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THE PSYCHOLOGY OF SUGGESTION
Boris Sidis, Ph.D.
© 1898. New York, D. Appleton and Company.
MENTAL epidemics, panics, stampedes occurring in social animals, are especially interesting from our point of view. In the Journal of Mental Science for January, 1872, Dr. W. Lauder Lindsay brings a few cases of stampedes among cavalry horses. Of these stampedes four deserve our special attention. Three were English, one was Russian.
On Monday August 30, 1871, a stampede happened among the horses of the First Life Guard, encamped on Cove Common, near Aldershot. The Daily Telegraph of September 1, 1871, gives the following description of the panic: "A sudden noise frightened the horses of two officers and caused them to start from their pickets, followed by six troop horses. A panic then seized on the whole line; three hundred horses broke loose simultaneously, running, in all directions, some dragging the cords and pins, and all wearing their saddle cloths. . . . Almost every open route had been taken by the fugitives. . . At one point the troop dashed against the closed toll-gate and smashed it to pieces, while . . . many plunged against stakes or other obstructions, seriously injuring themselves. Several dropped down dead within an hour; some were drowned in the canal, and others were captured in a crippled state." "Who could have thought," exclaims the Times, "that horses would go mad, like Goldsmith's dog, to gain some private end of their own? and yet, what other conclusion can we form? . . . A sedate and virtuous body of three hundred horses suddenly going mad, running over one another, kicking and fighting among themselves, and committing suicide by all the means in their power. . . The three hundred horses . . . became frenzied with the same unity of purpose."
On September 2, 1871, a second stampede occurred to the horses of the Second Dragoon Guards, also encamped on Cove Common. This time the stampede was on a somewhat smaller scale than the first one. According to the Daily News of September 4, 1871, seventy-six horses suddenly broke loose from the right wing of the regiment and galloped madly in all directions. The vast expanse of common ground in the locality is intersected by the Basingstoke Canal and numerous ditches, into which many of the animals plunged or fell, and were with difficulty rescued from drowning or suffocation."
Next day, September 3d, a still smaller stampede of forty only occurred in the same camp to the horses of the Tenth Hussars. The epidemic was rapidly losing ground, and vanished altogether with the third stampede.
If now we inquire after the immediate or exciting cause in all these stampedes, we find it invariably to be some very trivial accident, in itself utterly disproportionate to the effect produced. Thus the first stampede was caused by a flock of geese that disturbed the repose of the chargers, and the second was brought about by "a runaway horse from an adjacent camp." The exciting cause was insignificant; what, then, was the predisposing cause?―The natural social suggestibility of horsekind. Compare now these equine stampedes with similar stampedes or panics among men. The following case may serve as a good illustration:
In the Year 1761 the citizens of London were alarmed by two shocks of an earthquake, and the prophecy of a third, which was to destroy them altogether. A crack-brained fellow named Bell, a soldier in the Life Guards, was so impressed with the idea that there would be a third earthquake in another month that he lost his senses and ran about the streets predicting the destruction of London on the 5th of April. Thousands confidently believed his prediction and took measures to transport themselves and their families from the scene of the impending calamity. As the awful day approached the excitement became intense, and great numbers of credulous people resorted to all the villages within a circuit of twenty miles, awaiting the doom of London. Islington, Highgate, Hampstead, Harrow, and Blackheath were crowded with panic-stricken fugitives, who paid exorbitant prices for accommodation to the housekeepers of these secure retreats. Such as could not afford to pay for lodgings at any of those places remained in London until two or three days before the time, and then encamped in the surrounding fields, awaiting the tremendous shock which was to lay the city all level with the dust. The fear became contagious, and hundreds, who had laughed at the prediction a week before, packed up their goods when they saw others doing so and hastened away. The river was thought to be a place of great security, and all the merchant vessels in the port were filled with people, who passed the night between the 4th and 5th on board, expecting every instant to see St. Paul's totter and the towers of Westminster Abbey rock in the wind and fall amid a cloud of dust.
Stampedes have their leaders just as mobs have their instigators, as political parties have their bosses, and as great movements have their saints and heroes. Each great stampede has its political boss, its "runaway horse," its hero who is obeyed blindly and devotedly followed even to the point of self-destruction. The suggestion of the hero is fatal in its effects. The special correspondent of The Scotsman, in commenting on the English stampedes, truly remarks: "It is always one or two horses which begin the mischief; and if they were quieted at once, the contagion of the panic would be arrested."
If not counteracted, the suggestion given by the boss of the stampede is simply irresistible, and is carried out in a spirit of perfectly blind, slavish obedience. This can be clearly seen in the Russian St. Petersburg stampede of 1871. The Times correspondent gives the following account of it:
"On the second night of the campaign an unlucky accident occurred. . . . A regiment of the Empress's Cuirassiers of the Guard, nine hundred strong, . . . had arrived at their cantonments. One of the squadron of horses became alarmed, broke away, was followed by the next squadron, and, a panic seizing them all, in one instant the whole nine hundred fled in wild disorder. . . . Two things were very remarkable in this stampede. In the first place, they unanimously selected one large, powerful horse as their leader, and, with a look at him and a snort at him which they meant and he understood as après vous, they actually waited until he dashed to the front, and then followed in wild confusion. When I tell you that some of the horses were not recovered till they had gone one hundred and twenty miles into Finland, you may imagine what the panic was.
"The second remarkable thing is the way that some of them were stopped. In one solid mass they dashed on for miles, and then came directly, at right angles, on a river. In front of them was a bridge, but on the other side of the bridge was a sort of tète du pont and a small picket of cavalry. The horse which led would not face the bridge, seeing the cavalry at the other end, but turned to one side, dashed into the stream, and the whole nine hundred horses swam the river together. As they emerged and flew wildly on, the commander of the picket bethought him of a ruse, and ordered a bugler to blow the appel. This is always blown when the horses are going to be fed. . . . All the old horses pricked up their ears, wavered, stopped, paused, turned round and trotted back. . . . This severed the mass. . . . The rest was broken up."
Those who live in a democracy and have the interests of the country at heart may well ponder on these stampedes. From our standpoint these stampedes are very interesting and highly instructive, because they clearly show the extreme suggestibility to which the social brute is constantly subject.
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