Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 20.djvu/519

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503
EPIDEMIC CONVULSIONS.

been stated, the number who fell was believed to bave reached three thousand.

The "jerks," as they were termed, presented some novel and remarkable features. Their first occurrence is reported to have been at a sacramental meeting in East Tennessee, where several hundred people of both sexes were seized with this strange, convulsive movement. The Rev. B. W. Stone has left a vivid description of it. Sometimes, he says, the subject was affected in a single member of his body, but at others the spasms were universal. When the head alone was affected, it would be jerked from side to side so quickly that the features of the face could not be distinguished. When the whole system was affected, he continues, "I have seen the person stand in one place, and jerk backward and forward in quick succession, the head nearly touching the floor behind and before. All classes, saints and sinners, the strong as well as the weak, were thus affected. I have seen some wicked persons thus affected, and all the time cursing the jerks, while they were thrown to the earth with violence."[1]

The first form in which these spasmodic movements made their appearance was that of a simple jerking of the arms from the elbow downward. When they involved the entire body, they are described as something terrible to behold. The head was thrown backward and forward with a celerity that alarmed spectators, causing the hair, if it was long, "to crack and snap like the lash of a whip."[2]

The most graphic description of the "jerking exercise" was written by the Rev. Richard McNemar, an eye-witness of the frenzy, as well as an apologist, believing it to be a display of Divine favor. In his "History of the Kentucky Revival" he says: "Nothing in nature could better represent this strange and unaccountable operation than for one to goad another, alternately on every side, with a piece of red hot iron. The exercise commonly began in the head, which would fly backward and forward, and from side to side with a quick jolt, which the person would naturally labor to suppress, but in vain; and the more any one labored to stay himself, and be sober, the more he staggered, and the more his twitches increased. He must necessarily go as he was stimulated, whether with a violent dash on the ground, and bounce from place to place like a foot-ball, or hop round with head, limbs, and trunk twitching and jolting in every direction, as if they must inevitably fly asunder. And how such could escape without injury was no small wonder to spectators. By this strange operation the human frame was commonly so transformed and disfigured as to lose every trace of its natural appearance. Sometimes the head would

  1. McFerrin's "Methodism in Tennessee."
  2. Dr. Davidson, who relates this singular fact, felt it necessary to authenticate the statement by referring to eye-and ear-witnesses of its reality. I remember to have heard my grandmother describe, when I was but a little boy, the same thing as occurring in a woman at a camp-meeting near her home in Tennessee, in 1810.