Poorly Thought Out Plans that Went Bad Very Quickly

Poorly Thought Out Plans that Went Bad Very Quickly

Khalid Elhassan - November 19, 2019

For every good idea that changes things for the better, there are many, many, many more that should have been aborted. Unfortunately, sometimes – indeed, way too times – the latter, poorly thought out plans, end up taken seriously and get acted upon. The results are often spectacular – and not in a good way. Following are twenty things about poorly thought out decisions, that produced negative consequences that the planners neither wanted nor anticipated.

Poorly Thought Out Plans that Went Bad Very Quickly
Robert G. Dryenforth. The House History Man

20. The US Bombed the Sky to Make it 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 clouds could be forced to yield rain via loud noises. 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“. Legit scientists and scholars scoffed at the notion, 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.

With no serious scholars or scientists willing to risk their reputations by having anything to do with something so wacky, a patent lawyer named Robert G. Dyrenforth 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 pyrotechnic display. 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, but Dyrenforth claimed it did. His fabrication was foiled, however, by a meteorologist who observed the experiment, and published a scathing report about it in Nature.

Poorly Thought Out Plans that Went Bad Very Quickly
Ronald Richter, left, with Juan Peron. Questa de Ciencia

19. Argentina Invests A Fortune in a Mad Nazi Scientist’s Batty Fusion Power Plan

In the spring of 1951, newspapers all 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. 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“. However, thermonuclear fusion was advanced technology that neither the US nor USSR had mastered at the time. So how could Argentina, then a rural country of fewer than 16 million people, achieve what neither global superpower could? The answer was: it could not.

Poorly Thought Out Plans that Went Bad Very Quickly
Remnants of the main reactor building on Huemel Island. Mapio

It turned out that 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 BS, but Peron wanted to believe, so he did. Thus, a big chunk of Argentina’s budget was poured into building a massive compound for Richter on Huemul Island, in an Andean lake. 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 days that he had mastered nuclear fusion.

Poorly Thought Out Plans that Went Bad Very Quickly
The Inland Customs Line, incorporating the Great Hedge of India. Wikimedia

18. The 2500 Mile Hedge

Northern India has relatively few sources of salt, and throughout most of history, the region had to import it from elsewhere in the subcontinent. When the British conquered India, they sought to cash in on that by monopolizing salt production, then gouging the natives for all they could get out of them via stringent salt taxes. The salt tax proved hugely unpopular with the Indian public, and protests over its collection helped fuel the rise of Indian nationalism and sowed the seeds of India’s independence movement. More immediately, however, the British had to contend with rampant salt smuggling from southern India, where salt was abundant and salt taxes were low, to northern India, where the opposite was true. So they decided to grow a giant hedge of thorn bushes, stretching across India for thousands of miles.

Known as “The Great Hedge of India”, it was supposed to stretch for 2500 miles, 14 feet wide, 12 feet high, and bristling with thorns. By 1878, the Great Hedge stretched for 1100 miles, but the thorn bushes refused to grow properly, and most of it consisted of dead branches. Still, the British persisted, and eventually grew 500 miles of proper hedge, that was patrolled by 12,000 customs officers. That army of officials had to contend with brush fires, storms, parasitic vines, and pests. It did not stop smugglers, who easily circumvented the Hedge by hacking a way through it, or by simply tossing bags of salt over the barrier to accomplices on the other side. The Great Hedge was abandoned in 1879, when the authorities decided to simply impose and collect the salt tax at the point of manufacture, then have the manufacturers pass it on to buyers.

Poorly Thought Out Plans that Went Bad Very Quickly
An Israeli officer on the east bank of the Suez Canal watches Egyptians on the opposite bank in October of 1967. Historic Images Outlet

17. Penny Pinching Brought Israel to the Brink of Disaster

In 1967’s Six Day War, Israel defeated Egypt and seized the Sinai Peninsula. Thereafter, Egyptians and Israelis glared at each other across the Suez Canal, as years of low-intensity warfare simmered, comprised of artillery exchanges, commando raids, and air attacks. In the meantime, Egypt rebuilt, reorganized, and retrained her military for a rematch that all knew was coming. Years before the attack, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat began running massive military maneuvers near the Suez Canal, in order to accustom the Israelis to large-scale Egyptian troop movements in vicinity of the Sinai. That way, when the time came for the actual attack, the Israelis would be lulled into dismissing its preparations as just another drill.

By mid-1973, however, a highly placed Mossad agent had informed the Israelis of the Egyptian plan of attack. What the Israelis did not know was when the attack would begin. Israel’s small population precluded a large permanent military establishment, so knowing the when was vital. Israel could not afford to mobilize hundreds of thousands of soldiers indefinitely, just to have them ready when the Egyptians finally got around to attacking. Instead, Israel used a small standing military that would get fleshed out in time of war with a rapid mobilization of civilian reservists. However, such mobilizations were highly disruptive and expensive, and the mass of civilians taken from their daily occupations could not be kept in uniform for long.

Poorly Thought Out Plans that Went Bad Very Quickly
Egyptian soldiers celebrate the successful crossing of the Suez Canal in the Yom Kippur War. Reddit

16. In Its Eagerness to Save Money, the Israeli Government Blinded Itself to Warnings of Egyptian Attack

The Egyptians played upon Israel’s reluctance to mobilize. Months before the planned attack, the Egyptians tricked the Israelis into believing that an attack was imminent, causing Israel to declare an expensive and disruptive emergency mobilization. No attack came, and the Israeli government ended up with an egg on its face. Thus, when the Egyptians began preparing for the real attack a few months later, the Israeli government, burned once by a false alarm, was reluctant to call another mobilization. A week before going to war, the Egyptians carried out major military maneuvers near the Suez Canal, during which they called up reservists. Israeli intelligence dismissed it as just another drill. To further lull the Israelis, the Egyptians announced the demobilization of the reservists called up for the “military exercise“, two days before launching their attack.

Reluctant to declare another mobilization, the Israeli government ignored dissenting voices sounding the alarm that Egypt was preparing for actual war. So when the Egyptians attacked across the Suez Canal on October 6th, 1973, Israel was caught off guard and wrong footed. The Israeli Defense Forces sustained high casualties as their forward fortifications were swiftly overrun, and the Egyptians secured a beachhead on the eastern side of the canal. The IDF eventually clawed its way back up, encircled an Egyptian army weeks later, and prevailed in the war. However, their early setbacks and high casualties at war were a direct result of the Israeli government’s attempt to save some money.

Poorly Thought Out Plans that Went Bad Very Quickly
The Hindenburg above New York City. Curiousity

15. Filling an Airship With Flammable Gas Might Not Have Been a Bright Idea

By the mid 1930s, rigid airships filled with hydrogen and, commonly known as Zeppelins, had been flying commercial passengers for more than three decades. Tens of thousands of paying customers had flown over a million miles, in over 2000 flights, without a single injury. Zeppelins’ popularity was soaring, and it was widely assumed that they were the wave of the future. The latest milestone was that of Germany’s Zeppelin Company, whose giant airships flew passengers across the Atlantic in luxury and style, in a mere 60 hours – remarkable for commercial travel back then.

Many predicted that airships would dominate global travel. Then catastrophe struck the Hindenburg, the Zeppelin Company’s flagship and the biggest airship ever built – twice as high and three times as long as a Boeing 747 “Jumbo Jet”. On May 6th, 1937, after an uneventful trans-Atlantic flight, the Hindenburg tried to dock with a mooring mast in Lakehurst, New Jersey, when it suddenly erupted in flames. It took only 37 seconds from when the first spark appeared for the world’s biggest airship to get consumed by fire.

Poorly Thought Out Plans that Went Bad Very Quickly
The Hindenburg Disaster. Time Magazine

14. Hydrogen and the Hindenburg Proved to be a Poor Mix

Of 97 people aboard the Hindenburg when it met with disaster, 35 died, and one more person perished on the ground. The spectacular catastrophe, captured on film and widely disseminated around the world, shattered public confidence in that mode of transport, and brought the airship era to an abrupt end. At the time, the disaster was commonly blamed on sabotage: the Hindenburg was not only the pride of the Zeppelin Company, but also a source of German national pride and a symbol of resurgence under the Nazis. Many were eager to stick it to the Nazis: threatening letters had been received, and a shot was advanced as a plausible source for starting the fire.

Another widely accepted hypothesis pinned the blame on a static spark. Whether an accidental spark or a deliberate shot, the disaster would not have happened if not for the Zeppelin Company’s disastrous decision to fill its airships with highly flammable hydrogen, instead of a less combustible alternative such as helium. If the Hindenburg had used helium, as airships do today, then neither a spark nor a shot could have reduced it to a flaming wreck in less than a minute.

Poorly Thought Out Plans that Went Bad Very Quickly
Japanese soldiers on campaign in China. WW2 Today

13. Japan Miscalculates What Declaring War on the US Meant

1941 saw Japan bogged down in a quagmire of a war in China. It also faced American and British economic sanctions, including an asset freeze that crippled its trade. In one of history’s worst decisions, the Japanese government decided to solve those problems by going to war with the United States. The prelude to that decision was American displeasure with Japanese aggression in China, first by seizing Manchuria in 1931, followed by an outright invasion of China in 1937. Back then, the US had sentimental ties to China, in addition to economic ones, due to decades of American missionary work, and there was a powerful “China Lobby” in America. Japan made things worse in 1940 by seizing French-Indochina, which destabilized the entire region. Aside from further proof of Japanese aggression, it brought Japanese forces uncomfortably close to America’s colonial possessions in the Philippines, and British ones in Malaya and Burma.

The US responded by enacting severe sanctions that bit deep. Until Japan withdrew from China and French-Indochina, America imposed an embargo on the sale of products vital to Japan, particularly oil, and froze Japanese assets in the US. The British and Dutch, whose Dutch East Indies (today’s Indonesia) oil fields fueled Japan’s economy, followed suit. That cost Japan 75% of her overseas trade, and 90% of her oil. The loss of trade was bad enough, but Japan only had enough oil reserves for 3 years of peacetime consumption, or 18 months of wartime consumption. Once the oil reserves ran out, Japan’s economy would simply crash. That presented Japan with a dilemma: bow to the sanctions, or go to war to seize the resources, particularly oil from the Dutch East Indies and rubber from British Malaya, that her economy needed?

Poorly Thought Out Plans that Went Bad Very Quickly
Battleship USS West Virginia sunk and burning at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. In background is the battleship USS Tennessee. History on the Net

12. Japan’s Fatal Misstep

Pride and the fear of losing face led Japan’s rulers to choose war instead of diplomacy. They also feared that they would be reduced to an American client state if they caved: what was to stop the US from coercing Japan with sanctions again in the future? The Japanese hoped for a short war: a few stunning early victories at the outset to bloody the American giant’s nose, and let it know that Japan was serious. They would then seize and establish a defensive perimeter far out into the Pacific and Asia, behind which they would wage a defensive war. Eventually, the Americans, merchants at heart and thus driven by rational cost-benefit calculations, would conclude that the war was not worth the effort, and negotiate a settlement. Things did not turn out that way.

To put in perspective the disparity between Japan and the US, we can compare each country’s aircraft carriers during a mostly naval conflict, in which flattops proved decisive. Japan started the war with 10 aircraft carriers. Including what it started with plus what it produced during the war, Japan had 15 large fleet carriers, 5 light carriers, and 5 escort carriers, known as “baby flattops“. The US started the war with 7 carriers. By the time the conflict was over, it had built an additional 160 carriers. They included 24 fleet carriers capable of carrying 90 to 110 planes; 9 light carriers capable of carrying up to 35 planes, and about 125 escort carriers capable of carrying 24 – 30 planes.

Poorly Thought Out Plans that Went Bad Very Quickly
Exploding whale of Oregon. Oregon Live

11. Getting Rid of a Dead Beached Whale With TNT

In November of 1970, the Oregon State Highway Division not only had a problem on its hands, but a stinking whale of a problem. What to do with a 45-foot, 8-ton sperm whale, whose rotting carcass had washed up on a beach near the small coastal town of Florence, in Lane County, Oregon? Letting nature take its course, and allowing the whale’s carcass to decompose, was one option. However, the good people of nearby Florence were not too keen on spending the next few years enduring the stench of a rotting whale. Nor were they comfortable with the idea of swimming in waters reeking of whale runoff. It had been so long since a dead whale had washed up in the region, that nobody could remember how to get rid of one.

Without a frame of reference, the Highway Division concluded that dragging the behemoth off and burying it was not a good option, because decomposition gasses would destabilize the grave and uncover it. Cutting it up and then burying it would reduce that risk, but nobody could be found willing to chop up the stinking carcass. So the authorities turned to dynamite: 20 cases, or half a ton of it. A military veteran with explosives training happened to be in the area, and he warned that 20 cases of dynamite were way too much. His advice that 20 sticks of dynamite would be enough was ignored by the authorities, who hoped that the blast would disintegrate the whale, with the resulting small pieces getting consumed by scavengers.

Poorly Thought Out Plans that Went Bad Very Quickly
Whale explosion. NPR

10. Blown Up Whale Produces Rotten Blubber Rain

As a Highway Division official told news reporters: “Well, I’m confident that it’ll work. The only thing is, we’re not sure just exactly how much explosives it will take to disintegrate this thing, so the scavengers, seagulls, and crabs and whatnot can clean it up“. Dynamite was buried beneath the whale, primarily on the landward side so most of the carcass would get blown into the ocean. Scores of bystanders had gathered to watch the spectacle, and were moved back about a quarter of a mile away as a safety precaution. The onlookers cheered when the dynamite was detonated at 3:45 PM, on November 12th, 1970. However, their cheers quickly turned into shrieks of panic when it became clear that the authorities had greatly underestimated the blast zone, and the safe distance from it.

A quarter mile turned out to be way too close to the explosion, as everybody and everything within half a mile of the blast got showered with rotting whale detritus. A huge piece of blubber flattened a parked car over a quarter of a mile away, while people and other vehicles were pelted by bits of stinky whale carcass. Miraculously, nobody was seriously hurt by the tons of whale flesh hurled into the air. When the dust settled and rotting whale stopped falling from the sky, dismayed officials discovered that most of the whale had not even budged. As darkness fell, Highway Division crews were back on the scene to bulldoze and bury the remains, as they probably should have done in the first place. If a whale ever washes up near Florence again, the authorities will probably not only remember what to do, but also what not to do.

Poorly Thought Out Plans that Went Bad Very Quickly
A king cobra. Animal Planet

9. Snake Eradication Plan Backfires

In the days of the British Raj, India’s colonial rulers grew concerned by large numbers of venomous cobra snakes infesting the city of Delhi. So the authorities offered a bounty for every dead cobra, payable upon delivery of its skin to designated officials. The plan seemed to be working great, and before long, natives were thronging to the drop-off points, whose store rooms were soon bulging with cobra skins. However, the incentive scheme did not seem to have a noticeable effect on the city’s cobra population. No matter how many cobra skins were delivered to the authorities, Delhi seemed to be just as infested with the deadly snakes.

City officials eventually figured out why: many locals had turned to farming cobras. Since the bounty on the snake skin was greater than the cost of raising a cobra, the British had unintentionally created a new cash crop. When the authorities finally realized what was going on, and how their incentive scheme was being gamed, they canceled the plan, and stopped paying out bounties for cobra skins. That turned out to be their second mistake. Without the bounties, cobra skins and captive cobras were now worthless. So Delhi’s cobra farmers did the economically sensible thing, and released the snakes back into the wild – the “wild” in this case being the city of Delhi. The snake infestation was increased by orders of magnitude, and Delhi wound up with many times more cobras than it had possessed before the authorities launched their ill-advised plan.

Poorly Thought Out Plans that Went Bad Very Quickly
Rat infestation. The Scotsman

8. French Colonial Authorities Repeat British India’s Mistake – With Rats

The British in India were not alone in coming up with poorly thought-out plans that ended up backfiring. The colonial authorities in French Indochina also had a similar, albeit less catastrophic, experience in Hanoi, Vietnam, when they sought to enlist civilians in controlling a rat infestation. Like the British, the French authorities offered bounties for rats, to be paid out upon delivery of their tails. However, colonial officials soon began noticing rats scurrying around the city with no tails.

Unlike the Indians of Delhi, the enterprising Vietnamese of Hanoi did not resort to farming rats. Instead, rat catchers would simply sever their tales, then release them back into the city. That way they could procreate and produce more rats, and thus maintain the rat catchers’ stream of revenue. Both the British in India and the French in Indochina had failed to anticipate that their solution to a problem created a profit motive and a perverse incentive for shrewd actors to worsen the problem.

Poorly Thought Out Plans that Went Bad Very Quickly
Juan Pujol Garcia and his wife. Toronto Star

7. D-Day Succeeded Because the Nazis Trusted a Pathological Fabulist

One of the Second World War’s best-known and most decisive events was the successful Allied D-Day amphibious landings in Normandy on June 6th, 1944. Less known is that much of the operation’s success was owed to an eccentric Spaniard who, out of a simple desire for excitement and adventure, hoaxed the Nazis with fake spying. The hoax grew until it became the centerpiece of the war’s greatest deception operation, and ensured Allied victory on D-Day and in the subsequent Normandy Campaign.

Juan Pujol Garcia (1912 – 1988) hated fascists with a passion, so when WWII began, he decided to help the Allies “for the good of humanity”. He offered his services to British intelligence, but they turned him down. Juan Pujol wanted in on the adventure of war, however, and was determined to get in on the action. So he pretended to be a Nazi-sympathizing Spanish official and offered his services to the Germans. They accepted, and ordered him to Britain, with instructions to recruit a spy network.

Poorly Thought Out Plans that Went Bad Very Quickly
An inflatable Sherman tank of the fictitious First US Army Group (FUSAG), which Juan Pujol Garcia convinced the Germans was real. Wikimedia

6. The Spanish Fabulist Recruits Himself as a Double Spy

The Nazis had wanted Juan Pujol Garcia to report to them from Britain, but instead, he went to Lisbon, Portugal. From there, he simply invented reports about Britain, using content culled from public sources such as newspaper articles, travel guides, and books. He used his active imagination to add color, then sent the reports to his German handlers as if he was writing from Britain. The Germans believed him, and begged for more. So Kiam Pujol made up fictional sub-agents and cited them as sources for more made-up reports. The British, who were intercepting and decoding secret German messages, realized that somebody was hoaxing the Germans. When they discovered it was Juan Pujol, they belatedly accepted his offer of services, gave him the codename GARBO, and sent him to Britain.

In Britain, intelligence agents built upon Juan Pujol’s “network”. They transformed it into an elaborate deception operation that carefully fed the Germans massive amounts of often true but useless information, mixed in with half-truths and falsities. The volume of reports from Juan Pujol and his growing “network” of “sub-agents” led German intelligence to view him as their most successful spy in Britain. It was all building up to D-Day, and that was when British intelligence cashed in on that trust. The goal was to convince the Germans that the Normandy landings were just the first in a series of planned invasions, with an even bigger landing planned for the Pas de Calais.

Poorly Thought Out Plans that Went Bad Very Quickly
Juan Pujol Garcia was decorated by both the Germans and British for his WWII services. Barbara Picci

5. The Allies Cash in on A Fabulist’s Carefully Crafted Fabrications

British intelligence had Pujol send a message alerting the Germans to the invasion a few hours before it began. It was a gamble, but his handlers figured that by the time it worked its way from German intelligence to commanders in the field, the invasion would have already taken place, and the warning would have done the enemy no good. However, it would cement Juan Pujol’s credibility in German minds. British intelligence then went in for the kill. Building upon the years of trust, Juan Pujol informed the Germans that the Normandy landings were diversions, and the real attack would fall upon the Pas de Calais a few weeks later. That, coupled with other deception measures, convinced the Germans. So during the crucial weeks following the D-Day landings, they kept powerful formations in the Pas de Calais, instead of sending them to help destroy the vulnerable Allied beachhead at Normandy.

When the Pas de Calais formations were finally released, the Allies had amassed sufficient forces to defeat the counterattacks, then go on the offensive. In July, 1944, the Allies broke out of the beachhead, then swept across and liberated France within a few months, not stopping until they ran out of fuel at Germany’s border. As to Juan Pujol, he gained the distinction of winning an Iron Cross from Germany, plus a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) from Britain. After the war, he faked his death, then moved to Venezuela. He led an anonymous life until 1984, when he agreed to be interviewed for a book about agent GARBO. The revelation led to Juan Pujol Garcia’s lionization. He was received at Buckingham Palace, and on the 40th anniversary of D-Day, he traveled to Normandy to pay his respects to the dead. He died four years later.

Poorly Thought Out Plans that Went Bad Very Quickly
Destruction of seized alcohol during Prohibition. Tes Teach

4. Moral Crusade Produces an Explosion in Crime

In 1919, Congress passed the National Prohibition Act, which went into effect the following January. It was a bold moral policing experiment, that turned out to be a disastrous decision. Until then, American organized crime as the term is understood today was relatively miniscule. While city gangs existed, they were made up of street hoods whose reach and influence seldom stretched beyond a few city blocks. That changed dramatically, starting on January 16th, 1920, when Prohibition went into effect, banning the manufacture, transport, or sale of alcohol.

Making alcohol illegal did not reduce public demand for booze. What it did was alter societal attitudes, and create an environment of widespread tolerance of crime in order to provide the public with the alcohol it wanted. By making booze illegal, Prohibition took a major American industry that had operated legally until then and gifted it – along with its enormous and now untaxed revenue – to criminals. Relatively well-regulated (and taxed) enterprises that had operated the American alcohol industry were driven out of business, to be replaced by organized crime.

Poorly Thought Out Plans that Went Bad Very Quickly
Detroit gangsters during Prohibition. Pintrest

3. Prohibition Fueled the Rise of Organized Crime

Just like drugs today, the profits from illegal alcohol during Prohibition were astronomical. Overnight, bootlegging became irresistible to criminals across America. Their task was made easier by much of the public, as well as many cops and politicians, who did not see the sale or consumption of alcohol as particularly venal or morally blameworthy. Illegal alcohol’s profits enabled organized crime to increase its other illicit activities, such as racketeering, prostitution, drugs, gun running, and more. The profits also enabled organized crime to lavishly bribe politicians, officials, cops, and judges, and corrupt America’s political and criminal justice systems to failed state levels.

It was a huge boost to organized crime in general, and to Italian organized crime in particular. In Prohibition’s world, Italian gangsters were particularly well positioned to prosper, because they were set apart from other ethnic criminals by their links to the Italian and Sicilian mafia. Thanks to those Old Country connections, ethnic Italian criminals in the US could draw upon a tradition of sophisticated, hierarchical, and disciplined criminal organizations. In addition to an effective model, they also had access to experienced personnel who could readily duplicate the Old Country’s system in the US. By the time Prohibition was repealed in 1933, modern organized crime, and the Italian-American mafia, had become well established and well nigh ineradicably. They remain with us to this day.

Poorly Thought Out Plans that Went Bad Very Quickly
Tony Marino’s speakeasy on Third Avenue. Wikimedia

2. The Murder of Iron Mike – No, Not That One

In June of 1932, in the depths of the Great Depression, Tony Marino, the proprietor of a rundown speakeasy in the Bronx, was in desperate need of money. So he and four acquaintances hatched a plan to murder somebody and collect the life insurance. Working with a corrupt insurance agent, they would take out life insurance policies on one of the habitual drunks frequenting Marino’s establishment. They would then get him to drink himself to death, and collect when he perished. They chose Michael Malloy (1873 – 1933), a homeless Irish immigrant who was an alcoholic and a longtime client of Marino’s, where he often drank on credit until he passed out.

Malloy paid Marino when he could, whenever he drifted into temporary employment, and let the tab run for months whenever he drifted out of employment and was broke. He seemed the perfect mark. After taking out life insurance policies on Malloy, Marino extended him unlimited credit at the speakeasy. The assumption was that Malloy would drink himself to death, but every day, the old Irishman drank all his waking hours without any noticeable decline in his health. So to speed things up, Marino and his partners in crime added antifreeze to their mark’s booze. Old Malloy simply drank it until he passed out, then asked for more when he came to. As seen below, Michael Malloy turned out to be extremely difficult to kill – a toughness that earned him the nicknames “Iron Mike” and “Mike the Durable”.

Poorly Thought Out Plans that Went Bad Very Quickly
A young Michael Malloy, left, and his killers. Io9

1. The Saga of Killing Michael Malloy

Doctoring Michael Malloy’s booze with antifreeze failed to do him in, so Tony Marino and his coconspirators turned to turpentine. Malloy was unfazed. So they switched to horse liniment – basically, liquid Bengay. Malloy drank it down and asked for more. They then added rat poison to the mix. Malloy’s constitution did not notice. Neither oysters soaked in wood alcohol, nor a spoiled sardines sandwich sprinkled with metal shavings did the trick. Figuring that nothing he drank or ate would kill Malloy, the conspirators decided to freeze him to death. One cold winter night, when the temperature dropped below minus 14 Fahrenheit, they waited for Malloy to pass out. When he did, they carried him to a park, dumped him in the snow, and poured 5 gallons of water on his chest to make sure he froze solid. Malloy showed up the next day for his booze on credit.

So Marino and his confederates ran him over with a taxi owned by one of the plotters. All that did was put Malloy in a hospital for three weeks with some broken bones. He reappeared at the speakeasy soon as he was discharged from the hospital. So on February 22nd, 1933, the thoroughly frazzled and exasperated conspirators stuck a gas hose in Malloy’s mouth after he passed out, and turned on the jets. That finally did the trick. The plotters collected on the insurance, but rumors of “Mike the Durable” began making the rounds. When the insurers heard the tales, they contacted police. Malloy’s body was exhumed and reexamined, and the truth came out. The plotters were tried and convicted in 1934. One got a prison sentence, while the rest, including Tony Marino, got the electric chair.


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

Airships Net – Myths About the Hindenburg Crash

Agriculture Victoria – Red Fox

Barnhart, Michael A. ­- Japan Prepares For Total War: The Search For Economic Security (1987)

Cracked – 5 Bonkers Supervillain Plans Real Governments Actually Tried

Diamond, Jared – Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005)

Gizmodo – The Legend of Mike ‘The Durable’ Malloy, History’s Most Stubborn Murder Victim

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

Kershaw, Ian – Hitler 1936-1945: Nemesis (2001)

Live Science, December 27th, 2017 – China’s First Emperor Ordered Official Search For Immortality Elixir

Maniates, Michael, et al The Environmental Politics of Sacrifice (2010)

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

United Nations University – Our World: Systems Thinking and the Cobra Effect

Wikipedia – Juan Pujol Garcia

Wikipedia – Operation Badr

Wikipedia – Inland Customs Line