Panic Outbreaks That Shaped History and Controlled the Masses
Panic Outbreaks That Shaped History and Controlled the Masses

Panic Outbreaks That Shaped History and Controlled the Masses

Khalid Elhassan - May 22, 2021

Panic Outbreaks That Shaped History and Controlled the Masses
‘Examination of a Witch’, by T. H. Matteson, 1853. The Art Newspaper

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.

Panic Outbreaks That Shaped History and Controlled the Masses
The Salem Witch Trials were travesties of justice, without minimal due process. Vox

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.

Panic Outbreaks That Shaped History and Controlled the Masses
The hanging of Bridget Bishop, condemned at the Salem Witch Trials. Amazonia

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.

Panic Outbreaks That Shaped History and Controlled the Masses
Philip IV of Spain, by Diego Velazquez. The Frick Collection

7. When Rumors of Mass Poisoning Led to Mass Panic

In the seventeenth century, people throughout much of Europe were highly susceptible to fears about 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”.

Panic Outbreaks That Shaped History and Controlled the Masses
Milan in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Wikimedia

6. Collective Hysteria Sweeps Through a City

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.

Panic Outbreaks That Shaped History and Controlled the Masses
Fears of mass poisoning created a mass panic in Milan. Listverse

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.

Panic Outbreaks That Shaped History and Controlled the Masses
The execution of suspected poisoners and plague spreaders in Milan. Getty Images

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.

Panic Outbreaks That Shaped History and Controlled the Masses
Virginia McMartin, owner of the McMartin preschool, was falsely accused of absurd acts. NY Daily News

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“.

Panic Outbreaks That Shaped History and Controlled the Masses
The McMartin preschool. Investigation Discovery

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.

Panic Outbreaks That Shaped History and Controlled the Masses
Virginia McMartin and Ray Bucky. Daily News

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.

Panic Outbreaks That Shaped History and Controlled the Masses
Ira Reiner, the Los Angeles District Attorney who led – and lost – an absurd prosecution against the McMartin school staff. LA Police Reserve Foundation

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.

Panic Outbreaks That Shaped History and Controlled the Masses
Ray Bucky and hist mother, Virginia McMartin, at their trial. How Stuff Works

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.

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Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Bartholomew, Robert E. – Little Green Men, Meowing Nuns and Head-Hunting Panics: A Study of Mass Psychogenic Illness and Social Delusion (2001)

Bartholomew, Robert E., and Rickard, Bob – Mass Hysteria in Schools: A Worldwide History Since 1566 (2014)

BBC – People Have Always Whinged About Young Adults. Here’s Proof

Brown, David – A Guide to the Salem Witchcraft Hysteria of 1692 (1984)

Business Insider, March 10th, 2014 – How a Bogus Sex Abuse Accusation Fueled a Nationwide Hysteria

Destination Salem – Salem Witch Trials

Encyclopedia Britannica – Salem Witch Trials

Evans, Hilary, and Bartholomew, Roberts – Outbreak! The Encyclopedia of Extraordinary Social Behavior: Milan Poisoning Scare (2009)

History Collection – Mistakes That Changed History

Lefebvre, Georges – The Great Fear of 1789: Rural Panic in Revolutionary France (1973 English Translation)

Londonist – The Time Somebody Shot a Ghost Dead in Hammersmith

Mexican Studies, Vol. 16, No. 2, Summer, 2000 – The Los Angeles ‘Zoot Suit Riots’ Revisited: Mexican and Latin American Perspectives

Pagan, Eduardo Obregon – Murder at the Sleepy Lagoon: Zoot Suits, Race, and Riot in Wartime LA (2004)

Schama, Simon – Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (1989)

Social Problems Journal, Vol. 12, No. 3, Winter 1965 – The Phantom Slasher of Taipei: Mass Hysteria in a Non-Western Society

Social Science History, Volume 24, Number 1, Spring 2000 – Los Angeles Geopolitics and the Zoot Suit Riot, 1943

University of London Institute of Historical Research, Volume 55, Issue 32, November, 1982 – The Irish Fright of 1688: Real Violence and Imagined Massacre

Wikipedia – Irish Fright

Wikipedia – McMartin Preschool Trial

Wikipedia – Salem Witch Trials

Yorkshire Post, September 21st, 2017 – How the Curious Case of the Halifax Slasher Caused a Mass Outbreak of Hysteria

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