Stunningly Stupid Moral Panics From History

Stunningly Stupid Moral Panics From History

Khalid Elhassan - November 12, 2022

Public panic – especially of the moral kind – has cropped up with regular frequency to plague societies throughout history. Take the First Red Scare, a period of mass public fear that led to police and government abuses so extensive that they birthed the American Civil Liberties Union. Or less heavy, a 1920s moral panic about canoes and their potential use by youngsters to get it on. Below are twenty five things about those panics and other widespread mass hysteria bouts from history.

Stunningly Stupid Moral Panics From History
A contemporary cartoon depicting a European anarchist trying to destroy the Statue of Liberty. Memphis Commercial

America’s Other Anti-Communism Panic

Many people are aware of America’s 1950s Red Scare, when demagogues like Senator Joseph McCarthy whipped up fears of communism into a widespread panic. Many careers and lives were ruined in modern witch hunts, as those suspected of communism – or those simply accused of being communist even though they were not – were persecuted, boycotted, and blacklisted. However, that 1950s panic was not the only time that America went into an anticommunist hysteria. The country had experienced another Red Scare, just as intense but far less known today, in the immediate aftermath of World War I. Early twentieth century America widely feared radical leftists. By the end of WWI, those fears combined with distrust of foreigners in general, whom Americans blamed for the war. The recent Bolshevik revolution in Russia and its bloody course did not help.

Stunningly Stupid Moral Panics From History
Media coverage of the 1919 anarchist bombings. New York Tribune

It was a potentially toxic mix, whose potential was realized when followers of an Italian anarchist sent dozens of mail bombs to prominent Americans in April, 1919. Two months later, on June 2nd, the anarchists set off nine bombs in eight cities across the country. They were accompanied by flyers that read: “War, Class war, and you were the first to wage it under the cover of the powerful institutions you call order, in the darkness of your laws. There will have to be bloodshed; we will not dodge; there will have to be murder: we will kill, because it is necessary; there will have to be destruction; we will destroy to rid the world of your tyrannical institutions“. The result was a major panic, and what came to be known as the First Red Scare.

Stunningly Stupid Moral Panics From History
Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, right, with President Woodrow Wilson. Library of Congress

A Very Tense Year

The summer of 1919 was tense in America. The Spanish flu would eventually kill as many Americans as Covid-19, in a population about a third the size of 2022’s, race riots raged, and major strikes caused serious disruptions. The anarchist bombings on top of all that led many to imagine a vast and coordinated communist conspiracy to tip America over into revolution. In response, US Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, whom anarchists had tried to bomb twice in 1919, set out to suppress radical organizations. From late 1919 through early 1920, he organized a series of nationwide police actions that came to be known as the Palmer Raids. Wartime laws such as the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918 had criminalized many forms of speech. The Sedition Act in particular had criminalized disloyal language, whether spoken or written, against the US government.

Stunningly Stupid Moral Panics From History
Union office of the International Workers of the World, after it was raided by Palmer’s agents. Explore PA History

With many Americans in the grip of panic about a Bolshevik style revolution in the US, Palmer weaponized those statues to go after radicals. As tensions mounted in the summer of 1919, US Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer startled the House Appropriations Committee with alarmist testimony. He falsely stated that radicals planned to “rise up and destroy the government in one fell swoop“. He requested a huge budget increase to thwart that, but the committee eventually gave him only 5% of what he had asked for. Thwarted but undaunted, Palmer ordered the arrest of a New York anarchist group, and charged them under a Civil War law. A federal judge swiftly tossed out the case on grounds that the defendants wanted to change the government through their free speech rights, not violence. Criminal statutes did not get Palmer what he wanted, so he turned to immigration laws.

Stunningly Stupid Moral Panics From History
Men arrested in the Palmer raids await deportation hearings at Ellis Island. Corbis

In the Grip of Panic, Much of America Applauded Widespread Government Abuses and Civil Rights Violations

Attorney General Palmer turned to Plan B: the use of immigration law to go after alien leftists, who could be deported regardless of whether they were violent or not. A 24-year-old J. Edgar Hoover was ordered to investigate and identify the targets. That November, Palmer oversaw a nationwide police dragnet that went after labor activists, socialists, communists, and anarchists. The operation particularly focused on Eastern European Jews and Italian immigrants, and sought to deport them along with other “undesirable” foreigners. Basic civil rights were ignored – Hoover later admitted to “clear cases of brutality” – as roughly 10,000 were rounded up across the country. Of those, approximately 3500 were held in detention. Eventually, 556 resident aliens and naturalized citizens were deported.

Stunningly Stupid Moral Panics From History
A contemporary cartoon applauding the Palmer raids. Newsela

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was founded in response to the raids. It released a report that carefully documented illegal arrests, entrapment, and unlawful detentions. At the time, however, most of the country, still in grip of panic and a Red Scare, applauded the Palmer raids. Finally, in June, 1920, a federal judge decried the Department of Justice’s actions, and ordered the release of seventeen detained aliens. He wrote: “a mob is a mob, whether made up of Government officials acting under instructions from the Department of Justice, or of criminals and loafers and the vicious classes“. That finally brought the raids to an end.

Stunningly Stupid Moral Panics From History
Awareness that some people were doing this sent prudes into a frenzy and triggered a moral panic. Toronto Star

A Moral Panic Over Canoes

In the days before car ownership spread and backseats became ground zero for make out sessions, America’s youth often coupled in canoes. Early twentieth century American youth had limited options for romantic spots. So they took to the water. Canoes had recently become widely available, and they offered youngsters an escape from finger-wagging parents and baleful chaperones, and a bit of privacy for a bit of romance. Canoe sales and permits exploded, and teenagers took to the water with the urgency of salmon fighting their way upstream to spawn. In Minneapolis, for example, 200 canoe permits were issued in 1910. Two years later, that figure skyrocketed to more than 2000.

Stunningly Stupid Moral Panics From History
A postcard advertisement for Old Town Canoes openly jokes about their intended use. Collectors Weekly

The term “canoedling” was coined for watery romance. Unsurprisingly, the buzzkill pious and prudes, appalled at the thought that some people might be having fun somewhere, hit the alarm buttons for a moral panic. The Minneapolis Tribune warned the public that: “Girl Canoeists’ Tight Skirts Menace Society“. Other coverage decried the “misconduct in canoes” that threatened to “bring shame upon the city“. A midnight curfew was declared, and park police began to patrol the waterways in motorized boats equipped with spotlights to catch and fine canoedling canoeists. The canoe romance trend finally died out in the 1920s, when cars and car backseats became more widely available.

Stunningly Stupid Moral Panics From History
King Philip IV of Spain. Frick Collections

A Seventeenth Century Poison Panic

Europeans of the seventeenth century were prone to fears that nefarious people planned to spread a plague throughout Christendom through sinister means like sorcery and witchcraft, or mysterious “poisonous gasses”. Such fears were exacerbated in the city of Milan, Italy, after its governor received an alert in 1629 from King Philip IV of Spain. It warned him to be on the lookout for four Frenchman who had escaped from a Spanish prison and might be headed to Milan to spread the plague via “poisonous and pestilential ointments“.

Tensions mounted in Milan as the alarmed citizens kept a wary lookout for suspicious characters, and continued to rise for months after the royal warning. People grew steadily more stressed out and frazzled as fears mounted of an imminent poisoning. The city sat thus on a powder keg for some time, before it finally erupted in what came to be known as “The Great Poisoning Scare of Milan”. The panic began on the night of May 17th, when some citizens thought they saw mysterious people place what appeared to be poison in a cathedral partition.

Stunningly Stupid Moral Panics From History
Milan in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Wikimedia

Public Fears Were Fanned Into a Panic With a Sick Prank

Milan’s health officials went to the cathedral, but found no signs of poison. The next day, the Milanese woke to find that all doors on the main streets had been marked with a mysterious daub. Health officials inspected the daubs, and decreed that they were not harmful. They concluded that it was a prank by some mischievous actors with a sick sense of humor, out to get some laughs out of the citizens’ fears. Official reassurances did not stem the panic, however. The Milanese took the mysterious daubs as a sign that the expected poison attack had finally arrived, and went into a citywide bout of mass hysteria. Before long, they began to accuse random people of acts of poisoning.

The accused varied widely. They ranged from passersby on the streets, to various nobles, to Cardinal Richelieu of France or General Wallenstein, commander of the armies of the Holy Roman Empire in the then-raging Thirty Years War. Among the early victims of the panic was an elderly man who was spotted wiping a bench in church before he sat down. A mob of crazed women accused him of poisoning the seat, and violently assailed him in church. They then dragged him to the magistrates, and continued to beat him on the way. They ended up killing him en route.

Stunningly Stupid Moral Panics From History
The execution of suspected poisoners and plague spreaders in seventeenth century Milan. Getty

As Hysteria Reached a Fever Pitch, People Began to Falsely Accuse Themselves

More tragic was the case of a pharmacist who was accused of conspiracy with the Devil when he was found with unknown potions. He was tortured and stretched on the rack, until 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 that he was in league with Satan and foreigners to poison the city, and named other accomplices who in reality were innocent of any crime. They in turn were arrested and tortured. To end the pain, they named yet more innocents. Wash, rinse, and repeat, as more and more were tortured to make false confessions, and implicate more innocents who were tortured to confess and implicate yet more innocents.

All were tried, convicted based on the confessions extracted under torture, and executed. As the mass panic and widespread public insanity tightened its grip on the fevered city, many Milanese stepped forward to accuse… themselves. They voluntarily went to the magistrates, and confessed to dark deeds of the supernatural. Imaginary meetings with the Devil, witches, sorcerers, and sundry practitioners of black magic, were described, 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.

Stunningly Stupid Moral Panics From History
Smallpox vaccination. National World

An Irrational Movement That Has Been Around for Some Time

Vaccination is the most effective method to prevent or combat infectious diseases. The use of vaccines on a global scale in the modern era has been one of humanity’s greatest triumphs. Vaccination and the resultant widespread immunity have eradicated the deadly smallpox – a highly infectious contagion that killed about 10% to 30% of those caught it, and scarred, blinded, or otherwise disfigured survivors. Vaccines have also eliminated diseases such as tetanus and polio from much of the world. Numerous studies over the years have verified the effectiveness of vaccination.

Unfortunately, an eruption – or more like resurgence – of dumb beliefs that lack any scientific support have triggered an anti-vaccination panic among many, that threatens to undo much of that progress. For example measles, a highly infectious disease that killed millions around the world every year until as recently as the 1980s, saw its fatalities drop to only 73,000 a year because of widespread vaccination. Measles was all but eradicated in America. Then a wave of vaccine resistance, based on science-y sounding gibberish and fraudulent studies, fueled a comeback. As seen below, such irrational resistance has historic precedent. Anti-vaccine advocates have been around since vaccines were first invented.

Stunningly Stupid Moral Panics From History
Early vaccination. The New York Times

The Early Origins of Vaccination

Irrational resistance to inoculation cropped up even before vaccines were invented. Variolation is the first recorded method to immunize people against an infectious disease, smallpox. Named after the illness’ strains, Variola minor and Variola major, material was taken from a recently infected person, and given to the hale to produce a mild infection. The deliberately variolated individual developed some small and localized postules, just like those caused by smallpox. After about a month, they subsided, and whatever mild disease symptoms had cropped up faded away. That left the recipient immune from future – and decidedly more dangerous – bouts of illness.

The risk of death was around 0.5% to 2%. Significant, but still far better than the risk of a regular smallpox infection. First used in China in the fifteenth century, the method spread to India, the Middle East and Africa, and eventually reached Britain and North America in the eighteenth century. Testing was crude and by modern standards controversial: in 1722, six condemned inmates at Newgate Prison were offered their freedom if they agreed to get variolated and then exposed to smallpox. The test was a success, and variolation spread – but not without a moral panic and vehement resistance from some segments of the public.

Stunningly Stupid Moral Panics From History
Cotton Mather. Columbia University

America’s First Anti-Vaccine Movement

Resistance to variolation took root among some of the public’s more reactionary segments. The method triggered a panic, despite the fact that it had demonstrated its ability to control smallpox. In 1721, for example, a smallpox outbreak infected more than half of Boston’s population of 10,600, and killed 844 people. In the American Colonies’ first experiment with public inoculation, prominent Puritan minister Cotton Mather partnered up with Harvard physician Zabdiel Boylston to varioalte hundreds of Bostonians. The reaction birthed America’s first dumb anti-vaccination movement.

Many outraged New Englanders attacked the inoculation effort. The New England Courant, one of America’s first newspapers, published sensationalist articles against the endeavor. As one of them put it: “Some have been carrying about instruments of inoculation, and bottles of poisonous humor, to infect all who were willing to submit to it. Can any man infect a family in the morning, and pray to God in the evening that the distemper will not spread?” As seen below, it was the start of a nasty – even compared to modern standards – anti-vaccine campaign.

Stunningly Stupid Moral Panics From History
Variolation coverage appeared in the first edition of the New England Courant, one of America’s first newspapers. US History Org

Benjamin Franklin Whipped Up an Anti-Vaccination Panic

Only 2% of those variolated by Zabdiel Boylston died. That was way better than the 15% death rate of Bostonians who had naturally contracted the disease. Nonetheless, Boston’s City Council condemned inoculation, and Dr. Boylston was assaulted on the streets and forced to hide. As the anti-vaccine panic spread, Cotton Mather had a crude bomb thrown into his house. Fortunately, it was so crude and constructed in what turned out to be such an ineptly dumb fashion, that it failed to explode. Tied to it was a note that read: “Cotton Mather, I was once of your meeting, but the cursed lye you told of – you know who, made me leave you, you dog, and damn you, I will inoculate you with this, with a pox on you!

Religion drove much of the opposition. For example, a Boston clergyman declared that inoculation was sinful because it was “not in the Rules of Natural Physick“. In what comes across as a bizarre twist to modern sensibilities, angry and violent Bostonian anti-vaccine mobs even forced the inoculated into quarantine on Spectacle Island, four miles offshore in Boston Harbor. One of America’s first newspapers, the New England Courant, pumped out a steady stream of satirical anti-vaccine articles. Its editor was Benjamin Franklin. The future Founding Father was sixteen-years-old at the time, and like many teenagers, he did not miss the opportunity to troll.

Stunningly Stupid Moral Panics From History
The US Supreme Court held that mandatory vaccination is quite constitutional. Wikimedia

The Supreme Court Rejected Objections to Mandatory Vaccination

Smallpox outbreaks in late nineteenth century America led to more widespread vaccination campaigns. Those, in turn, brought all the anti-vaccine objections out of the wood works. Panic over vaccines led to the 1879 founding of the Anti Vaccination Society of America. Other organizations followed, such as the New England Anti Compulsory Vaccination League, founded in 1882, and the Anti Vaccination League of New York City in 1885. American vaccine opponents sued to repeal vaccination laws in several states, but lost. The most prominent of those cases began in 1902 after a smallpox outbreak in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when the board of health mandated the vaccination of all residents. A Henning Jacobson refused to get vaccinated on grounds that he should be able to do as he pleased with his own body.

Jacobson was criminally charged, convicted, and appealed all the way to the US Supreme Court. In Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 US 11 (1905), the court upheld the authority of states to enforce compulsory vaccination laws to protect the public from infectious diseases. It also ruled that individual liberty is not absolute, but must give way to the state’s police power. Subsequent decisions reaffirmed Jacobson and the primacy of the state’s power over individual rights when it comes to public health. They include Zucht v. King in 1922, which held that schools could deny admission to students who failed to receive required vaccinations.

Stunningly Stupid Moral Panics From History
MMR vaccine. University of Washington

The British Origins of the Modern Anti-Vaccination Movement

British anti-vaccine activists were instrumental in the spread of opposition to vaccination in America. In the nineteenth century, British anti-vaccine activist William Tebb helped found the Anti Vaccination Society of America. In the late twentieth century, another British vaccine opponent, Andrew Wakefield, fueled yet another anti-vaccination panic across the Pond. Wakefield was a doctor who published a relatively obscure study in The Lancet – a prestigious medical journal. In it, he alleged that he had discovered a link between the combined measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine, and autism. His claims were widely reported, and led to a drop in vaccination rates in the United Kingdom, Ireland, and eventually, the US.

Many children died or suffered serious permanent injuries as a result. That was bad. What was even worse is that the study published in The Lancet was fraudulent. Not as in “controversial”, or “poorly researched” or “mistaken”, but as in straightforward deliberately fraudulent. As in the serious and deliberate type of criminal fraud for which fraudsters lose the license to practice their profession. That fraud gave birth to an irrational movement that has killed or seriously injured many, and threatens to kill or seriously harm many millions more.

Stunningly Stupid Moral Panics From History
Andrew Wakefield. MPR News

The Fraudulent Origins of a Reactionary Movement

The publication of Dr. Wakefield’s study generated significant interest and controversy. So other large scale studies were conducted to follow through and shed more light on his claims. Researchers were unable to find any evidence to support his findings or replicate his work. So attention then shifted to the examination of Dr. Wakefield’s methodology. Just how did the British physician arrive at his conclusions that linked the MMR vaccine to autism? It turned out that he had simply fabricated the evidence.

Wakefield did not make “mistakes” in his research. He simply made up much of the research, and invented it out of thin air. To ice the cake – and transform the British physician from an incompetent researcher or crank into a cartoonish villain – it was discovered that Wakefield had been paid 55,000 British Pounds to claim that MMR vaccines caused autism. That was just the tip of the iceberg. It turned out that Wakefield stood to make tens of millions of US dollars per year from his fraudulent study.

Stunningly Stupid Moral Panics From History
The Lancet retracted Andrew Wakefield’s article after the fraud came to light. The Times, UK

The Study That Originated this Movement Was Exposed as a Fraud and Withdrawn

Dr. Wakefield did not mention some important things when he submitted his study to The Lancet. He not only concealed just how much he was paid to make those claims, but how much he stood to make down the road from his fraud. The British physician stood to earn up to U$ 43 million per year from the sale of test kits linked to his bogus study on the supposed connection between vaccines and autism. On top of that, several of the parents used in his “study” were litigants engaged in lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies.

With egg on The Lancet’s face, its editor in chief wrote: “It seems obvious now that had we appreciated the full context in which the work reported in the 1998 Lancet paper by Wakefield and colleagues was done, publication would not have taken place“. After the vaccine study was revealed as a fraud, it was retracted by The Lancet. As to Dr. Wakefield, he was found guilty by British medical authorities of serious professional misconduct and fraud, and had his medical license revoked.

Stunningly Stupid Moral Panics From History
The revelation that Wakefield’s study was fraudulent made no difference to those who wanted to believe his lies. Medium

To Those Who Want to Believe, Truth is Irrelevant

A lie travels halfway around the world while the truth is still tying its bootlaces. By the time Wakefield’s fraud was uncovered, his bogus findings had triggered an anti-vaccine panic within certain population segments. They went on to seed an irrational movement impervious to reason or facts, and became fervent opponents of vaccination. It did not matter that the study upon which their activism is based has been debunked as a fraud. Those activists went on, and convinced many of the poorly informed, poorly educated, or gullible, that vaccines are bad for children.

Stunningly Stupid Moral Panics From History
Because of anti-vaccine activists, measles, once all but eradicated, is making a comeback. India National Government Health Portal

Thus, one of humanity’s greatest medical advances, which helped end widespread epidemics that killed most children before they reached adulthood, is threatened. Childhood diseases that had been all but eliminated have returned, and more and more unvaccinated are destined to die or suffer grave illnesses that leave them crippled for life. As such, this fraud has been described as the worst hoax of the past century – a fraud that has already killed or maimed many children, and has the potential to kill or maim millions more.

Stunningly Stupid Moral Panics From History
The storming of the Bastille. Wikimedia

The French Revolution’s Mass Panic

As the French Revolution raged, the peasants and urban poor of the Ancien regime, abused for centuries, came to see their aristocratic oppressors as more than a parasitic class that lived in luxury off their toil and sweat. Many came to view them in demonic terms, and believed that they were out to do evil just for the sake of evil. Conspiracy theories abounded about what the elites were up to, chief among them the Pacte de Famine, or Famine Plot. It was born of a poor understanding of the economics of supply and demand. From 1715 – 1789, France’s population had increased by 6 million, from 22 million to 28 million. Grain output did not increase at the same pace. Accordingly, higher demand for the same amount of grain led to higher prices.

However, many attributed the price increases not to basic economics. Instead, they suspected a plot by the elites to deliberately withhold grain in order to starve the poor into subservience. In 1789, grain shortages led to higher bread prices that hit the lower classes hard. In their distress, the poor’s belief in the Famine Plot evolved to include not only diabolical schemes to starve them, but to murder and burn them as well. Driven by a panic aptly named “The Great” Fear, France’s poor took matters into their own hands, and went after the elites. To be fair, France’s upper classes had it coming for centuries of exploitation. However, they were innocent of the Hunger Plot.

Stunningly Stupid Moral Panics From History
The Great Fear. Pinterest

A Revolution Saved by Fake News and Mass Hysteria

It is through the lens of Paris that the 1789 French Revolution is often viewed. Many of the most dramatic events took place there, and the key figures who grabbed the limelight mostly did so in the French capital. However, without support from the peasants – the bulk of France’s population – or at least their consent to do away with the aristocratic order, the revolution would probably have fizzled. Ironically, peasant support did not result from knowledge and approval of what was going on in Paris. They were often clueless about the goings on in the French capital, and little understood their significance. Instead, peasant support of the revolution was caused by a flood of fake news and rumors that drove them into a panic. To wit, that the elites were about to execute the Famine Plot.

The peasants believed that the French nobility had engineered grain shortages to starve them, and thus force them back into submission and obedience. That was not enough, however. The aristocrats wanted to speed up the subjugation of the peasants. So they supposedly also summoned foreigners to burn the peasants’ crops, and hired bandits to loot their meager possessions, abuse and have their way with the women, murder the men, and burn their houses. France’s peasantry might not have understood the Enlightenment ideals and issues being debated in Paris in 1789. They understood, however, the fear of evil elites who plotted to harm them. So they acted, and through their actions, unintentionally supercharged and saved the French Revolution.

Stunningly Stupid Moral Panics From History
French lower classes storm and pillage a mansion in Strasbourg, July 21st, 1789. Gallica Digital Library

The Aptly Named “Great Fear”

A mass panic that came to be known as “The Great Fear” swept rural France from July 22nd to August 6th, 1789. Armed peasants, sometimes supported by artisans and local bourgeoisie, went after aristocratic estates, as well as those of privileged clergy. Their chief aim was to find and burn documents that granted the nobility and clergy their privileges. While they were at it, they burned many aristocratic manor houses, church estates, and assailed nobles and clerics. Their panic driven actions often caused more panic. Armed peasant bands, out to save the peasantry from the elites, were often mistaken by other peasants for bandits and foreigners supposedly hired by the elites to carry out the Famine Plot.

Stunningly Stupid Moral Panics From History
Abolition of feudalism at the French National Constituent Assembly’s meeting of August 4th, 1789. Museum of the French Revolution

So they armed themselves, or if already armed, redoubled their vigilance and hatred of the aristocrats and clergy who had hired the bandits and foreign marauders seen roaming the countryside. To appease the peasants and avoid further rural unrest, the newly-created National Constituent Assembly abolished the feudal regime and its privileges on August 4th, 1789. So the Great Fear turned out to be one of those rare instances in which a mass panic, caused by false rumors and fake news, actually did some good. The abolition of feudalism brought the rural turmoil to an end. However, peasant unrest continued in various parts of France for years afterward.

Stunningly Stupid Moral Panics From History
British soldiers on patrol in Belfast, 1972. Flickr

A Black Magic Panic

January 30th, 1972, came to be known by the Irish as “Bloody Sunday”. That day, British paratroopers shot 26 Catholic protesters in Northern Ireland. Fourteen died. An already tense situation known as The Troubles got orders of magnitude worse. Urban guerrilla warfare erupted, as Catholic and Irish nationalist hostility towards Britain skyrocketed. Many who until then had been content with protests and civil disobedience now flocked to join paramilitaries, and engage in direct violence against the British. Soon, Britain’s military and police had their hands full trying to keep a lid on things. British military intelligence turned to psychological warfare in an attempt to lessen public support for the paramilitaries. As the violence spiked through the roof, Captain Collin Wallace, a British Army psychological warfare specialist, executed a plan to link the emerging armed groups with devil worship and black magic.

Stunningly Stupid Moral Panics From History
Irish press coverage of black magic rituals. Pinterest

The aim was to create the idea that the paramilitaries and their violence had unleashed evil forces. That occurred against the backdrop of newfound fears, triggered by the release of movies like The Exorcist and The Devil Rides Out. To start things off, Wallace and his men scattered upside-down crucifixes and black candles across war-torn Belfast. Simultaneously, the authorities leaked stories about satanic rituals and black masses, and tied them to run of the mill crimes. In the last four months of 1973 alone, over seventy articles about devil worship and the like were published, and a panic about Satanism swept through Northern Ireland. As Wallace put it years later: Ireland was very superstitious and all we had to do was bring it up to date“. The manufactured hysteria also helped keep kids home at night, and away from buildings used by the authorities for undercover surveillance.

Stunningly Stupid Moral Panics From History
A Montreal anti-vaccine poster from 1885. Bliss Images


A Vaccine Panic North of the Border

Our neighbors to the north are often contrasted with the US as the “saner” North Americans. However, when it comes to vaccines, there was a time when Canadians were just as kooky as Uncle Sam’s kin. Ever since inoculation was developed, there has never been a shortage of a vocal – and often irrational – minority to vehemently protest, rile up the community, and whip up a panic against efforts to combat the spread of infectious diseases. With the spread of education and public knowledge of vaccination, such anti-vaccine activists usually lose – but not before they have caused significant damage. Sometimes though they outright win, and the results tend to be catastrophic. One such anti-vaccine victory occurred in Montreal, in 1885.

It began that March, when a train conductor infected with smallpox took to bed in a local hotel. He recovered, but a laundry maid caught the disease from his linens. She expired on April 2nd, but not before she had passed it on to her sister, who also died. By late summer, the smallpox had spread all over Montreal and its surroundings. When the contagion came to an end, the region had experienced an epidemic with shockingly high fatality rates. More than 6000 died, and 13,000 were disfigured, most of them children. The overwhelming majority of them would not have gotten sick in the first place, if not for the success of an irrational anti-vaccine campaign.

Stunningly Stupid Moral Panics From History
Edward Jenner performs his first vaccination in 1796. The Science Museum

The Poor and Poorly Informed Paid a Terrible Price for Believing Anti-Vaccine Activists

By the time smallpox struck Montreal in 1885, nearly a century had passed since Edward Jenner had developed a vaccine, and its effectiveness had been amply proven. Nonetheless, Montreal suffered an epidemic that killed off 40% of those who came down with an easily preventable disease. The reason was a successful anti-vaccination campaign that raised dumb objections to and stoked an unfounded panic about the inoculation. The fear tactics were most effective in Montreal’s east side, inhabited mostly by poorer and less educated French Canadians.

Misguided by unscrupulous and irrational anti-vaccine activists, those unfortunates made up nine tenths of those killed by the contagion. Vaccine opponents made it their mission to whip up worries and a moral panic about the smallpox inoculation. One of the more prominent of their numbers was a Dr. Alexander M. Ross, who edited a publication called The Anti-Vaccinator. He falsely claimed that “vaccination is useless and dangerous“, and that the vaccine was “a fearful engine of destruction and death to children“. His efforts eventually whipped up a panic against the smallpox vaccine.

Stunningly Stupid Moral Panics From History
Modern anti-vaccine activists. Macleans

The Roots of Weird Conspiracy Group Think

We are overwhelmingly small fish in a very large pond. However, the egos of some of us refuse to accept that. Then as now, many nineteenth century anti-vaccine activists were driven not by reason and logic, but by an emotional need to become big fish. As such, facts or reason could never get them to alter a position that they had not reached based on facts or reason. They figured that they had discovered a nearly effortless shortcut – reading a few pamphlets then, watching some YouTube videos now – that gave them superior insider knowledge. The possession of such knowledge made them feel smarter than genuinely smart people – the experts who had put in years of hard work and study to understand complex things.

In the bizarre world of weird conspiracies – be they anti-vaccine, flat earth, 9/11 trutherism, Q-Anon, etc., – the believers are suddenly smart according to those who believe as they do. Although without any significant accomplishments or merit, belief in the conspiracy makes them “enlightened”, and allows them to lord it over everybody else. Without significant effort or serious study, they can still act like and be accepted as experts within their niche group, and validate each other’s need to be acknowledged as smart. That instantly transforms them into big fish in a small pond, and nothing will get them to leave that pond. The 1885 Montreal anti-vaccine activists, like their ilk today, were not so much proselytizing their anti-vaccine conspiracy as they were defending their own egos.

Stunningly Stupid Moral Panics From History
Cartoon of a working man forcibly vaccinated while being held by a policeman. Hathitrust Digital Library

19th Century Montreal’s Anti-Vaccine Panic Created by an Unscrupulous Quack Doctor

As smallpox raced through Montreal in 1885, anti-vaccine activists such as the quack Dr. Alexander M. Ross led a campaign that urged refusal of the vaccine. His publication, The Anti-Vaccinator, derided the vaccinated as being “driven like dumb animals“, and falsely stated that “vaccination does not prevent Small-pox in any case“. That was bad. What was worse was that Ross had quietly vaccinated himself at the start of the epidemic. He nonetheless urged others to avoid vaccination, and led an anti-vaccine campaign because it gave him an opportunity to pose as a hero. Although over a hundred years separate us from Dr. Ross, his methods in the nineteenth century were remarkably similar to those used by anti-vaccine activists in the twenty first.

Like his modern equivalents, Ross dismissed the alarm of public health officials as “senseless panic“, and decried a perceived violation of personal liberty. He also peddled conspiracies about the greed of the medical establishment, exaggerated the risk of vaccines, and cherry picked “evidence” from a minority of like-minded quack doctors who opposed vaccines. Ross and other anti-vaccine activists also made up sensationalist lies, in which vaccine administrators invaded women’s bedrooms (with the women always dramatically in states of undress) to tie them and their children down and forcibly vaccinate them. As seen below, his efforts triggered a violent anti-vaccine riot.

Stunningly Stupid Moral Panics From History
Montreal’s 1885 anti-vaccination riot. Amazon

A Riot Fueled by an Irrational Panic

Montreal’s Board of Health estimated that there were 2000 smallpox cases in the city by September 2nd, 1885. Within a few weeks, the numbers had doubled to more than 4000. That was when the authorities began to take sterner measures to combat the illness. They included the forcible removal of people from dwellings conditions – mostly in poor neighborhoods, such as predominately French Canadian ones in the city’s east side – where isolation was impossible. On September 28th, vaccination was made mandatory. The response was “a howling mob“, primed for weeks and whipped into a frenzy by publications such as Dr. Ross’ The Anti-Vaccinator. They surrounded the Board of Health’s East End Branch Office, and destroyed it.

The authorities turned to law enforcement. The police were called in, but they were routed and chased away by the mob. The anti-vaccine crowd then rampaged through the city, smashed the windows of pharmacies that sold the smallpox vaccine, and vandalized the homes of health officials. The Central Police Station’s windows were all broken, and the chief of police was stabbed and pelted with stones. Rioters fired at police, who armed themselves with rifles and bayonets, and fired above the rioters’ heads. The cops finally clubbed the mob until it dispersed into small groups. They continued the violent assaults and destruction of property around Montreal. Eventually, 1400 soldiers were called in to patrol the city and prevent a recurrence, and health workers were issued revolvers.


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

Avrich, Paul – Sacco and Vanzetti: The Anarchist Background (1991)

Canadian Encyclopedia – The 1885 Montreal Smallpox Epidemic

Canadian Medical Association Journal, April 6th, 2021; 193(14): E490-E492 – When Antivaccine Sentiment Turned Violent: The Montreal Vaccine Riot of 1885

Cohen, Stanley – Folk Devils and Moral Panics (1972)

Collectors Weekly – Love Boats: The Delightfully Sinful History of Canoes

Conversation, The, October 4th, 2020 – Covid-19 Anti-Vaxxers Use the Same Arguments From 135 Years Ago

Current Opinion in Psychology, Volume 47, October 2022 – Paranoia and Conspiracy Thinking

De Blecourt, Willem, and Davies, Owen – Witchcraft Continued: Popular Magic in Modern Europe (2004)

Deer, Brian – The Doctor Who Fooled the World: Science, Deception, and the War on Vaccines (2020)

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

Gavi – The Long View: Ye Olde Anti-Vaxxers

Guardian, The, October 9th, 2014 – Satanic Panic: How British Agents Stoked Supernatural Fears in Troubles

History Collection – 40 Unusual Laws

History of Vaccine – History of Anti-Vaccination Movements

Italics Magazine, March 11th, 2020 – The Plague of 1630: Milan’s Deadliest Hour

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

Murray, Robert K. – Red Scare: A Study in National Hysteria, 1919-1920 (1955)

Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 79, No. 1 (Mar., 1964) – A Study in Nativism: The American Red Scare of 1919-20

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

Skeptical Inquirer Magazine, May/ June 2000 – Mass Delusions and Hysterias: Highlights From the Past Millennium

Star Tribune, August 1st, 2013 – Canoe Craze Marked by Romance, Ribaldry

Washington Post, January 11th, 2011 – Wakefield Tried to Capitalize on Autism-Vaccine Link, Report Says