BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — It was after 7 p.m. on October 30, 1938 when phone operators began receiving calls about smoky fog that was creeping across Birmingham.
In reality, the cloud was the result of several forest fires in the area, according to news reports at the time. However, many in the area believed it was the end of the world.
The cries and concerns came as the CBS Radio Network aired a radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novel “The War of the Worlds,” about a Martian invasion of Earth. The play, narrated by Orson Welles, had started as a reading of the story, but then reimagined the story by play as if the invasion was happening then, complete with fake radio reports.
According to reports at the time, an estimated 6 million people across the country listened to the broadcast, some of whom believed it to be true.
Here is what newspapers at the time reported in the wake of the broadcast:
- “During the play, one of the actors reported ‘a heavy black fog hanging over earth… of extreme density, nature unknown. Alarmed Birmingham residents swamped newspapers and radios asking to know if the smoke was a part of the Martian ‘invasion.'” (United Press International)
- “An autoist driving up to a gasoline station for refueling got this answer from a resigned-to-judgment-looking operator. ‘You don’t need no gas, buddy. Haven’t you been hearing about them saying the world is coming to an end?'” (The Birmingham Age-Herald)
- “One Birmingham woman complained that her husband was in ill health and her sister had just arrived from Mississippi to go into a hospital here and that both of these members of her family were seriously affected.” (The Birmingham News)
- “One Birmingham resident who has a son at Princeton reported that four of his friends called to find out if his son was safe at Princeton after the Martians were reported over the air to have landed there.” (The Birmingham News)
- “A West End resident stated that women neighbors came running from their homes to seek refuge from the reported attack.” (The Birmingham News)
- “Bessemer shared in the excitement, with members of the National Guard rushing to call and see if they were needed. Naval Reserves did likewise.” (The Birmingham News)
- “A hysterical Mobile woman frantically called newspapers to ask if it would be safer to remain in the city or go to higher country.” (Birmingham Age-Herald)
- “The Advertiser’s telephones were kept continuously busy for nearly an hour last night by radio listeners who wanted to know if if were true that Mars had collided with the earth and that people in the New York area were being slaughtered by the thousands (Montgomery Advertiser)
- “A prayer meeting was called to pray for the salvation of the world. Two women fainted.” (United Press International)
- “One woman said a woman guest in her home from New York fainted when it was stated that Times Square was in ruins and that New Yorkers were seeking safety in the river. There were other reports of faintings and prayers. (Montgomery Advertiser)
- “Women in night clothes dashed onto the streets at Montgomery and a preacher announced in the pulpit he had just heard ‘the world is coming to an end.” (Birmingham Age-Herald)
- “A man telephoned that his invalid wife had become hysterical and that her condition did not improve when she learned that she had been listening to a fiction.” (Montgomery Advertiser)
- “A few minutes later, with the broadcast still describing unbelievable giants, a tri-motored airplane–with passengers from municipal airport– came roaring at a low altitude over the city. Its motors created an almost deafening roar as it sailed directly overhead.” (The Birmingham News)
- “Morton Mestel, a student from Brooklyn, NY and president of the Psi Chapter of the Phi Sigma Delta fraternity, said this morning that his fraternity planned to telegraph a protest to the Federal Communications Commission. He said several fellow students heard the broadcast in his room. One boy was from Princeton, NY, near the dramatized scene of the catastrophe. This youth and others were made panic-stricken by the program, he said, and made futile efforts to telephone their parents by long distance. After the announcer ended his drama by saying ‘They’ve got me,’ another announcer explained that it was merely a radio program. This broke the nervous tension, but one of the boys broke into uncontrollable sobs, others began to break chairs and one damaged the radio, so great was the shock.” (The Tuscaloosa News)
- “W.F. Hutchins, a Selma linotype operator, suffered a head injury when, rushing to the home of a neighbor to spread the news, he struck a wire in the dark.” (Birmingham Age-Herald)
- “Apparently few Annistonians heard the radio program Sunday night which upset people throughout the country when they did not understand the meaning of the program. A check-up at the telephone exchange here revealed there was not unusual amount of calls during the period of the program. Usually, when an ambulance or fire apparatus goes on call, people in all parts of town begin calling for information.” (Anniston Star)
The nationwide response to the play led sociologist Hadley Cantril to write “The Invasion from Mars: A Study in the Psychology of Panic” in 1940. In his research, Cantril estimated that of the 6 million people who heard the broadcast, 1.7 million believed it was real.
However, contemporary research has questioned how widespread the hysteria surrounding the broadcast actually was.
“Far fewer people heard the broadcast—and fewer still panicked—than most people believe today,” Jefferson Pooley and Michael J. Socolow wrote in an article for Slate in 2013. “How do we know? The night the program aired, the C.E. Hooper ratings service telephoned 5,000 households for its national ratings survey. ‘To what program are you listening?’ the service asked respondents. Only 2 percent answered a radio “play” or “the Orson Welles program,” or something similar indicating CBS. None said a “news broadcast,” according to a summary published in Broadcasting. In other words, 98 percent of those surveyed were listening to something else, or nothing at all, on Oct. 30, 1938.”
In their article, Pooley and Socolow claimed part of the newspaper coverage at the time may have been exaggerated in order to delegitimize radio, which had become a staunch competitor to their business.
“Radio had siphoned off advertising revenue from print during the Depression, badly damaging the newspaper industry,” they stated. “So the papers seized the opportunity presented by Welles’ program to discredit radio as a source of news. The newspaper industry sensationalized the panic to prove to advertisers, and regulators, that radio management was irresponsible and not to be trusted.”