The snack that swims down your throat
A history of goldfish-swallowing and its brief but big cultural moment
Hello, Snackers. We’re taking a deep dive into a most curious moment in American culture. Actually, more than one moment, because this turns out to be a longer, stranger story than I ever imagined. Enjoy! (It’s about 2,500 words, but I promise it’s worth your time.)
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Goldfish-Swallowing: A History
In the informal taxonomy established by generations of American culture, goldfish are pets, small and shimmery and best admired in a little glass bowl. They’re not for eating, although plenty of their siblings are: smelt and herring and anchovies, often smaller and just as shimmery, but typically found in tins or jars—and then plates and bowls and then mouths and stomachs. These fish are food you buy from the grocery store.
But goldfish aren’t cuddly, cute pets. In the collective understanding, they’re generally something akin to sentient, low-key home décor. They’re cherished enough that you give them names but expendable enough that you flush them down the toilet when they die. Categorizing animals is an inherently tricky thing (ask a biologist to explain how, in a way, humans are also fish), and the way we conceive of goldfish and their role in our lives is a useful starting point, I think, to understanding the particular appeal and scandal of swallowing goldfish, a practice with a surprisingly long history as prank, hazing ritual, sport, and crowd-gathering spectacle, including a brief moment when it was front-page news despite a looming world war.
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There are a few other histories of goldfish-swallowing out there on the internet (like this one from Smithsonian in 2015), all of which point to 1939 as the year when this craze blew up, starting with a stunt by a Harvard student. That’s mostly true, and we’ll get there—stick around, it’s a wild ride—but as I was doing research, I kept finding earlier examples. This is most definitely not something that began at Harvard.
It’s also not a strictly American thing, or always done as a zany attention-getting stunt. In the town of Geraardsbergen, Belgium, there’s a tradition of Catholic priests swallowing multiple live fish with a red wine chaser as part of an annual springtime pageant that’s been going on since 1600 or possibly earlier, with roots in Druid rituals. (Here’s a fascinating New York Times story on that, including the modern-day court cases regarding the tradition and its tangled questions of animal welfare and religious practice.) And in 1927, Dr. E. W. Gudger, a famous scientist at the American Museum of Natural History (who was so fond of fish that he had “ichthyologist” carved on his tombstone), published a deeply-research history of people swallowing live fish, going back to 1567. Most of them were accidental incidents involving fishermen in France, Italy, and India who held their still-squirming catch between their teeth while untangling nets or lines, only to have the alarmed animals jump down their throats. “Death usually follows,” Gudger reported.
If we’re talking about swallowing fish for bragging rights, in the United States, the first one I can find is a “young fellow” in Idaho in 1889:
Two things to say here. First: five inches is not small. Second: He did it on a bet and for a crowd, and this is very much the trend for subsequent examples of fish-swallowing, at least those documented in newspapers. Here’s a guy in Pittsburgh in 1905:
And a college student in Illinois in 1907:
I wouldn’t say it was common for people to win bets by swallowing live goldfish in the early 1900s, but there were stories every few years. By the late 1920s, it was the “latest Hollywood sport,” according to the tabloid-style newspaper coverage of the divorce proceedings of a high-profile couple, Ruth and John Newton:
In her suit, Mrs. Newton told of a party at her home last November while she was away. One of the guests, it was alleged, swallowed four of her pet goldfish. Later, according to the suit, a dozen more goldfish were sent for and swallowed by another “highly intoxicated” guest. A physician with a stomach pump had to be summoned to administer aid to the fish-swallowing guests, Mrs. Newton said.
Another time, in 1929, the actors Buster Keaton and Norman Kerry caused a scandal when they staged a goldfish-swallowing during a party, although it turned out they’d actually used a carrot carved to look like a fish, which they’d tossed into a pond and then “caught” with a net.
If you’re thinking, You know, it’s easy to imagine all of this happening today, with thorough documentation for a viral YouTube video, please hold that thought because it’ll come back a few more times. We’re just getting started.
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By 1931, fish-chugging was sufficiently well-known as a cultural touchstone that one newspaper said that former President Calvin Coolidge didn’t photograph well, because he always looked like “he just swallowed a live fish.” Here’s his official portrait. Not wrong.
Over the next few years, there were more stories of Lil’ Goldies meeting their demise in the stomachs of various attention-seekers—I have more than 50 research tabs open right now, but I’ll spare you every single detail. Still, it remained a trickle of a trend until 1939.
On February 16 of that year, a story appeared in the Detroit Free Press about a man named Rhody Hanrahan, the newly-appointed Secretary of the Michigan State Racing Commission, who was also “one of the nation’s leading amateur magicians” and known for a sleight-of-hand trick in which he pretended to swallow a goldfish but actually just palmed it. (I found no answers to the obvious question of “And then what did he do with the fish?! You can’t just discreetly put it in your pocket and have a wet, flopping…thing…there!) Hanrahan would later claim to have popularized the fish-swallowing trend, but there’s no evidence that anyone tried to mimic him or thought he was anything other than an eccentric and possibly creepy political figure.
Which brings us to Harvard.
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On March 3, 1939, this happened:
That’s Lathrop Withington, Jr. a first-year student (who later said he had seen people swallowing fish during his childhood in Hawaii) trying the stunt himself, for a $10 bet. Between 100 and 150 people were there to see it (different accounts give different numbers). He chewed the fish, rather than swallowing it whole—he was worried that it would stay alive in his stomach—then washed it down with a glass of water and pulled a toothbrush from his pocket to clean his teeth.
Withington had invited reporters and at least one news photographer to document the feat, which led to coverage around the United States in the following days. They all mentioned the crowds, the bet, and Withington’s small smile of accomplishment. Most included a quote from him noting that the whole thing was “fine” but “the scales caught on my throat a bit on the way down.” Looking through the archives of Newspapers.com, I counted 70 separate mentions of Withington’s feat in the first half of March 1939. It was even featured, with the photo above, in LIFE.
On March 20, a Franklin & Marshall junior named Frank Pope offered the first rebuttal to Withington when he swallowed three goldfish “to show up those Harvard bums and sissies.” In the process, Pope turned the stunt into a competition—and this, really, was the birth of the full-on trend. To use a marine metaphor, the dam burst. Do you remember the two weeks or so in January 2021 when sea shanties were the big cultural thing? For something like five or six weeks, goldfish-swallowing was like that, but even bigger.
Six days after Pope’s three-course snack, a Harvard student named Irving M. Clark downed twenty-four goldfish. Another two days on, Gilbert Hollandersky at the University of Pennsylvania gulped twenty-five; this was followed in short order by a Boston College junior with twenty-nine (in front of a crowd of 300), and then three more title-claimants in a single day.
By the end the month, newspapers around the USA were publishing standings on their front pages (“Boston College, 30; University of Michigan, 29 ; University of Pennsylvania, 28 …”), along with ample coverage of the nascent sport’s cheating scandals (namely, impressive claims without any documentation or witnesses), and the first known female college student to swallow a fish, Marie Hansen at the University of Missouri.
How thoroughly had this captured the public imagination in just a few weeks? Here’s the front page of the Reading Times on March 31, 1939:
Or here’s the Vancouver Sun three days later. Technically, Nazis are the top story, but the dominant image, the thing you're most likely see first, shows two students doing a dance called “The Goldfish.”
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It’s fascinating to look back at goldfish-swallowing and see how it played out in the public eye, the overlapping phases of the fad, the collective reaction to it. In broad strokes, it’s a familiar pattern, a swirling combination of intrigue, offense, and jaded eye-rolling, each part feeding the other.
There were the spin-off trends: the dance, for example, or the students who, bored with fish, attempted other eating challenges (phonograph records, baby mice, spinach).
There was plenty of kids-these-days moralizing. One father complained that he hadn’t sent his son to Brown for this sort of nonsense; a columnist in Fort Worth griped about “a campus era of asinine goldfish gulping, stodgy mass movements for peace or other world objectives, and dull pranks that damage property, person or feelings.”
Some officials—both campus leaders and state legislators, along with representatives of various animal welfare organizations—took it a step further, trying to ban goldfish-swallowing entirely “to preserve the fish from cruel and wanton consumption.”
Other adults shrugged it all off as the latest round of youthful high jinks. “It’s good for publicity,” the president of Franklin & Marshall said, and The New Yorker called it merely a sign of the times: “Life has grown too hard, too complex, too competitive. In what more subtle way can an educated New Englander express his criticism of the economic system than by publicly eating live goldfish at ten bucks a throw?” (NB: I have found zero evidence that any students considered this an act of protest against capitalism.)
Still other adults, eternally cool, smirked that, actually, We were doing this wild thing long before your generation even thought of it, citing acquaintances who had swallowed goldfish decades earlier.
Within a few weeks, the goldfish-swallowing craze had quieted down. Some observers pinned the fast decline on the controversy—the frustrated deans, the potential legislation outlawing the practice—but most noted that once the academic year had ended and students had left campus, there were no more crowds and no more reporters. The attention was essential to the appeal of goldfish-swallowing—the second part of the Goldfish dance, after actual ingestion, was “the interview,” which involved pantomiming a conversation with a reporter. What’s the point of stunt if you gain no social clout?
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Even though goldfish-swallowing was generally considered so over by the autumn of 1939, its brief turn in the spotlight was powerful enough that it was included in many decade-in-review recaps. In some cases, it was cited as a “goofy antic” that “helped ease [the] strain of war news,” but in other cases, it was presented on essentially equal footing with the grim events unfolding in Europe and elsewhere. Here, for example, is the front page of The San Francisco Examiner on January 1, 1940:
From the text of the same story:
One of these things is extremely unlike the other and it’s infuriating to see them paired this way, with equal weight and quirk.
It’s equally jarring to recognize just how familiar this sort of irresponsibly chipper media coverage is. We can complain, rightly, about the news media becoming ever more vapid in the modern era—we’re amusing ourselves to death, as Neil Postman put it, presciently, and television and the internet have certainly turbo-charged the blending of silly and serious. But it’s also worth remembering that this is nothing new.
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The fish-swallowing trend of 1939 never faded away entirely—it’s had a long tail, if you will. Publications love to bring it up in “A Look Back” stories, including one in LIFE in 1972, which prompted a reader to write in and note that the record for goldfish-gulping then stood at 210 and had been recognized by The Guinness Book of World Records. College and high school students are still swallowing goldfish, according to several people who replied to my tweet about it a while back.
It’s also appeared in TV shows and movies, as stunt or torment or some combination: “Jackass,” “A Fish Called Wanda,” “Wolf of Wall Street,” “Euphoria.” After Margaret Thatcher died, in 2014, the British tabloid The Sun had an entire front-page story about a video that allegedly showed one of her pallbearers downing two goldfish, which prompted The New Statesman to investigate the science angle of the story, namely, how long a live goldfish could potentially survive in a person’s stomach (short answer: maybe five minutes, depending on various factors).
Over the course of his adult life, Lathrop Withington, Jr. appeared on multiple game shows to talk about his legendary feat, and the goldfish-swallowing stunt was in his obituary when he died in 2013 at the age of 96. And in 1974, when streaking became the latest trend among college students, a reporter for the Associated Press tracked down Irving M. Clark, who had briefly held the fish-slurping title back in 1939, but was by this point a 53-year-old lawyer living in Seattle. He reminisced about that moment of fame—Ripley’s Believe It or Not had offered him $250 per week to take on all challengers in New York, but he declined and stayed in school—and shrugged off streaking as just the chapter in the long history of college students having fun and acting in a way that their elders might consider odd or offensive.
“It’s just one of those innumerable things people do that I don’t really think should be other people’s business,” Clark said. “I’ve never seen any real significance in most things people do in college.”
Thanks for reading! Two quick notes!
I’ll be leading a writing workshop (on seeking out small details that tell a big story) at TravelCon on April 28th in Memphis. I’d love to see you there! Conference info here, and my workshop details and registration should go live on Monday.
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