Editor’s Note: This is an update of earlier versions of this story. Marking the 85th anniversary of the historic broadcast, 97.9 WHAV airs the original “Mercury Theater on the Air” presentation of the “War of the Worlds,” Monday, Oct. 30, with an encore three hours later at 1 a.m.
The supposed Martian invasion of Earth and its aftermath 83 years ago this week didn’t seem to faze Greater Haverhill residents.
In fact, most locals didn’t even know about the “death rays” that destroyed metropolitan New York the night before. That is, until they picked up their newspapers Monday, Oct. 31, 1938—Halloween. The 14-page daily Haverhill Gazette’s lead headline that day screamed “U.S. Investigates—Wells in Blast at Radio Stunt.”
“Thousands of terror-stricken radio listeners throughout the country fled from their homes last night when they tuned in on a series of synthetic news broadcasts which depicted the beginning of an interplanetary war,” read the first paragraph. The newspaper used national wire copy—or teletype—simply because there were no local reports of widespread panic, heart attacks and attempted suicides as other cities had reported.
The Wells who was blasting, according to the story, was H.G. Wells, author of the original 1898 “War of the Worlds” novel. He claimed Orson Welles didn’t have permission to use the author’s book in that way.
An inside continuation of the article used the headline, “Radio Account of Martian Invasion Terrifies U.S.” across all eight columns of the broadsheet. Still, no local accounts of panic were noted. The closest Haverhill came was reports of teenage hoodlums knocking out street lights in advance of Halloween.
A Wooden Dummy Was Getting More Attention
How could Haverhill have been spared hearing Sunday night’s Orson Welles’ “Mercury Theater on the Air” broadcast of the “War of the Worlds?” First, there was no Haverhill station on the air. The launch of WHAV was still almost nine years away. Second, no Greater Boston station even bothered to air the low-rated Columbia Broadcasting System series. CBS’s Boston affiliate, WEEI, aired local programming instead. The most popular radio show Sunday night at 8 p.m. was the Chase and Sanborn Hour with rising star Edgar Bergen and his wooden dummy Charlie McCarthy. It was heard on Boston’s NBC Red affiliate, WNAC (today’s WRKO).
There was no Sunday edition of The Gazette to tease that night’s radio show listings. Friday’s radio show guide went only as far ahead as Saturday night.
That’s not to say no one locally heard the show—an adaptation of Wells’ book by writer Howard Koch. They might have picked it up on a distant station—such as Springfield’s WMAS, in those days when signals went further. If they did hear it, there’s no indication anyone here believed it was real.
Haverhillites had more important things to worry about. Mayor George E. Dalrymple lamented he had no way to pay for damages caused by a real disaster—the hurricanes and floods of the month before. Shoe workers, hoping to take advantage of a new federal wage and hour law, showed up at factories even when there was no work to do in hopes of still getting paid. A family mourned the loss of their three-year-old killed in a car accident—the eighth automobile fatality of the year.
Others were busy putting final touches on costumes in time for planned Halloween parties at Bella Vista, Lido Café and Comeau’s Café, among other venues.
There’s no indication either that anyone closer to Boston was taken in by the radio play that used realistic news bulletins to announce the Martian invasion. The Boston Globe also used national wire copy the next morning with the front-page headline, “Radio Scare Inquiry Begins.” A report, attributed to The Globe about a woman who claimed she could “see the fire” and was “getting out of here,” actually appeared in wire copy.
CBS’ Frank Stanton admitted, after reviewing a network-commissioned study, “In the first place, most people didn’t hear the show…But those who did hear it, looked at it is as a prank and accepted it that way.”
‘Press-Radio’ War More Likely Culprit Behind Sensational Headlines
Even with no local “victims,” The Gazette still criticized the incident in a Nov. 1, 1938 editorial page opinion.
“There is evidence in the record of broadcasters and listeners that can be used now to support this demonstration of mass hysteria,” the opinion noted. It acknowledged “the recent crisis in Europe apparently brought to Americans an awareness of the horrors of invasion much keener than anybody realized.”
Newspapers had an axe to grind.
Even in 1938, radio was overtaking newspapers as Americans’ first source for news. This not only worried newspaper publishers, it compelled them to take steps to stifle radio news reporting altogether. Discrediting broadcasters for such alleged misuse of the medium as “War of the Worlds” was one way. Another was to prevent radio stations and networks from access to national wire services in the first place.
Paul W. White, the founder of CBS News, observed in his 1946 book “News on the Air,” that newspapers fought the inevitable loss of market share and profits.
“Publishers then began to exert pressure against press associations not to give or sell their news to radio networks or stations not owned by newspapers,” he wrote.
Beginning in 1933 when Associated Press’ board of directors voted to withdraw access to wire services from radio stations, the “Press-Radio War” began. However, when CBS threatened to gain the upper hand with the creation of its Columbia News Service, publishers called for a truce.
A treaty, as White called it, called for the then-three wire services, Associated Press, United Press and International News Service to contribute copy to a new “Press-Radio Bureau.” It would supply news summaries twice a day and bulletins of “transcendental” importance. CBS agreed to close its news operation March 1, 1934.
Tensions though between newspapers and radio stations did not subside. “The original blueprints for the Press-Radio Bureau were ignored almost from the start,” White continued. First, commentators like Walter Winchell and H.V. Karltenborn were exempted since they weren’t really presenting news, but rather opinions on the news. Then, competing radio news services were established such as WNAC’s Yankee Network news. Unlike the Associated Press which was a cooperative, United Press and International News Service were in business to make a profit. In 1935, they resumed selling news to radio. Associated Press, of which The Gazette was a member, didn’t give in until 1941.
When Germany’s Hitler decided to annex Austria in March, 1938, the networks decided they needed to abrogate the cease fire and provide coverage. The Press-Radio Bureau was still operating by the time of the Mercury Theater on the Air broadcast, as evidenced by local radio listings, but it was finished by the end of the year.
In White’s mind, the Welles broadcast and end of the news service were not unrelated.
“Radio listeners had had their emotions play upon for days, and they had come to realize news was an increasingly important part of broadcasting schedules. Thus, they believed the Welles production even though it was specifically stated that the whole thing was fiction,” White said.
The Original ‘Fake News’
Ahead of its time perhaps, The Gazette opinion piece offered an explanation about why people are so willing to believe something that obviously isn’t true.
“Investigation invariably revealed that the listener had heard a snatch of something startling and then had leaped to an ominous conclusion. Human beings see what they are looking for and they hear what they are expecting or fearing to hear,” an editor wrote.