It’s a summer day in Strasbourg, France. The year is 1518. A woman named Frau Troffea steps into the city square and starts to dance. There’s no music and yet she twists and turns for hours while onlookers watch, confused. Occasionally, she collapses from exhaustion only to get back up and resume her frenzied dancing soon after. This goes on day after day and soon some 400 others have joined her, many of them dancing themselves to death. The “Dancing Plague of 1518” is believed to have been caused by “mass hysteria” - a psychological phenomenon that causes irrational behaviors, thoughts, and even physical symptoms among a group of people. But did you know, this isn’t the only time mass hysteria has reared its ugly head? Let’s fix that.
Hello I’m Shea LaFountaine and you’re listening to History Fix where I discuss lesser known true stories from history you won’t be able to stop thinking about. This week, we’re examining cases of mass hysteria, or mass psychogenic illness, which causes inexplicable outbreaks of behavior, thoughts, feelings, or health symptoms.
We’ll talk more about the dancing plague of 1518 as well as some other wild examples of this psychological phenomenon. Some, like the Salem witch trials, I’m sure you’ve heard of. Others may surprise you. So I suppose this is my first compilation episode. I won’t just be telling you one story this week, but several that all shed some light on the mysterious condition known as mass hysteria and give us a peek into the baffling complexities and power of the human mind.
So what is mass hysteria? Dr. Robert Bartholomew, a professor of psychological medicine at Auckland University, describes it as “the placebo effect in reverse.” It’s a mental health condition involving physical symptoms that are brought on by emotional or mental stress that affects a group of people. This might affect the way someone acts, causing them to dance or laugh uncontrollably. It can cause shared irrational feelings, thoughts, or fears as in the case of the Salem witch trials. It can also cause actual physical health symptoms, like a contagious illness with no actual explanation.
According to healthline.com, mass hysteria usually spreads visually or verbally. So when someone sees or hears about someone with symptoms, they start experiencing those symptoms themselves.
Dr. Barholomew says “mass hysterias and social panics are barometers of the time and reflect our collective fears.” So, although the symptoms are real, the causes are imaginary. As we examine 6 cases of mass hysteria, we’ll try to get to the bottom of what exactly led to the panic and I think you’ll come to see how each case is a product of the anxieties of its time.
So let’s go back to 1518. The dancing epidemic is case number 1. Believe it or not, the Strasbourg incident wasn’t the first time this had happened. Several dance mania outbreaks took place across Europe between the 10th and 16th centuries including one that spread to several towns along the Rhine River in 1374. But, the dancing epidemic of 1518 is probably the best documented occurrence.
So it all began with a woman named Frau Troffea who just started dancing one day and couldn’t stop. The mental image is honestly kind of funny. I mean this definitely has a comical aspect to it. But, if you really think about it, what it was really like witnessing this, it probably wasn’t funny at all. It’s not like Troffea was smiling and enjoying herself, having a good time, partying. She was probably terrified. She literally could not stop dancing.
By the end of the week, some 30 odd people had joined her and by the end of the month 400 were in on the dancing. They aren’t eating, they aren’t sleeping, they’re collapsing from exhaustion, they’re dying of strokes, heart attacks, and just pure exhaustion, dehydration, I’m sure.
Authorities have no idea what to do. They blame the contagious dancing on quote “hot blood.” Which, huh? I Googled “hot blood,” sorry y’all I still have no idea what that means. Google was confused too. They’re like, “It’s either hot blood or demons.” Seriously, that’s what they came up with. They decide the solution is… more dancing? They actually set up dance halls, hire musicians, and professional dancers to join in, make it all legit. It does not help. An estimated 100 of the afflicted dancers died. And then it just stopped. By the end of the summer, it just kind of gradually stopped. 100 people dead. The other 300 just went home, I guess? Like, “hmm, that was weird. Anyway…”
Modern investigators of this event posed the theory that the dancers may have eaten bread made with rye flour that was contaminated with ergot, which is a fungus. Ergot causes convulsions when consumed. But, I don’t know, convulsing and dancing are quite different. I don’t think this theory really works.
Neither does John Waller, a medical historian who wrote several papers outlining the theory that the dancing plague of 1518 was actually a case of mass hysteria. This is the most widely accepted theory.
But why? Why dancing? Well, remember, mass hysteria usually happens when extreme stress and anxiety affect a group of people. And this was a stressful time in Strasbourg. They were in the middle of a famine and smallpox was everywhere. Phew, smallpox, I’m gonna do a whole episode on smallpox someday guys, just a nutso disease as far as the impact it’s had on history.
Also, and this is key, apparently there was a belief at the time that a Catholic saint named St. Vitus had the power to curse people with dancing if they didn’t like praise him enough or whatever. He would just make them dance uncontrollably as punishment. It’s believed the collective stress caused by starvation and disease combined with this superstition about St. Vitus triggered the hysteria.
Alright, case number two is probably the most well known example of mass hysteria. That’s right, I’m talking about the Salem witch trials when the people of Salem, Massachusetts lost their everloving minds and started killing people based on the false accusations of a bunch of little girls.
So what’s happening in Salem in 1692? Well there’s a war going on with the French and Native Americans, who were allied against the colonists, and it’s not going well. Refugees from farther north have been sent to Salem and are putting a strain on the resources. Also, the people of Salem worried that their government could not defend them if the fighting reached them. There’s also a new minister in town named Samuel Parris and he’s ruffling some feathers. He’s very controversial and the people are divided as to whether or not to support him. This leads to fears of declining religious fervor. These are very religious people. Salem is a puritan colony so problems within the church are a major concern for them. And, of course, there’s smallpox again. So they are mega stressed out in Salem.
But let’s go back to the puritan thing because that’s an important factor here. Puritanism is a particularly strict sect of Christianity and one belief at the time is that the devil could give people power to harm others in return for their loyalty. Witches. People were terrified of witches. A witchcraft craze swept Europe between the 14th and 17th centuries leading to the execution of tens of thousands of supposed witches, mostly women. Yes I said tens of thousands.
So just like in Strasbourg with the dancing plague, we’ve got a mix of possible starvation, wacko religious beliefs, and smallpox. Plus a war. This is apparently a recipe for mass hysteria. All of a sudden the minister’s 9 year old daughter Betty and 11 year old niece Abigail start acting a fool. They are screaming, throwing things, yelling nonsense, contorting themselves into crazy positions. They are acting possessed basically. A local doctor suggests supernatural causes.
Soon 12 year old Ann Putnam joins in. Colonial officials are brought in to investigate and they basically do the thing where they’re like “It’s witches right? Just tell us it’s witches and you can go home,” cause they’ve already made up their minds. And, you know, these are terrified children so they’re like, “yeah okay, sure, it’s witches.”
The girls name 3 women as the witches that are afflicting them, and I feel like they just picked the witchiest women in town - Tituba, a Caribbean woman enslaved by the Parris family, Sarah Good, a homeless beggar, and Sarah Osborne, an old poor woman. So these were not women from prominent households. They didn’t have powerful men standing up in their defense like Betty, Abigail, and Ann.
The women are subjected to days of interrogation. The two Sarahs maintain their innocence but Tituba actually confesses. Now this is a textbook case of a forced confession due to inhumane interrogation practices but it confirms their worst fears and sets off a wave of witch paranoia in Salem.
More girls are afflicted, Elizabeth Hubbard, Mary Walcott, Mercy Lewis, Mary Warren. They start screaming and convulsing and speaking strange languages too. And the thing is, they aren’t pretending. The symptoms are real. These girls start experiencing them after hearing about the original three girls and Tituba’s confession which is a hallmark of mass hysteria, you see or hear about someone else suffering and then suddenly you are too.
The whole thing snowballs and the girls are accusing people left and right including Martha Corey, a very pious church-going and upstanding member of the community. This freaks everyone out. It’s not just beggars and slaves, it’s good honest folk too. In all, 19 women and some men are hanged to death including Sarah Good’s 4 year old daughter Dorothy. Martha Corey’s husband Giles is pressed to death with heavy stones after refusing to submit himself to a trial. 5 more people die in jail awaiting judgment. Even 2 dogs were killed. Witch dogs. Not kidding, this is documented.
It wasn’t until the governor’s own wife was named and wanted for questioning in 1693 that he put a stop to the madness by prohibiting arrests and releasing many of the suspected witches still awaiting trial. This is the guy who had ordered a special court to try and execute suspected witches so, yeah, he sucks. It’s all good until your own wife is accused, I guess.
They realized pretty immediately after the hysteria had passed that this was nuts. The General Court of Massachusetts declared the trials unlawful in 1702 and pardoned most of the accused in 1711. But Massachusetts did not formally apologize for the witch trials until 1957, 250 years later. Also, for some reason, one accused woman named Elizabeth Johnson was left out of the pardons for some reason. She was the last convicted quote unquote “witch” in Salem. Even after the much delayed apology of 1957, she was still technically a convicted witch. In fact, she was not officially exonerated until 2022 when a class of 8th grade civics students successfully lobbied the government about it which is just the coolest thing ever but also what? Why did it come to that?
The Mad Gasser of Mattoon, Illinois is case number three. World War II is raging in Europe so, yeah, stressful times. Everyone is paranoid about toxic gasses being used as a weapon, even, I suppose, in Illinois which was quite far from the actual fighting.
The Mad Gasser mess all started when a woman named Aline Kearney reported a strange incident. She walked into her bedroom one night and smelled a sickening, sweet odor like cheap perfume. At first she thought it was the flowers outside. Then she began experiencing paralysis in her legs and lower body. She called out for her sister who rushed in and opened the window, apparently clearing the fumes and reviving Aline. When Aline’s husband got home from work that night, he spotted a stranger outside their home.
The Kearney’s report it to the police and the newspapers get ahold of the story. There it is all over the front page the next morning “Anesthetic Prowler on Loose.” Then, claims are coming in left and right from other people who have supposedly been attacked by the gasser in Mattoon. 17 people all claim to have been attacked the same night. They’re all reporting a strange sweet smell followed by symptoms like temporary paralysis, nausea, and vomiting.
Time Magazine writes an article describing the Mad Gasser as “a tall, thin man who wears a black skullcap. He moves through the night as nimbly as secretly as a cat squirting a sweetish gas through bedroom windows.” Really with the cat business Time? That, I don’t know. But the story becomes international news. Soldiers stationed in Europe are hearing about it and calling their families back in Mattoon to check on them. And of course, the more the story spreads the more the hysteria grows, the more cases start coming in.
Armed mobs are roaming the streets looking for the mad gasser. Police are completely overwhelmed by reports coming in. And yet, there’s no actual evidence of any noxious fumes or gasses detected. Other than the stranger outside the Kearney house that very first night, there have been no sightings of an assailant at all. And yet Time Magazine somehow knows about his skull cap and his nimble catlike moves.
Finally police are like, “Alright enough already. Anyone who claims to be a victim without first undergoing a medical examination is getting arrested.” So naturally the reports stop coming in, the story fades, and just like that… the mad gasser is gone.
Mass hysteria occurs and spreads in times of high stress and paranoia when people see or hear about someone else with symptoms. Check, check, and check.
Let me take you now to North Carolina, June of 1962. A handful of workers in a textile mill begin to believe that they are being bitten by June bugs at work. They’re experiencing symptoms like rashes, nausea, and numbness. Once again, the media takes the story and runs with it and then all of a sudden 50 more workers are reporting symptoms and claim they’ve been bit.
So what is a June bug? Well it’s a type of beetle. They’re named for the month of June which is when they are most active. But the thing about June bugs is, they don’t actually bite. They eat plants so, yeah they don’t bite people. And, even if they somehow did, it wouldn’t cause any of the symptoms described by the textile workers.
Entomologists are even called in and they find no trace of any bug in the factory that could cause these symptoms. They turn it over to psychologists who interview the sick workers - there are 62 of them at this point and remember 50 of them only reported symptoms after hearing about the June bug epidemic in the news. The psychologists find that 90 percent of the affected workers worked the same shift, most worked overtime hours, and they basically all reported extremely stressful conditions at work and in their personal lives.
So the June Bug Epidemic, case 4, is really similar to the Mad Gasser of Mattoon in that media coverage played a big part in the spreading of the hysteria and no real evidence was ever found.
Okay, case 5 also happened in 1962, geez that was a stressful year I guess. For this one, we’re going to the East African territory of Tanzania which had just won its independence from Great Britain in 1961. It was actually called Tanganyika then but now it’s Tanzania. This one is weird and funny/not funny kind of like the dancing epidemic.
So basically school girls in Tanzania start laughing and they absolutely cannot stop. Multiple schools are forced to close for weeks as the laughing epidemic spreads to over 1,000 people. Many are also experiencing rashes, fainting, and respiratory problems and this goes on for months and then just stops.
But it’s not the only case of mass hysteria among school girls. This is apparently a very vulnerable group. Uncontrollable hand trembling and convulsions while trying to write have been reported several times, most notably in 1892 in Germany and Switzerland. Paralysis of limbs, facial tics - and all of these affecting large numbers of girls throughout a school and even in other nearby schools. But let me tell you what, I have been a quote unquote “school girl.” I don’t doubt for a minute that the stress and anxiety are there. It’s brutal. If you’ve ever seen the movie “Mean Girls…” let me just tell you, that movie is only funny because it’s true.
Alright one last case, case 6. This one freaks me out a little bit. May of 2001, Delhi, India is experiencing power outages and extreme heat waves. People start sleeping on their roofs at night to try to catch a breeze because it’s so hot. There’s no electricity so there’s no AC and that’s miserable. Been there. My freshman year dorm didn’t have AC and it wasn’t like a power outage situation, the building just didn’t have it. This is 2006 so, yeah, I still don’t get it. But Chapel Hill in August with no AC is not fun. I mean it was fun, but hot.
Okay, so they’re sleeping on the rooftops and they start reporting attacks by some strange part monkey part man creature. Terrifying. Reports were mostly coming from men, mostly poor men and some actually have bite marks on them. Once again, the media gets a hold of it, everyone is talking about it, and more and more monkey man attacks start happening. Two people die - not from actual monkey man attacks - one fell off his roof and the other down the stairs, just blinded by fear and panic.
The police actually commissioned a medical report which found the bite wounds to be self-inflicted. What? They’re up on their roofs just sweating and biting themselves and then somehow believing that it was a weird money-man creature that attacked them. Is this like heat induced hallucination? How does that even happen? And they think they’ve truly been bitten by something. A true belief.
Because that’s the thing about mass hysteria. These people are not pretending. It’s easy to write it off and say, oh they’re just doing it for attention, they’re just crazy, that’s not even real. But, you guys, it is real. No, there aren’t actually witches or monkey-men but the symptoms they are experiencing are real. They are truly ill, they are truly afflicted, they genuinely cannot stop dancing, cannot stop laughing. In some cases people are dying. They aren’t doing this for attention.
That’s the thing about mental health. For the longest time it wasn’t even really considered health. If you suffered from mental health issues, you were just deemed “crazy” and thrown into an insane asylum and subjected to ungodly terrors like electric shock therapy and lobotomies. Yeah, that’s where they shove an ice pick through your eye socket and basically scramble the prefrontal cortex of your brain. No we don’t do this anymore, now psychiatric patients are just lobotomized with prescription medicines which, yeah that’s a whole thing too.
My point is, treatment for mental health has been an absolute dumpster fire throughout history and that’s because we just don’t really understand our own minds. I mean our minds, our thoughts alone can bring on actual physical rashes, paralysis, convulsions, dancing? It’s wild.
But, mental health is health. Your brain is a body part, just like your heart or your lungs. It’s just more of a digital part and less of a mechanical part. If you need a new tire on your car, that’s a pretty simple fix. You just take the old one off and put the new one on. I mean, I guess, I’ve never changed a tire but I know it’s very doable. But if the computer in your car is on the fritz, that’s a lot harder to fix. Our mind is like a computer program and the rest of our body is just mechanical parts. You can fix and replace parts. Diagnosing and fixing programming issues is much more difficult especially considering no one really knows how the program actually works. No one cared to even try to find out for a very long time.
All of this to say that while, yes, mass hysteria is “all in your head,” that doesn’t mean it isn’t a diagnosable and treatable health condition. And yes I’m going to quote the late great Albus Dumbledore when he says “of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on Earth should that mean that it is not real?”
Annnd I was going to end with that but I have to spiral one more time. We can’t talk about mass hysteria without talking about the word hysteria. It’s derived from the Greek word for uterus. Like, a hysterectomy. It literally refers to a female body part, the quintessential female body part. The condition known as hysteria is outlined on ancient papyrus from 1900 BC and, at the time it was believed to be caused by displacement of the uterus.
So from the very beginning, hysteria has been a very female affliction. When you look at these cases, the majority of them did involve women or at least start with a female - Frau Troffea, Betty Parris, Aline Kearney, and of course the school girls. The June bug epidemic took place in the dressmaking department of that textile factory and while my sources don’t outright say they were women… I’m pretty sure most dressmakers are women. The only one that doesn’t fit this pattern is the Indian monkey-man attacks which were mostly reported by men.
I’m not saying men don’t experience mass hysteria, they most certainly do. But, the condition does seem to be overwhelmingly female, so much so that it is actually named after the Greek word for uterus.
Historically, it’s been used as proof, evidence, to back up baseless claims that women are weaker, physically and mentally inferior to men. It’s been used to oppress females in an overwhelmingly patriarchal society. It’s still very present in today’s world. Women are much more likely to be dismissed as “crazy” than men.
So my question is, why? Why are women so much more prone to hysteria as a mental health condition than men? I don’t think women are somehow worse at dealing with stress and anxiety than men. I think, if I’m being honest, I think it says a lot about our society, specifically the ways that it fails women again and again.
As much as we want to believe that we have achieved gender equality, this is still very much a man’s world. Women are treated as inferior, subpar, they are paid less, they receive fewer opportunities, they are expected to put aside their own hopes and aspirations, put aside their talents and skills, to take their position in the home as a breeder, a caretaker, to sacrifice their own mental and physical well-being for their children with little to no support, to be seen and not heard, to be obedient to their husbands who can do as they please. They have to look good, they are eye candy, they are objectified, passed off from father to husband like a business transaction, literally “given away” on their wedding day, belittled constantly, intelligence questioned, they are “bossy” if they take a stab at authority, a b-i-t-c-h when they actually stand up for themselves.
I’m not saying this is always overt or intentional, it’s systemic, often subconscious. But I can confidently say that every female has experienced some of this, even just a little tiny bit. If you’ve ever ridden in a car, you have experienced this. Did you know, vehicle crash tests are only legally required to use male crash test dummies? According to a study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, women are 73% more likely to be injured in car accidents than men. And no, it’s not because we’re weak and fragile, as they would have you believe, it’s because they don’t even freaking test the cars for female bodies. What message does that send? Female safety is less important than male safety. Females are less important than males. That’s the message. And this is not unique to cars, this mess is everywhere. Our society does not make life easy for women. It doesn’t surprise me in the least that a woman would be driven to a breaking point in which mass hysteria could creep in. We’ve basically set her up for it. I’m honestly surprised it doesn’t happen more often.
Thank you all so very much for listening to History Fix. I hope you found this story interesting and maybe you even learned something new. Be sure to follow my instagram @historyfixpodcast to see some images that go along with this episode and to stay on top of new episodes as they drop. I’d also really appreciate it if you’d rate and follow this podcast on whatever app you’re using to listen, that’ll make it much easier to get your next fix.
Information used in the episode was sourced from historychannel.com, Encyclopedia Britannica Online, a BBC article, healthline.com, Smithsonian magazine, allthatsinteresting.com, JAMA Psychiatry, an NPR article, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Links to these sources can be found in the show notes.