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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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