Shootout with Martians: In the Wake of the 1938 Broadcast Panic
A visit to an art exhibit—based on Orson Welles’s famous 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast—at Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center in Buffalo (on April 24, 2010) introduced me to a remarkable incident that reportedly occurred during the “panic” caused by Welles’s dramatized Martian invasion.
Art of the Hoax
Artist Sam Van Aken told me he was surprised to learn that there really is a Grovers Mill, New Jersey, where—according to Welles’s broadcast—extraterrestrial invaders supposedly first landed. There, behind the Wilson farmhouse, was a water tower with thin iron legs. Panicked by the broadcast (and failing to hear the disclaimers that it was a dramatization of the H.G. Wells novel), a group of armed townsfolk reportedly went hunting for the aliens, mistook the tower for one of the metal-legged “tripod machines” of the Martian invaders, and consequently riddled it with bullets.
Influenced by trompe l’oeil (“deceives the eye”) paintings, Van Aken explores the interface between the real and the seemingly real, understanding that it can be difficult at times to distinguish one from the other. His exhibit—featuring drawings, a replica of the old water tower, and a radio-studio exhibit (broadcasting his own dramatized hoax)—is an homage to the power of illusion to motivate people.
If the legendary incident at Grovers Mill really occurred, how could a water tower be mistaken for an alien “tripod machine”? First, there was the broadcast’s semblance of reality: in 1938, news-bulletin radio enjoyed a position of trust, and the dramatization of Welles’s story by the Mercury Theater players made the event seem terrifyingly real, all the more so because there were no commercial interruptions (see Stein 1993, 100–101). Then there was the expectation of seeing a certain thing: Just as someone primed to see a giant lake serpent can mistake a few otters swimming in a line for a monster, so an excited mob, anticipating an alien “tripod machine” and encountering in the darkness something approximating that description, can be deceived. The supposed paranormal is rife with such illusions of expectancy—something magicians well understand. But did the water-tower shooting incident really occur?
According to Welles’s realistic dramatization (broadcast on October 30, 1938), the Martian invaders spewed forth destruction from their heat rays. As a consequence, according to Martin Gardner (1957, 67):
Thousands wept, prayed, closed their windows to shut out poison gas, or fled from their homes expecting the world to end. Phone lines were tied up for hours. The panic was from coast to coast, but the greatest hysteria was in the southern states among the poorly educated.
Hadley Cantril (1940) conducted a study that indicated that of about six million people who listened to the broadcast, well over one million took it literally and responded in a variety of ways, some with panic. Additionally, an unknown number who were not tuned in to the show were nonetheless caught up in the excitement. More recent writers have suggested that the idea of such an intense national panic is an exaggeration (Bartholomew 2001; Boese 2002, 128). Certainly, reports that the panic resulted in death were untrue (Nilsson 2009).
I had a delightful conversation with CSI Founder Paul Kurtz (2010) about the “very scary” night of the broadcast. That night he and his sister, aged about thirteen and eleven respectively, were alone in their home in Irvington, a suburb of Newark, while their parents were out visiting friends. The youngsters were listening to the radio and became caught up in the fantastic “reporting.” Paul phoned a neighbor boy named Freddie, who was also frightened and came running over to the Kurtzes’. Paul then decided to call his father, who asked him to hold the phone while he listened to the radio himself. When Paul’s father came back on the line, he told Paul that he had determined the broadcast was a spoof because the other stations he had checked were not reporting the sensational attack. It was a lesson in critical thinking.
According to the New York Times the day after the sensational events (“Radio” 1938):
The broadcast . . . disrupted households, interrupted religious services, created traffic jams and clogged communications systems. . . . In Newark, in a single block at Heddon Terrace and Hawthorne Avenue, more than twenty families rushed out of their houses with wet handkerchiefs and towels over their faces to flee from what they believed was to be a gas raid. Some began moving household furniture. Throughout New York families left their homes, some to flee to near-by parks. Thousands of persons called the police, newspapers and radio stations here and in other cities of the United States and Canada seeking advice on protective measures against the raids.
The New Jersey State Police found it necessary to send this teletype: “Note to all receivers—WABC broadcast as drama re this section being attacked by residents of Mars. Imaginary affair” (“Radio” 1938).
At Grovers Mill
A subsequent CBS nationwide survey found, not surprisingly, that the percentage of people who were frightened by the radio play was higher in the general vicinity of the “invasion” (Cantril 1940, 147). But even so, accounts of shotgun-armed locals at or near Grovers Mill, roaming about in search of either the Martians or the militia that had supposedly been deployed (Koch 1970, 120), might be exaggerated.
Nevertheless, one resident, a seventy-six-year-old man named William Dock, posed the very next day for a New York Daily News photo. In the photo Dock is shown in a staged pose—with pipe in mouth and double-barreled shotgun ready at his shoulder—recreating his resistance to the invading Martians (Holmsten and Lubertozzi 2001, 7).
As for the shooting of the water tower, writer Howard Koch was told the story when he and his wife visited Grovers Mill while doing research for his 1970 book. Koch—who had actually written the radio play for Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre—visited the Wilson farm. Behind its “prosperous-looking farmhouse adjacent to the mill” was the windmill-cum-water-tower with “spidery” iron legs. As we shall see, Koch was dubious about the shooting story.
The Tower Shooting
According to an interview published in 2001, the owner of the tower in recent years, Catherine Shrope-Mok, said she understood that shots had been fired at the structure. However, she noted that the shooters were actually the persons (plural) who lived just across the road, “who you’d think would know better,” she remarked, “since they saw it every day.” Now across the road was the mill, and—because the elderly Mr. Dock had posed with his shotgun beside stacked feed sacks—I thought he might just have been the alleged shooter (Holmsten and Lubertozzi 2001, 7), which indeed proved to be the case (Capuzzo 2005a).
In my research (aided by CFI Libraries Director Tim Binga) I found no fewer than nine versions (or as folklorists say, variants) of the tale. Here they are, arranged from the least to the most sensational:
1. William Dock, age seventy-six, posed with his double-barreled shotgun to show a photographer for the New York Daily News (November 1, 1938) how he had stood “ready for the Martian invaders” (Nilsson 2009).
2. “. . . William Dock, a 73 [sic]-year-old farmer . . . grabbed his shotgun and went looking for the invaders. Later, Dock gladly posed for the hordes of photographers who invaded the town” (“Martian” 1978).
3. “On the night of the broadcast, a local resident, William Dock, grabbed his rabbit gun and shot at the water tank, thinking it was the aliens’ spacecraft” (Capuzzo 2005a).
4. “In Grovers Mill that night, some people mistook this water tower for a Martian ship. One resident shot at it” (Capuzzo 2005b).
5. “Some people, who had brought firearms, reportedly mistook a farmer’s water tower for a Martian Tripod and shot at it” (“The War” 2010).
6. “Some of the Grovers Mill locals actually fired shots at what they believed to be one of the Martians rising up on its giant metal legs. . . . The ones who were primarily shooting at the water tower in 1938 were in fact the neighbors from across the road” (Holmsten and Lubertozzi 2001, 7).
7. “Standing in the yard of the Grover [sic] family property, some of the residents bearing firearms mistook this tower . . . for the alien ships as they were described in the broadcast. Accordingly, they opened fire on the water tower” (Van Aken 2010).
8. “A bunch of people in the town went out looking for the aliens, and they had shotguns, rifles, and stuff. And they mistook the water tower for an alien ship and shot holes all through it” (Van Aken in Dakbowski 2010).
9. In Grovers Mill, “you can peek at what remains of the water tower that was shot to pieces by nervous residents in 1938” (“1938 Martian” 2010).
Now, the version reported by Koch in his The Panic Broadcast was told to him by the former fire chief of nearby Cranbury, whom Koch seemed to regard as something of a raconteur. The chief told one tale about a local man who was in such a hurry to flee the Martian invaders that he drove his car out of the garage without opening the garage door, shouting at his protesting wife, “We won’t be needing it anymore!” Koch interjected that “The rest of the story may be true or it may be the work,” he hinted, of the chief’s “imagination stimulated by our interest.” This bit of jokelore had the man returning home after learning he had been deceived about the invasion, whereupon his foot slipped off the brake and the car plunged through the garage’s rear wall. The punch line: “With the help of the Martians he had converted his garage into an instant carport” (Koch 1970, 121–22).
It was perhaps in this spirit that the chief had also remarked, says Koch (1970, 126), “that some shots had actually been fired at a supposed Martian”—i.e., at the water tower. It is worth noting that the previously mentioned report of men roaming about with guns also came from this years-later interview with the retired fire chief (Koch 1970, 120), who may have been elaborating on his memory of the photo of an armed William Dock.
Of course neither William Dock nor anyone else at Grovers Mill would have been influenced by illustrations they had not seen. They had only the word-pictures of the broadcast, which described “a shield like affair . . . standing on legs . . . actually rearing up on a sort of metal framework . . . reaching about the trees” and “Enemy tripod machines” with “huge metal legs” (quoted in Cantril 1940, 22, 28, 33). The water tower might have looked like that to an excited person.
Today, the tower is largely hidden among trees (see figures 1 and 2), but as best as I could see on a visit to Grovers Mill (with Philadelphia Association for Critical Thinking President Eric Krieg), the tower was definitely not shot to pieces.1
But was there a shooting incident at all? To attempt to settle that matter, I sought to obtain a copy of the New York Daily News article of November 1, 1938, which accompanied the photo of shotgun-wielding William Dock. Back issues of the News were not readily available to me (either online or on microfilm at nearby libraries), but Tim Binga put me in touch with NYPL Express (a service of the New York Public Library), and they were able to find and copy the article for me. It was revealing.
Located among a spate of related articles—such as “Nazi Press Gloats over U.S. ‘Wars’ on Air”—the news story by George Dixon was headlined, “A Martian Raid Can’t Wake Up Grover’s [sic] Mill.” If that was not suggestive enough, Dixon reported that while there was panic elsewhere in the country, at the Wilson farm, the supposed site of the invasion, things were pretty quiet:
James Anderson, a tenant on the farm, said he was taking a nap when his wife shook him awake to tell him that [the] radio had just announced a “bomb or a meteor or something” had fallen on the place.
“What did you do?” a reporter asked.
“Oh,” yawned Anderson, “I just looked out the window and saw everything was about the same and went back to sleep.” (Dixon 1938)
Dixon quoted another tenant on the farm, Wyatt Fenity, who said he was not listening to the broadcast, “But you can see no Martians landed here. That old mill was built in 1776 and it’s still standing.”
The reporter’s next comments seemed to settle the matter of the alleged shooting of the tower:
William Dock, 76-year-old neighboring farmer, said he grabbed his shotgun when he heard the first “news” flash and went out looking for invaders. But he didn’t see anybody he thought needed shooting. (Dixon 1938)
Would someone really have mistaken a water tower that he saw just across the road every day for a Martian tripod machine? The possibility is good enough for jokelore, but I do not think it is very credible otherwise. The tale appears to have originated with a comically posed picture of an elderly, shotgun-armed William Dock as an unlikely defender of Grovers Mill, together with someone’s notion that the water tower resembled a Martian machine. Possibly, Dock became the butt of jokes, one of which may have had him shooting at the tower.
The alleged episode is now part of the folklore of the famous Martian invasion panic—what is sometimes called a hoax, although it was stated at the beginning and at three other points in the broadcast that it was a radio play (Stein 1993, 100; Boese 2002, 128). Still, Orson Welles admitted in 1955:
We weren’t as innocent as we meant to be when we did the Martian broadcast. We were fed up with the way in which everything that came over this new magic box, the radio, was being swallowed. . . . So, in a way, our broadcast was an assault on the credibility of that machine. We wanted people to understand that they shouldn’t take any opinion predigested and they shouldn’t swallow everything that came through the tap, whether it was radio or not. (Quoted in Holmsten and Lubertozzi 2001, 17–18)
The broadcast, then, was not a hoax but a satire (that is, a literary work that exposes human follies, abuses, etc., to ridicule). As is sometimes the case with satires, the pretense to truth may deceive some people, which in fact is what happened with the War of the Worlds broadcast. However, the alleged incident of locals shooting a water tower they mistook for a Martian machine apparently never happened. It may itself have originated as a bit of satire and so—mistakenly—was believed.
In addition to those mentioned in the text, I am grateful to John Massier, visual arts curator, Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, for his generous assistance.
1. After Eric Kreig accompanied me to Grovers Mill, another skeptic—prompted by my investigation—researched and published two articles (I am chagrined to say) in advance of mine.
Bartholomew, Robert E. 2001. Little Green Men, Meowing Nuns and Head-Hunting Panics. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland.
Boese, Alex. 2002. The Museum of Hoaxes. New York: Dutton.
Cantril, Hadley. 1940. The Invasion from Mars: A Study in the Psychology of Panic. New York: Harper, 1966.
Capuzzo, Jill P. 2005a. Steven Spielberg aside, Mars has attacked before. The New York Times, June 19.
———. 2005b. “Correction appended” to 2005a.
Dakbowski, Colin. 2010. Artful hoax. Gusto magazine, Buffalo News, April 23.
Dixon, George. 1938. A Martian raid can’t wake up Grover’s [sic] Mill. New York Daily News, November 1.
Gardner, Martin. 1957. Fads & Fallacies in the Name of Science. New York: Dover.
Holmsten, Brian, and Alex Lubertozzi. 2001. The Complete War of the Worlds: Mars’ Invasion of Earth from H.G. Wells to Orson Welles. Naperville, Illinois: Sourcebooks.
Koch, Howard. 1970. The Panic Broadcast: The Whole Story of Orson Welles’ Legendary Radio Show Invasion From Mars. New York: Avon.
Kurtz, Paul. 2010. Interview by Joe Nickell, April 27.
Martian invasion recounted. 1978. Lodi News-Sentinel, October 30.
Nilsson, Jeff. 2009. Are we ready for another Martian invasion? The Saturday Evening Post. Available online at http://www.saturdayeveningpost.com/2009/10/24/archives/retrospect/ready-martian-invasion.html. Accessed April 28, 2010.
1938 Martian landing site monument. 2010. Available online at http://www.roadsideamerica.com/story/2749. Accessed April 28, 2010.
Radio listeners in panic. 1938. The New York Times, October 31.
Stein, Gordon. 1993. Encyclopedia of Hoaxes. Detroit: Gale Research.
Van Aken, Sam. 2010. Quote from the didactic panel of his exhibition, “i am here today,” at Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, April 23–May 28.
The War of the Worlds (radio). 2010. Available online at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_War_of_the_Worlds_(radio). Accessed April 26, 2010.