How an Old Bird Poop Law Can Help You Claim an Island


Want to live on your very own island? Of course you do. Believe it or not, there’s a federal law which could (at least in theory) help you snag one for free. First, you’ll need to make sure that it’s covered with fecal matter. Let us explain.


In 1856, Capitol Hill stood divided as ever over slavery, but politicians north and south of the Mason-Dixon line could all agree on one thing: America desperately needed more bird poop.

Avian excrement was big business at the time. For at least 1500 years, South American farmers had used dried seafowl feces, which the Quechua and later the Spanish called “guano,” as a fertilizer. Soluble and nutrient-rich, its virtues were many. Coastal Peru in particular had an abundance of this material, since the country’s warm climate attracts migratory birds en masse.

So, naturally, Peru was a big player in the international guano market. And during the 1840s, demand for this “white gold” soared like a high-flying albatross. Across the Atlantic, it proved sensationally popular with British agriculturalists. In 1842, Antony Gibbs and Sons—a U.K. trading company—entered Peru’s bird scat game. By 1848, they’d built a worldwide monopoly: as one common jingle declared, “Mr. Gibbs made his dibs selling the turds of foreign birds.

Uncle Sam didn’t appreciate said “dibs.” From New England to Louisiana, U.S. farmers jumped all over the guano bandwagon. Yet, domestic fowl couldn’t squeeze out sufficient quantities and, thanks to British merchants, imported waste came with a steep price tag. Many attempts were made at busting the U.K.’s stranglehold, but none proved successful. 

Public outcry escalated until, finally, Congress hatched a solution. Senator and former New York governor William H. Seward introduced a bill that ultimately became the Guano Islands Act. Passed on August 18th, 1856, the law still stands. 


According to the Act, should a U.S. citizen find guano upon “any island, rock, or key,” that person may claim the territory for America. However, there are a few provisos. The spot in question can’t be inhabited or fall “within lawful jurisdiction of any other government.” Furthermore, when all is said and done, the claim’s validity remains subject to the president’s “discretion.”

Assuming the island you happened upon satisfies all these requirements, there may be a few perks in store for you. At “the pleasure of congress,” a discoverer may be granted the “exclusive right” to live on his or her island “for the purpose of obtaining guano, and of selling and delivering the same to citizens of the United States.”

Prospective salesmen shouldn’t plan on getting rich, by the way. After carting up top-quality poo for shipment, you can’t charge more than $8/ton in 1856 dollars (the bill itself makes no allowance for inflation adjustment, but you might be able to argue for one anyway, which would bring the price up to roughly $222.22/ton). Those who’d rather let someone else come along and physically gather it will have to make do with half as much.    

Also, don’t think that you can just go around breaking federal laws once you’re settled. In 1889, a murder took place upon the Caribbean island of Navassa, which was obtained through the Act. This led the Supreme Court to decide that since the terrain was U.S.-owned soil, the American legal system still applied there.  


Navassa’s guano mining operations ceased when President McKinley had the island evacuated in 1898—just after the Spanish-American War broke out. 

Eighteen years later, Woodrow Wilson officially reserved this now-abandoned place for the construction of a lighthouse. In so doing, ownership of Navassa was effectively revoked from the eponymous Phosphate Company and the area fell under federal custody.

America’s coast guard would maintain a presence on the otherwise-uninhabited locale until this lighthouse made the transition from being human-operated to automated. In September, 1996, the U.S.C.G. removed its equipment and personnel, leaving Navassa empty again.

Entrepreneurs love nothing more than a vacuum. Pasadena resident Bill Warren assumed that because the coast guard had abandoned Navassa, it was ripe for the taking. “I flexed my muscles,” he said, “and claimed the island under the Guano Act.”

By then, guano—long upstaged by artificial fertilizers—had once more become a valuable resource thanks to the rise of organic gardening. Suddenly, Navassa’s abundant bird waste made her smell like a malodorous gold mine. Warren wasted little time.

The Act never states that U.S. citizens can’t claim an island that’s already been claimed and abandoned. Hence, Navassa looked like fair game. The Californian filed an “affidavit of discovery, occupation, and possession” with the State Department. Frustratingly, he didn’t get an official response. Several unanswered faxes later, Warren sued his own country in 1997, arguing that this silence had cost him $12 million worth of lost revenue (eventually, he demanded $50 million). 

Alas, fate wasn’t with him. The Guano Islands Act only grants temporary licenses to operate on a given landmass. The year 2000 saw a U.S. Appeals Court rule that our government may terminate these licenses at any time. Furthermore, since Wilson’s lighthouse project had long-since placed Navassa under federal ownership, nobody could use the Act to claim it. 

Therefore—as the court explained—Mr. Warren had “failed to demonstrate a legally cognizable interest in Navassa Island or its guano.” 


Certain claims may have died awkward legal deaths, but—in the end—Seward’s brainchild helped his country nab over 100 outcroppings such as Johnston Island, which hosted a strategic airbase during World War II.

Hypothetically, one can still capitalize on the Guano Islands Act. The main snag, of course, is our planet’s dearth of available, jurisdiction-free land. Hence, your best bet might involve volcanoes. This past winter, underwater eruptions produced an entirely new Pacific island. Keep your fingers crossed that it's covered in bird poo.

Scott Barbour/Getty Images
7 of History’s Most Unusual Riots
Scott Barbour/Getty Images
Scott Barbour/Getty Images

Some sociologists theorize that most rioters only join a crowd because the crowd is big enough to justify joining. But there’s always that one person who sparks the violence, and sometimes the reason for doing so can seem pretty baffling. Maybe a work of art scandalizes its audience, like the famous premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Or maybe it’s simply a notable act of disrespect, like history’s first recorded mooning (in Jerusalem in the first century CE). From balloonists to brown dogs to daylight saving time, here are seven weird reasons things just got out of hand.


The Darts Invitational Challenge, an international tournament held in Melbourne, attracted international gawking in January 2015 during the finals match between Michael "Mighty Mike" van Gerwen and Simon "The Wizard" Whitlock. The dart players weren’t making a scene, though: Rather, hundreds of spectators, many of them drunk and in costume, began throwing plastic chairs as they watched (pictured above). The reasons for the fight remain unclear; footage and photos show police trying to control adults dressed as Oompa-Loompas, numerous superheroes, and, in one instance, in a ghillie suit (heavy camouflage meant to resemble foliage).


In 1864, balloonists were the great daredevils of their time, and a major draw for eager audiences. That summer, Henry Coxwell, a famous professional aeronaut, was set to make an appearance for 50,000 paying ticketholders in Leicester, England. Unfortunately, a rumor spread that he hadn’t brought his biggest and best balloon to the event. After heckling from the crowd, Coxwell deflated his balloon, and attendees rushed it, ripping it to shreds, setting it on fire, and threatening to visit the same fate on Coxwell. Rioters even paraded the remains of the balloon through the streets of town, which briefly brought residents a new nickname: Balloonatics.


Toronto was still a pretty rough place in the 1850s, but not so rough that the circus wouldn’t come to town. As it turns out, circus entertainers were also a tough lot back then, so when a group of off-duty clowns spent an evening at a brothel popular with the city’s firefighters on July 12, 1855, tensions came to a head. Accounts differ as to who started the fight, but after one firefighter knocked the hat off a clown things escalated into a full-on rabble intent on chasing the circus out of town. Only the mayor calling in the militia put an end to the uproar, an incident Torontonians credit with kicking off much-needed local police reforms.


A painting by Charles Soubre of the Belgian Revolution
Charles Soubre, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Not many nations can claim their independence started with an aria, but for 19th-century Belgians sick of living under Dutch rule, an opera was just the right fuse for a revolution. To honor the birthday of King William I of the Netherlands, a theater in Brussels put on La Muette de Portici, about an uprising in Naples against Spanish rule. One song, "Amour Sacre de la Patrie" ("Sacred Love of the Fatherland"), aroused nationalistic passions so much that after the opera ended, the crowd began destroying factories and occupying government buildings. That was August 25, 1830; Belgium declared independence on October 4.


Hamilton fans, take note: Everyone’s favorite Founding Father once tried to quiet a mob bent on burning corpses. For centuries, anatomists and medical students relied on gruesome means to learn about the human body. Cadavers for dissection class often came from grave robbers, since the corpses of executed criminals were the only legal source—and they were in limited supply. In New York in 1788, rumors abounded that medical students were digging up paupers’ graves and black cemeteries. When one mob came after the doctors responsible, Alexander Hamilton tried, and failed, to restore the peace. The crowd swelled to about 5000 before militiamen intervened, leading to up to about 20 deaths.


Photo of an anti-vivisection demonstration in Trafalgar Square, London, to protest the removal from Battersea Park of the Brown Dog statue
The Anti-Vivisection Review, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Riots against the dissection of dead human bodies were not rare in the United States at one time. But on December 10, 1907, a thousand Britons marched in support of vivisection, or surgery on live animals. At the center of the controversy was a small terrier allegedly vivisected without anesthetic in 1903 during a class at London’s University College. Animal rights activists erected a statue to the dog in 1906, which enraged area medical students, and protesters tried to destroy the statue using crowbars and hammers. For the 1907 march, 400 mounted police were deployed to contain marchers. The statue became such a flashpoint (and an expense to local authorities) that in 1910, it was removed and melted down.


Palingtrekken (eel-pulling) was once a popular contest in Amsterdam, in which a writhing eel was suspended over a canal and hopefuls on boats would leap to snatch it as they passed beneath (usually landing in the water instead). However, “eel-pulling” was also illegal—the government deemed it a “cruel popular entertainment”—and in July 1886, police intervened at a particularly large gathering in the city’s Jordaan district. Civilians threw stones and bricks at police, and when some nearby socialist protestors joined them, a riot broke out that lasted for several days. The army finally intervened and opened fire on the protestors. All in all, 26 people died and 136 were wounded, but somehow, the eel itself at the center of the riots was allegedly saved and auctioned off in 1913.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

Library and Archives Canada, Wikimedia // Public Domain
9 False Rumors With Real-Life Consequences
King Louis XV of France
King Louis XV of France
Library and Archives Canada, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Don’t believe everything you read—or everything you hear. Unverified but plausible-sounding rumors have been the basis for violent death and destruction throughout history, whether or not the stories had anything to do with the truth.

In their book A Colorful History of Popular Delusions, Robert Bartholomew and Peter Hassall describe rumors as “stories of perceived importance that lack substantiating evidence.” They also note that the sociologist Tamotsu Shibutani describes rumors as “improvised news,” which tends to spread when the demand for information exceeds supply. Such an information deficit most often occurs during wars and other crises, which might explain why some rumors have had such dramatic results. Here’s a selection of some of the most interesting rumors with real-life results collected in Bartholomew and Hassall’s book.


In 1750, children began disappearing from the streets of Paris. No one seemed to know why, and worried parents began rioting in the streets. In the midst of the panic, a rumor broke out that King Louis XV had become a leper and was kidnapping children so that he could bathe in their blood (at the time, bathing in the blood of children was thought by some to be an effective leprosy cure).

The rumor did have a tiny kernel of truth: Authorities were taking children away, but not to the king’s palace. A recently enacted series of ordinances designed to clear the streets of “undesirables” had led some policemen—who were paid per arrest—to overstep their authority and take any children they found on the streets to houses of detention. Fortunately, most were eventually reunited with their parents, and rumors of the king’s gruesome bathing rituals were put to rest.


Two small earthquakes struck London at the beginning of 1761, leading to rumors that the city was due for “the big one” on April 5, 1761. Supposedly, a psychic had predicted the catastrophe. Much of the populace grew so panicked that they fled town for the day, with those who couldn’t afford fancier lodgings camping out in the fields. One soldier was so convinced of the impending doom that he ran through the streets shouting news of London’s imminent destruction; sadly, he ended up in an insane asylum a few months later.


A deep well

Reports that Jews ritually sacrificed Christian children were not uncommon during the Middle Ages, but things took a particularly terrible turn during the spread of the Black Plague. In the 14th century, thousands of Jews were killed in response to rumors that Satan was protecting them from the plague in exchange for poisoning the wells of Christians. In 1321 in Guienne, France alone, an estimated 5000 Jews were burned alive for supposedly poisoning wells. Other communities expelled the Jews, or burned entire settlements to the ground. Brandenburg, Germany, even passed a law denouncing Jews for poisoning wells—which of course they weren't.


In July 1789, amid the widespread fear and instability on the eve of the French revolution, rumors spread that the anti-revolutionary nobility had planted brigands (robbers) to terrorize the peasants and steal their stores of food. Lights from furnaces, bonfires, and even the reflection of the setting sun were sometimes taken to be signs of brigands, with panic as the predictable result. Provincial towns and villages formed militias in response to the rumors, even though, as historian Georges Lefebvre put it, “the populace scared themselves.” In one typical incident, near Troyes on July 24, 1789, a group of brigands were supposedly spotted heading into some woods; an alarm was sounded and 3000 men gave chase. The “brigands” turned out to be a herd of cattle.


Officers of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police marching in a Canada Day parade

Canada entered World War I in 1914, three years before the United States did. During the gap period, rumors circulated that German-Americans sympathetic to their country of origin were planning surprise attacks on Canada. One of the worst offenders of such rumor-mongering, according to authors Bartholomew and Hassall, was British consul-general Sir Courtenay Bennett, then stationed in New York. In the early months of 1915, Bennett made “several sensational claims about a plan in which as many as 80,000 well-armed, highly trained Germans who had been drilling in Niagara Falls and Buffalo, New York, were planning to invade Canada from northwestern New York state.” Bizarre as it may sound, there was so much anxiety and suspicion during the period that Canadian Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden requested a report on the story, which the Canadian police commissioner determined to be without any foundation whatsoever.


In certain parts of Indonesia, locals reportedly believe—or once did—that large-scale construction projects require human heads to keep the structures from crumbling. In 1937, one island was home to a spate of rumors saying that a tjoelik (government-sanctioned headhunter) was looking for a head to place near a local jetty construction project. Locals reported strange noises and sights, houses pelted with stones, and attacks from tjoelik wielding nooses or cowboy lassos. Similar rumors surfaced in 1979 in Indonesian Borneo, when government agents were supposedly seeking a head for a new bridge project, and in 1981 in Southern Borneo, when the government headhunters supposedly needed heads to stabilize malfunctioning equipment in nearby oil fields. Terrified townspeople began curtailing their activities so as not to be in public any longer than necessary, although the rumors eventually died down.


An assortment of sticks of pink bubble gum

In the mid-1990s, the Middle East was home to some alarming rumors about aphrodisiacal gum. In 1996 in Mansoura, Egypt, stories began spreading that students at the town’s university had purchased gum deliberately spiked with an aphrodisiac and were having orgies as a result. One local member of parliament said the gum had been distributed by the Israeli government as part of a plot to corrupt Egyptian youth. Mosque loudspeakers began warning people to avoid the gum, which was supposedly sold under the names “Aroma” or “Splay.” Authorities closed down some shops and made arrests, but never did find any tainted gum. Similar rumors cropped up the following year in the Gaza Strip, this time featuring a strawberry gum that turned women into prostitutes—supposedly, the better to convince them to become Shin Bet informants for the Israeli military.


In the fall of 1998, a sorcerer scare in East Java, Indonesia, resulted in the deaths of several villagers. The country was in crisis, and while protests raged in major cities, some in the rural area of Banyuwangi began agitating for restitution for past wrongs allegedly committed by sorcerers. The head of the local district ordered authorities to move the suspected sorcerers to a safe location, a process that included a check-in at the local police station. Unfortunately, villagers took the suspects’ visits to police stations as proof of their sorcery and began killing them. Anthropologists who studied the incident said the stories of supposed sorcery—making neighbors fall sick, etc.—were based entirely on rumor and gossip.


These days, rumors have advanced technology to help them travel. On April 23, 2013, a fake tweet from a hacked Associated Press account claimed that explosions at the White House had injured Barack Obama. That lone tweet caused instability on world financial markets, and the Standard and Poor’s 500 Index lost $130 billion in a short period. Fortunately, it quickly recovered. (Eagle-eyed journalists were suspicious of the tweet from the beginning, since it didn’t follow AP style of referring to the president with his title and capitalizing the word breaking.)

An earlier version of this story ran in 2015.


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