Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions: awesomely dangerous pranks from the age of fraternal lodges

Julia Suits's The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions: The Curious World of the Demoulin Brothers and Their Fraternal Lodge Prank Machines - from Human Centipedes and Revolving Goats to Electric Carpets and Smoking Camels is a history of those long-gone, much lamented days when Americans joined fraternal lodges in great numbers, and when those lodges attracted and retained members by subjecting new initiates to horrible, dangerous, violent pranks that often involved some combination of 35 cal blanks and high-voltage electricity.

You know, the good old days.

The Demoulin Brothers were the top of the fraternal order prank-gadget food-chain, publishing a secretive (but wildly popular) catalog that was distributed to lodge presidents and other mucky-mucks. The catalog featured inventions that could be used to terrorize (and delight) the members by simulating their executions, making them think they were to be horribly burned, and other delights of the simpler era when TV wasn't yet invented and radio was newfangled and untrustworthy.

Suits is a real scholar of those days, and she livens up the many reproductions from the various catalogs with great context-giving notes about the nature of these lodges, reprints from newspapers and magazine articles of the day that give a sense of their prominence and significance, and biographies of the mad geniuses who sold these gadgets for so many years.

From the demented copywriting in the catalogs to the fan-letters written to the company by excited lodge leaders who were delighted with the performance of the prank items, The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions is a time machine that transports readers to that gilded age and its highly specialized notions of fun and fraternity.