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61 MIN READ TIME

Massachusetts Mass Hysteria Cover Up

BY ROBERT E. BARTHOLOMEW

DURING THE WINTER OF 1692, FEAR SWEPT THROUGH the Puritan settlement of old Salem Village in what is now the town of Danvers, Massachusetts, amid accusations of witchcraft and claims of supernatural happenings. Before long, people were put on trial for their lives, accused of consorting with Satan. By the time the scare ended in May 1693, at least 20 people had been executed and upwards of 200 more were arrested and held for trial.

Most historians agree that the key triggering event was the appearance of strange behaviors in a group of young girls who began to twitch, convulse, and contort their bodies in unusual positions. Sometimes they appeared to enter a trance and uttered unintelligible sounds. With 21st century hindsight, it is evident that the girls were suffering from conversion disorder—the converting of psychological stress into physical symptoms that have no organic basis. While individual cases of conversion disorder are relatively common, it is rare for the condition to spread within a group. It is no small irony that over three centuries later, a group of schoolgirls in Danvers would experience mysterious “hiccups” that would leave the community searching for answers. In 1692, the diagnosis of bewitchment meant that a medical condition had been mistaken for a supernatural affliction. In 2014, state health officials would attempt to refute claims that the bizarre outbreak of “hiccupping” was an episode of mass hysteria by referring to scientific studies of tic disorders, which indicated that the prevalence of symptoms was within the normal range for the size of the student body.

In “Mass Hysteria at Old Salem Village” (SKEPTIC, 2014, 19/2:12-15), I described this mysterious outbreak in two Massachusetts schools during 2012-13, which affected about two dozen students. I noted that the episodes had the hallmarks of mass psychogenic illness, but it was not possible to conclusively prove these suspicions as the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (MDPH) had withheld most of the information in the case, and refused my Freedom of Information Act (FOI) requests. There have since been several new developments. The vocational high schools involved—Essex Agricultural and North Shore Technical—were less than four miles apart, and have since merged into Essex Technical High School.

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