Everyone's had a jerk ruin their day. But go back a few centuries, and you'll find that the world was built for jerks -- jerks who could screw with other people's lives and rarely suffer any consequences. OK, maybe it's not so different from today. Regardless, whether it was starting fights on the beach or pretending to be a ghost for criminal purposes, the past was a ludicrously awful place. Take how ...
Modern Christmas involves awkward interactions with estranged relatives and eating a worrying amount of food, and that alone stresses us out. But that's nothing compared to mid-19th-century America, when the holiday season was spring break crossed with Die Hard. Youths brawled, riots broke out, and the streets became holly jolly battlefields. More people dreaded Christmas than looked forward to it, because people called "fantasticals" would go out of their way to make life fantastically miserable for others.
Back then, Christmas was more of a public holiday, where you'd get out of the house to watch a horse race, go skating, etc. But if you were young and working class, you'd get drunk, set off explosives, fire guns, stage mock battles, block off roads, blast trumpets, sing, and generally try to make as much noise and chaos as humanly possible all day and night, often while cross-dressing or in blackface. If someone objected to the racket, well ...
What if you decided to stay indoors? No problem, the chaos would come to you. During an activity called callithumpian, people would play deliberately shitty music while going from tavern to tavern demanding free booze, and they'd beat the stuffing out of anyone who said no (or who didn't offer enough). The authorities were generally helpless to stop this, and police who tried to intervene were sometimes attacked as well. To be fair, there were a lot of complicated class and racial issues at work during all of this, but it was probably tough to appreciate that if you were getting the crap beaten out of you for not giving away enough free booze to violent mobs.
Old-timey pranks put our modern-day YouTube wangs to shame. One fun example was giving someone an explosive disguised as charcoal so you could chortle heartily when their fireplace blew up.
Other "jests" included vomiting on beggars and attacking them with dogs, knocking away people's lanterns so they couldn't see in the dark, nailing people's doors shut, just stealing shit, or getting drunk and rampaging through the streets while breaking windows, knocking people over, and presumably yelling "Merry Christmas!" The Enlightenment's formula for comedy was "misery plus other people, and that's it."
Elderly and disabled people were the preferred targets of these wacky shenanigans: One "celebrated aristocratic prankster" organized a dinner staffed by all of the stutterers he could find, just so he and his friends could make fun of their speech impediments. Other dinners featured waiters who had bad legs or arms, so they could be yelled at or "thrown downstairs" for spilling food. Internet trolling almost seems quaint by comparison, doesn't it?
While modern ghost enthusiasts are largely confined to low-budget reality TV shows, belief and curiosity in the spirit world used to be more widespread ... which of course meant that people were there to take advantage.
Sometimes it was just for fun, like in the case of a young 18th-century scholar who was in the middle of writing a local history when he decided to pretend that a well was haunted for "his own amusement." In 1621, Henry Church, with the help of some London magicians, pretended to be a ghost to convince his wife to give him her inheritance. One 17th-century conman pretended to be the ghost of a suicide victim said to be haunting a establishment so he could scare off gamblers and steal their money. Yep, an actual Scooby-Doo plot played out in reality.
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Then there was the infamous 1762 Cock Lane Ghost. Long haunting short, William Kent and his lady friend Fanny rented a room in London. Fanny died, and then their landlord, Richard Parsons, got his daughter Elizabeth to pretend to be Fanny's ghost. "Fanny" made weird noises and claimed to be the victim of arsenic poisoning, which made Kent look like a murderer. A media circus erupted, and while an investigation eventually discovered the truth, Parsons first sold tickets to witness the ghost and received donations from people who felt bad that his building was haunted. "Fake Ghost-Haver" used to be a valid profession, and you didn't even have to film it.
But it wasn't only ghosts. In the Channel Islands, the thing for hip 17th-century youths to do was dress up as werewolves and throw stones at people's doors in the middle of the night, with women who were "already sexually compromised" being their preferred target. Authorities were already suspicious of young people who gathered in groups at night, so think of this as an insane 17th-century version of Footloose. Alternatively, people would wear the fabricated heads of horses or donkeys, drape sheets over their bodies, and use cords to make the jaws on their heads move and make noise. And then they'd chase people around and try to bite them. Imagine coming home from a hard day of peasantry, only for some deranged furry in your yard to try to take a chunk out of your ass.
There's always that one jerk at the beach, blasting music, spreading his stuff over five of the best deckchairs, getting obnoxiously drunk, and generally ruining your day. And in Australia from around the 1880s to the 1910s, the beaches were dominated by those assholes. Known as larrikins, Australia's beach bullies would turn up by the dozens or even hundreds and then proceed to piss everyone off. Larrikins would start fights, take over facilities, and generally not be satisfied until they were ruining everyone else's time. Often while naked.
In one well-documented case, about 60 larrikins crashed the seventh annual picnic of the Amalgamated Journeymen Tailors' Association, a name so old-timey that a monocle has spontaneously appeared on your face just reading it. They started small, stealing a soccer ball and refusing to give it back, but soon escalated into crashing a dance pavilion, where they hurled their friends into other dancers. It should go without saying that most of them were drunk as hell for all of this.
Larrikins had also crashed another dance party a couple of days earlier. The police were informed, but were helpless to intervene. Whenever they tired to arrest a larrikin, the others would either cause chaos elsewhere as a distraction or shower the cops with stones. At one point, they severely injured a woman who happened to be near an officer. While today we limit our riots to important concerns, like protesting institutional violence or celebrating a big sports victory, "we really want to piss off these dancers who are politely minding their own business" used to be due cause.
The modern public's relationship with the police is complicated, but both sides are best friends compared to how things were in Victorian England. In the 1870s and '80s, baiting police officers was practically the national hobby. Methods of trolling included setting booby traps with tripwires, leading bobbies on merry chases, and straight up attacking police officers out of the blue.
In 1880, a drunk by the name of Joseph Broxup played an extended game of runaround with the police, quickly attacking them and then shutting doors in their faces when they chased him. This was a bit of a trend, as a Leeds constable named Prewer seemed to spend all of his time haplessly chasing around after people and then getting his ass kicked.
The Crown Court of England and Wales
Other miscreants would get their dogs to attack police officers, sometimes for the sheer hell of it. Police were technically allowed to enter private property to do their jobs, but people were so resistant to the idea that constables were reluctant to investigate domestic violence, because often the only thing the abuser and the victim could agree on was that the police should fuck off. The police would even get shit for doing objectively helpful things, like returning mislaid property or pointing out doors that had accidentally been left unlocked and open.
Maybe this was all because the police themselves were less a Thin Blue Line and more Police Academy, spending a good chunk of time getting drunk instead of showing up for their shifts. It seems like sober policemen were more the exception than the rule, although given that the alcohol probably dulled the pain inflicted by random passersby for no apparent reason, maybe we're confusing cause and effect here.
And you know why you can't "pretend" to be a ghost anymore? Ghost costumes have gotten too darn adorable, that's why.
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