Tutored At Home

This is a write up of the weird Swedish case of Karolina Olsson, nicknamed “Soverskan på Oknö” (eng: The Oknö Sleeper”.

About Karolina

Karolina Olsson was born in 1861 on the island of Oknö, just south of the town of Mönsterås, close to the island of Öland, in southern Sweden. She lived with her mother, father (who was a fisherman), and five siblings in a tiny house. Oknö, a tiny forested island today connected by a bridge, is calmly located in the waters of Kalmar Strait in the Baltic Sea. Today it is a popular summer destination for domestic vacationers.

Karolina was mainly tutored at home, where she learned how to read and write, and didn’t enroll in the local school until at 14 years of age. Up until this point, she mainly worked in the household, as that’s where the family believed she was needed the most. The school was situated over 5 kilometers away, a distance that Karolina, who was used to always staying at home, now patiently had to walk every day.

The sleep

It’s 22 February 1876. Karolina is 14 years old and has been attending school for a few months at this point. This Tuesday, Karolina arrives home from school after another 5 km walk, and complains about toothache. Her mother, according to some regarded as overprotective, insists that the toothache may be due to witchcraft, and prompts her daughter to go to bed. Following her mother’s orders, Karolina goes to bed and falls asleep. For 32 years.

When the family tries to wake her up, Karolina is unresponsive, as if in a comatose state. The family is poor and can’t afford a doctor at this time, so her mother resorts to staying at her side, trying to care for her daughter. She makes sure that Karolina consumes at least two glasses of milk every day. Local doctors and medical professionals do visit the family on several occasions, but no one succeeds at waking Karolina up. The common belief at the time was that she suffered from some psychiatric condition, some kind of “hysteria”.

In 1892 Karolina is admitted to Oskarshamn Hospital, where she is treated with electric shocks. Karolina does not react on the treatment. She stays at the hospital for one month. The hospital’s official diagnosis is “dementia paralytica”, but there was allegedly not that much actual support for this diagnosis. Over the years when Karolina is asleep, she remains unresponsive to any physical touching and tingling.

Karolina is not seen awake or conscious by anyone during the years of being allegedly asleep. However, in 1905 her mother passes away, and Karolina goes into a phase a severe mourning. Witness accounts from the family report that she would cry hysterically, but remain asleep. The care is first taken over by her father, but due to his old age, he hires a maid to care for Karolina. When one of her brothers dies in 1907 she has another episode of loud crying.

At a few occasions, Karolina was discovered crawling around on the floor, after which she was led back to bed again. In neither of any of these occasions did she seem awake, nor did she wake up afterwards. At one occasion, Karolina was allegedly heard by her father loudly shouting out a prayer, before resuming her persistent sleep. The maid reported about candies getting missing, and of furniture and attire mysteriously moving around and switching place. However, Karolina never touched food that was left by her bedside.

All the time spent asleep, Karolina remained clean and (mostly) healthy. Her hair and nails never seemed to grow, and she seemed to be doing fine with only two glasses of milk every day.

The awakening

It’s the 3 April 1908. Karolina’s maid enters her room and finds Karolina on the floor, crawling around and crying hysterically. Karolina asks the maid for her mother. When her brothers enter the room, she does not recognize them. Karolina is thin and looks malnourished. She is unable to move properly and is in a state of confusion. But she is finally awake. She is sensitive to lights and speaks minimally. Karolina is now 46 years old, and 32 years and 42 days have passed since she went to bed that cold February afternoon of 1876.

Doctors, journalists, and general by-passers who have heard about the legendary Oknö sleeper, visit the Olsson family home to witness the miracle. Karolina’s old teachers also pay her a visit, and conclude that she still possesses the abilities to read and write. She’s not very good at mathematics though, and her general knowledge about history and geography is also concluded as lacking. She is allegedly unable to point out Stockholm on a map. She is able to remember the day she fell asleep, particularly that she had some problems with her teeth. She does not remember anything from the time of being asleep.

Outsiders describe Karolina as younger looking than she is. She allegedly looks more like 30-something years old, than the 46 years that she actually is at this point.

Karolina recovers fast from the awakening and continues working in the household, as she used to do 32 years earlier. She spends the rest of her life at the family site at Oknö. She is described as happy and in a good shape, performing gardening and household tasks, walking long distances to deliver goods and doing groceries. The 5 April 1950 Karolina dies from an aneurysm, 88 years of age.


According to Swedish psychiatric doctor Harald Fröderström, who studied Karolina for a while in 1910, the sleep period was likely triggered by the toothache, but also concluded that there was nothing physical going on that caused the comatose-like state. He theorized in an article in a Stockholm newspaper that Karolina likely believed that she was very ill, and that her mother, who always remained by her side until her own passing, made sure that she was fed and kept clean and tidy, while probably also believing that she was ill. There might have been some secrecy involved between the two, which can explain many of the questions that have arisen around the case. How could she survive on only two glasses of milk? Why didn’t her nails or hair ever seem to grow? How did she use the toilet?

Still, some questions remain unanswered. How come she never reacted on physical touching or even electric shocks? If she was awake for periods, why not just get up?

What do you think is the explanation for this unusual case?

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