"Kiss of Death" statue in Barcelona
In the summer of 1801, a few miles north of Wilmington, Delaware, a "chronically insane" mother kissed her children and, in doing so, made them believe they were possessed by a demon. Later, the family succumbed to actions of insanity, mischief, and murder.
Dr. John Vaughan, who was called to treat one of the patients, described the bizarre case of hysteria in an article published December 3, 1802 in Medical Repository. "In presenting you with the following account," he wrote, "I am flattered with the belief that it will be ranked amongst the wonders of the nineteenth century."
Born June 25, 1775, in Chester County, Pennsylvania, Dr. John Vaughan was one of the most highly esteemed medical doctors of his era. He studied medicine with Dr. William Curie at the University of Pennsylvania, before moving to Delaware and starting his own medical practice — at the time, he was barely twenty years old.
In addition to seeing patients, Dr. Vaughan gave lectures and wrote highly influential books on medicine. His Concise History of the Autumnal Fever published in 1803 was an ambitious attempt to find a correlation between the weather and rates of yellow fever. As a distinguished physician and medical writer, Dr. Vaughan rubbed elbows with important political figures of his day. He routinely corresponded with Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr, and Dr. Benjamin Rush, to name a few.
Dr. Vaughan witnessed many diseases over the course of his illustrious career. But none quite as strange as the kiss that caused hysteria.
THE KISS OF HYSTERIA
|St. Catherine of Siena Besieged by Demons (ca. 1500)|
He wrote that the S family had a good reputation in the small town in which they lived. They had "long been esteemed industrious, orderly people" by their community and showed no signs of deviant behavior — that is, until the summer of 1801, when they "became infatuated with the notion of being possessed with an evil spirit."
The mother — Mrs. S. — had been "insane" for several months. The precise nature of her condition was not identified in Dr. Vaughan's article. At the time, physicians knew very little about mental health, and the term "insane" was used in reference to a variety of mental conditions, recognized today as separate disorders.
The bizarre episode began August 3rd, when one of the sons (S.S.) returned home to settle some business with his mother. Soon after his arrival, Mrs. S. grabbed her son around the neck and kissed him. Immediately, he felt possessed by a supernatural force, and the mother told him he should “become a preacher of the everlasting gospel.”
The kissing didn't stop there. The next evening, Mrs. S. kissed her son again, along with two other sons (one of them John S.), two daughters, and two daughters-in-law. The kissing had an immediate effect, making them believe a demon had entered their bodies.
KILLING THE DEMON
The following morning, William Simonson — a farmer who lived nearby — was called to the house in "great haste." When he arrived, he found the family in a terrible state of confusion.
They told Mr. Simonson that their mother died a week ago. What was more, they believed the old woman in their house was not their real mother, that Satan had taken control of her body and began "communicating himself" to the others through her kisses.
In order to kill the demon, the children dragged their mother out of bed and proceeded to beat her. But Mr. Simonson, after "a considerable struggle," managed to liberate the old woman from the clutches of her murderous children. He then returned the mother to bed. The children, however, had not yet given up.
In a last ditch effort to kill "the tormenting demon in the image of their mother," they tried setting the house on fire. However, several neighbors arrived at the scene and were able to prevent the family from carrying out their plan.
Sadly, despite Mr. Simonson's efforts to rescue the mother, she died shortly after the horrific affair.
THE CASE OF JOHN S.
Over the next few days, the family came to their senses. No longer believing themselves under the influence of a treacherous spirit, they reverted to their "peaceful" and "rational" selves... Well, mostly.
While his brothers and sisters recovered, one of the sons, John S., remained deluded and "irascible" for some time after the event. He was held at a local infirmary and treated for insanity via bloodletting — reportedly, he was "freely blooded without relief."
After ten days without any improvement, John S. was moved to a friend's house in Wilmington. Dr. Vaughan was called over to examine the patient the following day.
"I found him chained to the floor," Dr. Vaughan wrote, "with his hands tied across his breast — clothes torn off, except the shirt — his feet and elbows bruised considerably — and his countenance, grimaces, and incoherent language, truly descriptive of his unhappy condition."
Dr. Vaughan carried out a series of medical procedures, commonly used at the time to treat insanity. He wrapped the patient's head with linen and applied a wet sponge on and off for five hours, until it induced "chilliness." Next he shaved the patient's head, applied a blister to his scalp, and purged his bowels with a "cathartic." And, if that wasn't enough, Dr. Vaughan also took another sixteen ounces of blood from the patient's arm.
After four days, John S. began to feel better. He returned home and went back to work on the farm. However, Dr. Vaughan noted that vestiges of the patient's delusional state remained.
DR. VAUGHAN'S EXPLANATION
The son of a Baptist minister, Dr. Vaughan was a deeply religious man. But, in trying to explain the case of the S family, he avoided consideration of any supernatural cause. "This case," he wrote, "affords ample source of speculation to the metaphysical pathologist... For my part, I confess myself at a loss to attempt any explanation for this extraordinary form of mania, independent of any previous bodily disease."
Although Dr. Vaughan failed to come up with an explanation he was completely satisfied with, he considered several factors that may have contributed to the case. For one, he believed the family was under great stress due to the condition of their mother and the "final settlement of business" which, although we don't know the details, probably had something to do with her last will and testament.
Dr. Vaughan also believed that the children were unusually impressionable and sympathetic toward one another, so when one family member began displaying symptoms of hysteria, it caught on with the others in a rapid fashion.
Finally, Dr. Vaughan seemed to lend credence to the possibility that an infectious disease may have been transferred from the mother to her children through the kissing. He suggested that "a connection between the stomach and the nervous system" may be responsible for "the fanaticism of the S family."
Unfortunately, we don't know much about the case outside Dr. Vaughan's brief description. In his article, he reported that John S. had a normal temperature and pulse. As far as we know, Dr. Vaughan didn't observe any outward symptoms of disease.
In any event, the possibility that an infectious disease was the culprit seems unlikely. Infectious diseases have incubation periods, and in the case of the S family symptoms arose "immediately" after a kiss.
Instead, the bizarre case of the S family fits the criteria of a mass psychogenic illness (also known as mass hysteria). Mass psychogenic illness is the rapid spread of symptoms and irrational beliefs within a group, without a physical cause. Popular examples include the Salem witch trials and the dancing plague of 1518.
To the contemporary psychologist, mass psychogenic illness provides the best explanation for the strange happenings of the S family. But someone other than a psychologist, say, a Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot, might sense something else was afoot.
A SINISTER PLOT?
Albert Finney as Belgian detective Hercule Poirot
As suggested by my wife, who watches too many thriller movies (we both do), it's possible the children had conspired to do away with the mother to gain control of her farm, along with other assets in her possession. The story the children gave Mr. Simonson and Dr. Vaughan about the kiss and demonic possession may have been an elaborate hoax allowing them to justify the killing of their "insane" elderly mother.
While in modern times no one would get a pass for murdering someone believed to be demon-possessed, it seems that the S children never faced any legal consequences for their actions. They all went back to work and, according to Dr. Vaughan, "remained well." John S. even took an interest in becoming a preacher and began taking some of the preliminary steps at his church (of course, he eventually lost interest).
So, what was it? Mass psychogenic illness? A sinister plot? Was it something else entirely (magic mushrooms, anyone)? We'll never know for certain. But, rest assured, there's no evil lurking in a kiss — aside from the occasional heartache.