colony’s governor ordered that a special court be established in order to try the accused. Its first victim was Bridget Bishop, an older woman who was known as a gossip, and who had a reputation for promiscuity. Her protestations of innocence were unavailing, and she was convicted, sentenced to death, and hanged on June 10, in what became known as Gallows Hill. Five more were convicted and hanged in July, another five in August, and eight more that September.
8. A Cautionary Tale of Collective Hysteria and Public Panic
The Salem Witch Trials were marked by a lack of due process. Most jarring to modern sensibilities was 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“, became admissible evidence 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 Mather wrote the court cautioning against the use of spectral evidence, but he was ignored.
The colony’s governor finally shut down the trials and the ever-expanding circle of accusations when his own wife was accused of being a witch. By then, the widespread panic had gotten over 200 people 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. The Salem panic 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.
7. When Rumors of Mass Poisoning Led to Mass Panic
In the seventeenth century, people throughout much of Europe were highly susceptible to fears of poisoning. Such fears sometimes mushroomed into episodes of mass panic. Specifically, people fretted that nefarious others planned to spread a plague throughout Christendom via sinister means, such as sorcery and witchcraft, or mysterious “poisonous gasses”. Those standing fears spiked into widespread panic and collective hysteria in the city of Milan, Italy, in 1629, when its governor received an alarming message from King Philip IV of Spain.
The royal message warned the authorities to be on the lookout for four Frenchman who had escaped from a Spanish prison. They might be en route to Milan, His Majesty noted, in order to spread the plague via “poisonous and pestilential ointments“. The result was mounting tensions in Milan, as alarmed citizens kept a wary lookout for suspicious characters. The public’s concern grew steadily, and the Milanese grew steadily more stressed out and frazzled as fears mounted of an imminent poisoning. The city sat thus on a powder keg for months, before it finally erupted into a mass panic that came to be known as “The Great Poisoning Scare of Milan”.
Milan’s mass poisoning panic started on the night of May 17, 1629, when some citizens reported seeing mysterious people placing what appeared to be poison in a cathedral partition. The city’s health officials went to the cathedral but found no signs of poisoning. The following morning, the Milanese woke up to an eerie discovery: all doors on the city’s main streets had been marked with a mysterious daub. When health officials inspected the daubs, they found nothing harmful in them.
The authorities concluded that the daubs were a prank by mischievous actors with a sick sense of humor, getting some laughs out of the citizens’ fears. Official reassurances were unavailing, however. Many Milanese, already on edge for months, took the mysterious daubs as a sign that the expected poison attack had finally arrived, and mass hysteria swept the city. As panic got a grip on the populace, the good people of Milan saw things that weren’t there and interpreted innocent acts in the most sinister ways possible.
5. In the Grip of Unchecked Panic, the Milanese Accused All and Sundry of Nefarious Acts
As fears in Milan mounted, mushroomed, and exploded into an unchecked panic, accusations of poisoning were hurled at random innocents, ranging from passersby on the streets, to various nobles. Before long, the Milanese, firmly in the clutches of a collective hysteria that grew exponentially with each passing day, took to pointing fingers at all and sundry. Even the most absurd accusations, including ones alleging that famous and powerful people from far away were seen in Milan personally committing acts of poisoning, were taken seriously.
Supposed culprits included Cardinal Richelieu of France, and General Wallenstein, commander of the armies of the Holy Roman Empire in the then-raging Thirty Years War. The Milanese could do nothing to Cardinal Richelieu or General Wallenstein, but they could do plenty – and did – to innocent people in their midst. Early victims included an elderly man who was seen wiping a bench in church before he sat down. A mob of fear-crazed women accused him of poisoning the seat, and seized and violently assailed him in church. They then dragged him to the magistrates and continued to beat him so badly on the way that he died before they got there.
4. Collective Hysteria Got So Bad in Milan That People Began to Voluntarily Accuse Themselves
Innocent victims of Milan’s poisoning panic included a pharmacist, whose potions led to accusations of his being in league with the Devil. After prolonged torture and stretching on the rack, he changed his protestations of innocence to a confession of guilt, and repeated whatever his torturers wanted to hear in order to end the pain. He admitted to helping the Devil and foreigners poison the city, and named accomplices who were innocent of any crime. They in turn were arrested and tortured, and to end their suffering, they named yet more innocents. Their torture produced more false confessions and the naming of more innocent “accomplices”, in a process that dragged in more and more victims.
All were tried, were convicted based on the confessions extracted under torture, and were executed. As the mass hysteria and mounting insanity tightened its grip on the fevered city, a high number of Milanese stepped forward to accuse… themselves. Many went to the magistrates and voluntarily confessed to amazing supernatural deeds, and described meetings with the Devil, witches, sorcerers, and sundry practitioners of black magic, in which they plotted to poison city. As reported, “The number of persons who confessed that they were employed by the Devil to distribute poison is almost incredible“. Many were executed based on their voluntary false confessions.
3. The Kindergarten Abuse Hysteria That Transformed the Lives of Innocents Into Living Hells
In 1983, Judy Johnson, a mentally unstable mother of a kindergarten toddler, accused Ray Buckey, an employee of the McMartin preschool in Manhattan Beach, California, of having molested her child. When questioned, the child let loose with a flood of fantastic allegations. They included that people in the day school had sex with animals, that Ray Buckey’s mother and preschool owner Virginia McMartin had perforated a child under the arm with a power drill, and that “Ray flew in the air“.
Understandably, the police were skeptical about such claims. However, out of an abundance of caution, they sent a letter to the parents of other toddlers at the school, and asked them question their children about abuses at McMartin. As parents talked to their kids and other parents, other accusations of child abuse began trickling in. Soon, police were inundated with a flood of wild, weird, and increasingly incredible accusations of molestation and other abuses at the preschool, that stretched credulity.
2. Incredible Allegations Did Not Stop This Investigation From Proceeding
The hysteria that engulfed the McMartin preschool took place against a backdrop of growing public panic about child molestation in America’s preschools. 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 claiming that they had been molested by McMartin preschool employees Ray Buckey and his mother Virginia McMartin, the children alleged that they had been made to participate in satanic rites.
Examples of such rites included drinking the blood of a baby, whom the children had witnessed being sacrificed in church. The preschoolers also said that they saw witches fly, that they had been abused in a hot air balloon, and in (nonexistent) tunnels beneath the preschool. One child claimed to have been 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.
1. Mass Hysteria and an Unscrupulous District Attorney Combined to Produce America’s Most Expensive Criminal Trial
Although the McMartin preschool accusations were incredible, they came at a time when America was gripped by widespread panic about demonic rituals involving the abuse of children. Such rituals were supposedly connected to satanic worship and dark magic, so the bizarre McMartin allegations found fertile soil in which to grow. With elections drawing near, ambitious Los Angeles District Attorney Ira Reiner unscrupulously sought to capitalize on the mounting public hysteria. So he slapped Ray Buckey and his mother Virginia McMartin with 208 counts of child molestation.
Buckey and his mother were arrested in 1984, and the investigation lasted for three years. Mother and son were then put through a three-year-trial, that lasted from 1987 to 1990. It was the longest and most expensive criminal trial in American history. At its conclusion, a jury acquitted Virginia 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 McMartin preschool hysteria and trial concluded without a single conviction.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading