Popular Science Monthly/Volume 20/February 1882/Epidemic Convulsions




EXTRAORDINARY interest was excited in the popular mind of Kentucky, at an early day, by a form of convulsive disease, which, though it had been witnessed elsewhere in the world, had never before assumed a shape so decidedly epidemic. Among the Camisards, or French prophets, who appeared in the mountains of the Cevennes toward the close of the seventeenth century, the subjects, when about to receive the gift of prophecy, were often affected with trembling and fell down in swoons. When the fit came, no matter where they were, they fell, smiting their breasts with their hands, crying for mercy, and imprecating curses on the Pope. They were finally, after an obstinate struggle, put down by their insane persecutor, Louis XIV.[2]

Epidemic convulsions prevailed in Scotland, half a century later. Multitudes, under pungent preaching, were violently agitated, uttering loud cries, shaking, trembling, bleeding at the nose, the minister promoting the uproar by urging them not to stifle their convictions. The shriek, or the shout, it is stated, never rose from one, but that others joined the outcry.[3] The early career of John Wesley is well known to have been marked by similar disorders. In his journal he records numerous instances of men and women dropping to the ground under his preaching "as if struck by lightning," ten or a dozen praying at once. They had also prevailed extensively in New Zealand half a century before they became epidemic in Kentucky. The elder Edwards has left an instructive account of the bodily agitations which accompanied the revivals of religion from 1735-'42. Many instances are given of fainting, falling, trance, numbness, outcries, and convulsions, and he relates that some of the subjects lost their reason.[4] The epidemic of Kentucky spread more widely, and persisted for a longer time, as well as in more extravagant forms. It continued to reappear for several years, and involved a district of country extending from Ohio to the mountains of Tennessee, and even into the old settlements in the Carolinas. Lorenzo Dow relates that, at a religious meeting in the court-house of Knoxville, when the Governor of Tennessee was present, he saw one hundred and fifty people "jerking" at one time. But at other places the frenzy reached a greater height. It was computed that, at a religious meeting in Kentucky, not less than three thousand persons fell in convulsions to the ground.

The extraordinary religious excitement in which these nervous disorders took their rise commenced in Logan County, Kentucky, under the preaching of Rev. James McGready, described as a man of "hideous visage and thunder-tones," with a highly impassioned style of eloquence.[5] The excitement abated soon, but was renewed in a more intense form three years later, and continued to grow and deepen until it reached its height about the year 1800. Its effects were described by this fiery preacher as at that time "exceeding everything his eyes had ever beheld upon earth." Families came in wagons, forty, fifty, and one hundred miles to attend the meetings, and it became necessary to establish camps for their accommodation. These camp-meetings generally continued four days, from Friday to Tuesday morning, but sometimes they lasted a week. One succeeded another in rapid succession, and thus the fervor of religious feeling was kept up. The woods and paths leading to the camp-ground seemed alive with people. "The laborer," says Dr. Davidson, in the work just quoted, "quitted his task; age snatched his crutch; youth forgot his pastimes; the plow was left in the furrow; the deer enjoyed a respite upon the mountains; business of all kinds was suspended; dwelling-houses were deserted; whole neighborhoods were emptied; bold hunters, and sober matrons, young men, maidens, and little children, flocked to the common center of attraction; every difficulty was surmounted, every risk ventured, to be present at the camp-meeting."

The concourse became immense. At one of these assemblages the attendance was computed at twenty thousand souls. And here were united all the elements best suited to stir the emotional nature of man and to derange his nervous system. The spectacle at night, as Dr. Davidson depicts it, was one of the wildest grandeur. With great beauty of description he says: "The glare of the camp-fires, falling on a dense assemblage of heads simultaneously bowed in prayer, and reflected back from long ranges of tents upon every side; hundreds of candles and lamps suspended among the trees, together with numerous torches flashing to and fro, throwing an uncertain light upon the tremulous foliage; the solemn chanting of hymns swelling and falling on the night wind; the impassioned exhortations, the earnest prayers, the sobs, shrieks, or shouts, bursting from persons under intense agitation of mind; the sudden spasms which seized upon scores, and unexpectedly dashed them to the ground—all conspired not only to invest the scene with terrific interest, but to work up the feelings to the highest pitch of excitement."[6] To these circumstances, that tended so powerfully to excite the nervous centers, we have to add others which gave intensity to their effect. The meetings were protracted to a late hour in the night, keeping the feelings long upon the stretch. A reverent and general enthusiasm ascribed the bodily agitations to a mysterious, divine agency. The preaching was fervid and impassioned in the extreme. Many of the preachers, unable to control their emotions during the sermon, went around in "a singing ecstasy," shouting and shaking hands with others, as much excited as themselves. In this way everything was done to "heap fuel on the fire," and it was at such meetings that thousands fell in convulsions to the ground.

Some of the actors in these strange scenes have left records of the state of their minds, which show that they were in a condition bordering on insanity, if not actually insane. One of them relates that, while under conviction on account of his sins, he went about the woods for two years, through rain and snow, "roaring, howling, praying, day and night." And when light and hope broke in at last upon his mind, which he describes as a "rushing, mighty wind, that descended from heaven, and filled his whole being," he went shouting over the encampment all night and a great part of the next day. He continues: "I now made the mountains, woods, and canebrakes ring louder with my shouts and praises than I once did with my howling cries; I never fell on my knees in secret but the Lord poured out his power, so that I shouted out aloud. Sometimes I shouted for two or three hours, and even fainted under the hand of the Lord. I was ready to cry out at the name of Jesus. The brightness of heaven rested continually upon my soul, so that I was often prevented from sleeping, eating, reading, writing, or preaching. I would sing a song, or exhort a few minutes, and the fire would break out among the people. I have spent nine nights out of ten (besides my day meetings, and long, hard rides) with the slain of the Lord."[7]

Granade is the preacher who gives this description of himself, which is also descriptive of his times. He was a stormy orator who drew great crowds wherever he went. He admits that he went by the name of "the distracted preacher," but says that at one of his meetings "the people fell as if slain by a mighty weapon, and lay in such piles and heaps that it was feared they would suffocate, and that in the woods." So violent was his manner, stamping with his feet and smiting with his hands, that he often broke down the stands erected for him in the woods. Once, it is told of him, he was addressing a class-meeting in the upper story of a dwelling-house, when the room below was crowded with worshipers, and, being in what the historian calls "one of his big ways," he exclaimed, "I feel like breaking the trigger of hell!" and at the same time gave a tremendous stamp with his foot which actually broke one of the joists. The people below, hearing the sudden crash, ran screaming to the door, some of them really imagining, as the writer of all these events relates, "that hell had overtaken them."[8]

Granade was of an excitable temperament and vivid imagination. His person was commanding, and, with a sounding voice and most impassioned manner, his oratory produced startling effects.

Another feature of these excited meetings, which served still further to intensify the feelings of the people who attended them for days and nights together, was the part taken in them by children. Nothing was more affecting to the congregations than the sight of a little boy or girl on a log or stump, passionately exhorting the multitude. Thus, a boy, who appeared to be about twelve years of age, is described as having retired from the stand at Indian Creek, Ohio, during the sermon, and, mounting a log and raising his voice to a high pitch, soon had nearly all the congregation with him. "With tears streaming down his cheeks, he cried aloud to the wicked, warning them of their danger, denouncing their certain doom if they persisted in their sins, expressing his love for their souls, and desire that they should turn to the Lord and be saved." A man on each side held the boy up, and he spoke for about an hour. When quite exhausted, and language failed to give utterance to his emotions, the little orator raised his hands, and, dropping his handkerchief wet with tears and perspiration, cried out, "Thus, O sinner, shall you drop into hell, unless you forsake your sins and turn to the Lord." At that moment, the writer of this account continues, "Some fell like those who are shot in battle, and the work spread in a manner which human language can not describe."[9]

McNemar instances boys of eight and ten years, and the Rev. John Lyle mentions one of seven, who called on sinners to repent, with an eloquence singularly overpowering. Possessed by one dominant idea, the people gave themselves up to the wildest enthusiasm, and it was no uncommon thing for them to spend the whole night in religious orgies such as have been described.[10]

The spectacle of persons falling down in a paroxysm of feeling was first exhibited at Gasper River Church, in one of McGready's congregations in the summer of 1779. The movement proved highly contagious and spread in all directions. After a rousing appeal to the feelings of the listeners, and especially during spirited singing, one and another in the audience would fall suddenly to the ground and swoon away. Not only nervous women, but robust young men were overpowered. Some, continues the historian, fell suddenly as if struck by lightning, while others were seized with a universal tremor before they fell shrieking,[11] Dr. Ely the, who often witnessed scenes of this sort, assured Dr. Davidson that he had once felt the sensation himself, and only overcame the tendency to convulsion by a determined effort of his will. A few shrieks never failed to put the assembly in motion, and set men and women to falling all around. A sense of "pins and needles" was complained of by many of the subjects, and others felt a numbness of body, and lost all volitional control of their muscles. It soon grew into a habit, and those who had once fallen were ready to fall again under circumstances by no means exciting. Women who had suffered repeated attacks sometimes fell from their horses on their way to or from the meeting-house, while relating their past religious exercises.

The condition in some of the subjects was cataleptic, lasting generally from a few minutes to two or three hours; but in a few cases it continued many days. Others were violently convulsed as in hysteria or epilepsy, "wrought hard in fitful nervous agonies, the eyes rolling wildly." Most were speechless, but some were capable of conversing throughout the paroxysm. The extremities were cold; the face was pale or flushed, the breathing hard. Sensibility was annulled. Mr. Lyle, one of the prominent preachers of the times, having been furnished by Dr. Warfield with a vial of hartshorn, applied it to a stout young man who was lying flat on his back, and, inadvertently, let some of the fluid run into his nostrils; but he took not the slightest notice of it.[12] Others who fell hard to the ground, or in running encountered stumps or trees, felt no pain from the violence. So many fell at Cabin Creek camp-meeting, it is related, that to prevent their being trodden upon "they were laid out in order on two squares of the meeting-house, covering the floor like so many corpses. At Paint Creek Sacrament two hundred were estimated to have fallen; at Pleasant Point three hundred were prostrated; while at Cane Ridge, as has 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."[13]

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."[14]

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 be twitched right and left to a half-round with such velocity that not a feature could be discovered, but the face appeared as much behind as before. Head-dresses were of little account among the female jerkers. Handkerchiefs, bound tight round the head, were flirted off with the first twitch, and the hair put into the utmost confusion; this was of very great inconvenience, to redress which the generality were shorn, though directly contrary to their confession of faith. Such as were seized with the jerks were wrested at once, not only from under their own government, but from that of every one else, so that it was dangerous to attempt confining them or touching them in any manner, to whatever danger they were exposed. Yet few were hurt, except such as rebelled against the operations through willful and deliberate enmity, and refused to comply with the injunctions which it came to enforce."

The same writer gives the history of a case of jerks as follows, and no case could illustrate more strikingly the nature of the affection:

A young man, of a pious family, the son of a tanner, feigned sickness one Sunday morning to avoid going that day to camp-meeting. He kept his bed until he was assured that all the family, except a few negro children, had left the premises, and was much pleased at the success of his stratagem. As he lay quietly in his bed, his thoughts naturally turned to the camp-meeting in progress. The assembled multitude, excited, agitated, convulsed, rose up vividly before his mind. All at once, while occupied with the scene, he felt himself violently jerked out of bed, and dashed round the walls in a manner utterly beyond his control. Prayer, he remembered, was deemed efficacious in such circumstances, and he fell upon his knees in the hope that it would prove a sedative in his case. It turned out as he hoped, and he returned to bed, happy at finding the spirit exorcised. But the enemy soon returned; the jerks were as bad as ever, but were again allayed by prayer. Dressing himself, he now went to the tan-yard, and set about currying a hide to occupy his mind. He rolled up his sleeves, and, grasping his knife, was about to commence the operation, when suddenly the knife was flirted out of his hand, and he was jerked violently backward, over logs and against fences, as before. Gaining relief by resorting once more to prayer, he ventured to resume his occupation, but was again seized with convulsions, and at last forsook the tan-yard and betook himself to strong cries for mercy, at which he was found engaged by the family on their return from the meeting in the evening.[15]

Another characteristic example is related by a writer in the "Gospel Herald"[16]":

A gentleman and lady of some note in the fashionable world were attracted by curiosity to the camp-meeting at Cane Ridge. They indulged in many contemptuous remarks on their way, about the poor 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."[17] 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."[18] 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.[19]

A large proportion of the members of every congregation had power to resist the convulsive tendency. In a great majority, no such tendency probably existed; but where there was a conscious impulse toward the convulsions it could be restrained by most persons before it had been yielded to too long. Dr. Blythe had but little of the disorder in his church. He discountenanced the wild enthusiasm from the beginning, and threatened to have any one who became convulsed turned out-of-doors. The religious frenzy soon began to abate when the clergy set their faces against the stormy exercises. Rev. Joseph Lyle, on the second Sabbath in July, 1803, preached in his church a significant sermon on "Order." The congregation had come together expecting the usual displays of feeling; but though some were angered by his doctrines, and some strove to promote the confusion of intermingled exercises, only a few "fell," and, altogether, moderation triumphed. This was the first sermon preached against the fanaticism.

It is a remarkable fact that, notwithstanding the intensity and duration of this nervous disorder, no instance is recorded in which permanent insanity resulted from it. Such results were to have been expected; insanity is mentioned by Edwards as having attended the excitement in New England, and it may be that reason was dethroned in some whose cases have not become matters of history. In a few years, after a sounder public opinion began to assert itself, instances of the disorder had become rare, but it was many years before the epidemic entirely ceased.

As to its nature, there was but one opinion among medical men from the beginning. All referred it to a derangement of the nervous system. Dr. Felix Robertson, of Nashville, described the affection in his thesis, published in Philadelphia, in 1805, as a form of chorea. In some cases it took the form of that disease. In others it bore a stronger resemblance to epilepsy; while in a greater number it partook rather of the character of hysteria. It was eminently sympathetic in its nature, as has been so often remarked of these affections. The convulsions once started in a congregation spread quickly through it, until all the fit subjects were convulsed. Repetition greatly increased the proneness to the disorder, which was invited by the masses on the supposition that it was a true religious exercise.

These perverted muscular movements all come under the head of morbid reflex action. By the continued religious fervor, the central portions of the brain, the immediate seat of emotion and feeling, became inordinately excited. The impression, transmitted downward to the spinal cord, threw the muscles of voluntary motion into convulsions. Sensibility, which has its seat in the sensory ganglia, was generally annulled. When the hemispheres became involved, the subjects fell into a state of unconsciousness or coma. In this abnormal condition of the nervous centers, the bare recollection of the distressing scenes was sufficient in many cases to excite the convulsive movements. The former belong to sensori-motor actions; this last is an example of ideo-motor movement; instances of which are afforded by the act of vomiting, which may be caused by the recollection of disgusting sights or odors. The principle of imitation accounts for the rest. The great nervous centers, in multitudes of people, being in a state of polarity, any unusual exhibition of feeling would throw the more excitable into spasms; and the affection would then spread by sympathy, as hysterical convulsions and chorea are known to spread among girls at boarding-schools. And, as fear has checked these, the epidemic convulsions were checked by reason and common-sense, and finally ceased under the law which limits all violent action.—Brain.

  1. The larger part of the materials contained in this paper were collected by my father, the late L. P. Yandell, M.D., and were intended to be embraced in the "Medical History of Kentucky," a work on which he was engaged at the time of his death. I have done little more than arrange and place them in their proper chronological order.—D. W. Y.
  2. "Encyclopædia Americana," article "Cevennes."
  3. Rees's "Cyclopædia," article "Imitation."
  4. Edwards on "Revivals."
  5. Dr. Davidson's "History of the Presbyterian Church in Kentucky."
  6. Dr. Davidson's "History of the Presbyterian Church in Kentucky."
  7. McFerrin's "Methodism in Tennessee."
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Davidson, op. cit.
  11. Lyle's "Diary."
  12. Davidson's "History."
  13. McFerrin's "Methodism in Tennessee."
  14. 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.
  15. Davidson, op. cit.
  16. "History of Methodism in the United States.
  17. Davidson.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid.