History Teaches Us: Things We Do For Entertainment

When first members of mankind found themselves not running for their lives for more than a couple of hours, our biggest enemy managed to creep in – boredom. Since then, entertainment has come a long way. But before it became an industry with the help of radio and television, entertainment would be whatever we could think of.

Of course, some forms are classic. The theater has been around for millennia, and storytelling became a thing shortly after we developed language. However, as anyone with cable or a Netflix account can testify, you can have plenty of options and boredom will still manage to find a way to sneak in.

In today’s article, history teaches us that humanity will stop at nothing to alleviate ennui. Whether it’s watching someone dissect a body, bite the head off a wharf rat, or throwing pieces of raw meat to a man covered in fur, there’s nothing we won’t do for entertainment.

So, we’re going to share with you a bunch of real-life stories and the extents to which people went to find something engaging to watch.

Escalator Madness

escalator in coney island amusement park

I would rather entertain and hope that people learned something than educate people and hope they were entertained.” – Walt Disney

For something so similar to a staircase, the escalator was far more successful than anyone ever imagined. Its inventor, Jesse Reno, patented it as the “Endless Conveyor or Elevator.” This would later be changed to the “inclined elevator.” The term “escalator” came about much later.

The Coney Island amusement park installed the first escalator in the world. In the two weeks it was stationed there, more than 75,000 people used it as a ride. For comparison, Coney Island’s current population is just over 48,000.

This was happening in 1896. It would be three more decades until the wonder-staircase was to be made to also go down. So, what did the famed Coney Island escalator ride look like? It went up for about two stories, at a 25-degree angle, and then the “riders” would take the stairs back down. As exciting as anything you’d see today, wouldn’t you agree?

Kit Burns and The Sportsmen’s Hall

a rat pit like the one used by kit burns

It’s the sad thing about entertainment, it’s not always about who is the best.” – Jake Roberts

Kit Burns was born Christopher Keyburn on February 23, 1831. He came to America alone, on a ship from Ireland, when he was 15. He proceeded to join the Dead Rabbits, one of the most infamous Irish gangs in New York, and get training from the bare-knuckle boxing champion himself, Yankee Sullivan.

Proving himself smarter than the average thug, he quickly gained a leading position in the Dead Rabbits. Using his renown and gains, he moved to Water Street and opened the establishment which would make him popular, Sportsmen’s Hall.

There, he would occupy his time with blood sports and illegal bare-knuckle boxing. The blood sports he was most fond of were dog fights and rat baiting. The hall seated up to five hundred people, and it was usually full over capacity. Many of New York’s municipal magnates, members of Congress, state senators and assemblymen frequented the Water Street Sportsmen’s Hall.

A self-proclaimed animal lover, Burns claimed that the only reason he let dogs fight was because it was in their nature, just like with boxers. As for the hundreds of rats killed each night by dogs and humans alike, they were seen as just vermin.

The rat baiting, or rat fights, consisted of the prize dogs being set loose in the fighting pit and killing as many rats as possible in the shortest amount of time. He even had a black bear people would pay money to fight, but he wouldn’t allow it unless the challengers were big and tall enough.

Another Sportsmen’s Hall attraction was Kit’s son-in-law, Richard Toner. He would frequently bite the rats’ heads off himself, usually for ten cents to a quarter. Kit eventually got in trouble with a recently formed ASPCA but died of pneumonia shortly before going to trial. This also spelled the end of the activities held at the Sportsmen’s Hall.

Oofty Goofty, The Wild Man of Borneo

oofty goofty the wildman of borneo

Entertainment’s definition has been reduced to making people happy.” – Anurag Kashyap

Born Leonard Borchardt in Berlin on April 26, 1862. He stowed away on a boat in 1876, but was found by the captain and made to work on the ship for two years so as to pay for his passage. In 1878, he finally made it, penniless, to Detroit.

Joining the United States Army out of necessity, he was ceaselessly teased by his fellow soldiers for being Jewish. Scared that they were right in telling him that any Native American would scalp him first, he deserted shortly after being deployed. He was caught the same day, but escaped a few days later.

In 1884, still penniless and now also an outlaw, he was tricked by the owners of a sideshow into becoming the “Wildman of Borneo.” The owners covered him in tar and horse hair, encouraged the public to feed him raw meat, and claimed that he spoke 37 languages but understood none.

Oofty Goofty is what he would often yell to the public. He apparently liked the onomatopoeia, so he kept it as his name. Though he quickly gained popularity, the gig was up when he finally snapped at a couple of Irishmen to stop poking him with a stick. Because of this, the owners of the sideshow didn’t give him a dime.

He would soon be found and taken to a hospital, as the tar wouldn’t allow him to perspire, making him sick. The doctors couldn’t remove the tar at first, presumably because of the horse hair. It finally came off after the medics doused him in tar solvent and left him on the roof of the hospital.

Over the next few years, Oofty Goofty would make a living any way he could. This included being a mascot for a baseball team which beat him every time they lost. He eventually discovered, after being thrown out of a bar, that he was immune to pain.

He proceeded to walk the streets with a baseball bat, asking people to “kick him as hard as they could for 5 cents, smack him with a walking stick for 15 cents, or beat him with a baseball bat for 25 cents.” This temporarily ended in 1891, after he challenged John L. Sullivan to hit him as hard as he could over the back with a billiard cue. This fractured three vertebrae and left him with a lifelong limp.

john l sullivan

Probably the most famous picture of John L. Sullivan

He would go attempting to break a walking record and win a bet by pushing a wheelbarrow for more than 400 miles. However, a few farmhands got scared of him and pushed him into a river. Oofty Goofty then resumed his pain tolerance-based lifestyle. He bet people $50 they couldn’t hit him with a drill hard enough to make him cry out in pain.

The last records of him show Oofty Goofty making it to at least 61 years old. Towards the end of his life, he reportedly made money by telling his life story, selling imitation diamonds, and performing “odd feats.”

Five Hundred Years of Public Dissections

seinfeld and kramer drop junior mint in operation room

We’re seeking out such grossness in human behavior and want such mindless entertainment.” – Chelsea Handler

Back in the 1300s, dissecting human corpses made a big comeback. Initially, the practice of witnessing this was reserved for medical students. However, due to boredom and nothing better to do, more and more people started attending these dissections.

Most large cities in Europe began building special anatomy theaters, where up to 1,000 morbidly curious individuals could witness such dissections. However, as the crowds grew bigger, they started being divided into men and women. The latter were even invited to touch the corpses.

Prices for the tickets were generally affordable, although they did vary depending on how interesting each body was. People dressed up for the events, as a lack of corpses made each dissection a special occasion.

The number of events increased significantly in England after the Murder Act of 1751 passed. This act had all executed criminals be publicly dissected. The popularity of the practice only increased as a result, with thousands of people attending each viewing.

This practice eventually went away in Britain in the early to mid-1800s, after it was outlawed. Still, a number of incidents occurred during which private individuals would steal corpses and invite people over to witness them dissecting the body.

Popular at first, the practice quickly died out because of the lack of showmanship of most such underworld performers.

History is full of people going to extreme lengths to alleviate their boredom. These were just a few examples of some of the strangest forms of entertainment we’ve read about. For more lessons from history, but also for other similarly entertaining topics, come back to our website anytime.

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