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January 9, 2024 10 mins

It only takes on person to make big waves in most industries. These two tales, though, are more curious than most.

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Speaker 1 (00:04):
Welcome to Aaron Manke's Cabinet of Curiosities, a production of
iHeartRadio and Grimm and Mild. Our world is full of
the unexplainable, and if history is an open book, all
of these amazing tales right there on display, just waiting
for us to explore. Welcome to the Cabinet of Curiosities.

(00:36):
Bob Nelson was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in nineteen thirty six.
From the moment he let out his first cry, the
cards were stacked against him. His father left, his mother
struggled with substance abuse. His stepdad was a literal mob boss.
With zero support or guidance. Bomb dropped out of high
school in the mid nineteen fifties. He drifted around Boston

(00:57):
before moving to Los Angeles, California, where he got a
job as a television repairman. Bob liked to work, and
he kept the job for years, and then in nineteen
sixty two, when he was twenty seven years old, something
happened that changed the course of his life forever. He
happened upon a book called The Prospect of Immortality. The
title caught his eye and he started reading. In the

(01:20):
opening pages, the author, doctor Robert Ettinger wrote, most of
us now living have a chance for personal physical immortality.
We need only arrange to have our bodies after we
die stored in suitable freezers against the time when science
may be able to help us. Sooner or later. Our
friends of the future should be equal to the task

(01:41):
of reviving and curing us. This idea became known as
the theory of cryonics, and it must have come as
quite a shock to Bob. Remember this was nineteen sixty two.
There had never been a successful heart transplant before. The
theory that a person could be frozen and brought back
to life was less medical and i'm more science fictional.

(02:01):
But Bob, nearing thirty years old and not having much
to show for it, desperately needed something to believe in.
The prospect of immortality became his bible, and he wasn't
the only one. That same year, he saw a flyer
for a meeting of the Cryonics Society of California. The
prospect of immortality had made such a stir that people

(02:22):
were actually organizing and trying to make the author's theory
a reality. The Bob made a note of the date
and address. The night of the meeting, he was nervous.
He later told a reporter, and I quote, I remember
going and thinking I'm not going to be allowed in
because I'm not a scientist. I went in and I
came out voted president. Just like that, Bob found himself

(02:44):
serving as a leader in a growing movement. He embraced
his role, connecting with dozens of others who were as
passionate about cryonics as him. There was just one problem.
None of them were actual doctors or scientists. On the whole.
The Los Angeles cryonics community was populated by self identified futurists,
people who were interested in technology that might arise in

(03:06):
the future. They were basically a ragtag group of dreamers
with a very loose grip on medical science. All their
plans for freezing human bodies were purely theoretical, that is
until nineteen sixty six. That year, a seventy three year
old psychology professor named doctor James Bedford joined the Cryonic
Society of California. But he didn't plan on being a

(03:28):
member for long. He was dying of kidney cancer, and
he volunteered to be the first ever human cryonically frozen.
The Cryonic Society agreed to doctor Bedford's wishes. As morbid
as it sounds, they were actually excited about the opportunity
to make their dreams a reality, and they got to
work right away. Bob contracted a company to build a
cryonic capsule, which is basically a super insulated coffin, and

(03:51):
started trying to source liquid nitrogen. But the Society's plans
quickly went awry. Doctor Bedford died much sooner than anticipated,
weeks before or the cryonic capsule was set to be finished,
and before they had any liquid nitrogen at their disposal.
As the president of the Cryonic Society, this was Bob's
problem to solve. Unsure what else to do, he contacted

(04:12):
friends and neighbors, asking them for help. He scrounged up
enough ice to fill the bed of his truck, and
then he put doctor Bedford's body inside and drove the
corpse to a friend's house, where it stayed in a
freezer for three weeks. Surely this wasn't what the late
professor had signed up for, but there was no turning
back now. When the cryonic capsule was finally finished, doctor

(04:34):
Bedford was frozen right away, or at least the way
the Cryonic Society thought was right. A mortician injected him
with a medical grade anti freeze, and a special machine
pumped oxygen into a system. The liquid nitrogen still hadn't
come in yet, so they lined the coffin with dry
ice and put doctor Bedford's body inside, for all its

(04:55):
gore and imperfection. The Cryonic Society touted this as a success.
Nelson had led the world's first cryonic freeze, and he
did it without so much as a high school diploma.
The story inspired futurists worldwide, and more signed up to
have their bodies preserved. Many of the attempts were total disasters,
but around five hundred people, including doctor Bedford, remained frozen

(05:18):
to this day, awaiting a future in which they might
be resurrected. And while many modern scientists say cryonics is
just wishful thinking, others believe there could be some truth
to the theory. Just ask MIT graduate Robert McIntyre. In
twenty sixteen, he successfully froze a rabbit and then brought
it back to life. The rabbit was unable to make

(05:38):
an official statement on the matter. But if doctor Bedford
is ever revived, I imagine that he'll be anxious for
some conversation. Luckily he won't have any problem breaking the ice.

(06:04):
Sometimes a mistake is like a pencil on paper. It's
easy to erase. You can apologize, go back and fix
your work and do better in the future. But other times,
one small oversight is like stepping on a landmine. It
sends your whole life up into smoke. Just take the
story of e. Forbes Smiley. Beginning in the nineteen eighties,
Smiley worked as an antique map dealer. A tall, well

(06:27):
dressed man with glasses and gray hair, he certainly looked
the part. He specialized in rare maps with artistic or
historical value, especially those from the American colonial era, and
he was credited with assembling some of the most important
map collections in North America. He often spent his days
pouring through the archives at esteemed institutions like the British Library,

(06:48):
the New York Public Library, and Harvard University. Smiley was
extremely successful in his field. He owned multiple homes, He
went on frequent lavish vacations. He had last network of
friends in the art community, including wealthy clients and well
respected academics. All of this to say, when Smiley entered
Yale University's bin a key rare book and manuscript library

(07:11):
on June eighth of two thousand and five. The staff
recognized him. They were happy to set him up with
a table in a chair where he could sit and
peruse a stack of books filled with rare maps. As
he flipped through the pages, Smiley felt a tickle on
his nose. He pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket
and sneezed into it. He had no idea, though, that
at that very moment, he had made a mistake that

(07:33):
would ruin his career forever. When he was finished with
the books, he got up, pushed in his chair, and
wave goodbye to the librarian. She went to tidy up
the table and notice something on the floor right beside
the chair that Smiley had been sitting on was the
blade of an exacto knife. The librarian panicked. There was
only one reason a person would bring something like that

(07:55):
into the biny key. She ran to call security, and
officers caught Smiley before he made it off campus. They
searched the antique dealer's briefcase, and inside they found three
rare documents, one of which was extremely significant. It was
the first ever North American map to label Plymouth, Massachusetts,
and it was made by Captain James Cook. This paper

(08:16):
alone is estimated to be worth more than one hundred
and fifty thousand dollars, and Smiley had cut it right
out of those library books. He probably would have gotten
away with it too, if not for that sneeze. When
he reached into his pocket for his handkerchief, he accidentally
dropped the blade of his Exacto knife onto the floor.
Talk about a fatal mistake, E Forbes. Smiley was promptly arrested.

(08:38):
A further search of his briefcase revealed even more rare documents.
When he went to trial in two thousand and six,
Smiley admitted to stealing at least ninety seven maps from
six different institutions, worth a total of about three million dollars.
As for why he did it, well, apparently the successful
antique dealer had accumulated quite a bit of debt. His
lavish lifestyle was bought on credit, and he found himself

(09:01):
unable to make the necessary payments, so he took to
nabbing rare maps and selling them quickly at a massive profit.
Because many of the documents he'd stolen had already been sold.
Collectors were forced to return items that they had paid
tens of thousands of dollars for. According to the judge,
though Smiley was very remorseful. After the ruse was up,

(09:22):
he made the effort to return as many stolen maps
as possible and agreed to pay two point three million
dollars in restitution. Because of this, he was only sentenced
to three and a half years in prison. These days,
Smiley is once again a free man, but his time
in the antique business is definitely over. He now works
as a web designer and landscaper on Martha's Vineyard, keeping

(09:43):
relatively low profile. It's obvious that e Forbes Smiley made
some very bad choices, but I think he'd prefer to
say that he simply lost his way. He fell off
the map for a while, and now hopefully he's back
on the right path. I hope you've enjoyed today's guided
tour of the Cabinet of Curiosities. Subscribe for free on

(10:07):
Apple Podcasts, or learn more about the show by visiting
Curiosities podcast dot com. The show was created by me
Aaron Mankey in partnership with how Stuff Works. I make
another Award winning show called Lore which is a podcast,
book series, and television show and you can learn all
about it over at the Worldoflore dot com. And until

(10:29):
next time, stay curious.

Aaron Mahnke's Cabinet of Curiosities News

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