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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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Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library
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History
10 Treasures From the New York Academy of Medicine Library
A urine wheel from Fasciculus Medicinae
A urine wheel from Fasciculus Medicinae
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

Tucked away on a side street near Central Park, the New York Academy of Medicine Library is one of the most significant historical medical libraries in the world. Open to the public by appointment since the 19th century, its collection includes 550,000 volumes on subjects ranging from ancient brain surgery to women's medical colleges to George Washington's dentures. A few weeks ago, Mental Floss visited to check out some of their most fascinating items connected to the study of anatomy. Whether it was urine wheels or early anatomy pop-up books, we weren't disappointed.

1. FASCICULUS MEDICINAE (1509)

The Fasciculus Medicinae is a compilation of Greek and Arabic texts first printed in Venice in 1491. While it covers a variety of topics including anatomy and gynecology, the book begins with the discipline considered most important for diagnosing all medical issues at the time: uroscopy (the study of urine). The NYAM Library's curator, Anne Garner, showed us the book's urine wheel, which once had the various flasks of urine colored in to help aid physicians in their diagnosis. Each position of the wheel corresponded to one of the four humors, whether it was phlegmatic, choleric, sanguine, or melancholic. The image on the left, Garner explains, "shows the exciting moment where a servant boy brings his flasks to be analyzed by a professor." Other notable images in the book include one historians like to call "Zodiac Man," showing how the parts of the body were governed by the planets, and "Wound Man," who has been struck by every conceivable weapon, and is accompanied by a text showing how to treat each type of injury. Last but not least, the book includes what's believed to be the first printed image of a dissection.

2. ANDREAS VESALIUS, DE HUMANI CORPORIS FABRICA (1543)

Andreas Vesalius's Fabrica
Frontispiece of Andreas Vesalius's Fabrica
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

Andreas Vesalius, born 1514, was one of the most important anatomists who ever lived. Thanks to him, we moved past an understanding of the human body based primarily on the dissection of animals and toward training that involved the direct dissection of human corpses. The Fabrica was written by Vesalius and published when he was a 28-year-old professor at the University of Padua. Its detailed woodcuts, the most accurate anatomical illustrations up to that point, influenced the depiction of anatomy for centuries to come. "After this book, anatomy divided up into pre-Vesalian and post-Vesalian," Garner says. You can see Vesalius himself in the book's frontispiece (he's the one pointing to the corpse and looking at the viewer). "Vesalius is trying to make a point that he himself is doing the dissection, he believes that to understand the body you have to open it up and look at it," Garner explains.

3. THOMAS GEMINUS, COMPENDIOSA (1559)

Flap anatomy from Thomas Geminus's Compendiosa
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

There was no copyright in the 16th century, and Vesalius's works were re-used by a variety of people for centuries. The first was in Flemish printer and engraver Thomas Geminus’s Compendiosa, which borrowed from several of Vesalius's works. The first edition was published in London just two years after the Fabrica. Alongside a beautiful dedication page made for Elizabeth I and inlaid with real gemstones, the book also includes an example of a "flap anatomy" or a fugitive leaf, which was printed separately with parts that could be cut out and attached to show the various layers of the human body, all the way down to the intestines. As usual for the time, the female is depicted as pregnant, and she holds a mirror that says "know thyself" in Latin.

4. WILLIAM COWPER, THE ANATOMY OF HUMANE BODIES (1698)

Illustration from William Cowper's The Anatomy of Humane Bodies
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

After Vesalius, there was little new in anatomy texts until the Dutch anatomist Govard Bidloo published his Anatomia humani corporis in 1685. The work was expensive and not much of a financial success, so Bidloo sold excess plates to the English anatomist William Cowper, who published the plates with an English text without crediting Bidloo (a number of angry exchanges between the two men followed). The copperplate engravings were drawn by Gérard de Lairesse, who Garner notes was "incredibly talented." But while the engravings are beautiful, they're not always anatomically correct, perhaps because the relationship between de Lairesse and Bidloo was fraught (Bidloo was generally a bit difficult). The skeleton shown above is depicted holding an hourglass, by then a classic of death iconography.

5. 17TH-CENTURY IVORY MANIKINS

17th Century Ivory Manikin
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

These exquisite figures are a bit of a mystery: It was originally thought that they were used in doctors’ offices to educate pregnant women about what was happening to their bodies, but because of their lack of detail, scholars now think they were more likely expensive collector's items displayed in cabinets of curiosity by wealthy male physicians. The arms of the manikins (the term for anatomical figures like this) lift up, allowing the viewer to take apart their removable hearts, intestines, and stomachs; the female figure also has a little baby inside her uterus. There are only about 100 of these left in the world, mostly made in Germany, and NYAM has seven.

6. BERNHARD SIEGFRIED ALBINUS, TABULAE SCELETI (1747)

Illustration from Bernhard Siegfried Albinus's Tabulae Sceleti
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

One of the best-known anatomists of the 18th century, the Dutch anatomist Bernhard Siegfried Albinus went to medical school at age 12 and had a tenured position at the University of Leiden by the time he was 24. The Tabulae Sceleti was his signature work. The artist who worked on the text, Jan Wandelaar, had studied with Gérard de Lairesse, the artist who worked with Bidloo. Wandelaar and Albinus developed what Garner says was a bizarre method of suspending cadavers from the ceiling in the winter and comparing them to a (very cold and naked) living person lying on the floor in the same pose. Albinus also continued the dreamy, baroque funerary landscape of his predecessors, and his anatomy is "very, very accurate," according to Garner.

The atlas also features an appearance by Clara, a celebrity rhinoceros, who was posed with one of the skeletons. "When Albinus is asked why [he included a rhinoceros], he says, 'Oh, Clara is just another natural wonder of the world, she's this amazing creation,' but really we think Clara is there to sell more atlases because she was so popular," Garner says.

7. FERDINAND HEBRA, ATLAS DER HAUTKRANKHEITEN (1856–1876)

Circus performer Georg Constantin as depicted in Ferdinand Hebra's dermatological atlas
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

By the mid-19th century, dermatology had started to emerge as its own discipline, and the Vienna-based Ferdinand Hebra was a leading light in the field. He began publishing this dermatological atlas in 1856 (it appeared in 10 installments), featuring chromolithographs that showed different stages of skin diseases and other dermatological irregularities.

"While some of the images are very disturbing, they also tend to adhere to Victorian portrait conventions, with very ornate hair, and [subjects] looking off in the distance," Garner says. But one of the most famous images from the book has nothing to do with disease—it's a depiction of Georg Constantin, a well-known Albanian circus performer in his day, who was covered in 388 tattoos of animals, flowers, and other symbols. He travelled throughout Europe and North America, and was known as "Prince Constantine" during a spell with Barnum's Circus. (The image is also available from NYAM as a coloring sheet.)

8. KOICHI SHIBATA, OBSTETRICAL POCKET PHANTOM (1895)

19th century Obstetrical Pocket Phantom
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

Obstetrical phantoms, often made of cloth, wood, or leather, were used to teach medical students about childbirth. This "pocket phantom" was originally published in Germany, and Garner explains that because it was made out of paper, it was much cheaper for medical students. The accompanying text, translated in Philadelphia, tells how to arrange the phantom and describes the potential difficulties of various positions.

9. ROBERT L. DICKINSON AND ABRAM BELSKIE, BIRTH ATLAS (1940)

Image from Robert Dickinson's Birth Atlas
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

Robert Dickinson was a Brooklyn gynecologist, early birth control advocate, and active member of NYAM. His Birth Atlas is illustrated with incredibly lifelike terracotta models created by New Jersey sculptor Abram Belskie. The models were exhibited at the 1939 New York World's Fair, where they became incredibly popular, drawing around 700,000 people according to Garner. His depictions "are very beautiful and serene, and a totally different way of showing fetal development than anything that had come before," Garner notes.

10. RALPH H. SEGAL, THE BODYSCOPE (1948)

The Bodyscope
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

This midcentury cardboard anatomy guide contains male and female figures as well as rotating wheels, called volvelles, that can be turned to display details on different parts of the body as well as accompanying explanatory text. The Bodyscope is also decorated with images of notable medical men—and "wise" sayings about God's influence on the body.

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holidays
23 Funny Historical Letters to Santa
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At the end of the 19th century, illustrator Thomas Nast popularized our current version of Santa Claus: a fat, jolly man with a white beard and a red suit who lives at the North Pole. Nast’s cartoons in publications like Harper’s Weekly also helped spread the idea of sending St. Nick mail. By the late 1870s, American children had begun mailing their Christmas wish lists to Santa, but the Post Office considered these letters undeliverable. Around this time, newspapers began prompting children to send wish lists to them, which would then be published so that Santa (and parents) could read the letters all in one place. We’ve collected 23 funny historical letters from children to Santa Claus, as printed in newspapers across the U.S.

1. CONRAD FROM NEBRASKA (1896)

The Courier, Dec. 19, 1896

Conrad tries to mask his violent tendencies by interspersing the weapons between non-threatening gifts, but he shows his hand with that threat at the end.

2. CLIFFORD FROM NEBRASKA (1896)

The Courier, Dec. 19, 1896

Clifford sounds ... intense.

3. MARIE FROM NEBRASKA (1896)

The Courier, Dec. 19, 1896

“As I can not have it I will not ask for it" ... but I will mention it, just in case.

4. LYNWOOD FROM VIRGINIA (1903)

“I smashed everything you sent me last year." I won’t tell you what I want this year, but you better not mess up.

5. PAUL FROM VIRGINIA (1903)

This 4-year-old is very concerned about his infant brother’s lack of teeth. Since the local doctor has proved useless to rectify the situation, Paul hopes Santa might be able to lend a hand. He is magical, after all.

6. HARRY FROM MONTANA (1903)

Fergus County Argus, Dec. 16, 1903

Who knew keeping your feet dry was such an important part of staying off the Naughty list?

7. RAYMOND FROM WEST VIRGINIA (1907)

Clarence doesn’t sound very nice.

8. PERCY FROM WEST VIRGINIA (1907)

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Poor Opal and Mildred. They’re just girls. Do girls even have preferences?

9. VIRGINIA FROM MISSOURI (1907)

Virginia understands that sometimes Santa needs to delegate.

10. ROBERT FROM TENNESSEE (1913)

The Commercial, Dec. 19, 1913

Old people get lonely.

11. WILLIE FROM FLORIDA (1915)

Sure, an axe sounds like an age-appropriate gift for a five-year-old.

12. ELEANOR FROM FLORIDA (1915)

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“Bring both if possible.”

13. UNSIGNED LETTER FROM FLORIDA (1913)

Screen Shot 2016-12-09 at 10.48.04 AM.png

This transplant from Maine would really like a basketball, but he doesn’t quite believe that a Santa Claus can exist in Florida, where there isn’t even any snow.

14. WALTER FROM FLORIDA (1915)

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The Daytona Daily News, Dec. 17, 1915

Good choice not to act a pig, Walter.

15. MERLA FROM FLORIDA (1915)

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The Pensacola Journal, Dec. 24, 1915

Merla will not be ignored!

16. ROY FROM FLORIDA (1915)

Screen Shot 2016-12-09 at 11.54.27 AM.png

The Pensacola Journal, Dec. 24, 1915

A doll dressed in a cowboy suit could not be called Raymond. A lack of sailor suit is a dealbreaker.

17. MAXWELL FROM FLORIDA

The Pensacola Journal, Dec. 24, 1915

Ways to improve your chances of getting a pony from Santa, according to Maxwell Hudson: 1. Admit right off it’s expensive. 2. Say you will use it to take your sisters to school. 3. Promise to be grateful for anything Santa brings, so as not to seem greedy. 4. Make yourself seem extra kindhearted (and thus deserving of a pony) by showing concern for your fatherless neighbors. Did it work? We will never know.

18. MOXIE FROM TENNESSEE (1916)

Screen Shot 2016-12-09 at 12.47.23 PM.png

Perhaps a kid known for being mean shouldn’t be given a firearm.

19. DICK FROM SOUTH CAROLINA (1916)

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The County Record, Dec. 21, 1916

No, Santa certainly wouldn’t want to get “fastened in” the chimney.

20. JOHN FROM NEW MEXICO (1918)

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World War I devastated Western Europe, decimating a generation of young men—and apparently killing the French Santa Claus.

21. MARY FROM NEW MEXICO (1922)

Screen Shot 2016-12-09 at 3.13.18 PM.png

The Carlsbad Current, Dec. 15, 1922

Come on, Mary, Santa’s not a mind reader.

22. JEWEL FROM NEW MEXICO (1922)

Screen Shot 2016-12-09 at 3.14.37 PM.png

The Carlsbad Current, Dec. 15, 1922

No apology for the door-slamming incident. That might have helped your cause, Jewel.

23. R.B. FROM NEW MEXICO (1922)

Screen Shot 2016-12-09 at 3.15.15 PM.png

The Carlsbad Current, Dec. 15, 1922

R.B. is very thoughtful to provide such specific instructions; otherwise, Santa might get confused.

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