From practical joke to weapon of war

"We are taking this very seriously"
- Commander Reed Holtegeerst, US Prison Service

"Once you were my only friend
now I see that's at an end
and all I want is revenge...
itching powder in the sleeping bags"

- The Mr. T Experience

Back to the school playground. Your "friend" at school teases you about your big nose? You want revenge on him, but he's bigger than you. Problem. You don't have many options left. You know he is at rugger practice on Saturday afternoon...and his underwear will be in his changing bag. Solution? Itching powder in his shreddies. Easy. He comes back after his shower, and treats the team to a cross between a rain dance and a cursing match. All laugh at his antics, and you feel that justice has been done.

But Seriously...

A joke shop staple, along with whoopee cushions, black soap and curry chewing gum, there is however, a dark side to the joke. In August 2000, a prison guard in Washington was disciplined after applying itching powder to the bed linen of four of the inmates, following a dispute with one Steven Ostrander. "It was definitely not a practical joke. He brought it in to assault me," Ostrander said, according to a report from CNN. Another guard resigned as a result - not so funny.

GQ magazine had an even odder tale to tell. Itching powder was "a weapon available to British spies, according to secret war time documents." World War II secret agents had asked for a supply to be made available, so they could spread it on bedding, clothing and even (ouch!) in condoms. According to documents released in July 2000 they would use it as a distraction, presumably rifling one set of drawers whilst the enemy was preoccupied with another set of drawers.

Rolling your own secret weapon

In the case of the Allied spies, the substance used was a powder from the beans of the Macuna Pruriens plant (the word prurient coming from a root word for itching), but over time, many and various things have been used as the irritant.

Our childhood favourite was the simple rose hip, best of all from the fat fruit of the wild dog rose. Stripped of the flesh, the berry was opened and the fibre-covered seeds removed. This was the weapon, simple but effective. It was even more effective if the fibres were allowed to dry out before application. The effect was electrifying, and the poor victim was frequently obliged to disrobe to get every scrap of the offending substance out.

One large manufacturer of pranks and japes, the American S.S. Adams company, tells of a certain Indian weed (possibly indigo qingdai) being used. Apparently in its native land it would drive horses and cattle crazy.

Cowhage is another treat for the practical joker, the seed pods of this tropical plant being covered in a fibrous material which has almost immediate effect when applied to the poor victim. Another source of materiel is from the seed pods of the plane tree (which some Americans know as the Sycamore) - apparently the fluffy coverings of the seeds works nicely.

Other suggestions have included fibreglass - possibly not such a good idea because of health risks associated with the fibres taking up residence under the skin.

In short, enjoy your revenge, but beware that this can be a two-edged sword. Now wash your hands.
A long memory

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