Costly Historic Mistakes That People Immediately Regretted

Costly Historic Mistakes That People Immediately Regretted

Khalid Elhassan - November 24, 2023

,Costly mistakes have been all too common throughout history. Take the time 20th Century Fox agreed to let George Lucas retain the rights to Star Wars merchandise, in exchange for just a few hundred thousand dollars. The studio had decades to kick itself for that ever since. Or take the medieval African ruler who decided to show off on a pilgrimage to Mecca with epically lavish largesse. It weakened and set the stage for the downfall of what until then had been a prosperous empire. Below are twenty five things about those and other costly mistakes from history.

Costly Historic Mistakes That People Immediately Regretted
Star Wars: A New Hope 1977 movie poster. K-Pics

20th Century Fox’s Costly Decision to Cede the Rights to Star Wars Merchandise

In 1973, George Lucas directed American Graffiti, which became one of history’s most profitable films. Produced on a $777,000 budget, it earned well more than $200 million in box office and video sales by 2023. After that unexpected success, Lucas decided that his next project would be a “western in space“. The resultant was one of history’s most successful movie franchises. The first film, Star Wars: A New Hope, grossed $775,398,007, which was huge back then. As of 2023, the Star Wars franchise had grossed more than $10 billion in movie sales alone.

Costly Historic Mistakes That People Immediately Regretted
20th Century Fox logo in 1977. Pinterest

With the benefit of hindsight, it seems obvious now that Star Wars was destined for great success. In the 1970s, however, Hollywood was not so sure whether Lucas’s “western in space” would resonate with audiences, or flop at the box office. Various studios passed, before 20th Century Fox finally agreed to make the film. The studio’s execs were still a bit wary about the movie’s prospects, however. So when Lucas offered to give up $500,000 of his director’s fee in exchange for complete ownership of merchandise and licensing fees, the studio accepted. As seen below, it was a costly mistake that 20th Century Fox came to greatly regret.

Costly Historic Mistakes That People Immediately Regretted
Original Kenner Star Wars action figures. K-Pics

An Epically Costly Hollywood Mistake

Once it was released in 1977, Star Wars: A New Hope became a runaway box office success. The original movie generated massive demand for toys and merchandise based on characters and vehicles. George Lucas had contracted with Kenner. Like 20th Century Fox, however, the toy manufacturer had not expected the movie to become so popular, or the resultant demand for tie-in merchandise to be so gargantuan. Demand outran supplies, and seven months after the film hit theaters, Kenner had to sell empty boxes, with certificates redeemable for action figures once they became available.

Costly Historic Mistakes That People Immediately Regretted
Lucasfilm logo. Lucasfilm, Ltd.

By 2012, the first six Star Wars films had produced about $20 billion in merchandise revenue. By 2023, after the release of three more sequels and other standalone films and TV series, that figure had jumped to $32 billion. In what turned out to an epically costly mistake, 20th Century Fox had given up on that lucre when it agreed to cede it all to Lucas in exchange for $500,000. One major studio’s flub turned out to be another major studio’s gain. Decades after 20th Century’s Fox’s costly mistake, Disney bought both that studio and Lucas’s Star Wars empire. So now both the movie the movie and merchandising rights belong to the same owner.

Costly Historic Mistakes That People Immediately Regretted
The Louisiana Territory in the early eighteenth century. Encyclopedia Britannica

The Louisiana Purchase

In 1800, Napoleon Bonaparte made Spain cede the Louisiana Territory to France. It was massive, but Napoleon could do little with it. US settlers were pressing into that territory, and American expansionists clamored for the seizure of New Orleans as a necessary outlet for goods from America’s interior. Indeed, US President Thomas Jefferson had already warned that France’s possession of New Orleans, a port through which 40% of American produce went to market, was seen as a hostile act. Napoleon was hard pressed for money, so he gave the American delegation sent to purchase just a small part of that territory – New Orleans and the surrounding area – a great deal.

Costly Historic Mistakes That People Immediately Regretted
American negotiators wanted to buy the small part of the Louisiana Territory, shade din blue, for $10 million, but Napoleon tossed in all the rest, shaded in dark green, for an extra $5 million. K-Pics

For just that region, US negotiators were willing to offer up to $10 million. To their surprise, Napoleon offered to sell not just New Orleans and its environs, but for an extra $5 million, he would toss in all of France’s 828,000-square-mile territory. So for just $15 million (about $350 million in 2023 dollars), or less than three cents an acre, America ended up with the bargain of the millennium. France did not even get the full $15 million. Desperate for cash, Napoleon struck an early payment deal with the bankers who brokered the purchase, and walked away with only $9.4 million. The bankers, by contrast, collected more than $23 million by the time they received the final payment, including interest, from the US Treasury in 1823.

Costly Historic Mistakes That People Immediately Regretted
Jin Dynasty court ladies. Wikimedia

Making Fun of a Woman’s Age Can be a Costly Mistake

China’s Jin Dynasty Emperor Xiaowu (362 – 396) ascended the throne when he was ten-years-old. For the first few years of his reign, the realm was governed by regents. When he was thirteen, he wed a sixteen-year-old, who was either a lush or became one after the wedding, and drank heavily until her death five years later. Xiaowu himself was no stranger to the bottle. He partied and boozed it up, and left governance to his advisers. Xiaowu did not remarry after he became a widower, but he did have numerous concubines. Of those, his favorite was the Honored Lady Zhang. One time while drunk at a party, he joked about the then-thirty-year-old Zhang’s years: “Based on your age, you should yield your position. I want someone younger“. It proved a costly joke.

Lady Zhang did not think it was funny. Her status and power depended on her relationship to the emperor, and she would lose it all if he ditched her. She also seethed at the public humiliation. She kept her cool at the party, and got her revenge later that night. When Xiaowu passed out drunk as he often did, Lady Zhang escorted him to his chambers. She bribed the emperor’s guards to look the other way, then had her maids suffocate and strangle him to death. Lady Zhang claimed that the emperor had died in his sleep, but the truth came out soon enough. Luckily for her, few cared. Xiaowu had been dissolute, and caused his courtiers more trouble than he was worth. They swiftly appointed a child emperor in his place, and ruled as regents.

Costly Historic Mistakes That People Immediately Regretted
The Hotel New World building. YouTube

A Costly Cost-Cutting Catastrophe

The Lian Yak Realty Company began construction in 1969 of a six floor building at the corner of Serangoon and Owen roads in Singapore. It was completed in 1971, and housed the New Serangoon Hotel. The new establishment had an inauspicious start. In 1975, the hotel made headlines when 35 guests had to be hospitalized because of a carbon monoxide leak. Despite the bad press, the hotel recovered, changed names, and resumed operations. By the 1980s, the building housed a branch of the Industrial & Commercial Branch on the first floor, and a night club on the second floor. The other four floors were occupied by the 67-room New World Hotel. Things continued normal, and 11:25 AM on March 15th, 1986, when out of the blue, in less than a minute, the building collapsed.

Not a single wall or column were left standing, and the entire structure was reduced to rubble. The cause was the realty company’s cost-cutting at the design phase. It hired a cheap but incompetent architect, and cheap but incompetent engineers. They screwed up basic design and construction calculations. It was a costly mistake. The Hotel New World failure was one of the worst disasters in post-WWII Singapore. Initial rescue efforts were hampered by the fact that the government lacked personnel trained or equipped to deal with such a situation. Fortunately, some foreign tunneling experts were building a subway at the time, and they were sent in to spearhead the rescue.

Costly Historic Mistakes That People Immediately Regretted
Wreckage of the Hotel New World. Pinterest

Penny-Pinching Turned Out to be Pretty Costly

The Hotel New World disaster killed 33 people. Another 17 were pulled out of the debris. Subsequent investigation revealed that the collapse was caused by incompetent architectural design: the building lacked what is known as a dead load foundation. Building designs have to account for two “loads”. One is the live load: the weight of the people and furniture and other things inside a building. The other is the dead load: the weight of the building itself. In a costly screwup, the Hotel New World’s design only accounted for the live load. As investigators discovered, the collapse was inevitable. The edifice was built in accordance with incompetent architectural designs. Structural plans had been drawn up by unqualified draftsmen named Shum Cheong Heng and Leong Shui Lung.

Costly Historic Mistakes That People Immediately Regretted
Mr Leong, the unqualified draftsman who drew the plans for the Hotel New World building. Singapore Press Holdings

They did not factor in the dead load – the weight of the actual building. Leong then took his incompetent plans, along with a recommendation for an architect, Ee Hoong Khoon, to Lian Yak Realty, which built the hotel. Khoon failed to spot – or ignored – the draftsmen’s basic design flaw. A flaw that was exacerbated by the addition on the roof of four commercial air conditioning condenser units, a water tank, two storage water heaters, and a cooling tower. Lian Yak Realty’s director, Ng Khoon Lim, personally managed the construction. He was among the dozens killed in the collapse. In the aftermath, Singapore set out to avoid such costly screw-ups in the future. The authorities tightened up inspections, and required proprietors to more rigorously review building plans, test structural materials, and supervise structural works.

Costly Historic Mistakes That People Immediately Regretted
Han van Meegeren. BBC

Herman Goering’s Costly Confidence in a Conman

Han van Meegeren, a Dutch artist of moderate acclaim, found himself entangled in a web of intrigue shortly after World War II, accused of aiding the Nazis in pillaging the cultural heritage of the Netherlands. Facing charges of treason for allegedly supplying valuable paintings by Dutch masters to Hitler’s deputy, Hermann Goering, including a previously unknown Vermeer titled “Christ With the Adulteress,” van Meegeren opted for an unconventional defense. Rather than facing the death penalty, he revealed a shocking truth – every masterpiece he sold to Goering was, in fact, a meticulously crafted forgery. His admission marked the beginning of a desperate attempt to prove his skills as a forger, choosing imprisonment for his artifice over the gallows for treason.

Van Meegeren’s artistic journey began in 1914, culminating in his graduation from art school and subsequent work as an assistant art professor. However, by the late 1920s, his traditional style fell out of favor with critics, who dismissed him as an unoriginal artist. Spurred by a desire for vindication, he embarked on a mission to demonstrate his prowess by creating a forgery so convincing that even the most discerning critics couldn’t distinguish it from the works of the Dutch Golden Age. His masterpiece, “The Supper at Emmaus,” painted in the style of Vermeer, not only fooled renowned art historians but also fetched a considerable sum in today’s dollars. Undeterred by war and Nazi occupation, van Meegeren continued his forgery enterprise, eventually selling the infamous “Christ With the Adulteress” to Goering. Unraveling the truth in the aftermath of the war, van Meegeren’s forgeries transformed him from a pariah into an unexpected national hero, as he skillfully conned the Nazis and saved his own life in the process.

Costly Historic Mistakes That People Immediately Regretted
Sir Francis Drake. Biography

Francis Drake’s Plate

English seaman Francis Drake landed on the west coast of North America in 1579. A contemporary aboard his ship wrote that Drake left behind a plate to commemorate the event, and to claim the region in the name of Queen Elizabeth. It was long theorized that Drake must have landed in California. In the early twentieth century, however, scholarly research supported the contention that Drake had probably landed further up the coast, somewhere in the Northwest. Historian and University of California Professor Herbert Eugene Bolton, a huge Drake fan, was wedded to the notion that the famous seadog had landed in California. His deep conviction proved costly, when he let it override reasonable skepticism.

Costly Historic Mistakes That People Immediately Regretted
Route of Drake’s circumnavigation of the globe, and that of the earlier Magellan expedition. Encyclopedia Britannica

A brass plate was discovered in 1936, that read: “BEE IT KNOWNE VNTO ALL MEN BY THESE PRESENTS. IVNE. 17. 1579. BY THE GRACE OF GOD AND IN THE NAME OF HERR MAIESTY QVEEN ELIZABETH OF ENGLAND AND HERR SVCCESSORS FOREVER, I TAKE POSSESSION OF THIS KINGDOME WHOSE KING AND PEOPLE FREELY RESIGNE THEIR RIGHT AND TITLE IN THE WHOLE LAND VNTO HERR MAIESTIEES KEEPING. NOW NAMED BY ME AND TO BEE KNOWNE V(N) TO ALL MEN AS NOVA ALBION. G. FRANCIS DRAKE“. It was taken to Professor Bolton, who was thrilled that evidence of Drake’s landing in California had finally been found. The plate became a sensation. Copies were sold as souvenirs, presented to Queen Elizabeth II, and its photos appeared in textbooks. Unfortunately, as seen below, the plate was a fake – a practical joke that got out of hand.

Costly Historic Mistakes That People Immediately Regretted
Drake’s Plate. San Francisco Gate

Was It Really Drake’s Plate?

Professor Bolton had gone on and on about Drake and his stopover in California for years. So much, that some associates with whom he congregated at a fraternal organization named E Clampus Vitus, decided to have some fun at his expense. They bought a brass sheet at a shipyard, had it cut, and hammered the letters into it with a chisel. In 1933, they left it in a trail frequented by Bolton, with plans to arrange for him to “discover” it. Unfortunately, somebody else stumbled upon the plate first, took it, forgot it in his car for a few weeks, and eventually tossed it on the side of the road few miles away. There, it was rediscovered three years later by a passerby. Before the pranksters knew it, their practical joke had spun out of control.

The plate’s authenticity was confirmed by the California Historical Society. It was displayed at the Smithsonian, international expositions, and kept in Berkley’s Bancroft Library. Professor Bolton went to his grave in 1958, convinced that Drake’s landing in California had been conclusively proven. In the 1970s, the plate was subjected to modern analysis, which revealed it was a fake. It was too pure to have been made in Elizabethan England, and contained trace metals of modern American brass. It was too smooth to have been hammered by hand like brass plates were in the 1500s, and must have been made with modern rolling equipment. The edges were cut with a precision achievable only with modern tools. And the clincher: the pranksters had placed the logo of their fraternal organization on the back of the plate, in fluorescent paint visible under a black light.

Costly Historic Mistakes That People Immediately Regretted
Conclusion of the Red Wedding. HBO

The Decision to Accept Dinner Invites in Historic Scotland Was Often Costly

Scottish politics throughout history has been a tumultuous blend of ever-shifting alliances among the country’s elites, characterized by rebellions, murders, assassinations, and a complex web of betrayals. This historical chaos, likened to a real-life Game of Thrones minus the magic and dragons, served as inspiration for George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. Notably, the infamous Red Wedding in Martin’s narrative, where the Starks are treacherously slaughtered at a feast, draws inspiration from two dark events in Scottish history: the Glencoe Massacre of 1692 and the Black Dinner of 1440. Both instances involved guests falling victim to their hosts’ betrayal, mirroring the brutal and dramatic elements of Martin’s fictional narrative.

The Black Dinner of 1440, a particularly notorious betrayal in Scottish history, unfolded as a sinister plot against the powerful Earls of Douglas. Three noblemen—William Crichton, Sir Alexander Livingston, and James Douglas—conspired against the Douglas family, inviting the late earl’s sons to dine with the young King James I at Edinburgh Castle. In a grievous miscalculation, the Douglas brothers accepted the invitation, only to be confronted with a black bull’s head, symbolizing death, mid-dinner. Violating the rules of hospitality, the brothers were seized, accused of treason, subjected to a mock trial, and ultimately beheaded. As Martin reflected on the historical inspirations behind the Red Wedding, he emphasized that reality often surpassed fiction in its portrayal of ruthless betrayal and violence.

Costly Historic Mistakes That People Immediately Regretted
Mansa Musa’s pilgrimage to Mecca was lavish and extremely costly. Look and Learn

Costly Splurging That Ruined an Empire

Sometime circa 1226, the Mali Empire was founded in West Africa. It became famous for its wealth, derived derived from huge gold deposits, ivory, salt, and slaves. Early rulers piled up the gold, until Mansa Musa ascended the throne circa 1312, and began to splurge. His most lavish spree occurred when he decided to make the hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca, about 2700 miles away, and showcase his magnificence en route. Musa’s procession included 60,000 men, clad in expensive silk and brocade. Heralds were dressed in even more expensive silks and carried gold staffs, while 12,000 slaves bore four pounds of gold each. More wealth was borne on eighty camels, each with about three hundred pounds of gold dust. As they trekked across the Sahara and savannah, Musa freely handed out gold to the poor along the way.

He generously donated to cities en route, and reportedly built a mosque every Friday. When he reached Cairo, he was fleeced by merchants who exploited his ignorance of prices. His costly purchases there caused prices to skyrocket, inflation ravaged Egypt for years afterwards. Musa wanted to showcase his wealth, and he succeeded. A contemporary described his pilgrimage as “a lavish display of power, wealth, unprecedented by its size and pageantry“. However, Mansa Musa’s lavish pilgrimage turned out to be a costly mistake that nearly ruined his realm and set it on a steep decline. For generations, the Mali Empire had been known for its wealth. Two decades after Musa’s pilgrimage, medieval traveler Ibn Battuta visited Mali, and described it as poor. It fell to the neighboring Songhay Empire a few years later.

Costly Historic Mistakes That People Immediately Regretted
Juan Peron in the 1950s. Wikimedia

Argentina’s Energy Revolution

For a brief moment in the mid-twentieth century, Argentina was about to become the world’s greatest energy giant. Or at least, that was what many people were led to believe. In the spring of 1951, newspapers around the world carried sensational news: 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. Peron 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. However, thermonuclear fusion was advanced technology that neither the US nor USSR had mastered at the time. So the idea that Argentina, then a rural country of fewer than sixteen million people, had achieved what neither global superpower had, baffled many. How had Argentina pulled off such a feat? The answer was that it had not. The Argentine president had trusted a crank named Ronald Richter, and predictably, the placement of trust in a crank proved costly.

Costly Historic Mistakes That People Immediately Regretted
Ronald Richter, left, with Juan Peron. Questa de Ciencia

The Strongman and the Charlatan

Juan Peron was 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 in the Nazi scientist’s idea, so he did. Accordingly, much of Argentina’s budget was diverted to what came to be known as the Huemul Project, to build a massive compound for Richter on Huemul Island, in an Andean lake.

It was a costly mistake that backfired. 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. Peron’s embarrassed government razed most of the lab to the ground, and tried to pretend that the whole thing had never happened. After Richter was released from prison, he settled down to become a chicken farmer. He insisted to his dying days that his idea had been practical, and that he had mastered nuclear fusion.

Costly Historic Mistakes That People Immediately Regretted
The enslavement of Native Americans. Wikimedia

The Reformer Who Accidentally Supercharged Slavery

Spanish historian and missionary Bartolome de las Casas (1484 – 1566) devoted his life to protesting the mistreatment of Native Americans by Europeans. In his efforts to do that, he developed concepts that sped up the enslavement of millions of black Africans. A social reformer, Las Casas decried the enslavement of New World natives and the horrific cruelties to which they were subjected. In the process, he pioneered ideas that led to the concept of modern human rights. He got there in a roundabout way. Las Casas sailed to the New World as a layman in 1502, and settled in Hispaniola – modern day Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Las Casas was fine with enslaving Native Americans at first, when he was granted and encomiendai, or hacienda, worked by enslaved locals. He even joined military expeditions to capture more natives for enslavement. Eventually, his conscience bothered him. Las Casas became a priest, renounced his hacienda and slaves, called for an end to the encomienda system, and began to advocate for Native American rights. He saw the treatment of natives by Europeans as illegal and immoral, and in 1515 petitioned the authorities to protect the indigenous population. Until his death in 1566, he tirelessly petitioned and wrote extensively in a bid to end the mistreatment and enslavement of the natives.

Costly Historic Mistakes That People Immediately Regretted
Bartolome de las Casas. Encyclopedia Britannica

An Idea That Proved Costly to Millions of Black Africans

In his bid to help New World natives, Las Casas advanced an argument that backfired disastrously, and proved horrifically costly to upon millions of Old World Africans. He called for the enslavement of Africans instead of Native Americans. He reasoned that Africans were fitter and more resistant to the Old World diseases that decimated Native Americans. Las Casas’ argument introduced the then-revolutionary idea of slavery based on race, rather than the ancient and medieval slavery based on war and conquest.

Until then, ancient Greeks, Romans, and their medieval European successors, had justified slavery based on the right of conquest. It was a race-neutral justification: those defeated in war and conquered could be enslaved. Caveats were sometimes carved out, such as the Spanish government’s prohibition of the enslavement of fellow Catholics. Conquered Muslims, Protestants, and pagans could be enslaved, regardless of their race, but not defeated Catholics. Nor could conquered non-Catholics who agreed to convert to Catholicism be enslaved. As seen below, the results of the concept introduced by Las Casas were catastrophically costly for millions.

Costly Historic Mistakes That People Immediately Regretted
Slave ship diagram, depicting the manner in which its human cargo was packed to maximize profits. Encyclopedia Virginia

An Attempt to do Good that Led to Great Evil

Las Casas gave the Spanish, and later the rest of Europe, a new and novel justification to enslave other human beings: their race. In this conception, Africans were marked out as fit for enslavement because they were Africans, period. Las Casas eventually called for the abolition of all slavery. By then, however, the cat was out of the bag. Europeans embraced his original idea of race as justification for slavery, and ignored his later retraction. The result was the transatlantic African slave trade.

Costly Historic Mistakes That People Immediately Regretted
A 1529 illustration depicting an enslaved black African in the New World. Origins

It lasted for almost four hundred years, from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries. Twelve to fifteen million Africans were sent to the New World for a life of slavery that that was often dark, cruel, brutal, and short. At least for those who survived the horrific Middle Passage from Africa to the Americas, in which millions perished. That was just the tip of the iceberg. For every single African who boarded a slave ship, up to five more perished in the violence that surrounded the capture of slaves and their transportation to the coasts and slave ships.

Costly Historic Mistakes That People Immediately Regretted
Coca-Cola let slip away the chance to buy out its biggest rival. K-Pics

Coca-Cola’s Most Costly Mistake

Pepsi was created in 1893, and for decades, remained a niche drink with a tiny market. It went unnoticed by Coca-Cola, and stood no chance of challenging the soft drink giant. Then in the 1920s, Charles Guth, president of candy manufacturer Loft Inc., asked Coca-Cola for a discount on its syrup, which was used in some of his retail stores’ soda fountains. Coca-Cola refused, so when Pepsi entered bankruptcy in 1923, Guth bought it for $10,500 (equivalent to about $190,000 in 2023), and had chemists rework its formula to come as close to Coke as possible. Over the following decade, Pepsi-Cola was offered to the Coca-Cola Company for purchase on various occasions, but the soda giant declined the offer each time. It was a costly mistake that Coca-Cola came to regret.

Guth turned Pepsi around within two years, and made it a profitable enterprise. By 1936, Pepsi was the second largest soda company, behind only Coca-Cola, with sales of half a billion bottles a year. It was right around then that Loft Inc. sued Guth for breach of fiduciary duty, and took Pepsi from him in 1939. Loft focused on Pepsi, and spun off its non-soda businesses in 1941. The brand continued to grow, and eventually merged with Frito Lay in 1965, to become PepsiCo. That new company went on to finally eclipse Coke in sales in the 1980s, and in 2005, PepsiCo surpassed the Coca-Cola Company in market value.

Costly Historic Mistakes That People Immediately Regretted
Late Han China, fractured in warlord-ruled statelets. Wikimedia

The Man Who Flubbed the Last Chance to Reunify China

China was ruled by the Han Dynasty from 202 BC to 220 AD. It fell into serious decline in its last decades. Uprisings, such as the Yellow Turban Rebellion, swept the country, and the imperial armies failed to put them down. In what turned out to be a costly mistake, the government issued a call for help that was answered by regional strongmen, who raised their own forces to fight the rebels. They crushed the rebellions, but now with private armies under their command, turned into warlords who posed an even greater threat to the Han government. The new warlords fought amongst themselves, and the imperial government was unable to control the chaos it had unleashed.

Costly Historic Mistakes That People Immediately Regretted
Cao Cao. Wikimedia

China was split into independent fiefdoms ruled by warlords, and the emperors were reduced to figureheads and puppets. Eventually, a warlord Cao Cao (alternatively, Tsao Tsao) came to the fore. Cao Cao proved himself a ruthlessly capable general and politician. He defeated the warlords of northern China, and reunited it in the emperor’s name. That done, he turned his turned his attention to southern China. With a massive army that he claimed numbered more than 800,000 men, he marched to defeat his main remaining rivals, southern warlords Liu Pei and Sun Quan, and complete the reunification of China. As seen below, it ended in a shambolic defeat.

Costly Historic Mistakes That People Immediately Regretted
The Battle of Red Cliffs. Rebellion Research

Cao Cao’s Costly Mistake

Cao Cao exaggerated his army’s size to intimidate his foes: modern estimates put his forces at around 250,000 men. It was still a massive host that greatly outnumbered his enemies, whose combined forces were no more than 50,000 men. With the deck heavily stacked in his favor, Cao Cao arrived at the Yangtze River, key waterway of southern China. There, he assembled a riverine fleet to assist his operations. The northern warlord and his men were unfamiliar with naval warfare, however. Like his army, his navy greatly outnumbered the southerners, but unlike his army, it lacked experience. Cao Cao’s foes exploited that at the Battle of Red Bluff, 208 AD, and sent a secret agent to set him up for failure. He persuaded the northern warlord to chain his ships together to increase their stability, and reduce his men’s seasickness.

Next, a southern admiral offered to defect with his ships. Cao Cao believed him, and arrangements were made to welcome the defectors. Unbeknownst to Cao Cao, the “defecting” vessels had been converted into fire ships filled with flammable materials. Skeleton crews sailed them close to the northern fleet, set them alight, then escaped in small boats. The wind carried them to Cao Cao’s chained fleet, whose immobilized ships, unable to maneuver and escape, were destroyed in a massive inferno. He was forced into a retreat that soon became a rout, in which most of his gigantic army was destroyed. That ended attempts to reunify China, which split into three kingdoms.

Costly Historic Mistakes That People Immediately Regretted
Whiskey warehouse on fire in Dublin. Fire Call

A Costly Booze Blaze

The stereotype of the Irish love of whiskey (spelled with an “e” – whisky spelled without an e is Scottish), or more like their excessive love of whiskey, is a longstanding one. It has served as joke fodder for centuries. However, there was one tragicomic episode in the nineteenth century – more tragic than comic – when that lazy stereotype came to blazing life. It took place on the night of June 18th, 1875, when the streets of Dublin were transformed into rivers of flaming whiskey.

An inferno that became known as the Great Dublin Whiskey Fire began in a warehouse that stored 5,000 hogsheads. They contained more than 315,000 US gallons of whiskey. The giant barrels began to explode, and before anybody knew it, a river of fiery whiskey raced through Dublin’s streets. Thirteen people perished, and many more were hospitalized. None of the fatalities were caused by the fire. Instead, as seen below, they resulted from alcohol poisoning, as greedy sots committed a fatally costly mistake when they rushed to lap up the fiery booze from the streets.

Costly Historic Mistakes That People Immediately Regretted
Dubliners drinking flaming whiskey streams. L’illustration Journal Universel

Rivers of Burning Booze

Sometime around 8PM on the night of June 18th, 1875, fire was detected at a liquor warehouse. Whiskey is highly flammable, and before long, the whole place was a raging inferno, as whiskey barrels burst and their contents further fueled the blaze. As The Irish Examiner put it: “The burning whiskey poured literally in torrents from the doors and windows of the burning pile, and rushed down Mill-street and the other streets of the locality in flaming and lava like streams“. Entire blocks went up in flames. To intensify the hellish scene, nineteenth century cities were full of animals, and many of them caught on fire. As residents fled for their lives, pigs, donkeys, goats, and cows ran around ablaze, and added their piteous screams to the roar of the flames.

Many Dubliners saw opportunity amidst the disaster: free whiskey! Per a contemporary newspaper: “It is stated that caps, porringers, and other vessels were in great requisition to scoop up the liquor as it flowed from the burning premises, and disgusting as it may seem, some fellows were observed to take off their boots and use them as drinking cups“. Others scooped up whiskey with their cupped hands, and drank themselves senseless. That proved costly, because it was not finished whiskey that flowed in the streets, but undrinkable industrial alcohol that had yet to be treated. Dozens were hospitalized for alcohol poisoning, and thirteen died. The disaster even claimed dogs. One canine lapped whiskey on the street, and snapped. It invaded a house and attacked its owner, who had to defend himself with an iron bar, then ran upstairs and leapt to its death from a window.


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

California History, Vol. 81, No. 2 (2002) – Who Made Drake’s Plate? Hint: It Wasn’t Francis Drake

Centre for Scottish Culture, University of Dundee – Scottish History at a Glance: The Black Dinner of 1440

CNN – ‘Game of Thrones’ Author George R.R. Martin: Why He Wrote the Red Wedding

Cracked – 13 of the Most Expensive Mistakes in History

Curtin, Philip D. – The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census (1969)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Bartolome de Las Casas

Encyclopedia Britannica – Musa I of Mali

Fang Xuanling – The Book of Jin

Gonick, Larry – The Cartoon History of the Universe II, From the Springtime of China to the Fall of Rome (1994)

Goody Feed – 5 Facts About 1986’s Hotel New World Collapse that S’Poreans Probably Didn’t Know Of

Ha’artez, March 7th, 2013 – Con Artist: The True Story of a Master Forger

Heritage Daily – The Black Dinner: An Event that Inspired the ‘Red Wedding’ in Game of Thrones

History Collection – 20 Mistakes the Axis Powers Made in WWII

Howard, James Quay – History of the Louisiana Purchase (1902)

Irish Examiner, June 21st, 1875 – The Great Fire in Dublin. Thirty Five Houses Destroyed

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

Motley Fool – How Coke Helped Create Pepsi, and Other Historic Market Moments

New Scientist, February 3rd, 1983 – When the Argentines Tamed Fusion

NPR – How Mediocre Dutch Artist Cast The Forger’s Spell

Phasr – The Star Wars Merchandise Empire: How George Lucas Revolutionized Pop Culture Merch

Science Beat – Drake’s Plate: The End of the Mystery?

Singapore Infopedia – Hotel New World Collapse

Stewart Society – The Black Dinner

Washington Post, January 25th, 2022 – Miss Manners: Why Is It Taboo to Ask a Woman Her Age?

World History Encyclopedia – Battle of Red Cliffs