Sometimes in garden supply stores you’ll run across a whimsical little monument that says something like, “On this spot, June 2nd, 1948, Nothing Happened”.
Near Princeton, New Jersey there is a marker something like that, commemorating a spot where on
the night of October 30, 1938, nothing happened.
And in spite of the fact nothing much happened there the world has never been quite the same.
In that place, at that time, there was fog, drizzle and a bit of rain, it was a rather nasty Saturday evening. A great evening to spend indoors in front of a warm fire listening to the radio.
Which is what much of America was doing that night. By the late 30’s about 80% of American homes had at least one radio set (as they were referred to at the time). And that night most Americans were listening to the “Chase and Sanborn Hour” staring ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy.
I’ll leave it up to the reader to understand why a show with a ventriloquist and his dummy were popular on the radio! If you are interested you can hear that show on the Internet Archive, go to archive.org and search for “Bergen & McCarthy” It’s episode 19 “C&S Hour 1938-10-30”.
Then an ad came on, and many thousands of Americans started tuning around, just as we do to this day. Many came across an announcement something like this, “…. Seismograph registered a shock of almost earthquake intensity… near Princeton.” It then continued with a reporter asking, “Professor Pierson, could this occurrence possibly have something to do with the disturbances observed on the planet Mars?”
As they keep listening they hear a bulletin from “the Intercontinental Radio News” out of Toronto, reporting on explosions seen on Mars and that a “huge, flaming object” fell near Grovers Mill, New Jersey.
Grovers Mill is where you can find the monument to nothing happening.
Many people thought they were listening to real news broadcasts, and if they kept listening they would hear someone introduced as “The Secretary of the Interior”, someone who actually sounded a lot like President Roosevelt, addressing the nation on “the gravity of the situation” and talking about the “preservation of human supremacy on this earth.” That was after hearing about a lost battle in New Jersey and the announcer talking about the invading army from the planet Mars.
Of course we are talking about “The Night that Panicked America”, and the Mercury Radio Theater of the Air’s production of H.G. Wells “War of the Worlds”.
The world was a different place in 1938. Everyone was nervous over what was going on in Europe and radio was still fairly new. So a lot of people that stumbled across this broadcast thought it was real.
And some people reacted, while there were no Martians in Grovers Mill there was a tall, four legged water tower that was shot up that night by someone who thought it was a Martian. No doubt that someone had also been indulging in some alcohol to keep off the chill of the night while they were listening to the radio.
Others went to church, or packed up the car to get out, one lady called a radio station and said she could see New York in flames.
But it’s likely the reaction wasn’t nearly what some would have us believe. In those days radio news was still young, and the newspapers were worried about what impact it would have on their business. Because of that the newspapers were more than happy to run any story that would look radio look bad, so it’s not unlikely they hyped the story.
These days if we ran across something like this we would likely check other stations and channels to see what they were saying and would realize pretty quickly it was a dramatization. But our media saturated world is far different than the world of 1938 and we are much more sophisticated about such things.
Most of the time…. At least until we see a screaming headline on the news Facebook, Twitter or whatever that reinforces our biases.
The lesson from that night in October is don’t take whatever you see, hear or read in the media at face value. It may be true, it may be partly true, or it might be totally false.
The Mercury Theater was doing it’s own “radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying Boo!”, but others are telling us things that aren’t true and their motives are other than just telling us a good story.
Nothing happened in Grovers Mill that night, and the world will never be the same.