15 of History's Strangest Plagues
Various plagues have swept through humanity from the beginning of time to, oh, now-ish, but those are usually tragic but boring cases of perfectly explainable illness. It was simply a bacterium or virus that we may not have understood at the time, but there was a very good reason people were developing giant tumors on their groins. The same can’t be said for…
The 15th-century epidemic of biting nuns started when one German nun just decided to start biting her friends. They all joined in and the practice spread throughout the continent until authorities started threatening to beat any nun who got chompy. Honestly, they were probably just bored.
Meanwhile, in France, an entire convent of nuns began converging at the same time every day to meow like cats for several hours at a time until they too were threatened with a whipping, which seems harsh. It’s as valid a hobby as any.
The Dancing Plague of 1518
In July 1518, a woman in Strasbourg, France made like Mick Jagger and started dancing in the streets. A week later, she was still at it. By then, up to 400 people had joined her. Local doctors were baffled and eventually just shrugged their shoulders and assured the afflicted they would wear themselves out eventually, which took until September, but not before some of them (might have? The historical record isn’t clear) died of strokes and heart attacks.
The pathological urge to travel, A.K.A. dromomania, sounds like just being a trust fund baby, but for dozens of men in France in the last few decades of the 19th century, it was a real problem. For one thing, it’s pretty hard to hold down a job when you’re always getting the uncontrollable impulse to wander off. The onset of World War I and subsequent tightening of border control seemed to help, but cases of dromomania still pop up every now and then.
The Writing Tremor Epidemic
Around the same time, students all around Europe began experiencing trembling in their writing hands that often led to full-body convulsions. It’s still not clear why, but it’s possible that the repetitive exercises they were forced to perform physically affected their abilities or it was just “a subconscious way to get out of the dreaded writing classes.” Whatever the case, electric shocks seemed to cure it, but that might have just been a real good incentive to avoid it.
In the 1910s and ‘20s, about a million people developed encephalitis lethargica, A.K.A. sleeping sickness, which basically meant they slept all day. About half of them died from it, so it was no trust fund baby joke, but it’s still not clear why. All we really know is there was probably some connection to the Spanish flu pandemic and survivors tended to develop Parkinson’s disease and children seemed to become delinquents, though they were probably just mad about missing a chunk of childhood.
The Seattle Windshield Pitting Epidemic
In March 1954, the whole country but especially people in the Seattle area started noticing an alarming increase in pitting on their car windshields. Theories ranged “from cosmic rays to sand-flea eggs to fallout from H-bomb tests,” but it was probably just a combination of the stress of potential impending nuclear war and people looking at their windshields really closely for once.
The Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic
Giggly schoolgirls are a dime a dozen, but the Tanganyika laughter epidemic was not. In 1962, a few children in a Tanzania school started experiencing fits of inexplicable and uncontrollable laughter that lasted several hours, and soon, as many as 1,000 people in the surrounding communities succumbed, some of whom laughed for as long as 16 days at a time. Experts suggest it was a stress reaction to political unrest, much like the existence of Twitter.
The June Bug Epidemic
Also in 1962, workers in a U.S. textile factory began experiencing nausea and dizziness, probably because they were working at a textile factory, but they believed it was caused by June bug bites. It’s possible that’s what caused some of their illnesses, but investigators found no infestation and also that 50 of the 62 workers, almost all of whom worked the same shift together, didn’t get sick until the media sounded the alarm about the June bug plague, so it was most likely caused by “women be talking.”
The Blackburn Faintings
In 1965, while waiting for Princess Margaret to make an appearance at Blackburn Cathedral, 140 kids just tipped over like dominos. It could have been blamed on the long wait in the hot sun, but over the next few days, a total of 300 children at a local girls’ school fainted. It was initially explained as an “epidemic of over-breathing,” whatever that means, but despite closing the school and rubbing Q-tips on every surface, no cause was ever found.
The Koro Epidemic of 1967
Koro, the belief that your penis is retracting into your body, is way more common than it should be, but there was a whole epidemic of it in the late ‘60s in Singapore. In October, rumors started swirling about contaminated pork causing body horror, and over the next week, hundreds of men showed up to hospitals clutching their own hogs. Medical officials had to go on TV to assure everyone that their Harrys would not pull a Houdini before it stopped.
The Strawberries With Sugar “Virus”
A belief is one thing, but when hundreds of young people in Portugal came down with rashes similar to those recently experienced by the characters of a teen soap opera called Strawberries With Sugar, it was hard to accept that a TV show might cause a plague. No other cause was ever identified, though. It was like if Dawson’s Creek gave everyone a bad case of frosted tips.
It’s equally hard to believe anyone could come down with polio in the year of our lord 2014, and they didn’t, but cases of a mysterious polio-like illness began piling up. The only connection seemed to be common enteroviruses, but not everyone even had that, so it’s a big ol’ shrug as to why dozens of people suddenly couldn’t walk. Sleep tight!
The Screaming Schoolgirls of Malaysia
One day in 2019, 39 Malaysian schoolgirls started screaming and couldn’t stop. No, they hadn’t looked upon the face of Cthulhu, although they did describe visions of hell and evil figures. The prevailing explanation is mass hysteria, but we feel they really haven’t done enough to rule out demons.
Right now, doctors are seeing an explosion of teenage girls presenting with Tourette’s-like symptoms long past the age when Tourette’s syndrome would normally develop. The even weirder thing is that they all seem to have the same tics, which turned out to be the same as those exhibited by prominent Tourette’s TikTokers. They didn’t actually have Tourette’s but a “movement disorder” that acts as “a complex way for the brain to release overwhelming stress.” Really, though, if shouting “beans” eases your anxiety, that sounds less like a disorder and more like a perfectly functional strategy. The bean teens may be onto something.
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