5 Tragic Origins Behind Some Basic Rules And Regulations
Every sign has a story. When you show up on Election Day, and you see a taped notice warning that voting booths are not toilet stalls, you can guess that someone came in earlier that day and left some civic duty on the floor.
So too with the following stories. Sometimes, yes, a law will ban specific sex acts with chickens purely because that image randomly popped into some legislator’s head, but often, the world is responding to something that actually happened.
America Banned Kinder Surprise Eggs Because of Sweet Poison, Not Toys
As you might know, the Italian company Ferrero sells chocolate eggs with plastic toys inside, and America lets no one import and sell them here. You can’t even bring these Kinder Surprise eggs into the country for your own personal use. In 2012, for example, Border Control stopped and detained a couple of guys crossing over from Canada with half a dozen Kinder eggs.
Most people think the U.S. bans the eggs because the toys present a choking hazard, and the FDA has issued notices saying as much. Urban legend even speaks of some incident that sparked the ban, where a group of people died choking on Kinder eggs “somewhere in Europe.” And yet, the ban follows the letter of a law passed in 1938, and that law responded to people dying over something very different.
This was a primitive time, before antibiotics became a thing, back when people treated bacterial infections with drugs called sulphonamides. Got a UTI because you had sex in a dirty 1930s pond? A bottle of sulfa was the cure you turned to. You could buy it under the brand name Prontosil from a legit manufacturer like Bayer, or you could turn to any of hundreds of different preparations mixed by renegade pharmacists working out of their basements. In 1937, one of these drug makers, the S.E. Massengill Company, made a preparation that they called elixir sulfanilamide.
Elixir sulfanilamide combined the basic drug with some raspberry flavoring and dissolved the two powders in the solvent diethylene glycol. In deciding on this formula, the scientists asked themselves one important question: Is raspberry delicious? The answer to that is yes. They should have asked themselves another question: Is diethylene glycol poisonous? The answer to that is also yes.
The elixir killed more than 100 customers who drank it. Dr. Sam Massengill, the owner of the company, said, “There was no error in the manufacture of the product. I do not feel that there was any responsibility on our part.” The chemist who designed the formula, on the other hand, responded to the deaths by shooting himself in the heart.
Under existing law, Massengill actually hadn’t committed any crime in poisoning those people. Selling the mixture didn’t count as manslaughter. The only crime the FDA were able to pin on them was mislabeling the sulfanilamide — i.e., for calling it an “elixir,” which falsely implied it contained alcohol. Clearly, we needed some new laws, so we got the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act the following year. Along with many other provisions, the act bans “non-nutritive objects” “imbedded” in confectionary. That means the only Kinder Surprise eggs you can have in America today are variants that separate the toy from the chocolate, and where’s the fun in that?
Kids Could Fly Till One 1996 Incident
Technically, you need a pilot’s license to fly a plane, and there’s a minimum age for that. But if you’re too young for a license and you hop in a plane anyway, who’s going to stop you? The police? They’re in cars on the ground, and you’re flying through the air!
Seriously, though, the law forbids kids under 16 from flying, but a little loophole existed in the 1990s. A child could legally control a plane so long as the plane had a second set of controls, and a licensed adult at them was nominally the pilot. Sounds safe enough, right? The adult could always take the lead if the need arose. Unless, say, they set out with the specific goal of keeping the kid in control at all times, such as if they were aiming for a world record.
That brings us to Jessica Dubroff. In 1996, seven-year-old Jessica wanted to be the youngest person to fly across the United States. Or rather, her parents wanted her to. It was never really Jessica’s decision, because Jessica was seven. Picture how capable the average seven-year-old is at making choices. Now picture someone far less capable than that, because Jessica had lived a life cut off from all knowledge and experience. Her parents didn’t enroll her in school (they also didn’t homeschool her). They forbade television, toys and books. Her mother was a hippie who didn’t believe in medicine. Despite being able to afford access to an airplane, they lived as squatters.
The media, who normally panic and seek to shield children from every imaginary danger, were all for the proposed flight. Maybe it was because the Spice Girls were plotting their first album, and girl power was infecting the world. A bunch of interviews publicized the event and praised the spunky underdog pilot. ABC News gave her a camera so her dad could film from inside the plane. The closest thing to a voice of reason, crazily enough, came from Guinness World Records, who turned down the family’s request to judge the stunt.
The flight plan comprised several separate legs, and Jessica managed to get from California to Wyoming. Then, during the next leg, the weather was lousy, and the plane crashed right after takeoff. Jessica, her father and her instructor all died. Everyone now realized that this had been a bad idea from the start, and the new Federal Aviation Reauthorization Act would contain a special statute banning kids from even touching a plane’s controls if they were “attempting to set a record or engage in an aeronautical competition or aeronautical feat.”
The only person with seemingly no regrets was Jessica’s mother. “I beg people to let children fly if they want to fly,” she said, afterward. “Clearly I would want all my children to die in a state of joy. I mean, what more could I ask for?”
A Magic Show Gone Amok Gave Us Those Push Bar Emergency Doors
Listen, we don’t know just how many dead kids you wanted to read about when you woke up this morning. But you’ve come with us this far. There’s no turning back now.
We’re next going to look at the year 1883, when two magicians known as the Fays were performing in Sunderland, England. Alex Fay (real name: Alfred Hutchinson) was a ventriloquist, and his wife Annie was a spiritualist, which meant she pretended to speak to ghosts. Those descriptions alone make them sound like a creepy couple, but we assure you, if they were secretly serial killers, that would have resulted in nowhere as much death as what they did on June 16, 1883.
For much of the above ad, every word is scarier than the last. “THE GREATEST TREAT FOR CHILDREN EVER GIVEN” presents a sinister threat. The tricks on offer — talking waxworks, living marionettes — all belong in a Conjuring sequel (oh, and they advertise “conjuring” too). The show admitting “any number of children” introduces a more grounded fear. Two thousand children would end up attending the show at Victoria Hall, and today, we know that such crowds present risks. Any venue with that kind of audience needs numerous emergency exits.
A later line on the poster would spell the children’s doom: “PRIZES! Every Child entering the room will stand a chance of receiving a handsome Present, Books, Toys &c.” The kids all kept this promise in mind when they sat through the unremarkable show. At the show’s end, as advertised, the Fays started handing prizes out. Children watching from upstairs — whether they had won a prize or not — rushed down to reach the stage hoping to get something. They rushed too fast and hit a bottleneck at a narrow door, which didn’t open properly. Kids fell on top of each other as more and more of them pushed forward.
When people stampede like that, we call it a crush, and the ones on the bottom get hurt or even suffocate and die. In the Victoria Hall disaster, 183 children died. The oldest was 14 years old, and the youngest was just three.
It would take a few more generations for everyone to agree that theaters need lots of doors (and multiple staircases, since stairs are especially dangerous choke points). But it did very quickly lead to new laws about the type of door in question — these doors must open outward, said the new British policy. And inspired by the disaster, an inventor named Robert Briggs came up with a new sort of outward-opening egress: the crash-bar door.
If you had to guess how the crash-bar door came to be, you might correctly imagine some disaster where people got trapped inside, and you’d probably go with “fire.” But there’s something more dangerous than fire. Magic. Stage magic, which is the darkest magic of all.
We Delay Releasing Victims’ Names Because of the Day the Music Died
If the 1959 plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper led to any kind of policy change, you’d think it’d have something to do with air safety. Unlike with the Jessica Dubroff case, however, we couldn’t blame this crash on anything obvious and avoidable. The pilot, we know in hindsight, was relatively new to flying, and he lacked experience at flying through poor weather. The official word from the investigation was he should not have agreed to take off that day. But he was licensed, the weather wasn’t so bad that no planes could fly and it’s not practical to have a committee approve or reject each individual charter flight. Nor can we prevent a repeat of the disaster by making sure big stars always travel in separate planes, like the president and vice president do. That would rob us of some of the most awesome parties in music history.
We made no big changes to prevent a repeat of the crash, but one change aimed to prevent a repeat of the aftermath.
“I can’t remember if I cried / when I read about his widowed bride,” say the lyrics in “American Pie,” and this refers to María Holly, Buddy Holly’s wife. They’d been married just six months at the time of the crash. She heard about the crash and her husband’s death not from police or someone else contacting her directly but from listening to the radio. That’s an especially jarring way to receive news, and she miscarried soon after. After this, authorities switched their standard operating procedure. Now, you’re not going to hear exactly who died in any reported disaster until their families have been privately informed of what happened.
To contrast this further with the Jessica Dubroff crash, let’s leave you with a quote that’s the complete opposite of Jesssica’s mother’s. María, who clearly was not at fault, felt guilty about the crash. “It was the only time I wasn’t with him,” she said. “And I blame myself because I know that, if only I had gone along, Buddy never would have gotten into that airplane.”
Or, maybe if she went along, all of them would have ended up on the same plane and died, who knows. María is still alive today, by the way. That’s surprising because the 1950s crash feels like a long, long time ago. Even Madonna’s cover of “American Pie” is now decades old.
And speaking of music and death...
The Conductor’s Baton Was Born from Gangrene
Stone tablets tell us that conductors guided orchestras all the way back in Ancient Greece. In 709 B.C. someone dubbed “Pherekydes of Patrae, giver of rhythm” conducted a group of 800 musicians. His tool for controlling this crowd? A golden staff, which he tapped against the ground. Everyone followed his movements and therefore played at the right speed.
Music changed a lot over the next couple millennia. But the heavy staff still proved a good tool for conductors. Right up until 1687, when composer Jean-Baptiste Lully was conducting a performance of this song:
Lully raised and lowered his staff, kept banging the floor and finally stabbed himself right through the foot. The foot got infected, naturally. Doctors advised him that amputation would be the safest way to respond to the gangrene. He said no, because he figured he wouldn’t be able to dance without that foot. So the infection spread and killed the guy.
Incredibly, Wikipedia lists 18 different conductors who died in the middle of conducting concerts. These were mostly heart attacks during strenuous performances. Some pieces get really intense; two different conductors died, 57 years apart, during the same spot of one demanding Wagner opera, Tristan und Isolde. Lully, though, is the only one to fatally stab himself mid-performance. It’s quite a famous story in the classical world. You might have heard characters mention it if you caught the movie Tár.
After Lully, conductors moved from tapping heavy staffs to whipping light batons through the air. This allowed for all kinds of more creative and precise movements. It’s the safer choice, but not the safest choice. Safest would be using your bare hands, on the off chance that the baton stabs your finger or pokes your eye out. Actually, safest is to conduct the orchestra totally naked, but prudish city ordinances sometimes ban that route.
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