Within the back pages of history books and the footnotes of medical reports, there’s a handful of cold cases that would make even the most serious scientists go "what the..." From freak illnesses to mass moments of madness, here are a bunch of stories that keep some researchers laying awake at night.
St. Vitus' Dancing Plague
Toward the end of the Middle Ages in Europe, there was a high number of reports of “dancing mania”. Seemingly out of nowhere, huge groups of people were consumed with an urge to dance, violently jigging around until they collapsed from exhaustion.
One of the biggest “dancing plagues” ever documented occurred on June 24, 1374, in Aachen, modern-day Germany. One account from 1888 recalls this event: “They formed circles hand in hand, and appearing to have lost all control over their senses… for hours together, in wild delirium, until at length they fell to the ground in a state of exhaustion.”
Another outbreak in 1518 in Strasbourg saw over 400 people dance for weeks on end until dozens died of exhaustion.
Since this happened centuries ago, it’s unclear if this was a genuine condition or a social phenomenon. After all, confused historians in the future may try to understand “the Harlem Shake” or “planking” in a few centuries. However, modern researchers have suggested the "dancing mania" may have been caused by a few things: ergot poisoning from rotting rye, epilepsy, typhus, or even a kind-of shared mania induced by the stress of living in the grim Dark Ages.
The Teenager Who Died Of HIV/AIDs In “The Pre-Aids Era”
The story of Robert Rayford remains a strange medical mystery to date. In 1969, this 16-year-old from St Louis died of an unknown illness. Around 19 years later, a review of his preserved blood found the presence of "a virus closely related or identical to" HIV, meaning that he died of HIV/AIDS complications despite most experts believing that it first appeared in the US during the mid-1970s.
So how did someone so young from the US contract the infection so early? No one is sure. At the time, doctors noted he was also infected with the sexually transmitted disease chlamydia. Rayford told doctors that he was sexually active, although he denied being homosexual or bisexual. Medical records also show no sign that he had received a blood transfusion.
One conclusion left to draw was that he was used as a child-prostitute. That, however, remains speculative.
The 1983 West Bank Fainting Epidemic
Nearly 1,000 people, almost all of them teenage Palestinian girls near the West Bank, were hospitalized between March and April 1983 for fainting. Multiple female Israeli soldiers in the area also suffered frm fainting, blurred vision, and nausea.
The New York Times reported that “Palestinian leaders have accused Israeli settlers and officials of using 'chemical warfare' in West Bank schools to drive Arabs out of the area or to sterilize Arab girls.”
However, medical experts now generally believe that this was most likely an instance of mass hysteria. A report by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) argues that small isolated instances of hydrogen sulfide poisoning might have sparked a psychogenic illness among the young women, many of whom had been living with high levels of anxiety and stress due to the troubles in the West Bank area.
Sean Paul And Sudoku Puzzles Causing Seizures
In this case, a 25-year-old man suffers from seizures but only when trying to solve Sudoku puzzles. Doctors at the University of Munich recently carried out a study on the man to try to figure out what is going on. They found that he doesn't experience the seizures when he reads, when doing math calculations, or when he writes numbers down, but he does have seizures when carrying out other visuospatial tasks involving numbers.
If that wasn’t specific enough, there’s also a woman who has a seizure every time she hears Sean Paul's song "Temperature". After noticing this pattern, she realized it also happens with other R&B chart songs like Sean Kingston's "Beautiful Girl" and Rihanna's "Umbrella”. The 2000s must have been tough.
“The Toxic Lady”
In February 1994, Gloria Ramirez was rushed to a Californian hospital, suffering from the effects of advanced cervical cancer. Within a matter of hours, 23 of the 37 emergency room staff who had come into contact with her began to faint and suffer muscle spasms, with many having to be hospitalized.
To this day, no one is quite sure what happened in "The Toxic Lady” case. People initially suspected it could be a case of mass hysteria; however, experts have recently developed a slightly more scientific version of events.
A team of scientists, writing in the journal Forensic Science International in 1997, explain that it could have been a chain of unlikely chemical reactions. Independent researchers suggested she had been using dimethyl sulfoxide as a topical homemade pain remedy. Oxygen administered by the doctors could have combined with the dimethyl sulfoxide to form dimethyl sulfone. Electrical shocks from her defibrillation could have then converted the dimethyl sulfone into dimethyl sulfate, a powerful poisonous gas. While it sounds highly unlikely, it's the best explanation we’ve got so far.
Tarrare’s Appetite for Food
Tarrare was a 17th-century man with an insanely bizarre “talent” of having an unsatisfiable appetite for food.
So the story goes, he worked as a street performer, traveling across France with a merry band of prostitutes, thieves, and outcasts. He earned money as a street performer whose act was to eat anything put in front of him – literally anything – from stones and coals to live animals and a ridiculous quantity of food. One report says he once ate a meal for 15 people along with multiple animals. Despite this, he was also slimly built (although he did suffer from exudative diarrhea his whole life).
The story of Tarrare was before the advent of photography or modern documentation, but thankfully we know a bit about it from a set of early medical papers from the 18th century. It’s suggested that perhaps he was just a charlatan and conman. However, due to the lack of information, researchers cannot tell where the myth begins and reality ends, let alone figure out a correct diagnosis.
The 20th Century Sleeping Sickness Epidemic
Between 1915 and 1926, 5 million people became infected with a disease that left them motionless and stuck like a zombified statue. A huge number of these people died shortly after and many never recovered to their normal state. Aside from odd isolated cases, the world has not seen any significant cases of the illness since.
Scientists now call this Encephalitis lethargica, a form of brain inflammation. Modern researchers have tried to unravel the condition once again in recent times, but the only link they found between the victims was the presence of streptococcus, a bacteria most often associated with mild sore throats. Their best guess is that this bacteria underwent an unusual mutation that provoked the immune system to go into hyperdrive and inadvertently attack the brain.