We know now that in the early years of the twentieth century this world was being watched closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own.
So began one of the most famous radio broadcasts of all time: the October 30, 1938 adaptation of H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds. Whenever Halloween rolls around, I always get in the mood to listen to the so-called “Panic Broadcast”. It’s one of my favouite radio shows. Not only is it a great program by itself, but I’m also fascinated by the story around it. Not the story that’s usually told, however, but the far more interesting truth behind what we all think we know about the “Panic Broadcast.”
Most people know the broad strokes of the popular story. On the evening before Halloween, the Mercury Theater on the Air starring Orson Welles performed a radio version of the popular science fiction story. What set the War of the Worlds broadcast apart from other shows the Mercury Theatre produced was its script, written by Howard Koch with input from Welles. Koch and Welles decided to use what was at the time an uncommon trick for creating realism: they framed the audio play as if it were itself a totally different radio broadcast experiencing a series of journalistic interruptions to the normal nightly entertainment.
What happened next is widely told today in books, in television documentaries, and online: many people tuned in after the show began and, lacking the context of the intro, assumed they actually were listening to news reports about New Jersey being invaded by Martians. This triggered a night of chaos as listeners panicked about the arrival of the interplanetary menace. People fled their homes; people flocked to churches; people called the police; people grabbed their guns; people contemplated suicide; all because of a fake news broadcast about Martian invaders.
The event created a social and political firestorm that threatened the radio industry’s very existence. Within a few days, newspapers were reporting that “literally MILLIONS OF PEOPLE understood the broadcast to be REAL”. A flurry of lawsuits was filed against CBS. Congressional hearings were declared, and regulations were imposed forbidding stations from airing fake news broadcasts. The Panic Broadcast has since become a morality tale for broadcasting, a warning against the misuse of the great power that media wields over the public.
At least, that’s the way it’s told. But how could reasonable people accept a fantastic event like Martian invaders as real? Before we answer that question, we need to ask a different question, one often asked here on Skeptoid: did it really happen the way it’s told?
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Legend says that Grigori Rasputin, the “Mad Monk”, was hard to kill. What does the history say?
The legend started almost as soon as the cold, lifeless body was fished out of the water. Gregory Efimovich Rasputin, a man who claimed powers from God but whom many saw as the Devil himself, did not die easily. Legend says that his assassins first poisoned him , then shot him, then shot him again, then beat him, and then finally dumped him into the Malaya Nevka River where he drowned only after struggling out of his bonds. Is this unlikely story true? Let’s see if the history agrees with the legend.
Rasputin was born in early January, 1869, in the Siberian village of Pokrovskoye. As a young man he developed a strong interest in religious mysticism. He eventually abandoned his family and went to stay at a nearby monastery, where he read theology and debated Scripture with the monks, though he never became a monk himself. In 1890 he claimed to have a vision of the Virgin Mary which marked him as someone chosen by God for a greater purpose. Eventually, he began to claim the powers of a spiritual healer, saying that through prayer he could cure illness.
Rasputin’s reputation as a healer grew, eventually bringing him to St. Petersburg, where he came to the attention of Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra, the reigning couple of the Romanov line. You see, they were keeping a dark secret: their only son Alexis had been born with hemophilia. The next Tsar of Russia was fated to bleed to death long before he could take his father’s place. When the boy became very ill in 1907, and no doctor was able to bring him back to health, a desperate Alexandra decided to place the fate of the royal line in Rasputin’s hands. Rasputin visited the palace and prayed for the boy; to the Tsarina’s surprise, Alexis improved.
Over the next decade Rasputin developed an increasingly influential relationship with the royal family and a complex yet undeniable place in Russian high society. Alexandra became convinced that Rasputin had been sent by God to save her son, and he eventually became a close confidant of the Tsarina. Rasputin, in turn, used his new favor to wield both social and political influence. Getting into all of the subplots and side stories of Rasputin’s life amongst the Russian elite would be an episode unto itself. Suffice it to say that Rasputin quickly became a noted, sometimes notorious figure, and in doing so made both political and religious enemies, some of whom eventually decieded to remove the bothersome peasant.
The first attempt on Rasputin’s life came . . .