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
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.


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 (1990)

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

History Collection – The 1970s Witchcraft Trial and Other Oddities in Witch History