It wasn’t just raining – buckets of water dumped from the cold December sky. I was in New Jersey to pick up materials for my mother’s work and after packing up the supplies for the trip home, it was decided to visit a nearby monument.
According to the GPS, it was supposed to be a twenty minute drive and after thirty minutes of only making left turns, I had no idea where in New Jersey I was as the next storm began. The rain beat against the vehicle and the wind howled as I drove slowly along Route 615, also known as Cranbury Road.
“The GPS says it is just ahead,” my mother spoke as I struggled to see through the curtain of water. Thankfully the GPS was correct and I soon was parked at Van Nest Park to wait out the storm. As the rain slowed I could see the monument a short distance away but planned on waiting to see if the storm would quickly pass.
As the rain slowed, I pulled my coat tight and set out on the pathway at the edge of the park. I paused briefly to scan the informational boards which told the story of this place. Arriving at the monument, I splashed through the large puddle in front of it and studied the memorial to an invasion that happened here in 1938. At the bottom of the monument is a family listening to the radio, while just above them is a man – Orson Welles – speaking into a radio microphone. Above the humans is that of a Martian Tripod sent to Earth to conquer it.
This monument was placed on the fiftieth anniversary of a radio broadcast that captured the attention of the American public.
On the evening of October 30, 1938, Orson Welles did a dramatization of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds for Mercury Theatre on the Air. The presentation, which was written by Howard Koch, used dramatic radio reports to follow the Martian invasion as the alien cylinder crashed outside Princeton, New Jersey, in the tiny community of Grover’s Mill. How Koch determined the invasion spot was simple: he spread out a map of New Jersey, closed his eyes and placed his pencil down – it landed on the community of Grover’s Mill so that is where the dramatization was set.
This was not the first novel the Mercury Theater on the Air performed and no other had caused an issue with listeners. Like previous dramas, the program had been advertised on the radio and in newspapers, so the public knew it was being performed that evening. It was announced a number of times throughout the program that this was a presentation of the theater.
What exactly happened as Welles told the invasion through radio announcements is still being debated. According to most people who’ve retold the events, massive panic and chaos ensued. Families fled New Jersey, New York City and southeastern Pennsylvania in an attempt to escape the Martians.
However, the question remains how much chaos was created by the program. Public memory recalls thousands fleeing in total chaos. Newspapers from October 31, 1938 all told of the mass panic, so it has to be true – right?
The October 31, 1938 edition of the Altoona Tribune stated residents thought it was too realistic and though it did get a handful of calls, most knew it was s radio dramatization.
Despite these announcements, almost every newspaper reported hundreds of calls coming into police stations and newspaper offices searching for information about the invasion. While I do not believe the panic was as widespread as newspapers made it out to be, I do believe there were people who did panic when they heard the dramatization. There were people who remembered being in traffic in an attempt to flee. I don’t believe they had made it up, so what happened?
The same edition of the Altoona Tribune holds a clue to the thoughts of those who did panic. The article, which was written by Charles Harner and was sent out through the Associated Press, has the following information that was excluded in many articles: “Samuel Tishman, a Riverside Drive resident, declared he and hundreds of others evacuated their homes fearing ‘the city was being bombed.'” The panicked people felt this was not an invasion by Martians, but instead was a fear the United States had been bombed by an enemy power.
1938 saw Nazi Germany forcefully annexing Austria and part of Czechoslovakia known as the Sudetenland in two displays of power. Americans were aware of the power struggle in Europe and were also aware of a Nazi spy ring in America as the case was splashed across the front pages of regional newspapers. Also in the newspapers, Americans were seeing the growing Japanese Empire clashing with both British and American interests in China. With the world at the brink of war, it is possible those who did panic did so not because of Martians but due to believing the world war had begun.
The following day Orson Welles apologized for the realness of the program. The Federal Communication Comission investigated the program and the use of the radio to incite panic.
The world moved past the events of that night and in 1988 the monument for the failed Martian invasion was placed in Grover’s Mill. The rain began to fall harder as I hurried back to the vehicle and began my trip homeward.