This is a story about America at a crossroads, an anxious city, and cars. Lots of cars. It’s also, somewhat inexplicably, a story about pie. One singular pie that hit its mark on the face of a presidential commission chair in Washington, DC—the first pie in history, many believe, ever thrown as an act of political protest.
I promise we’ll get to that pie soon enough. But first I need to tell you about a mystery. In the spring of 1954 people in the Pacific Northwest believed they were under attack.
It started in late March, when Washingtonians noticed tiny craters in their car windshields, divots ranging from the size of a pencil eraser to the width of a dime. Officials suspected vandals firing BB or pellet guns, or flinging gravel or ball bearings with slingshots—or via an air-powered, makeshift contraption. Imagine, as the officials undoubtedly did, these hoodlums as wearing, or aspiring to wear, black leather jackets, their hair greased and combed into pompadours immune to the gravitational pull of the sizable chips on their shoulders. “This thing is far more than ordinary juvenile delinquency,” a Skagit County sheriff’s deputy told a reporter, “it’s a getting of revenge on society.”
On Tuesday, April 13, police from around the region, including the state patrol, rushed to Anacortes, site of so many pitted windshields the cops had lost count. Officers set a roadblock at Deception Pass Bridge, south of town, and another at Swinomish Bridge to the east. No one could drive in or out of the small port city without law enforcement scrutiny.
That turned up zilch. Officials—picture square-jawed men who may or may not have spoken in the grimly stenographic voice of authority that monotoned through the era’s B movies—remained flummoxed.
The next day the phantom scourge invaded Naval Air Station Whidbey Island. Commander R.R. Hedrick, responding to reports that his base was under siege, ordered 75 marines to conduct a search. For five hours they stopped every car entering the station, and inspected all vehicles already there. The soldiers opened doors and lifted hoods, seeking any weapons capable of blemishing, but not completely breaking, glass. All they found were three motorists who said their windshields had been sabotaged too.
That evening the outbreak would creep 50 miles southeast, to Seattle, where the damaged windshields would number in the thousands and put the city in such a state of panic that the mayor beseeched the president of the United States for help.
By then officials could rule out vandalism. A county sheriff and others would posit that radioactivity from H-bomb tests far out in the Pacific created the divots. Other explanations included cosmic rays, fallen ash, and even the work of creatures from outer space.
The real cause, once revealed, was arguably more unsettling.
In 1954 Seattle was, compared to other major U.S. cities, at the edge of the world. To even call it a major U.S. city would be a stretch. Tracing much of its original growth and wealth to a short-lived role as a way station on the path to the greater riches unearthed in Alaska, Seattle had been, in its 100-some years, a steadily prosperous but undistinguished outpost. Nearly a decade away from the space-age world’s fair that would define it—and four decades from the tech and music scene that would reinvent it—the region boasted airplane and weapons manufacturer Boeing and little else.
The pitting epidemic slouched toward the city on Wednesday, April 15. At 6pm just three cars at Sixth Avenue and John showed damage. At 9pm another report surfaced on Greenwood Avenue. Then all pocked-windshield hell broke loose. Citizens began waving over patrolmen in the streets to point out the assaults on their vehicles.
By Thursday the outbreak colonized front-page news (“Mystery Windshield Damage Spreads in Seattle and County,” announced The Seattle Daily Times) and the city seemed to be losing its mind. Motorists swore they’d witnessed the pits materialize right in front of them, one man saying four appeared across the bottom of his windshield as he drove.
Thousands of workers spent their lunch hours in parking lots inspecting their cars, some concealing the windshields with cardboard or paper to protect them. Auto dealerships similarly covered their inventory.
Seattle police chief H. J. Lawrence told the Times that only a small army could inflict the amount of destruction reported, more than 3,000 windshields. “It would take 200 people…. It seems a physical impossibility for any one group to have done this damage.” He directed six officers to field calls from the public; the volume proved so great they could barely keep pace.
One of those calls came from a woman in Georgetown who circled the divots with a yellow crayon every time one appeared. “It’s hard to keep up with them,” she said. When the policeman who came to investigate returned to his car he discovered pits suddenly appearing on his windshield. Across town two sheriff’s deputies, scrutinizing the pitted windshield of a delivery truck, radioed to dispatch that, to their dismay, five more pits formed right before their eyes.
Seattle mayor Allan Pomeroy had heard enough. No longer believing the outbreak the work of vandals but of something in the atmosphere carried by the wind, the mayor sent a wire message to DC, beseeching President Dwight D. Eisenhower: “Urge appropriate federal (and state) agencies be instructed to cooperate…on emergency basis.”
Eisenhower had other worries. The country, reckoning with the aftermath of World War II, still fought a powerful enemy, though indirectly. The USSR, now equipped with and testing nuclear missiles, had risen as a formidable foe. A cold war of clashing ideologies—communism versus capitalism—was also a contest in perceived superior fire power. Starting in 1946, the year after the war, the U.S. began testing nuclear weapons in the Pacific, both to fine-tune the weaponry and to show the world our nation's might.
On March 1, 1954, in the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands—about 4,700 miles southwest of Seattle—the military discharged what today remains the largest thermonuclear device the U.S. government has ever detonated.
Code named Castle Bravo, the 23,500-pound bomb was a mistake. Scientists miscalculated its potential force and, to their astonishment, the explosion measured a thousand times more powerful than either of the bombs the U.S. dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which killed up to 226,000 people and effectively ended WWII. Castle Bravo’s mushroom cloud rose to 130,000 feet within minutes—and its radiation quickly spread.
Seattle Daily Times readers learned details of the blast in the March 17 edition. “Force of latest U.S. H-bomb blast too great to measure,” read the top-of-the-fold headline. News continued to trickle in. Twenty-three fishermen on a Japanese boat 80 miles from the impact suffered from severe radiation poisoning. Tuna caught hundreds of miles from the blast made Geiger counters measuring radioactivity squawk. U.S. military personnel had also been exposed.
Meanwhile, the nuclear fallout kept drifting, to Australia and the U.S. and Europe, a radius of 7,000 miles. On March 25—the day some of the earliest window divot reports emerged—an Associated Press article told of the UK’s fury over the “hideous reality” of nukes, the miscalculated thermonuclear detonation, and the contamination the country feared might reach its shores.
The Castle Bravo disaster weighed on the minds of people in Western Washington, too. In Coupeville, 45 miles northwest of Seattle, Island County Sheriff Tom Clark, his jurisdiction reeling from the discovery of more windshield pocking, pushed an emerging hypothesis. He accused radioactive material released into the atmosphere from the recent hydrogen bomb detonation in the Pacific.
This idea, the nuclear fallout explanation, held strong as the outbreak seemed to escape the confines of Western Washington and fly south to Portland. Then east. Damaged cars in Canton, Ohio, numbered more than 1,000. “If it’s something in the atmosphere [in Washington state],” a weatherman in Madison, Wisconsin, explained to reporters, “it has blown over here by now.” An entomologist in Illinois speculated that bugs might be the culprit; a forester there indicted aphids dropped from tree leaves.
In New York, engineers at General Electric blamed drops of resin sometimes found in the atmosphere, especially in manufacturing areas, that fall as globules and eat through the glass.
Other theories advanced by specialists and the public included particles from a meteorite; cosmic rays from solar flares; the eggs of sand fleas embedded in the glass and finally hatched; airborne hydrofluoric acid; dust storms; space aliens.
The real answer to the windshield pitting mystery would install Seattle in the annals of social science—and help launch the careers of two researchers, one of whom, a decade and a half later, would join the administrations of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, tasked with answering another vexing question.
For now, within the span of just a few days in the spring of 1954, the inscrutable menace that started in Western Washington had the entire United States on notice.
When Seattle Mayor Pomeroy wired President Eisenhower—who ultimately deferred to state authorities—he sent an identical plea to governor Arthur Langlie, who tapped researchers at the University of Washington. After forming a committee of scientists to get to the bottom of the case, the university recruited its new Environmental Research Laboratory, housed on campus in the Health Sciences Building. The job fell to one man.
Harley Bovee, a 35-year-old research assistant and chemist, rarely appeared in the Environmental Research Laboratory without the white lab coat that extended to well below his knees. A writing pen jammed into the left breast pocket. A dark tie seemed permanently affixed to the neck of his white button down. Round-framed glasses balanced on his nose and slicked-back dark hair completed the look.
Bovee spent the days after the windshield pit outbreak in the lab, investigating explanations advanced by officials and the public. He followed police leads. He pored over anecdotes. People from all over the region sent him specimens—artifacts believed responsible for the pitting, like ball bearings, rocks, and the yellow powder from Orcas Island that turned out to be nothing more than fir pollen. And he logged items that showed markings similar to the windshields, like a pair of pitted eyeglasses courtesy of a man in Redmond.
In the same lab where he would, years later, measure the carbon-dioxide output of cigarettes and conduct air pollution studies, Bovee put all the window pitting explanations to the test.
Did a meteorite fall to Earth’s surface, break apart, and pelt the glass? Pieces of meteorites are incredibly dense, but when Bovee weighed the suspects, they were so light they didn’t register on his scale; what some thought interstellar remnants were likely unrelated remains of burned coal.
Airborne hydrofluoric acid? When Bovee applied such acid to a windshield he succeeded only in glazing the glass with a shiny veneer. What about the General Electric engineers in New York who blamed some sort of falling resin? A fraction of Bovee’s many experiments with resin led to pitting, but it looked unlike any found on the windshields.
Finally, the most ominous explanation: Fallout from Castle Bravo, the botched thermonuclear detonation at Bikini Atoll. When Bovee waved the lab’s Geiger counter over particles found near the windshields in question, they showed no sign of radioactivity.
On June 10, two months after the windshield panic struck, Harley Bovee released the results of his study.
“Although there is a considerable body of testimony from reputable witnesses to the effect that windshields were pitted by some mysterious cause in the space of a few minutes or hours during the ‘epidemic,’” Bovee wrote, “it has not been possible to substantiate a single one of these statements by scientific observation. Actually, the observed facts tend to contradict such statements.”
The real cause: Regular wear and tear expected over the course of the life of any windshield, such as when small objects like gravel get kicked up by other car tires. The older or more mileage on the car, the more damage.
Simply put, the divots had been there all along.
How did this happen? How did Seattleites—and then people all over the country—suddenly mistake what had been literally right in front of their faces for something supernatural or nefarious? Otto Larsen wanted to know.
During that week in mid-April, as the city lost its collective ball bearings, the 32-year-old UW sociology professor saw an opportunity, a chance to measure how information in such situations spreads. Larsen and a colleague spent Easter weekend—two days after the delusion reached its peak—designing a survey and methodology. And they recruited nearly 100 sociology and mass communications students as interviewers.
At 4pm on Monday, April 19, 1954, those students started dialing. Over the next six hours they called 1,000 Seattleites, each phone number selected by choosing a random page in the directory, then a column on that random page, and then a name in that column. Of the 1,000 people called, Larsen’s student volunteers persuaded 964 to participate.
Larsen, in a suit and bow tie, his thinning blond hair combed back, stood with a clipboard as the students, seated, worked the phones. They asked questions like “How did this windshield situation in Seattle first come to your attention?” Most respondents said they learned of it via one of the city’s two major papers, The Seattle Daily Times and The Seattle Post-Intelligencer. And “What do you think caused this?” Fully half of the respondents believed an “unusual physical agent” caused the pitting, with most of those respondents referring to the thermonuclear explosions in the Pacific.
In the paper Larsen and his fellow researcher eventually submitted to the American Sociological Review—which published the findings in 1958—the coauthors defined what happened that week in April 1954 as a “collective delusion.” They also outlined how they believed the delusion spread.
They connected the dots, from early reports of vandals in rural Western Washington to those reports appearing in Seattle’s two major dailies. They pointed to the coverage of nuclear explosions in the weeks before the pitting, and how, once officials ruled out vandalism, the existential threat of nukes filled the gap.
The epidemic, they wrote, “may have loosened the tensions growing out of fixation on an inevitable coming blow: something was bound to happen to us as a result of the H-bomb tests—windshields became pitted—it’s happened—now that threat is over.”
As both Bovee and Larsen summarized in each of their reports, for the first time Seattleites looked at their windshields instead of through them.
To this day, Larsen’s analysis is cited in academic and popular portrayals of mass or collective delusions. It’s often found next to similar mass panic episodes, such as Orson Welles’s 1938 radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds, which turned New England and the Midwest into bedlam, so convinced were listeners that martians had invaded. In the wake of 9/11, sociologists pointed to the epidemic to warn against jumping to conclusions about people from Middle Eastern countries.
“Individuals know very little,” says Philip Fernbach, a cognitive scientist, professor at University of Colorado, Boulder, and coauthor of The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone. Instead we rely on others—particularly our social circle—for truth. A sort of groupthink. “In the end, what we’re doing is we’re relying on others, and often we do it without realizing.” This leads to many of the popular fallacies we see in 2020, says Fernbach, both innocuous and outright dangerous: flat-earthers and celebrity gossip, the anti-vax movement and xenophobia during health scares.
Harley Bovee continued to work in his lab—always in that oversize white coat—and became Seattle’s go-to source for vexing environmental questions, from how to get rid of bats to the correlation between factory noise and hearing loss. He also became a renowned expert on air pollution, earning federal grants to fund studies that would guard American lungs against actual airborne threats.
The unraveling of the riddle of the windshield pocks helped launch Larsen’s career, too. Most notably it earned the professor a front row seat for another historic, collective panic.
Which brings us, just as promised, to that pie.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Americans, both liberal and conservative, believed we were in the middle of a crisis, a threat not from BB gun–wielding vandals or Russians or aliens, but from within. Pornography, many felt, was a scourge warping the culture’s sense of decency, pocking the minds of the country’s youth. In 1969, in the wake of a groundbreaking Supreme Court ruling on pornography, President Lyndon Johnson convened the President’s Commission on Obscenity and Pornography.
Otto Larsen was among the researchers tapped to study the social and psychological implications of pornography consumption and its relationship to crime and antisocial behavior. In 1970, the commission, by then under the auspices of President Nixon, held two days of public hearings in DC. Larsen was chairman.
Tom Forcade, a pilot, former drug smuggler, and president of the Underground Press Syndicate, showed up on the final day of the public hearings, May 13, 1970. Unbeknownst to anyone else in the room, Forcade was packing: In a cardboard box he had stowed a piecrust filled with cottage cheese. Offering the last public testimony of the day, Forcade called the commission a “keystone committee” that was waging a “McCarthyesque witch hunt.” He then proceeded to lob the pie onto the blond head of professor Otto Larsen.
Funny thing is, Forcade, a fierce opponent of censorship who went on to found High Times magazine, likely would’ve agreed with the commission’s final report. And with the target of his defiantly thrown pie. After all, Otto Larsen brought to the Commission on Obscenity and Pornography insights he’d gleaned back home in Seattle, 16 years earlier.
The country’s fear of pornography, like the wave of mysterious divots in windshields, was a collective delusion. The final report recommended sex education, not censorship.