CAUSE OF DEATH: Boogie Fever

Engraving of three women affected by the dance plague.

July of 1518 in Strasbourg, Alsace in the Holy Roman Empire, a bizarre plague known as “Dance Fever” broke out, killing many citizens. Also known as the “Dance Epidemic”, it forced the people of Strasbourg to dance, in many cases, to their death. The strange occurrence began when a woman named Frau Troffea began to dance erratically in a narrow street and did not stop for 4-6 days. Slowly, more people joined in and within a week 34 additional Strasbourg residents had caught Boogie Fever. By the month’s end, approximately 400 people were effected with the bizarre affliction. This event was documented in local and religious records, physicians notes and was even repeatedly refered to in various cathedral sermons. There is no questioning whether or not this mysterious event took place in, the only question is “why?“. When nobles of the time turned to physicians for advice, astrological and supernatural events were quickly eliminated as possible causes. Dance Fever was deemed to be a natural disease caused by a condition known as “hot blood”. In the 1500s, “hot blood” was usually treated by a process known as “bleeding” or “bloodletting”. During that period in time, doctors believed withdrawal of “bad blood” could cure or prevent many illnesses. Today, bloodletting is generally viewed as an archaic medical practice, though it is still used occasionally in specific cases. Doctors of the time also prescribed more dancing claiming the only cure was for the afflicted to dance day and night. In accordance, the town of Strasburg designated two guild halls and a grain market for dancing. The city even went so far as to build a new stage and hire musicians to facilitate doctors’ orders. Michigan State University professor, historian and author  of A Time to Dance, a Time to Die: The Extraordinary Story of the Dancing Plague of 1518 John Waller believes he has finally solved the mystery of exactly what prompted so many to dance to their deaths. In his book, John Waller theorizes the citizens of Strasburg were suffering stress-induced psychosis. This specific type of psychosis is caused by some type of major stressful or traumatic event such as surviving a natural disaster or experiencing the death of a loved one. In 1518, the region had recently suffered from a severe famine and many perished due to starvation. In addition, the area was plagued with multiple diseases including syphilis and small pox. Many citizens were broke, homeless and reduced to begging in the streets. Living conditions were intolerable to say the least. In light of this it was determined the residents of Strasburg had experienced mass psychological illness in July of 1518 when the Dance Epidemic started. Symptoms of stress-induced psychosis can include hallucinations, delusions, disorganized thinking, non-coherent speech or language, disorientation, confusion, changes in eating/sleeping/energy and unusual behavior, among other things. Of course, many died from a heart attack, stroke or exhaustion caused by non-stop dancing; However, John Waller presents the fact that all of them should have died. Frau Troffea, who danced for 4-6 days and night non-stop without food, water or rest and ultimately survived the Dance Epidemic should have died within three days due to dehydration alone. A second theory suggests citizens of Strasbourg may have unknowingly consumed Ergot fungus, an organic version of LSD. This theory is not as strongly supported considering Ergot fungus is far more likely to kill those who ingest it as opposed to send them into a month-long acid trip. Could an event as unbelievable as the Dance Plague have an equally unbelievable explanation? Ancient people believed if the spirit of Saint Vitus, a Sicilian martyred in 303AD was provoked, he would send “Plagues of compulsive dancing”, much like the one which swept through Strasbourg.

Buy John Waller’s book A Time to Dance, a Time to Die: The Extraordinary Story of the Dancing Plague of 1518 

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From the same demented mind that brought you The Post-Mortem Post: FREAK

If you enjoyed the article, you may also like Chrysippus Died Laughing (Literally) and Karl Wallenda’s Fatal Tightrope Fall

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