7 Ways People Humiliated Each Other 100 Years Ago

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A few good and/or horrifying practical jokes found in books from the early 20th century. Don't try these in modern times.

1. Air Hose to the Rectum

Some of the pranks we found were presented as cautionary tales to the reader—including this one, from a 1921 Safety Pamphlet for industrial laborers. The prank itself is simple enough; just blow super-compressed air up someone’s unsuspecting bottom, giving them the biggest goosing of their lives, and everyone laughs. The pamphlet devoted a special section to what must have been a common practice: 

Ed, as a practical joke, slipped up behind Will and held the compressed air nozzle against his rectum. The air instantly burst the large intestine. Blood poisoning immediately followed and in three days Will was dead.

I know how hard it is, when you top off your tires at the gas station, not to squeeze that nozzle and look around for the nearest unsuspecting large intestine, but for the love of God, control yourself. As the ad clearly states, “THIS TRICK ALWAYS KILLS THE VICTIM.”

2. Black Sand Jack

Writer Henry Llewellyn Williams tells one of the most brazen practical jokes to ever be perpetrated on a room full of grizzled 19th century gold prospectors. One night in the saloon, Jack—a mountain man widely known for his steely disposition and strange ways—entered the bar. He held gunpowder in his hand and announced, “Boys! I’ve lived long enough.” He set the powder off to a fine small explosion, capturing everyone’s attention. Then as if gripped by rage, he tore off his entire powder horn and threw it into the saloon fire, screaming, “And let every brave man die with me!”

No brave men were present that day, as everyone left their money and gold and ran for their lives. No explosion occurred, and the prospectors gradually filtered back in to find both Jack and a good amount of their money gone. Once the initial outrage died down, he became known almost affectionately as “Black Sand Jack,” since that is what he’d thrown in the fire. He was never seen in that settlement again.

3. Meat Handles

This joke required a set-up rarely seen today. Gates had pull-strings for their bells, which would announce a visitor to the house. Jokers would tie a piece of raw meat tightly to the string overnight, ensuring that every stray dog and cat (and there were a lot in those days) would end up ringing the bell. But when the startled occupant would come to the door with his candle held high, he would see no one, either because of the height of the gate or having himself startled away the animals. This would continue at random intervals all night. And, should the bell pull be near enough for him to see the meat, the very act of trying to remove it would cause a neighborhood-rousing uproar of clanging, while still leaving enough scent on the pull-string to continue the parade of animal visitors.

4. Horrible Swelling

This joke was best done at a university or boarding school, and requires dexterity with a needle and thread. While the victim sleeps, take his clothing and run quick hems down the legs of his pants and the arms of his shirt. The goal is to make the clothes too small in such a way that a sleep addled brain wouldn’t immediately notice. Listen carefully through the door to hear your victim rising and trying to shove himself into clothes that just don’t quite fit, though they did mere hours ago. Then, enter the room as if by accident and cry out in horror, saying, “What happened? You’ve swollen grotesquely in the night! Call the doctor! I’ve never seen a case of dropsy so severe and sudden!” This would have been most successful at a time when people had no electric lights, mirrors, and all the worldly guile of a 3-year-old.

5. The Sinning Donkey

This is the story of a mischievous Frenchman (yes, they specified a Frenchman) who happened upon a donkey tied outside of an inn. He eased the animal out of its harness, and shooed it away where a friend was waiting to steal it. He then tied himself up in the harness. When the owner of the donkey returned, the Frenchman fell to his knees and wailed with joy, “Thank you dear Lord, for allowing me to return to my human form! My sins have been forgiven, my time of penance has passed!” With that he staggered away, as if in a trance of joy. The next day his friend took the donkey to be sold at market, and sure enough, the donkey’s original owner was there. Upon seeing the beast he cried, “What? Has the wretch sinned again?” He then addressed the entire market, “For the love of God, friends, have nothing to do with this animal. He fooled me once, but I will not be caught again.”

6. Sign Switcheroo

Once upon a time, clever teenagers did not have marquee boards outside of schools and restaurants to rearrange letters on, making “Try our Angus Beef Quarter-Pounder” into … well, you’ve been on the Internet long enough to see where that’s going. Instead, truly enterprising young men would hack off and switch particular pieces of shop signs, cutting a piece off here and nailing on a piece there. The marriage of a surgeon’s theater sign with a piece of a washwoman’s would read, “Mr. Hickstrop, Surgeon. Mangling done here.” Or, a hairdresser’s sign tacked up with that of a coach rental to read, “Robert Dickenson Coaches to Let as Well as Ladies’ Fronts and Toupees.”

7. Sheet String

This one required drilling a small hole in the wall between your neighbor’s bedroom and your own, and was only for the most determined, obnoxious of jokers. While the victim is out, sew thin string to the bed coverings, and feed the string back through the hole to your own room. Then, once your victim starts snoring, gently pull the blankets off his body. He will awake confused, replace the blankets, and grow increasingly agitated through the night as you continue to torture him. Which was apparently worth staying up all night.

This post was inspired by this Reddit thread.