“A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree, and he turns away. Show him facts and figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.”
Leon Festinger- ‘When Prophecy Fails’
“The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones.”
John Maynard Keynes – ‘The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money’.
Hi all welcome back to the blog. If you haven’t read last week’s blog on Sabbatai Zevi I’d suggest go check that out first. This week we’re headed in an arc back in that direction as the tale goes on.
Today we join our tale towards it’s climax, in a suburban home in Oak Park, Illinois. The time and date, 6pm on 21st December 1954. At the home that day are a dozen or so suburbanites who have become convinced the lady of the house has supernatural powers. They have been camped out at the house for several days now. Most have sacrificed greatly to be there. Nearly every article I’ve read states it is Christmas, and at 6pm our subjects are at the roadside singing Christmas carols – but the source material states otherwise – it is the 21st. Were they singing carols to the large number of onlookers anyway? Maybe. They were outside looking for the people from Clarion, for Sanada – but they head back into the house after a while. If Sanada can travel galaxies to find them, Sanada’s not going to have any great trouble finding 847 West School Street (address likely changed to protect the privacy of the lady in the house).
The dozen or so people in the house are there because they believe tonight the world is going to end in a giant flood, and a spacecraft from the far off planet of Clarion is going to rescue them. Them alone, a select few. Outside there is a crowd of curious onlookers and reporters. Inside, amongst the believers, a small number of interlopers, led by a young psychology lecturer named Leon Festinger. The lady with the direct line to the aliens? Festinger identifies her as Mrs Marian Keech – in the years since she has been identified as Mrs Dorothy Martin. One must presume the other named figures in this tale are still under Noms de Plumes.
Dorothy Martin was a woman who believed in various forms of mysticism. From a young age she had been drawn to the Theosophical movement of Helena Blavatsky. This led to her studying a local offshoot which would go on to influence later New Age spiritualist movements, Guy and Edna Ballard’s ‘I AM’ movement. From there she discovered ‘Oahspe: A New Bible’, a spiritualist tome, allegedly written by ‘automatic writing’ (where the writer is merely the conduit for a supernatural force providing them the information) by John Newbrough in 1882. Finally she had recently discovered Scientology, and something about the writings of it’s sci-fi author founder L. Ron Hubbard just clicked with her.
In April 1954 Martin had begun trying to use automatic writing to speak with her deceased father, but found more than she was looking for. First it was just earthbound spirits, but she soon claimed she was getting ‘Astral messages’ from across the universe. First from the mysterious ‘Elder Brother’ then aliens from the planets Clarion (this seems to be a name which pops up with a few UFO believers in the 50s) and Cerus (based on the real dwarf planet Ceres in the Asteroid Belt maybe?). By mid April she was getting a lot of messages from a Clarion alien called Sanada. At first Sanada tells her they have regularly visited Earth. Word gets out among other spiritualist folk of the conversations. Martin gains a small following. On 23rd July 1954 Sanada states they will be flying past Lyons Field on 1st August. A dozen people go. No-one sees a spacecraft, but Dorothy and a number of others remember a strange man who stopped to speak with them. The man subsequently disappeared into thin air. While 7 of the 12 call bullshit on Dorothy at this point, the rest- thanks in part to the lecturer and former missionary ‘Dr. Thomas Armstrong’ and his wife – are convinced something strange happened. That man was strange. They all had a feeling something happened, but maybe someone wiped out their memory of it like Will Smith’s Men in Black do?
2nd August Sanada wrote. Yes, all of what Dr. Armstrong said. I was there. I wiped your minds. You saw the flying saucers. Sanada also warned Dorothy, for the first time, something bad was about to happen.
Without getting too tied up in the details – 15th August Sanada writes again, the bad thing is the Americas will be flooded after a flash of light. 27th August, the whole world will flood. Soon after they have a date – 21st December 1954. Dr. Armstrong went public with this information – sending notice to all the papers he could find. One paper, The Lake City Herald ran the story in a small article on their back page in late September. Prof. Festinger happened to be reading that day. Seeing this as an opportunity to observe what happens to a group when a strongly held belief gets obliterated – surely there is not going to be any great flood, let alone UFOs come the 21st – he devised a plan to infiltrate the group.
Now we have a lot to cover in this so I will buzz through the main points. In the months leading up to the night in question, they picked up a number of followers. There is ‘Fred Purden’, a student who had a falling out with his parents over Mrs Martin. He is so tied up in preparing for Armageddon he is about to flunk his whole year. There is ‘Laura Brooks’ who has given away all her belongings, cause who needs Earth stuff on Clarion, right? ‘Susan Heath’ a fanatic who has fallen out badly with her dorm-mate and has been banned by her college from proselyting there. As the day draws closer those who are working made a pact to give up their jobs. ‘Mark Post’ walked out of the hardware store. ‘Edna Post’ was running a daycare centre. She got an extremely judgmental look from the owners when she handed in her notice. ‘Bertha Blatsky’ packed in her job as a secretary. Dr. Armstrong is fired.
Now this is how the day played out.
10:00 AM. Dorothy gets a message. “At the hour of midnight you shall be put into parked cars and taken to a place where ye shall be put aboard a porch(UFO)”
That evening – the aforementioned media circus outside of the house. They wait, bored. Every hour on the hour Dorothy is supposed to be waiting for a message from Sanada.
11.15 PM. A message from Sanada telling them to get ready to leave, to put on their overcoats.
12.00 AM Nothing happens.
12.05 AM one of the followers notices one of the walls on the clock still says 11.55, they all decide it mustn’t be midnight yet.
12:10 AM. The UFOs send a message. Traffic must be killing them and it is taking longer than expected to get there.
12:15 AM the phone rings. It is not ET calling, but reporters. ‘What has happened?” ‘Have the aliens arrived yet?’
At 2 AM a younger follower leaves, stating his mum told him she would call the cops if he was not back by 2. Unshaken, the rest state this was probably a good thing, he had the least commitment anyway.
At 4 AM the first signs of doubt when one of the followers states they have turned their back on the world and burned every bridge they have, but this one. They feel they should leave but they have to stay, till the bitter end.
At 4:45 AM FINALLY!!! A new message from the aliens. They are no longer coming, but wanted to explain how big a thing these believers did tonight. Through their great faith they have saved the planet. Earth will no longer flood, and the people of Earth can thank them that humankind is now in God’s good graces.
5:00 AM, a P.S. from the aliens this news is “…to be released immediately to the newspapers.” They do, finding little tidbits along the way which fit with their narrative. ‘There were small earthquakes in Italy and California last night?… that must’ve been the start of the great disaster we averted’.
Now- at this point – I want to drop back in to the story on Sabbatai Zevi again, to add a little bit of context I conveniently left out last time.
Sabbatai Zevi claimed a number of times that the world was coming to an end, and he was there to usher in a new, golden age. From 1648, when he announced he was the son of God he began saying it. When he was thrown out of Smyrna, circa 1651, he had built up a reasonably large following – many of whom had sacrificed to follow his cause. A number sacrificed all the good things they had in Smyrna to follow him across Europe.
As he went from strength to strength a bit of a bandwagon effect happened. More people on board meant it seemed less a crazy thing to follow this heretic. Add to this the more people gave, the more justifications came as to why this guy was worth following. Tales arose of Sabbatai performing miracles. This drove the bandwagon effect, leading to more miracles and so forth.
By the time he came back to Smyrna to make his Jewish New Years speech (sorry I didn’t mention he went to Smyrna to make it) he was welcomed as a hero, a local boy made good, among the Jewish diaspora there. This built on top of his, already inflated, image.
This had a flow on effect. Across Europe Jewish populations began to party. The messiah was here, and he was going to defeat the Turks – then lead us back to Jerusalem. Many thousands of them packed up their belongings and began to make the pilgrimage to see the great Sabbatai Zevi.
In cities where trade was largely dependent on the Jewish community, like Amsterdam and Hamburg, the cities all but ground to a halt.
When he was arrested and taken to Adrianople, Muslim citizens mocked the Jews in the streets with chants of “Is he coming, Is he coming?” If they didn’t feel committed to this guy yet, this mockery sure pushed some over the edge. To almost all the Jews this guy was their guy. Thousands of Jews picketed outside his prison, demanding his release. The assassination plot may have been the last straw, but Sultan Mehmet IV was feeling immense pressure over this. The last thing he wanted was a civil war or a bloody insurrection. The Turks saw their best chance to get out of this mess bloodlessly was to try to trick Sabbatai Zevi into converting to Islam.
And, when he did, of course a number of these ‘donmeh’ would follow suit. The longer you are committed to something, the harder it is to accept hard truths about that thing, or person. Even if this runs contrary to everything you have previously stood for. Did the absurdity of their conversion matter? No, because when one is suffering from cognitive dissonance – the word was coined by Prof. Festinger by the way – you find a way of bending reality to reflect your ‘facts’. It is dangerous to think of the cognitively dissonant as dumb – they are smart enough to seize little bits and pieces and dissimulate them into a narrative which matches their preferred reality. The post truth society is not a new thing – it pops into existence numerous times over history.
To re-iterate Leon Festinger’s quote at the top of this piece. Someone with a conviction is a hard person to change. Tell them you disagree, and they turn away. Show them facts and figures and they question your sources. Appeal to logic and they fail to see your point.
Thanks for joining me, please remember to share this site – just one person who you know digs history does wonders. I’ll be back same time next week. – Simone