When malignant rumors threatened to undermine civilian morale during World War II, the Boston Herald Rumor Clinic tried to put them to rest. The pioneering effort spread to dozens of other cities before the U.S. government consigned it to a slow death.
Rumors were a big problem during World War II, more so than in World War I. Then, they were directed against the enemy and usually involved atrocities committed by soldiers. But the most common World War II rumors involved the U.S. war effort. For example, Indian soldiers at Fort Devens were raping women. Or no U.S. Navy vessels survived Pearl Harbor.
One rumor had a woman’s head exploding after she permed her hair and went to work in a shell factory. According to another, unmarried, pregnant WAACs were sent home from North Africa. Some people spread the canard that canned crabmeat packed in Japan contained glass or poison.
Through its listening network of ‘morale wardens,’ the Rumor Clinic tracked down rumors. They spread in taverns and on factory floors, in schools and at parties, on wharves and in stores. Each Sunday, the Boston Herald published a rumor and refuted it. Often, the refutation included analysis of the motivation that started the rumor.
Sometimes the Herald blamed rumors on Axis propaganda. Germany had effectively waged psychological warfare to spread panic and demoralization among civilians before invading Poland and France.
“…[T]he Axis has been clever enough, via short-wave broadcasts and moral saboteurs, to exploit existing lines of discontent,” reported Life magazine in its Oct. 12, 1942 edition. “Thus the people of the U.S. are led to a sort of psychological suicide by serving to circulate dangerous lies about U.S. Jews, U.S. Negroes, U.S. allies, U.S. leaders.”
Boston Herald Rumor Clinic
The first Boston Herald Rumor Clinic column in early 1943 spiked a rumor supplied by the government. By the next week, readers were sending in rumors. By the third week, the Clinic received more rumors than it could handle.
The column included the rumor in italics followed by the word FACT. It then refuted the rumor in boldface, often explaining the psychological reason for the rumor’s popularity. The columns were posted on factory bulletin boards, included in department store pay envelopes and sent with clean wash to laundry customers.
One for the Rumor Clinic
Here’s one: A man walked into a Boston saloon and offered to buy a round. He said he was celebrating because his son was sent to Australia and had been promoted to corporal. The stranger beside him replied, “No cause to celebrate, my friend. Hundreds of soldiers who went out there are right back here in Boston now — insane. Bad food, terrible living conditions. Why, I’m told there’s not even room for all of them in the hospitals.” The bartender overheard the conversation, wrote it down and sent it to the Boston Herald Rumor Clinic.
Mistreatment of American soldiers was a common theme. So were waste of rationed items, government corruption, the imminence of defeat or victory and the value of war bonds. Rumors exacerbated fears about military weakness. They also worsened racial tensions and undermined cooperation for programs like food rationing.
Rumors didn’t always result from German propaganda. People distrusted the U.S. government, partly because they opposed the war. But they also had reason to question what the government told them. The Roosevelt administration, for example, kept from the public the extent of the losses at Pearl Harbor. Rumors flew that the West Coast had no defenses because the Japanese had destroyed the entire Pacific fleet and most military aircraft. The rumors spread so widely that President Roosevelt finally described the actual damage in a fireside chat – 10 weeks after the attack.
Sometimes rumors started casually. A man who commented that Boston’s chimneys could hide anti-aircraft led to the rumor that the roofs were bristling with guns.
Resentment of the women who stepped in to take a man’s job inspired lurid tales that plagued the WAACs – the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps. A rumor flew that male doctors lined up naked WAACs for inspection at training centers. According to another, the training centers handed out contraceptives to the WAACs. Some spread the rumor that 90 percent of WAACs were prostitutes.
It turned out American GIs started those rumors.
The Boston Herald Rumor Clinic had three parts: First, the Boston Herald itself. Second, the Division of Propaganda Research, set up within the Massachusetts Committee on Public Safety. The Division of Propaganda Research supervised the third part: a listening network of 300 ‘morale wardens’ — bartenders, waitresses, union representatives and insurance salesmen.
Robert Knapp, a student of Harvard psychology professor Gordon Allport, ran the Division of Propaganda Research.
Among the morale wardens was Frances Sweeney, who believed the enemy was exploiting traditional Irish hatred of the British. Life magazine described how the ’fighting Irish girl’ tracked down a rumor:
An African-American editor at the Boston Herald, William Harrison, told her he had heard a rumor that Indian soldiers at Fort Devens were killing and raping white people. He heard it from a friend who heard it from an artist, Lawrence Kupferman. Sweeney talked to Kupferman in his studio, where he told her he heard it from another artist, Giglio Dante. Dante told her he heard it in a North End bar from Tom McGowan, a business agent for the seaman’s union. Sweeney tracked him down at the union offices in what Life called the ‘tough Italian district.’ McGowan told her the rumor started after a Fort Devens soldier complained that Indians didn’t have a sense of humor.
Sweeney took the rumor to the anti-Fascist editor of La Costrocorreste, an Italian language newspaper, who printed a refutation in a column similar to the Herald’s Rumor Clinic.
Rise and Fall of the Rumor Clinic
Readers Digest and American Mercury also printed stories about the Rumor Clinic. Soon Allport and Knapp were helping to set them up around the country, in San Francisco, Philadelphia, New York City, Long Island, Syracuse, New Jersey, South Carolina, Florida, Ohio, Chicago, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Missouri, Montreal, Oregon, and Washington.
The Roosevelt administration was not pleased. It had established the Office of War Information (OWI) to control all information about the war, and had started its own Rumor Control project. It never got off the ground because government bureaucrats wanted centralized control. They didn’t like the idea of ivory tower academics freely handling government information.
The OWI went to war with the local Rumor Clinics. It established stringent criteria for getting federal funding and tried to bury them in red tape. The OWI condemned the rumor clinics in a 1943 New York Times story, claiming the attempts to spike rumors actually spread them. The Rumor Clinics went into a decline and were gone by war’s end.
How effective was the Boston Herald Rumor Clinic? It’s hard to say. The OWI claimed it helped spread rumors rather than spike them. Gordon Allport published a study arguing his approach was more effective.
Whatever the case, it is quite certain that no woman’s head blew up in a shell factory after she had a perm.
This story was updated in 2021.