5 Real Historic Purges That Prove Life Used To Be Horrifying

Let's be honest: the only thing stopping some of us from going out and throwing a trash can through a Starbucks window is the possibility that our grandma will recognize us on the 5 o'clock news. Our ancestors had no such concerns. That's why, every once in a while, huge crowds of ordinary people came together in epic demonstrations of collective mayhem, and suffered no consequences whatsoever for it. For instance ...

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5
Firemen Used To Be Too Busy Fighting Each Other To Actually Put Out Fires

New York Public Library

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In 19th-century America, fire was a serious danger ... almost as bad as firemen. If you needed the fire department during an emergency, you had to pray that they weren't too busy doing something more important at the time, like drag-racing, stealing rival departments' fire engines, or just good old fashioned beating the s**t out of one another.

Bettmann / Getty Images
This image is from an antebellum sexy calendar.

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In 1840s Baltimore, these fights were happening on a weekly basis, with damages as high as $130,000 (which is the equivalent of 'all of the money' today). Weapons of choice included pipes, wrenches, and even musical instruments. But hey, at least guns were reserved for occasions that truly merited it, like when they demanded free alcohol and didn't get it.

Georg Stoopendaal
Fun fact: the "WEEEEOOOO" sound started as just drunken wailing.

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Perhaps worse yet, some firemen actually started bonfires to raise false alarms, lure rival groups, and fight them in the ensuing chaos -- bringing new meaning to the term "firefighter." They'd even use the fire engine to get from fight to fight -- or just race each other for shits and giggles, risking their necks and others' in the process. The Missouri Fire Company alone ran over four people in two years, and they're supposed to be the nice ones.

4
Old-Timey Irish Wrestling Was Basically Gangs Of New York

William Carleton

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In 18th- and 19th century Ireland, wrestling was a dangerous underground activity that police shut down wherever they could. It was like dancing in Footloose, basically. So enthusiasts would rassle on any piece of land they could find, like the infamous Donnybrook Fair (whose name literally became synonymous with uproar and disorder in the Oxford English Dictionary).

via Wiki Commons
Now, I've ... had ... the time of my life ...

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The thousands of fans who attended these events weren't content with just booing from the sidelines or throwing the occasional chair: they were as rowdy as the fighters, and matches could easily erupt into mass acts of violence. One massive skirmish left "great numbers" lying in a field with cuts and bruises, and not one arrest.

When the cops did show up to break up the fights, they had to arm themselves, often with swords, just to take on the wrestlers -- colorful characters like Dr. Brennan, an actual physician/alcohol-fueled brawler who fled on his pony when armed authorities came to interrupt one of his matches (after a fan punched a preacher). That there are no paintings immortalizing this entire scene is a crime against history and art itself.

Proctor
You'll have to make do with this unrelated sketch of Irishmen and beating sticks.

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Obviously there was no time -- or, more likely, desire -- to set up formal wrestling rings, so they had to improvise. As documented by Dracula author Bram Stoker, who wrote about wrestling in the 1870s, the "ring" was created by having a large fellow swing a big whip around and knock the hell out of anyone who got too close. Stoker, who seems to have contracted an early strain of Hulkamania, viewed this method as "violent," but "unquestionably fair," and was thrilled at "how soon and how excellently that ring was formed."

Don't let anyone tell you that wrestling isn't art.

The "style" used by these Irish madmen (known as collar-and-elbow wrestling) would one day help form catch wrestling, which is the basis for the stuff you know today. We're still not sure why they phased out the whip, though.

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3
Venice Turned Into An Orgy Of Violence Once A Year

via aguidetovenice.co.uk wopc.co.uk

When you think of Venice, you think ornate gondolas, pretty bridges, ancient churches, and fancy Italian food you can't pronounce. You probably don't think of hundreds of hooligans beating the absolute crap out of each other in those gondolas and churches, atop those bridges, and yes, probably sprawling across the fancy Italian food, too.

Joseph Heintz
The earliest Where's Waldo books were a lot more fun.

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During the 16th and 17th centuries, Venice was the site of the "battagliole sui ponti," which basically means 'fighting over bridges.' The city's two major factions both liked those bridges, you see, almost as much as they liked punching. As many as 30,000 people, from fishermen to politicians, could be involved in these brawls, which happened at least once a year. Further emphasizing the Purge-like atmosphere, fighters often wore special outfits: rolled up shirts around the waist to stop blows, caps to protect the head, and special non-slip shoes to avoid tripping as you stepped on someone's face.

Giacomo Franco
Now you know why Mario and Luigi dress that way.

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You might be wondering: where were the police during all of this? Shitting their pants, mostly. Despite having one of the most sophisticated law enforcement forces in Europe (The Council of Ten, who were like something out of Assassin's Creed), the few hundred men sent to contain these riots could not compete against the raging thousands. Police would get chased off by mobs, or the captains would be lured into secluded spots, locked in cellars, and have their mustaches ripped from their faces (seriously).

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And remember: these were Italians. That's practically castration.

2
Victorians Placed And Enforced Insane, Occasionally Murderous Bets

Thomas Rowlandson

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Imagine the film Trading Places. Now, imagine that the rich old dicks not only got away with it, but also murdered Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy at the end. That was considered 'a sporting wager' in 19th-century England. These bets ranged from simple obnoxiousness, like daring a fellow well-to-do ne'er-do-well to spit in a stranger's hat, to having sex in a hot air balloon, to negligent homicide.

Thomas Rowlandson
"I wager that I can shag 80 hats in 80 days."
"You're on, my good man!"

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One time, a group of old-timey one-percenters decided it would be fun to bet on whether or not a collapsed man was dead. When saner passersby wanted to get him medical attention, the elite effete stopped them -- arguing that saving the man "would affect the fairness of the bet." Another bet involved intentionally drowning someone, to find out if they could survive underwater for 12 hours -- it looks like he could not.

Illustrated London News
Jack the Ripper was some guy they bet couldn't kill five hookers.

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And law enforcement couldn't raid these pre-Thunderdome gambling dens, because the rich hired private armies to protect them. When cops stormed the room of Dr. James Graham (a quack who once claimed to be able to cure infertility with an "electric bed"), they found themselves vastly outnumbered by hired goons, and had to leave hundreds of gamblers free. When they came back better prepared, the Magistrate was beaten unconscious with a club -- or perhaps, knowing Graham, a crank-operated electric dildo.

1
Early Motorists Could -- And Did -- Run Over Pedestrians With Impunity

via Wiki Commons

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Before World War II, only the social elite could afford cars, and one of their favorite pastimes -- as it remains today -- was to harass the holy s**t out of the poor. The modern methods of class warfare -- mostly gerrymandering and NASCAR jokes -- pale in comparison to the old-times, when the rich just directly ran over the less fortunate with their horseless motohicular autocars.

Library of Congress
It took until 1938 for cars to switch from the blood of the poor to gasoline.

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Since there weren't any speed cameras, and police weren't fast enough to catch them, the effective speed limit for most motorists was "whatever they could do." While some authorities frowned on the practice, others just shrugged it off. One British minister, worryingly in charge of transport, essentially condoned vehicular homicide, figuring that if the victims weren't fast enough to get out of the way, they deserved it. Hell, even dogs knew to dodge cars:

St. Martin's Press
Peasants were generously labeled "higher animals."

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In 1926, Autocar magazine outright stated that motorists should flee the scene of "accidents," because if they didn't, then there might be prejudice against them. Why, they might even be found guilty of the crime they were guilty of!

St. Martin's Press
"By fleeing, we were basically Batman."

In 1935 England, cars killed or injured two thirds as many people as all the air raids of World War II. Of course, the actual owner of the car wasn't always responsible for said murder, since cars in 1930s Britain had to be left unlocked by law. The predictable result was youths "borrowing" vehicles for a practice they called "monkey parades," which is tragically not what it sounds like. They just drove around harassing and running over people. Not a single actual monkey was involved, because life is bullshit and nothing is okay.

For more ways our ancestors were completely nuts, check out The 7 Most Unexpectedly Awesome Parties In History and 5 Bizarre Ways Our Ancestors Solved Major Crimes.

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