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7 Ways People Humiliated Each Other 100 Years Ago

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A few good and/or horrifying practical jokes found in books from the early 20th century. Don't try these in modern times.

1. Air Hose to the Rectum

Some of the pranks we found were presented as cautionary tales to the reader—including this one, from a 1921 Safety Pamphlet for industrial laborers. The prank itself is simple enough; just blow super-compressed air up someone’s unsuspecting bottom, giving them the biggest goosing of their lives, and everyone laughs. The pamphlet devoted a special section to what must have been a common practice: 

Ed, as a practical joke, slipped up behind Will and held the compressed air nozzle against his rectum. The air instantly burst the large intestine. Blood poisoning immediately followed and in three days Will was dead.

I know how hard it is, when you top off your tires at the gas station, not to squeeze that nozzle and look around for the nearest unsuspecting large intestine, but for the love of God, control yourself. As the ad clearly states, “THIS TRICK ALWAYS KILLS THE VICTIM.”

2. Black Sand Jack

Writer Henry Llewellyn Williams tells one of the most brazen practical jokes to ever be perpetrated on a room full of grizzled 19th century gold prospectors. One night in the saloon, Jack—a mountain man widely known for his steely disposition and strange ways—entered the bar. He held gunpowder in his hand and announced, “Boys! I’ve lived long enough.” He set the powder off to a fine small explosion, capturing everyone’s attention. Then as if gripped by rage, he tore off his entire powder horn and threw it into the saloon fire, screaming, “And let every brave man die with me!”

No brave men were present that day, as everyone left their money and gold and ran for their lives. No explosion occurred, and the prospectors gradually filtered back in to find both Jack and a good amount of their money gone. Once the initial outrage died down, he became known almost affectionately as “Black Sand Jack,” since that is what he’d thrown in the fire. He was never seen in that settlement again.

3. Meat Handles

This joke required a set-up rarely seen today. Gates had pull-strings for their bells, which would announce a visitor to the house. Jokers would tie a piece of raw meat tightly to the string overnight, ensuring that every stray dog and cat (and there were a lot in those days) would end up ringing the bell. But when the startled occupant would come to the door with his candle held high, he would see no one, either because of the height of the gate or having himself startled away the animals. This would continue at random intervals all night. And, should the bell pull be near enough for him to see the meat, the very act of trying to remove it would cause a neighborhood-rousing uproar of clanging, while still leaving enough scent on the pull-string to continue the parade of animal visitors.

4. Horrible Swelling

This joke was best done at a university or boarding school, and requires dexterity with a needle and thread. While the victim sleeps, take his clothing and run quick hems down the legs of his pants and the arms of his shirt. The goal is to make the clothes too small in such a way that a sleep addled brain wouldn’t immediately notice. Listen carefully through the door to hear your victim rising and trying to shove himself into clothes that just don’t quite fit, though they did mere hours ago. Then, enter the room as if by accident and cry out in horror, saying, “What happened? You’ve swollen grotesquely in the night! Call the doctor! I’ve never seen a case of dropsy so severe and sudden!” This would have been most successful at a time when people had no electric lights, mirrors, and all the worldly guile of a 3-year-old.

5. The Sinning Donkey

This is the story of a mischievous Frenchman (yes, they specified a Frenchman) who happened upon a donkey tied outside of an inn. He eased the animal out of its harness, and shooed it away where a friend was waiting to steal it. He then tied himself up in the harness. When the owner of the donkey returned, the Frenchman fell to his knees and wailed with joy, “Thank you dear Lord, for allowing me to return to my human form! My sins have been forgiven, my time of penance has passed!” With that he staggered away, as if in a trance of joy. The next day his friend took the donkey to be sold at market, and sure enough, the donkey’s original owner was there. Upon seeing the beast he cried, “What? Has the wretch sinned again?” He then addressed the entire market, “For the love of God, friends, have nothing to do with this animal. He fooled me once, but I will not be caught again.”

6. Sign Switcheroo

Once upon a time, clever teenagers did not have marquee boards outside of schools and restaurants to rearrange letters on, making “Try our Angus Beef Quarter-Pounder” into … well, you’ve been on the Internet long enough to see where that’s going. Instead, truly enterprising young men would hack off and switch particular pieces of shop signs, cutting a piece off here and nailing on a piece there. The marriage of a surgeon’s theater sign with a piece of a washwoman’s would read, “Mr. Hickstrop, Surgeon. Mangling done here.” Or, a hairdresser’s sign tacked up with that of a coach rental to read, “Robert Dickenson Coaches to Let as Well as Ladies’ Fronts and Toupees.” 

7. Sheet String

This one required drilling a small hole in the wall between your neighbor’s bedroom and your own, and was only for the most determined, obnoxious of jokers. While the victim is out, sew thin string to the bed coverings, and feed the string back through the hole to your own room. Then, once your victim starts snoring, gently pull the blankets off his body. He will awake confused, replace the blankets, and grow increasingly agitated through the night as you continue to torture him. Which was apparently worth staying up all night.

This post was inspired by this Reddit thread.

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History
The Day Notre Dame Students Pummeled the Ku Klux Klan
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At first glance, there was nothing unusual about the men who stepped off the train in South Bend, Indiana on the morning of May 17, 1924. Dapper and mannered, they drifted from the station to the downtown area. Some headed for a nearby office that sported a red cross made out of light bulbs stationed in the window. Others roamed around looking for Island Park, the site of a planned social gathering.

A closer look at these visitors revealed one common trait: Many were carrying a folded white robe under their arm. Those who had arrived earlier were fully clothed in their uniform and hood, directing automobile traffic to the park.

The Ku Klux Klan had arrived in town.

Fresh off a controversial leadership election in Indianapolis, Indiana, there was no reason for Klansmen to have any apprehension about holding a morale booster in South Bend. Indiana was Klan territory, with an estimated one in three native born white men sworn members within state lines. Just a few months later, Klansman Ed Jackson would be elected governor.

It was only when Klansmen found themselves guided into alleys and surrounded by an irate gang of Catholic students from nearby Notre Dame University that they realized mobilizing in South Bend may have been a very bad idea.

The Klan wanted a rally. What they got was a full-scale riot.

Photo of KKK Indiana Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson
Indiana Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson
By IndyStar, Decemeber 12, 1922 issue, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Politically-endorsed prejudice was the order of the day in the early part of the 20th century, when the Klan—first created in 1866 to oppose Republican Reconstruction with violent racial enmity and then revived in 1915—expanded its tentacles to reach law enforcement and civil service. No longer targeting people of color exclusively, the KKK took issue with Catholics, the Jewish faith, and immigrants. An estimated 4 million Americans belonged to the Klan in the 1920s, all echoing the group’s philosophy that only white, God-fearing citizens were worthy of respect.

Under the guidance of Indiana's Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson, the group had attempted to shift public perception from the lynch mobs of the past to an orderly and articulate assembly. Rallies were held in KKK-friendly areas; propaganda material was becoming an effective weapon for their cause. Acceptance of the Klan’s ideology seeped into political office; Stephenson was a prominent Indiana politician.

To help continue that indoctrination, the Klan made plans for a parade in South Bend to be held on May 17, 1924. That it would be in close proximity to the Notre Dame campus was no mistake: At the time, 75 percent of the school's nearly 2000 students were Catholic, a religion the Klan found abhorrent. By pledging allegiance to the Vatican, their reasoning went, Catholics were acknowledging a foreign power. In the fall of 1923, they had persisted in setting crosses on fire near the University of Dayton in Dayton, Ohio, a predominantly Catholic college, and were frequently chased off by angered football players. That December, the Klan set off firebombs in Dayton during Christmas break. While no one was seriously injured, the intent was to send a message—one they wanted to spread to Indiana.

In the weeks and months leading up to the parade, both students and faculty began to get a taste of that perspective. Copies of the Fiery Cross, the official Klan newspaper, circulated on campus; one Klansman showed up at an auditorium to broadcast that Catholics were not good Americans. He exited the stage when attendees began throwing potatoes at him.

If that public response was foreshadowing, the Klan either ignored or failed to heed the warning. Members began arriving the Friday evening prior to the rally and were met at the train station by irritated students, who scuffled with the early arrivals by ripping their robes. By Saturday morning, when more Klansmen arrived, hundreds of students were in town, a loosely organized anti-Klan task force.

Keystone Features/Getty Images

Klan members were used to breezing into towns without incident. Here, they were immediately confronted by young, ornery college kids proud of their Catholicism. Klansmen were led into alleys and tossed into walls; students who played for the school’s legendary football squad formed wedges, the offensive line-ups found on the field, and plowed into groups of Klan members like they were challenging for a state title.

The violence, swift and sudden, prompted the Klan to retreat to their headquarters in South Bend. The students followed, their blood pumping hot at the sight of the red cross lit in the office window. Below it stood a grocery store with barrels of fresh potatoes. The students lobbed them at the glass, smashing the bulbs inside.

The conflict had been uninterrupted by law enforcement, but not for lack of trying. Deputy Sheriff John Cully, himself a Klansman, tried to enlist the National Guard but was shot down by officials. Notre Dame president Matthew Walsh had already implored students not to go into town, but his words went unheeded.

Unencumbered by authority, the 100 or so students idling near the Klan’s office decided they wanted to seize the hideout. Dozens began running up the stairs but were greeted by a Klan member who produced a gun. Unarmed, the students backed off. Four seniors went back and came to an impromptu truce: The student body would disperse if the Klan agreed to hold their rally without weapons or their robes.

The agreement seemed to placate both sides until Stephenson finally arrived in town before the parade’s scheduled 6:30 p.m. start. Assessing the roughed-up Klansmen and their skittish behavior, he complained to the police, who posted officers on horseback around their assembly at Island Park.

But there would be no rally: A heavy downpour prompted Stephenson to call it off, although the potential for further violence likely weighed on his mind. Lingering students who still hadn’t returned to campus met departing Klansmen as they attempted to drive out of town, smashing windows and even tipping over one car.

By Sunday, things seemed to have settled down. Walsh cringed at newspaper reports of the incidents, fearing it would portray the students as thugs.

Unfortunately, neither side was done protesting. And when they met a second time, the robed men would be backed up by lawman Cully and a squad of 30 deputized Klansmen.

Denver News - The Library of Congress (American Memory Collection), Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Students back on campus Monday had taken to hanging up seized Klan robes and hoods on their walls like trophies. It had been a rout, with the Klan barely putting up a fight.

Now, word was spreading through the halls that the Klan had captured or perhaps had even killed a Notre Dame student. Roughly 500 students jogged the two miles back into South Bend, eager for another confrontation.

When they arrived at the Klan’s headquarters, the light bulb cross had been rebuilt. It was an act of defiance, and the students moved forward. But the Klan was prepared: Many had been deputized, and uniformed officers joined the melee. Axe handles and bottles were brandished, and blood began to stain the street. It was a clash, with parties on both sides laid out.

When he got word of the conflict, Walsh rushed to the site and climbed on top of a cannon that was part of a monument. Shouting to be heard, he implored students to return to campus. His voice cut through the sounds of breaking glass, snapping the students out of their reverie. They returned to the school.

Absent any opposition, the Klan did the same. Stragglers from out of town returned home. With bombastic prose, writers for the Fiery Cross later recapped the event by accusing Notre Dame students of “beating women and children.” Later that summer, they declared they’d be returning to South Bend in greater number.

It never happened. Although the Klan maintained an aura of strength for several more years, the conviction of Stephenson for raping and murdering a woman in November 1925 extinguished one of their most enthusiastic leaders; the Depression dampened the ability of new recruits to pay dues. By 1930, the Klan was down to an estimated 45,000 members.

While Walsh never condoned the vigilante justice exacted that weekend, he never disciplined a single student for it.

Additional Sources:
Notre Dame vs. the Klan, by Todd Tucker (Loyola Press, 2004)
"Hearing the Silence: The University of Dayton, the Ku Klux Klan, and Catholic Universities and Colleges in the 1920s" [PDF], by William Vance Trollinger

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History
Why the Berlin Wall Rose and Fell
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One of history's most notorious barriers broke ground early in the morning on August 13, 1961, when East German construction workers, guarded by soldiers and police, began tearing up the Berlin streets.

As European history professor Konrad H. Jarausch explains in this video from Ted-Ed, the roots of the Berlin Wall can be found in the period of instability that followed World War II. When the Allies couldn't decide how to govern Germany, they decided to split up the country between the Federal Republic of Germany in the West and the German Democratic Republic in the East. Eventually, citizens (especially young professionals) began fleeing the GDR for the greater freedoms—and higher salaries—of the West. The wall helped stem the tide, and stabilized the East German economy, but came at great cost to the East's reputation. In the end, the wall lasted less than three decades, as citizen pressures against it mounted.

You can learn more about exactly why the wall went up, and how it came down, in the video below.

[h/t The Kid Should See This]

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