At the same time that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle began thrilling the world with stories of Sherlock Holmes, Alexandre Lacassagne was solving real-world murders in France, including victims of the French equivalent of Jack the Ripper, but double, because this guy killed at least 11 kids to Jack's five. But Lacassagne wasn't a cop or a detective -- he was a doctor. And when he read stories of the world's favorite detective, he asked one question: "But why does he never perform an autopsy?" Lacassagne was stuuuupid into autopsies.
His mustache was into reaching heaven.
If you are a murderer with a time machine, the era right before Lacassagne joined the Forensic Medicine Department of Lyon University is the place to be. Only two things could get you into jail: a forced confession or witnesses who saw you do the deed. Plus, the prevailing theory of the day was that you could spot a criminal by the shape of his forehead and the length of his arms. So if you didn't go around looking like an ape-man, you could probably get away with murder. Lacassagne disagreed. While treating soldiers during military service in Algeria, for example, the doctor decided that tattoos gave insights into the criminal mind -- so he collected and categorized 2,000 images. Can you imagine what he could have done with Instagram? This guy was so into criminals that he actually invented the field of forensic psychiatry, which is basically just the simple idea of asking "Why? Why would someone slit this person's throat and then pee on him?" No one thought to ask the hard question of "why" before Lacassagne.
More importantly, Lacassagne wasn't afraid to look at dead bodies, no matter how horrifyingly disgusting they were. By studying the movement of insects on a dead body, for example, he could figure out how long the deceased had been decaying. He was the first to realize that blood splatter at the scene of the crime could tell you about the victim's injuries. He was the first to figure out that you could totally put a gun or knife in a dead man's hand before the rigor mortis set in, so the old "make it look like suicide" trick wouldn't work on him. He asked criminals to write about themselves from prison so he could study their minds. Then when they died, he LITERALLY studied their minds.
So when authorities finally caught their "French Ripper," Lacassange was asked to analyze him. Was he too insane to go to the guillotine? Nope, said Lacassagne of the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad man. This guy was what we would now call a psychopath, someone who was totally aware of his actions but lacked empathy or remorse. Only they didn't have a word for psychopaths then, because it didn't exist, so he invented it. Standard scientific procedures for autopsies -- all Lacassagne.
Superhero capes? Lacassagne.
Finally, one year before he died, Alexandre LaKickASSange campaigned for an international agency to work on unsolved crimes. And he got it: It's a little agency called Interpol.
For most of the people on this list, their obsession was something they were insanely good at, like researching words or farting on throw pillows, assuming that entry doesn't get cut. For 19th century British adventurer Henry Wickham, however, failure was a way of life. He was like your weirdo uncle who never quite decided what he wanted to be when he grew up, so he tried everything. One day he's a Foot Locker salesman, the next he's a truck stop hooker with a meth habit and a cabaret gig on the side. The only things Wickham knew for sure were that he didn't want a desk job and he didn't want to live in England. So he tried everything and lived everywhere else.
Including inventing mustache pencil holders.
For example, Wickham wanted to be an adventurer/plantation owner, so he moved his whole family to Brazil in 1871. Not only did his sugar, manioc, and tobacco crops fail as hard as a white girl attempting cornrows, but his workers abandoned him. Oh, and his mother, sister, and brother's mother-in-law all died of jungle disease. He went on to fail at raising sponges, coconuts, cultured pearls, and a fiber called arghan in places as diverse as Australia, New Guinea, and Honduras. After a lifetime of not succeeding, you'd think the guy would have started over and gone to graduate school. His wife even gave him an ultimatum: He had to stop chasing terrible dreams in hot places or she'd leave him. Henry Wickham chose his dreams, and she never saw him again.
So why was this perpetual farmer of failure awarded a knighthood and the acclaim of the British Empire at the end of his life? Because of one big heist that had nothing to do with skill. In 1876, Wickham managed to smuggle 70,000 rubber tree seeds from the jungles of Brazil to the Royal Botanical Garden of London. Of the 70,000, only 1,919 arrived in good condition. Those seeds were cultivated and replanted in rubber plantations all over warmer parts of the British Empire. For the next 37 years, Wickham continued to suck at everything, while those rubber plants grew.
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How did this picture of a milk tree get here?
Beginning in 1913, Britain's rubber yield took over the market, making the haphazard wild trees of the Amazon irrelevant and the rest of the world completely dependent on England's supply to keep the industrial age going. We needed rubber for tires and gaskets and rain boots and rubbers. Who would give us rubbers if not for rubber? To this day, most of our natural rubber comes from the Brazilian rubber tree, but it was harvested from plantations in Asia and stolen by a guy who couldn't grow anything that wasn't on his own face, as hard as he tried.