Note: Because of Monday Night Football, Arrow/Legends of Tomorrow will be seen Saturday 8-10 pm on PIX11

‘War of the Worlds’ anniversary: The night that panicked America

This is an archived article and the information in the article may be outdated. Please look at the time stamp on the story to see when it was last updated.

Editor’s note: This piece by Marvin Scott appeared in Parade magazine in October 1978. It appears here exactly as published. The video is his 1998 WPIX report on the “War of the Worlds” anniversary.

GROVER’S MILL, N.J.  — Grover’s Mill, N.J. is perhaps the only historical site in the world made famous by an event that never happened.

Named for an old grist mill that once provided feed and flour for farmers, Grover’s Mill is nestled quietly in rural south Jersey, six miles east of Princeton. It’s sleepy hamlet without even a post office to call its own. Only a handful of the some 200 residents are farmers who still tend to the potato, corn and soybeans fields their grandfathers toiled over a century ago.

waroftheworlds4

Orson Welles makes history during the “War of the Worlds’ broadcast.

Except for a bullet-riddled water tower that stands uncomfortably on flimsy metal legs, there are no monuments to remind the world of the great “battle” that was fought here on a foggy Sunday night in October, four decades ago.

Grover’s Mill was the imaginary landing site for an invading army from the planet Mars. Cigar-shaped spaceships, 30 yards long, were said to be dropping like locusts , first into the rich New Jersey farmland, then into dozens of other towns and cities all over the nation. Strange-looking creatures carry death-ray guns were reported destroying everything in sight.

In the minds of more than a million people, the events were terrifying. But in reality there was no danger at all. The “invasion” originated in a New York radio studio where Orson Welles and a group of actors were dramatizing a devilishly convincing adaptation of H.G. Well’s 1898 science-fiction thriller “War of the Worlds.” It was the night-before-Halloween presentation of the popular Mercury Theater on the Air. An estimated 6 million people were listening to the program over 100 stations affiliated with the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS).

A recent visit to Grover’s Mill turned up only a few survivors of the night the Martians “invaded” their town. They spoke reluctantly about the events that brought such notoriety to their peaceful town. Some were too embarrassed to admit that they were among those who got caught up in the mass hysteria.

“Most folks have either died or moved away,” says Eddie Kemp, a lifelong resident.

waroftheworld3

The New York Daily News reported on the panic the “War of the Worlds” caused.

“A lot of city folks are moving in now,” notes Cora Sayler, who is saddened to see how the area has changed.

Unlike the original Welles story, which made England the beachhead for the Martian invasion, the radio version used American locations that were familiar to the audience.

The one exception was Grover’s Mill. Scriptwriter Howard Koch selected it as the focal point of his drama by shutting his eyes and dropping a pencil on a New Jersey road map.

“I liked the sound,” he recalls. “It had an authentic ring to it, and besides, it was near Princeton, where I could logically bring in the observatory, the astronomer and other leading characters.”

To give the dramatization greater authenticity, the producers directed the $75-a-week scriptwriter to make it sound like a news program, with frequent bulletins.

The beginning of the program was plausible enough. A weather report was followed by dance music which was repeatedly interrupted for a series of “bulletins” from the fictional Intercontinental Radios news. First it was revealed that astronomers had detected unusual gas explosions on Mars. A few minutes later, listeners were informed that a shock of almost earthquake intensity had been registered near Princeton. A subsequent report that a meteor had fallen on a farm in Grover’s Mill. It all seemed believable enough to the millions of listeners glued to their radios. With war clouds over Europe and the possibility of the United States becoming involved, Americans had become accustomed to news bulletins interrupting their programs.

waroftheworlds1

Paul Moran remembers the night the “Martian Invasion” terrorized the nation. “It was very terrifying that night. It really shook us at first,” Moran told Marvin Scott in 1998.

On the night of Oct. 30, 1938, an actor playing the role of an on-the scene reporter brought credibility to the ridiculous. Excitedly but authoritatively, he declared that the object believed to be a meteor was in fact a huge cylinder. He reported seeing a strange-looking creature emerging from it. With lifelike sound effects heightening the tension and feeding the imagination of the radio audience, the announcer stated breathlessly:  “I can see the thing’s body. It’s as large as a bear and it glistens like wet leather. But that face. It … it’s indescribable.”

The sound of scurrying crowd made the announcer’s voice almost inaudible as he described how the creatures from the spaceship were advancing with mirror-like devices in their hands from which shot jets of flame: ‘Now the whole field has caught fire. The woods, the barns. It’s spreading everywhere. It’s coming this way. About 20 yards to my right…” There was a thundering crash of the microphone, then silence. The reports of what was supposedly happening a mile and a half from his home were so realistic that Alfred Perrine Sr. feared for the safety of his family. He hurriedly got his wife and three sons into his Hudson sedan and drove them to relatives’ homes in Trenton. They returned the next day.

The Perrines weren’t the only ones to take to the road on that October night. All roads into and out of Grover’s Mill were clogged with residents trying to escape and curiosity-seekers attempting to get a close view of the aliens from the red planet. Eddie Kemp was returning home from his mother-in-law’s home when he got caught in a mammoth traffic jam. He didn’t have his radio on. At first he attributed the tie-up to a bad accident or a fire. Then a neighbor told him the Martians were in his own backyard. “A lot of people were heading for the hills of Pennsylvania,” he recalls: Many of them didn’t know whether they were coming or going.”

The fears of many listeners intensified when the announcer ominously intoned: “Those strange beings who landed in the Jersey farmlands tonight are the  of an invading army from the planet Mars. The battle which took place tonight at Grover’s MIll has ended in one of the most startling defeats ever suffered by an army in modern times: 7,000 armed men with rifles and machine guns pitted against a single fighting machine of the invaders from Mars. 120 known survivors.”

martian

Grover’s Mill residents like Bob Kemp Sr., shown in 1998, live with legacy of the “War of the Worlds,” set right in their home town.

The reaction to all this was more incredible than the original yarn itself. Panic gripped the nation as additional Martian cylinders were reported falling in New York, Buffalo, Chicago, St. Louis and other cities. Police switchboards were flooded with calls from hysterical people who wanted to know what to do to protect themselves. Some demanded gas masks. Other huddled in closets and attics in hopes of eluding the alien creatures. Men and woman gathered in groups and in church to pray.

Cora Sayler thinks it was all such a “silly episode.” Standing on her porch, looking out onto the tranquil farmland where the Martians were said to have set down, Mrs. Sayler reflects: “I heard the program and wasn’t the least bit frightened by it. I’m no dumb cluck. I was bright enough to know it wasn’t real. They even said so on the radio.”

Mrs. Sayler wasn’t tempted to leave her chair to look out the window if anything was happening on the farm just across the road.

If she had, she would have seen hundreds of strangers trampling across the cornfield on the David Wilson farm, looking for Martians. Although the dramatists pinpointed the action on the fictional Wilmuth farm, the curiosity-seekers, unable to find it, figured the announcer actually meant the Wilson farm. One entrepreneur charged motorists 50 cents to park near the Martians’ landing spot.

Today the Wilson farm is no longer is a tourist attraction. Says the current owner, H.W. Jeffers 3rd: “Hardly anyone knows that this was the place of the invasion that has become an American legend.” Giant stalks of corn now fill the field.

To this day, Lewis Chamberlin wonders how he would have reacted if he heard the program. As town clerk of West Windsor Township, in which Grover’s Mill is located, Chamberlin helped to calm many residents. “It took some doing to convince old Willie Dock that there were no Martians and no need for his shotgun,” At 76, Dock sat on his porch determined to keep the Martians off his property.

Some shots actually were fired in Grover’s Mill during that long night. According to Eddie Kemp, a number of people took aim at a target they believed was one of the Martians. What they actually shot at was a water tower. “It was a quite a foggy night,” Kemp recalls, “and this thing on spidery legs could be seen only faintly in the darkness. To those panic-stricken souls, it was could have been anything.”

waroftheworlds2

This water tower in Grover’s Mill was mistaken for a space ship — and locals shot at it.”It was kind of foggy that night, and when you came into town, it looked like a space ship,” Moran said.

It wasn’t until after Orson Welles came out of character on the program to allay the fears of the nation that the panic abated. He assured his listeners that the broadcast was a “radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying ‘boo!'”

Welles added: “We couldn’t soap all your windows and steal your garden gates, so we did the next best thing. We annihilated the entire world before your very ears.”

A multitude of lawsuits for injuries and damage, running into millions of dollars, were filed against Welles and CBS. None ever came to trial because there were no applicable precedents. The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission called the whole episode “regrettable.” CBS apologized and promised that it would never happen again.

Princeton University undertook a two-year research project to determine the reasons behind the mass hysteria. Professor Hadley Cantril and his researchers concluded that the panic was not the result of nationwide stupidity, but a reflection of America’s jitters in a warring, chaotic world.

Could it happen again? “Absolutely,” says scriptwriter Koch, who’s currently working on a Broadway play to be entitled “The Panic Broadcast.”

“Today we have other kinds of insecurities that threaten out very survival. The nuclear arms race and the fear of a nuclear accident could make such a broadcast even more plausible today.”

olddoc

The story goes that Willie Dock wasn’t going to sit still and be overrun by Martians. He was ready to pump them full of lead if needed.

Eleven years after the Orson Welles broadcast, the radio station HCQRX in Quito, Ecuador, ran its version of the invasion-form-Mars program. The listeners reacted much like their North American counterparts. There was panic in the streets. But when the mob stormed the three-story El Comercio Building that housed the radio station and burned it down, killing 15 people trapped inside.

Although the Orson Welles program is now part of American folklore, the 40th anniversary of the broadcast will pass without any special notice in Grover’s Mill. There won’t be any parades; no tour buses will follow the route of the Martian invaders. No T-shirts, ashtrays, or model Martian spaceships will be on sale.

Forty years later, the residents of Grover’s Mill have a much closer tie to Mars than they ever would have believed. Just down the road from the imaginary Martian landing site is the RCA Space Center, which built the sophisticated communications system for the two Vikings spacecraft that landed on the Martian surface in 1976.

Lewis Chamberlin muses: “It’s about time we returned the visit.”