6 Beloved Organizations (Started For Terrifying Reasons)

#3. The Rhodes Scholarship

Question: What do Bill Clinton, Kris Kristofferson and feminist writer Naomi Wolf have in common, besides the obvious fact that they have "I's" in their first names, "O's" in their last names and were all born in even-numbered years?

Oh, and aside from the fact that they've all gotten laid in the Oval Office.

Answer: They were all Rhodes scholars, chosen to participate in one of the world's most prestigious postgraduate programs. Also, they all have luscious, touchable hair.

Ever since 1902, the Rhodes Trust has selected the brightest minds in the world to do postgraduate work at Oxford University in England. Winners enjoy the benefits of free tuition, a monthly stipend to cover all their living expenses and a ready-made excuse for avoiding combat in Southeast Asia.

Who'd want to do that?

Its Sinister Origins

The Rhodes Scholarship was originally intended to be a secret network of British ruling elites, indoctrinated to advance the Queen's cause all over the world, ultimately even recovering the United States for the mother country.

It was one thing for Cecil Rhodes to be a racist imperialist: you wouldn't expect anything less from a white Victorian-era diamond magnate. The fact that he seized a million miles of African land, named a country after himself and declared that all Englishmen had "won first prize in the lottery of life" without batting a beady little eye shouldn't even faze hardened Cracked readers such as ourselves.

Observe how he casually smothers a midget in this picture.

So, in his mind, this fund wasn't just some gesture of international goodwill. In fact, Cecil Rhodes wouldn't have known "international goodwill" if it sneaked up and frenched him in the ear. In the first draft of his will, Rhodes set up a fund for:

... the establishment, promotion and development of a Secret Society, the true aim and object whereof shall be for the extension of British rule throughout the world ... especially the occupation by British settlers of the entire Continent of Africa ... the ultimate recovery of the United States of America as an integral part of the British Empire ...

They'll try again one day, readers. The British aren't to be trusted.

Fortunately, Rhodes' advisers who weren't insane convinced Rhodes to re-imagine the scholarship as a way to indoctrinate Colonials and get them on the side of the crown, then send them back into the world thoroughly Anglicized. And that's how the scholarship ultimately ended up. Which is a good thing, because toad-in-the-hole sounds disgusting.

#2. Ballet Schools

When ballet began, it wasn't so much an art form as it was a royal party dance for Renaissance-era courtiers. Kind of like the electric slide, but exclusively for aristocrats. The dance form actually wasn't accessible to commoners for the first few hundred years of its history, not until King Louis XIV established the world's first ballet school, the Academie Royale de la Danse, in 1661. And that school eventually became the Paris Opera Ballet School, which is still in operation as one of the world's most prestigious ballet schools.

They won't let you eat popcorn shrimp during a recital or nothing.

But somewhere in that transition from courtly, mannered dancing among nobility to the disciplined art form we know today, something pretty repulsive happened.

Its Sinister Origins

They were whores.


Girls recruited to study at the Paris Opera Ballet School weren't just sweet little bun-headed cutie pies in tutus. They were called the "little rats." And they were prostitutes in training.

Which was why the enterprising managers of the Paris Opera recruited the poorest, most desperate girls they could find to populate the ranks. Girls such as 14-year-old Marie van Goethem, who was the model for this statue by the artist Edgar Degas:

Cute, right? Not when you find out that the relationship between Degas and the girl was "debated" and that she was only one of many petits rats expected to entertain and keep company with patrons of the opera. By bringing in desperate girls whose parents were practically their pimps, the school opened up a whole world of patronage:

In the 1830s, however, the backstage of the Paris Opera became a privileged venue of sexual assignation, officially countenanced and abetted ... the theater's enterprising management dangled before the elect of its paying public a commodity of indisputable rarity and cachet -- its female corps of dancers.


Marie herself ended up getting kicked out of the ballet at age 17 and apparently went into full-time ho'ing, along with her sisters, with her mom as her pimp. But had she stayed in the ballet corps, the only difference probably would have been that she would have had the protection of the clients who favored her, and that she would have kept dancing. That's about it. One writer of the time put it this way:

Most of the dancers first saw the light of day in a concierge's lodge.

"Voulez-vous coucher avec moi (ce soir)?"

#1. The Greatest Show on Earth

We all love a good circus. What's not to love about painted men in unnaturally colored afros, psychedelic hobo clothes and clearly oversized shoes degrading themselves to small children for applause and affection? Or elephants trained to walk like people and balance 10,000-pound bodies on precarious stools for our amusement?

In other words, a totally safe place for children.

And for many of us, our first circus experience was with the Greatest Show on Earth, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus. Since the merger of America's two biggest circuses in 1919, millions of spectators have enjoyed the circusy stylings of clowns, acrobats, tightrope walker and caged-motorcycle-sphere-of-death-riders alike.

What could possibly be sinister about a circus?

Its Sinister Origins

P.T. Barnum started his empire with one singular act: the exhibition of a blind, paralyzed, withered slave lady who claimed she was once George Washington's mammy.

Before there was Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, there was just P.T. Barnum, a guy who bought another human to put her on display for paying customers. Unlike his later attractions Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy, the Siamese Twins and Tom Thumb, Joice Heth was not exactly a willing collaborator just making the best of a physical disability -- she was an old lady on death's door, reportedly weighing only 46 pounds when she was purchased. As an exhibit, all Heth had to do was sing some Negro spirituals and tell stories of nursing the Father of Our Country.

Exploitation? This man?

It was all bullshit, of course. Heth wasn't 161 years old, as everyone found out when she died. BECAUSE BARNUM HAD HER PUBLICLY AUTOPSIED and charged people admittance to get in on the show. Which they did, willingly. Because how often do you get a chance to watch a physician cut into the body of a 80ish-year-old cripple who pretended to suckle the first president of the United States? It was a bargain, really.

Kristi Harrison is an editor here. And you can follow her on Twitter here.

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