Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 20.djvu/521

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505
EPIDEMIC CONVULSIONS.

infatuated creatures who rolled over screaming in the mud, and promised jestingly to stand by and assist each other in case that either should be seized with the convulsions. They had not been long on the ground, looking upon the strange scene before them, when the young woman lost her consciousness and fell to the ground. Her companion, forgetting his promise of protection, instantly forsook her and ran off at the top of his speed. But flight afforded him no safety. Before he had gone two hundred yards, he too fell down in convulsions, "while a crowd flocked round him to witness his mortification and offer prayers in his behalf."

These nervous disorders assumed many other grotesque forms besides those which have been described. The subjects often rolled over and over on the ground, or ran violently until worn out with the exertion. Hysterical laughter was another modification. Instances of laughter were only occasional at first, but it grew, until in 1803 the "holy laugh" was introduced systematically as a part of religious worship. Sometimes half the congregation, apparently in the most devout spirit, were to be heard laughing aloud in the midst of a lively sermon. As the excitement grew, the infatuated subjects took to dancing, and at last to barking like dogs. McNemar says they actually assumed the posture of dogs, "moving about on all-fours, growling; snapping the teeth, and barking with such an exactness of imitation as to deceive any one whose eyes were not directed to the spot."[1] Nor were the people who suffered so mortifying a transformation always of the vulgar classes; persons of the highest rank in society, on the contrary, men and women of cultivated minds and polite manners, found themselves, by sympathy, reduced to this degrading situation.

The "barks" were looked upon at first as a chastisement for remissness of duty, and the only way to escape them was to engage in the holy dance. But, from being regarded as marks of guilt, these wretched exercises came to be esteemed "tokens of Divine favor, and badges of special honor."[2] With these manifestations the insanity reached its height in about three years after it began to show itself.

It was one of the popular beliefs of the times that certain instincts or conditions of the system would avert these nervous attacks. Thus it was held that a woman with a child in her arms, or conscious of approaching maternity, was in no danger. But there was no truth in the supposition. The maternal instinct, at least, had no' protective efficacy. An instance is related where a woman mounted the stand, with an infant in her arms, for the sake of a better prospect, and that being suddenly seized she fell backward, dropping her child. Some one fortunately saw the danger in time to seize and save the child before it fell to the ground.[3]

A large proportion of the members of every congregation had power to resist the convulsive tendency. In a great majority, no such

  1. Davidson.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.