6 Cautionary Tales That Terrified Kids of Yesteryear

Alamy
Alamy

Long before Edward Gorey offed children alphabetically, writers sought to instill good manners and exemplary behavior through strange, scary cautionary tales. Some stories were so bizarre it's a wonder the kids that read them turned out okay. Here are a few of our favorites.

1. “THE STORY OF LITTLE SUCK-A-THUMB”

Der Struwwelpeter, penned by German psychiatrist Heinrich Hoffmann and released in Germany in 1845, is full of tales of children misbehaving—and the awful, bizarre fates they suffered for doing so. Augustus doesn’t eat his soup, and so he wastes away and dies. Harriet plays with matches and sets herself on fire. But none is stranger or more terrifying than the tale of poor Conrad, also known as Suck-a-Thumb:

One day, Mamma said: "Conrad dear,
I must go out and leave you here.
But mind now, Conrad, what I say,
Don't suck your thumb while I'm away.
The great tall tailor always comes
To little boys that suck their thumbs,
And ere they dream what he's about.
He takes his great sharp scissors out
And cuts their thumbs clean off, and then,
You know, they never grow again."

When Conrad sucks his thumb again, he is visited by the tailor, who chases the boy with a giant pair of scissors and cuts off both of his thumbs. Gruesome—and, if Der Struwwelpeter’s sales are any indication, perhaps an effective teaching tool for parents: By 1876, over 100 editions had been printed.

2. “THE CRY BABY”

This story is another Hoffmann specialty, from the book Slovenly Betsy, which was published in 1911 specifically for American audiences. A mother cautions her daughter not to cry so much, but the girl doesn’t listen—and eventually, she cries her eyes out:

And now the poor creature is cautiously crawling
And feeling her way all around;
And now from their sockets her eyeballs are falling;
See, there they are down on the ground.
My children, from such an example take warning,
And happily live while you may;
And say to yourselves, when you rise in the morning,
"I'll try to be cheerful today."

That’s not the only horrifying tale in Slovenly Betsy: There’s also the story about Polly, who plays with the boys even after she’s told not to—so of course her leg is severed while roughhousing. And proud Phoebe Ann holds her head up so high that her neck stretches freakishly, and she has to cart her noggin around on a wagon.

3. “THE TOM-BOY WHO WAS CHANGED INTO A REAL BOY”

For parents of a certain era, there were few things more horrifying than a little girl who didn't act like a little girl. That may have been what led to this story from the book Little Miss Consequence, published in 1880. The title is self-explanatory: A little girl (the daughter of an Earl) loves playing with the boys so much that, eventually, she becomes a boy.

At last she grew so coarse,
E’en her voice was rough and hoarse,
And her attitudes became so like a boy’s, boy’s, boy’s,
That they thought it only right,
On a certain Summer’s night,
To change her sex completely, without noise, noise, noise.

After her transformation, the girl is literally shipped off—a boat's captain is paid to take her on as a sailor. “And a caution may it prove to you and me, me, me!”

4. “LE PETIT CHAPERON ROUGE” (“LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD”)

In later versions of French writer Charles Perrault’s “Little Red Riding Hood”—published in 1697 as part of his book, Tales and Stories of the Past with Morals. Tales of Mother Goose—Little Red and her grandmother are rescued from the belly of the wolf by a woodcutter. Not so in the original, where the wolf devours them both, permanently. “Children, especially attractive, well bred young ladies, should never talk to strangers, for if they should do so, they may well provide dinner for a wolf,” Perrault writes. “I say ‘wolf,’ but there are various kinds of wolves. There are also those who are charming, quiet, polite, unassuming, complacent, and sweet, who pursue young women at home and in the streets. And unfortunately, it is these gentle wolves who are the most dangerous ones of all.”

5. “MAX AND MORITZ”

The seven tales of these badly behaved boys, written and illustrated by German Wilhelm Busch in 1865, begin with the duo tying bread crusts together with thread and laying a trap for a widow’s chickens. When the birds eat the crusts and swallow the intertwined strings, they panic and eventually become fatally entangled. The widow cooks the chickens, but Max and Moritz steal them with a fishing pole. They similarly terrorize a tailor, a teacher, their uncle, a baker, and farmer Bauer Mecke. When Mecke notices that the boys have slit open his bags of grain, he puts the boys in the bags instead, and sends the bag through a mill, grinding them to bits. “Here you see the bits post mortem/Just as Fate was please to sort ‘em,” Busch writes. Their bits are eaten by ducks, and no one is sorry to see the boys go.

6. “REBECCA, WHO SLAMMED DOORS FOR FUN AND PERISHED MISERABLY”

Published in 1907, Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children: Designed for the Admonition of Children between the ages of eight and fourteen years is technically a parody of 19th century cautionary tales. Satire or not, it’s still full of stories that should give naughty children pause—including “Rebecca,” who Belloc writes “was not really bad at heart, but only rude and wild: She was an aggravating child …” One day, to frighten her uncle, Rebecca slammed a door that had a marble bust above it; the bust fell, and “laid her out.” Her funeral sermon “showed the dreadful end of one who goes and slams the door for Fun.”

There’s also “Jim: Who ran away from his Nurse, and was eaten by a Lion,” "Henry King: Who chewed bits of string, and was early cut off in Dreadful agonies,” and “Matilda: Who told Lies, and was Burned to Death."

This story originally ran in 2013.

10 Juicy Facts About Leeches

Ian Cook
Ian Cook

Leeches get a bad rap, but they’re actually pretty cool once you get to know them—and we're finding out more about them, even today. Recently, a team led by Anna Phillips, curator of parasitic worms at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, discovered a new species of medicinal leech (pictured above) in a Maryland swamp. We asked parasite expert and curator at the American Museum of Natural History Mark E. Siddall to share some surprising facts about the worms we love to hate. 

1. Not all leeches suck blood.

Hematophagous, or blood-feeding, species are only one type of leech. “The vast majority of species are [hematophagous],” Siddall tells Mental Floss, “but it depends on the environment. In North America, there are probably more freshwater leeches that don’t feed on blood than there are blood-feeders.” And even among the hematophagous species, there are not too many who are after you. “Very few of them are interested in feeding on human blood,” Siddall says. “Certainly they’ll do it, if they’re given the opportunity, but they’re not what they’re spending most of their time feeding on.” 

2. Leeches are everywhere.

Japanese leech on a log
Pieria, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

“Every continent on the planet has leeches, with the exception of Antarctica,” Siddall says. “And even then there are marine leeches in Antarctic waters.” Humans have co-existed with leeches for so long, according to Siddall, that just about every language has a word for leech. 

3. Leeches have made a comeback in medicine.

Bloodletting for bloodletting’s sake has fallen out of favor with Western physicians, but that doesn’t mean medicinal leeches are enjoying a cushy retirement. Today, surgeons keep them on hand in the operating room and use them as mini-vacuums to clean up blood. “That is a perfectly sensible use of leeches,” Siddall says. Other uses, though, are less sensible: “The more naturopathic application of leeches in order to get rid of bad blood or to cure, I don’t know, whatever happens to ail you, is complete hooey,” he says. How on Earth would leeches take away bad blood and leave good blood? It’s silly.” 

4. Novelist Amy Tan has her own species of leeches.

Land-based leeches made an appearance in Tan’s 2005 book Saving Fish from Drowning, a fact that instantly put the author in leech researchers’ good graces. “There are not a lot of novels out there with terrestrial leeches in them,” Siddall says. So when he and his colleagues identified a new species of tiny terrestrial leeches, they gave the leech Tan’s name. The author loved it. “I am thrilled to be immortalized as Chtonobdella tanae,” Tan said in a press statement. “I am now planning my trip to Queensland, Australia, where I hope to take leisurely walks through the jungle, accompanied by a dozen or so of my namesake feeding on my ankles.”

5. Leeches can get pretty big.

The giant Amazon leech (Haementeria ghilianii) can grow up to 18 inches and live up to 20 years. And yes, this one’s a blood-feeder. Like all hematophagous species, H. ghilianii sticks its proboscis (which can be up to 6 inches long) into a host, drinks its fill, and falls off. Scientists thought the species was extinct until a zoologist found two specimens in the 1970s, one of whom he named Grandma Moses. We are not making this up.

6. Leeches make good bait.

Many walleye anglers swear by leeches. “A leech on any presentation moves more than other types of live bait," pro fisher Jerry Hein told Fishing League Worldwide. "I grew up fishing them, and I think they're the most effective live bait around no matter where you go." There’s an entire leech industry to provide fishers with their bait. One year, weather conditions kept the leeches from showing up in their typical habitats, which prevented their collection and sale. Speaking to CBS news, one tackle shop owner called the absence of leeches “the worst nightmare in the bait industry.”

7. Leech scientists use themselves as bait.

Siddall and his colleagues collect and study wild leeches. That means hours of trekking through leech territory, looking for specimens. “Whether we’re wandering in water or traipsing through a bamboo forest,” Siddall says, “we are relying on the fact that leeches are attracted to us.” Do the leeches feed on them? “Oh my god, yes. We try to get them before they feed on us … but sometimes, obviously, you can’t help it.”

8. Leech sex is mesmerizing.

Like many worms, leeches are all hermaphroditic. The specifics of mating vary by species, but most twine themselves together and trade sperm packets. (The two leeches in the video above are both named Norbert.)

9. Some leech species make surprisingly caring parents. 

“There’s a whole family of leeches that, when they lay their eggs, will cover them with their own bodies,” Siddall says. “They’ll lay the eggs, cover them with their bodies, and fan the eggs to prevent fungus or bacteria from getting on them, and then when the eggs hatch, they will attach to the parent. They’re not feeding on the parent, just hanging on, and then when the parent leech goes to its next blood meal it’s carrying its offspring to its next blood meal. That’s pretty profound parental care, especially for invertebrates.”

10. You might be the next to discover a new leech species. 

Despite living side-by-side with leeches for thousands of years, we’ve still got a lot to learn about them. Scientists are aware of about 700 different species, but they know there are many more out there. “I’ll tell you what I wish for,” Siddall says. “If you ever get fed on by a leech, rather than tearing off and burning it and throwing it in the trash, maybe observe it and see if you can see any color patterns. Understand that there’s a real possibility that it could be a new species. So watch them, let them finish. They’re not gonna take much blood. And who knows? It could be scientifically useful.”

22 Weird Jobs From 100 Years Ago

Metal Floss via YouTube
Metal Floss via YouTube

Before everyone started working in tech, people actually had their choice of eclectic and strange vocations that put food on their old-timey tables. Discover what lamplighters, lectores, and knocker-uppers did back in the day as Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy runs down 22 Weird Old Jobs from 100 Years Ago.

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