Plot Twists From History That Still Surprise People
Plot Twists From History That Still Surprise People

Plot Twists From History That Still Surprise People

Khalid Elhassan - May 15, 2022

Plot Twists From History That Still Surprise People
Members of New Zealand’s Home Guard drilling during WWII. Encyclopedia of New Zealand

11. The Major and the Crook

Major Kenneth Folkes wanted to earn a reputation, and he did – but in an unexpected plot twist, it was not the reputation that he wanted. His name would forever be linked to Sydney Ross, a small-time criminal and conman. Born in 1909, Ross held a series of short-term jobs, mostly as a laborer. In the 1930s, he piled up 17 criminal convictions and did time for theft, burglary, false pretenses, and fraud. In 1939, he was sentenced to nearly four years for breaking and entering and theft. During this prison stint, he befriended an older convict, Alfred Remmers, a former policeman who had been fired for committing burglaries on the job and was now behind bars for forgery.

Ross was released from prison on March 28th, 1942, with nothing but a battered briefcase, some clothes, and a train ticket. A day later, he had met New Zealand’s Prime Minister, had a car, money, accommodations, and the undivided attention of Major Folkes, who saw in the released convict an answer to his prayers. Between the spy catcher and conman, New Zealand was brought to the brink of martial law. The country would forever after retain a healthy skepticism of its intelligence services.

Plot Twists From History That Still Surprise People
New Zealand’s press compared Kenneth Folkes, center, to Reichsfuhrer SS Heinrich Himmler. New Zealand Observer

10. A Story That Started Well, Before the Plot Changed Dramatically

Kenneth Folkes’ career in military intelligence began well, before the plot of his story took a series of unfortunate twists. He had enlisted as a private, and in less than a year, had risen to major and was in charge of an entire country’s counterintelligence. To be sure, New Zealand was a small and out-of-the-way country, but still – it was a rapid rise. Once he got to New Zealand, however, things soured for Folkes. He saw the New Zealanders as backward colonial bumpkins, ignorant of even basic security practices, and intellectually lazy. In reality, his contempt for New Zealand’s practices was a reflection of his own intellectual laziness and unjustified arrogance.

Folkes had only a few months’ training in British military intelligence practices, had limited experience, and held an imperialistic worldview that deemed New Zealanders inferior to the English. That mix was toxic, and blinded him to the possibility that there might be ways to do things other than what he had learned in his few months of training back in Britain. That was bad, but what made things worse was that Folkes let his disdain for the locals show. Unsurprisingly, they resented that, and grew antagonistic in reaction to his contempt for them.

Plot Twists From History That Still Surprise People
New Zealand’s Security Intelligence Service, the modern successor to WWII’s discredited Security Intelligence Bureau. Wikimedia

9. An Incompetent Spy Catcher and His Hapless Crew

Major Kenneth Folks’ New Zealander colleagues saw him as “aggressive, discourteous, and impertinent“, and leaked those assessments to the press. Within a few months of his arrival, local newspapers ran editorials that compared Folkes to Reichsfuhrer SS Heinrich Himmler, whom he slightly resembled physically. Newspapers also questioned whether Folkes’ Security Intelligence Bureau (SIB) was too much like the Gestapo – and an inept one at that. SIB men were derided as mediocrities, draft dodgers, and incompetent snoops who repeatedly screwed up.

In one episode, Folkes’ men subjected an innocent American in charge of geophysical survey work to “stealthy pursuit” that was anything but stealthy. In another bungled endeavor, they ran a five-day operation to try and “trap a suspected spy” at a Wellington hotel. In a plot twist, they went about it in such an incompetent way that the operation was an open secret to “the innocent suspect, the hotel staff, and half the town“. The SIB and its head were widely ridiculed as hapless spy catchers who futilely spun their wheels out of the way of New Zealand with no spies to catch. Then salvation and serious work seemed to arrive in the form of career criminal Sydney Ross.

Plot Twists From History That Still Surprise People
Bob Semple. Wikimedia

8. The Nazi Plot to Sabotage New Zealand?

On March 29th, 1942, just one day after he was released from prison broke, homeless, and without prospects, Sydney Ross met with the Minister of National Service, Bob Semple. He told him that a Nazi agent, recently landed by submarine, had tried to recruit him to join a sabotage cell, part of a vast network whose tentacles stretched across the country. Semple immediately took Ross to see Prime Minister Peter Fraser – meeting New Zealand leaders must have been really easy.

Plot Twists From History That Still Surprise People
Prime Minister Peter Fraser in 1942. Library of Congress

Fraser had just received classified reports from Australia, where real spy rings had been uncovered. He was thus primed to accept that his country could have similar rings and that there could well have been a Nazi plot to sabotage New Zealand. The prime minister referred Ross to Major Kenneth Folkes, and the head of the SIB saw the recently released felon as a godsend. Finally, here was a real threat and an opportunity for his men to round up real spies and shut up the critics. Folkes gave Ross money, a car, and accommodations, and set him up as an undercover agent with the alias “Captain Calder” to gather intelligence on the Nazi network.

Plot Twists From History That Still Surprise People
Sydney Ross, who was given the alias Captain Calder by the Security Intelligence Bureau. The New Zealand Truth

7. A Massive Screwup

For three months, Sydney Ross reported back to Major Folkes about the results of his undercover efforts to unravel the Nazi sabotage plot. It was alarming information, which Folkes passed in turn on to New Zealand government bigwigs. Apparently, enemy subversives were more widespread and dangerous than anybody had imagined. They planned to blow up key targets, kidnap or assassinate Prime Minister Fraser, Minister of National Service Semple, and other cabinet members, all as a prelude to a Japanese invasion. Ross claimed that the network was headed by his prison pal Alfred Remmers, now dying of leukemia and living in the countryside, and that Remmers’ house in Wellington was the conspirators’ base of operations.

Folkes demanded in July, 1942, that the government supply him with troops, declare martial law, and grant his SIB emergency powers to arrest and detain suspects without trial. Before he suspended civil rights throughout the country, Fraser asked the police to investigate. In no time flat, they discovered that the supposed “Nazi headquarters” was occupied by an elderly government clerk, dry cleaners, and three nurses, all innocent of any foreign contacts, let alone subversion and espionage. To Folkes’ horror, it began to dawn on him that the SIB might have committed its worst blunder yet.

Plot Twists From History That Still Surprise People
New Zealand’s press was not kind to Kenneth Folkes and the SIB. The New Zealand Truth

6. There Was a Plot Alright, Just Not the Plot This Hapless Spy Catcher Thought

There was a plot alright, but it was not a Nazi plot to sabotage New Zealand. Instead, it was an ad hoc plot by a conman to take advantage of gullible spy catcher. As his scam began to unravel, Sydney Ross grew desperate to hang on to his employment as an “undercover agent” and the pay that went with it. To keep the hoax alive, he resorted to yet another elaborate hoax to bolster his story. He dug a deep hole in a forest, lacerated his back with barbed wire, then staggered to the roadside, where he gave a passing driver £10 to summon help. He then claimed to have been tortured by Nazis and forced to dig his own grave at gunpoint, before he pulled off a miraculous escape. However, doctors who inspected his wounds determined that they were self-inflicted.

The story of the “Impudent Jailbird” who had tricked Major Kenneth Folkes and the SIB, whose men had been “blatantly hoodwinked“, hit the newspapers in late July 1942. This latest screwup was the final straw. The SIB was taken over by the police commissioner, and the now-thoroughly-discredited Major Folkes was sent back to Britain in disgrace. Ross returned to prison, where he remained until his release in 1946, shortly before his death at age 37 of tuberculosis. It was an anticlimactic end for a man who had almost ended the rule of law in, New Zealand. After the war, Folkes returned to his job with a Midlands carpet manufacturer and died in obscurity in 1975. A self-promoter and fabulist to the end, his headstone described him as a recipient of the Distinguished Service Order. He had never received such an award.

Plot Twists From History That Still Surprise People
Napoleon Bonaparte. Flickr

5. When Napoleon Turned to a Spy

In 1805, Napoleon Bonaparte had been at war with Britain since the breakdown of the Peace of Amiens two years earlier. He had a powerful “Army of England”, 210,000 strong, camped in northern France and ready to invade Britain if his navy could secure its safe passage across the English Channel. British diplomats had been busy though, and in April 1805, their efforts paid off when they convinced Russia to ally with them in a coalition against France. A few months later, Austria joined them, and Napoleon had to abandon the invasion of England in order to deal with his enemies in Europe.

The Army of England became the core of what came to be known as La Grande Armee (The Great Army). In 1805, it grew to 350,000 well-equipped, well-trained, and well-led men. Napoleon wanted to hit the Austrians while they were still on their own, before they were reinforced by Russian armies. Austrian General Karl Mack von Leiberich sealed off the gaps in the Black Forrest in southern Germany that Napoleon would use if he marched to Austria from northern France. He then planned to wait until his Russian allies arrived. The linchpin of his defense was the fortified city of Ulm, and Napoleon wanted to winkle Mack out of it. So he turned to a spy, Karl Schulmeister, who concocted an effective plot to achieve his master’s goal.

Plot Twists From History That Still Surprise People
Karl Schulmeister. Wikimedia

4. The Austrians Fell for This Plot

Karl Schulmeister (1770 – 1853) was a German-born smuggler who became a French spy and inveigled his way into Austrian intelligence. He arrived in Vienna in 1805 in the guise of a Hungarian nobleman exiled from France on suspicion of espionage. There, he met and won the confidence of the Austrian army’s commander, Karl Mack. Mack got Schulmeister commissioned as an officer, and put him in charge of military intelligence. Schulmeister immediately began to feed his patron false information. Napoleon desperately wanted Mack’s army to come out of the well-fortified city of Ulm so it could be more easily destroyed, and a scheme was cooked up to get the Austrian general to do just that. Specially-printed French newspapers were sent to Schulmeister, that contained fake news about massive unrest in France.

Plot Twists From History That Still Surprise People
The Austrian surrender at Ulm. Wikimedia

Schulmeister shared that information with Mack, and convinced him that Napoleon had marched back home to restore order. He also informed the Austrian general that the French forces nearby were in full retreat to suppress rebellions in France. Mack seized what he saw as an opportunity to attack the French while they were in disarray, and marched out of the Ulm fortifications with his entire army of 72,000 men. That’s when Mack discovered that there was a plot twist. The French were not in disarray, and numbered 235,000 superbly trained men. They fell upon and defeated the Austrians, surrounded the survivors, and forced Mack’s surrender on October 20th, 1805. Out of 72,000 men, the Austrians lost 60,000 killed, wounded, captured, and missing in the Ulm Campaign. The French lost only 2000 men.

Plot Twists From History That Still Surprise People
Michael Rockefeller. Life Magazine

3. The Rich Kid Who Wanted to Study Aborigines

Michael Clark Rockefeller was born in 1938, the son of future New York Governor and US Vice President Nelson Rockefeller. He was also a great-grandson of business magnate John D. Rockefeller whose wealth, when adjusted for inflation, makes him the richest American of all time. Michael was thus among fortune’s favorites, with the world at his feet, green pastures all around, and unlimited horizons. For a scion of plutocrats, he was not a spoiled trust fund brat who coasted on the family wealth, but instead showed promise and a desire to leave his own mark.

Plot Twists From History That Still Surprise People
Michael Rockefeller in 1960. WBUR

Rockefeller attended the Buckley School and the elite Philip Exeter Academy, America’s most prestigious prep school. There, he excelled as a varsity wrestler. He continued his education at Harvard, where he graduated cum laude with a degree in economics and history. Then in 1960, although medical exemptions were easily obtainable at the time to get rick kids out of the draft, he did a stint as a lowly private in the US Army. In an unfortunate plot twist, all that promise and potential came to a macabre end in 1961, when he was killed and eaten by New Guinea cannibals.

Plot Twists From History That Still Surprise People
Michael Rockefeller. O Explorador

2. A Promising Scion

Michael Rockefeller was not cut of the same businessman cloth as the tycoons who made his family America’s richest clan. Instead, he was into art and travel. In 1954, his father established the Museum of Primitive Art, America’s first museum dedicated to the works of tribes from Africa, the Americas, and Oceania. Michael was made a trustee. After his stint in the US Army, he went to Papua in western New Guinea, now part of Indonesia but then still under Dutch colonial administration. Michael was a soundman in an expedition sent by the Peabody Museum to film an ethnographic documentary about the Dani tribe. The resultant documentary, Dead Birds, won accolades and awards and ended up in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. At some point, Rockefeller took a short break from the expedition to study the Asmat tribe, which dwelled along Papua’s southwestern coast.

Plot Twists From History That Still Surprise People
Michael Rockefeller, top right, with his family. iFunny

They fascinated him. So when the Peabody expedition was over, Rockefeller returned to Papua to further study the Asmat and collect samples of their arts. He secured hundreds of objects such as spears, drums, shields, and bowls. He also collected totem-like structures known as bisj poles that were used in ceremonies and ceremonial carvings known as spirit canoe. The expedition came to an abrupt end on the morning of November 18th, 1961, when Michael, a Dutch anthropologist named Renee Wassing assigned to him as a governmental chaperone, and two local kids, boarded a motorboat. Their route crossed the mouth of the Betsj River, a tricky stretch where outrushing water met incoming tides. Calm waters suddenly grew turbulent when the wind picked up, giant waves began to crash all around, and the boat was swiftly swamped, its motor overrun.

Plot Twists From History That Still Surprise People
Michael Rockefeller surrounded by New Guinea aborigines. Smithsonian Magazine

1. A Gruesome Plot Twist

The local kids swam to the nearby shore. Michael Rockefeller and Renee Wassing did not want to abandon their possessions, however, and stayed in the swamped boat. It was a bad decision. The boat drifted further out to sea, and continued to fill with water until it finally overturned. The duo clung to the hull, as their possessions sank or drifted away. Early on November 19th, 1961, they were about fourteen miles from shore, and Rockefeller decided he could reach it. He told Wassing “I think I can make it“, and struck off. He was not seen again. If he had waited, he might have been saved along with Wassing, who was rescued the next day. A huge search operation failed to find Rockefeller. He was declared legally dead in 1964, presumed to have drowned, or been eaten by a crocodile or shark. The Dutch colonial authorities knew otherwise.

Plot Twists From History That Still Surprise People
Michael Rockefeller’s disappearance became an international sensation. Argossy

In a plot twist, Rockefeller had reached shore, only to be taken down by Asmat tribesmen. The Dutch suppressed the information, however, because it made them seem unable to control their colonial charges. Decades later, researcher Carl Hoffman uncovered reports that detailed “who had his head, who had his femur, who had his tibia, who had stabbed him, who had speared him“. Local Catholic priests also wrote at the time that Rockefeller had been killed and eaten by Asmat tribesmen. Hoffman traveled to the region in 2012, and collected further evidence that confirmed Rockefeller’s macabre end. He even confirmed that some Asmat men pictured by Rockefeller were the same ones named in colonial and missionary reports as the men who had stabbed, ended, and eaten him. Many of the Asmat works collected can now be seen in the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


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

Athens-Clarke County Unified Government – Double-Barreled Cannon

Battery B, 4th US Light Artillery – The Athens Double-Barreled Cannon

Cracked – 6 Secret Plots With Twists Nobody Saw Coming

Daily Beast – Was This Rockefeller Heir Eaten by Cannibals?

Dormandy, Thomas – Opium: Reality’s Dark Dream (2012)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Karl Schulmeister

Hari, Johann – Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs (2016)

History Collection – 37 Historical Items Unearthed by Surprised Construction Workers

History Net – The Checkered Life of War Hero Snuffy Smith

Hoffman, Carl – Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest for Primitive Art (2014)

Home of Heroes – Maynard H. ‘Snuffy’ Smith: You Don’t Have to Be a Saint to Be a Hero

Honolulu Star Advertiser, March 18th, 2018 – Hawaii Ponzi Schemer and Professed Secret Agent Dies at 76

Los Angeles Times, November 7th, 1999 – The Rise and Fall of Joseph McCarthy

Malmstrom Air Force Base – Legend of Airman Snuffy: The Maynard Smith Story

History Collection – Remarkable Historic Blunders these People Should be Embarrassed About

Maude, Frederic Natusch – The Ulm Campaign, 1805 (1912)

Military dot Com – The Original ‘Airman Snuffy’ Was Real and a Total Badass

National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force – Medal of Honor, SSG Maynard ‘Snuffy’ Smith

New York Times, September 3rd, 1985 – CIA Officers Testify at Hawaii Fraud Trial

New Zealand History Online – Sydney Ross

Radio New Zealand – Nazi Hoax: The Story of Syd Ross

Security and Surveillance History Series, 2018/1 – A Formidable Responsibility: The Rise and Fall of the New Zealand Security Intelligence Bureau 1940-1945

Smithsonian Magazine, March, 2014 – What Really Happened to Michael Rockefeller

We Are the Mighty – This Is the Story of the Civil War’s Only Double-Barrel Cannon