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.

5 Clues Daenerys Targaryen Will Die in the Final Season of Game of Thrones

HBO
HBO

by Mason Segall

The final season of HBO's epic Game of Thrones is hovering on the horizon like a lazy sun and, at the end of the day, fans have only one real question about how it will end: Who will sit the Iron Throne? One of the major contenders is Daenerys of the thousand-and-one names, who not only has one of the most legitimate claims to the throne, but probably deserves it the most.

However, Game of Thrones has a habit of killing off main characters, particularly honorable ones, often in brutal and graphic ways. And unfortunately, there's already been some foreshadowing that writers will paint a target on Daenerys's back.

5. THE PROPHECIES

Carice van Houten in 'Game of Thrones'
Helen Sloan, HBO

What's a good fantasy story without a few prophecies hanging over people's heads? While the books the show is based on have a few more than usual, the main prophecy of Game of Thrones is Melisandre's rants about "the prince that was promised," basically her faith's version of a messiah.

Melisandre currently believes both Daenerys and Jon Snow somehow fulfill the prophecy, but her previous pick for the position died a grisly death, so maybe her endorsement isn't a good sign.

4. TYRION'S DEMANDS FOR A SUCCESSOR

Peter Dinklage and Emilia Clarke in a scene from 'Game of Thrones'
HBO

A particular scene in season seven saw Tyrion advising Daenerys to name a successor before she travels north to help Jon. She challenges him, "You want to know who sits on the Iron Throne after I'm dead. Is that it?" But that's exactly it. Tyrion is more than aware how mortal people are and wants to take precautions. He's seen enough monarchs die that he probably knows what warning signs to look for.

3. A FAMILY LEGACY

David Rintoul as the Mad King in 'Game of Thrones'
HBO

Daenerys is the daughter of the Mad King Aerys II, a paranoid pyromaniac of a monarch. More than once, Daenerys has been compared to her father, particularly in her more ruthless moments. Aerys was killed because of his insanity and arrogance. If Daenerys starts displaying more of his mental illness, she might follow in his footsteps to the grave.

2. HER DRAGONS AREN'T INVINCIBLE

Emilia Clarke in 'Game of Thrones'
HBO

The fall and subsequent resurrection of the dragon Viserion was one of the biggest surprises of season seven. Not only did it destroy one of Daenerys's trump cards, but it proved that her other two dragons were vulnerable as well. Since the three-headed dragon is the sigil of her house, this might be an omen that Daenerys is next on the chopping block.

1. THAT VISION

Emilia Clarke in 'Game of Thrones'
HBO

All the way back in season two, Daenerys received a vision in the House of the Undying of the great hall in King's Landing ransacked and covered in snow. Before she could even touch the iron throne, she was called away by her dragons and was confronted by her deceased husband and son. This is a clear indication that she might never sit the throne, something that would only happen if she were dead.

7 Tips for Winning an Arm Wrestling Match

iStock
iStock

Geoff Hale was playing Division II college baseball in Kansas City, Missouri, when he sat down and started flipping through the channels on his TV. There—probably on TBS—was Over the Top, the 1987 arm wrestling melodrama starring Sylvester Stallone as Lincoln Hawke, a truck driver who aspires to win his estranged son’s affections. And to do that, he has to win a national arm wrestling tournament. Obviously.

Neither the worst nor the best of Stallone’s efforts, Over the Top made Hale recall his high school years and how the fringe sport had satisfied his athletic interests, which weren't being met by baseball. “I had never lost a match,” Hale tells Mental Floss of his arm wrestling prowess. “The movie reminded me that I was good at it.”

That was 13 years ago. Now a professional competitor known as the Haleraiser, the full-time petroleum geologist has won several major titles. While you may not have the constitution for the surprisingly traumatic sport (more on that later), you might still want to handle yourself in the event of a spontaneous match breaking out. We asked Hale for some tips on what to do when you’re confronted with the opportunity to achieve a modest amount of glory while arm-grappling on a beer-stained table. This is what he told us.

1. KNOW THAT SIZE DOESN'T MATTER.

A child uses books to help in arm-wrestling an adult
iStock

Well, it does. But really only if your opponent knows what they’re doing. Otherwise, having a bowling pin for a forearm isn’t anything to be wary about. If anything, your densely-built foe may have a false sense of confidence. “Everyone has arm-wrestled since they were a kid and thinks they know what it is,” Hale says. “It looks easy, but there’s actually a very complex set of movements. It’s good to check your ego at the door.”

2. PRETEND YOU’RE PART OF THE TABLE.

A man offers to arm wrestle from behind a table
iStock

When you square up with your opposition to lock hands—thumb digging into the fleshy part, fingers wrapped around the back—don’t lean over the table with your butt in the air. And don’t make the common mistake of sitting down for a match, either. “It limits you from a technique standpoint,” Hale says, and could even open you up to injury.

Instead, you want to plant the foot that matches your dominant hand under the table with your hip touching the edge. With your free hand, grip the edge or push down on the top for stability. “Pretend like you’re part of the table,” Hale says. That way, you’ll be able to recruit your shoulders, triceps, and biceps into the competition.

3. REMEMBER TO BREATHE.

Two men engage in an arm wrestling match
iStock

If you’re turning the color of a lobster, you’re probably holding in your breath. “Don’t,” Hale says. Remember to continue taking in air through your nose. There’s no benefit to treating the match like a diving expedition. The lack of oxygen will just tire your muscles out faster.

4. BEAT THE HAND, NOT THE ARM.

Two hands appear in close-up during an arm wrestling contest
iStock

There are three basic techniques in arm wrestling, according to Hale: the shoulder press, the hook, and the top roll. The shoulder press recruits the shoulder right behind the arm, pushing the opposing appendage down as if you were performing a triceps pressdown. The hook is more complex, varying pressure from all sides and incorporating pulling motions to bend the wrist backward. For the best chance of winning, opt for the top roll, which involves sliding your hand up your opponent’s so your grip is attacking the top portion nearest the fingers. That way, he or she is recruiting fewer major muscle groups to resist. “When you beat the hand, the arm follows,” Hale says. Because this is more strategy than strength, you might wind up toppling some formidable-looking opponents.

5. IN A STALEMATE, WAIT FOR AN OPENING.

A man and woman engage in an arm wrestling contest
iStock

While lots of arm wrestling matches end quickly, others become a battle of attrition. When you find yourself locked up in the middle of the table, wait for your opponent to relax. They almost always will. “In a neutral position, it’s good to stay static, keeping your body and arm locked up,” Hale says. “You’re just waiting for your opponent to make a mistake.” The moment you feel their arm lose tension, attack.

6. TRY SCREAMING.

A woman screams while winning an arm wrestling contest
iStock

Arm wrestlers play all kinds of psychological games, and while some might be immune to trash talk, it’s likely your rival will be influenced by some selective insults. “You can make someone lose their focus easily,” Hale says. “In a stalemate, you can give them a hard time, tell them they’re not strong. It’s intimidating to be out of breath and to see someone just talking.”

7. WHEN ALL ELSE FAILS, GO SECOND.

A man struggles while losing an arm wrestling contest
iStock

Arm wrestling exacts a heavy toll on winners and losers alike: The prolonged muscle contractions can easily fatigue people not used to the exertion. If you fear a loss from a bigger, stronger opponent, conspire to have them wrestle someone else first, then take advantage of their fatigue.

If all goes well, you might want to consider pursuing the sport on more competitive levels—but you probably shouldn’t. “It takes a toll on the body,” Hale says. “I’ve got tendonitis and don’t compete as much as I used to. On the amateur level, it’s common to see arm breaks, usually the humerus [upper arm] bone. The body was not really made for arm wrestling.”

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