The Madness of Crowds

Charles Mackay

Wordsworth, London, 1852, 1995.

Wordsworth Editions have reprinted (very cheaply) this splendid 700-page study of bizarre crowd psychology, covering a bewildering range of phenomena. Here are the chapter titles:

  1. The Mississippi Scheme
  2. The South-Sea Bubble
  3. The Tulipomania
  4. The Alchymists
  5. Modern Prophecies
  6. Fortune-Telling
  7. The Magnetisers
  8. Influence of Politics and Religion on the Hair and Beard
  9. The Crusades
  10. The Witch Mania
  11. The Slow Poisoners
  12. Haunted Houses
  13. Popular Follies of Great Cities
  14. Popular Admiration of Great Thieves
  15. Duels and Ordeals
  16. Relics

The first two chapters, on financial scandals, are no doubt the main reason why, according to Professor Norman Stone's new introduction, the book "is said to be required reading in some of the literate Wall Street financial houses".

Despite the age of the book, most of these enthralling accounts have obvious bearings on contemporary social behaviour, especially in the case of the New Age counterparts of the Alchymists, Modern Prophets, Fortune-Tellers and Magnetisers.

I can only agree with the author's claim that, apart from the instructive value of the study of alchemy,

"he who reads for amusement only will find no chapter in the annals of the human mind more amusing than this." (p.100)

Mackay relates the trickery often involved in "transmutations" of base metals into gold:

"The trick to which they oftenest had recourse was to use a double-bottomed crucible, the under surface being of iron or copper, and the upper one of wax, painted to resemble the same metal. Between the two they placed as much gold or silver dust as was necessary for their purpose. They then put in their lead, quicksilver, or other ingredients, and placed their pot upon the fire. Of course, when the experiment was concluded, they never failed to find a lump of gold at the bottom." (p.215)

Unfortunately, the gullibility that alchemists depended on sometimes brought severe difficulties. In the section entitled "Inferior Adepts of the 14th and 15th Centuries", we learn that,

"It was a common practice in Germany, among the nobles and petty sovereigns, to invite an alchymist to take up his residence among them, that they might confine him in a dungeon till he made gold enough to pay millions for his ransom. Many poor wretches suffered perpetual imprisonment in consequence." (p.150)

The 13th chapter recounts a series of peculiar catch-phrases that gripped the populace of London, such as "What a shocking bad hat!", "There he goes with his eye out!", and "Flare up!". In the case of the first phrase,

"No sooner had it become universal, than thousands of idle but sharp eyes were on the watch for the passenger whose hat shewed any signs, however slight, of ancient service. Immediately the cry arose, and, like the war-whoop of the Indians, was repeated by a hundred discordant throats." (p.621)

Students of the meme will find much to ponder in this chapter, and indeed in the whole book.

The final chapter mentions relics of the Christians' "true cross":

"Fragments, purporting to have been cut from it, were, in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, to be found in almost every church in Europe, and would, if collected together in one place, have been almost sufficient to have built a cathedral." (p.696)

This is a book to treasure.



Paul Taylor 2001