4 August, 1965. Panic sweeps the city of Charlotte, North Carolina, when local radio station WIST broadcasts a news flash: “An amoeba is loose somewhere on the outskirts of the city!” Terrified children tried to get home to their parents, who were jamming phone lines to the police in desperate attempts to find their children. The panic was described as “one of the worst disturbances in the city’s history”.
A city of 80,000 in an uproar over an amoeba – a creature smaller than a millimeter across. A year later the Federal Communications Commission officially censured the radio station for alarming the scientifically illiterate population of Charlotte. Police phone lines were tied up for three hours, and “three times” the number of telephonists were put on duty to handle the calls.
I came across this story in a pulpy second hand book on UFOs that I picked up at a charity stall today. It seems too ludicrous to be true, an even more ridiculous version of the Orson Welles War of the Worlds scare of 1938.
A google search turned up no web hits for the story, so I turned to google book search and discovered some tantalising hints:
- a snippet view of a Federal Communication Commission report
- a snippet view of a reference to the same from The Idler
- a quote from Broadcasting that doesn’t even include a snippet:
“Two Charlotte, N. C, radio stations are due to be reprimanded by the FCC for letting their competitive zeal lead them … Wist is said to have frightened listeners and caused a heavy volume of calls to police with announcements that amoebas were invading the city, implying the microscopic bits of protoplasm were dangerous creatures”
And that’s all the traces I can find on the web of the Charlotte Amoeba Panic of 1965. I could probably find some more information if I went to a library and looked through microfilmed newspapers.
There must be many people alive who lived through or heard of the amoeba invasion … so why isn’t there more information out there? It seems like just the kind of story that would become notorious. A savvy town might capitalize on the incident, celebrate it, put a statue of an amoeba in the town square.
Did the people of Charlotte, embarrassed, embark upon a conspiracy of silence? That seems unwise: those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it, after all.
Perhaps the panic wasn’t as great as reported in the Sydney Morning Herald? I’d be interested to know.
Update: thanks to Bill Thayer for pointing out newspaperarchive.com, which was a treasure trove of information.
An article in the Robesonian (Lumberton, 21 February 1966, p. 8 ) confirmed that the FCC had reprimanded WIST for alarming “some persons.” And an editorial in the Gastonia Gazette (19 February 1966, p. 4) tells the story of a prank by rival Charlotte station WAYS which seems to have caused more disruption:
It turns out that amoeba scares were a minor trend in the early 1960s – one took place in Los Angeles in 1960, with reports of an amoeba loose in the civic center (The Bee, Lawrence, 28 April 1960, p. 4). Switchboards at city hall, police stations, the health department, radio stations and newspapers were flooded. The health department reported the incident to the FCC (Adrian Daily Telegraph, 21 April 1960, p. 1).
Meanwhile in San Francisco, the San Mateo Times entertainment columnist Bob Foster reports (22 April 1960) that:
Last Wednesday KEWB, in the guise of being “funny” (?) announced during the morning hours that a “spotted amoeba was loose in the bay area”
The FCC described the hoax, and another “voice from outer space” program, as “alarming and vulgar” (Oakland Tribune, 8 July 1961, p. 4).
Greenville, SC, station WQOK also had a scare in 1962 when a science student called in to report a loose amoeba (The Daily Times-News, Burlington, 21 March 1962, p. 1).
Finally, here’s a column from either the worst, or the best, entertainment reporter ever: Bob Foster of the San Mateo Times (8 February 1966, p. 22):
Update 2: thanks again to Bill Thayer for tracking down the FCC’s reprimand of WIST:
“Many persons” are said to have been alarmed, causing a substantial disturbance, and police telephone lines were tied up for several hours. Did the disturbance hit the streets is the unresolved question?
- Sydney Morning Herald, 4 March 1966
- the above is quoted in Richard Tambling 1967, Flying Saucers: Where Do They Come From?