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A Study of the Mob
Boris Sidis
Atlantic Monthly, 1895, 75, 188 - 197



What is the nature of the mob? It is at one moment so humane, at another so savage, at one moment so heroic, at the next so cowardly, that it would seem at first glance as if it were governed by caprice, not by law. Yet there are certain conditions which favor the production of a mob, and a study of these conditions may help us to understand its apparently lawless nature. The examination of a few cases may disclose some of the factors which form the problem.
In 1883, in the city of Ekaterinoslav, Russia. a Jewish merchant happened to quarrel with a peasant woman. "Murder! murder!" she screamed at the top of her voice. A crowd of idlers soon gathered about the two combatants. "Beat the Jews!" suggested someone in the crowd. A few stones flew in the direction of the Jew's store, more and more followed; then the mob made a rush for the building and destroyed it.

At about the same time, in one of the suburbs of Nijni-Novgorod, the following incident occurred. A child fell into a ditch; a Jewess pitied it, took it in her arms, and carried it into the synagogue to warm it A Christian woman witnessed the scene, and began to cry out that a Christian child had had been kidnapped for sacrificial purposes. A crowd of about three thousand men gathered; a drunken fellow called out, "Beat the Jews!" Thereupon an attack was made, and the mob, after having demolished the Jewish synagogue proceeded after the manner peculiar to all Russian anti-Jewish riots, breaking into Jewish houses, killing, violating, and barbarously demolishing every person And thing they found in them.

These cases clearly show that a mob is not formed of its own accord; it needs an instigator, a leader, who shall ferment the crowd and give it an impulse. A mob, then, can be analyzed into two principal elements: a single person initiating, directing, and a crowd that follows and obeys blindly. We find a similar relation in the case of historical heroes and the masses directed by them. Blind obedience is the characteristic trait of the masses that follow a Caesar or a Genghis Khan, and blind obedience is the striking feature of the mob that follows some intoxicated fellow or superstitious woman. Caesar and the Russian drunkard, Napoleon I. and the stupid woman, are equally heroes in so far as they produce a common result. The difference between one hero and another is a quantitative one. Some heroes move masses on a greater scale and for a longer time than others do. The leaders of mobs, although they may be stupid, superstitious rascals, are still heroes--heroes of the moment.

The question next arises, How does it happen that the crowd blindly obeys its hero? The cases given above do not show it clearly. It would therefore be well to cite some more cases of mobs, and then perhaps the mechanism of the mob will be detected more readily.

At the beginning of the previous century, Madame de Krudener was a woman who possessed great influence. She was hysterical, and so affected by passion as to throw herself, in public, on her knees before a tenor singer. Afterwards, impelled by disappointment in love, she believed herself chosen to redeem humanity, and, possessed by this belief, delivered herself with a most fervid eloquence. She went to Basle, and turned the city upside down by preaching the speedy coming of the Christ. Twenty thousand pilgrims responded to her call. The Senate became alarmed, and banished her. She hastened to Baden, where four thousand people were waiting on the square to kiss her hands and her dress.

Lazzaretti, an insane workingman, thought himself a prophet. The people, astonished at his changed mode of life, his inspired speech, his long, neglected beard, and grave bearing, flocked in crowds to hear him. A pilgrimage was organized, in which Lazzaretti, accompanied by priests and some of the influential among the laity, marched to different places. Wherever he went he was received by the people on their knees, and the parish priests kissed his face, his hands, and even his feet. In obedience divine commands, as he declared, he left his native city and went to Rome. On his return he found a great multitude awaiting him, attracted by both devotion and curiosity. Lazzaretti was then arrested by the civil authorities, hut shortly released, when he went away to France, "carried," as he said, "by divine power." He returned again to his native city and assembled a larger multitude than ever. One day, at the head of an immense crowd, he marched out to establish the "kingdom of God." He was dressed most fantastically, thereby greatly impressing his followers. He was shot down by a soldier, and the crowd immediately dispersed.
The Portuguese king, Dom Pedro, was prostrated with grief over the loss of beloved wife. He became insane, and his insanity took the form of an irrepressible inclination to dance. He would go out into the streets late at night, and by the lurid light of torches, dance madly to the sound of pipes. The sleeping citizens, awakened by the noise, followed him, and, being gradually drawn into the circle the king and his servants, joined the dance, dancing sometimes the whole night through.

Analyzing the cases here cited, we find crowds attracted and influenced by a strong sens[ation?], caused by persons in unusual states of mind; by madmen indeed, but it might just as well be by genuinely great men. Since our object is to find out the nature of the mob and the way it is set in motion, it is more interesting to take the cases of mobs whose heroes are insane persons, because then the personality of the hero is more or less eliminated, and only the method of setting the mob in motion and the nature of the mob itself remain as main points to consider. We may say with perfect assurance that a mob becomes formed under the influence of some strange event, be it the dream of a lunatic, the fiery speech of insane man, the screams of a superstitious woman, or the mad dance of a crazy king. A strong sudden excitement makes men obedient and causes them to lose their will, their personality, and makes them ready to play a blind obedience to an external command. Can we find an analogous state in the life of the individual? I think we can.

"Hypnotization," says Binet, "can be produced by strong and sudden excitement of the senses. The patient comes hypnotized, and hence obedient to the hypnotizer." We find the same phenomenon in the ease of the m[?] the mob is hypnotized by a strong, sudden action, and becomes for a time obedient to him who hypnotized it; that is, to the ringleader, to the hero. As Krafft-Ebing tells us of a peculiar state which he observed in his patient, namely, fascination. "In this state the patient feels herself to be a pure automaton, and knows herself as absent from the body, existing only as an image the experimenter's eye." "This disappearance of the consciousness of personality," he adds, "is of great interest." It is of great interest in the study of mob, as we shall see further on. The form of hypnotism called fascination was first discovered by Donato, and has been described by Bremand. It is produced in men presumed to be perfectly healthy, and is effected by the subject fixing his eyes on a brilliant point. Thereupon he appears to fall into a sort of stupor; he follows the experimenter

Bremand considers fascination as hypnotism in the lowest degree of intensity. A similar state, but of less intensity, we find in the mob when fascinated by its hero; and when this state is more intensified, we have something approaching the hypnotic state of fascination. What particularly characterizes the man of the mob is the entire loss of his personal self. In a dense crowd, not only is our body squeezed and pressed upon, but also our spirit. The individual self sinks sensibly in the crowd; it seems to get submerged in the fermenting spirit of the possible mob. The mob has a self of its own, and this self is the stronger the more it consumes of the individual self. It is true that this mob self is extremely changeable; but is not this so with the individual self, though in a lesser degree? This mysterious fact that the individual self sinks in the crowd needs explanation; and should such an explanation he found, it would throw strong light on the dark nature of the mob. In his investigation into the nature of the "self of selves" Professor William James advances a very important hypothesis: "Our entire feeling of spiritual activity, or what commonly passes by that name, is really a feeling of bodily activities whose exact nature is by most men overlooked. If anything gives us a strong sense of own individuality, it is surely our voluntary movements. We may say that the individual self grows and expands with the increase of the variety and intensity of its voluntary movements; and conversely, the life of the individual self sinks and shrinks, with the increase of variety and intensity of voluntary movements occurring during this



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Social hynotization plays a great part the life of humanity. This social hypnotization, as all our adduced facts and arguments prove, is due to monotony of life and social pressure. It is an acknowledged fact that women are good hypnotic subjects. Now this fact cannot be explained by the greater weakness of the female organism, because experiments prove that weakness of organization is not at all a condition for speedt and good hypnitization. How then shall we explain it? It can be explained only by monotony and social pressure. For centuries the social pressure was brought to bear on women with special severity; their life was fixed for them by their fathers, husbands, eldest sons, by religions and by class regulations. All individuality, personality, was mercilessly, brutally destroyed in women. They were shut up in harems; at best they were strictly confined by tile boundaries of the family circle. Even in our own times, especially in European and Eastern countries, the sociostatic pressure has not ceased to work out its deadly effects on woman. Her life is full of regulations; she is formed and fashioned, bodily and mentally, according to a certain style and mode. She is confined to a narrow sphere of activity, where she passes a dull, monotonous life. For centuries the anvil on which monotony and social pressure have hammered with all their might and main, we need not wonder that woman has formed a strong predisposition to hypnotic states. Woman, in truth, is half hypnotized; hence the fact that, in comparison with man, woman is more gentle, more submissive, more obedient (obedience and modesty are her virtues), suffers more from nervrous diseases (like the the Yakuti of Siberia and the northern Russians), is more inconstant, less original, more impressive, less reasonable, and more imitative.

It is interesting to observe that the common people in general and soldiers in particular are excellent subjects for hypnotic purposes. Thus the soldiers of the Czar, as experiments show, have a strong predisposition to hypnotic states.1 M. Liebault experimented on ten hundred and twelve persons, and found only twenty-seven refractory. Dr. Berenheim remarks on this that "it is necessary to take into account the fact that M. Liebault operates chiefly upon the common people." The great pressure exerted on the lower social strata, and especially on soldiers, the tiresome, dull monotony of their life, predispose them to hypnotization, and hence to social hypnotization to the formation of mobs. Once again then, we are brought back to monotony and social pressure as the source of the mob.

Boris Sidis

1. I am informed by Prof. Münsterberg that the hypnotic predisposition is observed in the German soldier.


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