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10 Crazy Ways People Have Tried To Smuggle Stuff

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As airport security lines stretch out to their full holiday season expanse this month, travelers would be wise to check the TSA's website to find out what they can bring on the plane and in their checked luggage. They should definitely not follow the example of one woman who, in 2008, was arrested after a Santa Claus ornament she was trying to bring through security was discovered to have a 4.5-inch-long knife concealed inside. (She said that the ornament was a gift and claimed to have no knowledge of its contents.) None of these innovative efforts to smuggle contraband worked, either—but they all get points for creativity.


In May 2016, Customs and Border Protection agents in Tucson, Arizona busted a woman traveling from nearby Nogales for attempting to transport a pound of methamphetamine in what appeared to be burritos, sans any of the typical burrito toppings. (She must have known guacamole is extra.) Drug-sniffing dogs led agents to the loot, which was worth about $3000.

This isn't the first time Mexican food has hidden something: In April 2014, agents at the Sonoma County Airport discovered an 8.5-inch knife in an enchilada. Because "the passenger’s intent was delicious, not malicious," the TSA notes on its Instagram, "she was cleared for travel."


A carry-on bag full of plush tigers bound for Iran caught the attention of X-ray operators at a Bangkok, Thailand airport in 2010 when they discovered it also contained a live—and sedated—tiger cub. Authorities spotted the 2-month-old cub’s beating heart in the scan. The Thai woman carrying the bag was arrested, and the cub went to a rescue center.


Who knew those T-shirt cannons they fire up at every NBA game could serve a purpose other than starting a fan brawl in the arena’s upper decks? Smugglers, apparently. U.S. Border Patrol agents reported seizing more than 30 cans of weed worth about $42,500 scattered across an Arizona field in 2012 after smugglers used pneumatic-powered cannons to lob the goods from Mexico over to American soil.


One traveler must have thought she wouldn’t make much of a splash when, in 2005, she loaded a specially-made apron with 15 water-filled plastic bags carrying 51 live tropical fish. The woman tucked the walking aquarium under her skirt; after she flew from Singapore to Australia, she was busted by customs agents, who "became suspicious after hearing 'flipping' noises coming from the vicinity of her waist," according to a press release. The woman faced time in prison and a fine of up to $83,617 (USD).


It must have been an uncomfortable boat ride for one Norwegian man in 2009 when he traveled from Denmark to Norway with 14 live royal pythons and 10 albino leopard geckos hidden under his clothes. Customs agents were tipped off by a tarantula they found while searching one of the man’s bags and then really tipped off when they noticed the suspect’s “whole body was in constant motion.” He had transported the lizards in cans attached to his thighs and the snakes in socks duct taped to his torso. The man was fined $2256.


In likely the most colorful of smuggling schemes, inmates at a New Jersey prison in 2011 were found to be sneaking in the prescription drug Suboxone on the pages of children’s coloring books. The drug was dissolved into a paste that appeared to be orange paint on the Disney princess-topped pages, which were also scrawled with child-like handwriting in crayon to make things look extra innocent.


Passengers in a Chevy traveling through the Paso Del Norte entry point in El Paso in 2011 failed to mention the wheels of cheese they had hidden in their car’s spare tire well during their customs inspection. The stowed-away snacks reportedly weighed in at 116.5 pounds and cost the not-so-sneaky cheese smugglers nearly $700 in fines. Even more of a bummer? Border Patrol destroyed the cheese in question. "The best course of action to avoid penalties and help prevent the spread of pests and disease in the U.S. is to declare all your items to CBP," Hector Mancha, CBP El Paso Port Director, said in a press release. "Every traveler is given multiple opportunities to declare their goods. If they declare the item and it is prohibited they can abandon it without incident. However, if they fail to declare the item, the product will be seized and they will face a $300 civil penalty."


Ecstasy is said to expand your mind, but it’s unclear what effect more than 10 ounces of the drug produced in one famous head. A Mr. Potato Head toy was intercepted by authorities on its way from to Australia from Ireland in 2007 after officers noticed the famous interchangeable face was carrying more than just spare arms within its back panel. Customs official Karen Williams told the Associated Press that "Whilst this is one of the more unusual concealments that we have seen in recent times, people need to be aware that Customs officers are alert to unusual and often outlandish methods of concealment."


You might be surprised by how often TSA agents find items concealed in the guts of a computer or external hard drive. In 2012, TSA agents in Jacksonville discovered a knife in a computer; the traveler, who had rented the device, taken it apart, and put it back together, didn't realize he'd left it there. The situation, Bob Burns wrote on the TSA blog, was "similar to when a surgeon stitches a scalpel inside a patient."

That was an accident, but many other incidents can't be explained away, like a 2-inch knife concealed in a laptop between the keyboard and the screen; a 3-inch knife found in a laptop's hard drive at Dayton International Airport; a knife hidden in an external hard drive; or a loaded 9mm handgun held in place inside a computer with duct tape and modeling clay.


One traveler at Omaha International Airport in October 2015 had about as much luck using a can of shaving cream to smuggle something as Jurassic Park's Dennis Nedry. When TSA agents ran his bag of liquids through the X-ray machine, they discovered that the can of shaving cream had been hollowed out and a multitool had been hidden inside.


According to the TSA, sword canes—which are exactly what they sound like, swords hidden in canes—are actually usually smuggled by accident. The security agency comes across the concealed weapons a lot: they make regular appearances on the underrated TSA Blog. Most travelers busted for transporting the walking sticks got them as family heirlooms or from antique or thrift stores with no knowledge of their sharp secret, and are more surprised than the TSA agents when they’re flagged.

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Karrah Kobus/NPG Records via Getty Images
Pop Culture
5 Killer Pieces of Rock History Up for Auction Now (Including Prince’s Guitar)
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Karrah Kobus/NPG Records via Getty Images

If you’ve ever wanted to own a piece of rock history, now is the time. A whole host of cool music memorabilia from the 20th century is going up for sale through Julien’s Auctions in Los Angeles as part of its “Icons and Idols” sale. If you’ve got the dough, you can nab everything from leather chairs from Graceland to a shirt worn by Jimi Hendrix to never-before-available prints that Joni Mitchell signed and gave to her friends. Here are five highlights from the auction:


Elvis’s nunchucks
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

Elvis’s karate skills sometimes get a bad rap, but the King earned his first black belt in 1960, and went on to become a seventh-degree black belt before opening his own studio in 1974. You can cherish a piece of his martial arts legacy in the form of his nunchaku. One was broken during his training, but the other is still in ready-to-use shape. (But please don’t use it.) It seems Elvis wasn’t super convinced of his own karate skills, though, because he also supposedly carried a police baton (which you can also buy) for his personal protection.


A blue guitar used by Prince
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

Prince’s blue Cloud guitar, estimated to be worth between $60,000 and $80,000, appeared on stage with him in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The custom guitar was made just for Prince by Cloud’s luthier (as in, guitar maker) Andy Beech. The artist first sold it at a 1994 auction to benefit relief efforts for the L.A. area’s devastating Northridge earthquake.


Kurt Cobain wearing a cheerleader outfit in the pages of Rolling Stone
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

The Nirvana frontman wore the bright-yellow cheerleader’s uniform from his alma mater, J.M. Weatherwax High School in Aberdeen, Washington, during a photo shoot for a January 1994 issue of Rolling Stone, released just a few months before his death.


A white glove covered in rhinestones
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

A young Michael Jackson wore this bejeweled right-hand glove on his 1981 Triumph Tour, one of the first of many single gloves he would don over the course of his career. Unlike later incarnations, this one isn’t a custom-made glove with hand-sewn crystals, but a regular glove topped with a layer of rhinestones cut into the shape of the glove and sewn on top.

The auction house is also selling a pair of jeans the star wore to his 2003 birthday party, as well as other clothes he wore for music videos and performances.


A piece of wood in a frame under a picture of The Beatles
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

You can’t walk the halls of Abbey Road Studios, but you can pretend. First sold in 1986, the piece of wood in this frame reportedly came from Studio Two, a recording space that hosted not only The Beatles (pictured), but Pink Floyd, Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton, and others.

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Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0
5 Dubious Historical Antidotes for Poison (and What Actually Works)
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An artificial bezoar stone from Goa, India
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

When it comes to their health, humans will believe just about anything. In this extract from the new book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything, authors Lydia Kang, MD, and Nate Pedersen discuss some of the more questionable ways people once tried to protect themselves from poison—whether or not the methods actually worked.

Poison is everywhere. Naturally or unnaturally, it can be in the soil (arsenic), in the air (carbon monoxide), in your drinks (lead), and in your food (cyanide). With so much danger around, it’s no wonder humans have obsessed over finding a universal antidote—the one thing that could save us from all toxins. Imagine you’re a medieval prince about to inherit the throne. Chances are, there are a lot of power-hungry wannabes waiting in the wings. A little arsenic or hemlock might be your best friend or your worst nightmare. Just in case, best have an antidote on standby.

For millennia, a certain amount of magical thinking was employed when arming oneself against poison because science was inconveniently slow to catch up. So grab your handy unicorn horn and a bezoar, and let’s take a look.


Bezoars have been used for centuries as antidotes to poisons. A bezoar is solid mass of undigested food, plant fibers, or hair found in the digestive tracts of animals, including deer, porcupines, fish, and, yes, humans. Anyone with a cat is familiar with the less-cool feline version: hairballs.

Bezoars and other stone-like items created by animals often had a good story behind them. Legends told of deer that would eat poisonous snakes and become immune or cry tears that solidified into poison-curing stones. First-century Arabic author al-Birumi claimed bezoars could protect against one poison called “the snot of Satan,” which we hope never ever to encounter. By the 12th century, when Europe became plagued with, uh, plagues, the bezoar crept into pharmacopeias as panaceas and alexipharmics (poison antidotes).

Bezoars were a seductive notion for the rich and royal, who were at risk of assassination. The stones were often enclosed in bejeweled gold for display or worn as amulets. Indian bezoars, in particular, were sought for life-threatening fevers, poisonous bites, bleeding, jaundice, and melancholy. Consumers were also known to scrape off a bit of bezoar and add it to their drinks for heart health and kidney stones. These tonics were sometimes adulterated with toxic mercury or antimony, which caused vomiting and diarrhea, making buyers think they were effective.

But were they? One team of researchers soaked bezoars in an arsenic-laced solution and found that the stones absorbed the arsenic or that the poison was neutralized. Hard to say if it worked well enough to cure a fatal dose. Ambroise Paré, one of the preeminent French physicians of the 16th century, was also a doubter. The king’s cook, who’d been stealing silver, was given the choice between hanging or being Paré’s lab rat. He chose the latter. After the cook consumed poison, Paré looked on as a bezoar was stuffed down his throat. Six hours later, he died wracked with pain. Perhaps he chose ... poorly?


This antidote was named after Mithridates VI, the king of Pontus and Armenia Minor. Born in 134 BCE, he pretty much invented the phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” by consuming poisons daily to prevent his own assassination. His royal home was stocked with stingray spines, toxic mushrooms, scorpions, mineral poisons, and a poisonous plant–filled garden. He was so unpoisonable that after his son took over his kingdom and he faced execution, he couldn’t even commit suicide by poison! He begged a guard to stab him to death. (It worked.)

Though the king’s actual recipe for the antidote is nowhere to be found, versions began to circulate after his death, and they became synonymous with the king himself. Compounds with lengthy and expensive ingredient lists prevailed, including iris, cardamom, anise, frankincense, myrrh, ginger, and saffron. In the first century, Pliny the Elder snarkily remarked, “The Mithridatic antidote is composed of fifty-four ingredients ... Which of the gods, in the name of Truth, fixed these absurd proportions? ... It is plainly a showy parade of the art, and a colossal boast of science.”

Showy or not, people would take the extensive mix of herbs, pound them together with honey, and eat a nut-sized portion to cure themselves. At least it endowed them with expensive-smelling breath.


An apothecary shop sign in the shape of a unicorn
An ivory pharmacy sign in the shape of a unicorn's head
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Unicorn horns have been considered a part of antidote legend since the mythical beast galloped into literature around 300 BCE. For centuries afterward, real earthly beasts would sacrifice their lives and their horns to slake our thirst for the miraculous, nonexistent animal, including rhinoceroses, narwhals, and oryx. Even fossilized ammonites were used. It was believed that drinking vessels made of such horns might neutralize poisons, and wounds could be cured by holding them close by. In the 16th century, Mary, Queen of Scots reportedly used a unicorn horn to protect her from poisoning. Too bad it didn’t prevent her beheading.


Pearls have long been thought to be powerful antidotes. A beautiful, rare gem created by the homely oyster, a pearl is born out of annoyance (the mollusk secretes iridescent nacre to cover an irritant, like a parasite or grain of sand). Pretty as they are, they’re about as useful as the chalky antacid tablets on your bedside table; both are chiefly made of calcium carbonate. Good for a stomachache after some spicy food, but not exactly miraculous.

Pearl powder has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat a variety of diseases, and Ayurvedic physicians used it as an antidote in the Middle Ages. It was also reported to make people immortal. An old Taoist recipe recommended taking a long pearl and soaking it in malt, “serpent’s gall,” honeycomb, and pumice stone. When softened, it would be pulled like taffy and cut into bite-sized pieces to eat, and voilà! You would suddenly no longer need food to stay alive. Cleopatra famously drank down a large and costly pearl dissolved in wine vinegar, though in that case she wasn’t avoiding poison. She didn’t want to lose a bet with Antony—which might have fatally injured her pride.


Albarello vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
A vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Theriac was an herbal concoction created in the first century by Emperor Nero’s physician, Andromachus, who was reported to have Mithridates’s secret notes. It was a mashed formula of about 70 ingredients, including cinnamon, opium, rose, iris, lavender, and acacia in a honey base. In the 12th century, theriac made in Venice was branded as particularly special, and Venetian treacle (derived from a Middle English translation of theriac) became a hot commodity. Its public, dramatic production often attracted curious crowds.

By the 18th century, cheaper golden syrup was substituted for honey. As treacle began to lose its luster as a treatment, its definition as an herbal remedy disappeared from common vernacular. But the sweet syrup remained. Which is why when we think of treacle, we think of treacle tarts, not a fancy means of saving ourselves from a deathly poisoning.


Thankfully, science has brought us a wide range of antidotes for many items we shouldn’t be exposed to in dangerous quantities, if at all. N-acetylcysteine, fondly referred to as NAC by doctors, saves us from acetaminophen overdoses. Ethanol can treat antifreeze poisoning. Atropine, ironically one of the main components of plants in the toxic nightshade family (such as mandrake), can treat poisoning from some dangerous fertilizers and chemical nerve agents used as weapons. For years, poisonings were treated with emetics, though it turns out that plain old carbon—in the form of activated charcoal—can adsorb poisons (the poisons stick to the surface of the charcoal) in the digestive system before they’re dissolved and digested by the body.

As long as the natural world and its humans keep making things to kill us off, we’ll keep developing methods to not die untimely deaths.

We’ll just leave the fancy hairballs off the list.

The cover of the book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything
Workman Publishing

Excerpt from Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything by Lydia Kang, MD and Nate Pedersen/Workman Publishing. Used with permission.


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