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
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.

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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

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