Electrocuting People Was Basically America’s Favourite Pastime In The 1920s

Electrocuting People Was Basically America’s Favourite Pastime In The 1920s

Forget baseball. America’s favourite pastime in the 1920s was electrocuting people. I’m not even joking. Illustration from the September 1923 issue of Practical Electrics magazine

One thing you learn from reading old science and tech magazines of the 1920s is that tech nerds were sadistic weirdos. There are countless stories from the pages of magazines like Science and Invention and Practical Electrics where average people would brag about electrocuting others for kicks. It seems you could get away with quite a bit before the invention of modern laws that kept people from maiming each other just because.

One letter from a reader of Practical Electrics magazine appeared in the September 1923 issue. It told a quite sordid tale of electrical mischief:

Not long ago an elderly gentleman walked into the shop with a shocking machine under his arm and after waiting for the other customers to leave, brought his troubles to me something like this : “I would like to know if you could put more power in this thing. There is a bunch of tough fellows who think they are so much tougher than others because they can take all there is in it, and it would do my heart good to see them get electrocuted.”

“Sure,” I said, “we can electrocute ’em. Drop around in a few days and it will be finished,” and so he went out with a merrier tune.

Next day we made a switch so when the indicator was at the highest point the old secondary was cut out and a half-inch spark coil was switched in. Thus only the tough birds would get their penny worth and the tender feet would, never know the difference. Fearing we had made the punishment too severe, we set the machine on the bench and waited with great anxiety for a fish to bite. Before long one of our most prominent citizens came in sight. We went and talked to him in the doorway. Everybody about started doing anything to get into an argument. Finally he asked, “What’s this piece of junk here?”

“Why, if you had as valuable a piece of junk as that you’d have no use for Aladdin’s lantern.”

“Do you think I never saw one of the things before? Stick a penny in and let’s try it.”

“Well, I suppose every time you use a penny slot machine you get your gum and complain because you didn’t get a profit sharing coupon.”

By this time he produced a penny and started the indicator. Up — up — up it went all the way to the top, but I can’t tell my thoughts at this moment, as I saw the whole front of the machine being torn out by the handles. It came out and all the works came out with it. He next struggled backward for ten feet and with his great involuntary efforts brought the works down upon a heavy motor. Then being free, he leaned back on a box and shook all over, but not so badly as I did. Nobody had breath to laugh until now, and they were surely using it now. I did not see how I could face things, so I sneaked out for a long walk. When I returned I learned that the patient had slowly seen the joke was on me and later he asked to see some things he needed. Said he would just take them and things would be even. There was no argument. It was not long before the owner knew of the excitement and came to see me. Much to my surprise he said it was just what he wanted, for me to fix it again and he would call later.

The owner used the machine only a short time when he brought it back with a story a mile long of how he worked it just once and on the right fellow. When we gave him a bill he said it was a little more than expected, but he forced a smile over his face and managed to say, “It’s cheaper than monkey glands, whatever they may cost.”

I have no idea what that reference to monkey glands is all about at the end, but I’m going to guess it was about some ginned up patent medicine that promised super-human strength in the 1920s.

I guess the best that can be said of this story is that it didn’t have that racist zing which accompanies so many other tales in my 1920s tech magazines. It’s the small victories, really.