Everybody's wrong once in a while, like that time we dedicated a whole week to complex predictions about the podcasting industry going under and being replaced by a shadow puppet renaissance. But there's being proven wrong, and then there's getting owned so thoroughly and mercilessly that it feels like a spiteful deity is dunking on you. And these poor bastards experienced just that.
H.L. Hunt became one of the richest men in the world after buying the East Texas Oil Field and discovering all its, well, oil. Amazing how nobody knew about that. It was right there in the name. Anyway, Hunt's sons Nelson, William, and Lamar (yes, the same Lamar Hunt who founded the American Football League and Major League Soccer), were of course also crazy rich. Especially Nelson Bunker Hunt, who became one of the wealthiest men in the world after using his dad's money to discover that Libya also had a ton of oil.
Despite (or perhaps because of) his status as a billionaire, Nelson became an anti-government loon who feared that rising oil prices would lead to an apocalyptic worldwide financial collapse. His plan to safeguard his future? Initially, it was to buy silver. Then it was to buy a lot of silver. Eventually he convinced his brothers to join him in straight-up buying all the silver in the world in the '70s. If you look closely at this graph, you might be able to figure out when this was happening.
When the Hunts ran out of money, they simply borrowed more to buy more silver, causing the price to jump by about 700% in 1979 alone. Not only did they buy 100,000,000 troy ounces of silver, which was somewhere between 33% and 50% of the world's transportable supply, but they also insisted on taking actual physical control of the stuff. They flew it to Switzerland on private jets under armed guard in the middle of the night, all so the U.S. government couldn't get them.
The madness that ensued was the world's most obvious asset bubble. People melted down their silverware. Thieves stole all the silver they could find. Tiffany & Co. even ran an attack ad against the Hunt brothers for making silver unaffordable to their customers. There were repeated attempts to stop the Hunts, including a straight-up freeze on buying silver that they did their best to ignore, so the Federal Reserve stepped in. It's basically their job to make sure this exact kind of lunacy doesn't happen, so an edict was issued that banned banks from loaning money to precious metal speculators. This was a rule specifically tailored to fuck over the Hunts, who abruptly ran out of credit and couldn't buy any more silver.
This led to "Silver Thursday," when the price of silver collapsed and the Hunts lost over a billion dollars. They were also found guilty on civil charges of conspiracy, and had to pay hundreds of millions in fines and various other settlements. Nelson Bunker Hunt broke the record for largest personal bankruptcy in American history, and had to sell his house, oil fields, bowling alley, and $12 million coin collection. Two of the Hunts later moved on to trying to corner the market on harps and/or pitchforks, but William Herbert Hunt is still around and worth $2.6 billion, because rich people aren't truly allowed to fail.
Maurice Wilson is the forefather of idiot tourists who hire an army of Sherpas to lug them up Mount Everest for a selfie. He believed he could be the first person to reach the summit with his entirely reasonable plan of flying a plane to Tibet, crashing it into the mountain, then climbing to the top without proper gear or supplemental oxygen. The simple facts that he had never climbed a mountain before, couldn't fly a plane, and wasn't allowed to enter Tibet were all irrelevant.
The Alpine Club, London
Wilson took some flight lessons (he only crashed once!) and went on a few hikes to "prepare." These hikes did not teach him how to climb in snow, put on crampons, or use an ice ax. We could list his disqualifications all day, but we'll top it off by mentioning that thanks to World War I, he only had one good arm. The only relevant skill Wilson had was whipping up a media circus, as British journalists loved to portray him as a ballsy adventurer of faith. The British government, meanwhile, saw him for who he really was and repeatedly warned him about the many good reasons he shouldn't do this.
Wilson ignored them and managed to meander his way across Europe in 1933 before various governments started trying to cockblock the Grim Reaper. First Persia declined him a transit permit, so he used a children's atlas to navigate to Bahrain. British officials there arrested him, then released him and gave him some fuel to fly back to Baghdad. Instead he flew to India. He didn't have a map -- he navigated by writing notes on the back of his hand about a map he saw on the wall of the Bahraini police station -- and he didn't have enough fuel, catching some winds through sheer dumb luck and barely fuming along to the coast. His plane was confiscated on arrival, but he traveled overland (during monsoon season) to the Nepalese border, where he tried calling on the king of Nepal to ask for a climbing permit. He wound up talking to a very confused bureaucrat.
Tibet wouldn't give Wilson a permit or even let him enter the country, so Wilson snuck in disguised as a monk. He scavenged whatever equipment other expeditions had abandoned on Everest and set off on his climb, despite two of his guides urging him to stop. But Wilson was convinced that he would succeed. And when he did, he would spread his belief that prayer and fasting -- which had once helped him overcome an illness -- could solve any problem in the world. His body was found the next year.
In 1973, motorists Fred Simmons and Bob Moore stepped into the first sentence of every horror story about how you should never pick up hitchhikers when they picked up Troy Leon Gregg, who went on to kill them. After Gregg v. Georgia went all the way to the Supreme Court, Gregg was set to be executed on July 29, 1980. But while Gregg would die, it was only because the world temporarily decided to become a Final Destination movie.
The night before his execution, Gregg and several other death row inmates somehow made their pajamas look like guard uniforms, sawed through some bars, ran down a fire escape, talked their way past some real guards, and hopped into a waiting getaway car. Before fleeing across the state line, Gregg called a reporter from a payphone to brag about his escape and proclaim that he would rather die a free man than spend any more time on death row. (This is the literary device known as "tempting fate.") The reporter immediately called the prison warden's office, only to have his talk of escape dismissed as nonsense.
Then, a few hours later, Gregg was killed in a North Carolina bar fight. He literally would have lived longer if he had waited to be executed. The exact details of what happened are a bit fuzzy because his killers were never caught, but "pissed off some bikers at a notorious gang bar" is the general consensus. The escape was discovered the following morning, Gregg's body was fished out of a lake, and his fellow escapees were all peacefully caught within a few days. Say what you will about Gregg, but he could give it as well as take it.
On October 15, 1987, weatherman Michael Fish looked straight into a television camera and said one of the most spectacularly wrong things ever: "Earlier on today, apparently, a woman rang the BBC and said she had heard a hurricane was on the way. Well I can assure people watching, don't worry, there isn't." He then moved onto an unrelated story about a windstorm off the coast of France and Spain.
Here's an exhaustive highlight reel of what most people remember about this man's distinguished 50-year broadcasting career.
A few hours after Fish's segment, that windstorm suddenly changed direction, became much more powerful, and hit England without any warning. The Great Storm of 1987 barreled across the country with 115 mph winds, knocking down millions of trees, killing 18 people, and forcing power cuts to London. It was the worst storm to hit Britain in centuries.
To be clear, no one saw this coming, but only Fish had floated and dismissed the idea in the first place. British meteorologists were expecting some windy weather, sure, but they didn't suspect the end times until they looked out their windows. And technically, the Great Storm wasn't a hurricane, but a hurricane-force extratropical cyclone -- a nuance which we're sure was appreciated by all the newly homeless.
People cured their hurricane hangover by setting out to find the anonymous woman/prophet who "rang the BBC," presumably to give her Fish's job. They were not successful, because it turns out Fish made the caller up. Which means he didn't merely shoot himself in the foot, but first built the gun and forged the bullets. He also inadvertently invented the "Michael Fish Effect," whereby forecasters sometimes exaggerate their predictions so they don't wind up being relentlessly mocked for decades.
If you only know the Falklands as "those islands Argentina and the UK fought over in 1982," you might be surprised to learn that they starred in a demented clown car prequel: Operation Condor (no Jackie Chan in this one, sadly). This was a 1966 plot by Argentine nationalist "Condors" to launch a surprise invasion of the islands. Their plan was simple: Buy all the seats on a DC-4 airliner and ... oh, they didn't have enough money for that. Their plan B was simple: Buy 18 seats on a domestic flight carrying the governor of Tierra Del Fuego, and then turn him and some random civilians into Expendables extras.
The pesky pilot unreasonably complained that "we might run out of gas" and "those islands don't have an airport," but the Condors waved guns around and threatened to kill his family, so off they went. The Condors wanted to land on a racetrack next to Government House, storm the building, take the British governor hostage, then force the British governor hostage to sign the islands over to the Argentine governor hostage, thereby creating a flood of patriotic fervor that would force the Argentine government to invade. It was brilliant, except for a few tiny flaws:
1. The British governor wasn't on the island.
2. His backup wasn't on the island either.
3. The backup to the backup was on the island, but in a different building.
4. The British were in talks to transfer the islands peacefully if Argentina could make the locals cool with it.
A low-flying airliner circling Port Stanley understandably caught the attention of the airport-less Falkland denizens, who all who went outside to look at it. When the plane landed on the wrong side of the racetrack and got stuck in a peat bog nowhere near Government House, the islanders assumed it had crashed and came running. 15 good Samaritans (about 1% of the population) were already on the scene to help when the plane's doors opened and a gaggle of terrorists popped out to take them all hostage.
The plane was promptly surrounded by a smattering of local police, militia, Royal Marines, and random yokels with guns. The Condors hadn't brought any food, water, or proper winter clothes, and none of them spoke English. They forced a flight attendant to translate until someone eventually found a bilingual priest to conduct hostage negotiations, but then hostage Terry Peck escaped by crouching under the priest's robes and awkwardly walking away with him in unison like they were two kids sneaking into a movie.
Revista Extra/Wikimedia Commons
The terrorists waved some flags, guns, and pamphlets around for a day, then got cold, ran out of airline food, and surrendered on the condition they be turned over to Argentina, which threw them all in jail. Not only was this stunt making it impossible for the British to simply hand over the islands like they were already doing with basically every other colony, but Argentina's economy was struggling and they really needed friendly relations with the UK to get assistance. But at least there were never any problems down there again!
In 1998, the "Musical Chairs Elections" happened when a congressman from Oakland resigned, triggering a parade of politicians all winning special elections to replace each other in safe Democratic seats. Due to a combination of California's wonky primary rules and the fact that no Republicans would bother running, each Democratic primary would be followed by a formality election wherein the Democrat faced off against an irrelevant third-party candidate.
Elihu Harris was the outgoing mayor of Oakland, and pretty much guaranteed to be the Democratic nominee for the February 1999 16th State Assembly District special election, which in turn meant he was pretty much guaranteed to win. However, if Harris won more than 50% of the vote, he could skip a runoff and start his new job immediately. Voter turnout was expected to set record lows because absolutely no one gave a shit about all this nonsense, but Harris realized that high African American turnout could net him the 50%. His brilliant plan to accomplish this was to ... send targeted mailers to African American households promising free fried chicken if they voted. Harris was rewarded with, wait for it, 49% of the vote.
Harris' "bribery" of voters was viewed as both patronizing and borderline illegal. But rather than worry about how this scandal might affect his runoff election against the dreaded electoral behemoth that is the Green Party, Harris shut down his campaign office and allegedly started negotiating to become speaker of the California Assembly. Since they had already won the election that was eight weeks away, Harris' team went ahead and annoyed more people by cracking a bunch of dumb chicken jokes about their "tasty" victory. Harris' campaign manager celebrated by declaring "The chickens came home to roost," which is yet more evidence in favor of our proposed law enforcing wordplay standards for politicians.
But while presumed-assemblyman-elect Harris was busy being a huge cock, Green Party nominee Audie Bock was, well, not manically pissing off voters. Bock suddenly found herself with a boost in the polls and enough donations to hire a manger and run an actual campaign. Harris refused to debate her and outspent her 20 to 1, but Bock still won. Not only was she the first Green Party candidate ever elected to anything that even remotely mattered, but when Harris tried to run for the same seat in the next election, he couldn't even get the 40 signatures needed to apply for the ballot. And that's the story of how politicians actually used to be punished for their hubris.
Barings Bank was the world's second-oldest bank, and in 1992, it used its centuries of experience to come up with a fantastic idea: Send a sketchy 25-year-old derivatives broker to Singapore with all of their money and hope he respected the honor system. Nick Leeson had a reputation as a trading genius, but he couldn't get a trading license in Britain because he had lied about unpaid debts and ignored a court order to pay them. Barings burned all of those red flags and got him a trading license for the SIMEX futures exchange in Singapore by using a clever loophole called "not telling SIMEX about his crimes."
Leeson immediately started reporting incredible profits. Much rejoicing ensued, but in reality, Leeson was losing tons of money and hiding all those losses in a special Barings account called "Error Account 88888," which had almost no oversight. He kept trying to recoup his increasingly huge losses by making larger and larger bets on the markets, which only resulted in even greater failures. Leeson came up with increasingly outlandish excuses for why he always needed more money, but no managers wanted to be the buzzkill who questioned his amazing genius. It was like The Emperor's New Clothes, if the emperor was also publicly shitting on the sidewalk.
He eventually racked up a whopping 208 million pounds in losses. To make it back, Leeson decided to bet all the money he could find on a short straddle of the Tokyo Stock Market. He was making the very specific bet that Japan's stock market wouldn't move much between closing time on January 16, 1995 and opening time on January 17, 1995. Now, the thing about short straddles is that the losses on them are theoretically unlimited if the stock market goes truly haywire. Leeson learned this fun fact on the morning of January 17 when an earthquake struck Kobe, killing 6,000 people, doing $200 billion in property damage, and causing the Japanese market to go truly haywire.
Leeson woke up to learn that he had lost hundreds of millions of dollars. He placed a series of frantic bets to win it all back by predicting that the Japanese market would shoot back up and recover, but it kept crashing. He ultimately lost $1.4 billion, which was more money than the 233-year-old bank had. The reverse-billionaire left a note on his desk that said "I'm sorry" and fled the country, figuring a jail sentence in England was better than one in Singapore, but he was arrested during a layover in Germany and extradited back.
Meanwhile, Barings immediately and spectacularly collapsed. All of its shareholders were wiped out and all of its assets were liquidated -- even Leeson's personal trading jacket, which sold at auction for 21,000 pounds. After a prison sentence, Leeson bounced back by competing in Celebrity Big Brother. He now gives keynote speeches on ... Jesus Christ, ethics, risk management, and corporate responsibility.
For more, check out How Banks Are Stealing Your Money:
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