5 Unlikely Bits of Contraband People Smuggled Past Authorities

If you had to do it, how would you smuggle a missile?
5 Unlikely Bits of Contraband People Smuggled Past Authorities

Loyal readers who are criminals know plenty about smuggling. You might have a secret compartment in your car for hiding illicit drugs (Canadian pharmaceuticals, mainly), and you know all about hiding liquor (when sneaking refreshments into the movie theater). You still have plenty to learn, however. Allow us then to refer you to the masters, who managed some truly impressive smuggling feats, using science, art and the postal service. 

Nobel Laureates Dissolved Their Medals in Acid

Nazis loved gold. They looted hundreds of tons of gold from other nations’ central banks, gold worth tens of billions of dollars. They also seized gold from private citizens, and when they made their way toward Copenhagen, two gold Nobel medals kept in storage at Neil Bohr’s place would be sure to catch their eye. 

Nobel medal

Adam Baker

Such gaudy, conspicuous baubles, these. 

Keeping the medals out of the Nazis’ hands would be nice, but more stood at stake here than just property rights. The two scientists who owned the medals, physicists Max von Laue and James Franck, had sent the medals out of Germany to Bohr for safekeeping, and in doing so, they’d broken the law. If the Gestapo now found the medals and traced them to their owners using the clearly visibly inscribed names, they’d arrest the men, possibly sending them to their deaths. 

So, how was Bohr going to hide the medals? No hiding place seemed secure enough. Bury them, and someone might dig them right back out. Hiding them in his own butt would not be ideal, and even putting them in a candy box like they were foil-wrapped chocolates might not fool the sufficiently savvy investigator. Then a chemist who worked for him, Georgy de Hevesy, suggested a solution.

Freshly prepared aqua regia to remove metal salt deposits

Thejohnnler/Wiki Commons

A solution of hydrogen chloride and hydrogen nitrate. 

They’d dissolve the medals — in acid. If you know a little about chemistry, that sounds impossible. Gold is a remarkably unreactive element, so it should resist corrosion and any other scheme to break it down. If you know a lot about chemistry, however, the plan makes sense. One special mixture of nitric and hydrochloric acid, known as aqua regia, slowly breaks gold apart and suspends the atoms in an orange solution. When the Nazis did end up searching Bohr’s place, they passed by this science-y flask and left it alone. It looked like it held a dangerous chemicals or pee, and either way, they didn’t want to touch it. 

If de Hevesy had successfully destroyed the medals, that would be impressive enough. But when the war was done, he managed to precipitate the gold back out of the solution. He sent this gold to Stockholm, where they cast that exact metal back into medals and presented them to the scientists again. By this point, de Hevesy, who had left Nazi territory during the war itself, also had a medal of his own. He won the 1943 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Not for dissolving gold but for research into radioactive tracing, which is another valid use for chemistry, we guess. 

The KGB Snuck Out a Missile by Mailing It

In the 1950s, America had a new missile, called the Sidewinder. Like all good things, it was named after a snake, and one landed in the hands of Soviet engineers through a strange route. First, the U.S. gave a bunch of the missiles to Taiwan, who used them when fighting China. One missile slammed into a MiG-17 but didn’t detonate and didn’t crash the plane. When the plane landed, the Chinese extracted the missile and passed it along to their pals to the north, who soon were able to make a copycat missile, the R-3S. 

Sidewinder-1 missile

U.S. Navy

Not the last time China reverse-engineered American stuff to be sold under a new name. 

A decade later, America had a new Sidewinder. Once again, it would find its way to the USSR for thorough analysis, but this time, the transfer happened thanks to one guy, Manfred Ramminger. Ramminger lived in West Germany, where he secretly spied for the KGB. He strolled into the Neuburg Air Base one foggy night when the guards couldn’t see much, and he slipped out with the new Sidewinder. How did he carry the missile, which measured more than 10 feet long? Oh, in a wheelbarrow, of course. 

He then moved it to his car, which wasn’t large enough to contain it. He smashed the rear windshield, so the missile poked out the back. This naturally broke various traffic safety guidelines, but he draped a carpet over the obscene protuberance and put a red cloth on top, which made it comply with some forgotten German street law. 


David Monniaux 

If any cop did stop him, no worries. He had them outgunned. 

That’s how he got the missile from the base to his home in town. Getting it from there to Moscow would seem to be the hardest part of the scheme. To manage this, Ramminger dismantled the giant thing as best as he could. Then he simply sent the pieces to Moscow through the post. Having to describe the contents of his packages for customs, he labeled them “low-grade export,” and that answered all questions. Sending the shipment cost him $79.25. 

A few years later, Ramminger faced justice for his mail-order scheme. He was sentenced to four years in prison, and he got out early in a prisoner swap. Not bad, considering he had been found guilty of espionage, grand larceny and treason.

Mary Queen of Scots Brought Her Dog to Her Execution

Mary Queen of Scots was executed in 1587, not just for being a queen or being a Scot but for allegedly plotting to kill Elizabeth I. The execution went less than smoothly. The axe man missed with his first shot, cutting her but not decapitating her. “Sweet Jesus,” said Mary. The next strike hit its mark but not strongly enough to sever the neck. So, the guy now had to push the blade down slowly and saw back and forth to slice all the way through. 

The execution of Mary, Queen of Scots

Abel de Pujol

Painter: “Uh, I’ll just draw the ‘before’ picture, if that’s okay.”

The executioner lifted the detached head up and showed it to the crowd, as is only proper. Then came something less than proper: An object of some sort was moving under her dress. People often void their bowels when they die, but that movement is a single action, not an ongoing process. This had to be something else. Was it witchcraft? They’d killed her for being a witch, right? (We’re assuming here that many people in the crowd didn’t closely follow the news but simply cheered every public beheading, no questions asked.) 

The moving lump turned out be her pet dog. Mary owned several dogs. She’d brought one with her to the chopping block by hiding it under her skirts. Maybe the pet brought her some comfort in her final moments. 

Mary, Queen of Scots with her Maltese

J.W. Wright

Or maybe she brought it in self-defense, a plan that totally failed.

The experience brought no comfort to the dog, however. The poor thing wound up covered in blood. Plus, if Mary did indeed void her bowels, we can’t rule out some of that landing on the pooch as well. The dog refused to leave its mistress’ corpse until people dragged it away physically, and it died shortly afterward. 

The axe man had first noticed that strange moving lump because he was in any case lifting Mary’s skirt after executing her. He was doing this so he could strip off her garters and keep them as souvenirs, as was traditionally his right. That might sound a little weird, looting a corpse’s blood-soaked undergarments, but let’s just say that the execution industry doesn’t always attract the most well-adjusted people.

Two Monks Hid Worms in Their Staffs

Silk Road was the name of a dark web marketplace that — as famous as it was — ran for less than three years. The FBI shut it down, and its founder, Ross Ulbricht, was sentenced to life without parole. That’s a stunningly serious sentence considering the charges, which we’re going to list here for clarity even though it makes this paragraph unreasonably long: “distributing narcotics, distributing narcotics by means of the internet, conspiring to distribute narcotics, engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise, conspiring to commit computer hacking, conspiring to traffic in false identity documents and conspiring to commit money laundering.” He was also accused of trying to have six people killed, true, but he was never charged with that. 

Image placed on Silk Road after seizure by the FBI


Ninety-four years in prison, sure. But a life sentence, really? 

The site took its name from the historical Silk Road, a series of trade routes that were sadly not made of silk but over which people did transport silk. The shared name is appropriate not just because both facilitated trade but because silk was a tightly controlled commodity once upon a time. To understand why silk was so valuable, you have to understand that life really used to suck back then, people had nothing, and so they figured, “Shiny textiles? Sure, let’s say that’s valuable, why not?”

For around a millennium, just about all the world’s silk came from China. Rome wanted to make its own silk, but they just didn’t have the means. Then in the sixth century, the secret finally slipped out. A massive silk industry sprang up in the Byzantine Empire and lasted 750 years. 

The Gunthertuch, an 11th-century silk celebrating a Byzantine emperor's triumph

via Wiki Commons

“Woo hoo! Smooth underpants for everyone!”

The Byzantine historian Procopius credited this to two monks from India, who promised the emperor Justinian Augustus that they’d manage to fetch the raw materials he needed. They traveled to China and hid silkworms in their wooden canes, smuggling them back to Constantinople so they could raise worms of their own. We’re picturing the Silk Road with a single checkpoint in charge of searching every passing traveler for hidden worms. “Oh, you would not part an old man from his walking stick?” said one monk, and the guards shrugged and said, “Fine. You shall pass.”  

A Peace Activist Was Smuggled Away in a Puppet

In 1970, a priest named Daniel Berrigan was on the FBI’s Most Wanted List. Before you even have a chance to consider the various crimes a priest may commit, let’s tell you what he did: He protested the Vietnam War. He protested it in a criminal manner, since it’s a crime to storm a draft office and set fire to draft papers, but his group wasn’t exactly what you think of when you imagine war protesters who burn stuff. Here’s what they looked like:

Looking so different from hippies was exactly why this group (the “Catonsville Nine”) were so effective and did influence public opinion about the draft. In that photo, they’re igniting the draft cards with gasoline and soap, homemade napalm, now used to fight against war. Then they awaited the police’s arrival. “Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children,” said Father Daniel. “We could not, so help us God, do otherwise.”

That makes it sound like the crew was planning to go to jail, as is in fact many protesters’ goal. Once Berrigan received his sentence, though, he went on the run. He used his wanted status to draw ever more publicity to his cause, and he didn’t exactly keep a low profile while the feds hunted him. Cornell students threw a festival in his honor that April, and Berrigan popped up to speak. FBI agents in the crowd anticipated his arrival, and they disguised themselves as students but still noticeably stood out

Berrigan got on stage. The agents stepped forward. Throngs of students stood between them and him, and they did their best to slow the guys down. Also in the area were a student theater troupe, who were putting on a show with giant puppets. They were acting out the Last Supper using 15-foot-tall monstrosities, and with the feds still occupied navigating through the crowed, the actors approached Berrigan and slid a puppet costume onto him. It looked something like this:

Bread and Puppet Theater

Bob Fitch

And the agents, normally fearless, fell to their knees in abject terror. 

The authorities got Berrigan in the end, but he escaped that day, with the getaway buying him another four months. We’re also guessing he outlasted all his captors, since he lived till the age of 94, dying in 2016. Official reports say he was still alive in 2016, at least. We can’t, however, guarantee that this “Daniel Berrigan” everyone was looking at so recently wasn’t made of felt and papier-mâché. 

Follow Ryan Menezes on Twitter for more stuff no one should see.

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