Famous Moments In History (Brought To You By Incompetence)
This world has been shaped by people with endless ambition and skill, who have fought to lead civilization with all they've got. Well, for the most part. Some of the most monumental moments in history only happened because some idiot was really bad at their job. Like how ...
Abraham Lincoln's Bodyguard Chooses Booze Over Protecting Him
John Frederick Parker was a 19th-century D.C. police officer, and by all accounts a fairly terrible one. He was frequently reprimanded for berating civilians, cursing, being drunk on the job, and sleeping in a streetcar when he was supposed to be walking his beat. That last one wasn't his fault, though -- he'd heard ducks inside the trolley and gone in to investigate, and you know how exhausting duck work can be.
So when it came time to form the first permanent presidential security detail, Parker was a shoo-in. Every group needs some comic relief, right? Just as long as you don't give him anything serious to do, like replace Abraham Lincoln's usual bodyguard when he calls in sick ...
On the night of April 14, 1865, Parker saw the president and his wife to their fancy box seats in Ford's Theatre, then sat down in the hallway. But there was a problem: He couldn't see the play from there. So he decided to abandon his post and go downstairs. But alas, even with a better seat, Our American Cousin wasn't to his liking, so Parker ran off to the bar next door at intermission to get a drink with Lincoln's carriage driver. At the bar, it's possible Parker even got to see a celebrity; actor John Wilkes Booth happened to be there too. Talk about a magical night!
Booth eventually left the bar, but it's unclear whether Parker did. For all we know, he found out the president was dead while nursing a hangover the next morning.
Proving that some things haven't changed much in 200 years, Parker was formally charged with failing to protect the president, but that charge was dismissed within a month. Astonishingly, Parker was even kept on the White House's security detail -- at least until he got fired for sleeping on the job again three years later. Maybe he ran across more ducks, or he just remembered those ducks from earlier and got tired again. Duck work, you know?
This "not getting fired for letting a president die" business didn't sit well with Mary Todd Lincoln, who at least once straight-up called Parker a murderer to his face. His response was essentially "I fucked up, sure, but murder is a little strong."
A Sleepy Baker Starts A Fire, A Cranky Mayor Ignores It, And London Burns To The Ground
In 1666, Thomas Farriner, a baker working on the assuredly adorable Pudding Lane in London, went to bed without entirely extinguishing his coals. Fast-forward a few hours, and the ground floor of the bakery was on fire. Then the whole bakery. Then the rest of the city.
Farriner, his family, and his servants were all awakened by the smoke, but by then it was too late. The fire rapidly spread down Pudding Lane, startling the sentient teddy bears and making the air smell like burnt cookies. The residents, understanding that "fire bad," ran to mayor Thomas Bludworth for help. The mayor did not understand that fire bad. He thought fire maybe OK. The mayor of the entire city of London arrived on the scene, but was too tired and put-out to even pretend to give a damn. He just grumbled that the fire was so small that "a woman might piss it out," then promptly went home to sleep.
London continued to burn. Soon enough, xenophobic riots erupted, with Frenchmen being openly bludgeoned in the streets and fingers being pointed at everyone from the Russians to the Dutch, all while Farriner and his family whistled along.
Eventually, King Charles II had to tell everyone to knock it off and, oh yeah, focus on putting out the fire. But no one listened, because they'd gotten used to not having a king a few years earlier and didn't trust that guy. Five days later, a full 80% of the city had been reduced to ash, including the Custom House and the General Letter Office, effectively cutting London off from the rest of the world. We hope Bludworth at least slept well, and dreamed of large women ... pissing out infernos.
The Guy In Charge Of Buying The Union Army's Guns ... Doesn't
James Wolfe Ripley was a simple, old-fashioned man who didn't believe in things like change, technology, or equipping an army with cutting-edge weaponry to help them decisively win a war. All of this would have been fine if he'd been a cook or a gardener or the guy who invented indoor plumbing. But no, Ripley was chief of ordnance for the Union Army during the Civil War -- aka the guy in charge of procuring all their weaponry.
In Ripley's mind, there was really only ever one weapon: the old-school muzzle-loading musket. He vehemently hated anything more complicated, and even claimed that all them there newfangled breech-loading and repeating rifles wuz "evil" and "confusing."
That, by the way, was the entirety of his argument. There was never anything about money, or like, facts, because all the facts said that faster-loading guns were kind of great for war. In one instance, a group of 2,500 Union soldiers held off a group of Confederates three times their size, all because they'd managed to get their hands on new carbine rifles.
Yet Ripley did everything in his power not to order any modern weaponry for the Union, only purchasing small numbers of Spencer repeating rifles when President Lincoln forced his hand. The president said nothing about actually distributing them, though, so Ripley just didn't do that -- even after soldiers started buying the damn things themselves so they'd have a better chance of, y'know, not dying.
Several historians have posited that Ripley's inaction (again, based on nothing more than his being a cranky old man) extended the Civil War by at least two years and cost hundreds of thousands of lives. Hell, some former military still blame Ripley for the current army's lack of up-to-date weaponry. Most only dream of having such a long-lasting impact.
A Panicky Corporal Detonates A Bridge Too Early And Dooms Napoleon's Army
If the Napoleonic Wars were a video game, the 1813 Battle of Leipzig would be the moment when Napoleon decided to delete his save and get really into Just Dance instead. It was a deeply embarrassing loss, with 30,000 of his troops captured -- a number that would have been way, way smaller if it wasn't for a single French corporal and his twitchy fingers.
Some context: Napoleon and his army were fighting Russia and some buddies in Germany, and things weren't looking good for Naps. He decided to retreat through the only bridge in or out of Leipzig, and being no dummy, he tasked veteran engineer Colonel Montfort with the job of destroying the bridge after the French had crossed. (Keyword: "after.")
But here's the thing about war: It's big and loud and confusing. Montfort wasn't sure how many troops were still left, or where they were, so in an effort not to trap his own army in Leipzig, he ran across the bridge to Napoleon's makeshift headquarters to get better instructions. In his stead, he put some rando (one Corporal Lafontaine) in charge, basically telling the man to sit tight and not destroy the bridge until he returned. Dude had one job ... and he blew it.
The corporal, inexperienced and the exact wrong person to be given explosives, heard a distant gunshot, got spooked, and immediately detonated the whole goddamn bridge. While his own troops were still standing on it. Those who didn't die in the explosion were left to drown or get captured, including 30 generals and the nephew of the Polish king. All told, Napoleon lost a full third of his army, with his entire rearguard trapped in a city full of pissed-off Russians.
Thus did a strategic retreat turn into a desperate flight, and Napoleon's empire never recovered. Anyway, that's why you ask questions at the start of an assignment, not the middle.
Johnny Appleseed's Flagrant Disregard For Proper Apple-Growing Accidentally Gives Us Modern Apples
John "Johnny Appleseed" Chapman wasn't in the tree-planting business for the sheer love of apples, despite whatever Disney might claim. No, he was mostly planting seeds for the love of profit. In the era of westward expansion, if you wanted to make a land claim, you needed an orchard. So Appleseed would bury some seeds, tend them for a time, then sell the land and move on. Contrary to the due's whole "folk hero" gimmick, he was more of an old-timey a house-flipper.
Above: nothing but LIES.
But, as luck -- and, we guess, math -- would have it, Johnny Appleseed planted so goddamn many apple trees that some of them bore interesting fruit, if only by statistical mutation. And not only that, but a lot of those mutations tasted good. About one out of every hundred trees he planted wound up bearing apples that a human could not only stomach, but also might actually want to eat.
Some estimates claim that Appleseed was responsible for creating over 16,000 different kinds of apples in the 1800s ... Which you might notice is significantly more than you'll find in your local Shop-Rite. Only about 15 varieties make up a full 90% of the apples sold in the United States. And many of those were grafted from trees planted in a real estate scheme by a barefoot itinerant trying to make a quick buck. Truly, he was the hero America deserved.
Eirik Gumeny is also very bad at doing things, but, thus far, hasn't changed the world. He's the author of the Exponential Apocalypse series. Follow him on Twitter. Follow Ryan Menezes on Twitter for bits cut from this article and other stuff no one should see.
For more, check out Why The #1 Fact Of Military History Is A Lie:
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