The Dancing Plague, 1518
One Summer’s day in 1518 down a narrow street in Strasbourg, France an odd thing occurred; people turned to notice a woman dancing. Why? No one had a clue but she continued ever more feverishly and without a break for four to six days. More alarmingly within a week 34 others joined in and within a month there were around 400 dancers, predominantly female. This ‘Dancing Plague’, as it became known, took such a hold on them they couldn’t stop, not to eat or rest and many died from exhaustion, stroke or heart attacks. For a period, the plague was killing 15 people a day.
So what caused this bizarre behaviour? The most plausible explanation is that it was a psychogenic disorder — a physical illness that’s believed to arise from emotional or mental stressors. People were going through particularly tough times, even by Medieval standards, with the region riddled with starvation and disease and this accounted for them being exceptionally stressed.
Local physicians were sought out and advised that the afflicted shouldn’t stop until the dancing wore off. To this end the city authorities took over two guildhalls and a grain market, even building a stage for musicians to open, essentially, the world’s first ever disco. Yet it was a disaster as the illness underwent a dramatic growth; performing dances in more public spaces allowed this psychic ‘contagion’ to spread. One historian states that a marathon runner couldn’t have lasted the intense workout that these men and women did hundreds of years ago.
Lawnchair Larry, 1982
Who hasn’t held a bunch of helium balloons as a kid and imagined the fun they could have if only they could gather enough balloons to lift off, see the world with a bird’s eye view for a brief while before landing again? Larry Walters was one of those kids. As an adult, he tried to become a pilot but poor eyesight ruled that out, yet the dream to fly remained. Sitting in his backyard one day in Los Angeles, USA he devised a plan. He attached 43 weather balloons to his lawn chair (which he christened ‘Inspiration I’) and filled them with helium.
Perhaps Larry thought the whole endeavour would go like something out of a kid’s movie; he’d float up, enjoy the blissful views, wave at onlookers here and there, then drift down again. And what better than to do so with a nice bite to eat and beer - bliss. Suitably kitted out then, and with a pellet gun to shoot the balloons when it was time to descend, his friends cut the cord that anchored him to his jeep. What actually happened is he shot into the sky, climbing to 4,900m (16,000 feet) and drifted there for more than 45 minutes, frozen and frightened. He then crossed an aeroplane approach corridor to Long Beach Airport and two commercial jets reported the strange sight. Eventually he gathered the nerve to shoot a few balloons and descended. His balloons caught in a power line, causing a neighbourhood blackout for 20 minutes but he landed unharmed.
Larry was arrested upon landing and fined $1,500. Talking to reporters, the Police stated: “We know he broke some part of the Federal Aviation Act, and as soon as we decide which part it is, some type of charge will be filed. If he had a pilot’s license, we’d suspend that, but he doesn’t.” For his part, Larry declared “It was something I had to do. I had this dream for twenty years, and if I hadn’t done it, I think I would have ended up in the funny farm.” He was awarded the title of “At-Risk Survivor” in the 1993 Darwin Awards but sadly committed suicide the very same year.
Sarah Ann Henley’s Attempted Suicide, 1885
The city of Bristol, UK, is a charming place in England’s West Country. It’s famous for a number of things; Massive Attack, Concorde, Banksy, Aardman Animations and… the Clifton Suspension Bridge.
This iconic structure was designed by the great engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel and completed in 1864. It spans the craggy Avon Gorge and thousands of ships have passed under its grand arch, sailing along the river Avon over the decades since. Unfortunately, it also acquired a reputation as a place to end one’s life, with around 400 despairing souls who’ve scaled the railings before plummeting to their deaths 75 m (245 ft) below.
And so Sarah Ann Henley’s story comes to light: On a Summer’s day in 1885 this distraught young women made her way up through the streets of Georgian townhouses to make her way along to the middle of the bridge, sobbing as she went. She stopped and peered down, contemplating her next move with a deep gulp.
Earlier she had got a letter from the man she loved and was engaged to marry, a porter for the Great Western Railway. In it, he announced his intention to break off their engagement and, in the depths of despair she made the rash decision to end it all. She climbed over the railings and onto the parapet and, before onlookers could rush to intervene, she flung herself off.
Fate had a twist for her however. As was the style of the time she was wearing a crinoline skirt — a stiff petticoat designed to hold out a woman’s skirt. Witnesses claimed that a billowing effect created by an updraft of air beneath her skirt acted as a parachute of sorts to slow her fall, misdirecting her away from the water and instead onto the river’s muddy banks. Two passers-by rushed to her assistance and found her in a state of severe shock, but alive nonetheless.
They escorted her to the refreshment rooms of the nearby railway station and from there she was taken to hospital to recover. Sarah Ann put the incident behind her and went on to marry Edward Lane in 1900 and lived to the age of 85.
Hiroo Onoda’s Final Orders, 1974
It was a surreal moment for book store owner Yoshimi Taniguchi; it was 1974 and fate had led him to a tent on a Filipino island - he had entered a time warp of sorts. Reprising his role as Major Taniguchi from three decades earlier he waited to rendezvous with a man who’d gained a sort of near mythical status in their Japanese homeland. That man was named Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda. At the prearranged time Onoda emerged from the jungle carefully camouflaged, still vigilant against an enemy who had long since disappeared. The two men saluted then Tanigushi read out an order: ‘In accordance with the Imperial command units and individuals under the command of Special Squadron are to cease all combat activity and place themselves under the command of the nearest superior officer.’ Onoda then handed over his still perfectly working rifle, ammunition, grenades and katana sword. His commanding officer had finally fulfilled a promise he made back in 1944: “Whatever happens, we’ll come back for you”. Almost three decades late, Onoda’s mission was finally over and his life could begin again.
Onoda’s story is perhaps one of the most remarkable exhibitions ever of the virtues of fealty and devotion to duty, ingrained in Japan’s Samurai culture and inherited by Japan’s armed forces in the Second World War. During that war, Allied and Japanese forces were pitted against each other across a vast archipelago of islands in the Pacific Ocean. Lieutenant Onoda had been trained as an intelligence officer and in 1944 he was sent to Lubang Island in the Philippines and was ordered to do all he could to hamper enemy operations there. He vividly remembered his commander’s words “You are absolutely forbidden to die by your own hand. It may take three years, it may take five, but whatever happens, we’ll come back for you. Until then, so long as you have one soldier, you are to continue to lead him”.
So, once the war ended in 1945 Onoda and his small squad of three became ‘holdouts’, ignoring leaflets dropped in 1946 informing them the war was over and to surrender because they suspected a cheap trick by the Americans. Onoda and his companions carried out guerrilla activities and engaged in several shootouts with the police whilst living in the jungle. One of the four surrendered in 1950, another was killed in a shootout in 1954 and the last soldier under Onoda’s command was shot in another gun battle in 1972.
Eventually a Japanese man, named Norio Suzuki, who was travelling around the world, looking for “Lieutenant Onoda, a panda, and the Abominable Snowman, in that order” coaxed him out of hiding to surrender. He received a hero’s welcome once he returned home yet left a bitter legacy in the Philippines due to he and his squad killing 30 people during their campaign. Onoda would go on to open a ranch and survival school in Brazil. He died in Tokyo in 2014.
Dyatlov Pass Incident, 1959
It was the depths of winter and 23-year-old Igor Alekseyevich Dyatlov with eight other fit, young men and women arrived at the town of Ivdel in Siberia’s nether regions.
They had come from the Ural Polytechnical Institute to complete a 190mile (300km) training hike and the whole group were pretty much experts at operating in this harsh, hostile environment. Yet the mystery around their fates has led to no less than 75 theories to account for their demise.
Rescuers first on the scene and investigators of the day pieced together what they could: The group had passed through the Dyatlov Pass in a blizzard and got disoriented and lost. Realising they had taken the wrong route up the wrong mountain, they camped out in a single large tent on a mountain slope, in spite of some woodland being just one mile yonder, perhaps so that the team could practice making camp in the open.
Then something compelled the group to flee so desperately, they cut a hole in the tent side and so quickly, they didn’t have time to dress or even put on shoes to guard against the −30 °C (−22 °F) winter storm outside. They walked to the nearby copse of trees where two of them were found around a small fire in just their underwear.
Another three were found halfway back towards the tent, apparently trying to return once the danger, whatever it was, had passed. All had died from hypothermia. The other four were discovered later in the year once the snow had melted 75m (246ft) further in the woods and down a ravine. They were missing eyes and lips but also with severe chest injuries and a fatal skull injury.
So what had scared the group so much they fled the tent’s sanctuary under-dressed to certain death in the blizzard? Why had they split up? Were the other four’s injuries really due to falling into the ravine? …and why did one of the nine have heavy traces of radiation?
Reports around the event were highly censored, even by the Soviet’s standards and this only fuelled conspiracy theories and intrigue. Another group of hikers about 31 miles (50 km) south of the incident reported strange orange spheres in the sky to the north on the night of the incident. There are also claims military weapon tests may have been conducted nearby, which could’ve panicked the nine.
Other theories include everything from violent katabatic winds, infrasound, high winds blowing one member away and who the others attempted to rescue, to attack by local tribal people or even by a yeti.
The most plausible explanation is that the group were alarmed by a slow-moving wall of snow known as a ‘snow slide’ which might have blocked the entrance and a fear of getting engulfed by the mass of snow forced them out. Regardless, the swirl of mystique around this incident compelled the Russian state to launch another investigation in 2019.