The Death Row Baseball Team and Other Odd Episodes in History
The Death Row Baseball Team and Other Odd Episodes in History

The Death Row Baseball Team and Other Odd Episodes in History

Khalid Elhassan - May 18, 2020

Every now and then, just about everybody could do with a little bit of extra motivation and added incentive to do what needs doing. However, do you know who did not need any extra motivation and incentive? The 1911 Alston All Stars: a baseball team of death row inmates and hardened criminals, who literally played for time and for their lives. Their tale is just one of many that are often overlooked. Following are forty things about the death row baseball team, and other fascinating but little known episodes from history.

The Death Row Baseball Team and Other Odd Episodes in History
The Wyoming State Penitentiary All Stars baseball team. Pintrest

40. A Killer Team. No, Really: It Was a Team Made Up of Killers

Understandably, there is exceptionally tight security surrounding death row, and severe restriction and isolation measures imposed upon its inmates. However, things were not always so on death row. It seems fantastic today, but once upon a time, death row inmates were gathered together into a baseball team that played against outsiders. For amateurs, the team of killers was actually pretty good.

It occurred in Wyoming in 1911, with the All Stars team of the Wyoming State Penitentiary. It was composed of convicted criminals, including death row inmates. Indeed, the team’s star player was awaiting execution. The death row players had their executions stayed so long as they played and kept winning. Needless to say, that gave the players one heckuva incentive to play their hearts out: motivation was one thing that the All Stars did not lack.

The Death Row Baseball Team and Other Odd Episodes in History
A college baeball team in 1910. University of Chicago Archives

39. From the Baseball Diamond to Death Row Was Not That Far

In the early twentieth century, baseball was the game in America, and just about everybody who was into sports and athletics played or watched or did both. Back then, many players associated with the professional clubs, majors, minors, or semi-pros, had reputations as hooligans, ruffians, or worse… death row inmates.

So as a simple matter of statistics, there was a steady infusion of professional baseball players who ended up behind bars for offenses minor or serious. Of the serious offenses, some were serious enough to land some pretty decent players on death row. Wyoming’s State Penitentiary in Rawlins had a warden, Felix Alston, who was a big time baseball lover. So he decided to make use of the available talent to form a team, which came to be known as Alston’s All Stars – including death row inmates.

The Death Row Baseball Team and Other Odd Episodes in History
Felix Alston. Wyoming State Museum

38. Alston’s All Stars

Warden Felix Alston put together a pretty decent team – decent, that is, in how they performed as players, not in how they were as people. They were, after all in prison or even on death row. It featured some of the hardest of hardened criminals, and included three murderers, three rapists, five thieves, and a forger. The team’s pitcher, Thomas Cameron, was a convicted rapist. The team’s captain, George Saban, was a convicted murderer who had ambushed three sleeping sheep herders, and shot each one in the face, at close range.

The Death Row Baseball Team and Other Odd Episodes in History
The Old Wyoming State Penitentiary, where the Alston All Stars resided. Wyoming Tourism

Incredibly, Saban got away with a lenient 20 year sentence. It helped that he was best friends with the arresting officer that day: then-Sheriff Felix Alston, who eventually became the prison warden who founded the death row All Stars. Indeed, when Alston became warden, he gave his buddy Saban special permission to come and go from the prison as he pleased. Saban also benefited from local sympathy, as many saw his depredations as just another salvo in an ongoing turf war between cattle and sheep herders.

The Death Row Baseball Team and Other Odd Episodes in History
Shoes made from the skin of George Parrot, a 19th century train robber who was lynched in Wyoming. Death Row All Stars

37. Shocked, Shocked, to Find That Gambling Is Going On Here

The Alston All Stars (and death row players) played before packed crowds in baseball-mad Rawlins, WY. It was a harshly conservative town where wrongdoers were punished to the full extent of the law, and then some. The townspeople often did not bother waiting for the law to run its course: desperados caught in the act of murder, rape, or robbery, were often lynched on the spot, and not only hanged, but even skinned.

The good people of Rawlins were not only baseball mad, but also gambling mad. That was one thing they had in common with the All Stars, as well as with warden Felix Alston. Indeed, during the death row All Stars’ run, team captain George Saban developed a sideline as a bookie, going to local saloons and dives, taking bets on his team’s games, and pocketing a 20% commission.

The Death Row Baseball Team and Other Odd Episodes in History
The Alston All stars with their team mascot, the warden’s son. Daily Mail

36. The Killer Team’s Mascot

In the death row Alston All Stars’ first photo, the players could be seen wearing their prison inmate numbers on their shirts’ left hand pockets. It was not until 1916 that the Cleveland Indians became the first major league baseball team whose players wore numbers on their uniforms – in the Indians’ case, on their left sleeves.

In another photo, taken after the death row team’s first win, the convict players look spiffy. They had lost the ad hoc prison shirt outfits, and looked sharp, sporting matching uniforms and caps. At a time when only white players were allowed in the major and minor leagues, two of the All Stars, catcher James Powell and first baseman Eugene Rowan, were black. In the midst of the offenders – including, it should be recalled, three rapists – sits the team’s mascot, Felix Vern Alston Jr., the warden’s son.

The Death Row Baseball Team and Other Odd Episodes in History
Alston All Stars star player Joseph Seng was on death row for killing his lover’s husband. Daily Mail

35. The Killer Team Killed Its Opponents – This Time, Figuratively

As a baseball team, the death row Alston’s All Stars were not bad. In their first game, played on July 18th, 1911, they thumped their opponents, the Wyoming Supply Company Juniors ball club, 11-1. The Washington Post reported under the headline SLAYER SCORES HOMES RUNS:Joseph Seng, right fielder for the Alstons, is under sentence to be hanged. Seng made two home runs hit over the penitentiary wall. One of his hits cleared the bases, bringing in three others and scoring himself“.

The Carbon County Journal, which described the team as The Cons, wrote of the star right fielder: “Joseph Seng, who was convicted of murder in the first degree and sentenced to death, played a classy game all the way through. He will petition the governor to commute his sentence to life imprisonment sometime this month“. Seng’s play impressed journalists and watchers, but it failed to move Wyoming’s governor.

The Death Row Baseball Team and Other Odd Episodes in History
Joseph Guzzardo, the Alston All Stars shortstop. Death Row All Stars

34. Keeping the Team Focused

Team captain George Saban made sure to keep the Alston All Stars focused. During team practice, following some poor plays from shortstop Joseph Guzzardo, the convict captain and warden’s friend let everybody know the consequences of screw-ups. As the team’s star player and death row inmate Joseph Seng described the pep talk in a letter he wrote from prison:

Mistakes on the field would not be tolerated … He [Saban] told us that prisoners who make errors that cost the team a game would have more time added to their sentence. Winning would lead to reduced time and stays of execution“. In his capacity as bookie, Saban also made sure this information was communicated to the town’s gamblers, so they would know that the players were playing for the lives. Winning was one way to prolong a death row inmate’s time.

The Death Row Baseball Team and Other Odd Episodes in History
The gallows trapdoor above which star player Joseph Seng stood, and through which he fell to his death by hanging less than a year after playing for the Alston All Stars. Daily Mail

33. The Killer Team’s Killer Record

Literally playing for time was a great incentive to be good, and during their brief existence, the Alston All Stars were one of the best teams in the West. The team lasted for only one season, and it was a pretty brief season at that. The convict players played only four games, but they won each and every single one.

The team’s star player, death row inmate Joseph Seng, was scheduled to be executed on August 22nd, 1911, but he was still alive to play for the team’s fourth victory on August 23rd. Many believed that he was being kept alive solely because of his baseball prowess. However, following the team’s fourth win, warden Alston, under pressure from the governor who hated gambling, shifted his focus from baseball to education for inmates. Seng’s stay of execution did not last forever: on May 24th, 1912 he met his end at the gallows and an execution by hanging.

The Death Row Baseball Team and Other Odd Episodes in History
Juan and Eva Peron. Biography

32. When Argentina Was Heralded as a Global Energy Giant

Headlines in newspapers around the world announced sensational news in the spring of 1951: 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. He added that the discovery would prove “transcendental for the future life” of Argentina, and would bring it “a greatness which today we cannot imagine“.

Peron went on to promise a future in which energy would be “sold in half-liter bottles like milk“. Some were puzzled, however: thermonuclear fusion was advanced technology that that neither the US nor USSR had mastered. So how could Argentina, then a rural of country of fewer than 16 million people, achieve what neither global superpower could? The answer was: it could not.

The Death Row Baseball Team and Other Odd Episodes in History
German grifter Ronald Richter, left, with Juan Peron. Questa de Ciencia

31. When Argentina Was Conned by a Grifter

As it turned out, Argentina’s president Juan Peron had been conned by a German WWII 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 fanciful, but Peron wanted to believe, so he did. The result was a significant chunk of Argentina’s budget getting diverted into building a massive compound for Richter on Huemul Island, in an Andean lake.

The Death Row Baseball Team and Other Odd Episodes in History
Remnants of the main reactor building on Huemel Island. Mapio

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, and his embarrassed government razed most of the lab to the ground and tried to pretend the whole thing had never happened. After his release from prison, Richter settled down to become a chicken farmer, but continued to insist to his dying day that he had, indeed, mastered nuclear fusion.

The Death Row Baseball Team and Other Odd Episodes in History
Al Hakim, the Mad Caliph. Wikimedia

30. The Mad Caliph

If there was a contest for the Middle Ages’ weirdest rule, the Fatimid Caliph Abu Ali Mansur (985 – 1021) would be a serious contender. Better known by his regnal title Al Hakim bi Amr Allah (“Ruler by God’s Command”), and better yet known by the nickname “The Mad Caliph”, he was one seriously strange figure.

Among other things, the Mad Caliph was afflicted with a megalomania that led him to declare himself an incarnation of god. While other rulers who declared themselves gods ended up with universal scorn, the Mad Caliph actually ended up with some adherents. And not just ones who adhered out of fear, but sincere ones who continued their reverence for Al Hakim long after his death. Indeed, to this day he is still viewed as a divine incarnation by the Druze sect in the Middle East, and as a religiously important figure by some Shi’a Muslims.

The Death Row Baseball Team and Other Odd Episodes in History
Al Hakim Mosque in Cairo. Flickr

29. Overcompensating

The Mad Caliph was the son of the Fatimid Caliph Abu Mansur and a Christian consort named Al Azizah. He became Caliph at age eleven, following his father’s death. Having a Christian mother opened him to allegations that he was an insufficiently zealous Muslim, and that he was soft on Christianity.

It seems those accusations got to him, so he went out of his to prove his Muslim chops, and demonstrate that he was no Christian puppet. As in way, way, out of his way: he launched an unprecedented wave of persecutions against Christians in his empire, and ordered the destruction of Christian churches and monuments.

The Death Row Baseball Team and Other Odd Episodes in History
Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Wikimedia

28. Demonstrating Religious Zeal by Persecuting Other Religions

To demonstrate that being born to a Christian mother did not make him a soft Muslim, the Mad Caliph Al Hakim departed from the tolerance hitherto displayed by Muslim rulers to Christians and Jews. He went on a religious persecution bender, destroying synagogues and churches, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem – the one housing the cave where Jesus is thought to have lain before his resurrection.

The Mad Caliph also banned pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and added to that by ordering Christians and Jews to wear distinguishing clothing to identify them. Jews were further singled out by Al Hakim, who required them to wear bells as well, so they could be identified by sound as well as sight.

The Death Row Baseball Team and Other Odd Episodes in History
Khan al Khalili, Cairo’s centuries-old historic market, in existence since the Middle Ages. Pintrest

27. History’s Most Extreme Consumer Protection Practices?

The Mad Caliph Al Hakim’s weirdness went beyond religious persecutions. It included what must be one of history’s most bizarre consumer protection practices, ever. He reportedly used to walk through the markets of Cairo, looking for deceptive merchants, while accompanied by a giant African slave named Masoud.

Whenever he came across a merchant cheating his customers, the Mad Caliph would order Masoud to publicly sodomize the crook, right then and there. To this day, when people in Cairo encounter a merchant whom they suspect is trying to cheat them, they threaten to “bring Masoud”.

The Death Row Baseball Team and Other Odd Episodes in History
Anthony Eden. Wikiwand

26. When Britain Tried to Steal the Nile

During the seven decades from 1882 to 1952, Egypt was a de facto British client state and protectorate, and Britain had the right to base troops in Egypt to protect her interests. Most important of those interests was safeguarding the Suez Canal, of which the British government was a majority shareholder.

Then in 1952, a military coup by nationalist Egyptian officers led by Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrew Egypt’s pro-British king. The new government demanded that British troops leave Egypt, and in 1956, nationalized the Suez Canal. Nasser and his nationalist government infuriated British Prime Minister Anthony Eden, who was determined to cut the Egyptian upstart down to size and put him in his place. So Eden decided to steal the Nile, Egypt’s lifeblood and life source.

The Death Row Baseball Team and Other Odd Episodes in History
Owen Falls Dam in Uganda. Pintrest

25. Cutting Off the Nile at the Source

British government officials got cracking on ways to implement Prime Minister Anthony Eden’s plan to steal the Nile from Egypt. They eventually drew up secret plans to cut off the flow of the water, in an attempt to force Egypt’s president Nasser to toe the line. In 1956, Britain still controlled Uganda, where the Owen Falls Dam lay astride the White Nile, a main source of the river flowing into Egypt. The idea was cut off the flow in Uganda, thus reducing the Nile by seven eighths by the time it reached Egypt.

The plan was ultimately rejected because doing so would deprive other countries between Uganda and Egypt of water, would take too long, and would produce a public relations nightmare. Instead, Eden opted for a direct military intervention. The result was the 1956 Suez Crisis, which ended with Britain forced into a humiliating climb down, and the end of Anthony Eden’s political career.

The Death Row Baseball Team and Other Odd Episodes in History
An ancient saw a dog doing this, and decided to use its poop for medicine. Simply For Dogs

24. The Ancients Swore by the Healing Properties of Poop

Dung might be disgusting, but it is also widely available. At some point, some ancients decided to use it as a medicine. Whether for better or for worse, the exact details of how somebody first arrived at that brainstorm are lost in the mists of history, but it must have been an interesting tale. However it came about, by the time civilization arose, poop was frequently used in treating maladies.

For example, the ancient Egyptians swore by the healing properties of dog, donkey, gazelle, and fly dung, and the ability of those animals’ droppings to ward off evil spirits. They also used animal poop to heal their wounds. On the one hand, applying poop to wounds probably caused tetanus and other infections on occasion. On the other hand, the microflora in some animal dung contains antibiotics, so the remedy might actually have worked every now and then.

The Death Row Baseball Team and Other Odd Episodes in History
A Nile crocodile. National Geographic

23. Crocodile Poop Contraceptives

The ancients Egyptians’ use of medicinal fly dung raises a fascinating question: just how did they, long before microscopes were invented, even manage to spot, let alone gather, tiny fly turds? The ancient Greeks borrowed a lot from the Egyptians, including the medical prescription for using crocodile poop as birth control.

Ancient Greek women believed that inserting crocodile dung in their vaginas would serve as a powerful contraceptive. For all we know, it might have actually worked. At least in the sense that encountering a vagina full of crocodile poop might have been such a huge turn off that it prevented sex from occurring in the first place.

The Death Row Baseball Team and Other Odd Episodes in History
Senator Charles B. Farwell. Wikimedia

22. When America Bombed the Sky to Make it Rain

There used to be a widespread belief that there was a causal relationship between battles and rain. In 1871, former Civil War general Edward Powers wrote War and the Weather, in which he documented several battles throughout history that were followed by rain. He theorized that the loud din of battle agitated the clouds, and caused them to release the rain stored within. That gave birth to what came to be known as “Concussion Theory”, which held that loud noises could force clouds to yield rain.

As Powers put it: “If lightning and thunder and rain have been brought on by the agency of man, when bloodshed and slaughter were only intended, this surely can be done without these latter concomitants“. Serious scientists and scholars scoffed, but two decades later Senator Charles B. Farwell of Illinois read Powers’ book, and decided to test Concussion Theory. So he got Congress to appropriate $10,000 to make the tests.

The Death Row Baseball Team and Other Odd Episodes in History
Robert Dyrenforth and his sky-bombing crew. US Congressional Serial Set

21. Bombing the Sky

There were no serious scholars or scientists willing to risk their reputations by having anything to do with something as batty as Edward Powers’ rain making theories. So a patent lawyer named Robert G. Dyrenforth stepped up, and was assigned the task of carrying out the experiment. In August of 1891, Dyrenforth set up shop in a section of Texas prairie, and put on what must have been an impressive pyrotechnics display.

The Death Row Baseball Team and Other Odd Episodes in History
Robert Dyrenforth. The House History Man

His men blasted clouds with mortars and with dynamite carried aloft by kites, while trailing behind them were balloons filled with flammable hydrogen. To add to the noise, Dyrenforth’s men increased the decibel levels by packing prairie dog holes full of dynamite, and setting them off as well. Unsurprisingly, the plan did not work. That did not stop Dyrenforth from claiming that it did. His fabrication was foiled, however, by a meteorologist who observed the experiment, and published a scathing report about it in Nature.

The Death Row Baseball Team and Other Odd Episodes in History
An ancient Roman pater familias. Pintrest

20. Ancient Roman Law Gave Fathers Extraordinary Powers Over Their Kids

The patriarchy today just isn’t what it used to be. Whatever complaints might be made about it today, it was nothing like the patriarchy back in the days of ancient Rome. There, the degree of authority that a Roman head of the household, or pater familias, exercised over the family would shock modern sensibilities.

At the lower end of the spectrum, Roman law and tradition granted the family patriarch the power to reject or approve the marriages of his sons and daughters. At the more extreme end, those laws and traditions granted patriarchs a literal power of life and death over their family. Indeed, in some instances, such as when it came to deformed babies, Roman law mandated that the patriarch kill infants with obvious deformities.

The Death Row Baseball Team and Other Odd Episodes in History
Roman children. Listverse

19. Whatever Your Complaints About Your Dad, At Least He Didn’t Sell You Into Slavery

The law of ancient Rome also granted fathers the right to sell their children into slavery. It was not the kind of thing that was done as a matter of routine, but typically happened only in dire circumstances, when hard pressed patriarchs sought to ease their burdens. While the practice was not widespread, it did take place from time to time.

For what it was worth for the kids, a Roman father’s right to sell his children was not absolute. Three times was the charm: a Roman father could only sell his kids thrice. Assuming the kids regained their freedom after each instance of their dad selling them into slavery, they were deemed forever free from his familial authority after the third time.

The Death Row Baseball Team and Other Odd Episodes in History
Augustus. Wikimedia

18. Romans Had a Serious Double Standard When It Came to Sexual Morality

An ancient Roman patriarch’s power of life and death over his family members was particularly evident when it came to his authority over the women of the family. Notwithstanding the ancient Romans’ reputation for licentiousness, debauchery, and wild orgies, they managed to indulge in such carnal excesses while simultaneously viewing adultery as a serious matter.

Adultery was frowned upon not just on moral grounds, but also because it introduced the possibility of illegitimate heirs to a pater familias’ estate. When Augustus became emperor, he sought to restore traditional values with morality laws aimed at combating adultery – defined as a woman having sex with a man who was not her husband. However, a man having sex with female slaves and prostitutes did not count as adultery.

The Death Row Baseball Team and Other Odd Episodes in History
Augustus’ daughter, Julia the Elder. Wikimedia

17. Augustus Was So Serious About Morality Laws That he Exiled His Daughter and Granddaughter, and Killed His Great Grandson

One of Emperor Augustus’ morality laws, enacted in 18 BC, codified a father’s traditional rights if he caught somebody engaged in adultery with his daughter. The father could legally kill the lover, as well as his daughter, whether in his own house or in the house of his son in law. Ironically, Augustus’ own daughter, Julia the Elder, ran afoul of those anti-adultery laws.

The Death Row Baseball Team and Other Odd Episodes in History
The exiled Julia the Younger, imagined in ‘Grotto in the Gulf of Salerno’ by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1774. Imgur

The emperor did not kill his daughter, but to save face, he had her exiled in 2 BC, first to a small island, then to a tiny village in the toe of Italy. She remained in exile for the rest of her life. In 8 AD, Augustus’ granddaughter, Julia the Younger, also got caught up in an adultery scandal with a Roman Senator. The emperor exiled her to a remote island, where she gave birth to a love child. Augustus ordered the infant exposed.

The Death Row Baseball Team and Other Odd Episodes in History
Occupants of the sack in the poena cullei. Pintrest

16. The Punishment of the Sack

Occasionally, some ancient Roman kids snapped and killed their patriarch. Unsurprisingly, what with ancient Rome being as pure a distillation of patriarchy as ever existed, it took a dim view of murdering a patriarch. Roman law was particularly horrified and revolted by patricide, or the killing of one’s father. So they expressed their abhorrence with a particularly inventive punishment: poena cullei, or the “Punishment of the Sack”.

Those convicted of patricide were first severely beaten with blood colored rods, while their heads were covered in a bag made of a wolf’s hide. Then the patricide was sewn into the poena cullei, a sack made of ox hide, together with an assortment of live animals including a dog, a snake, a rooster, and a monkey. The sack was then beaten to rile up the animals and get them to bite and tear at the patricide. It was then put on a cart driven by black oxen to a river or the sea, where the sack and its occupants were thrown into the water.

The Death Row Baseball Team and Other Odd Episodes in History
Feral rabbits in the Australian Outback. Rabbit Free Australia

15. A Harebrained Plan With Literal Hares

Hindsight is, of course, 20-20. Still, in hindsight, few ideas have been as harebrained as that of the British introducing hares and rabbits to Australia, and deliberately releasing them into the wild to breed like, well… rabbits and hares.

Looking back at it today, knowing what we know now about the harmful effects of messing with local environments and ecologies, it seems incredible that the British deliberately released breeding rabbits into the Australian Outback. Equally or even more incredible is the train of logic that got them there: as a food source, which was shortsighted but understandable, and as prey to hunt for fun, which was nuts.

The Death Row Baseball Team and Other Odd Episodes in History
Convicts arriving at Botany Bay in Australia. Nomads World

14. Convicts Need Feeding, Don’t They?

For generations, the American Colonies had served as a convenient dumping ground for British convicts. However, that outlet was foreclosed after America gained its independence. Understandably, the new republic was not eager to go on accepting shiploads of British jailbirds. Conveniently for the authorities in London, they had recently explored and laid claim to another huge territory, even farther away from Britain: Australia.

So the British began transporting their convicts to Australia, which had been recently explored by Captain Cook. Ever eager to economize, the British authorities shipped rabbits along with the convicts, as a rapidly breeding food source. Eventually, some rich settlers released rabbits and hares into the wild for hunting sport. As seen below, the results were disastrous.

The Death Row Baseball Team and Other Odd Episodes in History
Rabbits were initially seen as an excellent source of sports hunting in Australia. National Museum of Australia

13. Overrunning Australia

Hares and rabbits are not native to Australia. Thus, there were no native predators Down Under that had evolved to feed on and keep their numbers in check. So from cute and cuddly and sometimes delicious animals, hares and rabbits morphed in Australia into feral and invasive pests that devastated much of their new home.

As early as the 1820s, settlers were complaining of rabbits overrunning the place. By the 1860s, between the disappearance of many natural predators, mild seasons allowing for year-round breeding, and natural selection producing a hardier breed of wild rabbits, their population exploded.

The Death Row Baseball Team and Other Odd Episodes in History
Australia’s Rabbit Proof Fence that wasn’t. Flickr

12. Billions of Feral Rabbits

Australia’s rabbit numbers just kept growing, and growing, and growing some more. By 1920, there were an estimated 10 billion feral rabbits hopping around Down Under. They competed with livestock for pasture, ate crops, and stripped the soil of vegetation. The latter is particularly problematic: of all the habitable continents, Australia has the most vulnerable soil and is the one most susceptible to erosion.

The Death Row Baseball Team and Other Odd Episodes in History
An 1884 cartoon predicting the uselessness of the Rabbit Proof Fence. Queensland State Library

For over a century, Australia has struggled to control its rabbit population. Measures have included shooting, poisoning, and infecting the pests with epidemic diseases. The most conspicuous measure, though was and remains fencing, 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 burrowed beneath and jumped over it.

The Death Row Baseball Team and Other Odd Episodes in History
A European red fox preying upon a native Australian marsupial. Fox Scan

11. Doubling Down on the Irresponsible in the Land Down Under

As early as the 1820s, it was becoming clear to all and sundry in Australia that releasing hares and rabbits into the Outback had been a huge mistake. At least if contemporary settler complaints and newspaper editorials were anything to go by. Yet, the evidence hopping all over the place, that releasing a non-native species into a new environment might produce unintended negative consequences, was not enough. In 1833, European Red Foxes were 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 out-competed 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: in 2016, researchers documented that some Red Foxes had learned how to climb trees in search of baby koalas and other unsuspecting creatures.

The Death Row Baseball Team and Other Odd Episodes in History
Churchill, Truman, and Stalin at the Potsdam Conference. Encyclopedia Britannica

10. History’s Biggest Misunderstanding?

The United States’ dropping of atomic bombs on Japan might have been the result of a tragic misunderstanding resulting from a translation error. There is a myth that the atomic bombing of Japan was unnecessary because Japan was about to surrender. Supposedly, the Allies simply had to blockade Japan, and the Japanese government would have given in. That might have been true if the war had been confined to the Japanese home islands, where the Japanese could have been isolated. Unfortunately, that was not the case.

At war’s end Japan still held an extensive empire in the Pacific and Asia, in which hundreds of millions were forced to endure a brutal occupation. Additionally, millions of Japanese soldiers were still fighting Allied forces in China, Burma, and in the Pacific. Whether or not the Japanese homeland was blockaded, the war still went on beyond Japan. Also, the Japanese held hundreds of thousands of Allied POWs, and treated them barbarically.

The Death Row Baseball Team and Other Odd Episodes in History
Fat Man, the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki. Wikimedia

9. Japanese Leaders’ Stubbornness Sets the Stage

Continuation of the war came at a cost. Every single day that the war dragged on was another day in which millions suffered, and in which thousands more became casualties. In the meantime the Japanese government, run by militarists hopped up on bushido and machismo, vowed to fight to the end. So America correctly saw Japan as a formidable foe that was inflicting significant harm every day, and that would continue to do so indefinitely if not stopped.

In a nutshell, Japan was a menace that needed putting down, and the sooner the better. However, a simple mistake in translation might have determined when and how the US went about putting Japan down, and led to the decision to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As such, it might have been the most momentous translation mistake in history.

The Death Row Baseball Team and Other Odd Episodes in History
Translation of a leaflet dropped on Japanese cities after the atomic bombing of Japan. Harry S. Truman Library

8. What’s In a Word?

The tragic misunderstanding began with the Proclamation Defining Terms for Japanese Surrender, also known as the Potsdam Declaration, which was issued by the Allies on July 26th, 1945. America, which had successfully tested the atomic bomb ten days earlier, along with her allies, issued a blunt ultimatum, warning Japan that if it did not surrender, it would face “prompt and utter destruction“.

The terms were hotly debated within the Japanese government. Subsequently, Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki stated that Japanese policy towards the Potsdam Declaration would be one of “mokusatsu“. That Japanese word meant that he had received the message, and was giving it serious consideration. Unfortunately, Japanese is a subtle language, in which the same word could convey multiple meanings. Another meaning for mokusatsu is to “contemptuously ignore”, and that was the meaning that translators gave President Harry Truman. 10 days later, an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.

The Death Row Baseball Team and Other Odd Episodes in History
The McMartin Preschool. New York Times

7. When Fears of Satanism Led to Hysteria

Paranoia over Satanism and satanic practices swept America in the 1980s. Nowhere was that more evident than in the child abuse hysteria surrounding an otherwise unremarkable California preschool. It began in 1983, when Ray Buckley, an employee of the McMartin preschool in Manhattan Beach, California, was accused by a mentally unstable woman of raping her child. The accuser added that people in the preschool had sex with animals; that Ray Buckey’s mother and preschool owner Peggy McMartin had perforated a child under the arm with a power drill; and that “Ray flew in the air”.

Police were skeptical, but they nonetheless sent a letter to other McMartin parents, asking them to question their children about abuse at the school. As parents talked to their children and other parents, other allegations of sexual abuse began trickling in. Soon, the accusations had turned into a flood of wild, weird, and increasingly incredible stuff that stretched credulity amidst a mass hysteria of false accusations.

The Death Row Baseball Team and Other Odd Episodes in History
Ray Buckey and his mother Peggy McMartin at their trial. How Stuff Works

6. Incompetence and Prejudice Led to Tragedy

Tales of the goings on in the McMartin preschool kept growing ever more bizarre. So social workers were brought in to gather more information. Between incompetence and leading questions, the children’s accusations grew steadily wilder and weirder. In addition to being molested by Ray Buckey and his mother Peggy McMartin, the children alleged satanic rites, during which they were forced to drink the blood of a baby that was sacrificed in church.

The kids also said that they saw witches fly, and that they had been abused in a hot air balloon and in (nonexistent) tunnels beneath the preschool. One child even claimed to have been sexually molested by actor Chuck Norris. Other children added that, after being abused in secret rooms, they were flushed down toilets, then cleaned up and presented to their parents.

The Death Row Baseball Team and Other Odd Episodes in History
Acquitted defendant Peggy McMartin. Associated Press

5. Paranoia Meets Political Opportunism

The McMartin preschool accusations were fantastic, but they were still believed. At the time, America was gripped by widespread fears of ritual sexual abuse of children, connected in some way to satanic worship and dark magic rites. With elections drawing near, ambitious Los Angeles District Attorney Ira Reiner sought to capitalize on the mounting public hysteria. So he slapped Ray Buckey and his mother Peggy McMartin with 208 counts of child molestation.

Mother and son were arrested in 1984, and the investigation lasted until 1987, when they were put through a three year trial that lasted from 1987 to 1990. It was the longest and most expensive criminal trial in American history. It ended with Peggy McMartin acquitted of all charges, while Ray Buckey was acquitted of 52 of 65 charges, with the jury deadlocked on the remaining counts, 10 to 2 in favor of acquittal. Those charges were then dropped, and the mass hysteria and subsequent trial concluded without a single conviction.

The Death Row Baseball Team and Other Odd Episodes in History
Lord Gordon-Gordon. Wikimedia

4. The Gilded Age Crook Who Preyed on the Rich

Nineteenth century Lord Gordon-Gordon was no lord. What he was was a successful British confidence trickster who inveigled large sums out of the unwary rich. His real name and identity are unknown, but he first appears in the record in 1868, when he posed as a “Lord Glencairn” in an attempt to secure an estate in Scotland. He did not get the estate, but he did get £25,000 from some London jewelers before fleeing to the US.

The fugitive ended up in Minnesota, where he posed as Lord Gordon-Gordon. He then convinced the Northern Pacific Railway that he wanted to buy a huge tract of land to settle tenants from his over-populated Scottish estates. The Northern Pacific’s land commissioner ended up spending about $45,000 courting and securing the Scottish Lord as a client, in the belief that he would invest millions in return.

The Death Row Baseball Team and Other Odd Episodes in History
Erie Railroad Company stock. Collectible Stocks and Bonds

3. Rooking a Robber Baron

Lord Gordon-Gordon’s most famous victim was Gilded Age railroad tycoon and robber baron Jay Gould. In 1872, His Lordship convinced Gould that he controlled over 600,000 shares in the Erie Railway. That got Gould’s attention: at the time, he was in a desperate fight with other tycoons to gain control of the Erie Railway

So Gould bribed Lord Gordon-Gordon with $200,000 in cash and $1 million in stock to assign him those shares. By the time Gould realized that he had been conned, Gordon-Gordon had disposed of the cash and sold the stock. The fake lord was put on trial in 1873, but the court granted him bail. He promptly fled to Canada.

The Death Row Baseball Team and Other Odd Episodes in History
Jay Gould. Wikimedia

2. Jay Gould Was Not Into Forgiving and Forgetting

For many months after jumping bail, the fake Lord Gordon-Gordon’s whereabouts were unknown, and his trail went cold. His most prominent victim, Jay Gould, offered a $25,000 reward for the arrest of His Lordship. Eventually, word arrived that the conman was living in Manitoba, Canada.

Gould tried to get him extradited to the US, but Gordon-Gordon convinced the Canadian authorities that the charges against him were false. The fact that His Lordship had offered to buy large tracts of Manitoba – an investment that promised to bring great prosperity to Canada – might have played a role in the Canadian authorities’ reluctance to extradite him.

The Death Row Baseball Team and Other Odd Episodes in History
Jay Gould was not a forgiving man. ThoughtCo

1. Jay Gold’s Thirst For Vengeance Almost Started a War With Canada

An understandably incensed Jay Gould was not about to let things slide and let Lord Gordon-Gordon get away with conning him. The robber baron financed a Minnesota posse that crossed the border into Canada, and kidnapped Gordon-Gordon off his front porch in Manitoba. They plot failed however when the kidnappers were stopped at the border, arrested, and thrown into a Canadian jail. An international incident then ensued, and American newspapers urged an invasion of Canada to free the kidnappers. Eventually, things simmered down, and the Americans were released through diplomacy.

Lord Gordon-Gordon settled down to enjoy his loot, but then in 1874, he was finally identified as the “Lord Glencairn” who had fleeced the London jewelers in 1868 for £25,000. As the Canadian authorities moved to deport him to Britain, Lord Gordon-Gordon, realized that the jig was finally up. Not wishing to spend the rest of his life behind bars, he hosted a farewell party in his hotel room, then shot himself on August 1st, 1874.

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

Agriculture Victoria – Red Fox

Ancient History Encyclopedia – The Roman Funeral

Bright Side – 10 Things Ancient People Did That Would be Totally Weird Today

Cracked – 5 Bonkers Supervillain Plans Real Governments Actually Tried

Daily Beast – What Fueled the Child Sex Abuse Scandal That Never Was?

Daily Mail, September 14th, 2014 – Playing For Time: The Death Row Inmates Who Received Stays of Execution For Every Baseball Game They Won

Encyclopedia Britannica – Al Hakim, Fatimid Caliph

Gonick, Larry – Cartoon History of the Universe: From the Big Bang to Alexander the Great (1990)

Gonick, Larry – Cartoon History of the Universe III: From the Rise of Arabia to the Renaissance (2002)

Guardian, The, December 1st, 2006 – Lawyers Warned Eden That Suez Invasion Was Illegal

Harvey, Brian K. – Daily Life in Ancient Rome: A Sourcebook (2016)

Iter Newsline 196, October 26th, 2011 – “Proyecto Hueumul”: The Prank That Started it All

Kazanjian, Howard, and Enss, Chris – The Death Row All Stars: A Story of Baseball, Corruption, and Murder (2014)

Medical Daily, October 7th, 2016 – The Use of Poop in Medical Treatments Throughout History

Museum of Hoaxes – Lord Gordon-Gordon

New York Post, September 14th, 2014 – The Death Row Inmates Forced to Play Baseball For Their Lives

NSA, (b)(3)-PL 86-36 – Mokusatsu: One Word, Two Lessons

Politico – Congress’ Hare-Brained Scheme to Shoot Rain From the Sky

Rabbit Free Australia – The Rabbit Problem

Smithsonian Magazine, September 4th, 2018 – When the US Government Tried to Make it Rain by Exploding Dynamite in the Sky

Suetonius – The Lives of the Twelve Caesars

Texas Monthly, August, 2003 – Rain of Error

Wikipedia – Death Row History

Yorkshire Post, November 30th, 2016 – How the Suez crisis sank the British empire

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