There was a goldfish-swallowing craze in the 1930s.

  • Swallowing a goldfish
Swallowing a goldfish
Heritage Image Partnership Ltd/ Alamy Stock Photo

Goldfish aren’t exactly the best-treated pets — did you know, for instance, that they shouldn’t be kept in bowls? But at least they no longer have to contend with the goldfish-swallowing craze of 1939. It began, like so many bad ideas, with a dorm room bet. After boasting to his friends that he had once consumed a live fish, Harvard freshman Lothrop Withington Jr. was told to put his money where his mouth was and do it again for $10. He did so on March 3 with at least one reporter and an ill-fated 3-inch goldfish present, remarking that “the scales caught a bit on my throat as it went down.”

The event was picked up by LIFE magazine, which kicked off the craze among college students nationwide. Marie Hensen of the University of Missouri School of Journalism was among the first women known to have joined in on the strange trend, and a number of records were set and just as quickly broken. A student at the University of Pennsylvania swallowed 25 fish, an MIT student claimed the “new world’s record for piscine deglutition” by downing 42, and Joseph Deliberato of Clark University is said to have bested them all by swallowing 89 innocent goldies in one session. The trend began to die down after the Animal Rescue League stepped in and Massachusetts state Senator George Krapf filed a bill “to preserve the fish from cruel and wanton consumption.” 

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