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In This Week’s Show, episode 55, we get hysterically involved in French DDR! Or something like that.
I’m your host this week, Aaron, and w
This week I learned that when smart kids share random facts adults tell them how smart they are. But when adults share random facts people tell them they are weird and annoying…
Jenn’s Actual Lesson
Did you know that in his guise as Nataraja, Shiva is both creating and destroying the world, all at once, crushing a demon underneath his feet as he does so…
But before we get to all that, let’s have a beer!
Today I have yet another installment of Weird…History…ree…ree…ree.
For a change, we are not in Russia, Germany, or the US and there is nary a Nazi to be found.
Now, if you are anything like me, you may have spent some time considering some of the more…unusual ways to die. And sometimes, by unusual, I mean both humiliating, weird, and awful. So today I’d like to discuss one of these ways in a story I have titled:
Dirty Dancing 2: The First French New Wave
We’re going to be traveling a good way back in time, 501 years back to be exact. That’s right, it’s 1518 and we are in the village of Strasbourg (it wasn’t technically in France at that time because it was then part of the Holy Roman Empire bc Catholicism and that surely didn’t help this particular situation, but it’s in modern-day France so my title stands).
It was mid-July and a week before the feast day of Mary Magdalene. Magdalene, you may recall, was a follower of Jesus and supposedly one of the first individuals to discover Jesus had checked out of his tomb a little early. Or a few days late, depending on your view. She’s also the apparently upstanding lady about whom Pope Gregory wildly misconstrued the ‘infallible scripture’ in a 591 sermon declaring her a prostitute.
Now I mention this because women are the literal WORST and this story, as many do, starts with a woman intent on humanity’s downfall. Or at least some peasants in the pre-France midlands.
So it was this week before Mary ‘Jerusalem’s Bicycle” Magdalene’s festival that a woman known only as Frau Troffea stepped out of her house (first mistake, hussy). Unlike most normal day trips to the butcher, baker or candlestick-maker, on this morning Frau Troffea instead began to… dance. Or something approximating dancing as her legs moved to and fro, her muscles apparently twitched spasmodically and she late-Middle Ages-bee-bopped all around the village. She twisted, twirled and shook and, most unnervingly, did it all silently. Fortunately, other folks in town were glad to see Frau Troffea so joyous as to be prancing about and, instead of stoning her as may have been her lot in other contemporaneous areas, per BBC.com, onlookers “apparently laughed and clapped at her energy and joie de vivre.”
While this may have been a delightful afternoon, or even full day of Spring Break revelry, instead of for the poor Frau… well she danced herself to collapse and had to have neighbors carry her home. The fun was not yet over as within a few hours of fitful sleep she was back at it again. By the following day, her shoes were soaked with blood and still, she danced…for 6 days straight.
And thus began what we now refer to as the French Dancing Plague of 1518 (the date is important because, though this was one of the largest and best chronicled, there were other random outbreaks of Ferris Bueller-parade-scene proportions throughout Europe in the mid to late Middle Ages, including areas of Germany, Switzerland, and Holland and one random case in Madagascar in 1840.)
So Frau ‘hot to trot’ Troffea may have begun her dance solo, but it didn’t take long before she had Kevin Bacon-ed some followers into joining her. By the end of her week-long shimmy, she had gained approximately 40 dancing followers. (And every modern musical’s triumphant finale wants in on her secret.)
All visions of the end of Les Miserables aside (hey, it’s French and all), what was beginning was actually pretty fucking crazy. By the end of the month of July, some 400 people had taken to the Medieval streets to dance, dance, dance revolution, and suddenly John Lithgow’s uptight Footloose preacher seems much less unreasonable. (Many sources claim the numbers of dancers were predominantly female, which of course they were.)
Because no one had a single clue as to what the hell was going on, at first the leaders of the town tried to go with it (“kids these days and their hoppity hoppity”). They built a stage where professional dancers joined in with the…amateurs(?) and a band was hired to roam the streets to provide backup music. As Britannica.com puts it:
“The civic and religious leaders theorized that more dancing was the solution, and so they arranged for guildhalls for the dancers to gather in, musicians to accompany the dancing, and professional dancers to help the afflicted to continue dancing.“
They were SO close, as obviously the only solution would have been more cowbell.
Ok, so 1518 Strasbourg had one hell of a street dance scene going on, but there were soon some serious drawbacks. It wasn’t long before this kind of days-long cardio started causing the afflicted people to, well, drop dead. Everything from dehydration to strokes to heart attacks to dance fever was, at the height of the outbreak, causing up to 15 people a day to keel over dead in the streets.
(Side note: if you’re looking for a more modern sorta-equivalent, check out the 1969 film ‘They Shoot Horses Don’t They. Directed by Sidney Pollack and starring an absolutely delicious Jane Fonda, this is only included because of the dancing until the dying part. In this case, it portrays the Depression marathon ‘dance-offs’ which were held for publicity for the venue and a possible payout for the winners. The movie is absolutely goddamn great, but bear in mind, it’s not part of the Depression Era in the time period along. It’s grim, is what I’m saying.)
Back to the deadly rhythm nation, already in progress: So yes, the gyrating had reached literal hysterical proportions by late August to early September. Per Historian and author Jon Waller (his book?)
“A Time to Dance, A Time to Die: The Extraordinary Story of the Dancing Plague of 1518,” so he knows his death dancing), “That the event took place is undisputed. These people were not just trembling, shaking or convulsing; although they were entranced, their arms and legs were moving as if they were purposefully dancing.”
Now while the video of Thriller was, dare I say THRILLING when it came out, for 16th-century peasants hollowed-eyed, nearly dead street dancers would be at the very least alarming, so surely there was much relief when the mania began to fade after about three months.
Because this is Waiting 4 Wrath and there are only so many sources I can find in a few days and no budget, I was unable to find a number or even an estimate of how many people actually died from this particular plague. Even more confounding, no one seems to have pinpointed exactly WHY this phenomenon actually took place.
Of course, ‘experts’ of the time we’re waiting on the sidelines to insert their opinions. To the absolute surprise of no one, there was the talk of demon possession, as well as something called “hot blood”, which I believe was started by the Reptilians. In fact, it only took 8 years for long-time referenced fake doctor and proponent of pigeon shoes Paracelsus to make an appearance in Strasbourg, wielding his knowledge of honestly nothing.
Of course, he had his own very special reason as to why the plague started. And why was that? Well, it was because Frau Troffea’s husband hated the fact she liked to dance! That’s right, she danced herself into a bloodied-foot delirium simply to annoy her husband. In fact, per Paracelsus, the entire event was born of sexual frustration and wild imaginations, which for Paracelsus is actually not a bad suggestion. The fact he didn’t blame it on sheep farts or the lack of aspirating pond water really shows his growth as a physician. He did, however, label those afflicted as ‘whores and scoundrels’, recommended their being locked in a dark room (apparently the ‘more unpleasant the better’) and fed only bread and water, so he still pretty much sucks.
So in the simplest terms, it was the general consensus at that time that women and their hysterically wandering wombs were the cause of, and mainly affected by, this event for the same reasons that show up throughout the stories of history: their having any form of sexuality and too much or not enough religious piety. So by this token, I’m really hoping a wild dance frenzy will break out for the heavily hair-sprayed harpies at the next Republican National Convention. My money is on Mrs. Mike Pence leading the conga line.
Anyway, moving into current times and the more scientifically plausible reasons. An often reference culprit is ergot. What exactly is ergot? It’s a fungus that grows on rye and related grains and can infect people from both the grain and the products made from it. It also has a really fascinating historical story. Ergotism refers to the severe reaction that comes from ingesting this fungus and, per webmd.com,
“During the Middle Ages, ergotism, a severe reaction to ergot-contaminated food (such as rye bread), was common and was known as St. Anthony’s fire. This illness was often cured by visiting the shrine of St. Anthony, which happened to be in an ergot-free region of France. Additionally, some historians believe that ergot played a role in the Salem witch hunt of 1692. They think that some women in Salem developed peculiar behaviors and accused other women of being witches as a result of eating ergot-contaminated food.”
Back to our author/historian, per John Waller, the fact that living in this particularly stressful and superstitious point of history opens up many options as to why a mass dance seemed like a good way to lose your goddamn mind. Per history.com according to Waller:
“the explanation most likely concerns St. Vitus, a Catholic saint who pious 16th century Europeans believed had the power to curse people with a dancing plague. When combined with the horrors of disease and famine, both of which were tearing through Strasbourg in 1518, the St. Vitus superstition may have triggered a stress-induced hysteria that took hold of much of the city.”
(Additionally, the afflictions of St. Vitus’ dance is usually considered symptomatic of Sydenham’s chorea, which is, per Wikipedia: a disorder characterized by rapid, uncoordinated jerking movements primarily affecting the face, hands, and feet. So we are basically back where we started.)
He also dismisses the suggestion of ergot and gives interesting reasoning for it. The time period was rife with any number of reasons to be stressed. According to Waller,
“Having suffered severely from famine, and in many cases wiped out and reduced to begging, the region was in an ongoing crisis. Many had died of starvation. The area was riddled with diseases, including smallpox and syphilis … It was a superstitious time. From the sound of it, these people didn’t have much left in their lives but superstition.”
But how would this negate ergot as a possible factor? Simply put, the affected just physically wouldn’t be able to maintain this level of exertion if ergot was the cause. Poisoning from ergot results in symptoms ranging from nausea, vomiting, muscle pain and weakness, numbness, itching, and rapid or slow heartbeat. More severe poisoning can progress to gangrene, vision problems, confusion, spasms, convulsions, unconsciousness, and death. With such an intense list of side effects, a severe case of ergot poisoning would tend to kill a physically compromised peasant rather than allowing them days of intensive exercise.
This is a pretty good point. Waller believes a mixture of intense life stressors, societal pressures, rampant diseases that could affect the mind (such as syphilis) all wrapped up in a mindset of extreme superstitions. While it may not answer every question raised, I think it goes further than blaming Frau Troffea’s hot blood or witchy women trying to overthrow society.
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The Mad Gasser of Mattoon!
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Our story begins in the sleepy, but not as sleepy as it will be, the town of Mattoon, Illinois. Mattoon is a small town of about 18,000 people, nestled in the treeline of Coles County between a prairie and another prairie.
Fun fact about Mattoon, the city website appears to be the last remaining Geocities page on the internet.
In 1944 Urban Raef was awakened in the wee hours by a strange smell. Nauseated and weak, he began suffering from vomiting — and not the normal I-just-woke-up-in-1940’s-Illinois vom either! He soon realized he was unable to move his legs. His wife feared a “domestic gas attack,” which is one of those fun phrases that in yee-oldie times meant “the pilot light is out” but now means a group of white nationalists is making mustard gas. His wife tried to check the stove but found her legs wouldn’t move either! Knowing herself to be free of milk-leg or whatever else you get from contact with yee-oldie times, there was only one… two… ok, four, possibilities!
So begins the story of the Mad Gasser of Mattoon!
That, or mass hysteria. Or a chemical spill. Or, maybe an alien. A hysterical, chemical-laden, alien known only as the “Anesthetic Prowler!”
Also, he was known as the Phantom Anesthetist!
Soon the Mattoon Journal-Gazette printed the headline “Mrs. Kearney and Daughter First Victims,” leading townspeople to assume there might be more. Luckily, that was just poppy-cock from the jib-jabbers at the Gazette, for Mrs. Kearney and her daughter were, in fact, the fifth and sixth victims of the 3rd attack of the Mad Gasser!
Soon there were tails of illness-inducing gas almost every night! And not just on sausage-night.
Police, under the watchful eye of Chief of Police C.E. Cole, remained skeptical.
Perhaps it was a prowler in the night trying to render would-be robbery victims unconscious or immobile. But he figured that was just corn-water, or whatever delightfully old-timey term they used for balderdash… Steve?
Some thought the problem to be the nearby Atlas-Imperial chemical factory tossing its chemical byproducts out the window, as was customary at the time. Perhaps carbon tetrachloride or trichloroethylene, both of which have a sweet odor and can induce symptoms similar to those reported by the purported Mad Gasser victims may have been the substance released.
For their part, the company claimed they had only small quantities of either chemical, and because no one at the factory had been affected all was well at the toxin factory.
As reports of the Mad Gasser’s rampage continued the FBI became involved. They interviewed witnesses and victims like Carl and Beulah Cordes of North 21st Street, who, upon returning home at the unseemly hour of 10 pm did report a tall man in a dark cap with a chemical spray hose prowling about. Unfortunately, Carl was merely 1950s fit, and the in-shape-out-of-shape taxi driver was unable to catch the menace, perhaps forgetting he was a professional goer of places and could have driven the Anesthetist down.
Other witnesses described a tall woman who, dressed as a man, pranced from one window to the next leaving chemical-laced serviettes to put off guard dogs and flummox women like Beulah who habitually smelled any bit of cloth she happened to find.
Finally, some reported footprints in their lawns. Footprints that could only have been left by the Mad Gasser roaming from home to home. But how could they know? To quote from Loren Coleman’s Mysterious America, artist renderings of the Mad Gasser depicted him as “not-quite-human, possibly extraterrestrial, being.” Which in their defense, does stand out.
In the end, there were over 20 such gas attacks but by September 12 of 1944 police had received so many reports they deemed false alarms they reduced the priority of the case and advised citizens to use restraint when discharging firearms at those who seemed Mad, or Gassy.
All said and done, the event has been deemed a case of Mass hysteria. In 1945 the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology published “The ‘phantom anesthetist’ of Mattoon: a field study of mass hysteria” by Donald M. Johnson, who was surely a human man.
Looking back over the years it has been discovered that at least some of the attacks were authentic. While the greater Mad Gasser is still a man of myth, investigators are sure at least a few opportunistic burglars co-opted the gas-and-grab scheme to rob houses.
And there we go. Perhaps it was aliens or a large drag queen with too much hair spray, but one thing is for sure, the people of Mattoon smelt it and for at least the Coles, ’twas the Mad Gasser who dealt it.