Almost everybody gets a tune or jingle stuck in his or head from time to time, and just can’t seem to get it out, humming or mumbling it on and off for hours or maybe days on end. But what about the next level: how about a dance move that one can’t stop? Almost everyone loves a good boogie, but what happens if the boogie is so good that you just can’t quit, and end up dancing yourself to death?
That is what the good people of Strasbourg, Alsace, in what is now France, discovered in July of 1518, when their town was struck with a dancing mania, as hundreds of people started dancing nonstop, for days on end. By the time the dance fever finally broke, many had literally danced themselves to death from heart attacks, strokes, or sheer exhaustion.
It all started innocently enough on a typical July morning, when a Frau Troffea started dancing in the street. Onlookers clapped, laughed, and cheered her high spirits and joie de vivre as she danced. And danced. And danced some more, without rest or respite for six days. Within a week, she had been joined by dozens in her marathon dance, mostly women.
Concerned, authorities consulted local physicians, who opined that the plague was caused by “hot blood”. They convinced officials that the dancers would recover only if they got it out of their system by dancing continuously. So musicians were hired, a wooden stage was erected, and additional dancing space was made by opening up guildhalls and clearing out a marketplace to make more room.
Those measures backfired, and simply ended up encouraging even more people to join the dance craze. Within a month, the number of nonstop dancers had ballooned into the hundreds, and at the height of the dance fever, 15 residents were dying each day from exhaustion and heart attacks.
The Strasbourg death dance was not an isolated incident. Between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, there were enough similar outbreaks for contemporaries to coin a term for the phenomena: Saint Vitus’ Dance, or Saint John’s Dance. There is no modern consensus on the cause, so it is simply categorized as an unusual social phenomenon – a mass public hysteria, or a mass psychogenic illness of unknown provenance.
John of Bohemia (1296 – 1346), also known as John the Blind after losing his eyesight ten years before his death, got himself killed by leading a charge into battle while blind. He was one of the most celebrated warriors of his era, having campaigned and fought across Europe from the Mediterranean to the Baltic. He was Count of Luxembourg from 1309, and when his father in law, the king of Bohemia, died without male heirs, John inherited that realm through his wife and became king of Bohemia from 1310 until his death.
A son of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VII, John’s father made him Count of Luxembourg in 1309. However, when his father died in 1313, John was too young to inherit his throne, so he backed Louis the Bavarian, who became Emperor Louis IV in 1314. An early supporter of the Emperor, John fell out with Louis IV after the latter sided with England against France in the Hundred Years War.
During his reign, John of Bohemia fought against Hungary, Austria, England, and the Russians, campaigned in the Tyrol and northern Italy, and expanded his domain by acquiring Silesia, parts of Lusatia, and most of Lombardy. He lost his eyesight from ophthalmia in 1336 while crusading against the pagan Lithuanians. Any popularity he might have gained at home was offset, however, by heavy taxation to pay for his lavish expenses.
John had strong ties to France, and having been raised and educated in Paris, was virtually French in his outlook and sympathies. He even sent his own son to be educated in Paris, rather than in his own Bohemian capital of Prague. When King Philip VI of France asked for his help against England’s Edward III, John, despite his blindness, came to the French monarch’s aid. French and Bohemian kings met him in Paris in August, 1346, and marched off together in pursuit of the English king.
When the armies met at the Battle of Crecy, on August 26th, 1346, John the Blind was in command of the French vanguard and a significant contingent of the French army. The excitement, sounds, and scent of the battle must have awakened the old war dog in him. Despite his blindness, John the Blind ordered his retinue to tie their horses to his and ride into battle so he could deliver at least one stroke of his sword against the English. Doing so would satisfy his honor, by ensuring that he had taken an actual part in the battle.
His knights did as commanded, and tied to their horses, the blind king rode into the fight. It did not go well. John the Blind, being blind, was unable to judge how far he had gone, and charged to his death – and that of his companions – by plunging too deep into the English ranks. John was cut off and enveloped by the enemy, and in the ensuing melee, the blind king and all of his retinue were slaughtered.
In November, 1803, rumors flew of ghost sightings in the Hammersmith district in west London. Many thought it was the ghost of a recent suicide buried in Hammersmith’s churchyard. It was in line with a widespread contemporary belief that suicides should not be buried in consecrated grounds because their souls would then find no rest.
The ghost was described as being very tall, and dressed all in white. Some witnesses added horns and glass eyes to the description. Alarm at the sightings quickly grew to widespread panic, and then mass hysteria. More and more people stepped forward to report that they had not only seen the Hammersmith ghost, but had been attacked by it as well. In response, fearful citizens took to arms and began patrolling the neighborhood.
On the night of January 3rd, 1804, one of the armed citizens, Francis Smith, was on patrol when he came across a bricklayer, Thomas Millwood, returning home from a visit to his parents. Millwood was clad in the typical clothing of his trade: white pants, white shirt, and white apron. Leveling his shotgun at what he took to be the Hammersmith Ghost, Smith shot Millwood in the face, killing him instantly.
Smith was arrested and tried for willful murder. The presiding judge instructed the jury that establishing malice was not necessary for a conviction. All killings were either murder or manslaughter, absent extenuating circumstances that were not present here. Smith was duly convicted, then sentenced to death, which sentence was subsequently commuted to a year’s hard labor. As to the Hammersmith “ghost”, it later emerged that it was an elderly local shoemaker. who wore the guise to prank his apprentice.
Publius Licinius Valerianus, known to history as Emperor Valerian (circa 195 – 264 AD), ruled the Roman Empire from 253 to 260. His reign came to a humiliating end after he attempted an invasion of the newly established Sassanid Persian Empire, only to suffer a crushing defeat and end up as a prisoner. He endured undignified captivity, which came to an end with an undignified death.
Born into a patrician family, Valerian was a military man who became Consul under emperor Severus Alexander (reigned 222 – 235 AD) and rose to command various armies. In 253, amidst a period of chaos that came to be known as the Crisis of the Third Century, Valerian was crowned emperor. Realizing that it was impractical for a single emperor to oversee the sprawling empire, he appointed his son to command the western half of the empire, while he headed east to deal with the newly arisen menace of Sassanid Persia.
Valerian assembled an army of about 70,000 men and marched to resolve the Persian problem. In 260, he fought an army commanded by Persian king Shapur I in the Battle of Edessa, and was decisively defeated. The remnants of the Roman army were besieged, and Valerian tried to personally negotiate a way out with Shapur. The peace talks turned out to be a trap, however, and Valerian was seized by Shapur when he showed up.
After his capture, Valerian was made Shapur’s slave, and subjected to sundry humiliations. The Persian king took particular delight in advertising his victory and demonstrating his might by using the former Roman emperor as a foot stool to mount his horse. His death was as ignominious and undignified as his captivity, and came after he offended Shapur by offering a huge ransom in exchange for his release. As punishment, and to show his disdain for the offer, Shapur forced Valerian to drink molten gold. His humiliation continued even after death, when Shapur ordered Valerian’s corpse flayed, and had his skin dyed and displayed at a temple.
Edmund II, AKA Edmund Ironside (circa 993 – 1016) was England’s king from April 23rd to November 30th, 1016. The son of one of England’s worst kings, the weak and vacillating Ethelred the Unready, Edmund was a vast improvement over his father, and proved himself made of sterner stuff than his predecessor. He earned the surname “Ironside” for his staunch resistance to a massive invasion led by the Danish king Canute.
Starting in 991, Edmund’s father, Ethelred the Unready unwisely sought to buy off the Danes then occupy northern England. He attempted to stop their incessant raids into his kingdom by paying them tribute known as the Danegeld, or “Danish gold”. Unsurprisingly, that emboldened the Danes. They upped their demands for more and more gold, and fearing little from Ethelred, kept on raiding his domain. Finally, after bankrupting his kingdom and beggaring its people with the high taxes necessary to pay the Danegeld, Ethelred ordered a massacre of Danish settlers in 1002.
Ethelred’s massacre of Danish settlers triggered an invasion by the Danish King Sweyn Forkbeard. He conquered England in 1013, and forced Ethelred to flee to Normandy. However, Sweyn died the following year, at which point Ethelred returned. With his son Edmund playing a leading role, Ethelred’s forces chased Sweyn’s son, Canute, out of England in 1014. Canute returned the following year at the head of a large Danish army, which pillaged much of England. However, Edmund mounted a fierce resistance which stymied the Dane. When Ethelred died in 1016, Edmund, by now known as “Ironside”, succeeded him on the English throne.
Edmund II’s strange death came seven months after he was crowned, on November 30th, 1016. That night, Edmund went to the privy to answer a call of nature. Unbeknownst to him, an assassin was waiting in the cesspit for the royal posterior to show up. When Edmund sat down to do his business, the assassin stabbed upwards with a sharp dagger. Leaving the weapon embedded in the king’s bowels, the killer made his escape. Unfortunately for Edmund, even if his sides had been made of iron, his bottom was not.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading