Standing out among all the possibilities of live animal ingestion, goldfish swallowing has emerged, in American historyoand specifically in Harvard historyoto be a unique American pastime. Always somewhat behind the scenes, this simultaneously awe-inspiring and repulsive act made you cringe in "A Fish Called Wanda" and probably yak on your lei at the Owl Luau. But in fleshing out the vague tradition invoked by these modern-day incidents, the fact is: Our experience constitutes the wriggling tail end of an intensely popular fad of the late 1930s.
The spark that started what came to be called the collegiate "fish wars" of our grandparent's generation occurred right in Boston. It was 60 years ago, March 3, 1939, when the very first goldfish was gulped by Lothrop Withington Jr. in a campaign publicity stunt at Boston College. A candidate for freshman class president, Withington staged the swallowing to attract attention, after his friends gave him the idea with a $10 bet. Hungry for votes, anxious to collect his money, and most probably motivated by a prescient sense of history, the enterprising student invited Boston journalists to the event. Company assembled, the events played out dramatically. Suspended high above young Lothrop's nervous brow, the wriggling scales gleamed in the flash of disbelieving news photographersountil the moment of truth, when the cold, wet fish plopped into his open mouth.
Catapulted to collegiate fame and 10 bucks richer, Lothrop lost the election but gained much, much more. He had broken down the door to wacky, collegiate fads, as kids everywhere anxiously followed suit, striving to outdo one another in speed and volume of goldfish consumption. Straightening sweater vests and smoothing down cowlicks, the bravest of our grandparents' generation rose to the challenge.
Representing Harvard's best, Irving Clark '39 still holds the campus record with 24 fish swallowed. Of the two dozen scaly slithery creatures swimming in his stomach, he remarked: "They're kind of bitter, but they go down easy."
Unfortunately before Clark's encouraging words could inspire the ante to be upped any further, the "fish wars" ground to a halt. Just months after the innovative sport was established, Boston Animal Rescue League intervened, proclaiming the swallowing of live goldfish inhumane, and many colleges outlawed any further contests.
Now 60 years later, the fad has remained at a steady hum in the background of campus initiations.
The current world record is 300 in one sittingoby a college student in Los Angeles in 1974. But it seems high time to drag the goldfish swallowing spotlight back to Boston. At $1.50 a dozen, a $38 bet should cover the costs. For the sensitive, feeder goldfish are bred to be eaten. Usually food for turtles or bigger fish, their fate is already sealed, so why not take a hint from gramps, take a trip to a pet store near you, and make a little history?