4 Epic Moments In The History Of Suicidally Bad Ideas
The past is not short on nightmarish images, crushing oppression, weird customs, and horrifying practices that make you want to put a hand on the past's shoulder and say, "Oh no, honey, no, please don't do that; you look ridiculous, and I'm concerned for you." Here are some of them.
1890s Australia's "Whale Cure"
Hello, welcome to the last moment of your life where you don't know what a "whale cure" is.
Go ahead, savor it.
During the last decade of the 19th century, Australian health experts decided it might be great if everybody with achy joints climbed into dead beached whales for up to 30 hours at a time, all the while inhaling gusts of ammonia gas escaping its bloated corpse. It was believed this would relieve symptoms for up to a year.
Suddenly going to the walk-in clinic doesn't seem so bad.
In order to cure rheumatism, Australians in 1896 were gaga for the latest craze in "Oh my God who would do that" curatives, known as the whale cure. There was no scientific evidence that it worked, but people claimed to "feel better after being in the whale," as put by Michelle Linder, who curated an exhibit on the short-lived practice at an Australian museum. Australian writer Louis Becke describes the experience thusly: "Sometimes the patient cannot stand this horrible bath for more than an hour, and has to be lifted out in a fainting condition, to undergo a second, third, or perhaps fourth course on that or the following day."
"See! I'm perfectly fine!
"That dismount was shit. Fifth course."
And who needs scientists when whalemen exist: "The latter is closed up as closely as possible, otherwise the patient would not be able to breathe through the volume of ammoniacal gases which would escape from every opening left uncovered. It is these gases, which are of an overpowering and atrocious odour, that bring about the cure, so the whalemen say."
Thank you, whalemen! Hey whalemen: Don't do that. Why? Because it was not based in any kind of science and had no proven results. But mostly because it's really, really gross.
I guess if your joints are aching and no one's invented ibuprofen yet, the overpowering smell of rotting sea mammal is better than ... not that?
Putting Arsenic Every-Fucking-Where
OK fine, so maybe we still use harmful chemicals everywhere, and maybe BPA and Splenda and parabens are killing us. But if that turns out to be true, at least they do it slowly. Back in the day (you know the one), people would just straight-up continue inhaling lethal dust, buying tainted toys, and painting their faces with heavy metals until they goddamn died. We're all well acquainted with lead and why it's messed up, but let's take a second to appreciate its bookish older sister, arsenic. This substance damages the central nervous system of all mammals, destroys red blood cells, and is lethal in small doses. So people have always avoided it, right? Wrong.
People. Used. Arsenic. Everywhere.
Is modern-day food dye good for you? Probably not. But on the level that Gwyneth Paltrow doesn't feed it to her kids, not on the level that those same kids would probably die if they ate it. Scheele's Green was a pigment used in the 19th century in everything from clothes to wallpaper to food. It was a much brighter green than the other dyes of the time were able to achieve. The only downside was that it was made of arsenic. A bunch of children died at a Christmas party because one of the adults was all, "Hey, let's light some festive candles that are also full of arsenic because we hate children!" Women dropped dead after dancing in arsenic-laden green dresses. People made paper and silk flowers with Scheele's Green and put those flowers on their heads and poisoned the shit out of themselves. All in the name of a slightly more vibrant green dye.
One of these ladies' fathers owns the moon. The other is about to own a funeral bill.
There were no consumer advocacy groups back then, and we were just beginning to use and understand mass-produced chemicals, and people died more frequently, so it's understandable that the vast majority of consumers weren't able to separate themselves from harmful substances. But my main point is, if a whole bunch of kids die, maybe don't use those kinds of candles anymore? Scheele's Green was around long enough to take out hundreds of children, sicken thousands of adults, and maybe even slowly murder Napoleon, whose room in Saint Helena had green walls tainted with the stuff.
It wasn't until the middle of the 19th century that an Italian scientist bothered to take a look at the compound under a microscope and discovered its toxic components, so all those ding-dongs get a pass for not realizing it contained arsenic. But that doesn't explain why people still ate arsenic when it was clearly labeled "arsenic."
Only slightly less appealing than Necco Wafers.
That's right, apparently people thought they could make their skin more beautiful by eating poison, going by the old "the burning sensation means it's working!" rule. Several brands, including a few that trumpeted the beauty cred of being from France, arose with the promises of reducing pimples, blackheads, fine lines, dark spots, under-eye circles, and some horrifying conditions called "moth patches" and "bad blood." Although the wafers did specifically state not to eat too many of them, users ended up losing their hair, which is one way to make people focus on your skin. Oh, they also lost their red blood cells. Arsenic -- it's a hell of a drug.
Still, some desperados used arsenic specifically because of its harmful effects.
This woman committed suicide by putting white arsenic in her vagina. Which is like ... don't do that? Don't do that.
But these guys killed their wives by fingering them with an arsenic-covered hand. Which is also, we can all agree, very don't do that. Like, fully do not do that.
Everything Frats Did In The 1920s And '30s
Fraternities are longstanding, revered institutions that generate presidents, CEOs, professional athletes, and an impressive amount of "Hey don't do that." We're familiar with their less jovial, actually illegal Greek life pursuits of recent times, but no one did "What, literally, is it that you are doing" better than post-WWI, pre-WWII frats. Without a countrywide draft, young men had plenty of time to redefine the genre of "Hm, no."
"Well sweetheart, I got tanked and ate a bunch of live fish."
In the early to mid 1920s, Ivy League frat brothers got really into the trend of wearing raccoon coats: full-length fur coats made out of the thing that gave you a heart attack when you lifted the lid off your garbage can last night. Furs have long been a symbol of wealth, but stories about Davy Crockett made raccoon pelts seem adventurous, masculine, and even cool. The trend started in the early part of the decade, with men (and some ladies) going out for drives in their Model Ts clad in the finest vermin. Frat bros embraced the wardrobe staple so aggressively that it became associated with Ivy Leaguers and college hoo-rah excitement in general, in addition to its confusing status as a very luxurious thing that symbolized wealth.
I mean there was so much bigger stuff in the '20s that was "Don't do that," like irresponsible borrowing practices and Jim Crow laws and letting the Fitzgeralds keep their poor daughter, but this one could have fizzled out easily. It didn't. It got so big that it inspired a song that was (unfortunately) titled "Doin' The Raccoon":
From every college campus comes the cheer: oy-yoy!
The season for the raccoon coat is here, my boy!
Rough guys, tough guys, men of dignity,
Join the raccoon coat fraternity, soon,
To do the raccoon!
La la la, we're wearing rabies!
Honestly, fuck everything about that song. "But shouldn't we be glad they weren't actually, y'know, doing raccoons?" No. That should not be the bar for acceptable raccoon-related behavior. You start to think that the universe was watching this rich-jerk fuckery unfold and thought to itself, "These turds deserve a Dust Bowl." There's no better way to incur the wrath of the economy than by semi-ironically wearing the pelts of a backwoods animal just to show how rich you are.
However, at least the raccoons got to die first before being wrapped up in Greek-life hijinks. The most "Seriously, could you not" frat trend that started in the 1930s was goldfish-swallowing. Sorry, live goldfish-swallowing.
MIT and Harvard.
Apparently started by a first-rate "You gotta stop" Harvard freshman named Lothrop Withington Jr. (yes, seriously) on a $10 dare, frat dudes would eat live goldfish in front of crowds to gain friends and influence people. Lothrop chewed, but those who came in his wake opted for a nice clean gulp, aided by salt, ketchup, pepper, orange juice, milk, or -- sorry, did you barf yet? -- mayonnaise. Now did you barf?
Why did they do that? As put beautifully by psychologist Robert N. McMurray, "The craving of these goldfish cultists really is for public acclaim, that is, exhibitionism. The eater of goldfish takes delight in the repulsiveness of his act."
"I'm taking delight in the repulsiveness of my act!"
It became a game of one-upmanship between elite universities to see who could retain the title for most goldfish swallowed. Congrats to Clark University, whose bright shining star Joseph "Don't Do That" Deliberato swallowed 89 fish, despite animal rights activists calling for an end to the practice and public health officials warning that it could cause tapeworm. That's what you'd call giving it the old college try. It's also what you'd call "Hey don't do that."
Using Boats To Kill People
These days, boats are used primarily for drinking on, shipping garbage, and employing actors who couldn't quite book a Disney show on dry land. But back in the day, they had much more nefarious roles in the lives of humans. Boats were used for all sorts of murders -- and we're discounting maritime battle and warships here. Rest assured, we still have boats with huge guns for killing! We mean using the boat itself as the fatal blow.
Used as a punishment for naughty sailors as far back as 800 B.C. Greece and as recently as the 1850s in the Dutch navy, keelhauling is a form of torture that frequently led to death. The crew would stretch a rope underneath the hull, and the offending seamen would be bound to it, tossed overboard, and dragged along the underside of the boat once, twice, or back and forth repeatedly until it wasn't fun anymore. If you're lucky, it'll be side to side; if you're not, it'd be front to back -- y'know, like how you're supposed to wipe.
"I want no skid marks on the ship's poop deck or on yours."
If they dragged you fast-like, you'd be pressed against the boat itself and torn up by the thousands of barnacles attached to the ship's giant hull, causing you to die from blood loss, limb loss, or head loss (decapitation, y'all!). If they pulled you slow-like, you'd fall a little bit away from the hull, out of reach of the nasty barnies, but you'd also probably die of oxygen loss (drowning, y'all!). Best-case scenario, you break your arms and legs and get a bunch of infected wounds that might also kill you.
This guy presumably talked way too much about his gluten sensitivity.
Keelhauling continued to be used legally in the Dutch Navy until they decided it was "weird" and "Don't do that" and outlawed the practice in 1853. No idea if it's any worse of a management tool than modern-day team-building workshops, but at least no one's dying in that manner at the hands of a boat legally anymore.
But sometimes boat-murder happens "on accident," which is a real stretch if the accident is a result of purposeful cruelty. The most notorious mass-market slave-trading route in history is the Middle Passage, one-third of the triangular trade route that dominated global commerce from the 16th century through the end of the Civil War. You probably learned about it in 10th grade history and filed it away under "Awful stuff that happened a long time ago," but this one, really, really fucking sucks. People in West Africa were kidnapped by the millions, marched to the coast (half would die before they got there), held in bunkers for months, and then crammed into ships bound for the New World.
Yes, yes, what a marvelous plan. This should work perfectly; so glad we made this plan.
The boats were absurdly overcrowded, usually a few hundred Africans to 30-some-odd crew members. That's not a great ratio if your aim is to keep the soon-to-be-laborers alive, which was their aim, but they didn't really aim all that hard. The massive below-deck population was given meager amounts of food and water while shackled together, with no plumbing or cleaning systems to speak of. If the person you were shackled to died, you'd be stuck with him for a few days, because the crew members didn't love going below deck to check on everyone. On-board doctors were not considered worth the cost, so they just stocked the boats with a bunch of medicine, hoping it would help. It didn't. The close quarters, people's lowered immune systems, and the ever-present human waste allowed diseases like dysentery to spread easily. That combined with starvation, scurvy, small pox, suicide, and straight-up murder caused up to 20 percent of enslaved people to die before they ever reached the Americas.
The U.S. outlawed transatlantic slave trade in 1809, but it continued covertly until the Civil War was over. That's a whole lot of boat murder. Yes, yes, we can blame it on the boats!
There's no point in playing Horror Olympics with a centuries-long genocide, but as long as we're talking boat murder, we gotta talk scaphism. Scaphism is a bad. It a big bad. Please prepare yourself to learn about scaphism.
Also known as the more terrifying moniker "the boats," this torture/execution method was invented by ancient Persians, who clearly did not fuck around when it came to making a firm point. Here's what happens: The criminal is put in a canoe or hollowed-out log with their head and limbs sticking out, and is then covered with another canoe or hollowed-out log, then the whole thing gets lashed together and is floated out onto a lake. The setup looked a bit like they were in a school play as Tree #2. The poor bastard was force-fed milk and honey to cause them to have diarrhea, which filled up the inside of the log, attracting insects that would bite, sting, and lay eggs in the person's extremities. Some dedicated torture employee would show up every day to force-feed the person, just to make sure the person didn't die of something pleasant like starvation or dehydration. Eventually, one of those things would kill the person, or they'd die of sepsis from their whole body being full of poop. Dying on a lake in a log-boat covered in feces and milk and insects is NOT chill. Do NOT do that.
Which Sci-Fi Trope Would You Bring To The Real World, And Why? Every summer we're treated to the same buffet of three or four science fiction movies with the same basic conceits. There's man vs. aliens, man vs. robots, man vs. army of clones and man vs. complicated time travel rules. With virtual reality and self-driving cars fast approaching, it's time to consider what type of sci-fi movie we want to be living in for the rest of our lives. Co-hosts Jack O'Brien and Adam Tod Brown are joined by Cracked's Tom Reimann and Josh Sargent along with comedians David Huntsberger, Caitlin Gill, and Lizzy Cooperman to figure out which sci-fi trope would be the best to make a reality. Get your tickets to this live podcast here!
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