The peculiar German word, wanderlust, has no literal translation into English. It’s often defined as a profound desire, a lust, for travel. Real travelers, those who yearn to go, know that any travel is as spatial as it is metaphysical: every journey is also an inner movement. If one has wanderlust, spiritually, then a journey can happen without necessarily involving any change in geography. Such a practice includes all the characters we meet and the experiences we collect along the way. It even implies a phenomenon in which it’s possible for one to become the place visited. But the obsession with travelling was, for a few decades of the 19th century, classified as a mental illness.

During the 1890s, Europe witnessed a proliferation of what were known as “pathological travelers.” They were people who roamed without any apparent destination, as though direction was not so important as was simply the act of changing places. Many of them —people who’d left their families, deserters from the army, and victims of sudden outbreaks of amnesia— ended up in the custody of the authorities or even detained in asylums. These last were often diagnosed with a highly specific condition: dromomania, known also as “pathological traveling.” Similar to kleptomania (a mania for stealing), pyromania (a mania for burning things) and dipsomania (a mania for alcohol), dromomania struck France for two decades as a then-new form of madness.

It began with one man, the most famous case of dromomania: Jean-Albert Dadas. Born in Bordeaux, in 1860, he was orphaned from his mother by the age of 17 years old and had also been the son of a sickly father. He’d fallen from a tree at eight years old, suffering a head contusion that generated neurological problems, migraines, and vomiting. This was one of the probable causes, according to his biographers, of his obsession with traveling. While working for a gas company, at 12 years of age, he disappeared and only to appear later in a nearby town. When his brother found him and confronted him, the young man already worked for an umbrella vendor and didn’t seem to recall what had happened nor how he’d come to such circumstances.

For the rest of his life (recorded by Maud Casey in the fictional biography The Man Who Walked Away), Dadas made spontaneous trips that included memory loss. He once woke up on a bench in Paris. At other times, he was in police custody, or on trains taking him to cities he’d never been to. He often had to take jobs to save enough money to return home. During his unique life, he even traveled by boat to Algeria and, on one occasion, was arrested in the French city of Aix for illegally working on plantations. After these episodes, normally he’d return home and resume employment at the gas company.

Dadas’ most impressive voyage happened in 1881 when he enlisted in the French army and then deserted. He then made a walking tour through Prague, Berlin, Poznan, and Moscow. At some point, while in Prussia, he was bitten by a dog and ended up in the hospital. As the tsar had just been assassinated and Dadas was an evident nihilist, he ended up in prison. Three months later, he and some prisoners were taken to Istanbul and, once there, the French consul gave him money to buy a train ticket that would take him home, once more, to his job at the gas company.

Years later, in 1886, Dadas would fall into the hands of Dr. Phillipe Auguste Tissié who diagnosed him with dromomania and documented the case obsessively, positing that his patient could only remember his episodes of travel while under the effects of hypnosis. Dadas’ wife eventually died of tuberculosis and their daughter was adopted by a family of gardeners. He used to visit her when he returned from his wanderings, until she one day fled from her foster home. Dadas was found dead in a well but a short time later.

Despite his apparent loss of memory, some believe Dadas was simply a swindler. No matter what city he arrived in, he always managed to find a consul or some other means to get home. This invites one to think that the episodes were deliberate attempts to erase his own presence and to perhaps escape something else.

After that of Dadas there were other cases of dromomania (some of whom were not necessarily swindlers). They were almost always male subjects, usually of low economic means or working-class backgrounds. France was the perfect place for such travelers. Perhaps they were men who simply didn’t want to comply with what was expected of them, or soldiers using mental illness to escape prosecution which often enough implied capital punishment.

Dromomania disappeared as quickly as it came about. It was recognized, not as a psychiatric illness, but as a practice outside accepted social norms. It was later catalogued as a possible symptom of another kind of disease, such as schizophrenia. But after 23 years in existence, the condition disappeared, partly because of the new definitions and oversight of European borders, and partly because of changes in psychiatric medicine. Today, the disease is only seldom mentioned, even in discussions of homelessness, vagrancy, and in some types of disorientation related to dementia.

Paradoxically, tireless travelers today live an enviable life at least in many societies. Dromomania, a disease which existed briefly and then vanished like a ghost, reminds us that any excess carries a danger of becoming pathological. Yet it also speaks of that all-too human impulse to flee, to escape, to change places, as the profound and often unconscious act that it so often is.

Image: Public domain

The peculiar German word, wanderlust, has no literal translation into English. It’s often defined as a profound desire, a lust, for travel. Real travelers, those who yearn to go, know that any travel is as spatial as it is metaphysical: every journey is also an inner movement. If one has wanderlust, spiritually, then a journey can happen without necessarily involving any change in geography. Such a practice includes all the characters we meet and the experiences we collect along the way. It even implies a phenomenon in which it’s possible for one to become the place visited. But the obsession with travelling was, for a few decades of the 19th century, classified as a mental illness.

During the 1890s, Europe witnessed a proliferation of what were known as “pathological travelers.” They were people who roamed without any apparent destination, as though direction was not so important as was simply the act of changing places. Many of them —people who’d left their families, deserters from the army, and victims of sudden outbreaks of amnesia— ended up in the custody of the authorities or even detained in asylums. These last were often diagnosed with a highly specific condition: dromomania, known also as “pathological traveling.” Similar to kleptomania (a mania for stealing), pyromania (a mania for burning things) and dipsomania (a mania for alcohol), dromomania struck France for two decades as a then-new form of madness.

It began with one man, the most famous case of dromomania: Jean-Albert Dadas. Born in Bordeaux, in 1860, he was orphaned from his mother by the age of 17 years old and had also been the son of a sickly father. He’d fallen from a tree at eight years old, suffering a head contusion that generated neurological problems, migraines, and vomiting. This was one of the probable causes, according to his biographers, of his obsession with traveling. While working for a gas company, at 12 years of age, he disappeared and only to appear later in a nearby town. When his brother found him and confronted him, the young man already worked for an umbrella vendor and didn’t seem to recall what had happened nor how he’d come to such circumstances.

For the rest of his life (recorded by Maud Casey in the fictional biography The Man Who Walked Away), Dadas made spontaneous trips that included memory loss. He once woke up on a bench in Paris. At other times, he was in police custody, or on trains taking him to cities he’d never been to. He often had to take jobs to save enough money to return home. During his unique life, he even traveled by boat to Algeria and, on one occasion, was arrested in the French city of Aix for illegally working on plantations. After these episodes, normally he’d return home and resume employment at the gas company.

Dadas’ most impressive voyage happened in 1881 when he enlisted in the French army and then deserted. He then made a walking tour through Prague, Berlin, Poznan, and Moscow. At some point, while in Prussia, he was bitten by a dog and ended up in the hospital. As the tsar had just been assassinated and Dadas was an evident nihilist, he ended up in prison. Three months later, he and some prisoners were taken to Istanbul and, once there, the French consul gave him money to buy a train ticket that would take him home, once more, to his job at the gas company.

Years later, in 1886, Dadas would fall into the hands of Dr. Phillipe Auguste Tissié who diagnosed him with dromomania and documented the case obsessively, positing that his patient could only remember his episodes of travel while under the effects of hypnosis. Dadas’ wife eventually died of tuberculosis and their daughter was adopted by a family of gardeners. He used to visit her when he returned from his wanderings, until she one day fled from her foster home. Dadas was found dead in a well but a short time later.

Despite his apparent loss of memory, some believe Dadas was simply a swindler. No matter what city he arrived in, he always managed to find a consul or some other means to get home. This invites one to think that the episodes were deliberate attempts to erase his own presence and to perhaps escape something else.

After that of Dadas there were other cases of dromomania (some of whom were not necessarily swindlers). They were almost always male subjects, usually of low economic means or working-class backgrounds. France was the perfect place for such travelers. Perhaps they were men who simply didn’t want to comply with what was expected of them, or soldiers using mental illness to escape prosecution which often enough implied capital punishment.

Dromomania disappeared as quickly as it came about. It was recognized, not as a psychiatric illness, but as a practice outside accepted social norms. It was later catalogued as a possible symptom of another kind of disease, such as schizophrenia. But after 23 years in existence, the condition disappeared, partly because of the new definitions and oversight of European borders, and partly because of changes in psychiatric medicine. Today, the disease is only seldom mentioned, even in discussions of homelessness, vagrancy, and in some types of disorientation related to dementia.

Paradoxically, tireless travelers today live an enviable life at least in many societies. Dromomania, a disease which existed briefly and then vanished like a ghost, reminds us that any excess carries a danger of becoming pathological. Yet it also speaks of that all-too human impulse to flee, to escape, to change places, as the profound and often unconscious act that it so often is.

Image: Public domain