10 of History’s Worst Decisions

10 of History’s Worst Decisions

Khalid Elhassan - June 2, 2018

History has had plenty of brilliant ideas that improved the collective lot of mankind. History has also had plenty of terrible ideas that backfired on the geniuses who decided to implement them. Or, because life’s unfair, they backfired on innocents who’d had no say in thinking them up but had to suffer their consequences anyhow.

Following are ten of history’s worst decisions.

Filling the Hindenburg With Hydrogen

By the mid-1930s, rigid airships, commonly known as zeppelins, had been flying commercial passengers for over 30 years. Tens of thousands of paying passengers had flown over a million miles, in over 2000 flights, without a single injury. Zeppelins’ popularity was soaring, and it was widely assumed that they were the wave of the future. The latest milestone was that of Germany’s Zeppelin Company, whose giant airships flew passengers across the Atlantic in luxury and style, in a mere 60 hours – remarkable for commercial travel back then.

Many predicted that airships would dominate global travel. Then catastrophe struck the Hindenburg, the Zeppelin Company’s flagship and the biggest airship ever built – twice as high and three times as long as a Boeing 747 “Jumbo Jet”. On May 6th, 1937, after an uneventful trans-Atlantic flight, the Hindenburg tried to dock with a mooring mast in Lakehurst, New Jersey, when it suddenly erupted in flames.

It took only 37 seconds from when the first spark appeared for the world’s biggest airship to get destroyed by fire. Of 97 people on board, 35 died, and another person died on the ground. The spectacular disaster, captured on film and widely disseminated around the world, shattered public confidence in that mode of transport, and brought the airship era to an abrupt end.

At the time, the catastrophe was commonly blamed on sabotage: the Hindenburg was not only the pride of the Zeppelin Company but also a source of German national pride and a symbol of resurgence under the Nazis. Many were eager to stick it to the Nazis: threatening letters had been received, and a shot was advanced as a plausible source for starting the fire. Another widely accepted hypothesis pinned the blame on a static spark.

Whether an accidental spark or a deliberate shot, the disaster would not have happened if not for the Zeppelin Company’s disastrous decision to fill its airships with highly flammable hydrogen, instead of a less combustible alternative such as helium. If the Hindenburg had used helium, as airships do today, then neither a spark nor a shot could have reduced it to a flaming wreck in less than a minute.

10 of History’s Worst Decisions
Brian Poole and the Tremeloes. Discogs

Decca Records Passes on the Signing of the Century

On New Year’s Day, 1962, Brian Epstein, the manager of an unheralded musical group, took his young talents to audition with Decca Records at their studios in West Hampstead, North London. After setting up, tuning and stringing their guitars, and clearing their throats, Epstein’s group performed about 15 songs before Dick Rowe, a senior Decca executive and the record label’s chief talent spotter. After the audition, Mr. Rowe decided to pass on signing the group, with the airy remark that “Guitar groups are on the way out, Mister Epstein“.

Epstein and his group left Decca’s studios, understandably dejected at starting the new year with a rejection. Not so Dick Rowe, who figured that his new year had started auspiciously. That same day, he had listened to another auditioning band and liking what he heard, he signed up Brian Poole and the Tremeloes to a deal with Decca Records.

All in all, signing the Tremeloes was not a bad decision in itself, as the band had some success in the United Kingdom. In 1963, they entered the UK charts with a cover of the Isley Brothers’ Twist and Shout, and followed it up with a UK chart-topping cover of the Contours’ Do You Love Me. A year later, they did a cover of Roy Orbison’s Candy Man that pleased the Brits, and a cover of the Crickets’ Someone, Someone, which made it to number 2 on the UK charts.

The bad decision was rejecting and declining to sign the other band that had auditioned the same day as the Tremeloes: The Silver Beatles, soon to shorten their name to The Beatles. The decision to pass on The Beatles in favor of Brian Rowe and the Tremeloes would make Dick Rowe and Decca Records synonymous with bad decisions and catastrophic commercial misjudgments.

10 of History’s Worst Decisions
The Beatles. The Beatles

10 of History’s Worst Decisions
Peasants tending backyard furnaces during The Great Leap Forward. Alpha History

The Great Leap Forward

In the late 1950s, China was in sore need of rapid and massive industrialization. Other countries had industrialized gradually, by accumulating capital and buying heavy machinery. China had neither the time nor the money – its population was rapidly outstripping the available resources, and it was too poor to accumulate enough capital anytime soon for the massive industrialization necessary. So Mao Zedong and his communist acolytes decided to mobilize China’s vast population. They would use labor-intensive means of industrialization that emphasized manpower, of which China had plenty, instead of machinery and industrial plant, of which China had little. Thus was born the Great Leap Forward in 1958, a revolutionary campaign to rapidly transform China from an agrarian economy into an industrial giant. Unfortunately, Mao’s understanding of economics turned out to be faulty, and his expectations would turn out turned out to be wildly unrealistic.

A hallmark of the Great Leap Forward was Mao’s brainstorm that increased steel production – a benchmark of industrialization – need not wait for the development of infrastructures such as steel plants, or the training of a skilled workforce. Instead, intrepid Chinese could produce steel by using blast furnaces in the back of their communes – literal backyard furnaces. People used whatever fuel they could get their hands on to power the furnaces, from coal to wooden furniture to the wood of coffins. And when they lacked iron ore, they melted whatever steel objects they could find to produce steel girders.

However, making steel is complicated, and the girders produced were of low quality and cracked easily. What came out of the backyard furnaces was actually not even steel, but pig iron, which had to get its carbon removed to become steel. And in some regions, where there was little metalworking tradition or understanding of metallurgy, even the pig iron produced was too useless to even get turned into steel.

The backyard furnace fiasco was not the worst part of the Great Leap Forward, however. Mao and his followers sought to revolutionize China’s countryside, where most of the population toiled as peasants. So they prohibited private farming and ordered mandatory agricultural collectivization – combining communities’ private plots into big fields, belonging to the entire community.

The theory was that economies of scale would come into play, and the big collectivized fields would prove more efficient and productive than the small plots. However, poor planning led to poor implementation of collectivization, and the big fields ended up yielding less than private plots. Additionally, the Great Leap Forward emphasized ideological purity and fervor, rather than competence. So collectivization ended up being led by enthusiastic and zealous overseers, instead of capable and competent managers. A series of natural disasters from 1959 to 1961 made things worse.

The result was history’s greatest manmade disaster. By 1960, it was obvious that the Great Leap Forward had been a bad decision, but by then it was too late. The diversion of labor from farms to ill-advised industries such as backyard furnaces, plus the disruptions of collectivization, combined to produce a catastrophe. Between 1959 to 1962, about 30 million Chinese starved to death, with some estimates going as high as 50 million.

10 of History’s Worst Decisions
Aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Japan Times

Japan Miscalculates the Consequences of Starting a War With the US

In 1941, Japan was bogged down in a quagmire of a war in China, with no end in sight. It had recently been hit with American and British economic sanctions, including an asset freeze that crippled its trade. In one of history’s worst decisions, the Japanese government decided to solve those problems by instigating a war with the United States.

The prelude to that decision was American displeasure with Japanese aggression in China, first by seizing Manchuria in 1931, followed by an outright invasion of China in 1937. Back then, America had sentimental ties to China, in addition to economic ones, due to decades of American missionary work, and there was a powerful “China Lobby” in the US. Japan made things worse in 1940 by seizing French-Indochina, which destabilized the entire region. Aside from further proof of Japanese aggression, it brought Japanese forces uncomfortably close to America’s colonial possessions in the Philippines, and British ones in Malaya and Burma.

The US responded by enacting severe sanctions that bit deep. Until Japan withdrew from China and French-Indochina, America imposed an embargo on the sale of products vital to Japan, particularly oil, and froze Japanese assets in the US. The British and Dutch, whose Dutch East Indies (today’s Indonesia) oil fields fueled Japan’s economy, followed suit.

That cost Japan 75% of her overseas trade, and 90% of her oil. The loss of trade was bad enough, but Japan only had enough oil reserves for 3 years of peacetime consumption, or 18 months of wartime consumption. Once the oil reserves ran out, Japan’s economy would simply crash. That presented Japan with a dilemma: bow to the sanctions, or go to war to seize the resources, particularly oil from the Dutch East Indies and rubber from British Malaya, that her economy needed? Pride and the fear of losing face led Japan’s rulers to choose war. They also feared that they would be reduced to an American client state if they caved: what was to stop the US from coercing Japan with sanctions again in the future?

The Japanese hoped for a short war: a few stunning early victories at the outset to bloody the American giant’s nose, and let it know that Japan was serious. They would then seize and establish a defensive perimeter far out into the Pacific and Asia, behind which they would wage a defensive war. Eventually, the Americans, merchants at heart and thus driven by rational cost-benefit calculations would conclude that the war was not worth the effort, and negotiate a settlement. Things did not turn out that way.

To put in perspective the disparity between Japan and the US, we can compare each country’s aircraft carriers during a mostly naval conflict, in which flattops proved decisive. Japan started the war with 10 aircraft carriers. Including what it started with plus what is produced during the war, Japan had 15 large fleet carriers, 5 light carriers, and 5 escort carriers, known as “baby flattops“. The US started the war with 7 carriers. By the time the conflict was over, it had built an additional 160 carriers. They included 24 fleet carriers capable of carrying 90 – 110 planes; 9 light carriers capable of carrying up to 35 planes, and about 125 escort carriers capable of carrying 24 – 30 planes.

10 of History’s Worst Decisions
Hitler in the Reichstag, December 11th, 1941, declaring war on the US. Wikimedia

Hitler Gratuitously Declares War on the US

As seen in the previous entry, Japan might have made a terrible decision when it chose to go to war with the US, but it was at least a reasoned one. Poor reasoning, to be sure, but there was nonetheless some coherence in the argument linking Japanese interests and the decision to pick a fight with the US. A bad decision, but one which historians could examine and think: “I see what they were trying to do. They got it wrong, but I see where they were coming from, and where they thought they were going with this“. Such coherence and rational nexus between decision and goals were decidedly absent when Adolph Hitler declared war on the US soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

In the 1930s, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy signed an anti-communist pact directed against the USSR, forming what came to be known as the Berlin-Rome axis – from which WW2’s Axis Powers derived their name. Japan’s militarist rulers, vehemently anticommunist in their own right, eventually signed the treaty, forming the Tokyo-Berlin-Rome axis.

The pact’s clauses included a defensive treaty, binding the signatories to aid any member that came under attack from a foreign aggressor. Notably, the treaty did not bind its signatories to aid any member waging an offensive war in which it was the aggressor. That was illustrated in the summer of 1941: after attacking the USSR, the Germans pled with Japan to join in finishing off the Soviets by attacking from the east. The Japanese refused: since Germany was the aggressor, Japan was not treaty-bound to come to its aid.

Despite that, when Hitler learned that Japan had devastated the US Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, he decided to join Japan by declaring war on the US. Just as Japan had refused to join Germany after it initiated war against the USSR, Germany was under no obligation to join Japan after it had initiated war against the US.

Hitler loathed the US, which he deemed a degenerate mongrel nation, controlled by Jewish capitalists. The US government was also avowedly anti-Axis, and was generously furnishing Germany’s enemies with supplies under the terms of Lend-Lease. Nonetheless, the US was not at war with Germany – and by December of 1941, the war was not looking too good for Germany. Britain, whom Hitler had expected to defeat in 1940, was still fighting. The USSR, which Hitler had expected to defeat in a few weeks, had put up a far fiercer fight than anticipated, and Germany found itself in a protracted war of attrition against an industrial and manpower giant. Only days before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Soviets had launched a counteroffensive in front of Moscow, that brought German Army Group Center to the brink of collapse.

Given the preceding, Germany had nothing to gain from adding the world’s wealthiest and greatest industrial power to the ranks of its enemies. Yet, despite the opposition of his generals, Hitler, moved by emotion rather than reason, declared war against the US on December 11th, 1941. It was a rash decision that all but guaranteed Germany’s doom. At a stroke, Hitler added to his enemies a country whose GDP was nearly four times that of Germany’s, and whose factories and homeland were thousands of miles beyond the reach of German arms.

10 of History’s Worst Decisions
WW2 GDP comparisons. Quora

10 of History’s Worst Decisions
Juan Pujol Garcia, decorated by both the Germans and British during WW2. Barbara Picci

Nazis Place Their Trust in a Spanish Fabulist

One of WW2’s best-known and most decisive events was the successful Allied D-Day amphibious landings in Normandy on June 6th, 1944. Less known is that much of the operation’s success was owed to an eccentric Spaniard who, out of a simple desire for excitement and adventure, hoaxed the Nazis with fake spying. The hoax grew until it became the centerpiece of the war’s greatest deception operation, and ensured Allied victory on D-Day and in the subsequent Normandy Campaign.

Juan Pujol Garcia (1912 – 1988) hated fascists, so when WW2 began, he decided to help the Allies “for the good of humanity”. He was rejected by British intelligence, however, when he offered his services. He wanted in on the adventure of war, however, so he pretended to be a Nazi-sympathizing Spanish official, and offered his services to the Germans. They accepted, and ordered him to Britain, with instructions to recruit a spy network.

Instead, Pujol went to Lisbon, Portugal, and from there, simply invented reports about Britain, using content culled from public sources. He used his active imagination to add color, then sent the reports to his German handlers as if he was writing from Britain. The Germans believed him and begged for more. So Pujol made up fictional sub-agents and cited them as sources for more made-up reports.

The British, who were intercepting and decoding secret German messages, realized that somebody was hoaxing the Germans. When they discovered it was Pujol, they belatedly accepted his offer of services, gave him the codename GARBO, and sent him to Britain. There, British intelligence built upon Pujol’s “network”, transforming it into an elaborate deception operation that carefully fed the Germans massive amounts of often true but useless information, mixed in with half-truths and falsities.

The volume of reports from Pujol and his growing “network” of “sub-agents” led German intelligence to view him as their most successful spy in Britain. It was all building up to D-Day, and that was when British intelligence cashed in on that trust. The goal was to convince the Germans that the Normandy landings were just the first in a series of planned invasions, with an even bigger landing planned for the Pas de Calais.

British intelligence had Pujol send a message alerting the Germans to the invasion a few hours before its commencement. It was a gamble, but one deemed worth the risk. Pujol’s handlers figured that by the time it worked its way from German intelligence to commanders in the field, the invasion would have already taken place, and the warning would have done the Germans no good. However, it would cement Pujol’s credibility in German minds.

British intelligence then went in for the kill. Building upon the years of trust, Pujol informed the Germans that the Normandy landings were diversions, and the real attack would fall upon the Pas de Calais a few weeks later. That, coupled with other deception measures, convinced the Germans. So during the crucial weeks following the D-Day landings, the Germans kept powerful formations in the Pas de Calais, instead of sending them to help destroy the vulnerable Allied beachhead at Normandy. By the time the Pas de Calais formations were finally released, the Allies had amassed sufficient forces in Normandy to defeat the German attacks. They then went on the offensive. In late July of 1944, the Allies broke out of the beachhead, then swept across and liberated France within a few months, not stopping until they ran out of fuel at Germany’s border.

As to Pujol, he gained the distinction of winning an Iron Cross from Germany, plus a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) from Britain. After the war, he faked his death, then moved to Venezuela, where he ran a gift shop and book store. He led an anonymous life until 1984, when he agreed to be interviewed for a book about agent GARBO. The revelation led to Pujol’s lionization. He was received at Buckingham Palace, and on the 40th anniversary of D-Day, he traveled to Normandy to pay his respects to the dead. He died in Caracas 4 years later.

10 of History’s Worst Decisions
Contemporary cartoon depicting Rasputin’s hold on Russia’s Tsar and Tsarina. Pintrest

Russian Tsar Takes Advice of Illiterate Religious Charlatan

One of history’s worst decisions was that of Russian Tsar Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra to believe in Grigori Rasputin, a religious charlatan. After gaining their confidence with his religious holy man act, Rasputin transformed Russia’s rulers, particularly the airheaded Tsarina Alexandra, into his puppets. He offered them advice on governance, which the royal couple accepted in the belief that Rasputin was blessed by God, and so would not lead them astray. He led them to disaster.

Rasputin kept up a pretense of being a humble and holy man in the royal family’s presence. Beyond their gaze, however, he was a depraved drunk who claimed that his body had holy healing powers and led a Christian sex cult that engaged in wild orgies. The Tsar and Tsarina were unwilling to hear any criticism of their pet holy man, however, and turned on those who spoke ill of Rasputin. Towards the end of his life, Rasputin was wielding such influence over the Tsar and Tsarina that ministers, high-ranking officials, and generals, were appointed and dismissed based upon his advice.

Rasputin’s worst advice came in WW1. When he sought to visit the front to bless the troops, Russia’s army commander, who viewed Rasputin as a charlatan, vowed to hang him if he came anywhere near the front. So Rasputin bad-mouthed him to the Tsar, and claimed that he had a religious revelation that Russia’s armies would not succeed until the Tsar went to the front and took personal command. So in 1915, Tsar Nicholas appointed himself commander of the armed forces, and announced that he would assume personal command of the war.

It was a disastrous decision. Tsardom’s absolutist rule was made psychologically palatable to the Russian masses with the myth that whatever was going wrong, the Tsar was blameless. Corrupt officials were responsible, and they hid the truth from the Tsar. That myth became untenable once Nicholas took personal command. From then on, responsibility for defeat, mismanagement, and incompetence in conducting the war would be laid directly at the Tsar’s feet. Since Nicholas knew next to nothing about running a war, there would be plenty of defeat, mismanagement, and incompetence to lay at his feet.

It was made worse by another decision, based on Rasputin’s advice, to place Alexandra in charge of running Russia while Nicholas was running the war. On the one hand, there was no doubt of her loyalty to the royal family. On the other, she was incompetent and stupid. And the worst kind of stupid: the kind in which the stupid person is too ignorant to even grasp the extent of said ignorance, and thus gets deluded into believing that he or she is intelligent.

It was not long before Tsarina Alexandra was soliciting the barely literate charlatan’s advice on matters of state and government. She then heeded his advice, or badgered her husband into carrying out Rasputin’s recommendations. Soon, officials were being hired and fired based on Rasputin’s say so, and those seeking to advance or secure their positions showered him with bribes. Others sent their wives and daughters to sexually seduce Rasputin into putting in a good word for them with the royal couple.

Rasputin’s influence during this period ranged from appointing high-ranking members of the church hierarchy to selecting cabinet members and high-ranking government officials, many of whom proved incompetent opportunists. On occasion, he intervened in the conduct of the war by writing the Tsar, offering him advice on this or that general or this or that plan, based on religious visions and holy dreams.

Rasputin’s influence was exploited by opponents of the Tsar to challenge his competence, the integrity of the imperial dynasty, and the very concept of absolutist rule. Rasputin helped his enemies and those of his royal patrons with scandalous behavior visible for all to see. In addition to his dissoluteness and licentiousness, Rasputin got in drunken public brawls with church officials, and bragged about his influence over the Tsar and Tsarina. While drunk, he even boasted of having slept with Tsarina Alexandra. Notwithstanding a mounting public clamor for his removal, Alexandra continued to fiercely defend Rasputin, insisted that he remain by her side, and compelled her husband to resist all calls for his banishment. That undermined public respect for Tsardom, and prepared the ground for the institution’s overthrow in the Russian Revolution of 1917.

10 of History’s Worst Decisions
Napoleon retreats from Moscow. ABC

Napoleon Invades Russia

One of history’s worst decisions was that of French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte to invade Russia in 1812. At the start of that year, Napoleon bestrode Europe like a Colossus and was at the height of his power. Then he invaded Russia with about 658,000 men – at the time, the biggest army ever assembled. By year’s end, Napoleon had endured a catastrophic defeat, lost most of his men, and began the downward slide that would culminate two years later in his exile to St. Helena.

The Russian debacle was the result of not just one bad decision, but a whole series of bad decisions. The first bad decision was Napoleon’s poor choice of subordinates. His goal was to bend the Tsar to his will by decisively defeating the Russian army as soon as possible. However, Napoleon appointed his unqualified stepson, Prince Eugene, to a major command. Early in the campaign, Napoleon maneuvered the Russians into a situation in which they would be forced to give battle, only for his inexperienced stepson to screw up and allow the Russians to retreat.

Napoleon then plunged into Russia, chasing after the Tsar’s army. The Russians retreated for hundreds of miles, refusing to give battle and scorching the countryside behind them. The Emperor had planned to halt at Smolensk, go into winter quarters, and resume the campaign the following year. Once in Smolensk, however, Napoleon committed his second mistake, by deciding to continue on to Moscow.

The Russians finally turned around and offered Napoleon battle at Borodino, near Moscow. Napoleon won a tough fight, but at the decisive moment, he made his third bad decision by wavering, and refrained from his usual tactic of sending in the elite Imperial Guard, kept in reserve, to finish off the reeling enemy. That prevented the victory from becoming decisive and allowed the battered Russians to live to fight another day.

Napoleon marched into Moscow and assumed that the Russians would sue for peace, now that he held their capital. He made his fourth bad decision by waiting in Moscow for Russian peace feelers, as winter drew near. The Russians strung Napoleon along, but no more than Napoleon strung himself along with wishful thinking of a negotiated peace, long after it became clear that the Russians were not interested. By the time he accepted that there would be no peace and marched back to Smolensk, it was too late, and his unprepared army was caught by winter during the retreat.

That was exacerbated by Napoleon’s final bad decision, in his choice of route. Napoleon had the choice of two routes, and ended up taking the one that was struck by severe winter storms. The route he did not take saw little snow that year. Most of Napoleon’s army starved or froze to death, or were killed by Cossacks who harried the rear and flanks of the retreating columns.

The French Emperor had marched into Russia with a Grande Armee numbering 685,000 soldiers. He came out with only 35,000 Frenchmen still under his command, with the remainder either dead (over 400,000), deserting, or switching sides. Reflecting upon the Russian disaster, Napoleon commented: “From the sublime to the ridiculous, is only one step“.

10 of History’s Worst Decisions
Alcohol getting poured out in the street during Prohibition. Mashable

Decision to Reshape Public Morality Results in Explosion of Criminality

In 1920, America enacted Prohibition, a bold moral policing experiment that turned out to be a disastrous decision. Until then, American organized crime as the term is understood today was relatively minuscule. While city gangs existed, they were made up of street hoods whose reach and influence seldom stretched beyond a few city blocks.

That changed dramatically, starting on January 16th, 1920, with the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment, banning the manufacture, transport, or sale of alcohol. Declaring alcohol illegal did not reduce public demand for booze. What it did was alter societal attitudes, and create an environment of widespread tolerance of crime in order to provide the public with the booze it wanted.

By making alcohol illegal, Prohibition took a major American industry that had operated legally until then, and gifted it – along with its enormous and now untaxed revenue – to criminals. Relatively well regulated (and taxed) enterprises that had operated the American alcohol industry were driven out of business, to be replaced by organized crime.

Just like drugs today, the profits from illegal alcohol were astronomical. Overnight, bootlegging became irresistible to criminals across America. Their task was made easier by much of the public, as well as many cops and politicians, who did not see the sale or consumption of alcohol as particularly venal or morally blameworthy. Illegal alcohol’s profits enabled organized crime to increase its other illicit activities, such as racketeering, prostitution, drugs, gun-running, and more. The profits also enabled organized crime to lavishly bribe politicians, officials, cops, and judges, and corrupt America’s political and criminal justice systems to failed state levels.

It was a huge boost to organized crime in general, and to Italian organized crime in particular. In Prohibition’s world, Italian gangsters were particularly well-positioned to prosper, because they were set apart from other ethnic criminals by their links to the Italian and Sicilian mafia. Thanks to those Old Country connections, ethnic Italian criminals in the US could draw upon a tradition of sophisticated, hierarchical, and disciplined criminal organizations. In addition to an effective model, they also had access to experienced personnel who could readily duplicate the Old Country’s system in the US. By the time Prohibition was repealed in 1933, modern organized crime, and the Italian American mafia had become well established and well nigh ineradicably. They remain with us to this day.

10 of History’s Worst Decisions
Qin Shihuangdi and terracotta warriors from his tomb. Ancient Pages

Mad Ruler Poisons Himself While Ingesting “Immortality Drug”

Qin Shihuangdi (259 – 210 BC), whose name means “First Emperor“, was the first ruler to unify China’s disparate kingdoms into a single empire. One of history’s most capable rulers, he was also one of history’s cruelest despots. In one of history’s more karmic plot twists, Qin Shihuangdi wanted to live forever and pursued a “Life Elixir” to that end. Instead of prolonging his life, the quest for immortality ended up killing China’s First Emperor.

Qin Shihuangdi sought the advice of philosophers, alchemists, opportunists, sketchy characters, and outright charlatans. One of the charlatans gave him mercury pills, which he claimed were a life-prolonging intermediate step in his research for immortality drugs. Using them every day should tidy Qin Shihuangdi over until the Life Elixir was ready.

However, ingesting mercury every day gave the emperor a nasty dose of mercury poisoning and drove him insane. He became a recluse, concealed himself from all but his closest courtiers, and spent his days listening to songs about “Pure Beings”. During this period, he did a lot of bizarre things, such as order the live burial of hundreds of scholars, and had his son and heir banished.

Mercury poisoning finally finished Qin Shihuangdi off at the relatively young age of 49. While touring the provinces, he dropped dead inside his huge imperial wagon – a miniature house on wheels – on September 10th, 210 BC. His corpse was discovered by his chief bodyguard, who informed the emperor’s most trusted adviser, Li Ssu. The duo sat on the information until they returned to the capital, and in the meantime, put on a show to pretend that the emperor was still alive and kicking. They sent food and official reports to the wagon and its ripening corpse, whose stench they concealed by placing wagons of rotting fish nearby. They then forged an imperial signature on a document ordering the emperor’s first son and legal heir, who disliked Li Ssu, to commit suicide, and arranged to have a more pliant heir crowned emperor.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Sources & Further Reading

Airships – The Hindenburg Disaster

Guardian, The, May 7th, 2017 – The Hindenburg Disaster, 80 Years On: a ‘Perfect Storm of Circumstances

How Stuff Works – 10 of the Worst Decisions Ever Made

MI5 – Agent Garbo

BBC News – The Piece of Paper That Fooled Hitler

Medium – The 1812 Invasion of Russia: The Burning of Moscow and The Fall of Napoleon

NPR, July 12th, 2012 – Agent Garbo: The Spy Who Lied About D-Day

PBS – Prohibition: Unintended Consequences

History Collection – The United States Government Killed Thousands During Prohibition

History Collection – The US Government Poisoned Alcohol to Enforce Prohibition

Wikipedia – Backyard Furnace

Smithsonian Magazine – 2,000-Year-Old Texts Reveal the First Emperor of China’s Quest for Eternal Life

History of Yesterday – How to Live Forever — Three Crazy Ways People Have Tried It

History Collection – Last Minute Decisions That Changed History

History Collection – Poorly Thought Out Plans that Went Bad Very Quickly

History Collection – 10 Catastrophic Solutions That Backfired Spectacularly and Made the Problem Worse

History Collection – Historic Schemes that Backfired in Catastrophic Fashion