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6 Bizarre Pranks From the 19th Century

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By Cooper Fleishman on March 14, 2012

Ah, the 1800s: The era of awesome slang terms and creative euphemisms for the woman’s “monosyllable.” It was also a time where you could be casually steering a horse and buggy and then get stabbed in the face for no reason. We dug up some more incredible 19th-century pranks that are either bizarre or violent … or both. Ashton Kutcher would be proud.

1. Poking random people’s asses with swords.

From Francis Grose’s 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue:

Sweating was also a diversion practised by the bloods of the last century, who styled themselves Mohocks: these gentlemen lay in wait to surprise some person late in the night, when surrouding him, they with their swords pricked him in the posteriors, which obliged him to be constantly turning round; this they continued till they thought him sufficiently sweated.


2. Inviting citizens to a fake lion-washing ceremony.

From Gustave Louis Maurice Strauss’ Reminiscences of an Old Bohemian:

I think it was in the last days of March, 1848, that the proprietor of Chat, in conjunction with the editor and Pond, controved to perpetrate a vile hoax upon Her Majesty’s lieges. These wretched conspirators had a great number of order-cards printed, admitting “bearer and friends” to the White Tower, on the 1st day of April, to witness, if they so listed, the famous grand annual ceremony of washing the lions. I am sorry to say that I was over-easily prevailed upon to join in the distribution of these favours among friends and acquaintances.


3. Ghosts in the U.S. Capitol.

An officer on patrol one night in 1885, aware that his fellow officer was approaching, concealed himself in a corner and groaned loudly. His partner, terrified, opened fire on what he thought was a ghost — and, fortunately, never hit him.

This story, says the House of Representatives’ sweet historical Web presence, became the stuff of legends — along with a “ghostly demon cat wandering House hallways, usually during times of great political change or national upheaval.”

4. Crediting Edison with a food machine.

How come no one’s heard of Edison’s greatest invention, a contraption that transformed soil into cereal and water into wine? Because he didn’t invent it — the New York Graphic did. When other newspapers wrote longwinded editorials praising Edison’s genius, the Graphic‘s next feature was titled, simply, “They Bite!”

5. Filling working cannons with random crap.

In his 1932 book Black Tavern Tales, Stories of Old New England, Charles Goodell writes about his childhood pranks in Massachusetts the late 1800s. He and his pals found an old Revolutionary War cannon and stuck anything they found in it — wet rags, newspapers, grass — along with plenty of gunpowder. One of his friends burned his face off when a blast went awry. Fun!

Also, at midnight on Independence Day, Goodell and his friends would run around his town, taking gates off their hinges.

6. Slashing random people’s faces with knives.

Called “chalkers” in Ireland, certain men stalked the night knifing people in the face. LOL! Wait, no, that’s horrifying. Aren’t you glad you don’t live in King George III’s time, when people just did that shit for laughs, like egging cars or playing Call of Duty? “Hey, Ben, you up for a rousing round of slicing people’s faces?” “Nah, not tonight, I’ve got the consumption.”

Note: Chalkers “are somewhat like those facetious gentlemen some time ago known in England by the title of Sweaters and Mohocks” — see No. 1.


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