The first commercial electric lights were installed in the United States in the 1870s. But before you could say fiat lux, pranksters were generating their own mischievous uses for electricity.
As I mentioned in a previous post on macabre Hallowe’en entertainments of the past, some considered it amusing to administer a “severe electric shock” to unsuspecting guests. Even though shocks were painful, there was some notion that they were generally harmless; the casual cruelty was shrugged off as a joke. And, although there were plenty of people like James Thurber’s grandmother who was afraid of electricity leaking out of empty sockets, there was a certain light-heartedness about the dangers of electricity.
Possibly this was because the public was familiar with electric medical devices to treat everything from piles to hysteria to dandruff to masturbation, either found at the doctor’s office or bought over the counter like “Dr. Scott’s Electric Corset.” If doctors were shocking their patients, electricity must be therapeutic, or, at worst, harmless. Electricity was also treated as the latest novelty: a toy, a fad, as evidenced by musical numbers called “The Electric Polka” or “The Electric Waltz,” and fancy dress costumes with real light bulbs. And perhaps not enough people had died from electricity to raise an alarm.
I have found stories of a substantial number of live-wires who enjoyed winding up their fellow-men. Let us see if we can illuminate the shocking history of electrical practical jokes.
The first shocking machines appeared in the 1870s, masquerading as “test your strength” devices. I’ve been unable to find the earliest in the patent records, so if any of you know, please share.
A Senseless Practical Joke.
What is known as the “pulling machine” has been recently introduced into several of the liquor saloons of New York, and has proved a great attraction in some of the places in which a practical joke is relished by the frequenters, at no matter what cost to the victims. The “machine” consists of two large rings suspended from the wall of the saloon and connected with an index to indicate the amount of force which any person can exert who chooses to pull on the rings. But behind the bar is a hidden electrical machine or galvanic battery, connecting with the rings by means of wires run underneath the floor, and when an unsuspecting person has been induced to “try his strength” by pulling on the rings, and by a vigorous effort has drawn himself up from the floor, he receives a shock from the “masked battery,” which may simply temporarily affect his nerves, or may seriously injure his system, kit all depending on whether he is so constituted as to be mentally and physically a proper or an improper subject to operate upon in this rude fashion. If he escapes without much harm, it is, “drinks all round,” and the object of the saloonkeeper is served. If the effect is injurious and he gets angry, he is laughed at, and generally slinks away and says nothing further about the matter. Blindness has been caused by the use of the machine, and ruptures, cramps, hysterical fits and palsies have been induced by the improper administering of too powerful shocks of it, and apoplectic attacks have also been produced by its manipulation.
By it William Webber, a new York stevedore, was seriously injured the other day. He was induced by two fellow-stevedores to visit a tavern and try his strength. He has caused the arrest of the parties who took to the saloon, as well as that of the proprietor of the latter, and has had them all held on bail in a civil suit for damages.
In his complaint he states that he pulled on the rings and lifted his body “clear of the floor,” and then, he goes on to say “that Stewart (who was behind the bar) or his barkeeper, by means of a galvanic battery, transmitted to the rings a powerful and paralyzing current and shock of electricity, whereby deponent was for three minutes wholly unable to release his hold from the rings or regain his footing, and was thus kept suspended, writhing and suffering great torture, pain and anguish in his limbs and body for the space of the said three minutes,” when the current was stopped by Stewart or his bartender. While he was thus suspended he says that Weir and Connor, his companions, were “laughing at and deriding” him , and telling him to “spit on his hands.” He alleges that, in consequence of the shock, he has “sustained great and incurable wounds, lesions, strains and bruises in and upon his body, and particularly in the region of his stomach,” and has been put to great expense for medical treatment. Cleveland [OH] Leader 3 September 1877: p. 3
By the 1890s, while the shocking machines were still being advertised alongside weighing, gum, and slot machines, the victims were fighting back.
That Resulted in a Verdict For Damages Against the Jokers.
[New Orleans Times-Democrat]
Some years ago the operators at a Texas telephone exchange rigged up a connection with a fake strength-testing machine in a bar across the way. The machine consisted of a couple of handles attached by wires to a dial hanging from the ceiling and the victim would be induced to take hold and pull. At the same instant one of the jokers on watch at an opposite window would switch the current. It worked without accident until a very fat German was lured into the game and kept gasping and wriggling at the end of the handles for all of two minutes. His contortions were so amusing that the operator couldn’t shut off the current for laughing, and when he finally turned the switch the fat German fell to the floor like a bag of meal and lay unconscious for six hours at a stretch. When he came to he had a stiff arm, and he promptly sued the telephone company for $10,000 damages. The defense was based on a very peculiar form of what lawyers call ‘contributory negligence.’ It was claimed, in effect, that the machine was a self-evident fake, as it would be impossible to pull more than one’s weight on suspended handles. In other words, a man who went against such a contrivance was a natural-born idiot, and got no more than he deserved. The jury didn’t look at it that way, however, and gave the plaintiff a verdict. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 24 June 1899: p. 11
THE BATTERY BANISHED
The Victim of the Electrical Shock at the Sherman not Recovered.
A reporter of the News called yesterday [Monday] on Mr. L.D. Denison, the gentleman who was prostrated by an electric shock Saturday in the Sherman house. He is now lying at the home of Mrs. Keating, on Second Ave., opposite the Wisconsin House, where his wife is in attendance on him during his illness. Mr. Denison was, at the time suffering considerable pain from his injury and thought his condition was not improved. He says that while drinking at the Sherman the cup to which the electrical appliance was attached touched his forehead at a point where he had been wounded, and that he felt three distinct shocks. He says he is the possessor of a battery which he uses for local applications as a remedy in a disease to which he is subject, and that he is accustomed to quite heavy charges of electricity without injury, and on this and the results of the affair at the Sherman, he bases his opinion that the charge of electricity given him there was an extremely heavy one, notwithstanding it is claimed by the party responsible for it to have been very light. It is sufficient to say that Mr. Denison is in a critical condition as a consequence of the perpetration of the joke, which though doubtless done in good humor and with no thought of harm, has in this case resulted seriously and may yet prove fatal.
Dr. Duncan, the attending physician, was also seen and said that while he considered Mr. Dennison’s condition serious he felt hopeful that the patient would yet recover from the shock.
The battery in the Sherman in the uses to which it has been applied, has, the News is assured, been with no purpose of injuring anyone and has been the occasion of considerable sport to frequenters of the Sherman house corner.
The News is glad to state that since this unfortunate occurrence the machine has been removed and banished from the house. Aberdeen [SD] Daily News 8 July 1890: p. 4
Doorknobs were the most popular target for electrification:
FIRE PRACTICAL JOKER
Perry Electrical Company Discharges Perpetrator.
Perry, Ia., Nov. 18. A joke perpetrated by an employe of a local electrical company, came near resulting in the death of an 11-year old boy named Bernard Hohenshelt, of this city. The lad was rendered unconscious, but recovered his senses in a short time, although he still feels the effects of the experience. The electrical employe sought to frame up a joke on another employee by affixing wires so that his friend would receive a slight shock when he took hold of the door latch. The wire to the latch carried 110 volts of electricity and when the Hohenshelt lad took hold of the handle he was unable to let go until he fell to the floor unconscious. The incident has broken the employe of all desire to play brainless jokes on his friends. It also resulted in his dismissal from the service of the company. Webster City [IA] Tribune 19 November 1915: p. 4
Electricity was also a splendid way to discourage loiterers, providing hours of amusement for onlookers.
An Electrical Joke with a Sequel.
An amusing innovation agitates certain Sacramento loungers, and its operation is thus chronicled by the Bee of that city: “The authorities at the telegraph office in the passenger depot have conceived and ultimated a very happy idea of affording a cheap and effectual amusement to loungers thereabout. A box running the full length of the front of the office on the outside, has heretofore furnished a tempting seat for the habitués. This has been covered with zinc which has been connected with the batteries that were contained in the box. A person sitting upon the box without touching his hands thereto will not feel the electricity, but if his hands drop on the box, or he puts them thereon to assist him in rising, he receives such a sudden and astonishing shock as sends him an unbelievable number of feet towards the lofty roof and the adjacent river. Any good day a person may see some of these unfortunates unexpectedly struck with this domesticated lightning, describing a fifty feet parabola in the air. Inside the office an almost imperceptible wire conducts the electricity into the iron handles of a spacious arm-chair. A large gentleman sat down therein the other day, and leaning luxuriously back, he laid his hands upon the arms, and in that very instant he was astounded and finding himself trying to butt a hole through the ceiling. The sequel to this joke is not quite as amusing as the story, for the Assistant Superintendent happened to take a seat in one of the chairs, and, on his return to the floor from his aerial flight, he dismissed some of the practical jokers. Evening Post [New York, NY] 21 March 1872: p. 1
The electric joke was, lamentably, often mentioned in connection with persons of color, whose scant respect from society was reflected by the press, as you will see.
TOO MUCH ELECTRICITY
A Tourist Entertains the Noble Reds at Winnebago Agency With an Electric Battery.
[Sioux City Journal]
A little story is told of a scientist from the eastern part of this State who was making a tour of Nebraska and finding himself in the vicinity of the Winnebago agency thought he would go there and take in an Indian Fourth of July celebration. There was bow-shooting and rifle practice, pony and foot racing, a war dance, and all that sort of thing. The man of learning, who is a grave, sad-faced individual that would knowingly do no wrong, thought it but just to add his mite in the fund of amusement and so produced an electric battery, and the simple experiments of Faraday’s science. Then he put on the boards the common farce known as “Not getting the money.” Everyone remembers how in this a basin of water is charged with electricity and a silver coin dropped in; how generously the showman offers the coin to anyone who will take it out, and how as one after another tries to take the money from the water his hand is cramped and his arm paralyzed by the electricity in the water. This little experiment pleased the bucks greatly. As one after another retired discomfited he was greeted with five loud guffaws of merriment and shouts of applause. The water was getting charged with the electric fluid to the point of saturation when the last Winnebago presented himself to try his luck. The water was so charged that instead of acting in the usual way, cramping the hand and causing an involuntary jerk out of the water, the shock went directly into his whole system and he was powerless to remove his hand. The man of science seeing him still, as thought, grasping for the silver, redoubled his efforts at the crank, and ground so much concentrated lightning into him that he all but died. His head drooped on his breast, his pulse was weak and his breath nearly gone. Then our traveler saw his mistake. To say that he was frightened, but feebly conveys the idea. He ceased his labors at the crank and called for cold water to dash in the face of his red brother. He walked said brother around, stood him on his head and tortured him generally, and at the end of several hours had the satisfaction of pronouncing the brave out of danger. But the show was over.Cleveland [OH] Leader 25 July 1879: p. 5
“They are having a vast deal of fun around the square from an electric battery. A current is turned into a basin of water in which money is placed and negroes try to get the money out. The battery is owned by Dr. James A. Lane.” Macon [GA] Telegraph 30 March 1880: p. 3
Electrical pranks could even be used in the service of Imperialist expansion.
It is stated that M. de Brazza, who has charge of an expedition to Senegal, carries an electric battery in his pocket communicating with two rings on his hand and with other apparatus about his person. When he shakes hands with a savage chief, that individual will be surprised with an electric shock running up his arm and lightning playing about the head of his visitor. He will naturally believe the stranger to be the devil, and treat him with due respect. Daily Gazette [Rockford, IL] 22 January 1880: p. 2
(To be fair, I found the same story in the Portland [ME] Daily Press, 27 May, 1875: p. 1, so it may just be a legend. I don’t see it mentioned in any biographical material about de Brazza online.)
Electrocution was the perfect choice for a club initiation.
“Death Chair” Initiation
A Yale Club Installs New Device For Candidates
Electric chairs are something new in clubhouse furniture. The Yale club, on West Forty-fourth street, New York, has one. The chair sits in a corner of one of the large rooms, grim, mysterious and awe inspiring under its cover of black cloth. Rumor has it that the “electrocutions” of various club members have been highly successful affairs, and those who have been subjected to the current declare that they sympathize with the condemned man who steps into the chair at Sing Sing, says the New York Press.
Club members are noted lovers of novelty. Always there is a search for something new in the way of amusement, and the man who can suggest or invent something out of the beaten track is hailed as a deliverer. It is said that the old way of initiating new members of the Yale club had grown stale, and something out of the ordinary was earnestly desired.
An official of the club who has something of an inventive mind bethought himself and finally evolved an idea. He called an electrician of his factory into consultation and revealed to him his plans. The electrician built a compact, stocky structure of wood in the shape of a chair. Metal plates were put upon the arms and on the front legs. An electric battery was fitted on the back, from which concealed wires ran over the chair.
An employee of the factory was called in to act as the subject for an experiment. He was inveigled into taking a seat in the chair. Light straps were instantly buckled over his wrists and ankles. Then the current, quick and sharp, was turned on. The results were all that could be desired. The designer of the chair smiled with satisfaction and forthwith had the apparatus conveyed up to the club.
It is said that several candidates have emerged from initiations with badly shaken nerves since the “death chair” was installed. The member who had the chair built denies this and says that the chair was only used on a few old members. Other members say, however, that a good deal of electricity was used in initiations for awhile.
The apparatus is not dangerous. The battery is only a light medical affair, and the straps could be broken by a strong man. But the sudden, sharp current and the feeling that he is bound and helpless is enough to throw a bad scare into the man in the chair. Massillon [OH] Independent 10 September 1906: p. 4
Even in the early 1900s, after many years of articles about the cruel and dangerous nature of shocks, we still find a sadistic enjoyment in electric pranks, as seen in the phrases “farce comedy,” “laughs heartily,” “good as a circus,” in the following stories:
PUPILS PLAY CRUEL JOKE
Teacher, Called to Examine Charged Fence, Gets Electric Spark.
Bellingham, Washin., Dec. 3. A stolen current of electricity, a charged school building fence, a principal shocked in all senses of the word and a dire threat of wholesale expulsions, are the leading features in a farce comedy enacted at the North Bellingham High School today.
Some ingenious students, by means of a coil of barb wire, stole a strong current of electricity from the First Christian Church and ran it to the wire fence which encloses the school grounds. Then someone told Principal Twitmeyer that there was something wrong with the fence. That august personage “bit,” and went out to examine the fence.
The consequent shock knocked him off his feet. The janitor, coming to his rescue, was similarly affected, and then a crowd collected and several of the students received severe shocks from the innocent appearing fence. Oregonian [Portland, OR] 4 December 1908: p. 4
CAPTAIN MORRISON AND HIS ELECTRICAL JOKE
How the Deputy Banking Commissioner Shocked His Visitors
Harrisburg, Pa., Feb. 4. Captain John W. Morrison, deputy Commissioner of Banking, has been having fun with the visitors at the department. Recently a new carpet was laid and it seems to be sur-charged with electricity. Captain Morrison greets his friends very cordially and after walking them up and down the department once or twice he requests them to touch one of the metal pulls of a file case.
Then he laughs heartily at the pained expression of the victim, who gets several volts of electricity and a lively shock from the contact. Philadelphia [PA] Inquirer 5 February 1900: p. 12
An Electrical Joke
A very funny incident occurred yesterday at the corner of Beekman and Gold streets.
An old horse who had seen “better days” was plodding along at a snail’s pace, dragging his load wearily. When he reached a certain spot he began to dance a Highland fling. He pricked up his ears, snorted, pirouetted for a few seconds and then calmed down again.
Another and younger brute followed whose friskiness had not wholly evaporated. Suddenly he, too, became transformed, and to such an extent that he tried to kick a hole in the stars with his hind legs.
After that came a couple of car horses, not over endowed with high spirits, but lounging in a leisurely drop-a-nickel-in-the-box sort of way, and instantly they began to prance. For the first time in years they showed an inclination to gallop. They were fiery steeds for just about two seconds.
The reason for all this equine commotion was a lot of stray electricity. When the iron hoofs of the horses came into contact with it they received a shock which startled and frightened them, and gave them a momentary appearance of thoroughbred animals engaged in the pastime of high jinks. That was all, but it was as good as a circus.New York Herald 20 July 1890: p. 14
I’m afraid that I seem to have switched my Relentlessly Informative toggle to “stun.” Apologies for the long post. Going off for some rubber-soled shoes now….
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.