Two Mass Delusions in New England

April 1998
by Robert E. Bartholomew

“Light Bulb” Mania of 1897, and the Great Airship Hoax of 1909-1910

Collective delusions and so-called mass hysterias take many forms, of which there are at least four common types. For a detailed discussion of each type, see my recent article in The Skeptical Inquirer (May-June, 1997). I will next provide a brief overview of each category, then briefly discuss two separate delusions that occurred in various parts of New England between 1897 and 1910 and look at their characteristic features.

A collective delusion is the term most commonly used by social scientists to describe the relatively spontaneous spread of false beliefs that do not occur in an organized, institutionalized or ritualistic fashion. Most readily fall into the four categories outlined below:

Immediate community threats involve exaggerated feelings of danger persisting from a few weeks to several months, and often recur in waves. Participants are likely to express excitement and concern, but not flee. The underlying process of fantasy creation and spread, is perceptual fallibility and conformity dynamics.

A second type involves community flight panics where residents attempt to flee an imaginary threat. Most episodes last a few hours to several days or weeks, subsiding when it is realized that the harmful agent did not materialize. Perhaps the best known example is the panic which ensued in the United States on Halloween eve in 1938 following the realistic radio re-enactment of H.G. Wells’ book, War of the Worlds, by the CBS Mercury Theater. Spontaneous mass flights from the city of London have occurred over the centuries in response to prophesies of its destruction by a great flood in 1524, the Day of Judgment in 1736, and an earthquake in 1761.

Symbolic community scares typically endure in a waxing and waning fashion for years, often encompassing entire countries or continents. There is less of an immediate concern for safety and welfare, and more of a general long-term threat. These moral panics consist of generalized fear over the exaggerated erosion of traditional values, and are characterized by stereotypes of ethnic minorities and social deviants who are wrongfully indicted for evil deeds, having much in common with the continental European witch persecutions of 1400 to 1650. Examples include rumors of child sexual molestation and Satanic cults kidnapping and sacrificing children. Incidentally, a moral panic refers to exaggerated public reactions to a community threat. It is hard to find a better example in New England than the witch persecutions of 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts.

Collective wish-fulfillment involves similar processes that give rise to community threats and moral panics, except the object of interest is esteemed and satisfies psychological needs. Episodes often involve the subconscious desire for the existence of an agent that can perform extraordinary feats, such as Virgin Mary appearances,’ reports of fairies in Europe and England prior to the twentieth century, and “UFO” sightings worldwide since 1947. In the case of UFO’s, many people hope that aliens are visiting earth because if they are real, their advanced technology may eradicate disease or make us immortal. In this regard, the famous psychoanalyst Carl Jung has referred to flying saucer sightings since 1947 as “technological angels.” The two delusions that I will next describe, are classifiable as episodes of mass wish-fulfillment.

Mass Delusion #1:

Edison’s “Electric Balloon” Mania

The first mass delusion under scrutiny falls into the category of a mass wish-fulfillment. In the mid-1880’s, inventor Thomas Edison conducted experiments involving wireless telegraphic communication between tethered balloons in his hometown of Menlo Park, New Jersey. When he received better results after dark, he sent nocturnal balloons aloft with lights attached. As the press began to speculate about these experiments, from the mid-1880’s until the turn of the century, rumors would occasionally surface that Edison was actually experimenting with so-called “electric balloons” that were so bright, they could be seen clear across the country to the California coast. Sightings of his “Edison Star” were reported for years afterwards, and are reminiscent of modern-day social delusions involving flying saucers. One of the most intense sightings waves took place between March and mid-April of 1897, corresponded with the astronomical movements of the planet Venus, and captivated the imaginations of those living across New England.
In commenting on this spate of observations in New England, the Augusta Chronicle editors commented on the extent to which the delusion has gotten out of hand: “…just think of the people of New England, the cultured east, in the state of Massachusetts where Boston is, taking the planet Venus for an electric light swung in the sky by Mr. Edison.” In Boston, a local astronomer remarked that he was unable to work as he was inundated with queries about “Edison’s experimental star.”2

Mass Delusion #2:

The Airship Hoax of 1909-10

AIRSHIP1Between December 1909 and January 1910, a remarkable delusion swept like wildfire across the New England seaboard region, as many people became convinced that a local businessman had invented the world’s first practical heavier-than-air flying machine. This long-anticipated occurrence was viewed as an event that would revolutionize aviation. While large portions of entire states temporarily believed the rumors, tens of thousands of stolid, responsible citizens actually reported sighting the vessel in the night-time sky. The rumors and subsequent sightings triggered an extensive search to uncover the vessel’s whereabouts. No abandoned farmhouse or local eccentric escaped inquiry from the determined army of inquisitive reporters. Journalists from across the United States and as far away as Europe, soon converged on Boston and Worcester, Massachusetts, where the majority of observations were reported. At the height of the episode, even representatives of foreign governments arrived in order to assess the potential commercial and military applications of such a vessel.

Following intense press scrutiny and an investigation of the reports, it was soon evident that the ship’s existence was a colossal hoax. Yet, before this deception was realized, scores of eyewitnesses, including businessmen, police officers, prominent politicians, and judges all came to believe that they had actually observed the vessel. Many were certain that they could discern the roar of its powerful engine churning in the distance, while a few even emphatically claimed to distinguish the outline of a the pilot maneuvering through the night-time sky. Many witnesses experienced considerable embarrassment and anger once the hoax was uncovered. The delusion began after the Boston Herald of December 13, 1909, published a lengthy newspaper interview with prominent local businessman Wallace Tillinghast, in which he confidently proclaimed to have perfected and flown the world’s first sophisticated airship. Tillinghast also asserted that his experimental flights were continuing. This fantastic account appeared in spectacular front-page headlines:

WORCESTER, Dec. 12–Wallace E. Tillinghast of this city, vice-president of a manufacturing company here, made public a story today [that] he invented, built, and tested an aeroplane capable of carrying three passengers with a weight limit of 600 pounds, a distance of about 300 miles with a stop to replenish the supply of petrol, at a rate of 120 miles an hour.
He refuses to say where his flying machine is as he wants to enter into Boston contests next year as a sure winner…

While Tillinghast’s story was a hoax, it appeared plausible in the wake of his reputation as an inventor, coupled with recent rapid progress in aerial night technology, and the expectant social climate. Within two days of his published interview, news of Tillinghast’s purported feats made headlines in virtually every New England-area newspaper, and many throughout the world, and soon sightings of his vessel began to pour in from Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.

To give readers a flavor of the great emotional excitement that prevailed across New England at the time, here are three press excerpts. On the evening of December 23rd, the Boston Herald reported on it’s front page the following account which read in part:

Wallace E. Tillinghast May Have Been Flying Above City;
Business at Standstill While People Watch…

Fully 2000 people stood on Main street tonight and watched a mysterious light which traveled from 80 to 1000 feet above the earth, for a time passing up and down over the entire city from east to west and later describing circles nearly over City Hall. When the light appeared there was a slight fall of snow and the moon and stars were not visible. The conditions remained about the same up to 9 o’clock, when the light disappeared to the southwest.

The only explanation that could be given tonight was that it was Wallace E. Tillinghast and his airship. Last night a strange light was seen over Marlboro. Its description tallies with the one seen over this city tonight. With the appearance of the light newspaper men hurried to Tillinghast’s home. He had been at home at noon but did not return at night. No explanation of his whereabouts would be given by members of his family.

Businessmen, fully 50 policemen and scores of citizens will swear that they watched the light for an hour or more as it gyrated high in the air. But just what it was is another mystery. Some said it was attached to a kite, and this seemed a plausible theory, as the light moved only two or three blocks back and forth in the same general direction. ….

The following day, the Willimantic Daily Chronicle described the following scene in Connecticut:

There were several hundred in Willimantic who saw what they believed to have been an airship and other’s said it was Halley’s comet. Whatever it was it caused considerable excitement for a while and the curious ones spent several hours with their eyes riveted on the heavens.

The light on the southeast looked like a powerful searchlight. Because of its size and the rays it threw out it attracted wide attention. It remained stationary for a few minutes and then it seemed to shoot upwards, then circled around as though the person manipulating it was trying to get his bearings. …

The light was miles away, apparently, and quite high in the air. It played in the east for about fifteen minutes and then vanished. Later there appeared a brilliant star in the firmament and those who had not seen the first light and saw this star were of the opinion that both lights were one and the same, but those who saw the first light said it was not a star.

People who had come down street to do their Christmas shopping forgot what they had come for and stood on the sidewalk and even in the middle of the street looking to the east, hoping to see the return of the airship. Some of the skeptical ones, just because they did not hear the buzzing of the engine or get an introduction to the man running the ship, laughed at those who claimed it was an airship they saw. The skeptics could not account, though, for the strange light and its peculiar actions.

Our last account appeared on the front page of the Boston Journal of December 24, 1909. Of interest here is the minute detail provided by one of the witnesses:

Revere Man Gets Close Enough to See Framework and Hears the Engine–
Worcester Man Again Absent From Home All the Evening.

The mysterious aviator, again presumably Wallace E. Tillinghast of Worcester, who circled his home city Wednesday night, startled the people of greater Boston and of many towns and cities in eastern Massachusetts last night with his marvelous airship, which circled about Boston, East Boston, Lynn, Nahant and many other places between this city and in the west to that unknown “somewhere” where he keeps his wonderful monoplane hidden.

The airship was first sighted in Boston … when thousands of Christmas shoppers saw the strange headlight of a powerful blue-white tinge and the lesser tail light, apparently green in color. These lights circled in the outskirts of East Boston, Chelsea, Lynn and Nahant.

Of Unusual Size

The most remarkable feature of the whole affair is the statement of Alex Randell of Revere, who is considered an expert in aeronautics and motors.
“I saw not only the lights of the airship,” he told a Journal reporter, “but I saw the frame quite plainly, and it seems to be of unusual size. I should say the wings have a sweep of seventy feet and the tail and propeller seemed about forty-five feet in length. I could plainly hear the engines whirr and from the explosions of the motor I should say it was either a six or eight-cylinder.”

Mr. Randell was surprised when informed that the Tillinghast machine, according to Mr. Tillinghast’s statement of some time ago, had wings of seventy-two foot sweep and carried an eight-cylinder engine.

Airship sightings rapidly tapered off by early January amid increased press skepticism and the publication of interviews with area authority figures such as astronomers and aviators, who confidently asserted their views that the Tillinghast airship story was a hoax and excited residents had been misperceiving Venus.

How can so many people be so wrong and report seeing something that did not exist? These two delusions are explainable using mainstream theories of social psychology. Human perception is highly unreliable and subject to error.3 Further, under ambiguous circumstances such as looking at the night-time sky, stars can appear to change color, flicker and move.4 A person’s frame of reference also has a strong influence on how external stimuli are interpreted and internalized as reality.5 Especially topical is research on the autokinetic effect. This is well-known to social psychologists and sociologists and refers to a visual illusion that occurs in a dark environment, when people stare at a single point of light. Under such conditions, the light appears to move–often dramatically, even though it is stationary. Difficulties judging distance and movement under such circumstances occur as objects like cars and houses usually provide a familiar frame of reference with which to base judgements. But in dark settings these cues are either diminished or not available.6

During the airship episode, residents were preconditioned by the popular press to plausibly expect the objects that they subsequently reported. The sightings that followed were a symbolic projection of this widespread belief, and their faith in the technological revolution that was sweeping across America.

What lessons can be learned from the episode of “the Edison Star” and the airship hoax? What these episodes clearly show is that the false belief that is the basis of all mass delusions, needs only be plausible to spread. These historical events can teach us a valuable lesson concerning the origin and nature of mass sightings of “flying saucers” and “UFO’s” over the past 50 years. It has often been said that “seeing is believing.” But in the case of the Edison “light bulb” mania and the airship delusion, believing was seeing.

Robert E. Bartholomew is a sociologist at James Cook University of North Queensland, Townsville 481 1, Queensland, Australia. E-mail: [email protected]. He grew up on a rural farm in Upstate New York on the Vermont border. More details on the Edison “light bulb” mania and the New England airship hoax of 1909-10, appear in his new book, UFOs and Alien Contact: Two Centuries of Mystery (Prometheus Books, March 1998), co-authored by George Howard, former Chairman of the Psychology Department at the University of Notre Dame.

Using several thousand rare press reports, and conventional theories of sociology and psychology, they examine the context and meaning of UFO sighting waves: the US airship flap of 1896-97, sightings of Edison’s “Electric Star;” Canada’s phantom balloons of 1896-97; the New Zealand Zeppelin Scare of 1909; The New England airship hoax of 1909- 1 0; The British UFO panic of 191213; phantom German air raids and spy missions over Canada, Upstate New York, Delaware, New Hampshire, New Jersey and South Africa during World War I; Sweden’s ghost rocket crisis of 1946; the emergence of flying saucers since 1947; and crashed saucer reports before the famous Roswell incident. They apply mainstream theories of social psychology to UFOS, comparing them with other mass delusions, and explore the relationship between UFO’s and religion, and the likelihood that many abductees and contactees possess fantasy-probe personalities. They also discuss how clinicians should handle clients who claim to have been in contact with aliens.


1) “A light in the east,” Times and Democrat [Orangeburg, SC], April 7, 1897, p. 4, citing verbatim from the Auizusta Chronicle [ME] .
2) “That experimental star,” Boston Evening Transcril2t, April 15, 1897, p. 4.
3) Borchard, E.M. (1932). Convicting the Innocent: Errors of Criminal Justice. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press; Loftus, E. (1979). Eyewitness Testimony. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Buckhout, R. (1980). “Nearly 2000 Witnesses can be Wrong,” Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society, 16, pp. 307-310; Wells, G, and Turtle, J. (1986). “Eyewitness identification: The importance of lineup models,” Psychological Bulletin 99:320-329; Ross, D.F., Read, J.D., and Toglia, M.P. (1994). Adult eyewitness testimony: current trends and developments. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
4) Condon,E.U. (Project director) and Gillmor, D.S. (editor). (1969). Scientific Study of unidentified Flying Objects. NY: Bantam; Corliss, W.R. (editor) (1977). Handbook of Unusual Natural Phenomena. Glen Arm, MD: The Sourcebook Project; Corliss, W.R. (editor) (1979). Mysterious Universe: A Handbook of Astronomical Anomalies. Glen Arm, MD: The Sourcebook Project.
5) Buckhout, R. (I 974). “Eyewitness testimony,” Scientific American 231:23-31.
6) Sabini, J. (1992). Social Psychology. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, pp. 24-25.