While the Internet’s cinnamon, saltine, mannequin, and ice bucket challenges may be just recent memories, mankind has long been swept up in crazes of daring. Things were no different in the early 1920s. Popularized in American schools, the challenge consisted of swallowing a live, wriggling goldfish whole.
The Great Goldfish Gulper
Some believe it gained widespread popularity when Lothrop Withington Jr. performed the stunt for a student election. Withington was running for class president, when he regaled the student body with tales of his willingness to do anything, mentioning he had once swallowed a goldfish.
Dared to repeat the stunt—and egged on by his friends—he stood before the student body and press to swallow the unfortunate fish. Afterwards, he brushed his teeth and washed it down with a dinner of fried fish and tartar sauce.
“The scales caught a bit on my throat as they went down.”
The press spread the story like wildfire, even giving him coverage in TIME magazine. Before anyone knew it, students all over were swallowing goldfish. But proving you could swallow a goldfish quickly wasn’t enough, and the true test of their medal was just how many you could swallow!
In a bit of Ivy League competition, a student was able to swallow 25 fish, but it was Albert Hayes of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that claimed the record holder for “piscine delegation” when he downed 42 slippery fish. It took him nearly a minute each to get the fish down, as it was reported that he had trouble keeping them from hopping out of his mouth! This record was apparently smashed by Joseph Deliberato who swallowed 89 goldfish at Clark University shortly after.
Unlike many fads that die out on their own, it took legislative action to stop goldfish gulping. The Massachusetts legislature imposed a ban on the “cruel and wanton consumption” of fish. Backed by the Boston Animal League, goldfish swallowers in the city were threatened with arrest.
The US Public Health Service also came out against the challenge, arguing that the live fish could contain tapeworms. Universities would fire back, however, publishing a study demonstrating that most adult males could swallow 150 fish without consequence.
Despite the widespread abandonment of the goldfish challenge, a few people kept the trend alive. By 1970, the record is said to have been moved up to 300, and you can now find goldfish gulping videos online.
Beware, however, there are still many laws against goldfish swallowing. A man in Wales was fined in 2015 for a video of him swallowing a fish he’d won at a fair!