If you were a parent in the early 1980s, making your child happy came with great physical risk. At the height of the Cabbage Patch Kids phenomenon, eager consumers were sometimes trampled or threatened by store owners with bats when demand exceeded supply.
Those cherub-cheeked dolls weren’t the only toys to prompt hysteria and violence. Every so often, a hot toy comes around that seems to strip shoppers of their humanity and turn toy aisles into crime scenes. Here are a few of history's more lamentable episodes.
1. Tickle Me Elmo—or Else (1996)
Tyco had no idea of the havoc that would follow their release of Tickle Me Elmo, a cackling stuffed version of the popular Sesame Street character they released in 1996. (An earlier idea to make a Tickle Me Taz of Looney Tunes fame was abandoned.) Thanks to a media blitz and a tickling feature that could be easily demonstrated in stores, Tickle Me Elmo became the season’s must-have toy.
Store clerks paid the price. Robert Waller, an employee at a Walmart in New Brunswick, Canada, had the misfortune of coming between shoppers and a shipment of Elmos, suffering a broken rib, pulled hamstring, and concussion. “I was pulled under, trampled—the crotch was yanked out of my brand-new jeans,” Waller said. As his prone body lay on the ground, shoppers darted for the chuckling Elmos.
Time did little to soothe the voracious appetite for Elmo. In 2006, upon the release of the TMX Elmo 10th anniversary doll that could double over in hysterics, a man in Tampa, Florida, was robbed at gunpoint. The thief didn’t want his wallet—just the TMX Elmo he was carrying.
2. Fists of Furby (1998)
The chirping Furby brought in a fortune for Hasbro in the late 1990s, charming consumers with its bleating of “Furbish” and ping-pong-shaped eyes. The demand came to a boiling point at a Walmart in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, on Black Friday in 1998, when a throng of shoppers rushed into the store as it opened. The most overzealous of them were alleged to have trampled two women, who claimed to have received head, neck, and back injuries from the scene and sued the department store giant for failing to have adequate Furby security.
Similar events played out at stores in Massachusetts, Illinois, and Colorado. In Arlington, Texas, consumers who discovered there were no more Furbys screamed expletives at workers. All this for a toy intended for children ages 6 and up.
3. Pogs of War (1995)
If you’ve seen The Simpsons, you’ve probably seen Milhouse van Houten’s enthusiastic endorsement of Pogs, the collectible chips depicting pop culture characters that can be used for games. (“Remember ALF? He's back—in Pog form!”) The chips were very real, and for a time so popular that schools were seeing fights owing to the outcome of the games: Winners take the loser’s Pogs, a consequence not always accepted by the Pog-less. At schools in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and Washington, faculty banned Pogs from their grounds after kids squabbled over them. According to one principal, the "slammer" disc, which was used to knock over the other Pogs, could be used as a makeshift weapon. Fortunately, the fad quickly faded.
4. Let It Go (2014)
Fans of Disney’s Frozen went wild for Elsa, the ice-trapped princess in one of the company's biggest animated hits. The ensuing rush for merchandise—and the empty shelves—sometimes brought parents to their breaking point. A Disney Store employee in Times Square told The New York Post in 2014 that “people have gotten into physical fights” over the toys. The problem, according to Disney, was that they simply hadn’t anticipated how popular the movie would become.
5. Pokémon Rap Sheet (1999)
The Japanese trading card game was and remains a sensation among fans, but back when Pokémon cards were first introduced, things could get heated. On playgrounds where collectors swapped cards, anyone who felt like they were getting a bad deal could lash out. According to Maclean’s, a 14-year-old in Quebec whose brother had been allegedly ripped off by another boy for the cards confronted the offender. That boy, who was 12, pulled a knife and cut his foe badly enough that stitches were required.
6. The Great Beanie Babies Riot (1999)
Beanie Babies were the brainchild of Ty Warner, who upended the plush toy market by limiting the availability of his animals and “retiring” them after a limited time. This caused a frenzied market of Beanie Babies being bought and sold for big money. (Claude the Crab alone might require a bank loan.)
The allure of Beanie cash led to some tense situations. In 1999 in Ogden, Utah, a crowd of shoppers descended on a Tina’s Hallmark, eager to be the first to lay hands on a new Beanie shipment. When someone cut in line, a polite melee broke out, with plenty of pushing and shoving. Police intervened, and no people (or Beanies) were reported harmed.
As with Tickle Me Elmo, time has done little to dampen the impassioned Beanie Baby loyalists. In October 2021, a man in Snohomish, Washington, was arrested for cracking his roommate over the head with a baseball bat before brandishing a firearm. The man, who was not identified by name in the media, was said to have been upset his Beanie Babies had gone missing.
In court, Judge Anthony Howard seemed incredulous. “I do have a police report here indicating that you’re currently upset that some Beanie Babies were stolen,” he said. “Allegedly you decided that justified taking a bat and a gun to the people you believed stole from you.” The whereabouts of the Beanies have yet to be disclosed.