Slapstick comedy is at least as old as Shakespeare and originally employed—you guessed it—a slapstick. The original slapstick was a paddle made from two planks of wood. Applied to the posterior of a victim, it produced a loud thwack but very little pain.
As with most human inventions, an arms race ensued to produce a louder slap and even less pain. Why not, for example, pad one side of the slapstick with a cushion and load the other side with .32 caliber blanks?
You can see where this is heading. The denouement exploded in Cincinnati on the evening of March 23, 1905 in Blasius “Ben” Flamm’s saloon. The unfortunate derriere belonged to Antonio Cianciolo, a fruit vendor born in Italy.
Back in the early 1900s, banks were reluctant to loan money to impoverished immigrants with zero collateral. Insurance companies viewed the freshly disembarked foreigners with disdain. And so, the new Americans took matters into their own hands and created their own banks and insurance companies.
Well, not exactly. Cincinnati was once home to hundreds of mutual aid societies and building associations. Members paid nominal dues and, once vested, received benefits in the form of home loans, unemployment insurance, health care coverage or burial costs. Organizations kept their funds at the local institution with the biggest safe, quite often the corner saloon.
To keep the dues flowing, most organizations of this type organized social events, regular meetings and recruitment drives. The successful societies structured themselves like fraternal organizations, with secret handshakes, bizarre rituals and daunting initiations.
The societies were secret for a variety of reasons. As prime networking opportunities they wanted to filter out the riffraff, but they were secret mostly because they provided benefits to members and their families. The secret symbols, handshakes, passwords, rituals and so forth were a sort of Victorian two-step verification ensuring that remunerations were distributed only to initiates and not to poseurs.
And so it was with Ben Flamm’s Needall Mutual Aid Society. Largely consisting of the Italians then moving into the West End, the Needall Society boasted a large membership and complicated initiation rituals. According to the Enquirer [28 March 1905]:
“The initiations are strenuous to say the least, as they proved to the unfortunate [Cianciolo]. He was the last of the 21 candidates to go through the ordeal. He passed the different degrees with fortitude, and then came to the last when he was told to bow and bend his body in submission. At this point a heavy paddle plays the principal role. It is padded on one side and in this pad is concealed a spring which explodes a blank cartridge when the cushioned side is brought in contact with the applicant’s anatomy.”
Unfortunately, the paddler in this case—witnesses blamed barkeep Flamm himself—swung the paddle with the wrong side facing Cianciolo. When the slapstick discharged, it fired point-blank against his butt. Cianciolo screamed and collapsed in a widening pool of blood. A doctor was summoned, who dressed the wound and sent the poor man home to his own bed.
A week later, Cianciolo began exhibiting the tell-tale symptoms of lockjaw. The newspapers published regular reports on his condition and on the efforts of doctors to fight the potentially deadly disease. The Enquirer [1 April 1905] described the grim array of symptoms that almost always concluded fatally:
“Yesterday his temperature reached 104 degrees and the condition known as the ‘risis sardonicus,’ or ‘Satan’s grin,’ was present. Under the tension of the muscles back of the neck the lips are drawn backward, giving to the mouth a ghastly grin, from which it derives the name. The same tension curves the spine so that now the unfortunate man rests on the back of his head and his heels, his body forming a bridge.”
Over the course of a week, doctors exhausted Cincinnati’s supply of anti-toxin, while pumping Cianciolo full of morphine and chloral hydrate to ameliorate his pain. Meanwhile, his young wife kept a constant vigil, while tending the couple’s infant son.
The lethal slapstick employed by the Needall Mutual Aid Society was among dozens of implements of ersatz torture sold by companies to the secret societies and lodges of the city. The Cincinnati Post [28 March 1905] quotes the catalog of the company from which the slapstick, of the Annihilator brand, was purchased:
“According to the catalog, ‘a lasting impression can be engrafted upon the posterior portion of the human anatomy with the Annihilator.’ It is provided for lodge use, with 50 blank cartridges, for $3, and, properly used, is sure to touch the spot.”
Eventually, Cianciolo recovered. Six months after his ordeal, he unsuccessfully attempted to sue Ben Flamm for $5,000. The Needall Mutual Aid Society had depleted its funds paying for Cianciolo’s treatment and had disbanded in bankruptcy, leaving only Flamm as a likely defendant. The case dragged on for three years, but the court ruled against Cianciolo, noting that his doctor bill of $400, his pharmaceutical expenses of $125 and an outright payment of $200 from the Needall Mutual Aid Society had sufficiently covered his damages.
It is interesting that Cianciolo did not attempt to sue the lodge supply house from which the Annihilator was procured. Its out-of-state location would have created considerable legal expenses.
Blasius Flamm survived his legal troubles and relocated to the corner of McMicken and Elder in Over-the-Rhine. His new watering hole was across the street from the old Hudepohl Bottling Works and did a legendary lunchtime business. Although he gave up on mutual aid societies, Flamm’s Social Club at the new spot boasted 250 members before his sons closed the bar in 1968. The club was famous for its regular parades throughout the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood.
Antonio “Anthony” Cianciolo recovered to live a good long life, operating fruit stands on Sixth Street near Plum and later at the Court Street Market. He retired in 1953 and was 93 when he died in 1972, having long since moved out of the West End to a new house in Price Hill.