Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds

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Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds
Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds
Front page of the original 1841 edition
AuthorCharles Mackay
CountryUnited Kingdom
SubjectsCrowd psychology, economic bubbles, history
PublisherRichard Bentley, London
Publication date
Media typePrint
"Night wind hawkers" sold stock on the streets during the South Sea Bubble. (The Great Picture of Folly, 1720)
A satirical "Bubble card"

Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds is an early study of crowd psychology by Scottish journalist Charles Mackay, first published in 1841 under the title Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions.[1] The book was published in three volumes: "National Delusions", "Peculiar Follies", and "Philosophical Delusions".[2] Mackay was an accomplished teller of stories, though he wrote in a journalistic and somewhat sensational style.

The subjects of Mackay's debunking include alchemy, crusades, duels, economic bubbles, fortune-telling, haunted houses, the Drummer of Tedworth, the influence of politics and religion on the shapes of beards and hair, magnetisers (influence of imagination in curing disease), murder through poisoning, prophecies, popular admiration of great thieves, popular follies of great cities, and relics. Present-day writers on economics, such as Michael Lewis and Andrew Tobias, laud the three chapters on economic bubbles.[3]

In later editions, Mackay added a footnote referencing the Railway Mania of the 1840s as another "popular delusion" which was at least as important as the South Sea Bubble. In the 21st century, the mathematician Andrew Odlyzko pointed out, in a published lecture, that Mackay himself played a role in this economic bubble; as a leader writer in The Glasgow Argus, Mackay wrote on 2 October 1845: "There is no reason whatever to fear a crash".[4][5]

Volume I: National Delusions[edit]

Economic bubbles[edit]

The first volume begins with a discussion of three economic bubbles, or financial manias: the South Sea Company bubble of 1711–1720, the Mississippi Company bubble of 1719–1720, and the Dutch tulip mania of the early seventeenth century. According to Mackay, during this bubble, speculators from all walks of life bought and sold tulip bulbs and had even declared futures contracts on them. Allegedly, some tulip bulb varieties briefly became the most expensive objects in the world during 1637.[6] Mackay's accounts are enlivened by colorful, comedic anecdotes, such as the Parisian hunchback who supposedly profited by renting out his hump as a writing desk during the height of the mania surrounding the Mississippi Company.

Two modern researchers, Peter Garber and Anne Goldgar, independently conclude that Mackay greatly exaggerated the scale and effects of the Tulip bubble,[7] and Mike Dash, in his modern popular history of the alleged bubble, notes that he believes the importance and extent of the tulip mania were overstated.[8]


  • The Mississippi Scheme
  • The South Sea Bubble
  • The Tulip Mania
  • Relics
  • Modern Prophecies
  • Popular Admiration for Great Thieves (cf hybristophilia)
  • Influence of Politics and Religion on the Hair and Beard
  • Duels and Ordeals
  • The Love of the Marvellous and the Disbelief of the True
  • Popular Follies in Great Cities
  • Old Price Riots
  • The Thugs, or Phansigars

Volume II: Peculiar Follies[edit]

Witch Hunter, Matthew Hopkins


Mackay describes the history of the Crusades as a kind of mania of the Middle Ages, precipitated by the pilgrimages of Europeans to the Holy Land. Mackay is generally unsympathetic to the Crusaders, whom he compares unfavourably to the superior civilisation of Asia: "Europe expended millions of her treasures, and the blood of two millions of her children; and a handful of quarrelsome knights retained possession of the Kingdom of Jerusalem for about one hundred years!"

Witch mania[edit]

Witch trials in 16th- and 17th-century Western Europe are the primary focus of the "Witch Mania" section of the book, which asserts that this was a time when ill fortune was likely to be attributed to supernatural causes. Mackay notes that many of these cases were initiated as a way of settling scores among neighbors or associates, and that extremely low standards of evidence were applied to most of these trials. Mackay claims that "thousands upon thousands" of people were executed as witches over two and a half centuries, with the largest numbers killed in Germany.


  • The Crusades
  • The Witch Mania
  • The Slow Poisoners
  • Haunted Houses

Volume III: Philosophical Delusions[edit]

An alchemist, from the 1841/1852 editions of Extraordinary Popular Delusions.


The section on alchemysts focuses primarily on efforts to turn base metals into gold. Mackay notes that many of these practitioners were themselves deluded, convinced that these feats could be performed if they discovered the correct old recipe or stumbled upon the right combination of ingredients. Although alchemists gained money from their sponsors, mainly noblemen, he notes that the belief in alchemy by sponsors could be hazardous to its practitioners, as it wasn't rare for an unscrupulous noble to imprison a supposed alchemist until he could produce gold.


  • Book I: The Alchemysts
  • Book II: Fortune Telling
  • Book III: The Magnetisers

Influence and modern responses[edit]

The book remains in print, and writers continue to discuss its influence, particularly the section on financial bubbles. (See Goldsmith and Lewis, below.)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Mackay, Charles (1841). Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. Vol. I (1 ed.). London: Richard Bentley. Retrieved 29 April 2015.Mackay, Charles (1841). Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. Vol. II (1 ed.). London: Richard Bentley. Retrieved 29 April 2015.Mackay, Charles (1841). Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. Vol. III (1 ed.). London: Richard Bentley. Retrieved 29 April 2015.
  2. ^ Mackay, Charles (1841). Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. Archived from the original on 23 June 2004. Retrieved 23 March 2018.
  3. ^ a b Lewis, Michael (2008). The Real Price of Everything.
  4. ^ MacKay, Charles (2008). Extraordinary Popular Delusions, the Money Mania: The Mississippi Scheme, the South-sea Bubble, & the Tulipomania. Cosimo, Inc. p. 88. ISBN 978-1-60520-547-2. Retrieved 8 June 2013.
  5. ^ Odyyzko, Andrew (2012). Charles Mackay's own extraordinary popular delusions and the Railway Mania (PDF). p. 2.
  6. ^ "Tulips". library.wur.nl.
  7. ^ Garber, Peter M. (2001). Famous First Bubbles.
  8. ^ Dash, Mike (2001). Tulipomania: The Story of the World's Most Coveted Flower & the Extraordinary Passions It Aroused.
  9. ^ Baruch, Bernard (1957). My Own Story. New York: Henry Holt. pp. 242–245.
  10. ^ Ohayon, Albert (22 June 2011). "John Law and the Mississippi Bubble: The Madness of Crowds". NFB.ca Blog. National Film Board of Canada. Retrieved 22 June 2011.
  11. ^ "China Bubble Mania". Forbes. 30 May 2007. Retrieved 30 October 2009.
  12. ^ Gaiman, Neil (1991). The Sandman Vol. 3: Dream Country.
  13. ^ "The Madness of Crowds, Past and Present". BusinessWeek. Archived from the original on 22 December 2008. Retrieved 1 October 2009.
  14. ^ "The books cashing in on the crash". The Independent. London. 20 November 2009. Retrieved 23 November 2009.
  15. ^ Streitfeld, David; and Healy, Jack (29 April 2009). "Phoenix Leads the Way Down in Home Prices". The New York Times. Retrieved 23 November 2009.
  16. ^ Delasantellis, Julian (16 March 2007). "The subprime dominoes in motion". Asia Times. Archived from the original on 17 March 2007. Retrieved 15 November 2010.{{cite news}}: CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  17. ^ "To be honest, it's totally random". New Statesman. Retrieved 12 October 2009.
  18. ^ Surowiecki, James (2004). The Wisdom of Crowds. ISBN 978-0385503860.
  19. ^ "Extraordinary Popular Delusions And The Madness Of Crowds - Information Society". Bandcamp. Retrieved 3 August 2022.


External links[edit]

The book is in the public domain and is available online from a number of sources: