How to Tell the Future With Snails, and 14 Other Pieces of Outmoded Advice

iStock.com/AlexRaths
iStock.com/AlexRaths

In the days before Google, people had few options for solving their most vexing practical and social problems. If you wanted to know how to make pickles, fix the Victrola, or write a letter to your boss, your choices were generally to ask someone or look it up in a book. As our Google searches may someday be to future historians, the advice manuals of yore often provide a fascinating treasure trove of information about how people once lived, the problems they encountered, and what they considered most important.

How to Skin a Lion, out this month from University of Chicago Press, collects some of the most interesting and unusual pieces of advice found in the archives of the British Library. Author Claire Cock-Starkey draws on Georgian manuscripts, Victorian manuals, and self-help guides from the early twentieth century to collect tidbits on subjects as diverse as medicine and mourning, hunting and homemaking. The book includes instructions for putting back a dislocated jaw, catching and preserving eels, or making turnip wine—should you ever feel the need to.

Much of the advice, says Cock-Starkey, shows how much more self-reliant we used to be: “You needed to know how to mend your own clothes, make your own cosmetics and smoke your own bacon." What's more, even the simplest tasks took a lot more time. As the author puts it, “If you wanted ice in your drink you couldn’t just open the fridge, someone had to harvest that ice from glacial lakes in North America, ship it across the ocean and transport it in huge chunks to your ice-house.” (The book includes a fascinating account of the “ice farms”—American lakes—that Europeans relied upon in the 19th century.)

The most surprising advice she encountered, she says, was an Englishman’s account of a method used in India for getting rid of fleas. He “recounted that the locals would either cover the floor of their house in straw then set it alight, or get a herd of cattle to run through the house in the hope that the fleas would jump aboard the marauding cows and exit [the] abode.” The first method, according to the Englishman, would probably result in the house burning down, while the second was unlikely to do any good at all.

On her blog and Twitter account, Cock-Starkey has been spotlighting some of the most obscure terms and ingredients she encountered (such as a “skep,” a traditional domed wooden bee hive, and a "cheesart," or cheese vat). She has also been trying out some of the recipes: an experiment in making mushroom ketchup did not turn out as well as hoped, although the lemon barley water was a relative hit. Extracts from some of the more notable pieces of advices included in How to Skin a Lion are included below:

1. How to cure a headache

To ease a man of the head ache, thus make his nose bleed: take seeds of red nettles and make them to a powder in a morter and blow a little of the same into his nose with a quill.

But if ye cannot get seeds of nettle put a whole of a herbe called milkfoyl or barbe into the nose and rub the nose outward softly; then it should bleed. But if it be winter and ye cannot get nettles, etc., and would glad ease the head ache, then take two sack bands and tye them, first, firmly about the legs around the knees, and this for the space of half a pater noster. Then lose it again and tye it again.

Do this the space of a quarter of an hour, then tye his arms about the elbow, likewise, thus shalt though draw the blood from his head. This must be done carefully lest his limbs become blue.

2.How to read the future—with snails

Close up of a snail on a leaf
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Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland by Lady Wilde (1887) suggests that the key to reading your future is to utilize the common or garden snail:

Another mode of divination for future fate in life is by snails. The young girls go out early before sunrise to trace the path of the snails in the clay, for always a letter is marked, and this is the initial of the true lover’s name. A black snail is very unlucky to meet first in the morning, for his trail would read death; but a white snail brings good fortune.

3. How to read moles

Young woman with a mole on her cheek
iStock.com/jwblinn

Nine Pennyworth of Wit for a Penny (1750) informed readers how to read their fortune by examining the positioning of their moles:

Moles in the face particularly, and those in other parts of the body are very significant as to good or bad fortune.

A mole on the left side of the forehead, denotes the party will get rich by tillage, building and planting.

A mole on the right side of the forehead, promises happy contentment of life, a loving state in matrimony, &c.

A mole on the middle of the forehead, denotes a person subject to sickness, and other afflictions.

A mole on the left side of the temple, promises loss and affliction to either sex in the first part of their age; but happiness by overcoming them in the end.

A mole on the eyebrow signifies speedy marriage and a good husband.

A mole on the left cheek, inclining towards the lower part of the ear, denotes loss in goods, and crosses by children; threatens a woman with death in child-bed.

A mole on the nose, foretells the birth of many children, and persons powerful in generation.

A mole on the right corner of the mouth, near the jaw, promises happy days to either sex; but on the left side, unlawful copulation, and much loss thereby.

A mole on the left shoulder denotes labour, travel and sorrow.

4. How to brush your hair

A young woman brushing her hair
iStock.com/kzenon

The Handbook of the Toilette (1839) includes the following advice on the proper method for brushing your hair:

The skin of the head must therefore be kept perfectly clean, and in a state of proper tone. To effect this, a brush should be used thrice a day if possible, which is strong, not too close, and will penetrate through the hair to the skin. This application of the brush, on rising in the morning, should last full half an hour; and if the hair belong to a lady, and be very thick and long, a quarter of an hour more should be devoted to brushing it, making it in all three quarters of an hour. On dressing for dinner, the brush should be applied to the head during five or six minutes, and during about ten minutes at night. It is often serviceable to rub into the hair in the morning, before the brush is applied, either hair-powder or bran—it is almost immaterial which, though I think the first preferable.

5. How to use leeches

Leeches have been used medicinally for thousands of years. Household Medicine and Surgery, Sick-room Management and Cookery for Invalids (1854) recommends the following method:

When leeches are applied to a part, it should be thoroughly freed from down or hair by shaving, and all dirt, liniments, &c. carefully and effectually cleaned away by washing. If the leech is hungry it will soon bite; but sometimes great difficulty is experienced in getting the animal to fasten. When this is the case, roll the leech in a little porter, or moisten the surface with a little blood or milk, or sugar or water. Leeches may be applied by holding them over the part with a piece of linen cloth or by the means of a glass.

However, caution is advised if using the leeches in sensitive areas: “When applied to the gums, care should be taken to use a leech glass, as they are apt to creep down the patient’s throat; a large swan’s quill will answer the purpose of a leech glass."

To remove a leech, the following is recommended: “When leeches are gorged, they will drop off themselves; never tear them off from a person, but just dip the tip of a moistened finger in some salt and touch them with that.”

6. How a lady should conduct herself in polite society

Two women in medieval dresses gossip on the sofa
iStock.com/darkbird77

Some advice is timeless, as evident in some of the tips provided by Etiquette for the Ladies—Eighty Maxims on Dress, Manners and Accomplishments (1838):

If you are a married lady, and have children, never insist on showing off their precocity before company. In nine cases out of ten, however much people may affect to applaud, depend upon it they look upon such exhibitions as a bore.

Never allow your pursuit after fashion to be so eager, as to make people suppose that you have nothing better than the mode of your dress to recommend you.

Perfumes are not altogether to be forbidden; but they should never be so strong or in such quantity, as to excite attention. When they are used too profusely, people are apt to suppose that you have some particular reason for their use, beyond the mere desire to gratify your olfactory organ.

Yet other nuggets of advice have not stood the test of time so well:

It is not considered proper for ladies to wear gloves during dinner. To appear in public without them—to sit in church or in a place of public amusement destitute of these appendages, is decidedly vulgar. Some gentlemen insist on stripping off their gloves before shaking hands;—a piece of barbarity, of which no lady will be guilty.

Scarcely any thing is so repulsive in a lady—so utterly plebeian, as speaking in a loud harsh voice. As in Shakespeare’s time, a ‘small’ voice is still considered "an excellent thing in a woman."

7. How to keep fresh breath

Facial portrait of a woman laughing
iStock.com/AntonioGuillem

The horrors of bad breath are described in The Handbook of the Toilette (1839):

If ladies were conscious of the effect produced upon the breath by late hours, heating diet, hot and crowded rooms, and the several other enemies to the constitution necessarily encountered by a life of dissipation, they would be horror-stricken at finding that they render themselves offensive and disgusting to those whom it is their duty as well as their best policy to please. The same remark applies to men under similar circumstances, joined perhaps to a habit of taking wine and ardent spirits, if not to excess, at least in greater quantity than is requisite. In the morning the body is feverish, the tongue loaded with a white crust; vapors rise from the stomach, and the breath is foul. And when this mode of life is continued, in addition to the loss of the bloom given by health, the breath is most offensively impregnated with fetid exhalations from the stomach.

The most effective sweetener of the breath is health of body … but where vapours and fermentation of the stomach exist, the only substances which can destroy the fetid exhalations, are the disinfecting chlorides. As the solution of chloride of lime is too harsh, the concentrated solution of the chloride of soda … should alone be admitted at the toilette. From six to ten drops of this substance in a wineglassful of pure spring water, taken immediately after the operations of the morning are completed, will instantly sweeten the breath, by disinfecting the stomach, which, far from being injured, will be benefitted by the medicine.

8. How to refuse a proposal of marriage

A woman being offered an engagement ring
iStock.com/vadimguzhva

The Etiquette of Courtship and Matrimony (1865) recommends:

When a lady rejects the proposal of a gentleman, her behavior should be characterized by the most delicate feeling towards one who, in offering her his hand, has proved his desire to confer upon her, by this implied preference for her above all other women, the greatest honor it is in his power to offer. Therefore, if she have no love for him, she ought at least to evince a tender regard for his feelings.

No woman of proper feeling would regard her rejection of an offer of marriage from a worthy man as a matter of triumph: her feeling on such an occasion should be one of regretful sympathy with him for the pain she is unavoidably compelled to inflict. Nor should such a rejection be unaccompanied with some degree of self-examination on her part, to discern whether any lightness of demeanor or tendency to flirtation may have given rise to a false hope of her favoring his suit. At all events, no lady should ever treat a man who has so honored her with the slightest disrespect or frivolous disregards, nor ever unfeelingly parade a more favored suitor before one whom she has refused.

9. How to address a Maharajah

The etiquette necessary for socializing with the local gentry in colonial India frequently flummoxed the English, who often consulted guides such as Hints on Indian Etiquette Specially Designed for the Use of Europeans by Iftikhar Husain (1911). Husain advised that the following form should be followed when writing a letter to a Maharajah or person of a similar rank:

“You of exalted rank, lofty position and of noble birth, may you have increased graciousness.”

And he advises that one might sign off with the following:

“Your obedient servant”

or

“The lowest of the low”

or

“Humble as dust”

The Anglo-Hindoostanee Hand-book; or, Stranger’s Self-interpreter and Guide to Colloquial and General Intercourse with the Natives of India (1850) offered some counsel on the etiquette of visiting:

Natives of high rank—hindoo or moohummudun, when receiving visits of ceremony usually retain their seats, unless the visitors be their equals, or otherwise European officials of high rank in the service of the British government, in which event the parties visited rise and advance a certain distance according to the degree of ceremonious respect that the rank of the visitor may claim or circumstances suggest.

The visitor must also remember to leave in the appropriate style, making sure they take careful note of the elaborate hints that indicate that they have overstayed their welcome:

Immediately ere parting the parties visited usually present to each of their guests Utr-pan (a cud of betel-pepper leaves), and then, with bottles, sprinkle rose-water over their handkerchiefs or clothes, which ceremony if performed ere the visitors themselves be prepared to go, is the usual polite intimation that their departure is desired.

10. How to make a love charm

The Book of Charms and Ceremonies: whereby all may have the opportunity of obtaining any object they desire by "Merlin" (1892) offers the following instructions on how to make a love charm.

Agrippa says that the hair off the belly of a goat, tied into knots and concealed in the roof of the house of the beloved, will produce furious love, whereby the maiden will not be able to withstand the entreaties of her lover, but will be so enchanted with him that marriage will soon take place.

11. How to skin a lion

A lion in grass
iStock.com/MaggyMeyer

Should the hunter also wish to preserve the lion’s skull as a trophy, Charles McCann advises the following method in his 1927 A Shikari’s Pocket-book:

Cut off all the removable flesh. Take out the brain through the orifice at the back by pushing a stick into it and stirring them up, then shaking out the resultant porridge. Pouring hot water into the brain-case and shaking it out again will help greatly to bring away the contents. Do not give this job to an ignorant native to do, unless he has done it before correctly in your presence. If not he will inevitably chop off the back of the skull with an axe in order to get at the brains. Wash the skull and hang it up to dry, after tying the lower jawbone firmly on to it.

12. How to prevent bad luck

A pitcher and glass of milk in front of a sunny spring field
iStock.com/IakovKalinin

Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland by Lady Wilde (1887) is full of advice on how to protect the family from those most pesky of pests, witches, and fairies:

The witches, however, make great efforts to steal the milk on May morning, and if they succeed, the luck passes from the family, and the milk and butter for the whole year will belong to the fairies. The best preventative is to scatter primroses on the threshold; and the old women tie bunches of primroses to the cows’ tails, for the evil spirits cannot touch anything guarded by these flowers, if they are plucked before sunrise, not else. A piece of iron, also, made red hot, is placed upon the hearth; any old iron will do, the older the better, and branches of whitethorn and mountain ash are wreathed around the doorway for luck. The mountain ash has very great and mysterious qualities. If a branch of it be woven into the roof, that house is safe from fire for a year at least, and if a branch of it is mixed with the timber of a boat, no storm will upset it, and no man in it be drowned for twelvemonth.

13. How to get presented at Court

Royal Courts of Justice
iStock.com/tupungato

Getting presented at Court was vital for any young lady wishing to become part of the English social scene. The methods have changed over the years, but Complete Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen: A Guide to the Rules and Observances of Good Society (1900) describes the Victorian method, in which girls had the opportunity to be presented to Queen Victoria four times a season (twice before Easter and twice after).

When a girl is about to be presented at Court she procures a large blank card, and write legibly upon it her own name and that of the lady who presents her, thus: ‘Mrs. Percy, presented by Lady White’ … This card is left at the Lord Chamberlain’s office in St. James’s Palace at least two clear days before the drawing-room, and is accompanied by a note from the lady who is to present her … The names are submitted for Her Majesty’s approval, and on sending to the office two days later the lady receives two ‘presentation’ or pink cards, on which she write legibly the same words as those on the former card. These cards she takes with her to the palace, one being left with the page-in-waiting at the top of the grand staircase; the other is taken by an official at the door of the presence-chamber, and passed to the Lord Chamberlain, who reads the name to Her Majesty.

The doors of the Palace are opened at two o’clock, and the Queen enters the throne room at three. Ladies carry their trains, folded, over the arm until they reach the door of the picture gallery, where it is removed from its wearer’s arm by the attendants in waiting, and the lady passes across the gallery with it flowing at full length to the door of the throne-room.

If the lady is to be presented she must have her right hand ungloved, and as she bends before the Queen she extends her hands palm downwards; the Queen places her hand upon it, the lady touches the royal hand with her lips, and the presentation is over; the lady passes on, stepping backwards, curtseying to those members of the royal family present.

A lady requires to be re-presented when any change occurs in her social status. For instance, she must be again presented on her marriage, if she has been presented before, also should her husband succeed to any higher title. If she fails in this, she has no further right to appear at Court.

14. How to dress like a gentleman

A stylish man reading a newspaper at an outdoor cafe
iStock.com/dor-riss

Some tips become quickly outmoded, but these tips for the stylish man from All About Etiquette: or The Manners of Polite Society for Ladies, Gentlemen, and Families (1879) are timeless:

If you wear your beard, wear it in moderation—extremes are always vulgar. Avoid all fantastic arrangements of the hair, either turning it under in a roll, or allowing it to straggle in long and often seemingly ‘uncombed and unkempt’ masses over the coat collar, or having it cropped so close as to give the wearer the appearance of a sporting character.

For appendages, eschew all flash stones; nothing is more unexceptionable for sleeve-buttons and the fastenings of the front of a shirt than fine gold, fashioned in some simple form, sufficiently massive to indicate use and durability, and skillfully and handsomely wrought, if ornamented at all. A gentleman carries a watch for convenience and secures it safely upon his person, wearing it with no useless ornament paraded to the eye. It is like his pencil and purse, good of its kind, and, if he can afford it, handsome, but it is never flashy. The fashion for wearing signet rings is not so general, perhaps, as it was a little while since, but it still retains a place among the minutiae of the present subject. Here, again, the same rules of good taste apply as to other ornaments. When worn at all, everything of this sort should be most unexceptionally and unmistakably tasteful and genuine.

15. How to use the English method of fortune-telling by cards

Playing cards
iStock.com/Zheka-Boss

A Handbook of Cartomancy: Fortune-telling and Occult Divination by Grand Orient (1889) reveals the secrets of fortune telling with cards. The suit of diamonds was said to have the following meanings:

Ace of Diamonds – A letter – from whom, and what about, must be judged from neighbouring cards.

King of Diamonds – A fair man, hot tempered, obstinate and revengeful.

Queen of Diamonds – A fair woman, fond of company and a coquette.

Knave of Diamonds – A near relation who considers only his interests. Also a fair person’s thoughts.

Ten of Diamonds – Money.

Nine of Diamonds – Shews that a person is fond of roving.

Eight of Diamonds – A marriage late in life.

Seven of Diamonds – Satire, evil speaking.

Six of Diamonds – Early marriage and widowhood.

Five of Diamonds – Unexpected news.

Four of Diamonds – Trouble arising from unfaithful friends; also a betrayed secret.

Three of Diamonds – Quarrels, law-suits, and domestic disagreements.

Two of diamonds – An engagement against the wishes of friends.

13 Incredible Facts About Frederick Douglass

Photo Illustration: Mental Floss. Douglass: Glasshouse Images, Alamy. Backgrounds: iStock
Photo Illustration: Mental Floss. Douglass: Glasshouse Images, Alamy. Backgrounds: iStock

The list of Frederick Douglass's accomplishments is astonishing—respected orator, famous writer, abolitionist, civil rights leader, presidential consultant—even more so when you consider that he was a former slave with no formal education. In honor of his 201st birthday, here are 13 incredible facts about the life of Frederick Douglass.

1. He bartered bread for knowledge.

Because Douglass was a slave, he wasn't allowed to learn to read or write. A wife of a Baltimore slave owner did teach him the alphabet when he was around 12, but she stopped after her husband interfered. Young Douglass took matters into his own hands, cleverly fitting in a reading lesson whenever he was on the street running errands for his owner. As he detailed in his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, he'd carry a book with him while out and about and trade small pieces of bread to the white kids in his neighborhood, asking them to help him learn to read the book in exchange.

2. He credited a schoolbook with shaping his views on human rights.

Engraving of Frederick Douglass, circa the 1850s.
Engraving of Frederick Douglass, circa the 1850s.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

During his youth, Douglass obtained a copy of The Columbian Orator, a collection of essays, dialogues, and speeches on a range of subjects, including slavery. Published in 1797, the Orator was required reading for most schoolchildren in the 1800s and featured 84 selections from authors like Cicero and Milton. Abraham Lincoln was also influenced by the collection when he was first starting in politics.

3. He taught other slaves to read.

While he was hired out to a farmer named William Freeland, a teenaged Douglass taught fellow slaves to read the New Testament—but a mob of locals soon broke up the classes. Undeterred, Douglas began the classes again, sometimes teaching as many as 40 people.

4. His first wife helped him escape from slavery.

Portrait of Anna Murray Douglass, Frederick Douglass's first wife.
First published in Rosetta Douglass Sprague's book My Mother As I Recall Her, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Anna Murray was an independent laundress in Baltimore and met Douglass at some point in the mid-1830s. Together they hatched a plan, and one night in 1838, Douglass took a northbound train clothed in a sailor's uniform procured by Anna, with money from her savings in his pocket alongside papers from a sailor friend. About 24 hours later, he arrived in Manhattan a free man. Anna soon joined him, and they married on September 15, 1838.

5. He called out his former owner.

In an 1848 open letter in the newspaper he owned and published, The North Star, Douglass wrote passionately about the evils of slavery to his former owner, Thomas Auld, saying "I am your fellow man, but not your slave." He also inquired after his family members who were still enslaved a decade after his escape.

6. He took his name from a poem.

He was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, but after escaping slavery, Douglass used assumed names to avoid detection. Arriving in New Bedford, Massachusetts, Douglass, then using the surname "Johnson," felt there were too many other Johnsons in the area to distinguish himself. He asked his host (ironically named Nathan Johnson) to suggest a new name, and Mr. Johnson came up with Douglas, a character in Sir Walter Scott's poem The Lady of the Lake.

7. He was deemed the 19th century's most photographed American.

Portrait of Frederick Douglass
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

There are 160 separate portraits of Douglass, more than Abraham Lincoln or Walt Whitman, two other heroes of the 19th century. Douglass wrote extensively on the subject during the Civil War, calling photography a "democratic art" that could finally represent black people as humans rather than "things." He gave his portraits away at talks and lectures, hoping his image could change the common perceptions of black men.

8. He refused to celebrate Independence Day.

Douglass was well-known as a powerful orator, and his July 5, 1852 speech to a group of hundreds of abolitionists in Rochester, New York, is considered a masterwork. Entitled "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July," the speech ridiculed the audience for inviting a former slave to speak at a celebration of the country who enslaved him. "This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine," he famously said to those in attendance. "Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day?" Douglass refused to celebrate the holiday until all slaves were emancipated and laws like the Compromise of 1850, which required citizens (including northerners) to return runaway slaves to their owners, were negated.

9. He recruited black soldiers for the Civil War.

The Union attack on Fort Wagner, Charleston, during the American Civil War. The fort was under attack from July 18 to September 7, 1863, by soldiers including the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first African-American regiment in the U.S. Army.
The Union attack on Fort Wagner, Charleston, during the American Civil War. The fort was under attack from July 18 to September 7, 1863, by soldiers including the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first African-American regiment in the U.S. Army.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Douglass was a famous abolitionist by the time the war began in 1861. He actively petitioned President Lincoln to allow black troops in the Union army, writing in his newspaper: "Let the slaves and free colored people be called into service, and formed into a liberating army, to march into the South and raise the banner of Emancipation among the slaves." After Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Douglass worked tirelessly to enlist black soldiers, and two of his sons would join the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, famous for its contributions in the brutal battle of Fort Wagner.

10. He served under five presidents.

Later in life, Douglass became more of a statesman, serving in highly appointed federal positions, including U.S. Marshal for D.C., Recorder of Deeds for D.C., and Minister Resident and Consul General to Haiti. Rutherford B. Hayes was the first to appoint Douglass to a position in 1877, and Presidents Garfield, Arthur, Cleveland, and Benjamin Harrison each sought his counsel in various positions as well.

11. He was nominated for Vice President of the United States.

As part of the Equal Rights Party ticket in 1872, Douglass was nominated as a VP candidate, with Victoria Woodhull as the Presidential candidate. (Woodhull was the first-ever female presidential candidate, which is why Hillary Clinton was called "the first female presidential candidate from a major party" during the 2016 election.) However, the nomination was made without his consent, and Douglass never acknowledged it (and Woodhull's candidacy itself is controversial because she wouldn't have been old enough to be president on Inauguration Day). Also, though he was never a presidential candidate, he did receive one vote at each of two nomination conventions.

12. His second marriage caused controversy.

Frederick Douglass with Helen Pitts Douglass (seated, right) and her sister Eva Pitts (standing, center), circa the 1880s.
Frederick Douglass with Helen Pitts Douglass (seated, right) and her sister Eva Pitts (standing, center), circa the 1880s.

Two years after his first wife, Anna, died of a stroke in 1882, Douglass married Helen Pitts, a white abolitionist and feminist who was 20 years younger than him. Even though she was the daughter of an abolitionist, Pitts's family (which had ancestral ties directly to the Mayflower) disapproved and disowned her—showing just how taboo interracial marriage was at the time. The black community also questioned why their most prominent spokesperson chose to marry a white woman, regardless of her politics. But despite the public's and their families' reaction, the Douglasses had a happy marriage and were together until his death in 1895 of a heart attack.

13. After early success, his Narrative went out of print.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself, his seminal autobiography, was heralded a success when it came out in 1845, with some estimating that 5000 copies sold in the first few months; the book was also popular in Ireland and Britain. But post-Civil War, as the country moved toward reconciliation and slave narratives fell out favor, the book went out of print. The first modern publication appeared in 1960—during another important era for the fight for civil rights. It is now available for free online.

This article originally ran in 2018.

The 15 Best Documentaries on Netflix Right Now

A still from Ava DuVernay's 13th (2016)
A still from Ava DuVernay's 13th (2016)
Netflix

Truth is not only stranger than fiction, it’s frequently more entertaining. Thanks to the Netflix acquisition team, the streaming service offers hundreds of documentaries that chronicle everything from riveting tales of true crime to stories about bare-knuckle fighters and custody battles over amputated legs. To help you sort through their formidable selection, we’ve selected 15 films currently streaming that will either make your jaw drop, bring a tear to your eye, or both.

1. Finders Keepers (2015)

If an appendage is removed from your body, are you still its lawful owner? That’s the question posed by this irreverent investigation of Shannon Whisnant, a junk trader who successfully bids on a storage locker and discovers the mummified remains of a severed leg. The stump once belonged to John Wood, a man injured in a plane crash. When his leg was amputated as a result, he decided to keep it as a memento, storing it in a grill inside the locker. The argument over who has rightful possession of this fleshy trophy is at the center of the film, which sees the men try to resolve their differences in a variety of ways, including an appearance on Judge Mathis.

2. Long Shot (2017)

Juan Catalan is that most compelling of true crime clichés: an innocent man being railroaded for a murder he didn’t commit. With law enforcement dismissing his alibi, his lawyers make a last-ditch effort to prove that Catalan was at a Los Angeles Dodgers game at the time of the assault. How they do that—and which famous comic actor plays a role—is best left to discover on your own.

3. Gringo: The Dangerous Life of John McAfee (2016)

Anti-virus software tycoon John McAfee was one of the internet’s biggest success stories. Flush with money, power, and a desire to reinvent himself, McAfee relocated to Belize, where his story began to take on echoes of Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. When all of McAfee’s whims are tended to by locals, questions over a neighbor’s murder take on sinister connotations. Michael Keaton is set to play McAfee in a feature film version.

4. Brother’s Keeper (1992)

The bonds of brotherhood are explored in this arresting feature about siblings Delbert, Roscoe, and Lyman Ward, farmers in upstate New York who close ranks when police begin to suspect one of them murdered their other brother, William.

5. Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond (2017)

When Jim Carrey stepped into the role of the late comedian Andy Kaufman for director Milos Forman’s 1999 biopic Man on the Moon, he didn’t so much imitate Kaufman as become him. That process was documented in behind-the-scenes footage that was buried in studio vaults for years and revealed here for the first time. Executives feared people would consider Carrey—who alternately charms and antagonizes people on the set by never behaving as “Jim”—as being exceptionally difficult to work with. Perhaps, but Carrey’s modern-day reflections on inhabiting the eccentric Kaufman even when the film cameras weren’t rolling are a fascinating study of both the performer’s commitment and the nature of identity.

6. Amanda Knox (2016)

College student Amanda Knox seized headlines in 2007 and beyond for being the prime suspect in the murder of fellow student and roommate Meredith Kercher while both were studying in Perugia, Italy. The competency and motives of Italian police are examined in this documentary, which features the first time Knox has spoken at length about her trials (yes, there was more than one) and struggles in a foreign justice system. Plenty of ink was spilled in the American media over her suspected guilt: Knox’s unflinching stare into the camera as she tells her side of the story will likely persuade you to think otherwise.

7. Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened (2019)

Sun. Models. Booze. Would-be mogul Billy McFarland promised a lot and delivered little more than cold cheese sandwiches in his 2017 music festival debacle, which collected a small fortune in admission and ancillary profits and then wound up leaving hundreds of guests stranded on an island to fend for themselves. Pairing Netflix’s examination of the debacle and its fallout with Hulu’s Fyre Fraud makes for a fine double feature (even if you might be left with more questions than answers).

8. The Power of Grayskull: The Definitive History of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (2017)

Toy and nostalgia fans will get a kick out of this rewind to the early 1980s, when Mattel’s He-Man dominated retail stores and syndicated television. The feature examines the toy line’s origins—which involved dueling toy designers and a failed attempt to secure a Conan license—and its later incarnation as a low-budget 1987 movie. (Yes, Dolph Lundgren makes an appearance.)

9. 13th (2016)

Director Ava DuVernay delivers a powerful (and Oscar-nominated) indictment of the U.S. justice system and takes a closer look at how incarceration and sentencing feeds into widespread inequality. Peering through DuVernay’s lens, viewers may feel the scales of justice are tipped in favor of privatized and profiteering prisons.

10. Icarus (2017)

The cat-and-mouse game between drug testing agencies and cheating athletes is put under a microscope in director Bryan Fogel’s Oscar-winning documentary, which uncovers the lengths competitors will go to in order to push past their physical limits. As Fogel digs deeper into the world of pro cycling and its high-ranking political influences, you may discover that drugs are so pervasive that athletes aren’t necessarily looking to cheat—they’re simply looking to even the playing field.

11. Senna (2010)

Sports documentaries don’t come much better than this portrait of Ayrton Senna, a Brazilian Formula One racer who became a national hero for his obsessive commitment to being the best. That passion conflicts with the inherent danger of his sport, which undergoes a technological metamorphosis in the 1980s and 1990s that threatens the safety of drivers. Those risks are on display in the film’s kinetic, heart-in-throat race sequences.

12. The Seven Five (2014)

There are bad cops, there are dirty cops, and then there’s Mike Dowd, a Brooklyn officer who used his badge to siphon money from criminals and exploit the very community he was charged with protecting. Dowd’s downfall ushered in one of the biggest police corruption scandals of the 1990s. The film features Dowd’s unabashed account of his dirty deeds.

13. Voyeur (2017)

Acclaimed journalist Gay Talese stumbles upon what he thinks is the story of a lifetime: A Colorado motel owner named Gerald Foos who modified his guest rooms so he could spy on his occupants. Not all of Foos’s recollections of his voyeur’s playground hold up to scrutiny, and the film sometimes wonders who’s really in control of the narrative—the directors, Talese, or the enigmatic Foos.

14. The Battered Bastards of Baseball (2014)

In the 1970s, Kurt Russell’s father, Bing Russell, started a rogue minor league baseball team, the Portland Mavericks. Playing without any Major League affiliation, the ragtag team barnstormed their way through several seasons, with an electric group of MLB castoffs making up the roster. It’s a fun look at a group that rivals the Bad News Bears in dropping the ball.

15. Dawg Fight (2015)

Florida native Dhafir “Dada5000” Harris tries to keep gangs and drugs from destroying his neighborhood by hosting a series of bare-knuckle fighting events in his mother’s backyard. The action is raw, but Harris’s intentions are pure. In orchestrating violence rather than letting it explode on the streets, Harris provides an outlet for young men to find some peace.

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