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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.

Scientists Reveal Long-Hidden Text in Alexander Hamilton Letter

Age, deterioration, and water damage are just a few of the reasons historians can be short on information that was once readily available on paper. Sometimes, it’s simply a case of missing pages. Other times, researchers can see “lost” text right under their noses.

One example: a letter written by Alexander Hamilton to his future wife, Elizabeth Schuyler, on September 6, 1780. On the surface, it looked very much like a rant about a Revolutionary War skirmish in Camden, South Carolina. But Hamilton scholars were excited by the 14 lines of writing in the first paragraph that had been crossed out. If they could be read, they might reveal some new dimension to one of the better-known Founding Fathers.

Using the practice of multispectral imaging—sometimes called hyperspectral imaging—conservationists at the Library of Congress were recently able to shine a new light on what someone had attempted to scrub out. In multispectral imaging, different wavelengths of light are “bounced” off the paper to reveal (or hide) different ink pigments. By examining a document through these different wavelengths, investigators can tune in to faded or obscured handwriting and make it visible to the naked eye.

A hyperspectral image of Alexander Hamilton's handwriting
Hyperspectral imaging of Hamilton's handwriting, from being obscured (top) to isolated and revealed (bottom).
Library of Congress

The text revealed a more emotional and romantic side to Hamilton, who had used the lines to woo Elizabeth. Technicians uncovered most of what he had written, with words in brackets still obscured and inferred:

Do you know my sensations when I see the
sweet characters from your hand? Yes you do,
by comparing [them] with your [own]
for my Betsey [loves] me and is [acquainted]
with all the joys of fondness. [Would] you
[exchange] them my dear for any other worthy
blessings? Is there any thing you would put
in competition[,] with one glowing [kiss] of
[unreadable], anticipate the delights we [unreadable]
in the unrestrained intercourses of wedded love,
and bet your heart joins mine in [fervent]
[wishes] to heaven that [all obstacles] and [interruptions]
May [be] speedily [removed].

Hamilton and Elizabeth Schuyler married on December 14, 1780. So why did Hamilton try and hide such romantic words during or after their courtship? He probably didn’t. Historians believe that his son, John Church Hamilton, crossed them out before publishing the letter as a part of a book of his father’s correspondence. He may have considered the passage a little too sexy for mass consumption.

[h/t Library of Congress]

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7 of History’s Most Unusual Riots
Scott Barbour/Getty Images
Scott Barbour/Getty Images

Some sociologists theorize that most rioters only join a crowd because the crowd is big enough to justify joining. But there’s always that one person who sparks the violence, and sometimes the reason for doing so can seem pretty baffling. Maybe a work of art scandalizes its audience, like the famous premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Or maybe it’s simply a notable act of disrespect, like history’s first recorded mooning (in Jerusalem in the first century CE). From balloonists to brown dogs to daylight saving time, here are seven weird reasons things just got out of hand.


The Darts Invitational Challenge, an international tournament held in Melbourne, attracted international gawking in January 2015 during the finals match between Michael "Mighty Mike" van Gerwen and Simon "The Wizard" Whitlock. The dart players weren’t making a scene, though: Rather, hundreds of spectators, many of them drunk and in costume, began throwing plastic chairs as they watched (pictured above). The reasons for the fight remain unclear; footage and photos show police trying to control adults dressed as Oompa-Loompas, numerous superheroes, and, in one instance, in a ghillie suit (heavy camouflage meant to resemble foliage).


In 1864, balloonists were the great daredevils of their time, and a major draw for eager audiences. That summer, Henry Coxwell, a famous professional aeronaut, was set to make an appearance for 50,000 paying ticketholders in Leicester, England. Unfortunately, a rumor spread that he hadn’t brought his biggest and best balloon to the event. After heckling from the crowd, Coxwell deflated his balloon, and attendees rushed it, ripping it to shreds, setting it on fire, and threatening to visit the same fate on Coxwell. Rioters even paraded the remains of the balloon through the streets of town, which briefly brought residents a new nickname: Balloonatics.


Toronto was still a pretty rough place in the 1850s, but not so rough that the circus wouldn’t come to town. As it turns out, circus entertainers were also a tough lot back then, so when a group of off-duty clowns spent an evening at a brothel popular with the city’s firefighters on July 12, 1855, tensions came to a head. Accounts differ as to who started the fight, but after one firefighter knocked the hat off a clown things escalated into a full-on rabble intent on chasing the circus out of town. Only the mayor calling in the militia put an end to the uproar, an incident Torontonians credit with kicking off much-needed local police reforms.


A painting by Charles Soubre of the Belgian Revolution
Charles Soubre, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Not many nations can claim their independence started with an aria, but for 19th-century Belgians sick of living under Dutch rule, an opera was just the right fuse for a revolution. To honor the birthday of King William I of the Netherlands, a theater in Brussels put on La Muette de Portici, about an uprising in Naples against Spanish rule. One song, "Amour Sacre de la Patrie" ("Sacred Love of the Fatherland"), aroused nationalistic passions so much that after the opera ended, the crowd began destroying factories and occupying government buildings. That was August 25, 1830; Belgium declared independence on October 4.


Hamilton fans, take note: Everyone’s favorite Founding Father once tried to quiet a mob bent on burning corpses. For centuries, anatomists and medical students relied on gruesome means to learn about the human body. Cadavers for dissection class often came from grave robbers, since the corpses of executed criminals were the only legal source—and they were in limited supply. In New York in 1788, rumors abounded that medical students were digging up paupers’ graves and black cemeteries. When one mob came after the doctors responsible, Alexander Hamilton tried, and failed, to restore the peace. The crowd swelled to about 5000 before militiamen intervened, leading to up to about 20 deaths.


Photo of an anti-vivisection demonstration in Trafalgar Square, London, to protest the removal from Battersea Park of the Brown Dog statue
The Anti-Vivisection Review, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Riots against the dissection of dead human bodies were not rare in the United States at one time. But on December 10, 1907, a thousand Britons marched in support of vivisection, or surgery on live animals. At the center of the controversy was a small terrier allegedly vivisected without anesthetic in 1903 during a class at London’s University College. Animal rights activists erected a statue to the dog in 1906, which enraged area medical students, and protesters tried to destroy the statue using crowbars and hammers. For the 1907 march, 400 mounted police were deployed to contain marchers. The statue became such a flashpoint (and an expense to local authorities) that in 1910, it was removed and melted down.


Palingtrekken (eel-pulling) was once a popular contest in Amsterdam, in which a writhing eel was suspended over a canal and hopefuls on boats would leap to snatch it as they passed beneath (usually landing in the water instead). However, “eel-pulling” was also illegal—the government deemed it a “cruel popular entertainment”—and in July 1886, police intervened at a particularly large gathering in the city’s Jordaan district. Civilians threw stones and bricks at police, and when some nearby socialist protestors joined them, a riot broke out that lasted for several days. The army finally intervened and opened fire on the protestors. All in all, 26 people died and 136 were wounded, but somehow, the eel itself at the center of the riots was allegedly saved and auctioned off in 1913.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.


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