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To Great Lengths: 7 Historic Cures for Impotence

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We may think of the inability to get or maintain an erection as a problem reserved for the ruggedly handsome 50-year-old millionaires joyously piloting their yachts in the background of Viagra commercials. But there has never been a time or place where men weren’t extremely attached to their penises, and the sexual vitality and youth they represent. For centuries the desire to “Rouse the Venus loitering in the Veins” has driven men to take whatever insane cures were currently popular. Sometimes it was drinking tea made from flowers with big stamens … sometimes it was burning witches. Here are seven historic methods men used to regain a firm grasp on their masculinity.

1. Eating Animal Privates

Here is the first rule for ancient impotency cures, and it applies to nearly the entire planet: If an animal bears a feature that even remotely resembles a reproductive organ, or makes you think of ferocity, or is known for rapid reproduction, or maybe you dreamed about that animal, or maybe you caught a bug and you don’t know what else to do with it … grind that sucker up and eat it. It’ll restore your manhood. Over the millennia pretty much every animal has had its penis, horns, fins, muscle, bones, bladder, or exoskeleton ground into an aphrodisiac. Albertus Magnus was a philosopher and writer in the 1200s, and he would have laughed in the sissy face of Viagra. His method was for real men. “If a wolf’s penis is roasted in an oven, cut into small pieces, and a small portion of this is chewed, the consumer will experience an immediate yen for sexual intercourse.” If catching a wolf and roasting his genitals in your oven doesn’t make you feel like a man, nothing will.  

2. “Congesters” (Penis Pumps)

Frederick Hollick, in his 1850 book The Marriage Guide, described a case brought to him involving a man who had married at 32 in the hopes of curing his life-long impotence. This did not happen, and “the misery of two humans could scarcely be more complete.” So the good doctor stuck the unfortunate penis into his Congester. The Congester was very similar to a modern penis pump: It worked by sucking all the air out of the tube the penis was put into, creating a vacuum that forced blood into the spongy tissue of the phallus. After two weeks of regular applications with The Congester, the newlywed’s manhood was up and running. The really weird thing is urologists still sometimes recommend this for patients who don’t respond to Viagra. Perhaps penis pumps, like sunsets, are something science can’t improve upon.   

3. Flagellation

Oh, the poor French. English speakers put their name in front of anything they want to make sound sordid. French kisses, French letters (condoms), and the French Disease (syphilis). And then the 19th century French cure for impotence. Flagellation. Yes. That means to take a small cat o' nine tails whip, and lightly tickle and spank the privates of the uninspired patient. Dr. Hollick describes it thusly: The Flagellator should be applied “the whole length of the Penis, and on the Pubes, the Perinuem, and inside of the thighs, until the flesh is quite red and smarts.” This causes an influx of blood to the parts that are lacking vitality. And possibly the development of a fetish that will bring endless nights of both satisfaction and mild abrasion burns.  

4. Burning Witches

In 1486, German Inquisitor Heinrich Kramer wrote Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches), a treatise on how to recognize witchcraft—as well as a refutation to those gullible enough not to believe that a witch could steal your penis. Don’t kid yourself. Your penis is very important to a witch and the dark forces she wields. You might ask, why isn’t she using her magic to overthrow governments or poison well water? Because those things are nothing compared to the performance of your wedding tackle! She’ll risk her own life, just to take the breeze out of your windsock! People used Kramer’s Hammer to smelt out witches for centuries. As he described, a witch would curse newlywed men with impotence, making them unable to consummate their marriages and causing disharmony in God’s Holy union. Luckily, the early church allowed for marriage annulment on the grounds of magical impotence. The witch who caused it, however, was in trouble. As late as 1718, the Parliament of Bourdeaux executed a witch for this crime. 

5. Splints

Splints! Like for a broken arm! But instead for a droopy penis! Inventors have been applying for new and improved penis splint patents through all of the 20th century; one of the most recent in 2009. Splints have a rigid base on which the penis lays, and two rings attached, one to grasp the member at either end. It is usually strapped to the body around the back or scrotum. Though most men would be sold right at “scrotum strapping,” there were other points to consider. First of all, a splinted penis does not always an erection make, any more than straightening out cooked spaghetti makes it raw again. Also, splints by their very nature have to be made of a hard, unyielding material (spring steel, bronze, or aluminum was recommended in a 1922 patent). This means the couple using the splint would have inhospitable materials thrashing around their privates. Materials that don’t belong down there, unless one is trying to extract a Dark Ages sorcery confession. Even then it’s just awful. 

6. Don’t Think of Sex!

In the early 19th century, some physicians believed impotence could be caused by overuse of the sexual faculties, especially from “self-abuse.” That the musculature, such as it was, was tired. So they’d put the penis on strict bed rest. Anything that might cause the slightest swell in a man’s nethers was to be avoided. The imagination must be cleansed and blood drawn away from the “apperature” whenever possible. “The local application of cold water has a great affect in allaying the excitable state of the generative organs, and should be had recourse to at least twice a day,” said an entry in The Cyclopaedia of Practical Medicine, published in 1833. The strange thing is this might have worked, though not as intended. It’s the same principle as “don’t think of a white elephant.” You can’t help but think of it. Now, don’t think of Madame’s bountiful décolletage! You’re not allowed. Stop! Oh, you thought of it. Now look what you’ve done.

7. Monkey Testicle Grafts

As medical advancements continued into the 20th century, men of science came to view grounding up animal privates and eating them for virility as horrifically primitive. To truly cure impotence, those privates needed to be surgically grafted onto the patient! Enter Serge Voronoff. In 1920, he performed his first monkey-to-man testicular operation. (Before he had used the testicles of dead criminals for this operation, but as you can imagine, he eventually ran out of dead criminals and resorted to monkeys.) He grafted a thin slice of chimpanzee testicle onto that of a man that suffered waning virility. In reality, the human body rejected the foreign object immediately, leaving a scar that led both the doctor and his patients to believe the graft was successfully in place. Even though this process didn’t work, no one seemed to care. By the 1930s, thousands of wealthy men everywhere where lining up to have monkeyball inserted into their scrotums. Unfortunately with success comes skeptics, and Voronoff’s work was soon unveiled as being utterly deranged. Sad news for the men who had believed themselves cured (good news, though, for the monkeys). 

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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ERIC FEFERBERG, AFP/Getty Images
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9 Scandals that Rocked the Figure Skating World
ERIC FEFERBERG, AFP/Getty Images
ERIC FEFERBERG, AFP/Getty Images

Don't let the ornate costumes and beautiful choreography fool you, figure skaters are no strangers to scandal. Here are nine notable ones.

1. TONYA AND NANCY.

Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding
Pascal Rondeau, ALLSPORT/Getty Images

In 1994, a little club-and-run thrust the sport of figure skating into the spotlight. The assault on reigning national champion Nancy Kerrigan (and her subsequent anguished cries) at the 1994 U.S. National Figure Skating Championships in Detroit was heard round the world, as were the allegations that her main rival, Tonya Harding, may have been behind it all.

The story goes a little something like this: As America's sweetheart (Kerrigan) is preparing to compete for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team bound for Lillehammer, Norway, she gets clubbed in the knee outside the locker room after practice. Kerrigan is forced to withdraw from competition and Harding gets the gold. Details soon emerge that Harding's ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, was behind the attack (he hired a hitman). Harding denies any knowledge or involvement, but tanks at the Olympics the following month. She then pleads guilty to hindering prosecution of Gillooly and his co-conspirators, bodyguard Shawn Eckhart and hitman Shane Stant. And then she's banned from figure skating for life.

Questions about Harding's guilt remain two decades later, and the event is still a topic of conversation today. Recently, both an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary and the Oscar-nominated film I, Tonya revisited the saga, proving we can't get enough of a little figure skating scandal.

2. HAND-PICKED FOR GOLD.

Mirai Nagasu and Ashley Wagner at the podium
Jared Wickerham, Getty Images

Usually it's the top three medalists at the U.S. Nationals that compete for America at the Winter Olympics every four years. But in 2014, gold medalist Gracie Gold (no pun intended), silver medalist Polina Edmunds, and ... "pewter" medalist Ashley Wagner were destined for Sochi.

What about the bronze medalist, you ask? Mirai Nagasu, despite out-skating Wagner by a landslide in Boston and despite being the only skater with prior Olympic experience (she placed fourth at Vancouver in 2010) had to watch it all on television. The decision by the country's governing body of figure skating (United States Figure Skating Association, or USFS) deeply divided the skating community as to whether it was the right choice to pass over Nagasu in favor of Wagner, who hadn't skated so great, and it put a global spotlight on the selection process.

In reality, the athletes that we send to the Olympics are not chosen solely on their performance at Nationals—it's one of many criteria taken into consideration, including performance in international competition over the previous year, difficulty of each skater's technical elements, and, to some degree, their marketability to a world audience. This has happened before to other skaters—most notably Michelle Kwan was relegated to being an alternate in 1994 after Nancy Kerrigan was granted a medical bye after the leg-clubbing heard round the world. Nagasu had the right to appeal the decision, and was encouraged to do so by mobs of angry skating fans, but she elected not to.

3. SALT LAKE CITY, 2002.

Pairs skaters Jamie Sale and David Pelletier of Canada and Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze of Russia perform in the figure skating exhibition during the Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games at the Salt Lake Ice Center in Salt Lake City, Utah
Brian Bahr, Getty Images

Objectively, this scandal rocked the skating world the hardest, because the end result was a shattering of the competitive sport's very structure. When Canadian pairs team Jamie Sale and David Pelletier found themselves in second place after a flawless freeskate at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake, something wasn't right. The Russian team of Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze placed first, despite a technically flawed performance.

An investigation into the result revealed that judges had conspired to fix the results of the pairs and dance events—a French judge admitted to being pressured to vote for the Russian pair in exchange for a boost for the French dance team (who won that event). In the end, both pairs teams were awarded a gold medal, and the entire system of judging figure skating competition was thrown out and rebuilt.

4. AGENT OF STYLE.

Jackson Haines was an American figure skater in the mid-1800s who had some crazy ideas about the sport. He had this absolutely ludicrous notion of skating to music (music!), waltzing on ice, as well as incorporating balletic movements, athletic jumps, and spins into competition. His brand new style of skating was in complete contrast to the rigid, traditional, and formal (read: awkward) standard of tracing figure-eights into the ice. Needless to say, it was not well received by the skating world in America, so he was forced to take his talents to the Old World.

His new “international style” did eventually catch on around the globe, and Haines is now hailed as the father of modern figure skating. He also invented the sit spin, a technical element now required in almost every level and discipline of the sport.

5. LADIES LAST.

In 1902, competitive figure skating was a gentlemen's pursuit. Ladies simply didn't compete by themselves on the world stage (though they did compete in pairs events). But a British skater named Madge Syers flouted that standard, entering the World Figure Skating Championships in 1902. She ruffled a lot of feathers, but was ultimately allowed to compete and beat the pants off every man save one, earning the silver medal.

Her actions sparked a controversy that spurred the International Skating Union to create a separate competitive world event for women in 1906. Madge went on to win that twice, and became Olympic champion at the 1908 summer games [PDF] in London—the first “winter” Olympics weren't held until 1924 in France, several years after Madge died in 1917.

6. AGENT OF STYLE, PART 2.

A picture of Norwegian figure skater Sonja Henie
Keystone/Getty Images

Norwegian skater Sonja Henie was the darling of the figure skating world in the first half of the 20th century. The flirtatious blonde was a three-time Olympic champion, a movie star, and the role model of countless aspiring skaters. She brought sexy back to skating—or rather, introduced it. She was the first skater to wear scandalously short skirts and white skates. Prior to her bold fashion choices, ladies wore black skates and long, conservative skirts. During WWII, a fabric shortage hiked up the skirts even further than Henie's typical length, and the ladies of figure skating have never looked back.

7. TOO SEXY FOR HER SKATES.

Katarina Witt displaying her gold medal
DANIEL JANIN, AFP/Getty Images

A buxom young beauty from the former Democratic German Republic dominated ladies figure skating in the mid- to late 1980s. A two-time Olympic champion, and one of the most decorated female skaters in history, Katarina Witt was just too sexy for her shirt—she tended to wear scandalously revealing costumes (one of which resulted in a wardrobe malfunction during a show), and was criticized for attempting to flirt with the judges to earn higher scores.

The ISU put the kibosh on the controversial outfits soon afterward, inserting a rule that all competitive female skaters “must not give the effect of excessive nudity inappropriate for an athletic sport.” The outrage forced Witt to add some fabric to her competitive outfits in the late '80s. But 10 years later she took it all off, posing naked for a 1998 issue of Playboy.

8. MORE COSTUME CONTROVERSY.

For the 2010 competitive year, the ISU's annual theme for the original dance segment (since defunct and replaced by the “short dance”) was “country/folk.” That meant competitors had to create a routine that explored some aspect of it, in both music and costume as well as in maneuvers. The top Russian pair chose to emulate Aboriginal tribal dancing in their program, decked in full bodysuits adorned with their interpretation of Aboriginal body paint (and a loincloth).

Their debut performance at the European Championships drew heavy criticism from Aboriginal groups in both Australia and Canada, who were greatly offended by the inaccuracy of the costumes and the routine. The Russian pair, Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, were quick to dial down the costumes and dial up the accuracy in time for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, but the judges were not impressed. They ended up with the bronze, ending decades of Russian dominance in the discipline. (With the glaring exception of 2002, of course.)

9. IN MEMORIAM.

While not a scandal, this event bears mentioning because it has rocked the figure skating world arguably more than anything else. In February of 1961, the American figure skating team boarded a flight to Belgium from New York, en route to the World Championships in Prague. The plane went down mysteriously (cause still questioned today) as it tried to land in Brussels, killing all 72 passengers. America's top skaters and coaches had been aboard, including nine-time U.S. Champion and Olympic bronze medalist-turned-coach Maribel Vinson-Owen and her daughter Laurence Owen, a 16-year-old who had been heavily favored to win the ladies event that year.

The ISU canceled the competition upon the news of the crash and the United States lost its long-held dominance in the sport for almost a decade. The United States Figure Skating Association (USFS) soon after established a memorial fund that helped support the skating careers of competitors in need of financial assistance, including future Olympic champions like Scott Hamilton and Peggy Fleming.

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