The ridiculous stunt of swallowing a live goldfish
is actually a time-honored
college tradition, dating back to the late 1930s. The first fratboy
to attempt such a feat was Lothrop Withington, Jr., whose pioneering accomplishment sparked something of a craze back in 1939.
It all started with an evening bull session at Holworthy Hall, in which the Harvard freshman bragged that he had once eaten a live goldfish. A dubious friend bet him $10 that he couldn't do it again. A candidate for freshman class president, the enterprising Withington agreed, setting the date for March 3rd in the freshman dining hall. A large crowd gathered that night, including Boston journalists invited by Withington.
Plucking a wriggling three-inch goldfish from a small bowl, he held it up by the tail for all to see. He slowly bent over backwards like a sword-swallower and lowered the fish into his mouth. Then, indelibly marking his place in goofball history for all time, he chewed. And swallowed. Acknowledging the applause of the crowd, he then pulled out a toothbrush, remarking, "The scales caught a bit on my throat." After the momentous event, he sat down with the other freshmen for an ironic meal of fried fillet of sole.
Although Withington lost the election, he did achieve a short-lived notoriety. News of his achievement spread quickly to other colleges. Frank Hope, an undergraduate at Franklin and Marshall College, bested Worthington three weeks later. Sprinkling his fish with salt and pepper and then swallowing them whole, Hope stomached three whole fish and declared Worthington a "sissy". Hope's classmate, George Raab, beat his record the very next day with six down the gullet. Harvard retaliated through senior Irving Clark, who swallowed two dozen small fish, then announced he was available to eat any other indelicacies - for a price. His rates were any bug for just a nickel, an angleworm for a dime, and a whole beetle for a quarter.
Once the competition got started, there was no stopping it. New records were set almost daily that spring at the University of Michigan, Boston College, Albright College, and MIT. Northwestern University's Jack Smookler stomached twenty-eight in front of Boston's Opera House. A veterinary student at Middlesex University choked down sixty-seven in just fourteen minutes. Joseph Deliberato of Clark University set a record that seemed like it was going to last with eighty-nine in one sitting in early April. The first coed to digest a live one was University of Missouri's Marie Hansen.
The press, delighted by the new fad, egged students on, publishing instructions on the safest way to get one all the way down: Let the little guy wiggle until you can feel it at the very back of your throat, then quickly swallow it down. They warned prospective swallowers to never attempt to swallow a fish thrashing near the front of the mouth.
Authorities, on the other hand, were aghast at the trend. A pathologist from the U.S. Public Health Service warned that goldfish can contain tapeworms and diseases, not to mention the choking risk. The Boston Animal Rescue League declared the practice inhumane. Universities tried to suspend or expel swallowers for "conduct unbecoming a student," and many towns passed ordinances making goldfish swallowing illegal. A Massachusetts state senator even presented a bill trying to protect the goldfish from "cruel and wanton consumption."
Ultimately, however, it was not the edicts of the adults but summer break that brought an end to the fish swallowing craze. As students returned home, the fad quickly became passé. Once in a while, however, modest revivals have sparked new world records. In 1939, a UCLA anatomy professor calculated that an average size male could safely digest 150 goldfish in one setting; the world record, set by a Los Angeles college student in 1974, is currently 300.
Sources:the excellent book Panati's Parade of Fads, Follies, and Manias by Charles Panati