Stunningly Stupid Moral Panics From History
Stunningly Stupid Moral Panics From History

Stunningly Stupid Moral Panics From History

Khalid Elhassan - November 12, 2022

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