Karolina Olsson: The Woman Who Allegedly Slept for 32 Years

Sep 4, 2023 0 comments

In the small island of Oknö near Mönsterås, Sweden, a young girl named Karolina Olsson went to bed complaining of a toothache. She wouldn’t wake up until three decades later, or so the story goes.

Karolina was born on 29 October 1861, the second-eldest of six children. Her siblings were all brothers. Karolina's mother appears to have managed the household and children exceptionally well. Nonetheless, she believed it was important for Karolina to contribute to the household, so she kept her home and taught her how to read and write. Karolina didn't begin attending school until the late autumn of 1875 when she was already 14 years old.

Karolina had hardly been to school for a month, when one day while returning home from school with her brothers, she complained of a toothache and a feeling of general unease. Her family suspected that she might be afflicted by witchcraft or under the malevolent influence of an evil spirit. Her mother instructed her to go to bed. Karolina continued to complain of toothache, but had no other symptoms. However, when she fell asleep, she did not wake up.

A 17th century painting of a sleeping girl by an unknown painter.

Karolina’s father was a poor fisherman and was unable to afford a doctor. Instead, the town’s midwife advised the family. Karolina’s mother took great care of her unresponsive daughter, force-feeding her two glasses of milk every day. Eventually, the neighbors paid for a visit from a doctor, who was unable to wake up the sleeping girl and determined that she was in a coma. This doctor continued to visit her for a year, after which he wrote to the editor of Scandinavia's leading medical journal, soliciting the help of other professionals in finding a cure for Karolina’s continuous sleep-state.

In 1892, a doctor named Johan Emil Almbladh came to Mönsterås and transferred Karolina to a hospital in order to observe her.

During the hospital stay, Karolina's condition was completely unchanged and she was during this time in an almost stupor state, unable to speak and insensitive to pricks and touch. Treatment with electricity was ineffective and the only treatment must have been to make the food order reasonable, more regular. The doctor declared her 'hysterical' and the diagnosis at discharge was dementia paralytica. Dementia paralytica is a severe neuropsychiatric disorder that is caused by late-stage syphilis. However, there is little to suggest that she actually suffered from that illness.

After spending one month at the infirmary, Karolina was sent back to her home. She wouldn’t be examined again by a doctor until after she woke up in 1908— a full 32 years after she went to sleep.

During her illness, Karolina was not examined by a trained psychiatrist. These specialists was at that time extremely scarce and the few that were available, were essentially tied to the state mental health care. Although Karolina had been interviewed by journalists on a few occasions, no serious study had been carried out regarding the circumstances surrounding the illness and the conditions under which the recovery took place.

Two years after she woke up, a Stockholm-based doctor named Harald Fröderström visited her and spent a lot of time trying to understand what had really happened to her.

Fröderström learned from the two brothers that in all the years, they had never seen their sister leave the bed. However, the father said that on a few occasions he saw her crawl on the floor on all fours and on at least three occasions heard her speak. Once she was sitting in bed and her father heard her cry: 'Good Jesus, have mercy on me!' She then crawled back into bed and pulled the covers over her head.

Karolina's sole caregiver was her mother. The family members were under the impression that Karolina consumed only two glasses of milk daily. Even if someone placed bread beside her bed, she never showed any interest in it, although she had a fondness for caramels, but refrained from eating them when observed. The housekeeper had never heard her utter a word, but occasionally, she could hear Karolina cry or wail. Karolina was often left to her own devices while the housekeeper and other family members tended to their farm duties. However, the housekeeper occasionally noticed that certain objects in the room changed positions when she was outside.

When her mother died in 1905, Karolina began to cry. These crying episodes persisted for several days, yet her overall condition showed no improvement. In the absence of her mother, her father assumed the role of caregiver, tending to her needs and providing daily nourishment. However, Karolina's health deteriorated, and she became confined to her bed, becoming increasingly emaciated.

The only photograph of Karolina Olsson taken 11 days after she woke up.

One day—April 3, 1908—the housekeeper came in and found Karolina on all fours on the floor, crying. When she was sternly ordered to bed, she asked: 'Where's mother?'. When the brothers came home, she did not recognize them. 'It's not my brothers, because they were so small,' she added. Karolina appeared severely undernourished and had a pallor reminiscent of someone who had suffered from starvation. In the initial days, she exhibited weakness, shunned light, responded to questions with hesitation, and struggled to move about. Surprisingly, despite her condition, she displayed a hearty appetite and consumed her meals with enthusiasm.

Karolina could remember her school days and church visits, and she even started participating in the household chores. However, she did not ask any questions about the past or what happened during the illness. Nor did she ask about the mother's death. Fröderström found Karolina to be above average intelligence. She could read and write and knew the names of her country’s king and queen, but couldn’t point out Stockholm on the map.

Frödeström promptly dismissed the notion of total hibernation, asserting that it would have been impossible for Karolina to endure such an extended period without starving. Instead, he speculated that Karolina had undergone a form of psychosis triggered by a traumatic event. This led her to withdraw under her blankets as a way to shield herself from the harsh realities of the world. Throughout this challenging period, her devoted mother stood by her side, assisting her in concealing the fact that she wasn't actually in hibernation. Family members and relatives were led to believe that she was in a deep slumber, when, in reality, Karolina remained fully conscious throughout her illness.

The family's claim that Karolina consumed only two glasses of milk daily for 32 years can only be explained by the presence of a loyal caregiver who discreetly provided for her needs. This caregiver operated in secret, unbeknownst to the others. The severe emaciation that set in after her mother's passing can be perceived as a consequence of her not being fed in the same way as before.

Karolina’s case has many parallels to another famous example of a sleeping girl, Ellen Sadler, who reportedly slept for nine years. Like Karolina, Ellen was taken care of by her mother, who fed her with port wine, tea and milk, and refused visitors and doctors from investigating her critically. After Ellen’s mother died, the responsibility of taking care Ellen fell upon her sisters, who perhaps were unable to keep up to the task with diligence, causing her to mysteriously wake up five months after her mother’s death.

After her awakening, Karolina went to lead a fairly healthy life, just like Ellen. She died in 1950 aged 88 from an intracranial hemorrhage.

References:
# Soverskan på Oknö

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