Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired
Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired

Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired

Khalid Elhassan - March 29, 2023

Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired
A king cobra. ABC 13

This Plan to Get Rid of Poisonous Snakes Backfired

In the days of the British Raj, India’s colonial rulers grew concerned by large numbers of venomous cobra snakes that increasingly infested the city of Delhi. So they offered a bounty for every dead cobra, payable upon delivery of its skin to designated officials. The plan seemed to work great, and before long, natives were thronging to the drop off points, whose store rooms soon bulged with cobra skins. However, the incentive scheme did not seem have a noticeable effect on the city’s cobra population. No matter how many cobra skins were delivered to the authorities, Delhi seemed to be just as infested with the deadly snakes.

Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired
Young cobras. GGN

Officials eventually figured out why: the incentive plan had backfired, because it led many locals to raise cobras. Since the bounty on snake skin was greater than the cost of raising a cobra, the British had unintentionally created a new cash crop. When the authorities finally realized what was going on, and how their incentive scheme had been gamed, they cancelled the plan, and stopped paying bounties for cobra skins. As seen below, that, too, backfired, and made things even worse.

Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired
Colonial Hanoi. Atlas Obscura

French Colonial Authorities Came Up With an Incentive Plan to Eradicate Pests… It Backfired

The British colonial authorities’ cancellation of the snake eradication incentive plan turned out to be their second bad decision, and it, too, backfired. Without the bounties, cobra skins and captive cobras were now worthless. So Delhi’s cobra farmers released the snakes back into the wild – the “wild” in this case being the city of Delhi. The snake infestation was increased by orders of magnitude, and Delhi wound up with many times more cobras than before the authorities launched their ill-advised plan.

Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired
Hanoi rats. Everything Everywhere

In 1902, French colonial authorities had a similar experience in Hanoi, Vietnam, when they sought to enlist civilians in controlling a rat infestation. Like the British, the French authorities offered bounties for rats, to be paid out upon delivery of their tails. However, colonial officials soon began to notice rats scurrying around the city with no tails. Unlike the Indians of Delhi, the enterprising Vietnamese of Hanoi did not raise rats. Instead, rat catchers simply severed their tales. They then released them back into the city so they could procreate and produce more rats, and thus maintain the rat catchers’ stream of revenue.

Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired
Baby in a window cage, 1936. Fox Photos

When Kids Were Kept in Window Cages – For Their Own Good

The nineteenth century saw the growth of modern health fads. One of them eventually led to dangling babies in cages outside apartment windows. It began in 1884 when Dr. Luther Emmet Holt published The Care and Feeding of Children. In it, he advocated that babies should be “aired”. As he put it: “Fresh air is required to renew and purify the blood, and this is just as necessary for health and growth as proper food … The appetite is improved, the digestion is better, the cheeks become red, and all signs of health are seen“.

Fresh air and exposure to cold temperatures, both from the outdoors and from cold baths, would supposedly toughen the babies, and increase their immunity against illnesses ranging from the common cold to tuberculosis. Dr. Holt and other physicians advocated that parents simply place a baby’s basket near an open window. Things backfired when some parents went further. They included Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. She had a cage built outside her apartment window, in which she stuck her daughter Anna. As seen below, it began in 1906 when Eleanor Roosevelt, then 21 and a new mother, was told by her doctor that her newborn daughter, Anna, needed lots of fresh air.

Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired
Eleanor and Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1908 with their first two children. Franklin D. Roosevelt Public Library

Eleanor Roosevelt’s Decision to Follow Her Doctor’s Advice Backfired

Eleanor Roosevelt had a brainstorm: she had a chicken wire cage, with a wooden basket in it, attached to a window. As she described it in her autobiography, it was: “a kind of box with wire on the sides and top” out of a back window, in which Anna was placed while her mother napped. Anna was understandably terrified, and made her feelings known. However, Mrs. Roosevelt’s doctor had also told her to ignore babies’ screams, so she ignored Anna’s shrieks. It backfired, because the neighbors were alarmed by the caged baby’s continuous cries, and threatened to call The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty Toward Children. Mrs. Roosevelt, by her own admission, “knew absolutely nothing about handling or feeding a baby“. She had thought that she was being a good modern mother, following the best childcare recommendations.

Eleanor Roosevelt was thus shocked by the neighbors’ negative reaction. She was ahead of her times: a few years after she was criticized for sticking her baby in a window cage, the practice became widespread. In 1922, Emma Read of Spokane, Washington, filed the first commercial patent for a “portable baby cage”. It was supposed to be suspended from a window’s external edge, with a baby inside. The cages were intended mainly for infants in city apartment buildings, who lacked backyards or easy access to gardens, so they could get fresh air. As a contemporary newspaper put it: “Flats have notable advantages for residential purposes, but life in them involves undeniable hardships for babies and very young children, who have little opportunity to play out of doors and to get their proper allowance of fresh air“.

Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired
Child in a window cage. Rare Historical Photos

It Took World War II to Stop People From Keeping Their Babies in Window Cages

The materials used in window baby cages differed, but the general concept was the same. A mesh cage allowed sunlight and air to pass through to the baby within, while keeping it from falling to the street below. Some of the fancier baby cages had a roof, to keep rain, snow, or debris dropped from above from reaching and harming the infant. Things had changed since Eleanor Roosevelt had stuck Ana in a cage. In the 1920s, window baby cages became popular in America and abroad. They hit peak popularity in 1930s London. They were handed out by neighborhood communities, such as the Chelsea Baby Club, to all members who lacked a backyard. Even The Royal Institute of Architects pushed for the increased use of baby cages. In 1935, it all but called for making baby cages mandatory.

Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired
Baby in a window cage, 1934. Fox Photos

The organization warmly praised the Chelsea Baby Club’s practice of giving the contraptions to members. It wrote that fixtures for the cages were essential features that should be standard in all middle class housing’s windows. WWII and the years of German bombers, rockets, and missiles, ended the use of window baby cages in London. They made a comeback after the war, but were not as popular as before, and sales gradually declined. The world, and attitudes towards safety, had changed. Awareness grew of the immediate risks that a cage could fail, and send a baby plummeting to its doom on the street below. There were also long-term health concerns. Increased automobile traffic led to an increase in exhaust fumes and other pollutants, which made city air anything but “fresh”. Since getting fresh air was why window baby cages were invented in the first place, the contraptions lost their chief purpose.

Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired
Feral rabbits in the Australian Outback. Rabbit Free Australia

The Decision to Ship Rabbits to Australia

Few ideas have been as harebrained or backfired as badly as the introduction of rabbits to Australia by the British. Except, perhaps, for the plan to deliberately release those rabbits into the wild to breed like… well… rabbits. Knowing what we know today about the harms caused by tampering with ecologies, it seems incredible that the British thought that releasing breeding rabbits into the Australian Outback was a good idea. Just as incredible is the train of logic that got them there. First came the idea to breed rabbits in Australia as a food source, which was shortsighted but understandable. Then came the idea to release them into the wild as prey to hunt for fun, which was bonkers.

The British initially viewed Australia as a convenient dumping ground for convicts. For generations, the American Colonies had served that role, but that outlet was closed after America’s independence. Understandably, the new republic did not want to accept shiploads of British jailbirds. So the British began to transport their convicts to Australia, which had been recently explored by Captain Cook. Convicts need to be fed, however. Ever eager to economize, the British authorities shipped rabbits along with the convicts, the idea being that they would serve as a rapidly breeding food source. Then some folk decided to combine sports with sustenance – a decision that, as seen below, backfired spectacularly.

Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired
Shooting rabbits for sport in Victoria, Australia, in the 1860s. Wikimedia

To Say That This Plan Backfired Would be an Understatement

Eventually, some rich British settlers in Australia had what seemed at the time to be a great idea: release rabbits and hares into the wild for sport hunting. It backfired spectacularly. Rabbits, which are not native to Australia, did not face as wide and lethal a variety of predators to keep their population in check Down Under as they had in their native habitats. So from cute and cuddly and sometimes delicious animals, they morphed in Australia into feral and invasive pests that devastated much of their new home.

The consequences were catastrophic. As early as the 1820s, settlers began to complain of rabbits overrunning the place. By the 1860s, between the disappearance of many natural predators, mild seasons that allowed for year-round breeding, and natural selection that produced hardier breeds of wild rabbits, their population exploded. By 1920, there were an estimated 10 billion feral rabbits hopping around Australia. They competed with livestock for pasture, ate crops, and stripped the soil of vegetation. The latter is particularly problematic, because of all the inhabited continents, Australia has the most vulnerable soil and is the one most susceptible to erosion.

Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired
An 1884 cartoon predicting the uselessness of rabbit-proof fences. Queensland State Library

The Introduction of Yet Another Pest Species to Australia Backfired as Badly as the Introduction of Rabbits

For over a century, Australia has lived with the consequences of the harebrained scheme to release rabbits into the wild. Ever since, the country has struggled to control its rabbit population. Australians shot, poisoned, and infected the pests with epidemic diseases, to little avail. They also erected fences all over the place, ranging from fences around individual farms and pastures, to massive fences stretching for hundreds of miles, such as Western Australia’s Rabbit-Proof Fence. The latter failed to live up to its name: rabbits jumped over and burrowed beneath it. As early as the 1820s, it had become clear to all and sundry the release of rabbits into the Outback had backfired, and backfired badly. Yet, the evidence hopping all over the place that releasing non-native species into new environments might backfire was not enough to prevent a repeat with another species.

As early as 1833, European Red Foxes were deliberately released into the Australian wild so they could breed. Why? To allow upper class settlers to engage in the traditional English “sport” of fox hunting. Within two decades of their introduction, fox populations had exploded, and they were declared pests. Throughout much of Australia – with the notable exception of Tasmania, where they were outcompeted by the native Tasmanian Devil – foxes became apex predators. They hunted numerous native species into extinction, and drove many more to the brink. Not even tree-dwelling animals are safe: researchers documented in 2016 that some Red Foxes in Australia had learned how to climb trees in search of baby koalas and other creatures.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Agriculture Victoria – Red Fox

Amusing Planet – The Shoe Fitting Machines That Blasted You With Radiation

Bill Moyers – ExxonMobil: More Than 50 Proud Years of Melting Glaciers!!

Canada’s Human Rights History – Duplessis Orphans

Curtin, Philip D. – The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census (1969)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Bartolome de Las Casas

French Colonial History, Vol. 4 (2003) – Of Rats, Rice, and Race: The Great Hanoi Rat Massacre, an Episode in French Colonial History

History Collection – 18 Successes and Disasters Created to Battle the Great Depression

Indian Country Today, June 30th, 2021 – 182 Unmarked Graves Found at Third Former Residential School

Indigenous Foundations – The Residential School System

Iter Newsline 196, October 26th, 2011 – “Proyecto Hueumul”: The Prank That Started it All

LIFE Magazine, February 2nd, 1962 – Humble Oil Advertisement

Live Science – Remains of More Than 1000 Indigenous Children Found at Former Residential Schools in Canada

National Geographic – How European Rabbits Took Over Australia

New Scientist, February 3rd, 1983 – When the Argentines Tamed Fusion

New York Times, May 21st, 1993 – Orphans of the 1950s, Telling of Abuse, Sue Quebec

Oregon Encyclopedia – Florence Whale Explosion

Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective – Bartolome de las Casas and 500 Years of Racial Injustice

Post Star, The, July 31st, 1923 – A Fresh Air Cage for the Baby

Psychology Today, October 8th, 2016 – The Cobra Effect: Good Intentions, Perverse Outcomes

Rabbit Free Australia – The Rabbit Problem

Rare Historical Photos – The Bizarre History of the Baby Cage

Smithsonian Magazine, August 26th, 2022 – How Two Dozen Rabbits Started an Ecological Invasion in Australia

Snopes – Did a 1960s Oil Company Ad Boast How Much Glacier It Could Melt?

Vox – The Bold and Beautiful Baby Cage

Washington Post, November 30th, 2020 – 50 Years Ago, Oregon Exploded a Whale in a Burst that ‘Blasted Blubber Beyond All Believable Bounds’

Wired – Vintage Shoe-Fitting X-Ray Machines Will Zap Your Feet