Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired

Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired

Khalid Elhassan - March 29, 2023

The road to hell is often filled with good intentions. Few things better illustrate that than the efforts of Catholic priest Bartolome de las Casas to save Native Americans from mistreatment at the hands of Spanish conquistadores and European settlers. Not only did Casas fail to save the locals, but he also helped kick start the Transatlantic Slave Trade, which visited untold horrors upon millions. Below are twenty-five things about that and other plans that badly backfired.

Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired
Bartolome de las Casas. National Geographic

A Human Rights Pioneer Who Tried to Help Mistreated Native Americans by Advocating for the Enslavement of Africans

Spanish historian and missionary Bartolome de las Casas (1484 – 1566) devoted his life to protesting the mistreatment of Native Americans by his fellow Europeans. A social reformer, he decried the enslavement of New World natives and the horrific cruelties to which they were subjected. In the process, he pioneered the development of ideas that led to the concept of modern human rights. He got there in a roundabout way. Las Casas sailed to the New World as a layman in 1502, and settled in Hispaniola – modern day Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Granted an encomienda, or a hacienda worked by native slaves, he was fine with enslaving the locals at first. He even joined military expeditions to subjugate and capture more natives.

Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired
Woodcut depicting the enslavement of Native Americans and their mistreatment by the Spanish. Ranker

Eventually, his conscience bothered him. Las Casas became a priest, renounced his hacienda and slaves, called for an end to the encomienda system, and began to advocate for Native American rights. He saw the treatment of natives by Europeans as illegal and immoral, and in 1515 petitioned the authorities to protect the indigenous population. Until his death in 1566, he continued to tirelessly petition and write extensively in a bid to end the mistreatment and enslavement of the natives. In his bid to help New World natives, Las Casas advanced an argument that backfired disastrously, and led to untold horrors visited upon millions of Old World Africans. He called for the enslavement of Africans instead of Native Americans. He reasoned that Africans were fitter and more resistant to the Old World diseases that decimated Native Americans.

Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired
A slave ship diagram, depicting the manner in which space was maximally utilized to cram in as much human cargo as possible. History Today

A Novel Argument Inspired by a Desire to Do Good, that Backfired and Led to Centuries of Horror and Misery

Las Casas’ argument introduced the then-revolutionary idea of slavery based on race, rather than the ancient and medieval slavery based on war and conquest. Before, ancient Greeks, Romans, and their medieval European successors had justified slavery based on the right of conquest. It was a race-neutral justification: those defeated in war and conquered could be enslaved. Caveats were sometimes carved out, such as the Spanish government’s prohibition of the enslavement of fellow Catholics. Conquered Muslims, Protestants, and pagans could be enslaved, regardless of their race, but not defeated Catholics. Nor could conquer non-Catholics who agreed to convert to Catholicism be enslaved. Las Casas gave the Spanish, and later the rest of Europe, a new and novel justification to enslave other human beings: their race. In this conception, Africans were marked out as fit for enslavement because they were Africans, period.

Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired
A 1529 illustration depicting an enslaved African in the New World. Origins

Las Casas eventually called for the abolition of all slavery. By then, however, the genie was out of the bottle. Europeans embraced his original idea of race as justification for slavery, and ignored his later retraction. The result was the transatlantic African slave trade, which lasted for almost four hundred years, from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries. 12 to 15 million Africans were sent to the New World for a life of slavery that was often dark, cruel, brutal, and short. At least for those who survived the horrific Middle Passage from Africa to the Americas, in which millions perished. That was just the tip of the horror iceberg: for every single African who boarded a slave ship, up to five more perished in the violence that surrounded the capture of slaves and their transportation to the coasts and slave ships.

Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired
Children at an Indigenous residential school. The Spectator

A Well-Intentioned Plan to Help Indigenous Kids that Backfired

Canada established a network of mandatory boarding schools for Indigenous children in the nineteenth century, funded by the government and administered by Christian churches. Known as the Indian Residential School System, it sought to assimilate Indigenous kids into mainstream white Canadian culture. In theory, the assimilationist intentions were benign. At least compared to what took place to Canada’s south, where American authorities did not even pretend to want to assimilate the Natives. Indeed, the one time that Natives voluntarily settled down in the US, established towns, and emulated Europeans, their reward was expulsion from their lands and the tragic Trail of Tears.

US officialdom oscillated between attempts to push the Natives into impoverished reservations at the milder end of things, or genocidal attempts to outright exterminate them at the more extreme end. In all scenarios, both in the US and Canada, the results were varying degrees of tragic and horrific for the Natives. In Canada, the Residential School System kidnapped Indigenous children from their families and placed them in boarding schools where they were often subjected to neglect, sundry abuses, and cruel treatment. As seen below, if the goal was to help, the effort backfired. Thousands died, and their bodies were dumped in unmarked graves on school grounds.

Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired
Indigenous girls at communion in a residential school. Reuters

The Sinister Indian Residential Schools

From 1863 to 1998, over 130 Indian Residential Schools were funded by the Canadian government, and many of them were run by Christian churches until 1969. In 1894, attendance at day schools where available, or boarding schools where day schools were unavailable, was made mandatory for Indigenous children. The remoteness of many Indigenous communities meant that boarding schools were the only option for their children. If families refused to part with their kids, the authorities forcibly seized them, and placed them in boarding schools.

The children were often cut off from contact with their families. Both because of the long distances involved, and because their parents needed passes to leave the Indigenous reservations – passes that the authorities often refused to grant. In the meantime, their children were often abused by teachers and administrators, both physically and sexually. The Indigenous kids in the boarding schools were poorly fed – and sometimes not fed for days on end – and frequently suffered from malnutrition. They were often subjected to harsh discipline, such as severe corporal punishment that would not have been tolerated in white Canadian schools.

Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired
Painting by Kent Monkman, depicting Royal Canadian Mounted Police forcibly seizing indigenous children to place them in a residential school. Pinterest

Assimilation Plans that Backfired

On top of cruel treatment, Indigenous children in mandatory boarding schools were often poorly housed. They were kept in overcrowded dormitories, with poor sanitation, unclean water, no or inadequate sewage, and insufficient heating to cope with Canada’s harsh winters. Between that and an absence of medical care, diseases such as influenza and tuberculosis were rife. Federal funding was tied to enrollment figures, but that backfired because schools boosted their figures by enrolling sick children. About 150,000 Indigenous kids were placed in mandatory schools. Because of bad record keeping, the number of school deaths is unknown, but estimates range from a low of 3200 to highs of more than 30,000.

The system backfired in other ways. Perhaps the final tragic twist in a tale already full of the tragic is that the end result of the Indigenous children’s education was often adults unable to fit back into their original communities. After years of speaking only English or French in boarding schools, many had forgotten their Indigenous languages by the time they graduated, and were no longer able to communicate with their relatives. However, they were still Indigenous. Despite the Residential School System’s professed assimilationist intent, they were denied assimilation because of the racist and exclusionary attitudes of mainstream white Canadian society.

Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired
A child having her feet X-ray shoe fitted. Antiquated Antidotes

Shoe Stores Decided To Use Radiation Machines For Customers’ Feet… Instead of Letting Them Try On Shoes

To find out if a shoe fits one’s foot is pretty straightforward. Put on the shoes, then walk up and down the store aisle for a bit to see how they feel. However, back in the 1920s-70s, things were different in many shoe stores across America and Europe. For half a century, many shoe stores overthought the simple concept of trying on shoes, and got overly fancy and science-y with it. Rather than stick to the tried and true practice of just letting people try on shoes, shoe stores decided to use radiation machines to blast their customers’ feet with unshielded X-rays. It began in the 1920s, when Dr. Jacob Lowe demonstrated a modified medical device at shoe retailer conventions in Boston and Milwaukee, that X-rayed people’s feet.

Other inventors had the same idea, and came up with similar devices. Known as Shoe-Fitting Fluoroscopes, and also sold under the names X-Ray Shoe Fitters, Foot-O-Scopes, and Pedoscopes, the devices were metal constructions covered in wood, about four feet high. Installed in shoe stores, customers would don a pair of shoes in which they were interested, stick their feet into the device while standing, then look down through a porthole at an X-ray view of their feet in the shoes. The bones and the shoe outline were clearly visible. A pair of other viewing portholes on the machine’s sides allowed the shoe salesman and anybody else with the customer to look at wiggling toes, to get an idea of how much space there was in the shoes. Needless to say, that was one technology that backfired.

Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired
A 1940s ad for an X-ray shoe fitting device. PBS

X-Ray Shoe Fitters

The concept of X-Ray Shoe Fitters was brilliant. The drawback was that nobody understood the danger of using unshielded X-rays around people. Especially when done frequently. Even more especially when blasted directly up at the customers’ genitals, which were located directly above the device as the machine X-rayed their feet. Back then, people were either ignorant of the risks of radiation exposure, or did not take them seriously. The X-Ray Shoe Fitters were supposed to be shielded, but the shield was usually removed to improve the image quality or to make the device lighter. That backfired, and a lot of radiation was scattered in all directions, bathing the bodies of the customers and shoe salespeople in harmful X-rays. Unsurprisingly, there were severe downsides and side effects.

Typical X-ray shoe Fitter viewings lasted about 20 seconds, during which the machine delivered about half the radiation of a chest CT scan. Many customers tried on more than one pair of shoes, and were thus exposed to additional X-ray doses with each pair. Even people in the waiting room were exposed to radiation. Many shoe stores skimped on machine maintenance to save money. That backfired, and caused many X-Ray Shoe Fitters to emit significantly more radiation. Some devices blasted out as much as 300 times more radiation than the maximum safe limit. Most exposed were the shoe salespeople: they got hit with stray radiation dozens of times a day, each and every day they went to work. Many of them suffered adverse health consequences – some quite serious.

Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired
X-ray shoe fitter view. Pinterest

A Radiantly Bright Idea That Backfired

Medical monitoring and product safety investigations back then were not what they are today. As a result, we lack accurate figures for just how severe and widespread the damage was. However, while we do not have an idea about the actual extent of the damage, damage there undoubtedly was. The first serious alarms were raised in 1957, when The British Medical Journal ran an article about a middle-aged woman with skin damage and pain consistent with radiation burns. She had worked in a shoe store for ten years. There, she operated an X-Ray Shoe Fitter 15 to 20 times a day, and often demonstrated how it worked by inserting her own foot in the device. That backfired, and damaged her health. Worse still was the fate of an unfortunate shoe model, who received so much radiation her leg had to be amputated.

When X-Ray Shoe Fitters were invented, there were no safety or health regulations in place. For decades, few paid attention to their dangers. For example, an estimated 10,000 devices were sold in America, about 3,000 in Britain, 15,00 in Switzerland, and 1,000 in Canada before the authorities began to discourage their use. As awareness grew of the long-term adverse health effects of radiation, the notion that using X-ray machines in shoe stores might be a bad idea gained in popularity. Accordingly, voices were raised to regulate the devices, and eventually, to prohibit their use. In 1958, Britain mandated warning signs on the devices, and the following year, Switzerland prohibited their use. By 1970, the devices had been banned in 33 American states, and by the end of the decade, the last recorded sighting of an X-ray shoe Fitter occurred in Boston.

Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired
The Oregon beached whale. YouTube

What to Do With a Dead Whale Washed Up on a Beach?

In November 1970, the Oregon State Highway Division had a problem on its hands. A stinking whale of a problem. What to do with a 45-foot, 8-ton sperm whale, whose rotting carcass had washed up on a beach near the small coastal town of Florence, in Lane County, Oregon? One option was to let nature take its course, and allow the carcass to decompose. However, Florence’s residents did not want to endure to stench of a rotting whale for the few years it would take for it to decompose. Nor did they want to swim in waters that reeked of whale runoff.

It had been so long since a dead whale had washed up in the region, that nobody could remember how to get rid of one. Highway Division concluded that to drag the behemoth off and bury it was not a good idea, because decomposition gasses would destabilize the grave and uncover it. The risk would be reduced if the whale was cut up before burial, but nobody wanted to chop up the stinking carcass. Then somebody came up with a bright idea: why not blow it up? As seen below, that backfired badly.

Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired
A reporter covering the beached whale. KVAL

Blowing Up a Dead Whale With Dynamite

In a decision that backfired badly, the authorities turned to dynamite: 20 cases or half a ton of it. A military veteran with explosives training was in the area, and he warned that 20 cases of dynamite were way too much. His advice that 20 sticks of dynamite would be enough was ignored by the authorities. They hoped that the blast would disintegrate the whale, with the resulting small pieces getting consumed by scavengers. As an Oregon Highway Division official told news reporters about the plan to get rid of the dead whale:

Well, I’m confident that it’ll work. The only thing is, we’re not sure just exactly how much explosives it will take to disintegrate this thing, so the scavengers, seagulls, and crabs and whatnot can clean it up“. Dynamite was buried beneath the whale, primarily on the landward side so most of the carcass would get blown into the ocean. Scores of bystanders gathered to watch the spectacle, and were moved back about a quarter of a mile away as a safety precaution. The onlookers cheered when the dynamite was detonated at 3:45 PM, on November 12th, 1970.

Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired
The exploding whale. Fresher Brine

As Any Rational Person Could Have Predicted, This Literally Explosive Plan Backfired

The spectators’ cheers quickly turned into shrieks of panic when it became clear that the explosive plan had backfired. The authorities had greatly underestimated both the blast zone, and what constituted a safe distance. A quarter mile turned out to be way too close to the explosion: everybody and everything within half a mile of the blast was showered with rotting detritus. A huge piece of blubber flattened a parked car over a quarter of a mile away, while people and other vehicles were pelted by bits of stinky whale carcass. Miraculously, nobody was seriously hurt by the tons of whale flesh hurled into the air.

When the dust settled and rotting whale stopped falling from the sky, dismayed officials discovered that while the blast had been spectacular, their idea to dispose of the whale was a dud. Most of the carcass had not even budged. As darkness fell, Highway Division crews were back on the scene to bulldoze and bury the remains, as they probably should have done in the first place. If a whale ever washes up near Florence again, the authorities will probably not only remember what to do but also what not to do.

Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired
Maurice Duplessis and Quebec Catholic Church clergy. La Nouvelliste

When the Church Held Too Much Sway in Quebec

The Catholic Church held significant, and sometimes pernicious sway over Quebec until the mid-twentieth century. The 1940s and 1950s in particular were an era of widespread poverty, few social services, and Church predominance. In those dark days, Maurice Duplessis, a strict Catholic, became Quebec’s premier. He immediately proceeded to place the province’s schools, orphanages, and hospitals, in the hands of Catholic religious orders. Duplessis then hatched a scheme with Church authorities to game the Canadian federal government’s subsidy assistance program to the provinces.

The idea was to divert as many taxpayer dollars as possible into the coffers of Quebec’s Catholic Church. Canada’s federal subsidy program incentivized healthcare and the building of hospitals, more so than other social programs and infrastructures. Provinces received a federal contribution of about $1.25 a day for every orphan, but more than twice that, $2.75, for every psychiatric patient. That backfired when the unscrupulous Duplessis and Quebec’s Catholic Church hit upon the idea of transforming $1.25-a-day orphans into more profitable $2.75-a-day psychiatric patients.

Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired
Duplessis orphans. Spectacular Optical

This Plan to Help Orphans Tragically Backfired

The Canadian federal government’s subsidy program backfired because it was vulnerable to exploitation. Duplessis and Quebec’s Catholic Church conspired to turn orphans into psychiatric patients. They set up a system to falsely diagnose orphans as mentally deficient, in order to siphon more federal subsidy dollars into the Church’s coffers. As a first step, Duplessis signed an order that instantly turned Quebec’s orphanages into hospitals. That entitled their religious order administrators – and ultimately Quebec’s Catholic Church – to receive higher subsidy rates for hospitals.

It took decades before the scandalous state of affairs was finally uncovered. By then, over 20,000 otherwise mentally sound Quebecoise orphans had been misdiagnosed with psychiatric ailments. Once they were misdiagnosed, the orphans were declared “mentally deficient”. It was not just paperwork, technicality. Once misdiagnosed as mentally deficient, the orphans’ schooling stopped, and they became inmates in poorly supervised mental institutions. There, the children were often subjected by nuns and lay monitors to physical and mental abuse.

Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired
A glacier melting and breaking up. Physics World

The Oil Company that Bragged About Melting the Arctic Glaciers

Poring through advertisements from decades and generations past, we often come across ads that were innocuous and non-controversial for their era, but that have aged like garbage. Due to social, political, or technological advances and changes, what seemed perfectly good and acceptable in one era, can be seen today as silly, ridiculous, or outright offensive. For example, take this advertisement run in 1962 by Humble Oil & Refining Company – which eventually rebranded as Exxon – for its Ecno brand gasoline.

Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired
A polar bear on melting Arctic ice. The Mirror

The company – contra its name – bragged about its size and technical efficiency by boasting that it could melt millions of tons of glaciers every single day of the year. As the ad put it: “EACH DAY HUMBLE SUPPLIES ENOUGH ENERGY TO MELT 7 MILLION TONS OF GLACIER! This giant glacier has remained unmelted for centuries. Yet, the petroleum energy Humble supplies — if converted into heat — could melt it at the rate of 80 tons each second! To meet the nation’s growing needs for energy, Humble has supplied science to nature’s resources to become America’s Leading Energy Company“.

Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired
Humble Oil’s glacier melting ad. Bill Moyers

This Ad Aged Badly, and Its Aim to Burnish the Oil Company’s Reputation Backfired

The Humble Oil ad went on to add that: “Working wonders with oil through research, Humble provides energy in many forms — to help heat our homes, power our transportation, and to furnish industry with a great variety of versatile chemicals. Stop at a Humble station for new Enco Extra gasoline, and see why the “Happy Motoring” Sign is the World’s First Choice!” Needless to say, Humble Oil’s non-humble boast that it produced enough energy to melt seven million tons of glaciers every day did not age well.

Years passed, and eventually, scientists began to sound the alarm about the dangers of global warming – a growing menace caused in large part by fossil fuels such as those produced by Humble Oil. Back in 1962, the ad’s copywriters thought they had come up with a clever idea. It backfired, because they were blissfully unaware of what the future would bring. They certainly had not anticipated that melting glaciers would become a major symbol of the risks of global warming.

Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired
Ronald Richter, left, with Juan Peron. Questa de Ciencia

When Argentina Announced a Revolutionary Breakthrough in Energy Technology

For a moment in the mid-twentieth century – a brief moment as it turned out – Argentina was about to become the world’s greatest energy giant. Or at least, that was what many people were led to believe. In the spring of 1951, newspapers around the world carried sensational news: the discovery of practical fusion power in Argentina. On March 24th of that year, Argentina’s president Juan Peron announced that his country had mastered “the controlled liberation of atomic energy“, not from uranium, but from hydrogen. Peron added that the discovery would prove “transcendental for the future life” of Argentina, and would bring it “a greatness which today we cannot imagine“.

The Argentinian president went on to promise a future in which energy would be “sold in half-liter bottles like milk“. However, thermonuclear fusion was advanced technology that neither the US nor the USSR had mastered at the time. So the idea that Argentina, then a rural country of fewer than 16 million people, had achieved what neither global superpower baffled many. How had Argentina pulled off such a feat? The answer was: it had not. Juan Peron had trusted a crank named Ronald Richter, and predictably, the placement of trust in a crank backfired.

Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired
Ronald Richter at work on Project Huemul. El Cordillerano

Predictably, Giving Money to a Crank Backfired

As things turned out, Juan Peron had been conned by a German World War II aircraft designer named Ronald Richter, who had wildly misrepresented his credentials in a successful bid to get funding for a fusion reactor. Argentine scientists knew Richter’s claims were bunk, but Peron wanted to believe in the Nazi scientist’s idea, so he did. As a result, a significant chunk of Argentina’s budget was diverted to what came to be known as Project Huemul, to build a massive compound for Richter on Huemul Island, in an Andean lake.

Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired
Remnants of the main reactor building on Huemul Island. Mapio

It backfired, and in a humiliation for all involved, Richter’s claims were debunked almost immediately after they were announced by Peron. Richter was eventually jailed for having “misled” the Argentine president. The embarrassed government razed most of the lab to the ground, and tried to pretend that the whole thing had never happened. After Richter was released from prison, he settled down to become a chicken farmer. He insisted to his dying days that his idea had been practical, and that he had mastered nuclear fusion.

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 to 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 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 severely 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