Your parents, teachers, inspirational ABC family movies, etc., have all probably explained to you that you are a special and significant unique snowflake, and that if you believe in yourself you can achieve anything and become president and an astronaut and the world’s handsomest genius. Small comfort to those of us who grew up to eat Bugles in our underwear while watching reruns of "The Office."
But a few people really did end up changing the world in massive ways just by working hard, thinking quickly or simply doing their jobs properly. Many of these people are lost to history for a number of reasons — cultural differences, minority status, military secrecy and, in a few cases, just plain modesty — but here we aim to blow the dust off some records and present at least ten people you’ve never heard of who changed history forever.
On the night of June 17th, 1972, Washington, D.C., security guard Frank Wills was making his rounds when he noticed a bit of duct tape on a door of an office complex. Since it wasn’t holding the door together or doing any of the useful things duct tape is known for doing, Wills removed it, only to find it had been replaced when he came by on the next round of his patrol.
Wills immediately called the cops, who arrived at the Watergate hotel/office/apartment complex minutes later to find five middle-aged men ransacking the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee — the beginning of the scandal that would finally sink the Nixon presidency. Wills would later play himself in the film “All The President’s Men,” but sadly that was the last time his newfound fame worked to his advantage — after quitting Watergate when he was turned down for a raise (and really if you’re not going to give him a raise, who are you ever going to give a raise to?), Wills found that many public institutions were too afraid of vengeful Republican politicians to hire him as a guard.
Wills drifted from job to job (including a gig working for legendary black stand-up Dick Gregory) before the pressures of caring for his ailing mother landed him in prison and then the poorhouse. He died of a brain tumor in September of 2000.
BARTON W. MITCHELL
In September of 1862, Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was on the move somewhere in Maryland and, much to the annoyance of Union general George B. McClellan, it was proving to be a lot harder than expected to figure out exactly where 60,000 armed men and horses were hiding in the New England countryside.
Lee was dividing and subdividing his units to flow more easily through the backwoods, setting up to capture a number of small but strategically valuable targets in order to support the next stage of his offensive, and his complicated maneuvers required a steady flow of communication between himself and his subordinates.
Unfortunately for the Rebels, with so many letters flying back and forth, one of them was bound to get mislaid, and when Corporal Barton W. Mitchell was poking around a recently vacated Confederate camp, he came across three fancy cigars wrapped in a sealed document — Special Order 191 for the dispensation and movement of Lee’s forces. Mitchell immediately realized he had an unbelievable intelligence find on his hand and hustled it up the chain of command to McClellan, who confidently declared, “Now I know what to do! Here is a paper with which, if I cannot whip Bobby Lee, I will be willing to go home.”
While McClellan’s subsequent actions at the Battle of Antietam didn’t constitute that much of a whipping (he didn’t take enough advantage of the intelligence, possibly because he thought it might be literally too good to be true) the debatable victory provided Lincoln with the morale boost to proclaim emancipation and keep France and Britain out of the war.
Mitchell, for his troubles, was wounded in the leg at Antietam, honorably discharged in 1864 due to chronic infection, and died four years later, his wife receiving his pension in 1890. Hopefully, he at least got to keep the cigars…
Thirty-eight towns and fourteen counties are named after Joseph Warren, but he’s generally unknown to all but the most dedicated Revolutionary War buffs. A Boston doctor and Freemason (back before being a Mason meant being a pro-democracy, pro-rationalist philosopher and activist instead of being a holographic lizard person controlling the world’s banks), Joseph Warren performed the autopsy on Christopher Seider, the first American killed by British troops in the Boston Massacre, and when Seider’s funeral sparked the Boston Massacre, Warren was again part of the local committee that reported on the atrocity.
When the fundamental rights of free citizens really hit the fan, Warren put together militia units and led troops from the cannon’s mouth. Appointed a Major General by the Continental Congress, he volunteered to fight in the Battle of Bunker Hill as a common soldier, as he felt the two generals already there had more combat experience than he.
Famously declaring “These fellows say we won’t fight! By Heaven, I hope I shall die up to my knees in blood!” he held off three charges on Breed Hill until a British officer put a musket ball through his brain. The Redcoats stripped and bayoneted the corpse before shoving it into a hole, but they could do nothing to stop the legend of his brave stand from spreading throughout the Colonies.