10 Ways the CIA Tried to Kill Castro

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In February of 1959 Fidel Castro became the Prime Minister of Cuba. Since then, according to the man who was charged with protecting him for most of his regime, he's survived over 600 assassination attempts. Fabian Escalante, the former head of the Cuban Secret Service, claims that the assassination endeavors break down like this: the Eisenhower administration tried to kill Castro 38 times; Kennedy, 42; Johnson, 72; Nixon, 184; Carter, 64; Reagan, 197; Bush Sr., 16; Clinton, 21. (The accuracy of Escalante's statistics, especially attempts since the Nixon administration, is in dispute.) There are only so many different ways you can ambush someone with a sharpshooter, so some of the methods the CIA hoped to use to kill Castro were pretty wild. Here are just a few of the unorthodox M.O.s considered to oust the Beard.

1. FEMME FATALE

Marita Lorenz, just one of many women Castro counted as a mistress, allegedly accepted a deal from the CIA in which she would feed him capsules filled with poison. She managed to get as far as smuggling the pills into his bedroom in her jar of cold cream, but the pills dissolved in the cream and she doubted her ability to force-feed Castro face lotion, and she also just chickened out. According to Lorenz, Castro somehow figured out her plan and offered her his gun. “I can’t do it, Fidel,” she told him.

2. POISONED WETSUIT

While there’s nothing suspicious about receiving random diving gear from your enemy right in the middle of the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the CIA gave it a shot. In 1975, the Senate Intelligence Committee claimed it had "concrete evidence" of a plan to offer Castro a wetsuit lined with spores and bacteria that would give him a skin disease (and maybe worse). The plan supposedly involved American lawyer James B. Donovan, who would present Castro with the suit when he went to negotiate the release of the Bay of Pigs prisoners. A 1975 AP report said the plan was abandoned "because Donovan gave Castro a different diving suit on his own initiative."

3. BALLPOINT HYPODERMIC SYRINGE

An ordinary-looking pen would be rigged with a hypodermic needle so fine that Castro wouldn’t notice when someone bumped into him with the pen and injected him with an extremely potent poison.

4. EXPLODING CIGAR

But this was no parlor trick—this cigar would have been packed with enough real explosives to take Fidel’s head off. In 1967, the Saturday Evening Post reported that a New York City police officer had been propositioned with the idea and hoped to carry it out during Castro's United Nations visit in September 1960.

5. CONTAMINATED CIGAR

They may have given up on the TNT stogie, but the idea of spiking his smokes was still being floated around. The CIA even went as far as to recruit a double agent who would slip Castro a cigar filled with botulin, a toxin that would kill the leader in short order. The double agent was allegedly given the cigars in February of 1961, but he apparently got cold feet.

6. EXPLODING CONCH SHELL

Knowing that Castro liked to scuba dive, the CIA made plans to plant an explosive device in a conch shell at his favorite spot. They plotted to make the shell brightly colored and unusual looking so it would be sure to attract Castro’s attention, drawing him close enough to kill him when the bomb inside went off.

7. NAIR

Well, maybe not that brand specifically, but according to that 1975 Senate Intelligence Committee report, the U.S. believed that messing with Castro’s beard was messing with the man’s power. The CIA figured that the loss of the beard would show Cubans that Castro was weak and fallible. A half-baked scheme was hatched to use thallium salt, the chemical in depilatory products such as Nair, in Castro’s shoes or in his cigar. The chemical would be absorbed or inhaled and cause the famous facial hair to fall out. (Wait, wasn’t this an episode of Get Smart?)

8. LSD

In what was mostly an effort to discredit Fidel, not kill him, a radio station where Castro was giving a live broadcast would be bombarded with an aerosol spray containing a substance similar to LSD. When Fidel had the requisite freak out live on the air, Cubans would think he had lost his mind and stop trusting him.

9. HANDKERCHIEF TEEMING WITH DEADLY BACTERIA

The CIA was seemingly obsessed with covering Fidel in harmful bacteria and toxins, because they also considered giving him a germ-covered hankie that would make him very ill.

10. POISONED MILKSHAKE

According to Escalante, the closest the CIA ever came to killing Castro was a deadly dessert drink in 1963. The attempt went awry when the pill stuck to the freezer where the waiter-assassin at the Havana Hilton was supposed to retrieve it. When he tried to unstick it, the capsule ripped open.

5 Facts About Edgar Allan Poe on His 210th Birthday

You’ve read Edgar Allan Poe’s terrifying stories. You can quote "The Raven." But how well do you know the writer’s quirky sense of humor and code-cracking abilities? Let’s take a look at a few  things you might not know about the acclaimed author, who was born 210 years ago today.

1. He was the original balloon boy.

You probably remember 2009’s infamous “Balloon Boy” hoax. Turns out the Heene family that perpetrated that fraud weren’t even being entirely original in their attempt at attention-grabbing. They were actually cribbing from Poe.

In 1844 Poe cooked up a similar aviation hoax in the pages of the New York Sun. The horror master cranked out a phony news item describing how a Mr. Monck Mason had flown a balloon flying machine called Victoria from England to Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina in just 75 hours. According to Poe’s story, the balloon had also hauled seven passengers across the ocean.

No balloonist had ever crossed the Atlantic before, so this story quickly became a huge deal. Complete transatlantic travel in just three days? How exciting! Readers actually queued up outside the Sun’s headquarters to get their mitts on a copy of the day’s historic paper.

Poe’s report on the balloon was chock full of technical details. He devoted a whole paragraph to explaining how the balloon was filled with coal gas rather than “the more expensive and inconvenient hydrogen.” He listed the balloon’s equipment, which included “cordage, barometers, telescopes, barrels containing provision for a fortnight, water-casks, cloaks, carpet-bags, and various other indispensable matters, including a coffee-warmer, contrived for warming coffee by means of slack-lime, so as to dispense altogether with fire, if it should be judged prudent to do so.” He also included hundreds of words of excerpts from the passengers’ journals.

The only catch to Poe’s story was that it was entirely fictitious. The Sun’s editors quickly wised up to Poe’s hoax, and two days later they posted an understated retraction that noted, “We are inclined to believe that the intelligence is erroneous.”

2. He dabbled in cryptography.

If you’ve read Poe’s story “The Gold-Bug,” you probably know that he had a working knowledge of cryptography. But you might not know that Poe was actually a pretty darn good cryptographer in his own right.

Poe’s first notable code-cracking began in 1839. He sent out a call for readers of his Philadelphia newspaper to send him encoded messages that he could decipher. Poe would then puzzle over the secret messages for hours. He published the results of his work in a wildly popular recurring feature. Poe also liked to toss his own codes out there to keep readers busy. Some of the codes were so difficult that Poe professed utter amazement when even a single reader would crack them.

Poe was so confident in his abilities as a cryptographer that he approached the Tyler administration in 1841 with an offer to work as a government code cracker. He modestly promised, “Nothing intelligible can be written which, with time, I cannot decipher.” Apparently there weren’t any openings for him, though.

3. The "Allan" came later.

It would sound odd to just say “Edgar Poe,” but the famous “Allan” wasn’t originally part of the writer’s name. Poe was born in Boston on January 19, 1809 to professional actors, but his early childhood was fairly rotten. When Poe was just two years old, his father abandoned the family—leaving the toddler's mother, Elizabeth, to raise Edgar and his two siblings. Not long after that, Elizabeth died of tuberculosis.

Poe actually had a little luck at that point. John and Frances Allan, a well-to-do Richmond family, took the boy in and provided for his education. Although the Allans never formally adopted Poe, he added their surname to his own name.

Like a lot of Poe’s fiction, his story with the Allans didn't have a particularly happy ending. Poe and John Allan grew increasingly distant during the boy’s teenage years, and after Poe left for the University of Virginia, he and Allan became estranged. (Apparently the root of these problems involved Poe’s tendency to gamble away whatever money Allan sent him to subsidize his studies.)

4. He had a nemesis.

Like a lot of writers, Poe had a rival. His was the poet, critic, and editor Rufus Griswold. Although Griswold had included Poe’s work in his 1842 anthology The Poets and Poetry of America, Poe held an extremely low opinion of Griswold’s intellect and literary integrity. Poe published an essay blasting Griswold’s selections for the anthology, and their rivalry began.

Things really heated up when Griswold succeeded Poe as the editor of Graham’s Magazine at a higher salary than Poe had been pulling in. Poe began publicly lambasting Griswold’s motivations; he even went so far as to claim that Griswold was something of a literary homer who puffed up New England poets.

Poe might have had a point about Griswold’s critical eye, but Griswold had the good fortune to outlive Poe. After Poe died, Griswold penned a mean-spirited obituary in which he stated that the writer’s death “will startle many, but few will be grieved by it” and generally portrayed Poe as an unhinged maniac.

Slamming a guy in his obituary is pretty low, but Griswold was just getting warmed up. He convinced Poe’s aunt, Maria Clemm, to make him Poe’s literary executor. Griswold then published a biography of Poe that made him out to be a drug-addled drunk, all while keeping the profits from a posthumous edition of Poe’s work.

5. His death was a mystery worth of his writing.

In 1849 Poe left New York for a visit to Richmond, but he never made it that far south. Instead, Poe turned up in front of a Baltimore bar deliriously raving and wearing clothes that didn’t fit. Passersby rushed Poe to the hospital, but he died a few days later without being able to explain what happened to him.

Poe’s rumored causes of death were “cerebral inflammation” and “congestion of the brain,” which were polite euphemisms for alcohol poisoning. Modern scholars don’t totally buy this explanation, though. The characterization of Poe as a raging drunk mostly comes from Griswold’s posthumous smear campaign, and his incoherent state of mind may have been the result of rabies or syphilis.

Some Poe fans subscribe to a more sinister theory about the writer’s death, though. They think he may have fallen victim to “cooping,” a sordid 19th century political practice. Gangs of political thugs would round up homeless or weak men and hold them captive in a safe place called a “coop” right before a major election. On election day—and there was an election in Baltimore on October 3, 1849, the day Poe was found—the gangs would then drug or beat the hostages before taking them around to vote at multiple polling places.

This story sounds like something straight out of Poe’s own writing, but it might actually be true. Poe’s crummy physical state and delirium would be consistent with a victim of cooping, and the ill-fitting clothes jibe with gangs’ practice of making their hostages change clothes so they could cast multiple votes. With no real evidence either way, though, Poe’s death remains one of literature’s most fascinating mysteries.

This post originally appeared in 2011.

The $13,000 Epiphany That Made Orville Redenbacher a National Popcorn King

iStock.com/NoDerog
iStock.com/NoDerog

Happy National Popcorn Day! While you’re no doubt celebrating with a bowl of freshly popped, liberally buttered popcorn, here’s something else to digest: Orville Redenbacher originally called his product Red-Bow.

In 1951, Redenbacher and his partner, a fellow Purdue grad named Charlie Bowman, purchased the George F. Chester and Son seed corn plant in Boone Township, Indiana. Though Redenbacher’s background was in agronomy and plant genetics, he had dabbled in popcorn, and was friendly with the Chester family.

Eventually, Carl Hartman was brought in to experiment. In 1969, when the trio had developed a seed they felt really confident in, they went to market. They dubbed the product “Red-Bow,” a nod to “Redenbacher” and “Bowman.”

The product was a hit regionally, but by 1970, Bowman and Redenbacher were ready for a national audience and hired a Chicago advertising agency to advise them on branding strategy. At their first meeting, Redenbacher talked about popcorn for three hours. “Come back next week and we’ll have something for you,” he was told afterward.

The following week, he turned to the agency and was told that “Orville Redenbacher’s” was the perfect name for the fledgling popcorn brand. “Golly, no,” he said. “Redenbacher is such a ... funny name.” That was the point, they told him, and they must have made a convincing case for it, because Orville Redenbacher is the brand we know today—and the man himself is still a well-known spokesman more than 20 years after his death.

Still, Redenbacher wasn’t sure that the $13,000 fee the agency had charged was money well spent. “I drove back to Indiana wryly thinking we had paid $13,000 for someone to come up with the same name my mother had come up with when I was born,” Redenbacher later wrote.

Hungry for more Redenbacher? Take a look at the inventor at work in the vintage commercial below.

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