03
May
16

Book Review: Extraordinary Popular Delusions & the Madness of Crowds by Charles Mackay

Extraordinary Popular Delusions & the Madness of CrowdsExtraordinary Popular Delusions & the Madness of Crowds by Charles Mackay

A charmingly dated look at frauds, hoaxsters and other chicanery, Charles Mackay’s classic Extraordinary Popular Delusions & the Madness of Crowds, is an interesting, facinating read.

Originally written in the mid-19th century, Mackay was a Scottish writer who dabbled in poetry, journalism and even songs, but is primarily remembered these days for this massive look at the ways people get sucked into scams and hoaxes. His book covers a wide range of these, from money bubbles to witchcraft trials to even more casual scams: wood taken from Shakespeare’s desk or relics of popular saints.

Indeed, his stuff about money bubbles is what draws readers to this book: it’s gotten accolades from people like Michael Lewis and Will Self; on the cover, Andrew Tobias says the first 100 pages are “worth many times it’s purchase.” It’s not hard to see why: there are three contrasting stories about economic bubbles which rose quickly, made a few people wealthy and popped, leaving a lot of people without money. His story about the Tulip Mania in Holland is already well-known, but his chapters on the Mississippi Company and South Sea Company are worth reading. The schemes, where people keep building and lending on credit, thinking the money will keep pouring in and in, have ominous echoes for anyone who thinks about Silicon Valley and the subprime lending crisis.

That said, the rest of the book is wild, entertaining and occasionally shocking. A lengthy section of alchemists is like a shadow history of the rise of scammers in Europe: people who’d leech off of rich nobles who thought pewter could turn into gold. Likewise, the stuff on the assorted quacks and fraudsters engaged in what we’d now call New Age-adjacent stuff shows people haven’t really wisened up in almost 200 years (or perhaps that money talks).

Meanwhile, his section on the witch trials in Europe is shocking: his stories of grotesque torture, people being thrown into lakes to drown or burned alive at the stake are horrific. Thousands of people died because of superstition, maybe, but he acutely points out the often political or personal reasons behind such killings: it was almost impossible to defend from a charge like this and some people made a living at going from town to town, calling people a witch and killing them – usually with the state’s approval.

The book isn’t all doom and gloom, however. Mackay has a dry, dark sense of humour which often finds it’s way into even the darkest of it’s passages. For example, take this section on a witch trial, where an old woman was accused of giving a priest headaches through dark magic:

“One poor witch, who lay in the very jaws of death, confessed she knew too well the cause of the minister’s headache. The devil had sent her with a sledgehammer and a large nail to drive into the good man’s skull. She had hammered at it for some time, but the skull was so enormously thick, that she made no impression upon it. Every hand was held up in astonishment. The pious minister blessed God that his skull was so solid, and became renowned for his thick head all the days of his life.”

There are other nuggets, like when Sir Walter Raleigh was challenged to a duel and spat upon: “if I could as easily wipe from my conscience the stain of killing you, as I can this spittle from my face, you should not live another minute.” Ice cold.

Although I’m not sure everyone would like this book as much as I did – and to be fair, I did skim it here and there because it’s awful dry in places – but I think those who would like it will like it a lot.

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