People often get up to weird stuff, and the world can be a weird place at times. Take for instance that time when America contemplated nuking the Moon. Or the seemingly weird reason why the Pilgrims ended up in Massachusetts. Following are thirty-five things about those and other weird moments from history.
35. Weird Displays in Weird Times
Mankind has seldom come as close to extinction as it did during the Cold War. It was a dangerous time, with both superpowers and their allies often on the brink. When not fighting each other through proxies, the US and USSR often engaged in macho threat displays, kind of like two dogs growling at each other or two tomcats engaged in a hissing competition.
Some of the superpowers’ threat displays were subtle, while others were as subtle as a sledgehammer to the head. Unsurprisingly, the machismo got weird at times. As in way, way, weird. As in nuking the Moon weird – something that America contemplated doing in the 1950s.
In the early Cold War years, notwithstanding the Red Scare and anti-communist hysteria, most Americans felt relatively secure at home from foreign attack. Even after the Soviets detonated their first atom bomb in 1949, few doubted America’s nuclear superiority. Nor did we doubt the superiority of the US Air Force and its bombers’ ability to nuke Russia, while keeping Russian bombers from nuking us back.
Then in 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial Earth satellite. That terrified America. Sputnik itself was harmless, but Soviet rockets powerful enough to launch it into space were powerful enough to launch atomic weapons at the US. America’s sense of invulnerability evaporated. To restore American confidence, many ideas were bounced back and forth, quite a few of them were weird. However, few of them were as weird as the idea of nuking the Moon.
In the late 1950s, America’s space program was on the ropes, while the Soviets were scooping us by successfully launching satellites – and demonstrating the power of their rockets. So the Eisenhower administration came up with a secret project, “A Study of Lunar Research Flights”.
The project’s innocuous title masked its true, and truly weird, purpose: detonating a nuke on the Moon. The former Armour Research Foundation, now part of the Illinois Institute of Technology, was tasked with the research. Among the researchers was a then-young graduate student, Carl Sagan, who would go on to become a global celebrity for popularizing science and astronomy on TV.
Carl Sagan contributed to the Moon-nuking project with research and calculations, mostly on the expected behavior of the dust and gas caused by a nuclear detonation on the lunar surface. As envisioned, an American missile carrying a nuclear bomb would launch from Earth, travel 238,000 miles to the Moon, and detonate upon impact. As an official involved in the project recounted decades later: “Now it seems ridiculous and unthinkable. But things were remarkably tense then“.
The Eisenhower administration hoped that seeing the nuclear flash on the Moon from Earth would restore American confidence after the launch of Sputnik. Simultaneously, it would intimidate the Soviets by demonstrating that the US had an effective nuclear deterrent. The plan could have been carried out by 1959, when the US Air Force began deploying ICBMs. However, the weird project was abandoned because of the risk to people on Earth in case of failure, and because scientists raised concerns about contaminating the Moon with radiation.
Few things can kill a party or put a damper on festivities as quickly as running out of beer. However, the lack of beer seldom produces results as far-reaching as what occurred in the summer of 1620. Weird as it might sound, the Pilgrims ended up settling in Massachusetts because they were running low on beer. Today, that could seem like a trifling reason for making such an important decision. Back then, however, beer was a serious matter.
It began on August 5th, 1620, when the Mayflower departed Plymouth, England, for a journey across the Atlantic to the newly established Virginia Colony. In other words, when they set out, the Pilgrims’ destination had not been Massachusetts, but a point significantly further south. The vagaries of weather, the hardships of crossing an ocean in a seventeenth-century sailing ship, coupled with low levels of beer, led them to change their minds about where to settle.
30. The Pilgrims Had Actually Set Out for Virginia
As every American schoolchild is taught, the Pilgrims crossed the Atlantic Ocean in the Mayflower. They landed at Plymouth Rock, and established Plymouth as a settlement, about forty miles south of modern Boston. However, Plymouth, at roughly 42° latitude N, had not been the Pilgrims’ intended destination. When they left England, they had aimed for a destination hundreds of miles down the eastern seaboard in the Virginia Colony, at roughly 40° latitude N.
However, the Pilgrims encountered many setbacks. They had planned to sail from England in July, 1620, but most of them were then living in Leiden, in the Netherlands. So the plan was for a sister ship, the Speedwell, to sail from England to the Netherlands, pick up the passengers, return to Southampton, join the Mayflower, and then the two ships would sail together in convoy to Virginia.
On August 5th, 1620, the Mayflower and the Speedwell sailed from England to the New World. However, the Mayflower’s sister ship was unfortunately named, and was neither speedy nor well. The Speedwell began leaking, so the Pilgrims docked in Dartmouth for repairs. They set out again on August 21st, but after a few days at sea, the Speedwell started leaking again.
The voyage’s leaders concluded that the Speedwell was simply not up to crossing the Atlantic. So they decided to leave her in England, and sail to the New World in the Mayflower. After transferring supplies from the Speedwell, the Mayflowerfinally set out on September 16 — over a month behind schedule. It would be a tough voyage.
The Mayflower’s voyage proceeded smoothly at first. That changed, as the ship encountered bad weather and worse storms during the second half of the trip. On November 9th, 1620, 66 days after departing England – a voyage they had hoped would take a month – the Pilgrims finally spotted land at today’s Cape Cod. They were about 250 farther north than their original aiming point.
All else being equal, the Pilgrims would have simply sailed down the coast until they reached their intended destination. All else was not equal, however, and the Pilgrims faced a serious problem: they were out of beer. Back then, drinking water aboard ship was liable to go bad, especially on long voyages. Sea voyagers relied on beer as a drinking source that would not spoil. So running out of the brewed stuff was a big deal. Seen from that perspective, the Pilgrims’ making of a momentous decision because of beer does not seem so weird.
27. Weird as it Sounds, if Not for a Beer Shortage, We Might be Talking about the New York Pilgrims Today
When the Pilgrims set sail, their initial destination had been a Virginia Colony island teeming with wildlife and natural resources. The site had a huge natural harbor, and a navigable river that led deep into the interior. The Virginia Colony’s borders in 1620 were not the same as those of today’s Virginia. Back then, the Virginia Colony’s northern boundary was about 225 miles farther north than Virginia’s current border. The island where the Pilgrims had intended to establish their colony is today called Manhattan.
Instead, the lack of beer led them to explore the coastline of Cape Cod and the nearby mainland region, until they finally decided upon a site. On Christmas Day, 1620, the Pilgrims founded Plymouth Plantation as their new colony, and importantly, the site where they would brew up a fresh batch of beer. Weird as it sounds, if not for the Pilgrims’ running out of beer, we might be referring to them today as the Virginia or Manhattan Pilgrims, instead of the Massachusetts Pilgrims.
26. Albert Einstein’s Greatest Breakthroughs Were Accomplished by the Time He Was 26
When most people picture Albert Einstein, they picture an aging man, with disheveled and wild white hair. It stands to reason that most people would assume that Einstein’s most important work must have occurred at the tail end of a long life, spent doing complex physics and math stuff.
It might sound weird – especially to those of us who spent our 20s in a haze – but Einstein did most of his heavy intellectual lifting by the time he was in his mid-twenties. His greatest contributions to science, such as his theory of relativity, had taken place by the time he was 26. In 1905, after graduating from the University of Zurich, Einstein was working as a patent office examiner, and dabbled in physics in his free time. During a span of a few brief months, he came up with four theories that revolutionized science.
25. Super Genius Does More in a Year than Most Ordinary Geniuses Do in a Lifetime
In January and February of 1905, Albert Einstein came up with the theory of relativity, demonstrating that Isaac Newton was wrong about space and time being absolute. In March, he again revolutionized science with his work on quantum theory. Then in April and May, he published a pair of papers that proved the assumed but hitherto unverified existence of the atom. Einstein did all of that by the time he was 26.
For the remainder of his life – he lived another half-century, before dying in 1955 – none of Einstein’s scientific contributions matched those of 1905. Which is not to say that he coasted for the rest of his life on the accomplishments of his youth. However, if he had done that, it would have been OK: his accomplishments in that single year exceeded the contributions of the entire lifetimes of multiple geniuses.
24. American President Born in the Eighteenth Century Has Grandsons Living in 2020
John Tyler (1790 – 1862) was nothing special, far as American presidents go. He was elected as vice president on the 1840 Whig ticket, then became president when the head of the ticket, William Henry Harrison, caught pneumonia while giving his inaugural speech, and died after a mere 31 days in office.
Tyler was a mediocrity as a president. He ended up infuriating both his own Whig Party and the opposition Democrats. Tyler muddled through to the end of a forgettable single term, and was not re-nominated by his party. To the extent that he is known to many today, it might be as one of the names in The Simpsons song, Mediocre Presidents. However, there is one extraordinary thing about Tyler: weird as it sounds, although Tyler was born in the eighteenth century in 1790, he has grandsons who are still alive at the time of this writing (2020) in the twenty-first century. How did that come about?
Billy goats are known for virility and remaining sexually active well into old age. An ancient Billy goat at death’s door often still has the libido to totter over to, get it on with, and impregnate a Nanny goat. The Tyler males might be the Billy goats of mankind. Not only do they remain sexually active well into old age, but they also possess potent and seemingly ageless sperm that retains its virility and ability to impregnate, despite the owner’s decrepitude.
President Tyler’s fifteenth kid, Lyon Gardiner Tyler, was born in 1853, when his father was 63. In 1925, when Lyon was 71, he fathered Gardiner Tyler, Jr. About four years later, a 75-year-old Lyon fathered Harrison Ruffin Tyler. At 96 and 92, respectively, both Gardiner and Harrison are still going strong and doing well for their age. So President Tyler’s crowning achievement is the weird accomplishment of having grandsons who are still alive in the twenty-first century, 230 years after he was born in the eighteenth century.
Heliogabalus (204- 222) was made ruler of the Roman Empire when he was barely fourteen. As might be expected, handing that kind of power to a teenager did not turn out well. While not as horrible as some of Rome’s more monstrous rulers – he was no gratuitously cruel Caligula or Commodus – Heliogabalus did display the occasional mean streak.
That streak often showed in his practical jokes. Some were funny, some were weird, and some were scary and weird. Considering that he was the emperor, with nobody above him, Heliogabalus’ pranks always meant punching down. At the milder end of the emperor’s pranking was his propensity for seating some of his more pompous dinner guests on the ancient Roman version of whoopee cushions, that emitted farting noises when they parked their posterior. At the crueler end of the spectrum, as seen below, was putting people in fear of their lives.
Embarrassing people by seating them on whoopee cushions, whatever the downside, is a relatively harmless practical joke. It is coarse humor, but mostly innocent fun. Not so Heliogabalus’ weird – and sadistic – habit of pranking people by putting them in mortal fear of life and limb. One of his favorite pranks began with the teenaged emperor getting his dinner guests so drunk, that they had to crash and sleep it off in the palace.
Once Heliogabalus’ marks were zonked out, the emperor had his servants sneak tamed lions, leopards, bears, or a mix thereof, into the bedroom. Come the morning, the emperor would bust a gut laughing at his hungover guests’ reaction to waking up in the midst of a menagerie of man-eating predators. Between that and other weird behavior that his subjects viewed as deviant, the Romans heaved a sigh of relief when Heliogabalus was violently overthrown at age eighteen. He was beheaded, his corpse was tossed into the Tiber River, and his memory was damned by a senatorial edict.
Vulcan, in Mingo County, West Virginia, is a small community on the state’s southwest border with Kentucky. In the 1970s, Vulcan had its fifteen minutes of fame, when it became known nationally and around the globe for a weird and riveting plan to get a bridge. Surrounded by mountains on three sides, and the Tug River on the fourth, Vulcan would probably never have been inhabited if coal had not been discovered there in the early twentieth century. A coal mining camp sprang up, and eventually gave rise to a small but thriving community. Thriving, that is until the coal ran out in the early 1960s.
Soon as the coal was gone, Vulcan’s population began shrinking, until it was reduced to a few dozen families – stubborn holdouts unwilling to leave the place they knew as home. To the extent that the outside world had ever taken notice of Vulcan, it forgot about it soon as the coal ran out. That was a problem for the locals, seeing how they were all but cut off from the rest of the world.
Vulcan, WV, was described thus in a 1972 book: “Their biggest problem was that the state had forgotten to build a road into the community. Although state maps showed a road into Vulcan, it was nowhere to be found. The only way people could get in and out was to drive up the Kentucky side and walk across a swinging bridge, which was too narrow for a vehicle. The bridge had been built by the coal company years before and was on the verge of collapse; although there were boards missing, the children had to walk across it to catch the school bus on the Kentucky side…”
Lack of a road was a serious hardship. On their way to and from school, Vulcan’s children had to crawl under parked railroad coal cars – which often blocked the community’s sole bridge. One child lost a leg doing that. There was a side road that ran through Vulcan. However, it belonged to a railroad that placed it off-limits, and vigorously prosecuted those who used it for trespass.
Vulcan’s residents pleaded for years with county, state, and federal officials to repair their rickety bridge. However, their pleas fell on deaf ears, and they were consistently ignored by the powers that be. In the meantime, their bridge kept on deteriorating, and becoming an ever greater hazard to life and limb. Feeling forsaken by their own government, the Vulcanites opted for a weird and drastic move that soon garnered international headlines.
In 1977, Vulcan’s mayor wrote the Soviet embassy in Washington, DC, as well as officials in communist East Germany, describing Vulcan’s plight and requesting foreign aid to build a bridge. The Soviets jumped on the opportunity to embarrass the US and dispatched journalists to Vulcan. By interviewing and broadcasting the locals’ woes, the Soviets finally brought attention to the ignored community.
17. Vulcan’s Weird Scheme Endeared it to Some, and Infuriated Others
It did not take long before newspapers from coast to coast were talking about Vulcan and its weird ploy to get a bridge. E.g.; The Spokane Daily Chronicle, which wrote: “Soviet officials were amused today by reports that the small town of Vulcan, W.Va. has appealed to the Kremlin for foreign aid… The town, with a population of 200, asked the Soviet government for financial help to build a bridge after the town was turned down by the U.S. and West Virginia governments“.
However, many anticommunist types did not see the humor and were not amused. Radio stations and local newspapers received a flood of bomb threats, threatening to blow up any bridge built with communist foreign aid.
16. Vulcan’s Scheme Might Have Been Weird, but it Worked
The USSR’s embassy in Washington DC sent a senior journalist on December 17th, 1977, to meet Vulcan’s mayor and survey the problem. The Soviets authorized their emissary to promise the locals that their government would keep an eye on the situation, and pay for building them a bridge if their own government did do so soon.
Within an hour of that visit, word filtered down to reporters milling about Vulcan that West Virginia’s government had agreed to build a bridge. The state legislature authorized $1.3 million for the task. Today, a one-lane graffiti-covered bridge connects the people of Vulcan to the outside world.
After he finished crushing the Khwarezmian Empire of Central Asia in 1223, Genghis Khan sent a Mongol expedition of about 20,000 men to raid into the Caucuses and southern Russia. Led by generals Jebe and Subutai, the force defeated all in its path, including the Cumans, allies of the Kievan Rus. The Rus came to the Cumans’ aid, and a vast army set out after the raiders.
The Mongols retreated, and their foes pursued. For nine days, Subutai and Jebe led their pursuers on a merry chase across the Steppe, before suddenly turning on their by-then strung out enemies at the banks of the Kalka River. In the ensuing battle, fought on May 31st, 1223, the Mongols annihilated their erstwhile pursuers. Things went from bad to worse for the captured enemy commanders when the Mongols came up with a weird – weird macabre, that is – way to celebrate their victory. They decided to dine over the living bodies of their captives.
14. Few Owns are Greater Than Feasting Atop Your Foes’ Living Bodies
Genghis Khan’s and his Mongols’ reputation for cruelty and bloodthirstiness was well deserved. While those who chose to surrender immediately often found the Mongols to be decent rulers, woe betide those who resisted. It is estimated that the wars of the Mongol conquest might have killed up to 60 million people.
The Mongols relished making examples out of their defeated foes, and came up with creative ways – some of them quite weird – to drive their point home. After their victory at the Battle of Kalka River, captured enemy commanders were laid on the ground, then a huge board was then laid over their bodies. Atop that, the victorious Mongols sat down to eat, drink, and celebrate their triumph, while slowly crushing and suffocating the captives beneath to death.
13. Macabre Celebration Pioneered by the Aptly Named “Spiller of Blood”
The Mongols’ weird feasting over the bodies of defeated commanders after the Battle of Kalka River was not the first time that vanquished leaders had faced such a fate. Such ghoulish celebrating seems to have been pioneered by the first Abbasid Caliph Abul Abbas (722 – 754), nicknamed Al Saffah (“Spiller of Blood” – a well-earned nickname), after his defeat and displacement of the Ummayad Dynasty as Caliphs.
Al Saffah initiated a revolt against the Ummayads, and crushed them in a climactic battle in 750. He then tracked down and killed as many members of the defeated dynasty as he could. In 751, Al Saffah declared an amnesty, and 80 surviving Ummayad princes emerged from hiding to receive their pardons at a banquet. He had them seized, stabbed, covered their quivering bodies with leather rugs, and bade the other guests sit down and dine atop them.
“Untouchables” usually brings to mind the Hindu caste system. However, from before the thirteenth century through the end of the eighteenth, the Cagots who lived in the Pyrenees Mountains region were, for all practical matters, medieval European Untouchables. First mentions of the Cagots in the documentary record date to the thirteenth century. By then, they were already established as an inferior caste – the de facto Untouchables of northern Spain and southwestern France.
Forbidden to practice most forms of work, the Cagots faced weird types of discrimination that combined aspects of medieval anti-Semitism with the worst practices of Apartheid South Africa and the Jim Crow South. They were confined to their own ghettos, known as Cagoteries, that were sited on the least desirable land. They were stereotyped as criminals, cannibals, and lepers. When Cagots entered a town, they had to announce their presence by shaking rattles, just like lepers who were required to ring a bell. They were routinely blamed and killed for unsolved wrongdoings.
Cagots had to use separate church entrances and sit in their own segregated pews. At least 60 Pyrenean churches still boast “Cagot” entrances. They received Communion via long spoons, to prevent them from coming into contact with the priests, and they had their own holy water fountain. When in the early eighteenth century a Cagot dared to use the non-Cagot holy water, his hand was chopped off and nailed to the church door as punishment. The discrimination did not end at death: when they finally shuffled off the mortal coil, Cagots had to be buried in their own cemeteries.
Cagots were barred from most trades and professions, other than as drawers of water and hewers of wood. The latter was quite literal: Cagots mastered woodworking, and often became expert carpenters. They actually built many of the churches in which they were discriminated against. Farming was expressly prohibited for Cagots, and when one of them dared farm a field on his property, he was punished by having his feet impaled with hot spikes.
Numerous weird discriminations and prohibitions were imposed upon the Cagots. In addition to having to alert non-Cagots to their presence by shaking rattles, Cagots were required to wear a goose’s foot conspicuously pinned to their clothes. They were not allowed to touch bridge parapets, and were prohibited from sharing food or bathwater, or from walking barefoot around non-Cagots. It is unclear why the Cagots faced such discrimination and mistreatment. While there is never a justification for discrimination, there is often an explanation for how it came about. Usually, a group in a position of power defines others as inferior based on differences in race, culture, or religion.
Historians have not uncovered any differences in race, culture, or religion, between the Cagots and their neighbors. The Cagots were Christian, and shared the same ethnic and cultural background as those discriminating against them. Indeed, none outside the Pyrenees region had anything against them, and a 1514 Papal Bull – which was ignored – even denounced anti-Cagot discrimination, and declared them to be Christians no different from other Christians.
It was not until the eighteenth century that things finally began easing for the Cagots, when Enlightenment ideals challenged the legal disabilities imposed upon them. However, it was not until the French Revolution of 1789 that the laws against the Cagots were formally abandoned. Even then, although freed from the many weird forms of legal discrimination to which they had been subjected, Cagots were still discriminated against socially.
Nonetheless, the French Revolution allowed many Cagots to begin the process of assimilation. During that period of upheaval, many Cagots raided local archives, and either erased or burned records of their ancestry. In the years since, the unique Cagot culture, developed under the bizarre circumstances in which they were forced to live, has vanished, as few if any descendants have been willing to identify as Cagots. In the early twenty-first century, the British newspaper The Independent was able to find just a single person in the Pyrenees, a woman in her forties, openly admitting to Cagot ancestry.
Unsurprisingly, there is exceptionally tight security surrounding death row, and there are severe restrictions and isolation measures imposed upon its deadly inmates. However, things were not always so. Weird as might seem today, there was a time when death row inmates were gathered together into a baseball team that played against outsiders. The team of condemned killers was actually pretty good.
The weird event took place in Wyoming in 1911, with the All-Stars team of the Wyoming State Penitentiary. It was composed of convicted criminals, including death row inmates. Indeed, the team’s star player was awaiting execution. The death row players had their executions stayed so long as they played and kept winning. Needless to say, that gave the players a powerful incentive to play their hearts out: motivation was one thing that the All-Stars did not lack.
7. It Might Sound Weird, but the Distance from the Baseball Diamond to Death Row Was Not That Far
Back before football and basketball overtook it in popularity, baseball was the undisputed king of American sports. In the early twentieth century, baseball was the game in America, and just about everybody who was into sports and athletics played or watched or did both. Back then, many players associated with the professional clubs, majors, minors, or semi-pros, had reputations as hooligans, ruffians, or worse.
So as a simple matter of statistics, there was a steady infusion of professional baseball players who ended up behind bars for offenses minor or serious. Of the serious offenses, some were serious enough to land some pretty good players on death row. Wyoming’s State Penitentiary in Rawlins had a warden, Felix Alston, who was a big-time baseball lover. It did not seem at all weird to him to use the available talent to form a team, which came to be known as Alston’s All-Stars.
The team put together by Warden Felix Alston might have struck some as weird, but it was nonetheless a pretty decent team. Decent, that is, in how they performed as players, not in how they were as people. It featured some of the hardest of hardened criminals, including three murderers, three rapists, five thieves, and a forger. The team’s pitcher, Thomas Cameron, was a convicted rapist. The team’s captain, George Saban, was a convicted murderer who had ambushed three sleeping sheep herders, and shot each one in the face, at close range.
Incredibly, Saban got away with a lenient 20-year sentence. It helped that he was best friends with the arresting officer that day: then-Sheriff Felix Alston, who eventually became the prison warden who founded the death row All-Stars. Indeed, when Alston became warden, he gave his buddy Saban special permission to come and go from the prison as he pleased. Saban also benefited from local sympathy, as many saw his depredations as just another salvo in an ongoing turf war between cattle and sheep herders.
Rawlins, WY, was a baseball-mad town, and The Alston All-Stars played before packed crowds. It was a harshly conservative community, which punished wrongdoers to the full extent of the law, and then some. The townspeople were not big on waiting for the law to run its course: desperados caught in the act of murder, rape, or robbery, were often killed on the spot. The vengeance continued even after the miscreants’ death: Rawlins’ vigilantes had a weird penchant for skinning their lynching victims.
The good people of Rawlins were not only baseball mad, but also gambling mad. That was one thing they had in common with the All-Stars, as well as with warden Felix Alston. Indeed, during the All Stars’ run, team captain George Saban developed a sideline as a bookie, going to local saloons and dives, taking bets on his team’s games, and pocketing a 20% commission.
4. Weird Murderers’ Team Introduces Innovation to Baseball Uniforms
Warden Felix Alston’s weird baseball team introduced an innovation to baseball that is with us to this day. In the Alston All Stars’ first photo, the players wore their prison inmate numbers on their shirts’ left-hand pockets. It was not until 1916 that the Cleveland Indians became the first major league baseball team whose players wore numbers on their uniforms. In the Indians’ case, the numbers were worn on the uniforms’ left sleeves.
In another photo, taken after the Alston All Stars’ first win, the convict players look spiffy. They had lost the ad hoc prison shirt outfits, and looked sharp, sporting matching uniforms and caps. At a time when only white players were allowed in the major and minor leagues, two of the All Stars, catcher James Powell and first baseman Eugene Rowan, were black. In the midst of the offenders – including, it should be recalled, three rapists – sits the team’s mascot, Felix Vern Alston Jr., the warden’s son.
Alston’s All Stars were not bad at all as a baseball team. They played their first game on July 18th, 1911, and demolished their opponents, the Wyoming Supply Company Juniors ball club, 11-1. Reporting on the weird death row team, The Washington Post ran the headline SLAYER SCORES HOMES RUNS: “Joseph Seng, right fielder for the Alstons, is under sentence to be hanged. Seng made two home runs hit over the penitentiary wall. One of his hits cleared the bases, bringing in three others and scoring himself“.
The Carbon County Journal, which described the team as The Cons, wrote of the star right fielder: “Joseph Seng, who was convicted of murder in the first degree and sentenced to death, played a classy game all the way through. He will petition the governor to commute his sentence to life imprisonment sometime this month“. Seng’s play impressed journalists and watchers, but it failed to move Wyoming’s governor.
The Alston All Stars’ team captain, George Saban, had to come up with incentives that were tailored to his weird collection of players. During team practice, following some poor plays from shortstop Joseph Guzzardo, the convict captain and warden’s friend let everybody know the consequences of screw-ups. As the team’s star player and death row inmate Joseph Seng described the pep talk in a letter he wrote from prison:
“Mistakes on the field would not be tolerated … He [Saban] told us that prisoners who make errors that cost the team a game would have more time added to their sentence. Winning would lead to reduced time and stays of execution“. In his capacity as bookie, Saban also made sure that this information was communicated to the town’s gamblers, so they would know that the players were playing for their lives.
It is hard to come up with a greater incentive for condemned players to play their hearts out than to make it clear that they are literally playing for more time in which to keep on breathing. The experiment might have been weird, but within that weirdness, weird approaches to motivation were highly effective. During their brief existence, Alston’s All-Stars were one of the best teams in the West. The team lasted for only one season, and it was a pretty short season at that. The convict players played only four games, but they won each and every single one.
The team’s star player, Joseph Seng, was scheduled to be executed on August 22nd, 1911, but he was still alive to play for the team’s fourth victory on August 23rd. Many believed that he was kept alive solely because of his baseball prowess. However, following the team’s fourth win, warden Alston, under pressure from the governor who hated gambling, shifted his focus from baseball to education for inmates. Seng’s stay of execution did not last forever: on May 24th, 1912 he met his end at the gallows and execution by hanging.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading