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The British Library Is Out to Prove That the Victorians Were Actually Funny

Victorians are known for a lot of things—stuffy sensibilities, high-minded tastes, austerity—but a lively sense of humor is not among them. As Atlas Obscura notes, the eponymous Queen Victoria herself reportedly once shut down a racy dinner party joke with a stone cold reply of, “We are not amused."

Edge Hill University lecturer Bob Nicholson and the British Library are looking to change the perception of Victorian humor by enlisting the help of volunteer “joke detectives.” Nicholson will showcase the findings at Harvard University next week.

You can see some of them yourself right now via the Twitter account Victorian Humour and contribute with the hashtag #VictorianJokes. The hunt is mainly occurring via digitized books and newspapers from the library, according to The Telegraph.

"When it comes to humour, our ancestors don’t have a sparkling reputation," Nicholson told the paper. "But far from being humourless, it turns out that the Victorians were prolific joke writers. Some of them, dare I say it, were even quite funny."

Here are a few examples of what the joke detectives have uncovered so far.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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crime
German Police Tried to Fine Someone $1000 for Farting at Them
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In Berlin, passing gas can cost you. Quite a lot, actually, in the case of a man accused of disrespecting police officers by releasing a pair of noxious farts while being detained by the police. As CityLab reports, Berlin’s police force has recently been rocked by a scandal hinging on the two farts of one man who was asked to show his ID to police officers while partying on an evening in February 2016.

The man in question was accused of disrespecting the officers involved by aiming his flatulence at a policewoman, and was eventually slapped with a fine of 900 euros ($1066) in what local media called the "Irrer-Pups Prozess," or "Crazy Toot Trial." The errant farter was compelled to show up for court in September after refusing to pay the fine. A judge dismissed the case in less than 10 minutes.

But the smelly situation sparked a political scandal over the police resources wasted over the non-crime. It involved 18 months, 23 public officials, and 17 hours of official time—on the taxpayers’ dime. Officials estimate that those two minor toots cost taxpayers more than $100, which is chump change in terms of city budgets, but could have been used to deal with more pressing criminal issues.

[h/t CityLab]

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In 1909, a Door-to-Door Catnip Salesman Incited a Riot in New York
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In 1909, New York City businessman G. Herman Gottlieb was looking for a way to make a quick buck. He found it in a wooded section of Northern Manhattan, where wild catnip grew. After harvesting two baskets full of the plant, Gottlieb headed downtown to Harlem, intending to sell the product to residents with pampered felines.

As the history blog The Hatching Cat recounts, what Gottlieb didn’t know was that the neighborhood was also home to plenty of feral cats with voracious appetites. As Gottlieb made his way around the neighborhood, a handful of stray cats seized upon some leaves that had fallen out of his basket and began writhing and rolling around on the ground. Soon, even more kitties joined in, and “jumped up at his baskets, rubbed themselves against his legs, mewing, purring, and saying complimentary things about him,” according to an August 19, 1909 article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Gottlieb tried to frighten the cats away, according to The Washington Times’s account of the event, but the persistent animals wouldn’t budge. “All of them, rich and poor, aristocrats from the sofa cushions near the front windows and thin plebians from the areaways struggled mightily to get into the two baskets of catnip,” the Times wrote. Soon, Gottlieb found himself surrounded by somewhere between 30 and 40 cats, each one of them clamoring for his goods.

When he eventually spotted a policeman, Gottlieb thought he’d found an ally against the cats. Instead, Sergeant John F. Higgins promptly arrested Gottlieb for inciting a crowd. (“Why don’t you arrest the catnip?” Gottlieb asked him, according to the Times. “That is collecting the crowd. Not I.”)

Trailed by several cats, Higgins and Gottlieb made their way to a police station on East 104th Street. But when they arrived, authorities couldn’t decide whether or not the salesman had actually broken any laws.

“We can’t hold this man,” Lieutenant Lasky, the officer who received the arrest report, said. “The law says a man must not cause a crowd of people to collect. The law doesn’t say anything about cats.”

“The law doesn’t say anything about people,” Higgins replied. “It says ‘a crowd.’ A crowd of cats is certainly a crowd.” Amid this debate, a station cat named Pete began fighting with the invading felines, and, with the help of some policemen, eventually drove the catnip-hungry kitties out of the building.

Gottlieb was eventually released, and even driven home in a patrol wagon—all while being chased by a few lingering cats, still hot on the trail of his now regrettable merchandise.

[h/t The Hatching Cat]

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