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 Common Road Hazards and How to React to Them

iStock.com/LeManna
iStock.com/LeManna

James Solomon has been a defensive driving expert with the National Safety Council for 34 years. He has taught driving courses for 47 years. And one of the best pieces of advice he can give has absolutely nothing to do with an automobile.

“If it sounds like there might be inclement weather the next day,” Solomon tells Mental Floss, “set your alarm an hour early. You’ll have enough time to get up, clean your car off, and drive slowly.”

That's especially sound advice for a good part of the country, as the winter season means more driving perils, including poor visibility, snowbanks, and ice. Other road hazards like fog, deer, and road-hogging commercial trucks never seem to take a break. For some practical advice on what to do in these situations, we asked Solomon to break down 10 common driving obstacles and the best ways to cope with them. Here’s what he had to say.

1. DRIVING ON ICY ROADS

A sign warns of a slippery road ahead
iStock.com/trendobjects

Nothing can jolt a driver like the sudden loss of control of their automobile after hitting a slick patch of pavement. While some ice is noticeable, “black ice”—which occurs when ice has thawed and re-frozen—can be hard to spot.

What to Do: If your car goes into a skid or loses traction, the best thing to do is remove your foot off the accelerator. “You don’t want power of any kind going to the wheels,” Solomon says. If you have standard braking, keep your foot entirely off the brake. If you have an automatic braking system (ABS), which is pretty much standard in most newer cars, you want to push the pedal down and wait for the car to regain traction. Don’t pump the pedal: The ABS can pulsate the brakes faster than your foot can.

You also want to turn the wheel in the direction you want the front of the car to go. “Once the vehicle begins to straighten out, counter-steer in the opposite direction,” Solomon says. “Steering and counter-steering should be done three to five times while braking.” Keep doing it until you feel the wheels grip the pavement.

2. GETTING STUCK IN A SNOW BANK

A car tire is stuck in snow
iStock.com/JaysonPhotography

After a heavy snowfall, you might return to your car to find the wheels surrounded by snow. As they spin, they can’t find any grip on the slick powder, and you’re going nowhere fast.

What to Do: A little foresight is best here. Solomon advises you keep a shovel, brush, and a pair of traction mats in your trunk. (Kitty litter may also work for traction, but the mats are reusable.) If you’re stuck, make sure you have enough room to move the car forward and backward and that there isn’t any snow blocking the exhaust pipe. Clear the snow away from the wheels and try moving forward or in reverse. If that doesn’t work, put the mats under the front wheels (for front-wheel drive) or under the back wheels (for a rear-wheel drive). Once the wheels are on the mat, try turning to get away from the snow. Solomon cautions to watch out for passing traffic, as other drivers might have trouble spotting you.

3. DRIVING IN HEAVY RAIN

Heavy rain falls on a car windshield
iStock.com/Willowpix

People don’t always think of a torrential downpour the same way they think of a snowstorm, but heavy rain can impede visibility and cause hydroplaning, where the wheels come off the pavement and onto the surface of the water, causing drivers to lose control.

What to Do: For any type of driving in the rain, make sure your tire tread depth is no less than 5/32 of an inch, and preferably much more: new tires typically start around 10/32 of an inch. A worn tire at 2/32 of an inch is asking for a crash, as the stopping distance of a car is increased and traction is reduced. You can estimate depth by sticking a penny upside-down in the tread: If the top of Lincoln's head is visible, it's time for new tires.

Solomon also recommends changing your wipers regularly: a more durable winter blade, a March rain blade, and another August rain blade. And make sure they’re not being held back by your cleaning habits. “If you’re going through car washes and they’re using wax, the wipers are going to be sliding over that,” he says. A wax stripper found at automotive stores can erase that residue, clearing your windshield and allowing your wipes to make better contact with the glass. “The first time you spray it on, you’ll get a crusty, filmy look, which is all the wax you’re dissolving.”

If your windshield is clean but the rain is still obscuring your vision, then you’re probably driving too fast for the wipers to clean the glass efficiently. If it’s that bad, pull over to the side of the road and wait for the downpour to ease up. But never, ever park under an overpass. “You’re a sitting duck there,” Solomon says. “You’re stopped with a guardrail or pillar next to you and your transmission locked. If you’re struck by another vehicle, there’s no place for your car to go. That’s a huge amount of weight hitting you.”

4. BLINDED BY GLARE

A driver observes sun coming through the car windshield
iStock.com/xijian

Winter or summer, the sun sometimes has a way of shining through your windshield just the right angle to effectively blind you. Keeping a pair of sunglasses handy is the best solution, but there are a few other ways to cope.

What to Do: “All cars come equipped with a sun visor,” Solomon says. “The problem is when people pull it down and the edge is pointed at your nose. In a collision, your face will slam right into it.”

Instead, pull the visor down and then push it all the way toward the windshield, then slowly bring it forward until it blocks the sun. (The bottom should still be pointed away from you and toward the windshield. Solomon also keeps a baseball cap in his car so he can use the bill to block the sun without obstructing his view. If glare is coming from the left-side window, remember that most visors are detachable on one end and should be able to pivot and block peripheral light.

5. A TIRE BLOWOUT

A car tire rests on the ground after a blowout
iStock.com/batuhan toker

While some tires may pick up a stray nail or sharp object and deflate slowly, others lose pressure suddenly. If you’re down to three good tires, you’re no longer in a position to drive safely on the road.

What to Do: “The big mistake people make with a sudden loss of pressure is to hit the brake and stop to save the tire,” Solomon says. “But if the air went out that quick, the tire is gone.”

Instead of trying to salvage the tire, focus on getting off the road. If you’ve lost pressure, you want to continue traveling in a straight direction until you can stop. If the tire’s sidewall blows out, the car will probably move in the opposite direction of the break. A blown front right tire will cause the vehicle to drift left, for example. “Drive with two hands on the wheel, put your emergency flashers on, check your mirrors, and get over to the right shoulder of the road if at all possible,” Solomon says. “If you’re in a skid, you may have to keep your foot on the accelerator a little bit to force the wheel to move forward.”

Check your tire pressure at least once a week, especially in winter, when the pressure can drop. But if it suddenly turns warmer, make sure to let the air escape. An overinflated tire can cause the side tread to leave the surface, leaving only the center tread in contact with the road. Your owner's manual or a label inside of the driver's side door will tell you the correct tire pressure for the vehicle.

6. BRAKE FAILURE

A foot presses on a brake pedal
iStock.com/Kameleon007

The ability to stop a vehicle is probably the most important function of all, and when it fails, it’s easy for panic to set in. If you’re pushing the brake pedal and nothing is happening, you need to take immediate action.

What to Do: First, don’t assume your brake lights are still working. “Hit your emergency flashers and pump the brake quickly three or four times,” Solomon says. If that doesn’t work, you need to take a lightning-fast look at the floor mat. It’s not uncommon for the mat to get bunched up behind the brake pedal, making it hard to move. Dislodging it while the vehicle is in motion is dangerous, so prevention is key: Make sure your mat is the right fit for your vehicle, is snapped in place if that option is available, and that you haven't stacked mats on top of each other.

If that looks clear, then go into neutral. “You want to deprive the car of forward motion,” Solomon says. Once you’re in neutral, take your emergency brake—typically a lever with a button on the side console—and begin pumping it up and down. (Some cars have an electronic brake that only requires a button push. Read your owner’s manual.) The brake should lock up the rear wheels and allow the car to come to a stop.

7. SOMEONE IS TAILGATING YOU

A car is seen in a rearview mirror
iStock.com/Ryan Herron

Having a vehicle riding too close to your rear bumper can be a nerve-wracking experience. If you need to brake suddenly, the car is likely to collide with yours. If you honk, flash your lights, or make an insulting hand gesture, you run the risk of antagonizing someone who is already behaving irrationally.

What to Do: “What I want to do is encourage them to pass me,” Solomon says. “If I can, I’ll signal, move to the right-hand lane, and that will generally take care of it.” If you can’t, wait for an intersection so you can make a right turn or drive into a service station. Just don’t engage them: “There’s nothing you’re going to do to stop them from tailgating you. Tricks like tapping your brakes—well, no, you’re dealing with an aggressive person and you’re only going to make them more angry.”

8. GETTING STUCK BEHIND A COMMERCIAL TRUCK

Commercial trucks take up both lanes of a road
iStock.com/esemelwe

Feeling the rush of wind that accompanies a passing 18-wheeler can give you a healthy respect for these road behemoths. If you’re behind one, they can make it difficult to see what’s ahead. If you’re behind two, or in the middle of them, you might start to feel trapped.

What to Do: It’s important to determine whether the truck driver is aware of your existence before you attempt to pass. “If I can’t see the driver’s rear-view mirror, he can’t see me,” Solomon says. “If I can see their reflection, then they can probably see me.”

A good rule of thumb is to add an extra second of following distance to the recommended three seconds for most drivers. (Following distance is the amount of time it would take for your car to pass a landmark, like a roadside sign, after the driver in front of you has passed it.) In bad weather, Solomon says to increase it to seven or even 12 seconds to avoid debris and snow hitting your windshield.

If you’re stuck between trucks on a three-lane highway, decrease your speed by about five miles and let both trucks overtake you. Eventually, one will go faster than the other, and you’ll be able to choose your lane. The same holds true for buses.

9. DRIVING IN FOG

A road is covered in fog
iStock.com/Cha_DZ

It makes for fine gothic horror movies and ‘80s music videos, but fog is otherwise a hazard. Driving through it can reduce visibility in a manner similar to a bad snowfall.

What to Do: Your instinct might be to put on your high beams to better illuminate the road ahead. Don’t. “You’ll wind up seeing less,” Solomon says. “The beam shines further into the fog and reflects off the water particulates, shining the light right back into your eyes.” Instead, keep your lights dim and slow down.

10. DEER CROSSINGS

A deer crossing sign is posted next to a road
iStock.com/jimkruger

Back roads can often be nestled directly in the path of deer, animals that have no understanding of passing traffic and can appear out of nowhere. Even if you manage to avoid hitting one, a yearling could be nearby, ready to do serious damage in a collision. In this case, responsibility falls strictly on you to avoid an accident. “Deer don’t look both ways before crossing,” Solomon says.

What to Do: If you’re in deer country and it’s dark, you can try flashing your headlights to get a deer’s attention. They might take it as a sign to hang back. If you see a deer up ahead, take your foot off the gas to slow your speed, then flash your lights. This may make it run off the road. If not, it’s time to brake: Swerving off the road at highway speeds is risky and can cause serious injury to the driver and passengers. Always read the road ahead. You don’t want an animal that large smashing through your windshield. And as bad as it may sound, it will be even worse if they survive the impact. “If it’s not dead, it will be kicking, with sharp hooves and antlers,” Solomon says.

Get to the side of the road immediately and exit the car. If traffic is high or the road is narrow, go through the passenger’s side door. Above all, take the deer crossing signs seriously and go slow. “When you see those signs, it wasn’t because the state or county had some extra money and thought they’d go put them up,” Solomon says. “It means there have been problems with deer crossing the road.”

5 Holiday Foods That Are Dangerous to Pets

iStock/svetikd
iStock/svetikd

One of the best parts of the holiday season is the menu of indulgent food and drinks that comes along with it. But while you enjoy that cup of spiked hot cocoa, you’ve got to be careful your dog or cat doesn’t nab a lick. Here are five holiday treats that are dangerous for your pets, according to Vetstreet.

1. COFFEE

Any coffee lover will agree that there’s nothing quite like an after-dinner cup of joe on a cold night. But pups, kitties, and other pets will have to sit this tradition out. Caffeine can prompt seizures and abnormal heart rhythms in pets, and can sometimes be fatal. Other caffeinated drinks, such as soda or tea, should also be kept away from your four-legged family members.

2. BREAD DOUGH

We know the threat that bread dough poses to the appearance of our thighs, but it’s much more dangerous to our furry little friends. Holiday bakers have to be careful of unbaked bread dough as it can expand in animal stomachs if ingested. In some dogs, the stomach can twist and cut off the blood supply, in which case the pup would need emergency surgery.

3. CHOCOLATE

Cat and dog in Santa hats chowing down on plates of food
iStock/TatyanaGl

A little chocolate never hurt anybody, right? Wrong. The sweet treat can cause seizures and even be fatal to our pets. Darker chocolate, such as the baker’s chocolate we love to put in our holiday cookies, is more toxic to our pets than milk or white chocolate. The toxic ingredients include caffeine and theobromine, a chemical found in the cacao plant.

4. MACADAMIA NUTS

Macadamia nuts, which are a common ingredient in holiday cookies and often put out to munch on as an appetizer, can be toxic to dogs. While poisoning might not always be easy to detect in a pet, clinical warning signs include depression, weakness, vomiting, tremors, joint stiffness, and lack of coordination.

5. ALCOHOL

Think back to when you first started drinking and how much less alcohol it took to get you tipsy, because you likely weighed less than you do now. Well, your pet probably weighs a lot less than you did, even back then, meaning it takes much less alcohol to make them dangerously sick. Keep those wine glasses far out of reach of your pets in order to avoid any issues. Well, maybe not any issue: We can’t promise that this will stop you from getting embarrassingly drunk at a holiday party this year.

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