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Mass Hysteria

Date: 05-15-03
Host: George Noory
Guests: Robert Bartholomew

Author and sociologist Dr. Robert Bartholomew, joined George to discuss his latest book Hoaxes, Myths, and Manias. "To me the lesson is the power of suggestion in the human mind to fool itself," Bartholomew said of the notorious 1938 radio broadcast of War of the Worlds in which many people who listened actually saw or heard evidence of a Martian attack apart from the radio show. Programs modeled after the '38 radio broadcast in such locations as Chile, Ecuador and Buffalo, New York also drummed up similar hysteria Bartholomew pointed out.

He believes the powers of "mass suggestion" were evidenced after the publicity of Kenneth Arnold's 1947 UFO sighting. Bartholomew recounted that Arnold had told a newspaper that the craft he saw were wing-shaped but moved like saucers. Soon after the inaccurate (to Arnold's case) phrase "flying saucers" was coined and numerous sightings of saucer rather than wing-shaped objects were being reported.

Bartholomew stressed the importance of examining the context that strange events occur in, in looking for an explanation. For instance, in the unusual case of "meowing" nuns in France in the Middle Ages, he said that in that era, cats were commonly considered "familiars" of the Devil, and that the meowing may have been a culturally acceptable way for a nun to express that she was possessed. Bartholomew also spoke about the recent terror threat, and predicted that "another anthrax-like scare is going to shake the foundations of this country," though it will likely be more of a psychological than physical threat.

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The Mad Gasser

Tonight's guest, Robert Bartholomew, has written about the case known as "The Mad Gasser," and declared it to be a classic case of mass hysteria. Back in September of 1944, the town of Matoon, Illinois was panicked by reports of a "Mad Gasser" or "Mad Anesthetist." The Gasser was allegedly roaming the community and spraying a peculiar smelling gas through the windows of unsuspecting victims. After the initial police report, dozens of similar reports followed with symptoms that included burning lips, vomiting, nausea, and difficulty walking. But neither the Mad Gasser nor traces of gas or chemical residue were ever found, though the case temporarily grabbed headlines in Time, Newsweek and other publications.

Bartholomew believes that fears related to WWII played on the Matoon citizens, as U.S. troops were just about to invade Germany. "When you place the Mad Gasser case in context, it becomes easy to see why the people of Matoon reacted the way they did- nuclear gas attacks were a very common fear during that time," Bartholomew told the Journal Gazette Times-Courier.

However, the case continues to be debated, and reputable researchers like Loren Colemen have found evidence through interviews that some attacks did occur (which he documented in his book Mysterious America. "Nobody will ever make me believe it was a hoax. I remember the incidents well-and there was definitely more to them than that," Dorothy Dunn, a Matoon resident for 85 years, told the local paper. Care to play detective on this baffling case? This E. Illinois University website allows you to piece together the evidence for yourself.

Bumper Music

Bumper music from Thursday May 15, 2003

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