In the 1950s, it was the jitterbug. In the 2010s, it was that floss dance from a video game or maybe the Gangnam Style gallop that was popular for a minute. There’s always a wild dance craze sweeping the nation, and each one is more confusing than the last.
To find the strangest of all, however, you have to go back to 1518, when a village became enamored with one dance trend. This wasn’t harmless moving and shaking — it was positively dangerous, and experts today are still baffled as to how a dance so deadly swept through one small village…
Frau Troffea didn’t tell anyone her plans when she walked into the streets of Strasbourg, Alsace (that’s modern-day France), over 500 years ago. She just stepped into the road and started dancing.
Historical texts don’t really dive into the specifics or quality of her moves. Whether she twirled with grace or gyrated like a legless sailor is unclear. Whatever the case, her one woman-show attracted a cheering, laughing audience.
After all, this was a pretty poor village in 1518 Europe — a free show was a free show. But Frau just kept dancing. Minutes passed. Then hours. In fact, six days after she walked out into the street, she was still grooving.
At this point, things got weird. Well, weirder. Because after six days, 34 other villagers, for some reason, were compelled to join in on the exhausting dance party that had no end in sight (or any music, for that matter).
And now that the dance party had social traction and could no longer be defined as a single lady sort of rocking out in the street, everyone wanted in on the first flash mob of the Holy Roman Empire.
By the end of the month, 400 villagers were dancing mindlessly with Frau Troffea. While this sounds like one of those weird, quirky events you’d stumble into while walking through Brooklyn, doctors were concerned.
Even though they only had a 16th-century knowledge of medicine, these doctors were pretty sure that people weren’t supposed to be ignoring their daily responsibilities to drop a stanky leg in the streets. This was a textbook case of dance-aholism.
And to their credit, the doctors didn’t make bold, sweeping declarations of ghosts or demons possessing these dancers. Not to their credit, they diagnosed the dancers with “hot blood” and determined the cure was more cowbell. Sort of.
Saturday Night Live
See, their proposed cure for hot blood was to have the villagers essentially just get their ya-yas out and dance themselves back to normal. To make this easier for the people, authorities ordered some improvements to Strasbourg.
The town obliged the doctors’ requests to provide a stage and music for these chronic dancers, so that they were, you know, encouraged to keep dancing endlessly, which would, theoretically, cool down their blood to a medically appropriate level.
Yet this still wasn’t the strangest detail about the dance party. No, what made it truly horrific was that these villagers did not want to dance. They were in agony, pleading for someone to help them stop dancing. But hey, at least they had music now.
They couldn’t even stop dancing when people started dying! Heart attacks and strokes thinned the herd because, as modern physicians noted, not even a contemporary marathon runner could sustain dancing for 30+ days and nights. Would this ever end?
Eventually. Though records don’t mention some great climax to the dancing, there, of course, is not still a 24/7 rager going on in East France. It seems the horrific party just…stopped. Today, historians are trying to figure out why it ever started.
One modern theory suggests the villagers were afflicted with ergot fungi, a psychedelic that grows on rye and can contaminate bread. Basically, Strasbourgians were tripping, and the streets were pretty much just a Phish concert. But other experts weren’t so sure.
Historian John Waller said that even the strongest case of ergot fungi wouldn’t have given villagers the mental fortitude and physical prowess to dance for over a month, a display of peak cardiovascular activity.
He also pointed out that ergot messes up your limbs, which people kind of need to dance for a long time. Not just a naysayer, Waller posited his own theory about the dancers. His idea came in two parts.
First, he acknowledged that life in Strasbourg was bad. The poor — who comprised all 400+ dancers — were suffering from famine and disease. They were willing to do pretty much anything to better their fortunes.
Second, John Waller dug into the villagers’ mindsets. He knew they were superstitious and held a deep-seeded belief that the Catholic saint St. Vitus could make people dance to death with a curse. So, he put it all together.
Saint Vitus Church
Stress-induced mass hysteria — aided by famine and disease — fueled the Dancing Plague of 1518, according to John Waller. Once one person had been “cursed” by St. Vitus, other villagers on the brink of insanity felt they, too, were cursed.
The theory made sense. Experts believe stress-induced mass hysteria was a big contributor to the Salem Witch Trials, too, which started when 12-year-old Abigail Williams accused her cousin, Betty Parris, of witchcraft.
Soon, wielding the power of accusation looked pretty tempting to the other townsfolk. Soon everyone was doing it. The numbers of alleged witches grew to 200, and ultimately 140-150 individuals were charged with the crime of witchcraft.
Jailhouse conditions were worse than bleak for the accused. The Salem outfit wasn’t built to hold such numbers, so those arrested were scattered throughout the jails of neighboring towns. Shackled to the walls, they consumed only bread and water and watched as bodies continued to shuffle in.
When someone was suspected of wrongdoing, the Puritans called the witch hunters. You needn’t look far to find one. Volunteers knocked on doors pushing neighbors and friends to betray each other or blurt accusations.
Landowners in and surrounding Salem realized quickly that being named as a witch had scarier consequences than exorcism. Accused witches had their reputations ruined, and worse, all their property seized by the state. Without land, their survival was hardly guaranteed.
When you think of trials, you’d expect that the Puritan courtroom was filled with all the usual characters familiarized by the dramas on TV — the judge, the jury, and the lawyers for the prosecution and the defense. No one accused at Salem had a remotely fair trial.
Sitting in that courtroom, while your character was trashed, your personal life dissected, lies about your evilness spreading like wildfire, it was common for the accused to put it all to rest. They’d offer a confession, knowing they’d already been convicted in the court of public opinion.
Other confessions were taken through sheer force. Reverend Samuel Parris beat his slave Tituba until she gave an admission of guilt, then she later said he coached her through the trials. Her cries about serving Satan should be framed within the context of torture.
Some Salem residents were immune to the growing hysteria, including Martha Corey. Sadly, her attempts to convince her neighbors to see reason made them instantly suspicious of her. She found herself in the hot seat without allies, as even her husband, Giles Corey, testified against her.
Perhaps the guilt of selling out his wife was what led to his nervy last words. Giles was accused of being a witch after his wife, though his refusal to plead his guilt or innocence made prosecutors reach for the medieval punishment of pressing.
Over three days, they stacked rocks on top of the naked body of Giles Corey. Intermittently they’d ask him to declare a plea, the fate of his life rested in a simple answer. Famously, Giles refused to crack, groaning out the final words, “More weight.”
With a name like a witch cake, you’d imagine a spooky sprinkled Little Debbie snack. Slightly less delicious, the Salem confection consisted of rye flour and urine of people targeted by witches. The baked product was set before a dog, who’d eat it and reveal the witch’s identity.
But man’s best friends weren’t immune to suspicions of witchcraft, either. Notably, a girl taught her neighbor a lesson by claiming her dog had bewitched her. The dog wasn’t granted a trial; he was shot. Priest Cotton Mather confirmed the pet’s death meant no demonic activity. Small comfort.
Buoyancy, strangely enough, was an indicator of meddling with evil spirits. They tied the accused’s hand to their opposite foot, then dunked their bodies into the water. Whether they sank — as non-witches would — or floated — a total witch thing — they were in hot water. The absurd tests didn’t stop there, either.
For the touch test, during one of the afflicted’s regular fits, the accused would be forced to make physical contact. Wouldn’t you know it, the tremors and hysteria stopped instantly…indicating witchery. Witches were also believed to be identified by something else.
If they’d danced with the Devil, witches would have a specific mark, the Puritans thought. What that mark actually looked like, well, no one was sure. Interchangeably called witches or devil marks, the accused were stripped and examined for any blemish that could be classified as a hellish stain.
The witches of Salem were so supposedly hellbent on terrorizing the community they could break free from their corporeal forms. George Jacobs, in particular, stood accused by every one of the witnesses in his case of haunting them as a ghostly figure.
Lisa M Lanno
If pointing fingers and public execution weren’t enough, an outbreak of smallpox was rippling throughout the Salem community. Naturally, citizens declared the illness another devious act of witchery. Somehow eliminating the “evil” didn’t cure ailments.
The culprit was none other than the “rampant hag,” “Queen of Hell” herself, Martha Carrier. That’s what records tell us that Reverend Cotton Mather called her. She came under suspicion for her disobedient nature and notoriously independent wills.
Man of the Lord, Reverend George Burroughs was shaken after he landed in the suspected witch hot seat. His conviction was swift. His hanging, swifter. Though the crowd shifted uneasily afterword because he’d recited the Lord’s Prayer, an act impossible for a witch to utter.
To add to the callousness, George Burroughs body was immediately taken from the gallows to a ridiculously shallow grave. In the hast to bury him, people noted how the chin, a hand, and a foot breached the soil.
Theorists have tried to rationalize the killing at Salem with medical explanations. One idea is the New Englanders were suffering from the rye grain born poison ergot. A harsh winter followed by a wet spring produces ergot, with symptoms like spasms, vomiting, and hallucinations. Whatever the cause, the mania continued until the accusers really crossed the line.
It was all fun and games until the fingers pointed at the governor’s wife. William Phips knowingly let the trails continue for a year, fully aware of the rising death count. After his spouse, Mary Spencer Hull, was named as a potential witch, he signed a proclamation ending the madness.
Witch burning conjures a monstrous level of inhumanity; that, thankfully, never took place at Salem. Their chosen method of execution was strictly hanging, 19 of the 20 deaths were carried out that way. The other was Giles Corey’s pressing.
The infamous executions were carried out on Gallows Hill, and the location was hotly contested amongst Salem locals until 2016. Proctor’s Ledge was officially identified at the spot the convicted witches hung. It now serves as a memorial park.
Undoubtedly many innocent people were killed by ramblings of children. If they’d hung a real witch, there was no guarantee they’d vanished. Some say sorcerers resurface over time, like the legendary Bell Witch.
According to legend, way back in the summer of 1817 in the town of Adams, Tennessee, something terrible befell the Bell family. It all started one evening when patriarch John Bell was walking through his 360-acre farm.
It was during this walk that John saw something strange in the corn field: it was what he would later describe as a dog with a rabbit’s head. He shot at the strange animal a number of times and then joined his family inside.
Later that night, the mysterious sounds of knocking and rattling chains were heard by the whole family. Each proceeding night it became louder and louder and was eventually joined by the sound of a strange voice chanting hymns. The Bell children then began hearing rats gnawing on their bedposts. But the horrors were only just beginning…
For over a year, John was so afraid of being called crazy that he told his family to hide what they’d seen and heard. Yet he decided to confide in his best friend, James Johnston, after his youngest daughter, Betsy, woke up with hand prints and welts on her face.
To investigate his friend’s claims, James stayed in the Bell house one night, ultimately confirming that he heard unusual sounds as well. Soon enough, all sorts of people were visiting the house to try to do the same. Even a young Andrew Jackson, back when he was still in the military, tried to visit. But once he arrived at their farm, the wheels of his carriage weirdly became locked.
According to lore, the spirit haunting the Bell family claimed to be a former neighbor named Kate Batts, and she believed John treated her unfairly on a land deal. Not only did she want to kill him, but she was determined to prevent a boy in town named Joshua Gardner from marrying Betsy. Kate, later referred to as the Bell Witch, apparently caused John to suffer several choking attacks over the next few years, which he said felt like a sharp stick in his mouth.
On December 20, 1820, John Bell died after falling into a coma. The family found a vial of poison in the room, and the Bell Witch was allegedly proud to claim responsibility for forcing him to drink. Betsy broke off her engagement to Joshua just three months later.
Apparently having finally achieved what she wanted all along, the Bell Witch bid farewell to the family… although she promised to return someday. She apparently wasn’t lying, because John Bell Jr. said she visited him in 1828 and told him a number of secrets from throughout time, including a prediction of the Civil War.
Not only did strange things continue to happen on the property, but the activity spread to the cave behind the farm; the witch supposedly still resided there. Some people claim that there was never a witch at all, but it was simply someone else trying to force the breakup between Betsy and Joshua.
Betsy ended up marrying Richard Powell, her old schoolteacher who took a liking to her years earlier. Strangely, it wasn’t long after they’d first met that the creepy activity started. Richard was rumored to be an occultist, and in 1821—around the same time that Betsy broke off her engagement—Richard’s wife mysteriously died.
Whether Richard was behind the devious hauntings remained to be seen. To this day, the Bell Witch is said to be the cause of other unexplainable sights and sounds around the property. While the Bell farmhouse may not be around anymore, there is a recreation of the cabin and other attractions at The Bell Witch Cave!