In the 1890s, France fell victim to a seemingly contagious epidemic. From 1886 to 1909, dozens of men found themselves ambling around Europe in dissociative fugue states, crossing borders and even continents with no apparent destination in mind. These men would inevitably find themselves locked up, either in police custody or a mental asylum. Physicians called it dromomania, according to Ian Hacking, a philosopher and author of Mad Travelers: Reflections on the Reality of Transient Mental Illnesses. They also referred to it as “pathological tourism.” Today we remember it as “wanderlust.”
This traveling disease terrorized France for nearly two decades, a sudden and new kind of madness. But in reality, as dromomania spread, it was less a true psychiatric condition than a convenient diagnosis—a catch-all term for behavior that strayed from social norms. Doctors might deem their patients dromomaniacs for leaving their families, deserting from the army, or experiencing a bout of amnesia (perhaps due to a head injury). This spree lasted just 23 years, its end brought on by stricter border control and changes in the psychiatric profession, among other causes. And today wanderlust is something entirely different—less pathological than aspirational. But France was once, briefly, a hotbed for pathological tourists. And it all started with one man.
Jean-Albert Dadas was born in 1860, the latest in a long line of men who worked for a gas company. His mother died when he was 17 and his father was a syphilitic hypochondriac who spent money as soon as he’d earned it. At age eight, Dadas had fallen out of a tree and suffered a concussion, with fits of vomiting and a migraine—a head injury that modern-day psychologists suggest may have instigated his distinctive penchant for travel, Hacking writes.
Apprenticed to a manufacturer at the gas company at age 12, Dadas disappeared one day, only to resurface in a nearby town. When his brother discovered and confronted him, the pre-teen, who had been assisting a traveling umbrella salesman, blinked as if awakening from a deep sleep, Hacking writes. He had no idea where he was, or why he happened to be carting umbrellas for a stranger.
The umbrella incident marked just the the first episode in a lifetime of the unexplainable. For much of his young adult life, Dadas blacked out and spontaneously traveled. He woke up on Parisian benches, in policy custody, and on trains headed to cities he’d never been to before. Often he would have wandered so far away that he had to work odd jobs to earn the money to get home. Dadas took a ship to Algeria, scrubbed pots in the galley of a ship bound back for France, and was eventually arrested in the city of Aix, where he was working as an undocumented agricultural laborer. Between these states of fugue, Dadas would return home and moonlight at the gas company. “How he kept this job was a mystery to me because he was always wandering off,” says Maud Casey, the author of a fictionalized version of Dadas’s life called The Man Who Walked Away. Over these many years, marked by short stints in prisons or asylums, Dadas began to make a name for himself as an accidental, entranced tourist.
Dadas’s most spectacular flight began in 1881, when he joined and deserted the French army near the city of Mons and headed east. He passed through Prague, Berlin, Posen, and Moscow—on foot. At one point in Prussia, a vicious dog bite landed him in the hospital, where he was recognized as the inveterate traveler. His timing, however, was dreadful, as the czar had just been assassinated and Dadas, known to have been a nihilist, was thrown in prison. Three months later, he and the remaining prisoners were marched by sword-toting guards to Constantinople, where the French consul gave him enough money for a fourth-class train ticket. Like clockwork, Dadas returned to the gas factory.
Finally in 1886, Dadas found himself in the Saint-André hospital in Bordeaux, France, where he fell into the care of young neuropsychiatrist Phillipe Auguste Tissié. Tissié grew obsessed with this strange patient, whom he diagnosed with dromomania, or the uncontrollable urge to wander or travel. The psychiatrist soon learned Dadas could only recall his mad travel under hypnosis, and used that to compile a massive tome of his experiences, though it is best not to take them too seriously, Hacking writes. But Dadas was patient zero, just the beginning.
After Tissié diagnosed Dadas, “there was a rash of diagnoses of this ilk,” Casey says. These people (always men) were not the vagrants or tramps that France saw as a rising threat to society. They tended to be sober, clean, and unassuming—not middle class, but working poor. “All these people managed to keep a job, but then they would just wander off,” she adds.
It was also remarkably easy to traverse Europe at the time. In whatever city he ended up in, Dadas had learned, even in a fugue state, to find the French consul, ask an official for just enough money for a train ticket home, and then use that money to travel to an entirely new city, Hacking writes. It was a clever, aimless scam. Unlike modern-day wanderers, Dadas’s dromomania was not a journey of self-discovery. Rather, Hacking writes, Dadas’ journeys were a “systematically pointless” series of attempts to eliminate the self. But that might not have been the case for all the men given the diagnosis.
Quite frankly, France in the 1890s was the perfect primordial soup for something like tourism, vagrancy, or simply walking away from expectations to be diagnosed as a disorder, according to Hacking. “Vagrancy was a big idea in France at the time because you were expected to be home and be a family man,” Casey says. And across Europe, military doctors, horrified by the harsh punishments levied on deserters during a time of peace, latched on to the idea of dromomania as a free pass for men who might otherwise face incarceration or even execution, writes Mark Micale in The Mind of Modernism: Medicine, Psychology, and the Cultural Arts in Europe. It appears that dromomania was a convenient diagnosis for a kind of nonconformity.
Physicians characterized dromomania as an impulse control disorder, similar to kleptomania (the need to steal things), pyromania (the need to burn things), or dipsomania (the need to drink alcoholic things), according to a 1902 article in The British Medical Journal. In the United States, physician and noted racist Samuel A. Cartwright invented a related mental disorder called drapetomania, the urge that led slaves to run away. He claimed the only treatment was extreme whipping.
According to Benjamin Kahan, a professor of English and women’s and gender studies at Louisiana State University, and author of The Book of Minor Perverts, the dromomaniac was one of a “numberless family of perverts” that were highly specific and yet interconnected. “Dromomania really established stability as a key kind of condition for normalcy, or heterosexuality,” Kahan says.
Dromomania vanished almost as soon as it appeared. In 1909, at a conference in Nantes, leading psychiatrists entirely redefined the concept of a fugue state, writes Peter G. Toohey in Melancholy, Love, and Time: Boundaries of the Self in Ancient Literature. Instead of an independent disorder, it was now understood as a symptom of a deeper mental illness, such as schizophrenia. Furthermore, the encroaching tensions of World War I led European countries to seal their borders, prohibiting the easy train trips Dadas once relied on. Within 23 years, diagnoses trickled to a halt and dromomania had more or less disappeared.
Today, occasionally dromomania is mentioned in the context of homelessness, or to refer to the disorientation associated with dementia. And it has splintered—as wanderlust it has been completely depathologized, and has become something desirable and attractive, Kahan says. “Now it’s an erotic come-on that you write about in your OkCupid profile, like ‘Oh I love to travel.’”
Dadas’ wife—he managed to get and stay married through all of this—eventually died of tuberculosis. Their daughter, Marguerite-Gabrielle, was adopted by a local family of gardeners. Dadas visited her in between wanderings, until she was tragically abducted, according to his interviews with Tissié. Soon after, Dadas was found dead in a well, Casey says.
During her time researching Dadas, Casey traveled to Bordeaux to trace the famed dromomaniac’s path and see France from his point of view. When she walked to the church across from the Saint-André hospital where Dadas had his sessions with Tissié, she felt overwhelmed. “I’m not a religious person, but I did feel this debt of gratitude to this poor guy who ended up in a well,” Casey says, “and his curiosity for wonder and the capacity to be endlessly lost in this world, for better or worse.”