When People Held 'Plague Weddings' in Cemeteries to Try to Ward Off Disease

Imagno/Getty Images
Imagno/Getty Images

In some ways, the wedding of Harry Fleckman and Dora Wisman in November of 1918 was traditional. The elaborate ceremony in Winnipeg, Canada, had been a month in the making. It featured music, scripture readings, and two rabbis as officiants.

But despite the familiar customs, it would have been hard for guests to forget why they were there. The solemn grave markers, the sounds of a nearby funeral, and the ever-present specter of Spanish Influenza were all reminders that the ceremony wasn’t a typical wedding. The ritual was part of a decades-long tradition that was more about preventing illness than celebrating a holy union.

'Til Death Do Us Part

Various religions throughout history have responded to pandemics by praying to or trying to appease a higher power. During the Black Plague, the Christian Brotherhood of the Flagellants marched through Europe whipping themselves with scourges to earn God's mercy. Muslims reacted to the same pandemic by giving greater importance to communal forms of prayer, like processions and mass funerals. In some Eastern European Jewish communities, one plague-fighting ritual that took root was the graveside wedding, which came to be known as the plague wedding.

Plague wedding—also called black weddings, or shvartze khasene in Hebrew—likely originated during the cholera outbreaks that ravaged Europe throughout the 19th century. The thinking behind a shvartze khasene was that holding a sacred ceremony among the dead would make the participants and witnesses more likely candidates for divine intervention as, in the Jewish tradition, weddings bring people closer to God. Even accessories associated with the ceremony were believed to hold spiritual properties. Another old Jewish folk remedy for combating illness involved covering a sick woman with a wedding gown

For plague weddings, the bride and groom exchanged vows in a cemetery because being surrounded by death was thought to make the holy ritual even more appealing to God. There’s no textual basis for this obscure practice, though, so it was likely interpreted many ways. An alternative explanation is that seeing what should have been a joyful ceremony in such a dreadful setting would provoke pity from God, who would then show mercy by ending the pandemic.

Plague weddings were also notable for who was getting wed. According to Itzik Gottesman, a folklorist at the University of Texas at Austin, the community arranged marriages between people who were “difficult to marry off,” which usually meant they were poor, orphaned, or disabled. The organizers may have viewed this as an act of charity, thus boosting their favor with god, but such matches—which were often between two total strangers—tended to be dehumanizing. These marginalized people were typically viewed as property of the community, and thus didn't have much say in whether they wanted to be props in the ritual.

New Plague, Same Tradition

Though it was then spoken of as an ancient practice, the black wedding was a relatively modern invention that never expanded beyond the fringes of Jewish society. When they were practiced during the cholera outbreaks of the 1860s, Jewish leaders in Eastern Europe condemned the practice and tried to suppress it. But with cholera claiming millions of lives in Russia alone throughout the 1800s, any source of security, even if it was symbolic, was hard to stamp out.

The tradition could be applied to any new plague Jewish people faced. During World War I, at least one black wedding was held in Warsaw, Poland, to fend off typhus. There’s even evidence of the ceremonies being performed to combat locust swarms in the Middle East.

It wasn’t until the 20th century that plague weddings landed in North America. When Jewish immigrants came to the continent, they found a new pathogenic menace in the form of Spanish Influenza.

The Spanish Flu was one of the deadliest pandemics ever to sweep the globe. Between 1918 and 1920, a third of the world’s population was infected and 50 million people died. Many public spaces, including synagogues, closed in response to the threat. Meanwhile, some immigrant communities took the new scourge as an opportunity to revive an old superstition from Europe.

The 1918 wedding between Harry Fleckman and Dora Wisman in Winnipeg was one of a handful of black weddings recorded in North America during this period. A report of the event in The Winnipeg Evening Tribune described the scene: "The ancient Jewish 'Song of Life' was played. On the west side of the cemetery at the same time, Jews were chanting the wail of death, as a body was committed to the grave."

That same year, two strangers were wed in Mount Hebron Cemetery in New York City. Another such wedding took place in Philadelphia around this time. When Fanny Jacobs and Harold Rosenberg were married under a chuppah installed at the first line of graves in a cemetery near Cobbs Creek, Philadelphia, more than 1000 guests were in attendance.

"Benighted Superstition"

As had been the case in Europe, the black weddings of North America continued to sow discord in Jewish communities. Following that October 1918 ceremony, the newspaper The Jewish Exponent published an editorial criticizing the practice. “The wedding held in a Jewish cemetery last Sunday for the purpose of staying the ravages of the epidemic was a most deplorable exhibition of benighted superstition,” it read. “Unfortunately the publicity given to the occurrence will convey to many people that this is a custom sanctioned and encouraged by the Jewish religion. The people who do such things do not know what Judaism means.”

Plague weddings did nothing to staunch waves of disease; in fact, it's possible they helped to spread them. In some cases, all it takes is one carrier to infect a large group of people, as “Typhoid Mary” Mallon demonstrated when she caused a typhoid fever outbreak at the summer house where she cooked in 1906.

There are no reports connecting plague weddings to outbreaks, but similar events contributed to the Spanish Flu pandemic. A 1918 Liberty Loan parade led to thousands of Spanish Flu infections in Philadelphia—the same city where a plague wedding was documented the same year. Large gatherings like weddings were known to be vectors for the virus, which prompted some cities to ban them completely. Fortunately, like a virus unable to find a host, the tradition of plague weddings appears to have faded away. 

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

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How 'Rumor Clinics' Fought Fake News 80 Years Ago

Fake news spread fast in 1940s America.
Fake news spread fast in 1940s America.
GraphicaArtis/Getty Images

Strange tales circulated around 1940s America. There was one about a lady whose head exploded at a beauty salon after her perm ignited residue from her job at the munitions factory. Others claimed Japan was planning to spike America's water supply with arsenic, and that a Massachusetts couple reported picking up a hitchhiker who claimed Hitler was on the verge defeat, before vanishing like a ghost from the back of their car.

All of those stories were lies—but that didn't stop people from spreading the rumors. As the United States plunged into the Second World War, newspapers fought fake news amid fears of Nazi propaganda efforts.

The Rumor Clinics

About three months after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the first rumor clinic was created in Boston on March 1, 1942, under the leadership of Harvard Professors Gordon Allport and Robert Knapp and the Eastern Psychological Association. The Boston Herald worked with the Massachusetts Committee on Public Safety's Division of Propaganda Research and a network of volunteers who hunted down rumors and their origins to dispel misinformation the publishers believed could harm the war effort, civilian defense, or the general morale of the country. A council that included the Boston police commissioner, the state’s attorney general, representatives of local unions, and the chamber of commerce vetted each edition of the column.

The Boston Herald’s weekly rumor clinic column was duplicated across the country, with as many as 40 different newspapers running their own versions, according to a January 24, 1943 New York Times feature. At the time, there was fear that Germany’s propaganda prowess would sow dissent among the U.S. population. “The United States was convinced that the moment war broke out they would be completely bombarded by rumors planted by the Germans. In order to head off these rumors, people who wanted to defend the United States decided to track these down,” Nick Cull, a University of Southern California professor and expert in war time propaganda, tells Mental Floss.

Rumors undercut rationing and industrial war efforts, such as the rumor about a woman whose head exploded at the hair salon. Other tales re-enforced racism and other prejudices already present in the country. Some of those rumors included that Jewish people were not required to serve in the military, or that white soldiers were having Black children after receiving Red Cross blood donations from Black civilians.

“It was stories that Americans told each other,” Cull says. “The rumors were so colorful that you could never forget them once you heard them.”

Nailing a Local Lie

About three months after the first column ran, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the Office of War Information through executive order on June 13, 1942. As Sidney Shalett wrote in The New York Times, the OWI looked to local communities as “the best place to nail a local lie.” The OWI began working with the rumor clinics and soon found that despite the assumptions German saboteurs were wreaking havoc on America’s psyche, most of the rumors were race-based lies spread by other Americans, according to Cull.

By the end of the war, the rumor clinics started disbanding, as the OWI adopted a new strategy of spreading facts without repeating rumors. Instead of directly challenging racist rumor mongering, the OWI released materials and information promoting the idea that all Americans were in the fight together against the Axis.

According to Julie Smith, a Webster University instructor and media literacy expert, while debunking rumors can be effective, the repetition of the debunked rumors can also re-enforce them. This became a concern for the OWI, leading it to grow wary of printing rumors just for the sake of denying them. “Misinformation has been around forever," Smith says, "and we have not gotten any smarter."