Historical Figures with Unforeseen Downfall and Misfortune
Historical Figures with Unforeseen Downfall and Misfortune

Historical Figures with Unforeseen Downfall and Misfortune

Khalid Elhassan - April 9, 2020

Historical Figures with Unforeseen Downfall and Misfortune
The Dominion Center in downtown Toronto, where Gary Hoy worked. Wikimedia

9. A Lawyer’s Windows Obsession

Canadian lawyer Gary Hoy was a respected senior partner at a Toronto law firm. Before going to law school, Hoy had gotten a degree in engineering, and the robustness of modern building techniques was a subject of particular interest to him. He was peculiarly proud of the tensile strength of the windows at his office in the Toronto Dominion Center, a downtown high rise, and habitually demonstrated the windows’ sturdiness by body checking them. As things turned out, it was an ill-advised habit.

One evening, Hoy was at a welcoming party being thrown for a group of incoming law student summer interns, in a conference room on the 24th floor. Wishing to impress the interns with the office windows’ strength, Hoy sought to demonstrate that they were unbreakable by throwing himself at a glass wall. He had done so many a time before, and always ended up bouncing off harmlessly. Not so this time.

Historical Figures with Unforeseen Downfall and Misfortune
Gary Hoy. Twitka

8. Catastrophe Turned Hoy Into a Celebrity

As Toronto’s police put it: “At this Friday night party, Mr. Hoy did it again and bounced off the glass the first time. However, he did it a second time, and this time crashed right through the middle of the glass“. He fell to his death 24 floors below. His unfortunate death could have been averted had he left window tensile strength testing to the experts. As a structural engineer told the Toronto Star: “I don’t know of any building code in the world that would allow a 160 pound man to run up against a glass window and withstand it“.

Hoy’s auto-defenestration made the obscure law partner a greater celebrity in death than he had ever been in life. His unusual demise became the basis for sundry urban legends that were actually based on a true factual foundation. His death was featured in episodes of the TV shows Mythbusters and 1000 Ways to Die, garnered him entries in Snopes and Wikipedia, and won him a 1996 Darwin Award.

Historical Figures with Unforeseen Downfall and Misfortune
Franz Reichelt’s suit. Wikimedia

7. A Tailor With an Obsession

Austrian-born French tailor Franz Reichelt (1879 – 1912) was fascinated with flight since childhood. After the invention of the airplane, he sought to invent a device that would allow pilots to parachute safely to the ground should they run into trouble aloft. His efforts were spurred on when, in 1911, the Aero Club de France offered a 10,000 Franc prize to the first inventor of a successful parachute.

Reichelt’s design took the form of a suit featuring a cloak with a big silken hood. It weighed about 20 pounds, and had a surface area of around 340 square feet. He tested the design several times on dummies thrown out of his 5th floor apartment, but without success. So following an inexplicable chain of logic, he decided to test on himself what had failed to work on dummies.

Historical Figures with Unforeseen Downfall and Misfortune
Franz Reichelt, shortly before ascending the Eiffel Tower. Gorilla Cool

6. Substituting Oneself For a Dummy

Franz Reichelt seemed undaunted by his contraption’s repeated test failures, and petitioned the Paris police for permission to test his invention on a dummy from the Eiffel Tower. After securing a permit, he proceeded to drum up interest among journalists and the public to witness the test at 8 AM, February 4th, 1912. On the appointed day, Reichelt arrived wearing his parachute suit, and was met by a crowd of onlookers gathered at the Eiffel Tower, as police cordoned off the drop zone.

Accompanied by journalists, he ascended the tower, while two film crews positioned themselves, one on the ground to catch the drop from the tower, and another at the tower to film the dummy being thrown. People were perplexed however because they could see no dummy. It gradually dawned on them that Reichelt had not brought one, but intended to test his design by jumping off the tower in person.

Historical Figures with Unforeseen Downfall and Misfortune
Franz Reichel, about to do something everybody advised him not to do. Reddit

5. Fatal Failure

A guard stopped Franz Reichelt, but the inventive tailor convinced him to let him proceed. Friends and journalists also tried to talk him out of it, but to no avail, as Reichelt was impervious to good advice. Climbing the stairs, he paused to give the crowd a cheery “A bientot!“, before continuing to the tower’s first deck. There, as the cameras rolled and people shouted for him to stop, he climbed on a stool placed atop a table adjacent to the guardrail, and jumped at 8:22 AM.

Historical Figures with Unforeseen Downfall and Misfortune
Franz Reichelt’s fatal plunge. Imgur

The suit was a flop, literally and figuratively. Reichelt fell about 200 feet to his death on the frozen ground below, with an impact that left a 6 inch crater and crushed his spine and skull. Unbeknownst to him, just two days earlier, an American had successfully parachuted 225 feet from the Statue of Liberty, using what would become the standard half-spherical backpack parachute.

Historical Figures with Unforeseen Downfall and Misfortune
A dinar coined during Al Musta’sim’s reign. Wikimedia

4. The Last Caliph

Al Musta’sim Billah (1213 -1258) was the last ruler of the Abbasid Caliphate, and Islam’s last Caliph. A weak ruler ruling a weak rump of what had once been a mighty empire, Al Musta’sim was surrounded by ineffectual advisors who offered conflicting advice when the Mongols demanded his submission. He rejected the demands, ignoring some and answering others with bluster and empty threats, but failed to prepare adequate defenses against what was sure to follow such rejection.

The Mongols first erupted into the Islamic world in the 1220s, when Genghis Khan destroyed the Khwarezmian Empire and conquered as far west as western Persia up to the edges of Mesopotamia. That outburst was followed by a decades-long relative lull, as far as the Middle East and the Islamic world were concerned. During that stretch, the Mongols directed their energies elsewhere, against China, Kievan Rus, Eastern Europe, and in internal squabbles amongst themselves.

Historical Figures with Unforeseen Downfall and Misfortune
Hulagu leading a charge. Assassins Creed Wiki

3. Misreading the Situation

The lull ended in the 1250s, when a new Mongol ruler, Genghis Khan’s grandson Mongke, turned his attention to the Middle East and sent his brother, Hulagu, to assert Mongol power over the region. Hulagu began by first destroying the Assassins, a murderous cult led by a shadowy mystic known as The Old Man of the Mountain. They operated out of a string of mountain fortresses, from which they terrorized the Middle East for over a century and a half.

Completing that task by 1256, Hulagu turned his attention to the Abbassid Caliphate, based in Baghdad. He ordered its Caliph, Al Musta’sim, to submit to Mongol suzerainty and pay tribute. The Caliph made a catastrophic mistake by misreading the situation, overestimating his own power and influence, and underestimating the Mongols’ might.

Historical Figures with Unforeseen Downfall and Misfortune
A medieval tapestry depicting the Mongol Siege of Baghdad. History Buff

2. Pride Without Power

The Abbassids had once been a powerful dynasty that had ruled the world’s largest, strongest, and most prosperous empire. However, they were centuries removed from their heyday by the time Al Musta’sim became Caliph.

By the 1250s, the Abbasid Caliphate’s sway did not stretch far beyond Baghdad. As to the Caliphs, they had been reduced to mostly ceremonial figureheads, puppets of Turkish or Persian sultans wielding real power and acting in their name. What Caliph Al Musta’sim s still had was a remnant of spiritual and moral authority, and enough pride to refuse Hulagu’s summons to submit.

Historical Figures with Unforeseen Downfall and Misfortune
Mongol Siege of Baghdad. Tes Teach

1. The Caliph Discovers Just How Catastrophically Wrong He Had Been

Al Musta’sim was not prepared to face the Mongols, who had conquered bigger and tougher opponents than the small rump which still remained in the Abbasid Caliphate. However, Al Musta’sim believed that the Mongols would not be able to seize Baghdad, and that if the city was endangered, the Islamic world would rush to its aid. He turned out to be catastrophically wrong.

Hulagu marched on Baghdad, the Islamic world did not rush to its aid, and after a 12-day siege, the city fell. The Mongols sacked Baghdad, massacred its inhabitants, burned its vast libraries, and put the city to the torch. Al Musta’sim was captured, but the Mongols had a taboo against spilling royal blood. So they had him executed by rolling him in a carpet, over which their army rode when it marched off to further conquests, their horses trampling the last Caliph to death.


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

Beevor, Antony – Stalingrad (1998)

Business Insider, May 17th, 2016 – Here‘s the Story of How the Hunt Brothers Tried to Corner the Silver Market

Ceilan, Cynthia – Thinning the Herd: Tales of the Weirdly Departed (2007)

Clark, Alan – Barbarossa: The Russian-German Conflict, 1941-1945 (2000)

Clements, Jonathan – The First Emperor of China (2006)

Conquest, Robert – The Great Terror: A Reassessment

Cracked – 7 People Who Were Proven Wrong as Hard as Humanly Possible

Craig, William – Enemy at the Gates: The Battle For Stalingrad (1973)

Crown Chronicles – History‘s Strangest Deaths: The Duke of Clarence Drowned in a Barrel of Wine

Elting, John R. – Swords Around a Throne: Napoleon‘s Grand Armee (1988)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Al Musta‘sim, Abbasid Caliph

Encyclopedia Britannica – Charles II, King of Navarre

Facing History – Weimar Political Parties

Fall, Bernard B. – Hell in a Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu (1967)

Glantz, David – Stumbling Colossus: The Red Army on the Eve of World War (1998)

Glantz, David – When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler (1995)

Gonick, Larry – The Cartoon History of the Universe, Part II (1994)

Jacobin, November 25th, 2015 – Hitler Wasn‘t Inevitable

Mitrokhin, Vasili – The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB (1999)

Riehn, Richard K. – 1812: Napoleon‘s Russian Campaign (1991)

Sima Qian – Records of the Grand Historian

Simpson, Howard – Dien Bien Phu: The Epic Battle America Forgot (1994)

Snopes – Did a Man Die Demonstrating a Window‘s Strength?

Tuchman, Barbara – A Distant Mirror (1978)

Wikipedia – Franz Reichelt

Wikipedia – Great Purge