6 Cautionary Tales That Terrified Kids of Yesteryear

Alamy
Alamy

Long before Edward Gorey offed children alphabetically, writers sought to instill good manners and exemplary behavior through strange, scary cautionary tales. Some stories were so bizarre it's a wonder the kids that read them turned out okay. Here are a few of our favorites.

1. “THE STORY OF LITTLE SUCK-A-THUMB”

Der Struwwelpeter, penned by German psychiatrist Heinrich Hoffmann and released in Germany in 1845, is full of tales of children misbehaving—and the awful, bizarre fates they suffered for doing so. Augustus doesn’t eat his soup, and so he wastes away and dies. Harriet plays with matches and sets herself on fire. But none is stranger or more terrifying than the tale of poor Conrad, also known as Suck-a-Thumb:

One day, Mamma said: "Conrad dear,
I must go out and leave you here.
But mind now, Conrad, what I say,
Don't suck your thumb while I'm away.
The great tall tailor always comes
To little boys that suck their thumbs,
And ere they dream what he's about.
He takes his great sharp scissors out
And cuts their thumbs clean off, and then,
You know, they never grow again."

When Conrad sucks his thumb again, he is visited by the tailor, who chases the boy with a giant pair of scissors and cuts off both of his thumbs. Gruesome—and, if Der Struwwelpeter’s sales are any indication, perhaps an effective teaching tool for parents: By 1876, over 100 editions had been printed.

2. “THE CRY BABY”

This story is another Hoffmann specialty, from the book Slovenly Betsy, which was published in 1911 specifically for American audiences. A mother cautions her daughter not to cry so much, but the girl doesn’t listen—and eventually, she cries her eyes out:

And now the poor creature is cautiously crawling
And feeling her way all around;
And now from their sockets her eyeballs are falling;
See, there they are down on the ground.
My children, from such an example take warning,
And happily live while you may;
And say to yourselves, when you rise in the morning,
"I'll try to be cheerful today."

That’s not the only horrifying tale in Slovenly Betsy: There’s also the story about Polly, who plays with the boys even after she’s told not to—so of course her leg is severed while roughhousing. And proud Phoebe Ann holds her head up so high that her neck stretches freakishly, and she has to cart her noggin around on a wagon.

3. “THE TOM-BOY WHO WAS CHANGED INTO A REAL BOY”

For parents of a certain era, there were few things more horrifying than a little girl who didn't act like a little girl. That may have been what led to this story from the book Little Miss Consequence, published in 1880. The title is self-explanatory: A little girl (the daughter of an Earl) loves playing with the boys so much that, eventually, she becomes a boy.

At last she grew so coarse,
E’en her voice was rough and hoarse,
And her attitudes became so like a boy’s, boy’s, boy’s,
That they thought it only right,
On a certain Summer’s night,
To change her sex completely, without noise, noise, noise.

After her transformation, the girl is literally shipped off—a boat's captain is paid to take her on as a sailor. “And a caution may it prove to you and me, me, me!”

4. “LE PETIT CHAPERON ROUGE” (“LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD”)

In later versions of French writer Charles Perrault’s “Little Red Riding Hood”—published in 1697 as part of his book, Tales and Stories of the Past with Morals. Tales of Mother Goose—Little Red and her grandmother are rescued from the belly of the wolf by a woodcutter. Not so in the original, where the wolf devours them both, permanently. “Children, especially attractive, well bred young ladies, should never talk to strangers, for if they should do so, they may well provide dinner for a wolf,” Perrault writes. “I say ‘wolf,’ but there are various kinds of wolves. There are also those who are charming, quiet, polite, unassuming, complacent, and sweet, who pursue young women at home and in the streets. And unfortunately, it is these gentle wolves who are the most dangerous ones of all.”

5. “MAX AND MORITZ”

The seven tales of these badly behaved boys, written and illustrated by German Wilhelm Busch in 1865, begin with the duo tying bread crusts together with thread and laying a trap for a widow’s chickens. When the birds eat the crusts and swallow the intertwined strings, they panic and eventually become fatally entangled. The widow cooks the chickens, but Max and Moritz steal them with a fishing pole. They similarly terrorize a tailor, a teacher, their uncle, a baker, and farmer Bauer Mecke. When Mecke notices that the boys have slit open his bags of grain, he puts the boys in the bags instead, and sends the bag through a mill, grinding them to bits. “Here you see the bits post mortem/Just as Fate was please to sort ‘em,” Busch writes. Their bits are eaten by ducks, and no one is sorry to see the boys go.

6. “REBECCA, WHO SLAMMED DOORS FOR FUN AND PERISHED MISERABLY”

Published in 1907, Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children: Designed for the Admonition of Children between the ages of eight and fourteen years is technically a parody of 19th century cautionary tales. Satire or not, it’s still full of stories that should give naughty children pause—including “Rebecca,” who Belloc writes “was not really bad at heart, but only rude and wild: She was an aggravating child …” One day, to frighten her uncle, Rebecca slammed a door that had a marble bust above it; the bust fell, and “laid her out.” Her funeral sermon “showed the dreadful end of one who goes and slams the door for Fun.”

There’s also “Jim: Who ran away from his Nurse, and was eaten by a Lion,” "Henry King: Who chewed bits of string, and was early cut off in Dreadful agonies,” and “Matilda: Who told Lies, and was Burned to Death."

This story originally ran in 2013.

Amazon's Under-the-Radar Coupon Page Features Deals on Home Goods, Electronics, and Groceries

Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Now that Prime Day is over, and with Black Friday and Cyber Monday still a few weeks away, online deals may seem harder to come by. And while it can be a hassle to scour the internet for promo codes, buy-one-get-one deals, and flash sales, Amazon actually has an extensive coupon page you might not know about that features deals to look through every day.

As pointed out by People, the coupon page breaks deals down by categories, like electronics, home & kitchen, and groceries (the coupons even work with SNAP benefits). Since most of the deals revolve around the essentials, it's easy to stock up on items like Cottonelle toilet paper, Tide Pods, Cascade dishwasher detergent, and a 50 pack of surgical masks whenever you're running low.

But the low prices don't just stop at necessities. If you’re looking for the best deal on headphones, all you have to do is go to the electronics coupon page and it will bring up a deal on these COWIN E7 PRO noise-canceling headphones, which are now $80, thanks to a $10 coupon you could have missed.

Alternatively, if you are looking for deals on specific brands, you can search for their coupons from the page. So if you've had your eye on the Homall S-Racer gaming chair, you’ll find there's currently a coupon that saves you 5 percent, thanks to a simple search.

To discover all the deals you have been missing out on, head over to the Amazon Coupons page.

Sign Up Today: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews, and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping newsletter!

6 Too-Cool Facts About Henry Winkler for His 75th Birthday

Getty Images
Getty Images

Henry Winkler thumbs-upped his way into America’s hearts as the Fonz in Happy Days more than 40 years ago, and he hasn’t been out of the spotlight since—whether it’s playing himself in an Adam Sandler movie, a hospital administrator with a weird obsession with butterflies in Adult Swim’s Children’s Hospital, the world's worst lawyer in Arrested Development, a pantomiming Captain Hook on the London stage, or the world's most lovable acting coach to a contract killer in Barry

1. Henry Winkler made up a Shakespeare monologue to get into the Yale School of Drama.

After graduating from Emerson College, Winkler applied to Yale University’s drama program. In his audition, he had to do two scenes, a modern and a classic comedy. However, when he arrived at his audition, he forgot the Shakespeare monologue he had planned to recite. So he made something up on the spot. He was still selected for one of 25 spots in the program. 

2. HENRY WINKLER’S FATHER INSPIRED “JUMPING THE SHARK.”

CBS

In the fifth season of Happy Days, the Fonz grabbed a pair of water skis and jumped over a shark. The phrase “jumping the shark” would become pop culture shorthand for the desperate gimmicks employed by TV writers to keep viewers hooked into a show that’s running out of storylines. But Winkler’s water skiing adventure was partially inspired by his father, who begged his son to tell his co-workers about his past as a water ski instructor. When he did, the writers wrote his skills into the show. Winkler would later reference the moment in his role as lawyer Barry Zuckerkorn on Arrested Development, hopping over a dead shark lying on a pier.  

3. Henry Winkler is an advocate for dyslexia awareness. 

Winkler struggled throughout high school due to undiagnosed dyslexia. “I didn't read a book until I was 31 years old when I was diagnosed with dyslexia,” he told The Guardian in 2014. He has co-written several chapter books for kids featuring Hank Zipper, a character who has dyslexia. In 2015, a Hank Zipper book is printed in Dyslexie, a special font designed to be easier for kids with dyslexia to read. 

4. Henry Winkler didn't get to ride Fonzie's motorcycle.

On one of his first days on the set of Happy Days, producers told Winkler that he just had to ride the Fonz’s motorcycle a few feet. Because of his dyslexia, he couldn’t figure out the vehicle’s controls, he told an interviewer with the Archive of American Television. “I gunned it and rammed into the sound truck, nearly killed the director of photography, put the bike down, and slid under the truck,” he recalled. For the next 10 years, whenever he appeared on the motorcycle, the bike was actually sitting on top of a wheeled platform. 

5. Henry Winkler has performed with MGMT. 

In addition to his roles on BarryArrested Development, Royal Pains, Parks and Recreation, and more, Winkler has popped up in a few unexpected places in recent years. He appeared for a brief second in the music video for MGMT’s “Your Life Is a Lie” in 2013. He later showed up at a Los Angeles music festival to play the cowbell with the band, too.

6. Henry Winkler won his first Emmy at the age of 72.

The seventh time was a charm for Henry Winkler. In 2018, at the age of 72—though just shy of his 73rd birthday—Winkler won an Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series for his role as acting teacher Gene Cousineau on Barry. It was the seventh time Winkler had been nominated for an Emmy. His first nomination came in 1976 for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series for Happy Days (he earned an Emmy nod in the same category for Happy Days in 1977 and 1978 as well.

This story has been updated for 2020.