A Brief History
On November 16, 1938, two young millworkers from Halifax, England were attacked by an elusive blade-wielding madman who became known as the Halifax Slasher. For the next nine days the town was plunged into chaos as more women fell prey to the crazed assaulter. Angry mobs started patrolling the streets and dealt out justice as they saw fit. As Scotland Yard’s best arrived to assist with the investigation, the majority of the victims one by one confessed that their wounds were actually self inflicted – the Halifax Slasher in truth, never existed.
The extraordinary events of November 1938 have become a classic example of mass hysteria – a term that refers to the unified illusion of a communal threat spread by rumors and fear.
According to the first victims, the “Slasher” wielded a mallet (hammer) and had bright buckles on his shoes. Within five days the madman struck again. The third victim described her assailant in detail, but searches of the scene and surrounding area yielded no evidence or even a trace of the attacker. The attacks started to escalate after the 24th, with four attacks on the 25th alone. During this time vigilante groups was formed. Several innocent men, mistakenly presumed to be the attacker, were assaulted. As reports of attacks in nearby cities filtered through, businesses closed their doors and the town’s daily activities essentially grounded to a halt.
The investigation struggled to produce results as no evidence could ever be found at the crime scenes and the victims’ descriptions of the attacker didn’t correlate. After announcing that up to three different attackers might be responsible for the attacks, instability in the town reached breaking point. Two Scotland Yard detectives arrived in Halifax on the 29th of November and immediately began sifting through the victim’s statements and whatever evidence had been collected. As they held interviews with the victims the confessions started pouring out. One victim confessed that she had cut herself in a fit of anger after having a fight with her boyfriend stating – “The reason why I cut my arm was because I was in a temper and had been reading in the papers about girls being slashed.” As all but three of the 12 victims came forward with their confessions, the astonished police detectives closed the files and concluded the investigation.
Two weeks after the event, five of the “victims” were charged with public mischief offenses while four others were carted off to jail – effectively ending the hysteria.
Question for students (and subscribers): What other instances of hysteria in history are you familiar with? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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To read a bit more on the subject and for newspaper quotes and photographs, visit these links:
For a book on the Halifax Slasher, please check out The Halifax Slasher : An Urban Terror in the North of England.