History has had plenty of crazy moments. However, few were nuttier than that one time when American Cold War planners researched the possibility of stopping the Earth’s rotation. The reason? It would mess with the complex math used in Soviet ballistic missiles’ targeting. Following thirty things about that and other loony moments from history.
30. The Crazy Cold War Plan to Pause Earth’s Rotation
The Cold War was one of the scarier stretches of human history. As in pants-soiling scary at times, with two jittery superpowers glaring at each other while armed with enough nukes to wipe out humanity many times over. One of the things about scared people is that the fear sometimes drives them to come up with, let us say, “creative” ideas. As with most ideas, some of them turn out to be brilliant brainstorms, but many more turn out to be brain farts.
Of the latter, few ideas were crazier than that hatched up to foil Soviet nukes by stopping the Earth’s rotation. There was actually a method to the madness. Launching an ICBM to nuke a target thousands of miles away involves intricate calculations that include planetary rotation. Tinkering with Earth’s rotation would mess with those intricate calculations, and cause ballistic missiles to miss their targets. Thus was born PROJECT RETRO, an early 1960s research effort into what it would take to pause the planet’s spinning.
PROJECT RETRO was worthy of Wile E. Coyote in that, like many of his schemes, the science actually works in theory. Once launched, the Cold War’s early ballistic missiles could not be redirected. Because of Earth’s rotation, hitting something with a ballistic missile is like shooting an arrow at a moving target. In both cases, the shooter has to aim not at where the target is, but at where the target will be in the time it takes the missile or arrow to get there. E.g.; say it takes an ICBM 30 minutes to fly from Russia to Washington, DC. The Russian will aim it not at where Washington is at the time of launch, but at where Washington will be, because of the Earth’s rotation, in 30 minutes.
However, if the target stops moving after an arrow or missile is launched, the result will be a miss. So the United States Air Force floated the idea of using rocket engines – specifically “a huge rectangular array of one thousand first-stage Atlas engines” – to stop the Earth from moving. In theory, such a crazy Looney Tunes plan could foil Soviet ICBMs. Accordingly, the Air Force set out to test the theory’s feasibility. In 1960, it tasked the RAND Corporation with evaluating the possibility of using giant stationary rocket engines to pause Earth’s rotation in case of nuclear attack. As seen below, while there was something to the theory, going from theory to practice wasâ¦ problematic.
28. Even If The Earth’s Rotation Could Have Been Stopped, it Would Have Been a Cure Worse Than the Disease
As it turned out, the US Air Force’s spitball guesstimate of needing a thousand rocket engines to pause the Earth’s rotation was too low. As Daniel Ellsberg, a RAND Corporation planner who crunched the numbers concluded, it required not a thousand Atlas rockets, but “one million billion” of them. The propellant necessary would have been “500 times the mass of Earth’s atmosphere“. That was beyond even the Pentagon’s budget. And even if Pentagon could afford it, pausing the planet’s spin would have been worse than just letting all the Soviet nukes hit their targets.
Assume a 30 minute ICBM flight time from Russia to Washington, DC, and a 20-minute warning. For the missile to miss by 10 miles, Earth’s rotation would have to be slowed by about 30 miles for 20 minutes. If that happened, every structure, grain of sand, drop of water, and living thing on Earth would experience that deceleration. The result would be shattering earthquakes, massive tsunamis, and super hurricanes – all beyond anything ever recorded in human history – wreaking havoc across the planet. A nuclear Armageddon would actually be mild compared to that.
Laughter is usually a good thing, but as with everything else, too much of a good thing is not good. Case in point, a 1962 crazy mass hysteria episode, in which people started laughing uncontrollably. It began in the village of Kashasha on the western shore of Lake Victoria in Tanganyika (modern Tanzania) and quickly spread throughout the surrounding region. By the time it subsided months later, the mass hysteria had affected thousands of people, and led to the closure of many schools.
On January 30, 1962, a girl in a missionary boarding school had a fit of anxiety-induced laughter and started cackling uncontrollably. She was soon joined by two of her friends. Before long, the contagion spread and engulfed the school. Within a short time, 95 out of the school’s 159 students were laughing uncontrollably. It got bad enough that the girls were unable to concentrate, and the school was forced to shut down six weeks later. The afflicted students took their uncontrollable laughter with them when they were sent back to their families. Within a short time of their returning home, the contagion spread from the schoolgirls to their communities.
The crazy laughter epidemic spread out from the Kashasha region like wildfire, or like ripples from a stone thrown into a pond. Before long, students in other schools in the region started laughing their heads off. For the most part, the symptoms consisted of recurring bouts of uncontrollable laughter and crying that lasted from a few hours to over two weeks. They were combined with a general restlessness, aimless running around, and the occasional resort to aggressive violence. Doctors were unable to find a physical cause for the contagion.
By the time the mass hysteria subsided about a year later, fourteen schools had closed down, and thousands had been afflicted. Subsequent investigation attributed the initial outbreak to stress among the schoolgirls, who found themselves in an alien environment within the missionary-run boarding school. It was noted that the outbreak had affected only the schoolgirls, without touching any of the teachers or staff. Beyond the school, the surrounding population was dealing with the stress and uncertainty of their country’s future, as Tanganyika had gained its independence only a month before the mass hysteria eruption.
For General William Westmoreland, overall US military commander in Vietnam since 1964, 1968 was a bad year. His repeated predictions that a corner was about to get turned, and that the war was on schedule for a successful conclusion, had been wearing thin for some time. Then in early 1968, the communists launched the Tet Offensive – a massive surprise attack against cities and towns throughout South Vietnam – and Westmoreland came to be seen by many as overly optimistic, or even ludicrous.
To add to his woes, a separate North Vietnamese offensive had besieged a remote US Marine garrison at Khe Sanh, near the demilitarized zone between North and South Vietnam. Fourteen years earlier, the Vietnamese had besieged and forced the surrender of a remote French garrison at Dien Bien Phu. For a while, it was feared that the Marines at Khe Sanh might suffer the same fate. As documents quietly declassified in 2016 reveal, the mounting stress got to Westmoreland. He ended up seriously exploring a crazy plan, code-named Operation FRACTURE JAW, for nuclear strikes against North Vietnam.
24. Westmoreland Got Himself and America Into an Ever Deepening Quagmire
William Westmoreland assumed command in South Vietnam in 1964. Back then, America’s military presence in that country amounted to roughly 16,000 men, mostly advisers to the South Vietnamese Army, and assorted support personnel. By the end of 1964, at Westmoreland’s recommendation, that figure had mushroomed to over 200,000 Americans, including combat troops. From supporting the South Vietnamese in their fight against communist forces in their country, the US military mission had morphed into directly taking on communist forces in South Vietnam.
Over time, America sank ever deeper into a quagmire. As the war intensified and grew bloodier by the month, General Westmoreland kept promising a successful conclusion to his political masters back in Washington, DC. All they had to do was keep giving him more men and materiel. It amounted to repeatedly doubling down on a bad bet, but crazy as it seems in hindsight, President Lyndon B. Johnson and his Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara obliged. America’s military presence in Vietnam rose steadily until it reached a peak of 535,000 men in 1968.
23. A General Tasked With Solving an Insoluble Problem
It was not all General Westmoreland’s fault: his political masters had set him a seemingly insoluble task. He had to go on the tactical offensive and wage an aggressive war in South Vietnam in order to defeat the communists there. Simultaneously, US forces had to stay on the strategic defensive, and stay their hands from a direct invasion of North Vietnam, the bastion of the communist forces in South Vietnam. It was feared that invading North Vietnam would draw that country’s northern neighbor, China, into the conflict. In the mid-1960s, memories of the Korean War were still fresh. Particularly the part where General Douglas MacArthur‘s advance to China’s border had triggered a direct Chinese intervention in that conflict.
Few wanted to risk another ground war against China, this time in Vietnam. So Westmoreland’s hand was stayed – an understandably frustrating state of affairs for him. No matter how hard Westmoreland’s men took the fight to the communists in South Vietnam, the foe seemed to be able to roll with punches and hang on. It mattered little how many casualties were inflicted upon the Viet Cong or North Vietnamese forces. There were always more ready to take their place, as replacements of men and materiel made their way down the Ho Chi Minh trail from North Vietnam to make up the losses. That could drive anybody crazy.
22. Desperation Drove Westmoreland to Contemplate a Crazy Solution
As the Vietnam War dragged on, American fatalities mounted steadily, day by day, week by week, month by month, and year by year. From 216 American lives lost in 1964, the year when Westmoreland took command, the figure jumped to 1,928 in 1965. The following year, American fatalities mushroomed to 6,350. Then another 11,363 Americans perished in 1967. Perhaps it was not so crazy that in 1968 – a year in which American fatalities reached a peak of almost 17,000 – Westmoreland became desperate enough to contemplate using nuclear weapons.
As America sank ever deeper in the Vietnamese quagmire, Westmoreland did the best he knew with the hand dealt him. He saluted, soldiered on, and sought to put the best spin on things. Framing the conflict as a war of attrition, Westmoreland emphasized heavy communist casualties to support his claim that the US was bound to win. America just had to stay the course, and communist losses would eventually exceed their ability to replace them, forcing them to throw in the towel and negotiate an acceptable peace.
21. An American Victory That Set the Stage for America’s Defeat in Vietnam
General Westmoreland’s predictions of inevitable victory, variously described as a “light at the end of the tunnel” or a “turning of the corner“, helped sustain America’s willingness to continue the war. However, faith in such optimism was starting to wear thin as 1967 drew to a close, and the voices questioning the wisdom of the conflict grew increasingly louder. That year, Westmoreland addressed a joint session of Congress, and assured it and the country that “we will prevail in Vietnam over the communist aggressor!” A few weeks later, events on the ground made the general’s confidence seem crazy.
In early 1968, the communists launched a massive onslaught that they officially termed The General Offensive and Uprising of Tet Mau Than 1968. Better known as the Tet Offensive, it led many to question Westmoreland’s credibility. It was ironic, considering that Tet was a huge American military victory and a correspondingly huge communist defeat. However, the jarring contrast between Westmoreland’s repeated assurances that the war was going well, and the images on newspapers and nightly TV news of communists rampaging throughout South Vietnam, proved highly damaging.
20. Westmoreland’s Fear of an American Military Disaster
The Tet Offensive caught General Westmoreland with his attention focused elsewhere: the isolated US Marine garrison at Khe Sanh, near the demilitarized zone between North and South Vietnam. On January 21st, 1968, nine days before Tet, tens of thousands of North Vietnamese launched an attack that besieged and, for a time, threatened to overrun Khe Sanh. The plight of the surrounded Marines immediately brought to mind the fate of a similarly isolated French garrison at Dien Bien Phu, during the First Indochina War.
In that conflict, as France sought to hold on to its Vietnamese colony, the French had superior firepower and technology. However, they were unable to bring the lightly armed Viet Minh to a pitched battle in which such superiority could prove decisive. So the French reasoned that if they could not take their superior firepower to the Viet Minh, then they would bring the Viet Minh to superior French firepower. A plan was concocted to entice the Vietnamese into massing for a pitched battle by offering them an irresistible lure: French paratroopers airdropped into an isolated base in Dien Bien Phu. It backfired spectacularly.
19. Fear of an American Dien Bien Phu Led to a Crazy Plan to Use Nukes
Unfortunately for the French, the planners of the Dien Bien Phu operation had not thought things through. So many airplanes were shot down while trying to resupply the paratroopers at the besieged garrison, that their situation became critical. The French had also assumed that the Vietnamese would have no artillery. They were mistaken. The Viet Minh organized tens of thousands of porters into a supply line, and hauled disassembled guns over rough terrain to the hills overlooking the French. Within two months, Dien Bien Phu’s garrison lost 4000 dead and missing, and nearly 7000 wounded. The survivors, numbering about 12,000, surrendered.
Understandably, as the North Vietnamese besieged Khe Sanh in 1968, fears of another Dien Bien Phu preyed upon the minds of American military and civilian leaders. As the situation at Khe Sanh seemed to grow ever more critical, President Johnson sought repeated assurances from Westmoreland and Defense Secretary McNamara that it would not turn into an American Dien Bien Phu. It was against that backdrop that Westmoreland put together a seemingly crazy contingency plan, that LBJ knew nothing about. It called for using nuclear weapons against North Vietnam, in a bid to avert disaster if things got desperate at Khe Sanh.
18. General Westmoreland Tried to Keep His Plan to Nuke North Vietnam Secret From the President
General Westmoreland’s contingency plan to save the Marine garrison at Khe Sanh was codenamed Operation FRACTURE JAW. It called for the secret movement of nuclear weapons to South Vietnam, so they could be at hand to be used at short notice against the North Vietnamese if the need arose. On February 10th, 1968, Westmoreland sent a top-secret message to Admiral Grant Sharp, Commander in Chief, Pacific, informing him that “Oplan FRACTURE JAW has been approved by me“. Westmoreland also informed other military commanders, such as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Earle Wheeler, and discussed with them the details of how to go about carrying out FRACTURE JAW.
However, a key figure who was not informed of the plans to introduce nukes to the Vietnam War was President Johnson. Then Walter Rostow, the president’s National Security Adviser, found out and told his boss. LBJ was seriously ticked off at what seemed like his chief general in Vietnam having gone crazy. According to a presidential aide who took notes during a White House meeting discussing the issue: “When [the president] learned that planning had been set in motion, he was extraordinarily upset and forcefully sent word through Rostow, and I think directly to Westmoreland, to shut it down“.
17. A Crazy Plan That Cost General Westmoreland His Command
Operation FRACTURE JAW never went beyond the planning stage. As things turned out, fears of an American Dien Bien Phu at Khe Sanh proved to be overblown. The French debacle in the earlier siege was caused by France’s inability to resupply its beleaguered garrison from the air. However, America had an ace in the hole that France did not: the US Air Force, whose capabilities were orders of magnitude greater than the French air force. American aerial assets managed to sustain the US garrison at Khe Sanh with adequate resupplies of men and materiel, while punishing the besieging North Vietnamese, until they lifted the siege and withdrew in the summer of 1968.
As to General Westmoreland, after years of Johnson acceding to his requests for more and more troops, the president finally drew a line in 1968. That year, the American buildup in Vietnam reached a peak of 535,000 men. When Westmoreland asked for 200,000 more men, LBJ had enough. Between the general’s insatiable appetite for troops and materials, his attempt to keep secret from the White House a plan to nuke North Vietnam, and overall dissatisfaction with the war’s direction and prospects, LBJ decided to get a new commander. Westmoreland was sacked by promoting him upstairs to Army Chief of Staff. He was replaced with his deputy, Creighton Abrams, who began implementing a steady troop draw down.
There is a line between being crazy about something, and just being plain crazy. Austrian-born French tailor Franz Reichelt (1879 – 1912), who was fascinated with flight since childhood, crossed that line. After the invention of the airplane, he wanted to invent a device that would allow pilots to return safely to the ground in case of an emergency. His determination grew in 1911, when 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 twenty pounds, and had a surface area of around 340 square feet.
Reichelt tested his design several times on dummies that he threw out of his fifth-floor apartment, but without success. Despite the repeated failures, he petitioned the Paris police for permission to test his invention on a dummy from the Eiffel Tower. When he got the permit, he proceeded to drum up interest among journalists and the public to witness the test at 8 AM, February 4, 1912. On the appointed day, Reichelt arrived wearing his parachute suit to be met by a crowd of onlookers gathered at the Eiffel Tower, and a cordoned off drop zone.
Accompanied by journalists, Franz Reichelt ascended the Eiffel Tower. Two film crews set up their cameras and 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: he planned to test his design by jumping off the tower in person. A guard stopped him initially, but Reichelt convinced him to let him proceed. Friends and journalists also tried to talk him out of it, but without success.
Climbing the stairs, Reichelt paused to give the crowd a cheery “A bientot!” He then continued to the tower’s first deck. There, as the cameras rolled and people shouted at him to stop, he climbed on a stool placed atop a table adjacent to the guardrail. He seemed to hesitate for a moment, as people urged him to reconsider. However, he then steeled himself, and at 8:22 AM, jumped. Reichelt’s suit was a flop, literally and figuratively. He fell straight down about 200 feet, to the frozen ground below. He struck with an impact that left a six-inch crater, and crushed his spine and skull. Unbeknownst to him, an American had successfully parachuted 225 feet from the Statute of Liberty just two days earlier, using what became the standard half-spherical backpack parachute.
14. That Crazy Time When America Had Jeep-Mounted Nukes
Once upon a time, the US Army had soldiers running around West Germany and South Korea with nukes on Jeeps. The Davy Crockett Weapon System was a smoothbore recoilless rifle that fired a tactical nuclear explosive to a range of up to 1.25 with the M-28 version of the weapon. The upgraded M-29 version increased the range to 2.5 miles. Developed during the Cold War in the 1950s, over 2000 Davy Crocketts and their launch systems were deployed with US ground forces from 1961 to 1971.
It was a notoriously inaccurate weapon – but then again, pinpoint accuracy was not a big deal, considering its warhead. The Davy Crockett’s deadliness stemmed more from its radioactivity than from its explosive yield. The warhead produced an instantly lethal dose of radiation within a 500-foot radius, and an incapacitating and likely fatal dose within a quarter-mile. As such, the weapon was more of a broad area radiation dispenser than a surgical smart bomb. However, as seen below, the weapon had a crazy glitch: it was dangerous to its own users.
13. It Took the Pentagon a Decade to Realize That Handing Nukes to Three Soldiers in a Jeep Might be a Bad Idea
The maximum range of Davy Crocketts was 1.25 to 2.5 miles. So there was always a risk that the firing team, and other NATO personnel in the vicinity, would get irradiated by their own nuke. The weapon’s greatest danger however was the fact that it was deployed at all and deployed very low down the chain of command at that. The Davy Crockett was effectively placed under the complete control of three soldiers roaming the battlefield in a Jeep. In theory, they would only fire when authorized from high up in the chain of command. In practice, they would have been able to fire a nuclear weapon at their own discretion.
Crazy as it sounds today, it took ten years before the Pentagon decided that it might be unwise to give a lieutenant, a sergeant, and a corporal, the discretion to initiate what might quickly escalate into a global nuclear holocaust. The West Germans were eager to deploy the Davy Crockett with their ground forces. However, the US refused to give them the weapon, because they wanted to incorporate it into their defensive strategy in a manner that would have made its use nearly automatic as soon as the war began. That would have eliminated NATO’s option to fight without nukes, and risked an escalation from tactical nukes on the battlefield to a global nuclear Armageddon.
Farouk I of Egypt (1920 – 1965) was king from 1936 until his overthrow in a military coup in 1952. His reign was marked by corruption, incompetence, and bizarre behavior that seemed extra crazy coming from a crowned monarch. Among other things, Farouk was a kleptomaniac. Not just in the figurative sense, as in a ruler who robbed his people blind – although Farouk fit the bill quite well on that front. This king was also a kleptomaniac in the literal sense, in that he could not resist stealing things and picking people’s pockets.
Farouk was popular early in his reign, when he ascended the throne as a slim and handsome young man. He quickly squandered that goodwill with his poor governance, and ruined his good looks with gluttony that saw him balloon to 300 pounds. That made him an object of derision, and he was often described as a “stomach with a head”. His lavish lifestyle during the hardships of WWII further eroded his public standing. Farouk liked stealing things, and he took pick pocketing lessons from a convict whom he pardoned in exchange for teaching him how to lift things. As seen below, Farouk’s victims included Winston Churchill.
11. King Farouk’s Picking the Pockets of Winston Churchill Was Just the Tip of a Crazy Iceberg
During a dinner hosted by King Farouk I during WWII, Winston Churchill discovered that his pocket watch had gone missing. It was a prized family heirloom, a gift from Queen Anne to the British Prime Minister’s ancestor, John Churchill, First Duke of Marlborough. After an outcry and search, Farouk, who had been seated next to Churchill, sheepishly turned it in, claiming to have “found” it. That was just the tip of the iceberg of the Egyptian monarch’s crazy behavior. Take the time early in WWII, when Farouk had repeated nightmares in which he was chased by a ravenous lion.
Frazzled from loss of sleep, he consulted the rector of Cario’s ancient Al Azhar University, who advised him “you will not rest until you have shot a lion“. So Farouk went to the zoo and shot two lions in their cages. By 1952, the corruption and crazy had completely eroded the king’s standing, and he was overthrown in a coup. Hastily fleeing Egypt, he left most of his possessions behind. The new government auctioned his belongings, and it was discovered that he had accumulated the world’s then largest collection of pornography. He settled first in Monaco, then in Rome, where he literally ate himself to death, collapsing at a restaurant dinner table after a heavy meal in 1965.
Donatien Alphonse Francois, Comte de Sade, is better known to history as the Marquis de Sade (1740 – 1814). A French aristocrat, de Sade became notorious for his deviant practices, perversions, and erotic writings that combined pornography with philosophy and violent sexual fantasies. So much so that his name gave rise to the terms sadist and sadism. De Sade was a pervert who is known to history chiefly for being a pervert. He did write about politics and philosophy, but it was the deviant stuff that made him famous.
Indeed, were it not for the deviant things that he did, and the deviant things that he wrote about wanting to do, little would be known today about history’s most famous Marquis. De Sade was an advocate of radically unrestrained freedom. His fantasies’ emphasis on violence, criminality, and blasphemy – and his real life partaking of criminally violent deviancy – kept him behind bars in prisons and insane asylums for most of his adult life. On and off, he spent 32 years behind bars, including 10 years in the Bastille. Most of his writings were penned while he was incarcerated.
9. At a Time When it Was Nearly Impossible for an Aristocrat to Get Locked Up for Mistreating a Commoner, This Pervert Did Multiple Jail Stints for Deviant Mistreatment of Commoners
The Marquis de Sade was addicted to prostitutes from early on. He was even more addicted to mistreating them. He first appears in the record in the early 1760s, when numerous Paris prostitutes complained of his mistreatment. That led to several short stints behind bars, before he was exiled from Paris to his rural residence. The details of the abuse are murky, but the fact a French aristocrat ended up in jail during the Ancien Regime, based on his treatment of prostitutes, indicates seriousness.
His first big scandal occurred in 1768, when he lured a street beggar to his home with an offer of a housekeeping job. Once he got her in his home, de Sade tore off her clothes, tied her to a sofa, and alternated between flogging and pouring hot wax on her. His victim finally escaped out a second floor window and pressed charges. However, his family made the ensuing investigation go away with a royal decree that removed the case from the jurisdiction of the courts.
8. The Marquis de Sade’s Perversions Were So Bad, They Got Him Sentenced to Death
In 1772, the Marquis de Sade had another major scandal, when he and his body servant incapacitated numerous prostitutes in Marseilles with Spanish fly, then had their deviant way with them. The duo were sentenced to death, but it was in absentia: they had skipped the trial, and fled to Italy. They were caught and imprisoned in Savoy, but escaped after a few months and hid in de Sade’s rural castle in southeast France. There, de Sade had a high turnover of employees. He kept hiring youngsters as domestics, only for them to quit within a short time, complaining of the Marquis’ predation and abuse.
When the youngsters’ parents complained to the authorities, de Sade fled to Italy once again, until things quieted down. He returned to France in 1776, and resumed his crazy perversions, which steadily intensified, with one scandal following another in quick succession. Finally, the authorities tricked de Sade in 1777 into going to Paris to visit his supposedly sick mother. Unbeknownst to him, she had actually died. Soon as he arrived, he was arrested and locked up in the dungeon of a royal fortress.
7. Emerging From a Dungeon, This Perv Got Himself Elected to the National Convention
The Marquis de Sade was imprisoned in harsh conditions until 1784, when he was transferred to the Bastille. He remained there until he was transferred to a mental asylum in 1789, just two days before the Bastille was stormed at the start of the French Revolution. De Sade was released in 1790 amidst France’s revolutionary turmoil. Taking to the new order, he took to calling himself “Citizen Sade”. Within a few months, he got himself elected to the French National Convention as a representative of the far left.
De Sade barely survived the Reign of Terror, during which he was imprisoned for a year. He emerged from jail in 1794, utterly destitute. In 1801, Napoleon Bonaparte ordered de Sade arrested for pornographic and blasphemous novels he had written a decade earlier, and had him imprisoned without trial. In 1803, the Marquis’ family had him declared insane and transferred from prison to a mental asylum. There, he continued writing and staged plays with inmates as actors. His writing career finally to an end in 1809, when the police ordered de Sade kept in solitary confinement, and deprived him of pen and paper.
During its circumnavigation of the globe, the Spanish expedition headed by explorer Ferdinand Magellan dropped anchor off Patagonia – a sparsely populated region at the southern end of South America. There, they came across a naked giant singing and dancing on the shore. Magellan ordered one of his men to make contact, by also singing and dancing to demonstrate friendliness. It worked, and the giant was coaxed into meeting Magellan. As described by a scribe who kept a diary that was later turned into a book about the voyage:
“When he was before us, he began to marvel and to be afraid, and he raised one finger upward, believing that we came from heaven. And he was so tall that the tallest of us only came up to his waist“. The explorers made contact with the rest of his tribe. In subsequent weeks, they hunted with the locals, and built a house ashore to store their provisions. Things went well at first. However, this was an interaction between European explorers and Native Americans, so – as seen below – it was bound to end badly.
5. A Tragic Encounter With a Tall Native Grew Into Tall Tales About a Land of Giants
When Magellan was finally ready to depart from Patagonia and continue with his circumnavigation of the globe, he wanted to take some Patagonians to display back in Spain. So he invited some aboard his ship with the lure of trinkets, got them drunk until they passed out, and placed them in chains. When the Patagonians came, the ships were already underway, sailing away from their homeland. Sadly, the kidnapped Patagonians did not survive the voyage. Nor, for that matter, did Magellan.
However, the sailors who completed the trip and returned to Spain brought back with them a crazy tale of a land inhabited by giants. It was a tall tale that kept growing taller. Later voyages described encounters with Patagonians who stood ten feet tall. Others reported coming in contact with ones whose height was measured at twelve feet. Yet others swore that they had encountered Patagonians who truly towered above normal people, and stood fifteen feet tall. Reports of the South American giants gripped European imaginations for over 250 years.
4. It Took Centuries to Dispel the Myth of Patagonian Giants
The first challenge to the tall tales of Patagonian giants came from Sir Francis Drake, the famous British seaman and pirate, who encountered Patagonians during his own circumnavigation of the globe. As described by his nephew: “Magellan was not altogether deceived in naming these giants, for they generally differ from the common sort of man both in stature, bigness and strength of body, as also in the hideousness of their voices: but they are nothing so monstrous and giant-like as they were represented, there being some English men as tall as the highest we could see, but peradventure the Spaniards did not think that ever any English man would come hither to reprove them, and therefore might presume the more boldly to lie.”
Nonetheless, the stories of South American giants persisted. As late as 1766, rumors circulated that a British Royal Navy ship had encountered a tribe of natives who stood nine feet tall. However, when the ship’s account of the voyage was finally published, the natives were recorded as being six and a half feet tall. That was tall, especially for that era, but not incredibly so. It certainly did not make the natives giants. In reality, the tribe in question, the Tehuelche, were statuesque and bigger than average. However, they stood in the six-foot range.
King Alexander of Greece came to an undignified end, when he was taken out by a monkey. No, not that Alexander, the great conqueror of the ancient world, but a more recent one. This Alexander (1893 – 1920) reigned over the Kingdom of Greece from 1917 until he met an unfortunate end three years later. Less imposing than Alexander the Great, this Alexander is perhaps better known to history for the undignified manner of his death than for anything he accomplished in life.
Alexander became king in 1917 during World War I. He ascended the throne after the Allies forced his father to abdicate because he was pro-German. Once Alexander took the throne, the pro-Entente politician Eleutherios Venizelos became Greek premier. He dominated the king and government, and joined the war on the Allies’ side. After the Entente won, Venizelos and his puppet king were committed to an ambitious political platform called Great Greece. As seen below, that platform collapsed when His Majesty had an unfortunate run-in with a monkey.
2. An Unfortunate Brawl With a Barbary Macaque Monkey
The Great Greece plan consisted of expanding the kingdom to encompass all the lands that had once been inhabited by Greeks, going back millennia. The expansion was to come at the expense of the defeated Ottoman Empire, which had been reduced to a rump that is now Turkey. So in 1919, with tacit French and British support, King Alexander ordered an invasion of Turkey, to seize the Ionian coast. Then a monkey intervened and ensured that the king never got to see the end of that adventure.
It began with a visit to the Royal Gardens on September 30th, 1920. While strolling with his German Shepherd, Fritz, king and canine came across a Barbary macaque monkey. The dog attacked the monkey, which fought back. The king rushed forward to separate the brawling animals, but unbeknownst to him, the monkey had friends. Another monkey arrived at the scene, and seeing what appeared to be the king and a dog ganging up on his pal, joined the fray. He fell upon Alexander, and bit his leg and upper body several times.
King Alexander’s entourage heard the commotion, rushed to his aid, and chased the monkeys away. By then, the damage had already been done. The monkey bites became inflamed, and the king developed a serious infection. Doctors debated amputation of the leg, but none of them wanted to take responsibility, so it was left until it was too late. By the time amputation was considered once again, the infection had spread into the body. King Alexander died of sepsis three weeks after the animal fight, at age 27. Those monkey bites had far-reaching consequences.
Alexander’s death resulted in the restoration of his deposed father. The restored king disliked the military, who had supported his deposition. So he drastically cut and reorganized the armed forces, and engineered the ouster of the pro-Entente Premier Venizelos. That caused the French and British to question Greek commitment to the campaign in Turkey. As a result, they made their own deals with a resurgent Turkey. Between that and military turmoil, the Greek invasion of Turkey ended in a humiliating disaster and defeat. Crazy as it sounds, modern Greece and Turkey exist as they do today because a king and his dog picked the wrong monkey to mess with.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading