Lucas Adams // All illustrations by Lucas Adams
Lucas Adams // All illustrations by Lucas Adams

7 Insane Sports and Games That Were Too Crazy to Last

Lucas Adams // All illustrations by Lucas Adams
Lucas Adams // All illustrations by Lucas Adams

Modern sports fans have a lot to be thankful for. Whatever your preference, there's likely a television channel just a click away catering to it. Professional Croatian hockey, college volleyball, darts—you name it, you can find it. Some sports, however, won't be featured on your cable guide.

Be they archaically crazy or crazily archaic, many games of yore are preserved only by uncovered rulebooks or historical descriptions. Edward Brooke-Hitching's book Fox Tossing and Other Forgotten and Dangerous Sports, Pastimes, and Games catalogs some of history's most bonkers competitions, a few of which we list below. While we don't advise challenging your friends to a round of hnútukast, you'll at least know how to play should you have to.

1. BALLOON-JUMPING

In the 1920s, as air travel was being refined, a strange aeronautical pastime had a brief day in the sun. Balloon-jumping hinted at a future where humans would be free from the surly bounds of gravity, and all that was needed was a personal balloon filled with either hydrogen or helium (“the latter was preferred by most of the aeronauts,” Brooke-Hitching writes, “because it allowed them to light up a cigarette midflight”).

First invented by the U.S. Army, these personal, or “hopper,” balloons were simple to use: “Altitude was gained simply by leaping into a mild to mid-strength wind … unlike hot air balloons, there was no need to shed ballast or vent gas, because it was carefully ensured that the weight of the balloonist slightly exceeded the pull of the balloon.” With a leap, balloonists—who would either hang from ropes or sit on a bench suspended from the balloon—could float effortlessly across long distances.

“How helpful this sort of thing would be,” a 1927 article in the Joplin News Herald read. “We could dispense with elevators and enter our offices on the third or fourth floors by merely leaping in the window and crawling in.”

Besides revolutionizing transportation, balloon-jumping showed potential as the sport of the future. As a 1927 issue of Science and Invention predicted, “Races with balloons of this sort would undoubtedly be great fun and the danger would be very slight. Obstacle races of course would be the most fun because you then bring the advantages of the balloons into full play.”

However, personal ballooning never reached ubiquity, and its sporting promise was quickly dashed. It turns out that attaching yourself to a balloon and launching into the wind happens to be rather dangerous. This became evident as more and more people actually tried balloon-jumping. In 1927, "Brainy" Dobbs, a highly trained Royal Air Force parachutist and balloon-jumping pioneer, was performing in front of a crowd when he attempted to clear a set of elevated electrical wires. When his feet got caught in the live power lines, he tried to untangle himself and was instantly blown to bits. Needless to say, killing a decorated serviceman was not great PR for balloon-jumping, and the practice quickly died off.

2. BASEBALL WITH CANNONS

The purveyors of baseball are notorious for their cultish attachment to tradition, which is part of what makes the game’s brief flirtation with heavy artillery so intriguing.

In the late 19th century, British mathematician Charles Howard Hinton was teaching at Princeton when he decided to turn his scientific mind to the baseball diamond. Specifically, he aimed to solve the problem of pitchers’ sore arms. His solution was to use a cannon that fired baseballs.

His first attempt worked, but it was pretty straight-forward, and didn’t put curve on the ball like a human pitcher’s natural throwing motion. To rectify this, Brooke-Hitching writes, “[Hinton strung] a high-tensile wire across the front of the barrel, but that merely resulted in the field being sprayed with deadly pieces of high-tensile wire.”

Further updating his invention, Hinton put “small rubber pincers” in front of the barrel that “spun the ball upon its release.” It worked, and the future of baseball was set … until it wasn’t. “The cannon terrified the batters,” Brooke-Hitching writes. “The gunpowder blast had a tendency to cook and harden the leather surface of the ball … the machine also took a while to reload, which slowed the pace of both the practices and the matches in which it was introduced as a novelty feature.”

Explosions are cool, but baseball is slow enough as it is. Thus, the cannon-pitcher was wheeled away forever, never to see the mound again.

3. BOXING ON HORSEBACK

American boxer Bobby Dobbs made a name for himself fighting in Europe, but when the sport’s popularity dried up on the continent in the 1910s, he took it upon himself to think of a way to breathe some new life into it. His solution: Put the boxers on horseback.

It was just like normal boxing, except for the equine aspect. “A fighter was declared the loser if he was thrown from his steed by punch and was unable to remount within ten seconds,” Brooke-Hitching writes. The bouts didn’t produce much actual fighting, though, as the boxers found it difficult to both control their horses and square up for haymakers. Despite being briefly popular in Germany, boxing on horseback never caught on, much to the delight of the horses, one imagines.

4. DWILE FLONKING

This rather unique and deceptively complicated game was played in Norfolk in the 1960s and '70s. According to Brooke-Hitching, a round of dwile flonking entailed “locals gather[ing] in a large group, danc[ing] to an accordion, and hit[ting] each other in the face with beer-soaked rags.”

Rule changes were frequent but rarely remembered due to the exorbitant alcohol consumption that went along with the sport. Still, the gist of the game stayed the same: “The flonking team nominated a member of their rank to be the flonker. He or she was then encircled by the nonflonking team, who joined hands (in the style of hokey pokey) and danced … The flonker, meanwhile, was armed with a ‘drivler’—usually a broom handle with a rag attached to the tip. He then dipped his driveler into a mop bucket filled with beer … When the music stopped, he lashed out at the nearest player with his driveler in an attempt to flock him and score points.”

The points system is where it really gets confusing, and no one was ever quite sure who got how many points for what. One thing that was codified was that "anyone who was sober at the end of the game also lost a point." 

Dwile Flonking became the subject of a few newspaper articles, and the game even appeared on the television program The Eamonn Andrews Show in 1967. Its profile rose to the point where overseas sports fans wrote to the ad-hoc governing body (the Waveney Valley Dwile Flonking Association) to ask where they could obtain a rule book.

After its brief brush with fame, Dwile Flonking faded into obscurity—but it was not totally forgotten. In 2010, a group of enterprising Dwile Flonking enthusiasts tried to organize the first-ever world championships, at the Dog Inn pub in Ludham, Great Yarmouth. The event never made it past the planning stages, however. It was canceled after the Norfolk District Council "decided that it contravened recently instituted speed-drinking laws."

5. EEL-PULLING

This medieval game lasted in Holland until the 19th century. To play, a wire was strung across a river or channel, and the biggest, slimiest eel available was hooked at its center. Players would pilot boats beneath the slithering fish, and the first to yank it down was crowned the winner. Palingtrekken, as the game is called in Dutch, was a popular spectator sport, and crowds eagerly watched to see participants fall into the water as they desperately tried to rip the eel off its hook.

Seen even in the 19th century as cruel, eel-pulling was banned in Holland by the 1880s. It was still popular and frequently played, however, and a policeman’s attempt to stop a round of palingtrekken in 1886 sparked a violent riot in Amsterdam. Angered citizens threw stones at police, and the authorities responded with gunfire. “In the brief ensuing melee,” Brooke-Hitching writes, “twenty-six civilians lost their lives, some of whom were indoors hiding from the fighting; a further 136 were wounded.”

6. KOTTABOS

An ancient Greek drinking game, kottabos required skill, panache, and a whole lot of vino. Players would flick wine from their drinking cups at targets, which were saucers floating in water or stacked on top of each other. Directing the alcoholic globules meant having supple wrist control, as the participants were expected to “maintain a reclining position at the dining table" while playing. Clearly, kottabos is the perfect sport.

7. BONE-THROWING

Known as hnútukast, this Viking sport was described in a 14th-century text, and the rules are refreshingly simple: 1. Two players line up across from each other. 2. Each takes a turn throwing a bone as hard as he can at his opponent. 3. Repeat until someone gets seriously hurt.

All illustrations by Lucas Adams.

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The Body
10 Facts About the Appendix
Illustration by Mental Floss / Images: iStock
Illustration by Mental Floss / Images: iStock

Despite some 500 years of study, the appendix might be one of the least understood structures in the human body. Here's what we know about this mysterious organ.

1. THE ANCIENT EGYPTIANS CALLED IT THE "WORM" OF THE BOWEL.

The human appendix is small, tube-shaped, and squishy, giving ancient Egyptians, who encountered it when preparing bodies for funerary rites, the impression of a worm. Even today, some medical texts refer to the organ as vermiform—Latin for "worm-like."

2. THE APPENDIX SHOWS UP IN LEONARDO DA VINCI’S DRAWINGS.

The earliest description of a human appendix was written by the Renaissance physician-anatomist Jacopo Berengario da Carpi in 1521. But before that, Leonardo da Vinci is believed to drawn the first depiction of the organ in his anatomical drawings in 1492. Leonardo claimed to have dissected 30 human corpses in his effort to understand the way the body worked from mechanical and physiological perspectives.

3. IT'S ABOUT THE SIZE OF A PINKY FINGER.

The appendix is a small pouch connected to the cecum—the beginning of the large intestine in the lower right-hand corner of your abdomen. The cecum’s job is to receive undigested food from the small intestine, absorb fluids and salts that remain after food is digested, and mix them with mucus for easier elimination; according to Mohamad Abouzeid, M.D., assistant professor and attending surgeon at NYU Langone Medical Center, the cecum and appendix have similar tissue structures.

4. CHARLES DARWIN THOUGHT IT WAS A VESTIGIAL ORGAN …

The appendix has an ill-deserved reputation as a vestigial organ—meaning that it allegedly evolved without a detectable function—and we can blame Charles Darwin for that. In the mid-19th century, the appendix had been identified only in humans and great apes. Darwin thought that our earlier ancestors ate mostly plants, and thus needed a large cecum in which to break down the tough fibers. He hypothesized that over time, apes and humans evolved to eat a more varied and easier-to-digest diet, and the cecum shrank accordingly. The appendix itself, Darwin believed, emerged from the folds of the wizened cecum without its own special purpose.

5. … BUT THE APPENDIX PROBABLY EVOLVED TO HELP IMMUNE FUNCTION.

The proximity and tissue similarities between the cecum and appendix suggest that the latter plays a part in the digestive process. But there’s one noticeable difference in the appendix that you can see only under a microscope. “[The appendix] has a high concentration of the immune cells within its walls,” Abouzeid tells Mental Floss.

Recent research into the appendix's connection to the immune system has suggested a few theories. In a 2015 study in Nature Immunology, Australian researchers discovered that a type of immune cells called innate lymphoid cells (ILCs) proliferate in the appendix and seem to encourage the repopulation of symbiotic bacteria in the gut. This action may help the gut recover from infections, which tend to wipe out fluids, nutrients, and good bacteria.

For a 2013 study examining the evolutionary rationale for the appendix in mammal species, researchers at Midwestern University and Duke University Medical Center concluded that the organ evolved at least 32 times among different lineages, but not in response to dietary or environmental factors.

The same researchers analyzed 533 mammal species for a 2017 study and found that those with appendices had more lymphatic (immune) tissue in the cecum. That suggests that the nearby appendix could serve as "a secondary immune organ," the researchers said in a statement. "Lymphatic tissue can also stimulate growth of some types of beneficial gut bacteria, providing further evidence that the appendix may serve as a 'safe house' for helpful gut bacteria." This good bacteria may help to replenish healthy flora in the gut after infection or illness.

6. ABOUT 7 PERCENT OF AMERICANS WILL GET APPENDICITIS DURING THEIR LIFETIMES.

For such a tiny organ, the appendix gets infected easily. According to Abouzeid, appendicitis occurs when the appendix gets plugged by hardened feces (called a fecalith or appendicolith), too much mucus, or the buildup of immune cells after a viral or bacterial infection. In the United States, the lifetime risk of getting appendicitis is one in 15, and incidence in newly developed countries is rising. It's most common in young adults, and most dangerous in the elderly.

When infected, the appendix swells up as pus fills its interior cavity. It can grow several times larger than its average 3-inch size: One inflamed appendix removed from a British man in 2004 measured just over 8 inches, while another specimen, reported in 2007 in the Journal of Clinical Pathology, measured 8.6 inches. People with appendicitis might feel generalized pain around the bellybutton that localizes on the right side of the abdomen, and experience nausea or vomiting, fever, or body aches. Some people also get diarrhea.

7. APPENDECTOMIES ARE ALMOST 100 PERCENT EFFECTIVE FOR TREATING APPENDICITIS.

Treatment for appendicitis can go two ways: appendectomy, a.k.a. surgical removal of the appendix, or a first line of antibiotics to treat the underlying infection. Appendectomies are more than 99 percent effective against recurring infection, since the organ itself is removed. (There have been cases of "stump appendicitis," where an incompletely removed appendix becomes infected, which often require further surgery.)

Studies show that antibiotics produce about a 72 percent initial success rate. “However, if you follow these patients out for about a year, they often get recurrent appendicitis,” Abouzeid says. One 2017 study in the World Journal of Surgery followed 710 appendicitis patients for a year after antibiotic treatment and found a 26.5 percent recurrence rate for subsequent infections.

8. AN INFECTED APPENDIX DOESN’T ACTUALLY BURST.

You might imagine a ruptured appendix, known formally as a perforation, being akin to the "chestbuster" scene in Alien. Abouzeid says it's not quite that dramatic, though it can be dangerous. When the appendix gets clogged, pressure builds inside the cavity of the appendix, called the lumen. That chokes off blood supply to certain tissues. “The tissue dies off and falls apart, and you get perforation,” Abouzeid says. But rather than exploding, the organ leaks fluids that can infect other tissues.

A burst appendix is a medical emergency. Sometimes the body can contain the infection in an abscess, Abouzeid says, which may be identified through CT scans or X-rays and treated with IV antibiotics. But if the infection is left untreated, it can spread to other parts of the abdomen, a serious condition called peritonitis. At that point, the infection can become life-threatening.

9. SURGEONS CAN REMOVE AN APPENDIX THROUGH A TINY INCISION.

In 1894, Charles McBurney, a surgeon at New York's Roosevelt Hospital, popularized an open-cavity, muscle-splitting technique [PDF] to remove an infected appendix, which is now called an open appendectomy. Surgeons continued to use McBurney's method until the advent of laparoscopic surgery, a less invasive method in which the doctor makes small cuts in the patient's abdomen and threads a thin tube with a camera and surgical tools into the incisions. The appendix is removed through one of those incisions, which are usually less than an inch in length.

The first laparoscopic appendectomies were performed by German physician Kurt Semm in the early 1980s. Since then, laparoscopic appendectomies have become the standard treatment for uncomplicated appendicitis. For more serious infections, open appendectomies are still performed.

10. AN APPENDIX ONCE POSTPONED A ROYAL CORONATION.

When the future King Edward VII of Great Britain came down with appendicitis (or "perityphlitis," as it was called back then) in June 1902, mortality rates for the disease were as high as 26 percent. It was about two weeks before his scheduled coronation on June 26, 1902, and Edward resisted having an appendectomy, which was then a relatively new procedure. But surgeon and appendicitis expert Frederick Treves made clear that Edward would probably die without it. Treves drained Edward's infected abscess, without removing the organ, at Buckingham Palace; Edward recovered and was crowned on August 9, 1902.

11. THE WORLD'S LONGEST APPENDIX MEASURED MORE THAN 10 INCHES.

On August 26, 2006, during an autopsy at a Zagreb, Croatia hospital, surgeons obtained a 10.24-inch appendix from 72-year-old Safranco August. The deceased currently holds the Guinness World Record for "largest appendix removed."

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History
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 without considering that he was a former slave with no formal education. In honor of his birth 200 years ago, 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 FOR 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'S CALLED 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 THE 4TH OF JULY.

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 STIRRED UP 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.

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