Thursday, June 07, 2012


In 1845, slightly over 23% of the inhabitants of the Northeastern United States suffered from what was then commonly referred to as "Combustivism" which, according to the DSM-IV-R, is currently known as Schizoaffective Disorder. Symptoms included hallucinations, delusions and manic episodes. Men and women alike would forget who they were, what they did for a living, who their spouses and children were and, would more often than not, set out on violent rampages that led to arson, beatings, and property damage.

During the extraordinarily violent month of April 1846, 25 people were injured during a melee in Boston. In response, President James K. Polk gave a speech to Congress in which he voiced his concern for the turmoil sweeping the nation by stating “if this madness doesn’t stop, I will have to use the big stick of the law and beat back.” Murders and violent crimes were so rampant that martial law was instituted in the states of Massachusetts, New York, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia. There were unsubstantiated rumors that Combustivism was caused by dust in homes, by letters and the saliva used to seal envelopes (the theory held that when the saliva dried and the letter was opened it would emit a caustic human dust that was believed to also be the root cause of insomnia and fevered states of aggression). Other causes were said to be brought on by the ink used to print newspapers, by food grown in eastern soil and most peculiarly, ornithologists of the period claimed that cardinals had an extreme alkalinity in their droppings, which was claimed to “dry” the brains of humans who happened to inhale the dried remnants of cardinal feces. In 1847, nearly every building in the Northeastern U.S. had mounds of cardinal fecal matter on their roofs. These dried mounds would create small clouds of dust that would settle over the towns and cities. As a result of these claims, huge hunting parties of men, women and children were sent out with muskets and nets. Local newspapers initiated contests to see who could harvest the most cardinals. Local politicians even got behind the efforts by giving winners of these contests keys to the city and tax abatements based on the number of cardinals they killed. Subsequently, tens of thousands of the red birds were slaughtered. Because of this horrific action, merely seeing a cardinal in our day has a connotation of good luck because of their rarity. This can be directly attributed to the wholesale slaughter of these beautiful red birds in 1848. Previous to this horrific act of ornithicide, the population of cardinals was so great in the upper northeast in the 1600's, that when the first settlers arrived the Algonquians referred to the sky as "Massachusetts" which means "Red Sky" in Algonquin.

Combustivism reached its apex on September 13, 1849 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Based on rumors that had been spreading all summer that there was a 78% infection rate near the Heathdon neighborhood located in Northern Philadelphia. The entire neighborhood, encompassing some 10 square blocks, was burned to the ground by an angry mob of anti-combustivists. Among those who lost their homes was Edgar Alan Poe, who had just published his famous “Raven” poem a few months before the fire, and as luck would have it, was visiting Baltimore, Maryland, the weekend of the fire. The original manuscript of that poem was said to be in the house that was burned.

By 1850 there was a growing belief that Combustivism might not be caused by cardinals, or any other previously blamed sources for the disease. A botanist named Dr. Wilfred Jones surmised that Combustivism might be caused by the pollen from roses, which were indigenous to the Northeastern United States. When his notion was published in the New York Times on June 10, 1850, the nation was drawn into yet another wave of intense hysteria as thousands of rose bushes that had dotted the urban and rural landscapes, were uprooted and burned. Bonfires of burning roses could be seen all across Brooklyn. On the evening of June 10, Walt Whitman wrote these words in a notebook: “This evening I took a long walk along the waterfront and was engulfed by the acrid smell of rose bushes burning all around Borough Hall. The sky was sprinkled with yellow-dotted light. Destruction also has its beauty.”

A revelatory and conclusive year for Combustivism was in 1851, when a chemist named George Halley correctly determined that the malady was caused by a chemical called Brollodox, used in the production of coal. Brollodox was a combination of various sulfur dioxides and organic compounds such as chlorophyll and, most peculiarly, a variant of nitrous oxide, which is derived by capturing the gas that is released when natural gas is filtered through fish oil. nitrous oxide, now mostly used in dentists’ offices and whipped cream canisters, was, in its early 1850’s incarnation, an unstable and frequently debilitating compound. In several coal service factories in the 1830’s there were outbreaks of the kind that were very similar to the ones unleashed upon the U.S. a mere decade or so later. George Halley arrived at his conclusion by testing various compounds on himself in his lab in Worcester, Massachusetts. In one self-study he conducted, he breathed in the nitrous compound until, as he wrote in his notebook: “The world became wobbly, the very light around me became granular and seemed to shimmer with a new sort of radiance. I did not want to leave that place, though it was the place I’d been working, albeit, in a different frame of mind, for years.” Halley’s discovery was further proven when a group of chemists from Harvard University visited Halley’s lab in Worcester in order to learn more about his discoveries and noticed the density of the purplish tint in their clothing from their exposure to the nitrous oxide in his lab. (One of the side-effects of nitrous oxide is that it stains not only clothes but the face itself, leaving behind a purplish aura on the nose and mouth of its users—in the 1960’s, nitrous oxide abusers were called “Purples”). Given these findings, the team of chemists determined that the removal of nitrous oxide used in coal production could, in fact, minimize the risk of Combustivism.

Combustivism is only one example of the many bouts of hysteria in the United States. Let us not forget the panic of the great polyester scare of 1978 and, of course, the plywood scare that swept the nation in 2005. Perhaps we should all remember these instances of hyper-reactivity in Americans when the next wave arrives.


Blogger Toast said...

I am so glad I Googled this before sharing it.

10:37 AM  
Blogger Toast said...

Oh, and I'm quite relieved to find it was fiction. As a bird lover, the story about the cardinals horrified me.

10:41 AM  
Blogger Glen Green said...

This evening a cardinal flew out in front of my car, traced a circle, and turned back. I am in Worcester and can vouch for it being wobbly. The cardinals are returning regardless and Combustives remain. I saw one today outside the Registry of Motor Vehicles standing on the sidewalk in the sunlight screaming "shut the fuck up!" again and again into a cell phone. He was trying to arrange a ride.

11:28 PM  

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