5 Terrifying Diseases From History (People Just Made Up)


We’ve all read alarmist news stories about dangerous fads taking over the country which later turned out to be total crap. There were never any Satanic daycare centers, no teenager on the planet has ever played the so-called knockout game, and no one actually likes pumpkin spice. But if you think those are byproducts of a gullible modern age, keep in mind that history gave us mass panics that were even stupider. For example …

5

The “Crack Baby” Epidemic Was Nothing But Bunk Science

Back in the ’80s and ’90s, America was terrified at the prospect of raising a generation of mentally handicapped, drug-addicted children. “Crack babies” were created when women used crack cocaine while pregnant, either ignorant of or indifferent to the effects the drug would have on their unborn children. The New York Times predicted that as many as four million crack babies would eventually be born, crippling the otherwise-flawless American education system.

The fact that you probably haven’t been mugged by a single crack-crazed lunatic manchild this year should tell you that this didn’t come to pass. But how did the media get it so wrong? Well, it was true that crack surged in popularity at the time, but it is equally true that America has never met a trend that it couldn’t blow out of proportion. Sketchy reporters didn’t merely portray crack-smoking mothers as people who had made some bad choices — they painted these women as broken and loveless, barely able to function in society and creating a “bio-underclass” of doomed babies who were “oblivious to affection.” If even half the reports on crack were accurate, society was a generation away from turning into a Phillip K. Dick novel.

“But was the panic based on science?” you may be asking. The answer is … uh, sort of. Specifically, the scare was based on a study of 23 infants who had been exposed to crack. We didn’t forget several zeroes there — the study had fewer participants than a pick-up basketball league. Oh, and it only studied them as babies, which meant there was no information on what kind of adults they would grow up to be. Sure enough, subsequent studies on adults who had been exposed to crack in the womb showed only minor neurological problems, if there were any at all.

The New York Times “If your crack baby is so smart, then why do I beat it in chess most of the time?”

But the damage was done. Women who do drugs during pregnancy were, and still are, punished far more harshly than women who smoke or drink, and get hit with criminal charges or have their children taken, instead of, you know, being helped. Meanwhile, politicians and government officials peddled the myth that crack babies were an expensive drain on society, costing as much as a million dollars each to raise to adulthood.

And yes, the fact that crack was supposedly the scary new drug of choice for poor African Americans absolutely fueled the “crisis.” The Atlantic dug up an old newspaper article called “Disaster In Making: Crack Babies Start To Grow Up,” which argued that a wave of Mad-Maxian criminal youth was on the horizon. The panic was a big part of how we got the equally overblown fear of “super predators,” roving gangs of primarily black teenagers who would commit crimes, but like, really well. Luckily, the media seems to have learned its lesson and is treating the current opioid crisis, which happens to be hitting white Americans the hardest, with much more sensitivity.

4

“K Syndrome” Was Deadly To Nazis … And No One Else

Unlike the other diseases here, K Syndrome’s invention was a good thing, even if it sounds like something you’d get from eating a disturbing amount of Special K. The only known outbreak occurred in 1943, when Nazi soldiers started rounding up Italian Jews. Italian doctor Vittorio Sacerdoti, knowing what that meant and wanting absolutely nothing to do with it, began admitting anyone who could reach his hospital as patients. Once inside, they were immediately diagnosed with K Syndrome, a rare condition remarkable for its ability to repel Nazis.

When soldiers entered the hospital, Sacerdoti warned them that his patients had an incredibly deadly and contagious disease. To sell this claim, the “infected” kept coughing while the Nazis were around, and the sound discouraged the soldiers from entering the patients’ rooms and discovering the charade. And so the soldiers hightailed it out of there immediately, because even Nazis had limits on how far they’d go to do their jobs.

“They would do anything for Lebensraum, but they won’t do that.”

It’s unclear how many lives K Syndome (named after Nazi field marshal Albert Kesselring, and also used to hide political dissidents and an underground radio station) saved, but estimates range from dozens to hundreds. Sacerdoti and his colleagues were honored after the war, and surviving Nazis who learned about the trick probably felt rather silly for claiming that they were part of an intellectually superior race.

3

Scientific Racism Invented A Mental Disorder To Explain Why Slaves Kept Trying To Escape

Back when slavery was legal, slaves naturally kept trying to get to freedom, because (and this is apparently still a shock to some Americans) being a slave sucked pretty hard. Slaveowners needed an explanation for why escape attempts kept happening that wasn’t “Declaring other people to be property and forcing them to live and work in inhumane conditions makes us some of history’s greatest monsters,” so they turned to science for an answer. Science wasn’t available, but its lunatic hillbilly cousin was more than happy to step in.

Enter physician Samuel A. Cartwright. In 1851, he published “Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race,” and you know with a title like that you’re in a for a rough ride. He outlined two mental illnesses he had “discovered,” because only some bizarre affliction could possibly explain why anyone would want to escape slavery.

via Wiki Commons “No mentally stable non-slaves are uppity about being slaves.”

Cartwright argued that because there’s a quote in the Bible that said slaves should obey their masters, and since God created black people to be inferior servants, any African American trying to escape their natural position was obviously sick (slaves would have presumably interpreted the scripture differently, but Cartwright apparently didn’t get around to asking them). This illness, dubbed Drapetomania, was caused either when white men treated blacks as equals, or when slaves were treated poorly. Cartwright’s prescribed cure was to treat slaves as children — keep them well-fed, don’t overwork them, and be kind, but deny them the freedoms of adults and whip them if they disobeyed. This would supposedly cure the scourge of Drapetomania (unless the slaves lived on the border of an abolitionist state, in which case it was incurable).

Cartwright also invented Dysaesthesia Aethiopica, essentially a fancy name for “not wanting to work 19 hours a day for no money.” Slaves, it seems, sometimes didn’t want to do the work they were being imprisoned and forced with violence to do (if you can imagine). Sometimes they even purposely caused damage or disturbances to avoid work! To Cartwright, this was proof not that slaves were unhappy, but of a mental illness which was the “natural offspring of negro liberty.” African Americans who found themselves with a lot of spare time on their hands from not being enslaved enough, or even at all, were prone to living a destructive lifestyle. Luckily, such a terrible affliction could be cured by ensuring that they were putting in good long days of honest unpaid work.

It’s easy to look back and laugh off Cartwright as a crackpot desperately trying to justify awful behavior. That is, in fact, exactly what free states did when his ideas made it north. But at the same time, his theories were popular among Southerners who wanted a “scientific” explanation for slaves not wanting to be slaves. If you live in a culture in which slavery is normal, then fleeing it is abnormal, and people will bend over backwards to explain that abnormality before pausing to look at their own behavior. That’s a phenomenon that helps explain, oh, about 99 percent of the behavior that you dislike in the world.

2

Werther, The 18th-Century Novel That Made Teens Commit Suicide

13 Reasons Why received some criticism for glamorizing suicide and potentially enabling the Werther Effect, wherein a popular portrayal of suicide inspires real-life copycats. The effects of the media’s treatment of suicide is an incredibly complicated subject with no clear answers, despite what the people arguing on your Facebook page are claiming. But what is clear is that the Werther Effect’s namesake was a bullshit urban legend.

The name is derived not from those butterscotch candies whose presence in every nursing home reminds you of your inevitable decline, but from The Sorrows Of Young Werther, a 1774 novel by the most German-named man ever, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. It’s about a sensitive young artist who falls in love with an engaged woman, and is so distraught by the fact that they’ll never be together that he takes his own life. Basically, it makes Romeo And Juliet look like a feel good rom-com.

HP Haack To this day, Germans remain unable to laugh.

Werther became a smash hit across Europe and North America, because mopey protagonists will be popular until the end of time. Men dressed up like him, and merchandise like plates with engravings of scenes from the book were pumped out, because nothing enhances dinner like slowly revealing a suicide with each bite of schnitzel. There was only one problem: Werther was also inspiring troubled youths to take their lives, presumably in the hopes that they too would be immortalized on a plate.

One obituary mentioned that a suicide victim owned a copy of the book, and called on readers to “defeat the evil tendency of that pernicious work.” A young man supposedly jumped off a building with the book, and a mother claimed that her son had underlined various passages before taking his own life, among many other stories of suicides staged by victims who wanted to make it clear that Werther inspired them. Citing this rash of suicides, authorities in Italy, Denmark, and the city of Leipzig banned both the book and costumes based on the book (that’s right, they outlawed cosplay). One religious leader called it “heinous,” while another supposedly bought up all the copies he could find to prevent the public from having access to its terrible message. People either couldn’t wait to read it or couldn’t wait to see it destroyed for the sake of the public good.

It was an epidemic … with no evidence to support it. All of those “suicides” were stories of nameless victims that couldn’t be traced back to a legitimate source. It was, as far as anyone can tell, a scandal invented by moralizing hand-wringers. Again, the link between fictional suicide and real suicide is complicated, but at least no one was really throwing themselves to their doom because an 18th-century LiveJournal made it look cool.

1

“Fan Death” Terrifies South Koreans, Confuses Everyone Else

If you live in a climate that feels like Satan’s sweaty ball sack during the height of summer, you’ve probably left a fan on overnight and never given it a second thought. But if you do that in South Korea, people are going to ask you why your dumb ass has a death wish.

A significant portion of the Korean population believes that running a fan in a closed room will kill you dead, even though no one can agree why. Some argue that it causes hypothermia, others say that all of the oxygen is sucked away or rendered stale, while a third theory posits that the fan somehow converts oxygen into carbon dioxide, like an evil reverse-tree which proves man shouldn’t mock nature. And this isn’t some silly urban legend that only kids believe. A state-funded consumer agency listed “asphyxiation from electric fans and air-conditioners” as a common summer accident citizens should be careful to avoid.

Meanwhile, North Koreans don’t have these superstitions, or electricity.

You may be tempted to dismiss this as another “ignorant foreigners being wacky” story that your relatives on Facebook love so much, but what do you think South Koreans would have to say about Westerners who refuse to vaccinate their kids, or believe that fluoridated water is part of a government plot to make the population lethargic and malleable? Something crazy can become true if everyone agrees that it is. Stories of fans killing people often make South Korean news, because sometimes people die in their sleep, and you can’t prove that the fan didn’t contribute. One supposed mysterious death from the 1970s, of a man who was found dead in a sealed room with two fans running, is believed to have popularized the myth … unless you want to go further down the rabbit hole, and subscribe to the belief that the country’s military dictatorship invented the myth to curb electricity consumption during a ’70s energy crisis. Of course, that’s exactly what Big Fan wants us to think.

The latest shocking epidemic is buying Mark’s book and following him on Twitter.

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