The worm turns

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This week’s Friday funny is a story about the often bitter wars that have been fought in the United States over drink. Brought to you, as ever, by author and journalist Eugene Byrne, the story takes us back to a classroom somewhere in America, more than 100 years ago

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The joke

Sometime in the late 1800s/early 1900s, somewhere in the United States, a well-known temperance campaigner was visiting an elementary school in a small town to address the children about the evils of drink.

As part of her talk, she gave the class a demonstration. She took two saucers; into one she poured whiskey, and into the other one she poured water. She then asked if one of the children would be good enough to go outside and dig up a worm.

Moments later, one of the boys returned, proudly bearing a worm. She placed the worm into the saucer of water. It wriggled around a little for a short while and suffered no harm. Now she placed it in the saucer of whiskey. It died almost instantly.

“Well now,” she said to the class, “who can tell me what this means about the effects of alcohol on human beings?”

One of the kids held up his hand. “Miss, it means that whiskey is mighty good for you if you have worms!”

OK, here’s another one: The temperance lecturer asks her audience, “If I put a pail of water and a pail of whiskey in front of a hard working donkey toiling in the fields, Which would he drink?”
A voice from the audience says, “The water.”
“And why would he drink the water” asks the lecturer.
“Because he’s a jackass”

The story

It’s hard to tell the age of these, but they’re both pretty old, and capture the spirit of the bitter wars fought in the United States over drink.

It’s not clear if anyone ever attempted such a demonstration with a worm, nor indeed what the effect on a worm would be of being drowned in water or booze (no animals were harmed in the writing of this article). We do, however, know that in the decades running up to America’s experiment with Prohibition, temperance advocates did resort to pseudo-scientific stunts, such as putting a calf’s brain in alcohol (which apparently turns it a nasty grey colour) and another in water (which apparently does not).

We forget, at our peril, that much of the history of the western world is soused in stupendous quantities of alcohol. Some of our forebears were sober all the time in some places, but many of them were pie-eyed all the time in others.

In 19th-century America, as in Britain, alcohol was a significant social problem, which temperance campaigners attempted to tackle by encouraging moderate consumption or, for preference, getting people to “sign the pledge” of teetotalism. In the United States, campaigning also took the form of lobbying for state prohibition laws, picketing saloons and, ultimately, pressing for nationwide prohibition.

The history of the temperance movement in America is, to a considerable degree, also the early history of the women’s movement. One of the greatest curses of alcoholism was domestic violence and the impoverishment of wives and children by the family breadwinner’s drinking, so alcohol was absolutely a female concern. The powerful Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) mobilised women across the country and gave its members their first experience of political activism. The simple logic of this ultimately led the WCTU to campaign for votes for women.

The WCTU was far from being the only temperance organisation in the States, but from its foundation in 1874 until Prohibition came into effect in 1919, it was arguably the most visible. Its members were routinely portrayed by its opponents as miserable killjoys and harridans in ways which were usually horribly misogynistic.

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You can read more of Eugene’s historical jokes and comedy tales at www.historyextra.com