The people of the United Kingdom town of Halifax had enough on their minds. War clouds were swirling, and there were fears that the country would soon be drawn into another great conflict. The grip of the Great Depression still held to the economy. Everywhere the people looked, there was uncertainty.
Despite all of the signs of gloom and impending doom, the reports of violence on November 16, 1938, still took everyone by surprise. Two young women, employees of a local mill, were unexpectedly attacked by an unidentified, razor-wielding man. The women were being treated for head injuries caused by this senseless attack.
As police investigated the incident, word quickly spread from house to house. A feeling of unbelief and unease crept through Halifax as quickly as the rumors. The local newspaper, the Halifax Courier, opined, “Until the culprit is found and effectively dealt with there is not likely to be much peace of mind, not only [locally] but further afield. The affair has created a tremendous sensation and it has thoroughly upset the people.”
Just as people began to dare to hope that the incident was an isolated tragedy, never to be repeated, it happened again. Five days after the women were attacked, another young woman in the vicinity fell victim to a similar atrocity. This attack left her with a deep, clean cut to her wrist, as if from a razor. The woman gave police a clear description of the attacker, but authorities were unable to apprehend any suspects.
Three days later, another victim fell prey to the mysterious and terrifying man now known as the Halifax Slasher. Again, investigations by police proved to be fruitless. Law enforcement authorities turned to the public, offering a “£10 police reward for the arrest of Halifax ‘Slasher’.”
What started as a legitimate concern quickly evolved into near panic. Scotland Yard was called in to help local law enforcement as businesses in Halifax and its surroundings shut down. As fear spread, more and more reports and rumors arose daily, revealing fresh attacks by the Slasher in surrounding towns.
With the police unable to protect the citizenry, communities established vigilante groups. These groups were more than Neighborhood Watch efforts; they armed themselves with whatever could be used as a weapon, patrolled the streets,a nearby beat up many a stranger whom they came upon and mistakenly assumed was the Slasher. In one case, a woman reported being attacked by the Slasher. A local Good Samaritan rushed to offer her assistance. For his efforts, a mob of vigilantes assumed he was the villain and descended upon him with clubs. Fortunately, police intervention in just the nick of time spared his life.
For nearly three weeks, panic gripped the people of Halifax and the surrounding communities. Then, on November 29, one of the “victims” of the Halifax Slasher admitted that his injuries had been self-inflicted. As the community was still absorbing this bizarre revelation, other victims of the Slasher came forward and admitted that they, too, had fabricated their stories. After 9 of 12 “victims” confessed to slashing themselves and making up the stories of the attacks, Scotland Yard concluded that there had never been a “Halifax Slasher” and closed the investigation. Five of those who filed false police reports were charged with a crime, and four ended up doing time in prison for public mischief.
A similar incident occurred nearly 20 years later in another part of the world. For two weeks in 1956, panic gripped the population of Taipei in Taiwan because of rumors of a crazed Slasher roaming the streets. This crazed individual was in the practice of surreptitiously slicing people with a razor blade as he brushed past them, then disappearing into the crowds. More than 20 victims came forward, reporting the attacks and sporting serious injuries.
There were signs right from the beginning that something wasn’t right about all of the Slasher reports. One older gentleman, for example, reported being attacked by a straight-edged razor. After a medical examination revealed that the injury was caused by a blunt object and could not have resulted from a razor, the man admitted that he did not really know how he had been injured, but assumed that he must have been slashed “because of all the talk going around.”
In another case, doctors examined the injuries of a man who sought treatment for a laceration on his wrist. When the patient casually mentioned that a stranger had brushed against him around the same time that he noticed the bleeding, the doctors concluded the wound must have been caused by the Slasher and contacted police. A follow-up examination by a different physician revealed that the laceration was simply an old wound that had been reopened by scratching.
By the time things were all sorted out, authorities concluded there had never been a Slasher. It was another example of mass hysteria, amplified by sensationalist press reporting. The final report on the matter determined that the “victims” had simply suffered the kinds of everyday accidental cuts and slight injuries that most people endure from time to time without hardly noticing. It was the sensational reporting in the media that caused people to attribute any rip in their clothes or scratch on their bodies to an attack by the mysterious razor-wielding Slasher. Out of twenty0one reported “victims” of the crazed slasher, five were innocent false reports, seven were self-inflicted cuts, eight were due to cuts other than razors, and one was an utter fabrication.