What caused the mysterious Danbury Shakes?

The mad hatters of Danbury, Connecticut, had no idea why they would suddenly have tremors and begin shaking.

The mercury fumes released during the hat-making process were deadly and went straight to the brain. 

 What was the human malady known as the Danbury Shakes?  Have you ever heard of them?  In earlier centuries, the manufacturing of clothing led to illness and death.  Recently I wrote about the hazards of Paris Green.  The dye used to achieve the elegant Paris Green color contained arsenic.  The hue was so beautiful, no one seemed to care.

What was peculiar about the Danbury, Connecticut, of old, that would give people the shakes?  It seems that Danbury was a center for hat production in the 18th and 19th Centuries. 

Most of the popular hats involved the use of animal fur, especially beaver, rabbit and hare.  The curing process required the use of mercury to make the fur cooperate and flatten out.  Mercury is what turned the fur into felt.  The mercury fumes released during the hat-making process were deadly and went straight to the brain. 

Trembling resulted.  So many people were trembling in the hat-making town of Danbury that the tremors became known as the Danbury Shakes. Other symptoms that one was being poisoned was by the mercury was shyness and paranoia.

When afflicted hat-makers thought they were being secretly observed by medical experts, they would have temper tantrums on the spot, and throw their tools all about.  Prolonged exposure led to heart and breathing problems and premature loss of teeth.  Since they needed their livelihood, the hat-makers  viewed this awful situation a necessary part of life and just died young.  Most quality hats were fully lined, so the wearers did not suffer from mercury poisoning—only the makers.

The hat-makers resisted interference into their craft.  It was 1940 when a connection was finally made between the mercury in the hat-making process and the illnesses.  The process was allowed to continue, and in England, it was never banned.  The only thing that saved many people was the downfall in the popularity of hats in the 1960s.

Along with having the Danbury Shakes, being as Mad as a Hatter was a popular expression.  Did that saying come about because of the madness that came about during hat-making with mercury?  This is the most probable reason for the phrase’s origin, but it is still being debated.


Sara Marie Hogg is the author of It Rises from the Pee Dee. Please click HERE to find the novel on Amazon.

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