Tuesday, 29 September 2009

I did NOT hear the Martians "rapping on my chamber door"

For your enjoyment, two beautifully contrasting reactions to the original airing of Orson Welles' adaptation of H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds. For the uninitiated, on the evening of October 30th, 1938, the CBS Radio Network broadcast what sounded (to some) like a series of genuine news bulletins depicting the unfolding invasion of Earth by Martians. In fact, the public were listening to an episode of the radio drama series Mercury Theatre on the Air, directed and narrated by Welles himself. Despite warnings and announcements during the show, the airing caused widespread panic.

Here are just two of the 600+ letters sent to the FCC regarding the show. The first is from a city official, the second from a listener.

Transcripts follow. Images courtesy of the National Archives.

October 31, 1938

Federal Communications Commission
Washington, D. C.



To avoid a reoccurrence of a very grave and serious situation that developed in this community last night, due to the public's misinterpretation of the broadcast through WABC at about 8:15, dramatizing H. G. Wells' "War of the Worlds", which completely crippled communication facilities of our Police Department for about three hours, I am requesting that you immediately make an investigation and do everything possible to prevent a reoccurrence.

The situation was so acute that two thousand phone calls were received in about two hours, all communication lines were paralyzed and voided normal municipal functions. If we had had a large fire at this time it could have easily caused a more serious situation. Tremendous excitement existed among certain areas of this community and we were receiving constantly long distance phone calls from many states making inquiries of relatives and families thought to have been killed by the catastrophe that was included in the play.

I can conceive of no reason why the name of Trenton and vicinity should have been used on this broadcast. The State Police were equally handicapped and it is indescribable the seriousness of this situation.

Your prompt attention will be appreciated.

Very truly yours,



Aberdeen, S. Dak.
November 1, 1938

Federal Communications Commission
Washington, D. C.


I have read considerable concerning the program of Orson Welles presented over the Columbia Broadcasting System Sunday evening. I suppose that by this time you have received many letters from numerous cranks and crack-pots who quickly became jitterbugs during the program. I was one of the thousands who heard this program and did not jump out of the window, did not attempt suicide, did not break my arm while beating a hasty retreat from my apartment, did not anticipate a horrible death, did not hear the Martians "rapping on my chamber door," did not see the monsters landing in war-like regalia in the park across the street, but sat serenely entertained no end by the fine portrayal of a fine play.

The "Mercury Theatre" has been one of the radio high-lights of the week for me this fall. The program Sunday, I felt, was one of their better programs.

Should your commission contemplate serious measures toward the Columbia Broadcasting System my suggestion would be that the "Mercury Theatre" be directed to re-broadcast this program and the reaction of all the listening audience be solicited.

In the interest of a continuation of the fine things in radio today, I am,

Very respectfully yours,


J. V. Yaukey

P.S.- I am in the State Administrative office of the South Dakota State Employment Service and every member of our staff who heard the program subscribes to what I have had to say.