Podcast

Futility Closet

Forgotten stories from the pages of history. Join us for surprising and curious tales from the past and challenge yourself with our lateral thinking puzzles.

Episodes

  • 260-The Rugged Road

    Aug 12 2019

    In 1934, two Englishwomen set out to do what no one had ever done before: travel the length of Africa on a motorcycle. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow Theresa Wallach and Florence Blenkiron from Algiers to Cape Town on a 14,000-mile adventure that many had told them was impossible. We'll also anticipate some earthquakes and puzzle over a daughter's age. Intro: Among the survivors of the Titanic were two boys who were unclaimed by any adult. In 1638, Galileo sa...more

  • 259-The Astor Place Riot

    Aug 05 2019

    The second-bloodiest riot in the history of New York was touched off by a dispute between two Shakespearean actors. Their supporters started a brawl that killed as many as 30 people and changed the institution of theater in American society. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of the Astor Place riot, "one of the strangest episodes in dramatic history." We'll also fertilize a forest and puzzle over some left-handed light bulbs. Intro: In 1968, mathematicia...more

  • 258-The First Great Train Robbery

    Jul 29 2019

    In 1855 a band of London thieves set their sights on a new target: the South Eastern Railway, which carried gold bullion to the English coast. The payoff could be enormous, but the heist would require meticulous planning. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of the first great train robbery, one of the most audacious crimes of the 19th century. We'll also jump into the record books and puzzle over a changing citizen. Intro: British birdwatcher Chris Watson ...more

  • 257-The Sledge Patrol

    Jul 15 2019

    In 1943 an isolated sledge patrol came upon a secret German weather station in northeastern Greenland. The discovery set off a series of dramatic incidents that unfolded across 400 miles of desolate coast. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow this arctic struggle, an often overlooked drama of World War II. We'll also catch some speeders and puzzle over a disastrous remedy. Intro: In 1970 the Journal of Organic Chemistry published a paper in blank verse. In 1899 the...more

  • 256-Lasseter's Reef

    Jul 08 2019

    In 1930 Harold Lasseter claimed he'd discovered an enormous deposit of gold in the remote interior of Australia, and a small group of men set off into the punishing desert in search of a fortune estimated at 66 million pounds. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of Lasseter's reef, one of the most enduring legends of the Australian outback. We'll also reconsider the mortality rates of presidents and puzzle over an unlocked door. Intro: Where is pain? In th...more

  • 255-Death on the Ice

    Jul 01 2019

    In 1914, 132 sealers found themselves stranded on a North Atlantic icefield as a bitter blizzard approached. Thinly dressed and with little food, they faced a harrowing night on the ice. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of the Newfoundland sealing disaster, one of the most dramatic chapters in Canadian maritime history. We'll also meet another battlefield dog and puzzle over a rejected necklace. Intro: England has seen some curious cricket matches. In 1...more

  • 254-The Porthole Murder

    Jun 24 2019

    In 1947 actress Gay Gibson disappeared from her cabin on an ocean liner off the coast of West Africa. The deck steward, James Camb, admitted to pushing her body out a porthole, but insisted she had died of natural causes and not in a sexual assault. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll review the curious case of the porthole murder, which is still raising doubts today. We'll also explore another fraudulent utopia and puzzle over a pedestrian's victory. Intro: Soldiers in ...more

  • 253-The Dame of Sark

    Jun 17 2019

    In June 1940, German forces took the Channel Islands, a small British dependency off the coast of France. They expected the occupation to go easily, but they hadn't reckoned on the island of Sark, ruled by an iron-willed noblewoman with a disdain for Nazis. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of Sibyl Hathaway and her indomitable stand against the Germans. We'll also overtake an earthquake and puzzle over an inscrutable water pipe. Intro: Raymond Chandler ...more

  • 252-The Wild Boy of Aveyron

    Jun 10 2019

    In 1800 a 12-year-old boy emerged from a forest in southern France, where he had apparently lived alone for seven years. His case was taken up by a young Paris doctor who set out to see if the boy could be civilized. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll explore the strange, sad story of Victor of Aveyron and the mysteries of child development. We'll also consider the nature of art and puzzle over the relationship between salmon and trees. Intro: Reading Luc Étienne's expr...more

  • 251-Joseph Palmer's Beard

    Jun 03 2019

    In 1830 Joseph Palmer created an odd controversy in Fitchburg, Massachusetts: He wore a beard when beards were out of fashion. For this social sin he was shunned, attacked, and ultimately jailed. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of a bizarre battle against irrational prejudice. We'll also see whether a computer can understand knitting and puzzle over an unrewarded long jump. Intro: Prospector William Schmidt dug through California's Copper Mountain. Th...more

  • 250-The General Slocum

    May 27 2019

    In 1904 a Manhattan church outing descended into horror when a passenger steamboat caught fire on the East River. More than a thousand people struggled to survive as the captain raced to reach land. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe the burning of the General Slocum, the worst maritime disaster in the history of New York City. We'll also chase some marathon cheaters and puzzle over a confusing speeding ticket. Intro: In 1959 a Norwegian insulation company wran...more

  • 249-The Robbers Cave Experiment

    May 20 2019

    In 1954 a social psychologist started a war between two teams of fifth graders at an Oklahoma summer camp. He wanted to investigate the sources of human conflict and how people might overcome them. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll review the Robbers Cave Experiment and examine its evolving reputation. We'll also dredge up a Dalek and puzzle over a hazardous job. Intro: Butler University mathematician Jerry Farrell can control coin flips. Nashville attorney Edwin H. Te...more

  • 248-Smoky the War Dog

    May 13 2019

    In 1944, an American soldier discovered a Yorkshire terrier in an abandoned foxhole in New Guinea. Adopted by an Army photographer, she embarked on a series of colorful adventures that won the hearts of the humans around her. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of Smoky the dog, one of the most endearing characters of World War II. We'll also contemplate chicken spectacles and puzzle over a gratified diner. Intro: In 1955 a Wisconsin supermarket manager fu...more

  • 247-Lateral Thinking Puzzles

    May 06 2019

    Here are six new lateral thinking puzzles -- play along with us as we try to untangle some perplexing situations using yes-or-no questions. The sources for this week's puzzles are below. In a few places we've included links to further information -- these contain spoilers, so don't click until you've listened to the episode: Puzzle #1 was suggested by an item on the podcast No Such Thing as a Fish. Here are two corroborating links. Puzzle #2 is by Greg. Here's a link. Puzzle #3 was suggested ...more

  • 246-Gene Tierney's Secret Heartbreak

    Apr 29 2019

    At the height of her fame in 1943, movie star Gene Tierney contracted German measles during pregnancy and bore a daughter with severe birth defects. The strain ended her marriage to Oleg Cassini and sent her into a breakdown that lasted years. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe Tierney's years of heartbreak and the revelation that compounded them. We'll also visit some Japanese cats and puzzle over a disarranged corpse. Intro: The indexes of two mathematics tex...more

  • 245-Jeanne Baret

    Apr 22 2019

    The first woman to circumnavigate the world did so dressed as a man. In 1766, 26-year-old Jeanne Baret joined a French expedition hoping to conceal her identity for three years. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of her historic journey around the globe. We'll also hear Mark Twain's shark story and puzzle over a foiled con artist. Intro: In 1856 Samuel Hoshour wrote an imaginary correspondence full of polysyllabic words. In 1974 Dennis Upper published a s...more

  • 244-The Women's Protest

    Apr 15 2019

    In February 1943, hundreds of German women joined in a spontaneous protest in central Berlin. They were objecting to the roundup of some of the city's last Jews -- their husbands. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe the Rosenstrasse protest, a remarkable example of civil disobedience. We'll also ponder whether a computer can make art and puzzle over some unusual phone calls. Intro: Between 1946 and 1953, British wordplay maven Leigh Mercer published 100 immortal...more

  • 243-The Peshtigo Fire

    Apr 08 2019

    In 1871, while the Great Chicago Fire was riveting the nation's attention, a blaze six times as deadly was ravaging a desperate town in northeastern Wisconsin. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of the Peshtigo fire, the deadliest wildfire in American history. We'll also watch an automated western and puzzle over some discounted food. Intro: Harry Mathews composed a poem in which every syllable is doubled. In 1766, French draughtsman Charles-Louis Clériss...more

  • 242-The Cardiff Giant

    Mar 25 2019

    In 1869, two well diggers in Cardiff, N.Y., unearthed an enormous figure made of stone. More than 600,000 people flocked to see the mysterious giant, but even as its fame grew, its real origins were coming to light. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of the Cardiff giant, one of the greatest hoaxes of the 19th century. We'll also ponder the effects of pink and puzzle over a potentially painful treatment. Intro: Edgar Rice Burroughs invented a variant of c...more

  • 241-A Case of Scientific Self-Deception

    Mar 18 2019

    In 1903, French physicist Prosper-René Blondlot decided he had discovered a new form of radiation. But the mysterious rays had some exceedingly odd properties, and scientists in other countries had trouble seeing them at all. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of N-rays, a cautionary tale of self-deception. We'll also recount another appalling marathon and puzzle over a worthless package. Intro: In the 1960s, two dolphins at Hawaii's Sea Life Park were in...more

  • 240-The Shark Papers

    Mar 11 2019

    In 1799 two Royal Navy ships met on the Caribbean Sea, and their captains discovered they were parties to a mind-boggling coincidence that would expose a crime and make headlines around the world. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of the shark papers, one of the strangest coincidences in maritime history. We'll also meet some Victorian kangaroos and puzzle over an expedient fire. Intro: Hungarian composer György Ligeti wrote a symphonic poem for 100 metr...more

  • 239-The Man-Eaters of Tsavo

    Mar 04 2019

    In 1898, two lions descended on a company of railway workers in British East Africa. For nine months they terrorized the camp, carrying off a new victim every few days, as engineer John Patterson struggled to stop them. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll track the "man-eaters of Tsavo" and learn what modern science has discovered about their motivations. We'll also consider more uses for two cars and puzzle over some prolific penguins. Intro: MIT drops a piano off a bui...more

  • 238-The Plight of Mary Ellen Wilson

    Feb 25 2019

    In 1873 a Methodist missionary in New York City heard rumors of a little girl who was kept locked in a tenement and regularly whipped. She uncovered a shocking case of neglect and abuse that made headlines around the world. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell how one girl's ordeal led to a new era in child welfare. We'll also outsource Harry Potter and puzzle over Wayne Gretzky's accomplishments. Intro: By a 1976 resolution, George Washington forever outranks every ...more

  • 237-The Baseball Spy

    Feb 18 2019

    Moe Berg earned his reputation as the brainiest man in baseball -- he had two Ivy League degrees and studied at the Sorbonne. But when World War II broke out he found an unlikely second career, as a spy trying to prevent the Nazis from getting an atomic bomb. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow Berg's enigmatic life and its strange conclusion. We'll also consider the value of stripes and puzzle over a fateful accident. Intro: Johann David Steingruber devised floor...more

  • 236-The Last Lap

    Feb 11 2019

    In 1908 a 22-year-old Italian baker's assistant arrived in London to take part in the Olympic marathon. He had no coach, he spoke no English, and he was not expected to challenge the elite runners at the top of the field. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow Dorando Pietri on the most celebrated race in Olympic history. We'll also ponder the Great Mull Air Mystery and puzzle over a welcome murder. Intro: In July 1968 ethologist John B. Calhoun built a paradise for ...more

  • 235-Leon Festinger and the Alien Apocalypse

    Feb 04 2019

    In 1955, aliens from the planet Clarion contacted a Chicago housewife to warn her that the end of the world was imminent. Psychologist Leon Festinger saw this as a unique opportunity to test a new theory about human cognition. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow him inside a UFO religion as it approaches the apocalypse. We'll also try to determine when exactly LBJ became president and puzzle over some wet streets. Intro: There's a hexagon of cloud at Saturn's nort...more

  • 234-The Dig Tree

    Jan 28 2019

    In 1860 a party of explorers set out to traverse the Australian continent, but bad management and a series of misfortunes sent it spiraling toward tragedy. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of the Victorian Exploring Expedition and its dramatic climax at Cooper's Creek. We'll also try to validate Archimedes and puzzle over an unlucky thief. Intro: In 1990 Jon Perez Laraudogoitia wrote a philosophy article that compelled its own acceptance. In 1976 archit...more

  • 233-Flight to Freedom

    Jan 21 2019

    In 1978 two families hatched a daring plan to escape East Germany: They would build a hot-air balloon and sail it by night across the border. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow their struggles to evade the authorities and realize their dream of a new life in the West. We'll also shuffle some vehicles and puzzle over a perplexing worker. Intro: In 1993 Tom Peyer and Hart Seely found that Yankees announcer Phil Rizzuto's utterances can be cast as free verse. Jane A...more

  • 232-The Indomitable Spirit of Douglas Bader

    Jan 14 2019

    Douglas Bader was beginning a promising career as a British fighter pilot when he lost both legs in a crash. But that didn't stop him -- he learned to use artificial legs and went on to become a top flying ace in World War II. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll review Bader's inspiring story and the personal philosophy underlay it. We'll also revisit the year 536 and puzzle over the fate of a suitcase. Intro: In 1872 Celia Thaxter published an unsettling poem about an i...more

  • 231-The Halifax Explosion

    Jan 07 2019

    In 1917, a munitions ship exploded in Halifax, Nova Scotia, devastating the city and shattering the lives of its citizens. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow the events of the disaster, the largest man-made explosion before Hiroshima, and the grim and heroic stories of its victims. We'll also consider the dangers of cactus plugging and puzzle over why a man would agree to be assassinated. Intro: In 1989 an unmanned Soviet MiG-23 flew all the way from Poland to Be...more

  • 230-Lateral Thinking Puzzles

    Dec 24 2018

    Here are six new lateral thinking puzzles -- play along with us as we try to untangle some perplexing situations using yes-or-no questions. The sources for this week's puzzles are below. In a few places we've included links to further information -- these contain spoilers, so don't click until you've listened to the episode: Puzzle #1 was contributed by listener Phil Moore. Here are two corroborating links. Puzzle #2 is from Jed's List of Situation Puzzles. Puzzle #3 is adapted from Edward J....more

  • 229-The Stone of Destiny

    Dec 17 2018

      In 1950, four patriotic Scots broke in to Westminster Abbey to steal the Stone of Scone, a symbol of Scottish independence that had lain there for 600 years. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow the memorable events of that evening and their meaning for the participants, their nation, and the United Kingdom. We'll also evade a death ray and puzzle over Santa's correspondence. Intro: In the 1920s Massachusetts mechanical engineer Elis Stenman fashioned a house out ...more

  • 228-The Children's Champion

    Dec 10 2018

    Polish educator Janusz Korczak set out to remake the world just as it was falling apart. In the 1930s his Warsaw orphanage was an enlightened society run by the children themselves, but he struggled to keep that ideal alive as Europe descended into darkness. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of the children's champion and his sacrifices for the orphans he loved. We'll also visit an incoherent space station and puzzle over why one woman needs two cars. In...more

  • 227-The Christmas Tree Ship

    Dec 03 2018

    In the late 1800s Chicago families bought their Christmas trees from the decks of schooners that had ferried them across Lake Michigan. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll meet Herman Schuenemann, known as "Captain Santa," who brought Christmas to the city for 30 years until a fateful storm overtook him. We'll also peruse some possums and puzzle over a darkening phone. Intro: In 1991 a Yale physician proposed naming toes. No one's quite sure how cats navigate. Photo: Her...more

  • 226-The Great Match Race

    Nov 26 2018

    America's first national sports spectacle took place in 1823, when the North and South sent their best horses for a single dramatic race that came to symbolize the regional tensions of a changing nation. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of the Great Match Race, which laid the foundations of modern American thoroughbred racing. We'll also ponder a parasite's contribution to culture and puzzle over a misinformed criminal. Intro: Quentin Tarantino's cast a...more

  • 225-The Great Stork Derby

    Nov 19 2018

    When Toronto attorney Charles Vance Millar died in 1926, he left behind a mischievous will that promised a fortune to the woman who gave birth to the most children in the next 10 years. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow the Great Stork Derby and the hope and controversy it brought to Toronto's largest families during the Great Depression. We'll also visit some Portuguese bats and puzzle over a suspicious work crew. Intro: The programming language Shakespeare pro...more

  • 224-Lady Death

    Nov 12 2018

    Lyudmila Pavlichenko was training for a career as a history teacher when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. She suspended her studies to enlist as a sniper in the Red Army, where she discovered a remarkable talent for shooting enemy soldiers. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll trace the career of "Lady Death," the deadliest female sniper in history. We'll also learn where in the world futility.closet.podcast is and puzzle over Air Force One. Intro: Andy Warhol's ...more

  • 223-The Prince of Forgers

    Nov 05 2018

    Denis Vrain-Lucas was an undistinguished forger until he met gullible collector Michel Chasles. Through the 1860s Lucas sold Chasles thousands of phony letters by everyone from Plato to Louis the 14th, earning thousands of francs and touching off a firestorm among confused scholars. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll trace the career of the world's most prolific forger. We'll also count Queen Elizabeth's eggs and puzzle over a destroyed car. Intro: In 2011 Australian ar...more

  • 222-The Year Without a Summer

    Oct 29 2018

    The eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815 was a disaster for the Dutch East Indies, but its astonishing consequences were felt around the world, blocking the sun and bringing cold, famine, and disease to millions of people from China to the United States. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll review the volcano's devastating effects and surprising legacy. We'll also appreciate an inverted aircraft and puzzle over a resourceful barber. Intro: The Veterinary Record addressed an ...more

  • 221-The Mystery Man of Essex County

    Oct 22 2018

    In 1882, a mysterious man using a false name married and murdered a well-to-do widow in Essex County, New York. While awaiting the gallows he composed poems, an autobiography, and six enigmatic cryptograms that have never been solved. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll examine the strange case of Henry Debosnys, whose true identity remains a mystery. We'll also consider children's food choices and puzzle over a surprising footrace. Intro: In 1972 two Canadian scientists...more

  • 220-The Old Hero of Gettysburg

    Oct 08 2018

    In 1863, on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, a 69-year-old shoemaker took down his ancient musket and set out to shoot some rebels. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow John Burns' adventures in that historic battle, which made him famous across the nation and won the praise of Abraham Lincoln. We'll also survey some wallabies and puzzle over some underlined 7s. Intro: Alberta has no rats. In a 1963 travel book, Ian Fleming gives James Bond's recipe for s...more

  • 219-The Greenbrier Ghost

    Oct 01 2018

    In 1897, shortly after Zona Shue was found dead in her West Virginia home, her mother went to the county prosecutor with a bizarre story. She said that her daughter had been murdered -- and that her ghost had revealed the killer's identity. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of the Greenbrier Ghost, one of the strangest courtroom dramas of the 19th century. We'll also consider whether cats are controlling us and puzzle over a delightful oblivion. Intro: A...more

  • 218-Lost in the Amazon

    Sep 24 2018

    In 1769, a Peruvian noblewoman set out with 41 companions to join her husband in French Guiana. But a series of terrible misfortunes left her alone in the Amazon jungle. In this week's episode we'll follow Isabel Godin des Odonais on her harrowing adventure in the rain forest. We'll also learn where in the world "prices slippery traps" is and puzzle over an airport's ingenuity. Intro: In 1949 neurophysiologist Grey Walter built electronic "tortoises" with primitive nervous systems. In 1952 G.V....more

  • 217-The Bone Wars

    Sep 17 2018

    The end of the Civil War opened a new era of fossil hunting in the American West -- and a bitter feud between two rival paleontologists, who spent 20 years sabotaging one another in a constant struggle for supremacy. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of the Bone Wars, the greatest scientific feud of the 19th century. We'll also sympathize with Scunthorpe and puzzle over why a driver can't drive. Intro: Nepal's constitution contains instructions for drawi...more

  • 216-The Tromelin Island Castaways

    Sep 10 2018

    In 1761 a French schooner was shipwrecked in the Indian Ocean, leaving more than 200 people stranded on a tiny island. The crew departed in a makeshift boat, leaving 60 Malagasy slaves to fend for themselves and wait for rescue. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of the Tromelin Island castaways, which one observer calls "arguably the most extraordinary story of survival ever documented." We'll also admire some hardworking cats and puzzle over a racer's d...more

  • 215-The Lieutenant Nun

    Sep 03 2018

    In 1607, a 15-year-old girl fled her convent in the Basque country, dressed herself as a man, and set out on a series of unlikely adventures across Europe. In time she would distinguish herself fighting as a soldier in Spain's wars of conquest in the New World. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of Catalina de Erauso, the lieutenant nun of Renaissance Spain. We'll also hunt for some wallabies and puzzle over a quiet cat. Intro: In 1856 the Saturday Review...more

  • 214-The Poison Squad

    Aug 27 2018

    In 1902, chemist Harvey Wiley launched a unique experiment to test the safety of food additives. He recruited a group of young men and fed them meals laced with chemicals to see what the effects might be. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe Wiley's "poison squad" and his lifelong crusade for food safety. We'll also follow some garden paths and puzzle over some unwelcome weight-loss news. Intro: In 1887, an inadvertent dot in a telegram cost wool dealer Frank Pri...more

  • 213-Grover Cleveland's Secret Surgery

    Aug 20 2018

    In 1893, Grover Cleveland discovered a cancerous tumor on the roof of his mouth. It was feared that public knowledge of the president's illness might set off a financial panic, so Cleveland suggested a daring plan: a secret surgery aboard a moving yacht. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe the president's gamble -- and the courageous reporter who threatened to expose it. We'll also audit some wallabies and puzzle over some welcome neo-Nazis. Intro: Robert Louis ...more

  • 212-The Lost Treasure of Cocos Island

    Aug 13 2018

    Cocos Island, in the eastern Pacific, was rumored to hold buried treasure worth millions of dollars, but centuries of treasure seekers had failed to find it. That didn't deter August Gissler, who arrived in 1889 with a borrowed map and an iron determination. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow Gissler's obsessive hunt for the Treasure of Lima. We'll also marvel at the complexity of names and puzzle over an undead corpse. Intro: In 1875, Frederick Law Olmsted warne...more

  • 211-Cast Away on an Ice Floe

    Aug 06 2018

    Germany's polar expedition of 1869 took a dramatic turn when 14 men were shipwrecked on an ice floe off the eastern coast of Greenland. As the frozen island carried them slowly toward settlements in the south, it began to break apart beneath them. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow the crew of the Hansa on their desperate journey toward civilization. We'll also honor a slime mold and puzzle over a reversing sunset. Intro: The yellow-bellied longclaw, Macronyx fla...more

  • 210-Lateral Thinking Puzzles

    Jul 23 2018

    Here are six new lateral thinking puzzles -- play along with us as we try to untangle some perplexing situations using yes-or-no questions. Here are the sources for this week's puzzles. In a few places we've included links to further information -- these contain spoilers, so don't click until you've listened to the episode: Puzzle #1 was contributed by listener Amy Howard. Puzzle #2 was suggested by an item on the podcast No Such Thing as a Fish. Here are some corroborating links: 1, 2, 3, ...more

  • 209-Lost Off Newfoundland

    Jul 16 2018

    In 1883 fisherman Howard Blackburn was caught in a blizzard off the coast of Newfoundland. Facing bitter cold in an 18-foot boat, he passed through a series of harrowing adventures in a desperate struggle to stay alive and find help. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow Blackburn's dramatic story, which made him famous around the world. We'll also admire a runaway chicken and puzzle over a growing circle of dust. Intro: During Oxfordshire's annual stag hunt in 1819...more

  • 208-Giving Birth to Rabbits

    Jul 09 2018

    In 1726 London was rocked by a bizarre sensation: A local peasant woman began giving birth to rabbits, astounding the city and baffling the medical community. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll review the strange case of Mary Toft, which has been called "history's most fascinating medical mystery." We'll also ponder some pachyderms and puzzle over some medical misinformation. Intro: The notion of music without substance raises some perplexing philosophical puzzles. Japa...more

  • 207-The Bluebelle's Last Voyage

    Jul 02 2018

    In 1961, Wisconsin optometrist Arthur Duperrault chartered a yacht to take his family on a sailing holiday in the Bahamas. After two days in the islands, the ship failed to return to the mainland, and the unfolding story of its final voyage made headlines around the world. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll recount the fate of the Bluebelle and its seven passengers and crew. We'll also sympathize with some digital misfits and puzzle over some incendiary cigarettes. Intr...more

  • 206-The Sky and the Sea

    Jun 25 2018

    Swiss physicist Auguste Piccard opened two new worlds in the 20th century. He was the first person to fly 10 miles above the earth and the first to travel 2 miles beneath the sea, using inventions that opened the doors to these new frontiers. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow Piccard on his historic journeys into the sky and the sea. We'll also admire some beekeeping serendipity and puzzle over a sudden need for locksmiths. Intro: Herbert Hoover's doctor invente...more

  • 205-The White Mouse

    Jun 18 2018

    In 1928 Nancy Wake ran away from her Australian home and into an unlikely destiny: She became a dynamo in the French resistance, helping more than a thousand people to flee the Germans and then organizing partisans to fight them directly. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of the White Mouse, one of the bravest heroes of World War II. We'll also marvel at mailmen and puzzle over an expensive homework assignment. Intro: The town of Agloe, New York, was inv...more

  • 204-Mary Anning's Fossils

    Jun 11 2018

    In 1804, when she was 5 years old, Mary Anning began to dig in the cliffs that flanked her English seaside town. What she found amazed the scientists of her time and challenged the established view of world history. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of "the greatest fossilist the world ever knew.” We'll also try to identify a Norwegian commando and puzzle over some further string pulling. Intro: William Rowan Hamilton was so pleased with the fundamental ...more

  • 203-Notes and Queries

    Jun 04 2018

    In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll explore some more curiosities and unanswered questions from Greg's research, including a misplaced elephant, a momentous biscuit failure, a peripatetic ax murderer, and the importance of the 9 of diamonds. We'll also revisit Michael Malloy's resilience and puzzle over an uncommonly casual prison break. Intro: In 1846, geologist Adam Sedgwick sent his niece some tips on pronouncing Welsh. In 1961, psychologist Robert Sommer reflected th...more

  • 202-The Rosenhan Experiment

    May 28 2018

    In the 1970s psychologist David Rosenhan sent healthy volunteers to 12 psychiatric hospitals, where they claimed to be hearing voices. Once they were admitted, they behaved normally, but the hospitals diagnosed all of them as seriously mentally ill. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe the Rosenhan experiment, which challenged the validity of psychiatric diagnosis and set off a furor in the field. We'll also spot hawks at Wimbledon and puzzle over a finicky payme...more

  • 201-The Gardner Heist

    May 21 2018

    In 1990, two thieves dressed as policemen walked into Boston's Gardner museum and walked out with 13 artworks worth half a billion dollars. After 28 years the lost masterpieces have never been recovered. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe the largest art theft in history and the ongoing search for its solution. We'll also discover the benefits of mustard gas and puzzle over a surprisingly effective fighter pilot. Intro: In 1938, Italian physicist Ettore Majoran...more

  • 200-Lateral Thinking Puzzles

    May 14 2018

      Here are five new lateral thinking puzzles -- play along with us as we try to untangle some perplexing situations using yes-or-no questions. Here are the sources for this week's puzzles. In a few places we've included links to further information -- these contain spoilers, so don't click until you've listened to the episode: Puzzle #1 was contributed by listener Mary McNally. Puzzle #2 is from listeners Tay Moss and John Russell. Puzzle #3 is from Paul Sloane and Des MacHale's 2014 book Remark...more

  • 199-The Mystery of the Carroll A. Deering

    May 07 2018

    In 1921 a schooner ran aground on the treacherous shoals off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. When rescuers climbed aboard, they found signs of a strange drama in the ship's last moments -- and no trace of the 11-man crew. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll examine the curious case of the Carroll A. Deering, which has been called "one of the enduring mysteries of maritime history." We'll also experiment with yellow fever and puzzle over a disputed time of death. Intro: Be...more

  • 198-The Man Who Wouldn't Die

    Apr 30 2018

    In 1932 a quartet of Bronx gangsters set out to murder a friend of theirs in order to collect his life insurance. But Michael Malloy proved to be almost comically difficult to kill. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll review what one observer called "the most clumsily executed insurance scam in New York City history." We'll also burrow into hoarding and puzzle over the value of silence. Intro: In May 1856 Abraham Lincoln gave a fiery speech of which no record exists. Cal...more

  • 197-Alone Across the Outback

    Apr 23 2018

    In 1977, a young woman named Robyn Davidson set out to pursue what she called a "lunatic idea" -- to lead a group of camels 1,700 miles across western Australia, from the center of the continent to the Indian Ocean. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow Davidson's remarkable journey alone through the Outback and learn what it taught her. We'll also dive into the La Brea Tar Pits and puzzle over some striking workers. Intro: O.E. Young of Petersburg, Va., assembled a...more

  • 196-The Long Way Home

    Apr 16 2018

    When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the crew of an American seaplane were caught off guard near New Zealand. Unable to return across the Pacific, they were forced to fly home "the long way" -- all the way around the world. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow the adventures of the Pacific Clipper on its 30,000-mile journey through a world engulfed in war. We'll also delve into the drug industry and puzzle over a curious case of skin lesions. Intro: In the 18th centur...more

  • 195-A Case of Musical Plagiarism

    Apr 09 2018

    When the English concert pianist Joyce Hatto died in 2006, she was remembered as a national treasure for the brilliant playing on her later recordings. But then doubts arose as to whether the performances were really hers. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll review a surprising case of musical plagiarism, which touched off a scandal in the polite world of classical music. We'll also spot foxes in London and puzzle over a welcome illness. Intro: In 1964 a British meteorol...more

  • 194-The Double Life of Clarence King

    Mar 26 2018

    American geologist Clarence King led a strange double life in the late 1800s: He invented a second identity as a black railroad porter so he could marry the woman he loved, and then spent 13 years living separate lives in both white and black America. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll consider the extraordinary lengths that King went to in order to be with the woman he loved. We'll also contemplate the dangers of water and puzzle over a policeman's strange behavior. In...more

  • 193-The Collyer Brothers

    Mar 19 2018

    In the 1930s, brothers Homer and Langley Collyer withdrew from society and began to fill their Manhattan brownstone with newspapers, furniture, musical instruments, and assorted junk. By 1947, when Homer died, the house was crammed with 140 tons of rubbish, and Langley had gone missing. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the strange, sad story of the Hermits of Harlem. We'll also buy a bit of Finland and puzzle over a banker's misfortune. Intro: When New Amsterdam ...more

  • 192-The Winchester Diver

    Mar 12 2018

    In 1905 Winchester Cathedral was in danger of collapsing as its eastern end sank into marshy ground. The surprising solution was to hire a diver, who worked underwater for five years to build a firmer foundation for the medieval structure. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of William Walker and his curious contribution to saving a British landmark. We'll also contemplate a misplaced fire captain and puzzle over a shackled woman. Intro: Anthony Trollope b...more

  • 191-The Longest Flight

    Mar 05 2018

    The world's longest airplane flight took place in 1958, when two aircraft mechanics spent 64 days above the southwestern U.S. in a tiny Cessna with no amenities. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow the aerial adventures of Bob Timm and John Cook as they set a record that still stands today. We'll also consider a derelict kitty and puzzle over a movie set's fashion dictates. Intro: The Pythagorean theorem can be demonstrated using tangrams. Sculptor Marc Quinn mold...more

  • 190-Mary Patten and the Neptune's Car

    Feb 26 2018

    In 1856, an American clipper ship was approaching Cape Horn when its captain collapsed, leaving his 19-year-old wife to navigate the vessel through one of the deadliest sea passages in the world. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of Mary Patten and the harrowing voyage of the Neptune's Car. We'll also consider some improbable recipes and puzzle over a worker's demise. Intro: In 1943, the U.S. considered releasing glowing foxes in Japan to frighten Shinto...more

  • 189-The "Wild White Man"

    Feb 19 2018

    In 1835, settlers in Australia discovered a European man dressed in kangaroo skins, a convict who had escaped an earlier settlement and spent 32 years living among the natives of southern Victoria. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll review the extraordinary life of William Buckley, the so-called "wild white man" of colonial Australia. We'll also try to fend off scurvy and puzzle over some colorful letters. Intro: Radar pioneer Sir Robert Watson-Watt wrote a poem about i...more

  • 188-The Bat Bomb

    Feb 12 2018

    During World War II, the U.S. Army experimented with a bizarre plan: using live bats to firebomb Japanese cities. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe the crazy history of the bat bomb, the extraordinary brainchild of a Pennsylvania dentist. We'll also consider the malleable nature of mental illness and puzzle over an expensive quiz question. Intro: Ever since George Washington, American presidents have hated the job. Harpsichordist Johann Schobert composed a se...more

  • 187-A Human Being in the Bronx Zoo

    Jan 29 2018

    The Bronx Zoo unveiled a controversial exhibit in 1906 -- a Congolese man in a cage in the primate house. The display attracted jeering crowds to the park, but for the man himself it was only the latest in a string of indignities. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll review the sad tale of Ota Benga and his life in early 20th-century America. We'll also delve into fugue states and puzzle over a second interstate speeder. Intro: Finnegans Wake contains nine thunderclaps of...more

  • 186-The Children's Blizzard

    Jan 22 2018

    In January 1888, after a disarming warm spell, a violent storm of blinding snow and bitter cold suddenly struck the American Midwest, trapping farmers in fields, travelers on roads, and hundreds of children in schoolhouses with limited fuel. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe the Children's Blizzard, one of the most harrowing winter storms in American history. We'll also play 20 Questions with a computer and puzzle over some vanishing vultures. Intro: In 1835 a...more

  • 185-The Man From Formosa

    Jan 15 2018

    In 1703, London had a strange visitor, a young man who ate raw meat and claimed that he came from an unknown country on the island of Taiwan. Though many doubted him, he was able to answer any question he was asked, and even wrote a best-selling book about his homeland. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll consider the curious question of the man from Formosa. We'll also scrutinize a stamp forger and puzzle over an elastic Utah. Intro: In 1892 a legionnaire in West Africa...more

  • 184-Lateral Thinking Puzzles

    Jan 01 2018

    Here are six new lateral thinking puzzles -- play along with us as we try to untangle some perplexing situations using yes-or-no questions. Here are the sources for this week's puzzles. In a few places we've included links to further information -- these contain spoilers, so don't click until you've listened to the episode: Puzzle #1 is adapted from an item that Sharon heard on the podcast No Such Thing as a Fish. Here are two corroborating links. Puzzle #2 is from listener Simon Grimes. Puzzle...more

  • 183-An Everest Mystery

    Dec 25 2017

    In 1924 two British mountaineers set out to be the first to conquer Mount Everest. But they never returned to camp, and to this day no one knows whether they reached the top. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll review the case of George Mallory and Andrew Irvin, which has been called "one of the greatest unsolved adventure mysteries of the 20th century." We'll also learn what to do if attacked by a bear and puzzle over the benefits of a water shortage. Intro: Marshall Is...more

  • 182-The Compulsive Wanderer

    Dec 18 2017

    In the 1870s, French gas fitter Albert Dadas started making strange, compulsive trips to distant towns, with no planning or awareness of what he was doing. His bizarre affliction set off a 20-year epidemic of "mad travelers" in Europe, which evaporated as mysteriously as it had begun. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll consider the parable of pathological tourism and its meaning for psychiatry. We'll also contemplate the importance of sick chickens and puzzle over a far...more

  • 181-Operation Gunnerside

    Dec 11 2017

      During World War II, the Allies feared that Germany was on the brink of creating an atomic bomb. To prevent this, they launched a dramatic midnight commando raid to destroy a key piece of equipment in the mountains of southern Norway. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll remember Operation Gunnerside, "one of the most daring and important undercover operations of World War II." We'll also learn what to say when you're invading Britain and puzzle over the life cycle of ci...more

  • 180-An Academic Impostor

    Dec 04 2017

    Marvin Hewitt never finished high school, but he taught advanced physics, engineering, and mathematics under assumed names at seven different schools and universities between 1945 and 1953. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll trace the curious career of an academic impostor, whose story has been called "one of the strangest academic hoaxes in history." We'll also try on a flashproof scarf and puzzle over why a healthy man would check into a hospital. Intro: Between 1950 ...more

  • 179-Two Vanished Young Writers

    Nov 27 2017

    Everett Ruess and Barbara Newhall Follett were born in March 1914 at opposite ends of the U.S. Both followed distinctly unusual lives as they pursued a love of writing. And both disappeared in their 20s, leaving no trace of their whereabouts. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe the brief lives of two promising young authors and the mystery that lingers behind them. We'll also patrol 10 Downing Street and puzzle over when a pigeon isn't a pigeon. Intro: In the 18...more

  • 178-Lateral Thinking Puzzles

    Nov 20 2017

    Here are six new lateral thinking puzzles to test your wits and stump your friends -- play along with us as we try to untangle some perplexing situations using yes-or-no questions. Here are the sources for this week's puzzles. In a few places we've included links to further information -- these contain spoilers, so don't click until you've listened to the episode: Puzzle #1 is adapted from the 2000 book Lateral Mindtrap Puzzles. Puzzle #2 was contributed by listener Dave Lawrence. Puzzle #3 was...more

  • 177-Averting a Catastrophe in Manhattan

    Nov 13 2017

    New York's Citicorp Tower was an architectural sensation when it opened in 1977. But then engineer William LeMessurier realized that its unique design left it dangerously vulnerable to high winds. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe the drama that followed as a small group of decision makers tried to ward off a catastrophe in midtown Manhattan. We'll also cringe at an apartment mixup and puzzle over a tolerant trooper. Intro: A surprising number of record releas...more

  • 176-The Bear That Inspired Winnie-the-Pooh

    Nov 06 2017

    In 1914, Canadian Army veterinarian Harry Colebourn was traveling to the Western Front when he met an orphaned bear cub in an Ontario railway station. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow the adventures of Winnie the bear, including her fateful meeting with A.A. Milne and his son, Christopher Robin. We'll also marvel at some impressive finger counting and puzzle over an impassable bridge. Intro: At least two British television series have included Morse code in the...more

  • 175-The Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island

    Oct 30 2017

    In 1835, a Native American woman was somehow left behind when her dwindling island tribe was transferred to the California mainland. She would spend the next 18 years living alone in a world of 22 square miles. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the poignant story of the lone woman of San Nicolas Island. We'll also learn about an inebriated elephant and puzzle over an unattainable test score. Intro: As construction began on Scotland’s Forth Bridge, engineers offere...more

  • 174-Cracking the Nazi Code

    Oct 23 2017

    In 1940, Germany was sending vital telegrams through neutral Sweden using a sophisticated cipher, and it fell to mathematician Arne Beurling to make sense of the secret messages. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe the outcome, which has been called "one of the greatest accomplishments in the history of cryptography." We'll also learn about mudlarking and puzzle over a chicken-killing Dane. Intro: In 1836, three boys discovered 17 tiny coffins entombed near Edi...more

  • 173-The Worst Journey in the World

    Oct 16 2017

    In 1911, three British explorers made a perilous 70-mile journey in the dead of the Antarctic winter to gather eggs from a penguin rookery in McMurdo Sound. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow the three through perpetual darkness and bone-shattering cold on what one man called "the worst journey in the world." We'll also dazzle some computers and puzzle over some patriotic highways. Intro: In 2014, mathematician Kevin Ferland determined the largest number of words...more

  • 172-An American in Feudal Japan

    Oct 02 2017

    In 1848, five years before Japan opened its closed society to the West, a lone American in a whaleboat landed on the country's northern shore, drawn only by a sense of mystery and a love of adventure. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow Ranald MacDonald as he travels the length of Japan toward a destiny that will transform the country. We'll also remember a Soviet hero and puzzle over some security-conscious neighbors. Intro: In 1794, two French Hussars began an e...more

  • 171-The Emperor of the United States

    Sep 25 2017

    In the 1860s, San Francisco's most popular tourist attraction was not a place but a person: Joshua Norton, an eccentric resident who had declared himself emperor of the United States. Rather than shun him, the city took him to its heart, affectionately indulging his foibles for 21 years. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll consider the reign of Norton I and the meaning of madness. We'll also keep time with the Romans and puzzle over some rising temperatures. Intro: Amazo...more

  • 170-The Mechanical Turk

    Sep 18 2017

    In 1770, Hungarian engineer Wolfgang von Kempelen unveiled a miracle: a mechanical man who could play chess against human challengers. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll meet Kempelen's Mechanical Turk, which mystified audiences in Europe and the United States for more than 60 years. We'll also sit down with Paul Erdős and puzzle over a useful amateur. Intro: Lewis Carroll sent a birthday wish list to child friend Jessie Sinclair in 1878. An octopus named Paul pick...more

  • 169-John Harrison and the Problem of Longitude

    Sep 11 2017

    Ships need a reliable way to know their exact location at sea -- and for centuries, the lack of a dependable method caused shipwrecks and economic havoc for every seafaring nation. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll meet John Harrison, the self-taught English clockmaker who dedicated his life to crafting a reliable solution to this crucial problem. We'll also admire a dentist and puzzle over a magic bus stop. Intro: Working in an Antarctic tent in 1908, Douglas Mawson f...more

  • 168-The Destruction of the Doves Type

    Sep 04 2017

    In March 1913, Thomas James Cobden-Sanderson threw the most beautiful typeface in the world off of London's Hammersmith Bridge to keep it out of the hands of his estranged printing partner. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll explore what would lead a man to destroy the culmination of his life's work -- and what led one modern admirer to try to revive it. We'll also scrutinize a housekeeper and puzzle over a slumped child. Intro: Gustav Mahler rejected the Berlin Royal O...more

  • 167-A Manhattan Murder Mystery

    Aug 28 2017

    In May 1920, wealthy womanizer Joseph Elwell was found shot to death alone in his locked house in upper Manhattan. The police identified hundreds of people who might have wanted Elwell dead, but they couldn't quite pin the crime on any of them. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll review the sensational murder that the Chicago Tribune called "one of the toughest mysteries of all times." We'll also learn a new use for scuba gear and puzzle over a sympathetic vandal. Intro:...more

  • 166-A Dangerous Voyage

    Aug 21 2017

    After Japan invaded the Philippines in 1941 two American servicemen hatched a desperate plan to sail 3,000 miles to Allied Australia in a 20-foot wooden fishing boat. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll join Rocky Gause and William Osborne as they struggle to avoid the Japanese and reach safety. We'll also tell time in Casablanca and puzzle over a towing fatality. Intro: H.M. Small patented a hammock for railway passenger cars in 1889. The clock face on the Marienkirche ...more

  • 165-A Case of Mistaken Identity

    Aug 14 2017

    In 1896, Adolf Beck found himself caught up in a senseless legal nightmare: Twelve women from around London insisted that he'd deceived them and stolen their cash and jewelry. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow Beck's incredible ordeal, which ignited a scandal and inspired historic reforms in the English justice system. We'll also covet some noble socks and puzzle over a numerical sacking. Intro: A 1631 edition of the Bible omitted not in "Thou shalt not commit a...more

  • 164-Vigil on the Ice

    Aug 07 2017

    In 1930, British explorer Augustine Courtauld volunteered to spend the winter alone on the Greenland ice cap, manning a remote weather station. As the snow gradually buried his hut and his supplies steadily dwindled, his relief party failed to arrive. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow Courtauld's increasingly desperate vigil on the ice. We'll also retreat toward George III and puzzle over some unexpected evidence. Intro: Rudyard Kipling hid messages in his illus...more

  • 163-Enslaved in the Sahara

    Jul 31 2017

    In 1815 an American ship ran aground in northwestern Africa, and its crew were enslaved by merciless nomads. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow the desperate efforts of Captain James Riley to find a way to cross the Sahara and beg for help from Western officials in Morocco. We'll also wade through more molasses and puzzle over a prospective guitar thief. Intro: In 1972 archaeologists in northwestern Iran found evidence of one couple's tender final moment. An anon...more

  • 162-John Muir and Stickeen

    Jul 17 2017

    One stormy morning in 1880, naturalist John Muir set out to explore a glacier in Alaska's Taylor Bay, accompanied by an adventurous little dog that had joined his expedition. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe the harrowing predicament that the two faced on the ice, which became the basis of one of Muir's most beloved stories. We'll also marvel at some phonetic actors and puzzle over a season for vasectomies. Intro: In 1904 a 12-year-old J.R.R. Tolkien sent thi...more

  • 161-The Girl Who Fell From the Sky

    Jul 10 2017

    In 1971 high school student Juliane Koepcke fell two miles into the Peruvian rain forest when her airliner broke up in a thunderstorm. Miraculously, she survived the fall, but her ordeal was just beginning. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe Juliane's arduous trek through the jungle in search of civilization and help. We'll also consider whether goats are unlucky and puzzle over the shape of doorknobs. Intro: Before writing about time machines, H.G. Wells calcu...more

  • 160-The Birmingham Sewer Lion

    Jul 03 2017

    Birmingham, England, faced a surprising crisis in 1889: A lion escaped a traveling menagerie and took up residence in the city's sewers, terrifying the local population. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll descend into the tunnels with Frank Bostock, the 21-year-old manager who set out to capture the desperate beast. We'll also revisit a cosmic mystery and puzzle over an incomprehensible language. Intro: Historian Bell Wiley collected the misspellings of Confederate sold...more

  • 159-The Mozart of Mathematics

    Jun 26 2017

    Mathematician Paul Erdős had no home, no job, and no hobbies. Instead, for 60 years he wandered the world, staying with each of hundreds of collaborators just long enough to finish a project, and then moving on. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll meet the "magician of Budapest," whose restless brilliance made him the most prolific mathematician of the 20th century. We'll also ponder Japanese cannibalism in World War II and puzzle over a senseless stabbing. Intro: Elbert...more

  • 158-The Mistress of Murder Farm

    Jun 19 2017

    Belle Gunness was one of America's most prolific female serial killers, luring lonely men to her Indiana farm with promises of marriage, only to rob and kill them. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of The LaPorte Black Widow and learn about some of her unfortunate victims. We'll also break back into Buckingham Palace and puzzle over a bet with the devil. Intro: Lee Sallows offered this clueless crossword in November 2015 -- can you solve it? Souvenir hu...more

  • 157-The Brutal History of Batavia's Graveyard

    Jun 12 2017

    In 1629, a Dutch trading vessel struck a reef off the coast of Australia, marooning 180 people on a tiny island. As they struggled to stay alive, their leader descended into barbarity, gathering a band of cutthroats and killing scores of terrified castaways. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll document the brutal history of Batavia's graveyard, the site of Australia's most infamous shipwreck. We'll also lose money in India and puzzle over some invisible Frenchmen. Intro:...more

  • 156-The Most Dedicated Soldier

    Jun 05 2017

    When American forces overran the Philippine island of Lubang in 1945, Japanese intelligence officer Hiroo Onoda withdrew into the mountains to wait for reinforcements. He was still waiting 29 years later. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll meet the dedicated soldier who fought World War II until 1974. We'll also dig up a murderer and puzzle over an offensive compliment. Intro: In 1896, Austrian engineers designed a mountain railway pulled by a balloon. In 1965 Kingsley ...more

  • 155-The Giraffe Who Walked to Paris

    May 29 2017

    In 1824 the viceroy of Egypt sent a unique gift to the new king of France: a two-month-old giraffe that had just been captured in the highlands of Sudan. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow the 4,000-mile journey of Zarafa, the royal giraffe, from her African homeland to the king's menagerie in Paris. We'll also visit Queen Victoria's coronation and puzzle over a child's surprising recovery. Intro: In 1952 a stray cat made a home in Classroom 8 of a California ele...more

  • 154-Spared by a Volcano

    May 22 2017

    The worst volcanic disaster of the 20th century struck Martinique in 1902, killing 30,000 people in the scenic town of Saint-Pierre. But rescuers found one man alive -- a 27-year-old laborer in a dungeon-like jail cell. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll meet Ludger Sylbaris, who P.T. Barnum called "The Only Living Object That Survived in the Silent City of Death." We'll also address some Indian uncles and puzzle over a gruesome hike. Intro: The French newspaper La Boug...more

  • 153-A Victorian Stalker

    May 15 2017

    Between 1838 and 1841, an enterprising London teenager broke repeatedly into Buckingham Palace, sitting on the throne, eating from the kitchen, and posing a bewildering nuisance to Queen Victoria's courtiers, who couldn't seem to keep him out. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe the exploits of Edward Jones -- and the severe measures that were finally taken to stop them. We'll also salute some confusing flags and puzzle over an extraterrestrial musician. Intro: ...more

  • 152-Lateral Thinking Puzzles

    May 01 2017

    Here are five new lateral thinking puzzles to test your wits and stump your friends -- play along with us as we try to untangle some perplexing situations using yes-or-no questions. Here are the sources for this week's puzzles. In a couple of places we've included links to further information -- these contain spoilers, so don't click until you've listened to the episode: Puzzle #1 was contributed by listener Dave Lawrence. Puzzle #2 is from listener Michael Berman. Puzzle #3 is from Paul Sloane...more

  • 151-Double-Crossing the Nazis

    Apr 24 2017

    In 1941, Catalonian chicken farmer Juan Pujol made an unlikely leap into the world of international espionage, becoming a spy first for the Germans, then for the British, and rising to become one of the greatest double agents of World War II. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe Pujol's astonishing talent for deceiving the Nazis, which led one colleague to call him "the best actor in the world." We'll also contemplate a floating Chicago and puzzle over a winding ...more

  • 150-The Prince of Nowhere

    Apr 17 2017

    In 1821, Scottish adventurer Gregor MacGregor undertook one of the most brazen scams in history: He invented a fictional Central American republic and convinced hundreds of his countrymen to invest in its development. Worse, he persuaded 250 people to set sail for this imagined utopia with dreams of starting a new life. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe the disastrous results of MacGregor's deceit. We'll also illuminate a hermit's behavior and puzzle over Liec...more

  • 149-The North Pond Hermit

    Apr 10 2017

    Without any forethought or preparation, Christopher Knight walked into the Maine woods in 1986 and lived there in complete solitude for the next 27 years, subsisting on what he was able to steal from local cabins. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of the North Pond hermit, one man's attempt to divorce himself completely from civilization. We'll also look for coded messages in crosswords and puzzle over an ineffective snake. Intro: Disneyland's Matterhorn...more

  • 148-The Perfect Murder

    Apr 03 2017

    Insurance agent William Herbert Wallace had a terrible night in January 1931 -- summoned to a nonexistent address in Liverpool, he returned home to find that his wife had been murdered in his absence. An investigation seemed to show a senseless crime with no weapon, no motive, and no likely suspects. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll revisit the slaying of Julia Wallace, which Raymond Chandler called "the impossible murder." We'll also recount some wobbly oaths and puz...more

  • 147-The Call of Mount Kenya

    Mar 27 2017

    Stuck in an East African prison camp in 1943, Italian POW Felice Benuzzi needed a challenge to regain his sense of purpose. He made a plan that seemed crazy -- to break out of the camp, climb Mount Kenya, and break back in. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow Benuzzi and two companions as they try to climb the second-highest mountain in Africa using homemade equipment. We'll also consider whether mirages may have doomed the Titanic and puzzle over an ineffective o...more

  • 146-Alone in the Wilderness

    Mar 20 2017

    In 1913 outdoorsman Joseph Knowles pledged to spend two months in the woods of northern Maine, naked and alone, fending for himself "without the slightest communication or aid from the outside world." In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow Knowles' adventures in the woods and the controversy that followed his return to civilization. We'll also consider the roots of nostalgia and puzzle over some busy brothers. Intro: In 1972, a French physicist discovered a natural u...more

  • 145-The Pied Piper of Saipan

    Mar 13 2017

    Guy Gabaldon was an untested Marine when he landed on the Pacific island of Saipan during World War II. But he decided to fight the war on his own terms, venturing alone into enemy territory and trying to convince Japanese soldiers to surrender voluntarily. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow Gabaldon's dangerous crusade and learn its surprising results. We'll also examine Wonder Woman's erotic origins and puzzle over an elusive murderer. Intro: In 1955 Dodge intr...more

  • 144-The Murder Castle

    Mar 06 2017

    When detectives explored the Chicago hotel owned by insurance fraudster H.H. Holmes in 1894, they found a nightmarish warren of blind passageways, trapdoors, hidden chutes, and asphyxiation chambers in which Holmes had killed dozens or perhaps even hundreds of victims. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow the career of America's first documented serial killer, who headlines called "a fiend in human shape." We'll also gape at some fireworks explosions and puzzle ove...more

  • 143-The Conscience Fund

    Feb 27 2017

    For 200 years the U.S. Treasury has maintained a "conscience fund" that accepts repayments from people who have defrauded or stolen from the government. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe the history of the fund and some of the more memorable and puzzling contributions it's received over the years. We'll also ponder Audrey Hepburn's role in World War II and puzzle over an illness cured by climbing poles. Intro: Wisconsin banker John Krubsack grafted 32 box elde...more

  • 142-Fingerprints and Polygraphs

    Feb 20 2017

    Fingerprint identification and lie detectors are well-known tools of law enforcement today, but both were quite revolutionary when they were introduced. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe the memorable cases where these innovations were first used. We'll also see some phantom ships and puzzle over a beer company's second thoughts. Intro: In 1892, Bostonians realized that the architects of their new library had hidden their name in the façade. In 1918, a Califor...more

  • 141-Abducted by Indians, a Captive of Whites

    Feb 13 2017

    In 1836, Indians abducted a 9-year-old girl from her home in East Texas. She made a new life among the Comanche, with a husband and three children. Then, after 24 years, the whites abducted her back again. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of Cynthia Ann Parker, caught up in a war between two societies. We'll also analyze a forger's motives and puzzle over why a crowd won't help a dying woman. Intro: Mathematician Ernst Straus invented a shape in which a...more

  • 140-Ramanujan

    Feb 06 2017

    In 1913, English mathematician G.H. Hardy received a package from an unknown accounting clerk in India, with nine pages of mathematical results that he found "scarcely possible to believe." In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast, we'll follow the unlikely friendship that sprang up between Hardy and Srinivasa Ramanujan, whom Hardy called "the most romantic figure in the recent history of mathematics." We'll also probe Carson McCullers' heart and puzzle over a well-proportioned amp...more

  • 139-The Painter's Revenge

    Jan 30 2017

    When critics dismissed his paintings, Dutch artist Han van Meegeren decided to seek his revenge on the art world: He devoted himself to forgery and spent six years fabricating a Vermeer masterpiece. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast, we'll recount the career of a master forger and the surprising mistake that eventually brought him down. We'll also drop in on D.B. Cooper and puzzle over an eyeless fruit burglar. Intro: In 1976, the New York Times accidentally dated an issue ...more

  • 138-Life in a Cupboard

    Jan 23 2017

    In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell two stories about people who spent years confined in miserably small spaces. North Carolina slave Harriet Jacobs spent seven years hiding in a narrow space under her grandmother's roof, evading her abusive owner, and Irishman Patrick Fowler spent most of World War I hiding in the cabinet of a sympathetic family in German-occupied France. We'll also subdivide Scotland and puzzle over a ballerina's silent reception. Intro: During a ...more

  • 137-The Mystery of Fiona Macleod

    Jan 16 2017

    When the Scottish writer William Sharp died in 1905, his wife revealed a surprising secret: For 10 years he had kept up a second career as a reclusive novelist named Fiona Macleod, carrying on correspondences and writing works in two distinctly different styles. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll explore Sharp's curious relationship with his feminine alter ego, whose sporadic appearances perplexed even him. We'll also hunt tigers in Singapore and puzzle over a surprisin...more

  • 136-The Boston Molasses Disaster

    Jan 09 2017

    In 1919 a bizarre catastrophe struck Boston's North End: A giant storage tank failed, releasing 2 million gallons of molasses into a crowded business district at the height of a January workday. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of the Boston Molasses Disaster, which claimed 21 lives and inscribed a sticky page into the city's history books. We'll also admire some Scandinavian statistics and puzzle over a provocative Facebook photo. Intro: In 1888 three ...more

  • 135-Lateral Thinking Puzzles

    Dec 26 2016

    Here are six new lateral thinking puzzles to test your wits and stump your friends -- play along with us as we try to untangle some perplexing situations using yes-or-no questions. Below are the sources for this week's puzzles. In a few places we've included links to further information -- these contain spoilers, so don't click until you've listened to the episode: Puzzle #1 is from Dan Lewis' Now I Know newsletter of April 28, 2016. Puzzle #2 was contributed by listener Jon Sweitzer-Lamme, who...more

  • 134-The Christmas Truce

    Dec 19 2016

    In December 1914 a remarkable thing happened on the Western Front: British and German soldiers stopped fighting and left their trenches to greet one another, exchange souvenirs, bury their dead, and sing carols in the spirit of the holiday season. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of the Christmas truce, which one participant called "one of the highlights of my life." We'll also remember James Thurber's Aunt Sarah and puzzle over an anachronistic twin. I...more

  • 133-Notes and Queries

    Dec 12 2016

    In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll explore some more curiosities and unanswered questions from Greg's research, including a pilot who saved Buckingham Palace, a ghost who confronted Arthur Conan Doyle, what Mark Twain learned from a palm reader, and a bedeviling superfluity of Norwegians. We'll also discover a language used only by women and puzzle over a gift that's best given sparingly. Intro: Horatio Nelson's coffin was fashioned from the mast of a French flagship th...more

  • 132-The Mad Gasser of Mattoon

    Dec 05 2016

    In 1944, a bizarre criminal assaulted the small town of Mattoon, Illinois. Victims reported smelling a sickly sweet odor in their bedrooms before being overcome with nausea and a feeling of paralysis. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll pursue the mad gasser of Mattoon, who vanished as quickly as he had struck, leaving residents to wonder whether he had ever existed at all. We'll also ponder the concept of identical cousins and puzzle over a midnight stabbing. Intro: Ent...more

  • 131-Escape From Libby Prison

    Nov 28 2016

    Libby Prison was one of the most infamous prison camps of the Civil War -- thousands of Union prisoners were packed together in a converted warehouse, facing months or years of starvation and abuse. The Confederates thought the prison was escape-proof, and in this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll show how a determined group of prisoners set out to prove them wrong. We'll also duel with a barrel and puzzle over why an admitted forger would be found innocent. Intro: Iowa attorn...more

  • 130-The Unlikely Ultramarathoner

    Nov 21 2016

    Australia's Westfield ultramarathon had a surprise entrant in 1983: A 61-year-old potato farmer named Cliff Young joined a field of elite professional runners for the 500-mile race from Sydney to Melbourne. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe Young's fortunes in the race and the heart, tenacity, and humor that endeared him to a nation. We'll also learn the difference between no and nay and puzzle over a Japanese baby shortage. Intro: Thomas Wedders exhibited his...more

  • 129-The Voynich Manuscript

    Nov 14 2016

    In 1912, bookseller Wilfrid Voynich discovered an illustrated manuscript that was written in a mysterious alphabet that had never been seen before. The text bears the hallmarks of natural language, but no one has ever been able to determine its meaning. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll learn about the Voynich manuscript, which has been bewildering scholars for more than a century. We'll also ponder some parliamentary hostages and puzzle over a tormenting acquisition. ...more

  • 128-The Battle for Castle Itter

    Nov 07 2016

    The closing days of World War II witnessed a bizarre battle with some unlikely allies: American and German soldiers joined forces to rescue a group of French prisoners from a medieval castle in the Austrian Alps. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow the Battle for Castle Itter, the only time that Allies and Germans fought together in the war. We'll also dodge another raft of aerial bombs and puzzle over a bottled pear. Intro: In 1917, Royal Flying Corps trainee Gra...more

  • 127-Rowing Across the Atlantic

    Oct 24 2016

    In 1896 two New Jersey clam diggers made a bold bid for fame: They set out to cross the North Atlantic in a rowboat, a feat that had never been accomplished before. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow the adventure of George Harbo and Frank Samuelsen, which one newspaper called "the most remarkable event in the way of ocean navigation that ever transpired." We'll also meet some military mammals and puzzle over a thwarted burglar. Intro: The score for Telemann's Gu...more

  • 126-The Great Australian Poetry Hoax

    Oct 17 2016

    In 1943, fed up with modernist poetry, two Australian servicemen invented a fake poet and submitted a collection of deliberately senseless verses to a Melbourne arts magazine. To their delight, they were accepted and their author hailed as "one of the most remarkable and important poetic figures of this country." In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of the Ern Malley hoax, its perpetrators, and its surprising legacy in Australian literature. We'll also hear...more

  • 125-The Campden Wonder

    Oct 10 2016

    When William Harrison disappeared from Campden, England, in 1660, his servant offered an incredible explanation: that he and his family had murdered him. The events that followed only proved the situation to be even more bizarre. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe "the Campden wonder," an enigma that has eluded explanation for more than 300 years. We'll also consider Vladimir Putin's dog and puzzle over a little girl's benefactor. Intro: In 1921, Pennsylvania s...more

  • 124-D.B. Cooper

    Oct 03 2016

    In 1971 a mysterious man hijacked an airliner in Portland, Oregon, demanding $200,000 and four parachutes. He bailed out somewhere over southwestern Washington and has never been seen again. In today's show we'll tell the story of D.B. Cooper, the only unsolved hijacking in American history. We'll also hear some musical disk drives and puzzle over a bicyclist's narrow escape. Intro: In 1973, Swedish mathematician Per Enflo won a goose for solving a problem posed 37 years earlier. Established in...more

  • 123-Washington D.C.'s Hidden Tunnels

    Sep 26 2016

      In 1924 a curious network of catacombs was discovered in Washington D.C. They were traced to Harrison Dyar, a Smithsonian entomologist who had been industriously digging tunnels in the city for almost two decades. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe Dyar's strange hobby -- and the equally bizarre affairs in his personal life. We'll also revisit balloons in World War II and puzzle over a thief's change of heart. Intro: The melody of Peter Cornelius' 1854 composi...more

  • 122-The Bear Who Went to War

    Sep 19 2016

    During World War II a Polish transport company picked up an unusual mascot: a Syrian brown bear that grew to 500 pounds and traveled with his human friends through the Middle East and Europe. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll meet Wojtek, the "happy warrior," and follow his adventures during and after the war. We'll also catch up with a Russian recluse and puzzle over a murderous daughter. Intro: In 1956, U.S. Navy pilot Tom Attridge overtook his cannon rounds and shot...more

  • 121-Starving for Science

    Sep 12 2016

      During the siege of Leningrad in World War II, a heroic group of Russian botanists fought cold, hunger, and German attacks to keep alive a storehouse of crops that held the future of Soviet agriculture. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of the Vavilov Institute, whose scientists literally starved to death protecting tons of treasured food. We'll also follow a wayward sailor and puzzle over how to improve the safety of tanks. Intro: Tippi Hedren, star of...more

  • 120-The Barnes Mystery

    Sep 05 2016

    In 1879 a ghastly crime gripped England: A London maid had dismembered her employer and then assumed her identity for two weeks, wearing her clothes and jewelry and selling her belongings. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe the murder of Julia Thomas and its surprising modern postscript. We'll also discover the unlikely origins of a Mary Poppins character and puzzle over a penguin in a canoe. Intro: Early airplanes were sometimes attacked by confused eagles. Al...more

  • 119-Lost in the Taiga

    Aug 29 2016

    In 1978 a team of geologists discovered a family of five living deep in the Siberian forest, 150 miles from the nearest village. Fearing persecution, they had lived entirely on their own since 1936, praying, tending a meager garden, and suffering through winter temperatures of 40 below zero. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll meet the Lykov family, whose religious beliefs committed them to "the greatest solitude on the earth." We'll also learn about Esperanto's role in ...more

  • 118-The Restless Corpse of Elmer McCurdy

    Aug 22 2016

      In 1976 a television crew discovered a mummified corpse in a California funhouse. Unbelievably, an investigation revealed that it belonged to an Oklahoma outlaw who had been shot by sheriff's deputies in 1911 and whose remains had been traveling the country ever since. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll trace the postmortem odyssey of Elmer McCurdy, "the bandit who wouldn't give up." We'll also reflect on a Dutch artist's disappearance and puzzle over some mysterious h...more

  • 117-The Road to En-dor

    Aug 15 2016

    In 1917 a pair of Allied officers combined a homemade Ouija board, audacity, and imagination to hoax their way out of a remote prison camp in the mountains of Turkey. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe the remarkable escape of Harry Jones and Cedric Hill, which one observer called “the most colossal fake of modern times.” We'll also consider a cactus' role in World War II and puzzle over a cigar-smoking butler. Intro: A 1962 writer to the London Times contends ...more

  • 116-Notes and Queries

    Aug 08 2016

    In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll explore some curiosities and unanswered questions from Greg's research, including the love affair that inspired the Rolls Royce hood ornament, a long-distance dancer, Otto von Bismarck's dogs, and a craftily plotted Spanish prison break. We'll also run after James Earl Ray and puzzle over an unsociable jockey. Intro: Workers constructing Washington's Grand Coulee Dam in 1942 fed a cable through a 500-foot drain by tying a string to an ...more

  • 115-Gettysburg's Unknown Soldier

    Jul 25 2016

    After the Battle of Gettysburg, a dead Union soldier was found near the center of town. He bore no identification, but in his hands he held a photograph of three children. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow the efforts of one Philadelphia physician to track down the lost man's family using only the image of his children. We'll also sample a 9-year-old's comedy of manners and puzzle over a letter that copies itself. Intro: The mayor of Talkeetna, Alaska, is a cat ...more

  • 114-The Desperation of Donald Crowhurst

    Jul 18 2016

      In 1968 British engineer Donald Crowhurst entered a round-the-world yacht race, hoping to use the prize money to save his failing electronics business. Woefully unprepared and falling behind, he resorted to falsifying a journey around the world. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe the desperate measures that Crowhurst turned to as events spiraled out of his control. We'll also get some updates on Japanese fire balloons and puzzle over a computer that turns on t...more

  • 113-The Battle Over Mother's Day

    Jul 11 2016

      Anna Jarvis organized the first observance of Mother's Day in 1908 and campaigned to have the holiday adopted throughout the country. But her next four decades were filled with bitterness and acrimony as she watched her "holy day" devolve into a "burdensome, wasteful, expensive gift-day." In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast, we'll follow the evolution of Mother's Day and Jarvis' belligerent efforts to control it. We'll also meet a dog that flummoxed the Nazis and puzzle over ...more

  • 112-The Disappearance of Michael Rockefeller

    Jul 04 2016

    In 1961, Michael Rockefeller disappeared after a boating accident off the coast of Dutch New Guinea. Ever since, rumors have circulated that the youngest son of the powerful Rockefeller family had been killed by the headhunting cannibals who lived in the area. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast, we'll recount Rockefeller's story and consider the different fates that might have befallen him. We'll also learn more about the ingenuity of early sportscasters and puzzle over a baf...more

  • 111-Japanese Fire Balloons

    Jun 27 2016

    Toward the end of World War II, Japan launched a strange new attack on the United States: thousands of paper balloons that would sail 5,000 miles to drop bombs on the American mainland. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast, we'll tell the curious story of the Japanese fire balloons, the world's first intercontinental weapon. We'll also discuss how to tell time by cannon and puzzle over how to find a lost tortoise. Sources for our feature on Japanese fire balloons: Ross Coen, Fu...more

  • 110-The Brooklyn Chameleon

    Jun 20 2016

    Over the span of half a century, Brooklyn impostor Stanley Clifford Weyman impersonated everyone from a Navy admiral to a sanitation expert. When caught, he would admit his deception, serve his jail time, and then take up a new identity. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast, we'll review Weyman's surprisingly successful career and describe some of his more audacious undertakings. We'll also puzzle over why the police would arrest an unremarkable bus passenger. Sources for our f...more

  • 109-Trapped in a Cave

    Jun 12 2016

    In 1925, Kentucky caver Floyd Collins was exploring a new tunnel when a falling rock caught his foot, trapping him 55 feet underground. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow the desperate efforts to free Collins, whose plight became one of the first popular media sensations of the 20th century. We'll also learn how Ronald Reagan invented a baseball record and puzzle over a fatal breakfast. Sources for our feature on Floyd Collins: Robert K. Murray and Roger W. Bruck...more

  • 108-The Greenwich Time Lady

    Jun 06 2016

    As recently as 1939, a London woman made her living by setting her watch precisely at the Greenwich observatory and "carrying the time" to her customers in the city. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll meet Ruth Belville, London's last time carrier, who conducted her strange occupation for 50 years. We'll also sample the colorful history of bicycle races and puzzle over a stymied prizewinner. Sources for our feature on Ruth Belville: David Rooney, Ruth Belville: The Gree...more

  • 107-Arthur Nash and the Golden Rule

    May 29 2016

    In 1919, Ohio businessman Arthur Nash decided to run his clothing factory according to the Golden Rule and treat his workers the way he'd want to be treated himself. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll visit Nash's “Golden Rule Factory” and learn the results of his innovative social experiment. We'll also marvel at metabolism and puzzle over the secrets of Chicago pickpockets. Sources for our feature on Arthur Nash: Arthur Nash, The Golden Rule in Business, 1923. (Underc...more

  • 106-The Popgun War

    May 23 2016

    During wargames in Louisiana in September 1941, the U.S. Army found itself drawn into a tense firefight with an unseen enemy across the Cane River. The attacker turned out to be three boys with a toy cannon. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll revisit the Battle of Bermuda Bridge and the Prudhomme brothers' account of their historic engagement. We'll also rhapsodize on guinea pigs and puzzle over some praiseworthy incompetence. Sources for our feature on the "Battle of B...more

  • 105-Surviving on Seawater

    May 08 2016

    In 1952, French physician Alain Bombard set out to cross the Atlantic on an inflatable raft to prove his theory that a shipwreck victim can stay alive on a diet of seawater, fish, and plankton. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll set out with Bombard on his perilous attempt to test his theory. We'll also admire some wobbly pedestrians and puzzle over a luckless burglar. Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet -- on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount ...more

  • 104-The Harvey's Casino Bombing

    May 02 2016

    In August 1980, an extortionist planted a thousand-pound bomb in Harvey’s Wagon Wheel Casino in western Nevada. Unless the owners paid him $3 million within 24 hours, he said, the bomb would go off and destroy the casino. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe the tense drama that followed and the FBI's efforts to catch the criminal behind it. We'll also consider some dubious lawn care shortcuts and puzzle over why a man would tear up a winning ticket. Please consi...more

  • 103-Legislating Pi

    Apr 24 2016

    In 1897, confused physician Edward J. Goodwin submitted a bill to the Indiana General Assembly declaring that he'd squared the circle -- a mathematical feat that was known to be impossible. In today's show we'll examine the Indiana pi bill, its colorful and eccentric sponsor, and its celebrated course through a bewildered legislature and into mathematical history. We'll also marvel at the confusion wrought by turkeys and puzzle over a perplexing baseball game. Please consider becoming a patr...more

  • 102-The Bunion Derby

    Apr 18 2016

    In 1928, 199 runners set out on a perilous 3,400-mile footrace across America, from Los Angeles to Chicago and on to New York. The winner would receive $25,000 -- if anyone finished at all. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow the Trans-American Footrace, better known as the Bunion Derby, billed as the greatest footrace the world had ever known. We'll also learn some creepy things about spiders and puzzle over why one man needs three cars. Please consider becomi...more

  • 101-Jerome

    Apr 11 2016

    In 1863 the residents of Sandy Cove, Nova Scotia, discovered a legless man on the shore of St. Mary's Bay. He spoke no English and could not tell them who he was or where he had come from. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of "Jerome" and what is known or guessed of his past. We'll also learn about explosive rats in World War II and puzzle over a computer that works better when its users sit. Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet -- on ...more

  • 100-Lateral Thinking Puzzles

    Apr 04 2016

    Here are five new lateral thinking puzzles to test your wits and stump your friends -- play along with us as we try to untangle some perplexing situations using yes-or-no questions. Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet -- on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we've set up some rewards to help thank you for your support. You can also make a one-time donatio...more

  • 099-Notes and Queries

    Mar 28 2016

    In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll take a tour through some oddities and unanswered questions from our research, including whether a spider saved Frederick the Great's life, a statue with the wrong face, and a spectacularly disaster-prone oil tanker. We'll also revisit the lost soldiers of World War I and puzzle over some curiously lethal ship cargo. Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet -- on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and...more

  • 098-The St. Albans Raid

    Mar 21 2016

    Seemingly safe in northern New England, the residents of St. Albans, Vermont, were astonished in October 1864 when a group of Confederate soldiers appeared in their midst, terrorizing residents, robbing banks, and stealing horses. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of the St. Albans raid, the northernmost land action of the Civil War. We'll also learn about Charles Darwin's misadventures at the equator and puzzle over a groundskeeper's strange method of...more

  • 097-The Villisca Ax Murders

    Mar 14 2016

    Early one morning in 1912, the residents of Villisca, Iowa, discovered a horrible scene: An entire family had been brutally murdered in their sleep. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe the gruesome crime, which has baffled investigators for a hundred years. We'll also follow the further adventures of German sea ace Felix von Luckner and puzzle over some fickle bodyguards. Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet -- on our Patreon page you can pled...more

  • 096-The Abduction of Edgardo Mortara

    Mar 07 2016

    On June 23, 1858, the Catholic Church removed 6-year-old Edgardo Mortara from his family in Bologna. The reason they gave was surprising: The Mortaras were Jewish, and Edgardo had been secretly baptized. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of little Edgardo and learn how his family's plight shaped the course of Italian history. We'll also hear Ben Franklin's musings on cultural bigotry and puzzle over an unexpected soccer riot. Please consider becoming ...more

  • 095-A New Day at Charleston

    Feb 29 2016

    In 1862, slave Robert Smalls was working as a pilot aboard a Confederate transport ship in Charleston, S.C., when he seized a unique chance to escape. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow his daring predawn journey, which rescued 17 people from slavery and changed the course of South Carolina history. We'll also reflect on justice for bears and puzzle over a hijacker's surprising request. Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet -- on our Patreon pag...more

  • 094-The Living Unknown Soldier

    Feb 22 2016

    A quarter million Frenchmen vanished in World War I, leaving their families no clue whether they were still alive. During these anxious years, a lone man appeared on a Lyon railway platform without memory, possessions, or identification. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the strange story of Anthelme Mangin, whose enigmatic case attracted hundreds of desperate families. We'll also consider some further oddities of constitutional history and puzzle over an unpopu...more

  • 093-The Old Flying Days

    Feb 08 2016

    In the early days of English aviation, journalist C.C. Turner seemed to be everywhere, witnessing bold new feats and going on some harrowing adventures of his own. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll sample Turner's record of Edwardian aviation, including his own clumsy first attempt to fly an airplane and a record-setting balloon voyage to Sweden. We'll also ponder the nuances of attempted murder and puzzle over a motel guest's noisemaking. Please consider becoming a...more

  • 092-The Forgotten Amendment

    Feb 01 2016

    In 1982, college sophomore Gregory Watson got a C on a term paper arguing that a long-forgotten constitutional amendment could still be ratified. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow his 10-year mission to prove his professor wrong and get the amendment added to the Constitution. We'll also learn an underhanded way to win a poetry contest and puzzle over how someone can murder a corpse. Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet -- on our Patreon page ...more

  • 091-The Voyage of the Damned

    Jan 25 2016

    In 1939, an ocean liner carrying 900 Jewish refugees left Nazi Germany seeking sanctuary in North America, but it was turned away by every nation it appealed to. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow the so-called "voyage of the damned" and the plight of its increasingly desperate passengers. We'll also discuss the employment prospects for hermits in Seattle and puzzle over the contentment of a condemned woman. Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet...more

  • 090-The Candy Bar War

    Jan 18 2016

    In 1947, the price of a candy bar in British Columbia rose from 5 to 8 cents, and the local teenagers organized a surprisingly effective "strike" that soon spread across the country. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow Canada's unlikely "candy bar war," which gripped the nation for 10 days before ending with a surprising twist. We'll also take a grueling automobile ride across 1903 America and puzzle over the intentions of a masked man. Please consider becoming...more

  • 089-An African From Baltimore

    Jan 11 2016

    In the 1920s Bata Kindai Amgoza ibn LoBagola toured the United States and Europe to share the culture of his African homeland with fascinated audiences. The reality was actually much more mundane: His name was Joseph Lee and he was from Baltimore. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the curious story of this self-described "savage" and trace the unraveling of his imaginative career. We'll also dump a bucket of sarcasm on Duluth, Minnesota, and puzzle over why an a...more

  • 088-Mrs. Wilkinson and the Lyrebird

    Jan 04 2016

    Almost nothing was known about Australia's elusive lyrebird until 1930, when an elderly widow named Edith Wilkinson encountered one on her garden path one February morning. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow the curious friendship that evolved between Wilkinson and "James," which led to an explosion of knowledge about his reclusive species. We'll also learn how Seattle literally remade itself in the early 20th century and puzzle over why a prolific actress was ...more

  • 087-A Sleuthing Cabbie, Edward VI's Homework, and a Self-Aware Crow

    Dec 28 2015

    In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll share seven oddities from Greg's research, from Arthur Conan Doyle's encounter with a perceptive Boston cabbie to a computer's failed attempts to rewrite Aesop's fables. We'll also hear boxer Gene Tunney's thoughts on Shakespeare and puzzle over how a man on a park bench can recognize a murder at sea. Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet -- on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and all contributi...more

  • 086-Lateral Thinking Puzzles

    Dec 21 2015

    Here are six new lateral thinking puzzles to test your wits and stump your friends -- play along with us as we try to untangle some strange situations using only yes-or-no questions. Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet -- on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we've set up some rewards to help thank you for your support. You can also make a one-time donati...more

  • 085-Raising Chicago

    Dec 14 2015

      In 1868, visiting Scotsman David Macrae was astonished to see Chicago transforming itself -- dozens of buildings were transplanted to the suburbs, and hotels weighing hundreds of tons were raised on jackscrews. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow the city's astounding 20-year effort to rid itself of sewage and disease. We'll also learn how a bear almost started World War III and puzzle over the importance of a ringing phone. Please consider becoming a patron...more

  • 084-The Man Who Never Was

    Dec 07 2015

      In 1942, Germany discovered a dead British officer floating off the coast of Spain, carrying important secret documents about the upcoming invasion of Europe. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe Operation Mincemeat, which has been called "the most imaginative and successful ruse" of World War II. We'll also hear from our listeners about Scottish titles and mountain-climbing pussycats and puzzle over one worker's seeming unwillingness to help another. Pleas...more

  • 083-Nuclear Close Calls

    Nov 30 2015

    In 1983, Soviet satellites reported that the United States had launched a nuclear missile toward Moscow, and one officer had only minutes to decide whether to initiate a counterstrike. In today's show we'll learn about some nuclear near misses from the Cold War that came to light only decades after they occurred. We'll also hear listeners' input about crescent moons and newcomers to India, and puzzle over the fatal consequences of a man's departure from his job. Sources for our feature on St...more

  • 082-Stealing Abe Lincoln

    Nov 23 2015

    In 1876, a gang of inept Chicago counterfeiters launched an absurd plot to steal the body of Abraham Lincoln and hold it for ransom. In today's episode of the Futility Closet podcast, we'll follow their comical attempts to carry out the bizarre scheme, and uncover the secret society that was formed afterward to protect Lincoln's corpse. We'll also puzzle over an overlooked way to reduce the odds of dying of a heart attack. Sources for our feature on Lincoln's bodysnatchers: Thomas J. Craugh...more

  • 081-The Typhus Hoax

    Nov 15 2015

    In 1939, as Germany was sending the people of Poland to labor and death camps, two doctors found a unique way to save their countrymen -- by faking an epidemic. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll learn about their clever plan, which ultimately saved 8,000 people. We'll also consider four schemes involving tiny plots of land and puzzle over why a library would waive its fees for a lost book. Sources for our feature on Eugene Lazowski: Damon Adams, "2 Doctors Used Typ...more

  • 080-'Black Like Me': Race Realities Under Jim Crow

    Nov 02 2015

    In 1959, Texas journalist John Howard Griffin darkened his skin and lived for six weeks as a black man in the segregated South. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe his harrowing experience and what it taught him about the true state of race relations in America. We'll also ponder crescent moons, German submarines, and griffins in India and puzzle over why a man would be arrested for winning a prize at a county fair. Sources for our feature on John Howard Grif...more

  • 079-One Square Inch of the Yukon

    Oct 25 2015

    If you opened a box of Quaker Oats in 1955, you'd find a deed to one square inch of land in northwestern Canada. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story behind the Klondike Big Inch land giveaway, whose bizarre consequences are still being felt today. We'll also hear about a time traveler who visited the British Museum in 1997 and puzzle over why a prizewinning farmer gives away his best seed to his competitors. Sources for our feature on the Klondike Big I...more

  • 078-Snowshoe Thompson

    Oct 19 2015

    In the 1850s, settlers in western Nevada were cut off from the rest of the world each winter by deep snow. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll learn about their lifeline, Norwegian immigrant John Thompson, who for 20 years carried mail, medicine, and supplies through 90 miles of treacherous snowdrifts on a pair of homemade skis. We'll also hear listener contributions regarding prison camp escape aids in World War II and puzzle over how lighting a cigarette results in a...more

  • 077-The Sourdough Expedition

    Oct 12 2015

    In 1910, four Alaskan gold miners set out to climb Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America, to win a two-cent bar bet. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the surprising story of the Sourdough Expedition, a mountaineering effort that one modern climber calls "superhuman by today's standards." We'll also hear about a ghoulish tourist destination and puzzle over why a painter would blame himself for World War II. Sources for our feature on the Sourdough e...more

  • 076-Get Out of Jail Free

    Oct 05 2015

    During World War II, the British Secret Service found a surprising way to help Allies in Nazi prisoner-of-war camps: They used doctored Monopoly sets to smuggle in maps, files, compasses, and real money. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story behind this clever ploy, which may have helped thousands of prisoners escape from Nazi camps. We'll also hear listeners' thoughts on Jeremy Bentham's head, Victorian tattoos, and phone-book-destroying German pirates an...more

  • 075-The Sea Devil

    Sep 28 2015

    Felix von Luckner was a romantic hero of World War I, a dashing nobleman who commanded one of the last sailing ships to fight in war. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe Luckner's uniquely civilized approach to warfare, which won admiration even from his enemies. We'll also puzzle over how a product intended to prevent drug abuse ends up encouraging it. Sources for our feature on Felix von Luckner: Lowell Thomas, Count Luckner, The Sea Devil, 1928. Edwin P....more

  • 074-Charley Parkhurst's Secret

    Sep 21 2015

    "One-Eyed Charley" Parkhurst drove a stagecoach throughout California during the height of the Gold Rush, rising to the top of a difficult, dangerous, and highly competitive profession at its historic peak. Only after his death in 1879 at age 67 was it discovered that Charley was a woman. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast, we'll tell what's known of Charley Parkhurst's courageous and enigmatic life story. We'll also hear listeners' input on the legalities of an anti-Christ...more

  • 073-The Tichborne Claimant

    Sep 14 2015

    In 1854, English aristocrat Roger Tichborne disappeared at sea. Twelve years later, a butcher from Wagga Wagga, Australia, claimed he was the long-lost heir. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast, we'll tell the sensational story of the Tichborne claimant, which Mark Twain called "the most intricate and fascinating and marvelous real-life romance that has ever been played upon the world's stage." We'll also puzzle over why family businesses are often more successful in Japan t...more

  • 072-The Strange Misadventures of Famous Corpses

    Sep 07 2015

    What do René Descartes, Joseph Haydn, and Oliver Cromwell have in common? All three lost their heads after death. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast, we'll run down a list of notable corpses whose parts have gone wandering. We'll also hear readers chime in on John Lennon, knitting, diaries and Hitchcock, and puzzle over why a pilot would choose to land in a field of grazing livestock. Sources for our feature on posthumously itinerant body parts: Bess Lovejoy, Rest in Piec...more

  • 071-Godless in Missouri

    Aug 31 2015

    In 1880, freethinking attorney George Walser tried a new experiment in the American heartland -- a community dedicated against Christianity, "the only town of its size in the world without a priest, preacher, saloon, God or hell." In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast, we'll tell the story of Liberal, Missouri -- its founding, its confrontations with its Christian neighbors, and its ironic downfall. We'll also puzzle over how a woman can suddenly be 120 miles away in just a fe...more

  • 070-Sunk by a Whale

    Aug 24 2015

    In 1820, the Nantucket whaleship Essex was attacked and sunk by an 85-foot sperm whale in the South Pacific, a thousand miles from land. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of the attack, which left 20 men to undertake an impossible journey to South America in three small whaleboats. We'll also learn about an Australian athlete who shipped himself across the world in a box in 1964 and puzzle over an international traveler's impressive feat of navigation. Sourc...more

  • 069-Lateral Thinking Puzzles

    Aug 10 2015

    Here are four new lateral thinking puzzles to test your wits! Solve along with us as we explore some strange situations using only yes-or-no questions. Puzzles 1 and 2 are from Kyle Hendrickson's 1998 book Mental Fitness Puzzles and Jed's List of Situation Puzzles. Thanks to listeners Saber and Tommy Honton for puzzles 3 and 4. Here are two corroborating links -- these spoil the puzzles, so don't click until you've listened to the episode: Puzzle #3 Puzzle #4 You can listen using the play...more

  • 068-The Niihau Incident

    Aug 02 2015

    After taking part in the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese fighter pilot Shigenori Nishikaichi crash-landed on the isolated Hawaiian island of Niihau. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll recount the six days of escalating drama that unfolded between the desperate pilot and the terrified islanders. We'll also hear a list of open questions from Greg's research and puzzle over why a man can't sell a solid gold letter opener. Sources for our feature on the Niihau incident: Willi...more

  • 067-Composing Beyond the Grave

    Jul 27 2015

    In 1933, violinist Jelly d'Aranyi declared that the spirit of Robert Schumann was urging her to find a concerto that he'd written shortly before his death in 1856. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe the discovery of Schumann's lost violin concerto, as well as a similar case in which a London widow claimed to receive new compositions from 12 dead composers We'll also puzzle over how a man earns $250,000 for going on two cruises. Sources for our feature on Jelly d'Ar...more

  • 066-Eighteen Holes in Vietnam

    Jul 20 2015

    In 1972, Air Force navigator Gene Hambleton was shot down over enemy territory in Vietnam, and a ferocious offensive beat back every attempt to rescue him. In today's show we'll learn how his lifelong passion for golf became the key to his escape. We'll also learn about a videogame based on the Dyatlov Pass incident and puzzle over why a military force drops bombs on its friends. Sources for our feature on Gene Hambleton: William C. Anderson, BAT-21, 1980. Darrell D. Whitcomb, The Rescue o...more

  • 065-The Merchant Prince of Cornville

    Jul 13 2015

    Edmond Rostand's hit play Cyrano de Bergerac met an unexpected obstacle in 1898 -- a Chicago real estate developer who claimed that it plagiarized his own play. In this week's podcast we'll review the strange controversy and the surprising outcome of the lawsuit that followed. We'll also hear an update on the German author who popularized an American West that he had never seen and puzzle over a Civil War private who refuses to fight. Sources for our feature on Cyrano de Bergerac and The Mer...more

  • 064-Murder at the Priory

    Jul 06 2015

    In 1876 London was riveted by the dramatic poisoning of a young barrister and the sordid revelations that emerged about his household. In today's show we'll review the baffling case of Charles Bravo's murder, which Agatha Christie called "one of the most mysterious poisoning cases ever recorded." We'll also get an update on career possibilities for garden hermits and puzzle over how the police know that a shooting death is not a homicide. Many thanks to Ronald Hackston for his evocative phot...more

  • 063-The Rainmaker

    Jun 28 2015

    In 1915 San Diego hired "rainmaker" Charles Hatfield to relieve a four-year drought. After he set to work with his 23 secret chemicals, the skies opened and torrential rains caused some of the most extreme flooding in the city's history. In this week's podcast we'll discuss the effects of "Hatfield's flood" and ponder how to assign the credit or blame. We'll also puzzle over why a flagrant housebreaker doesn't get prosecuted. Sources for our feature on "moisture accelerator" Charles Hatfield...more

  • 062-Marconi Catches a Murderer

    Jun 21 2015

    The discovery of the gruesome remains of a human body buried in a doctor's cellar shocked London in 1910. In this week's podcast we'll recount the dramatic use of the recently invented wireless telegraph in capturing the main suspect in the crime. We'll also hear a letter that Winston Churchill wrote to Winston Churchill and puzzle over why a sober man is denied a second beer. Sources for our feature on the telegraphic nabbing of Edwardian uxoricide Hawley Harvey Crippen: Erik Larson, Thund...more

  • 061-The Strange Custom of Garden Hermits

    Jun 14 2015

    In 18th-century England, wealthy landowners would sometimes hire people to live as hermits in secluded corners of their estates. In today's show we'll explore this odd custom and review the job requirements for life as a poetic recluse. We'll also meet a German novelist who popularized an American West he had never seen and puzzle over some very generous bank robbers. Sources for our feature on ornamental hermits: Gordon Campbell, The Hermit in the Garden, 2013. Alice Gregory, "Garden Herm...more

  • 060-The Day They Hanged an Elephant

    Jun 01 2015

    In 1916 an American circus elephant named Mary was hanged before a crowd of 3,000 onlookers. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll review the sad series of events that led Mary to a Tennessee railroad crane. We'll also get an update on a very inventive bank robbery and puzzle over the escalators in London's Tube stations. Our feature on Mary was based chiefly on Charles Edwin Price's 1992 book The Day They Hung the Elephant. Our first lateral thinking puzzle this week ...more

  • 059-The Wizard of Mauritius

    May 24 2015

    In 1764 a French engineer on a tiny African island claimed that he could see ships beyond the horizon. In today's show we'll review the strange story of Étienne Bottineau and consider the evidence for his claims to have invented a new art. We'll also ponder a 400-year-old levitation trick and puzzle over why throwing a beer can at someone might merit a promotion. Sources for our feature on nauscopie, the purported art of apprehending ships below the horizon: Rupert T. Gould, Oddities: A Boo...more

  • 058-English as She Is Spoke

    May 18 2015

    In 1855 Pedro Carolino decided to write a Portuguese-English phrasebook despite the fact that he didn't actually speak English. The result is one of the all-time masterpieces of unintentional comedy, a language guide full of phrases like "The ears are too length" and "He has spit in my coat." In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll sample Carolino's phrasebook, which Mark Twain called "supreme and unapproachable." We'll also hear Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” rendered in jargon a...more

  • 057-Jules Verne's Lost Novel

    May 11 2015

    Eight decades after Jules Verne's death, his great-grandson opened a family safe and discovered an unpublished manuscript. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll review some of Verne's remarkable predictions for the 20th century and consider why he never published the novel. We'll also discuss listeners' ideas about the mysterious deaths of nine Soviet ski hikers in 1959 and puzzle over how a man's breakfast turns deadly. Sources for our feature on Jules Verne's Paris in the Tw...more

  • 056-Lateral Thinking Puzzles

    May 04 2015

    Here are six new lateral thinking puzzles to test your wits! Solve along with us as we explore some strange scenarios using only yes-or-no questions. Many were submitted by listeners, and most are based on real events. A few associated links -- these spoil the puzzles, so don't click until you've listened to the episode: Puzzle #1 Puzzle #3 Puzzle #4 You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/fut...more

  • 055-The Dyatlov Pass Incident

    Apr 26 2015

    On February 1, 1959, something terrifying overtook nine student ski-hikers in the northern Ural Mountains. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll recount what is known about the incident at Dyatlov Pass and try to make sense of the hikers' harrowing final night. We'll also hear how Dwight Eisenhower might have delivered the Gettysburg Address and puzzle over why signing her name might entitle a woman to a lavish new home. Sources for our feature on the Dyatlov Pass incident: D...more

  • 054-Escape From Stalag Luft III

    Apr 20 2015

    In 1943 three men came up with an ingenious plan to escape from the seemingly escape-proof Stalag Luft III prison camp in Germany. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll learn about their clever deception, which made them briefly famous around the world. We'll also hear about the chaotic annual tradition of Moving Day in several North American cities and puzzle over how a severely injured hiker beats his wife back to their RV. Sources for our feature on the escape from Stalag L...more

  • 053-The Lost Colony

    Apr 13 2015

    It's been called America's oldest mystery: A group of 100 English colonists vanished from North Carolina's Roanoke Island shortly after settling there in 1587. But was their disappearance really so mysterious? In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll trace the history of the "lost colony" and consider what might have happened to the settlers. We'll also visit an early steam locomotive in 1830 and puzzle over why writing a letter might prove to be fatal. Sources for our feature on...more

  • 052-Moving Day in New York

    Apr 06 2015

    For centuries, May 1 brought chaos to New York, as most tenants had to move on the same day, clogging the streets with harried people and all their belongings. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll review the colorful history of "Moving Day" and wonder how it lasted through two centuries. We'll also recount some surprising escapes from sinking ships and puzzle over a burglar's ingenuity. Sources for our feature on Moving Day, New York City's historic custom of changing residen...more

  • 051-Poet Doppelgängers

    Mar 29 2015

    In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll look at the strange phenomenon of poet doppelgängers -- at least five notable poets have been seen by witnesses when their physical bodies were elsewhere. We'll also share our readers' research on Cervino, the Matterhorn-climbing pussycat, and puzzle over why a man traveling internationally would not be asked for his passport. Sources for our feature on poet doppelgängers: John Oxenford, trans., The Autobiography of Wolfgang von Goe...more

  • 050-The Great Tea Race

    Mar 23 2015

    In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow the dramatic 14,000-mile clipper ship race of 1866, in which five ships competed fiercely to be the first to London with the season's tea. We'll also track the importance of mulch to the readers of the comic book Groo the Wanderer and puzzle over the effects of Kool-Aid consumption on a woman's relationships. Jack Spurling's 1926 painting Ariel & Taeping, China Tea Clippers Race, above, depicts two of the front-runners in the ...more

  • 049-Can a Kitten Climb the Matterhorn?

    Mar 16 2015

    In 1950 newspapers around the world reported that a 10-month-old kitten had climbed the Matterhorn, one of the highest peaks in Europe. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll wonder whether even a very determined kitty could accomplish such a feat. We'll also marvel at a striking demonstration of dolphin intelligence and puzzle over a perplexed mechanic. My own original post about Matt, the kitten who climbed the Matterhorn, appeared on Dec. 17, 2011. Reader Stephen Wils...more

  • 048-The Shark Arm Affair

    Mar 09 2015

    In 1935 a shark in an Australian aquarium vomited up a human forearm, a bizarre turn of events that sparked a confused murder investigation. This week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast presents two cases in which a shark supplied key evidence of a human crime. We'll also learn about the Paris Herald's obsession with centigrade temperature, revisit the scary travel writings of Victorian children's author Favell Lee Mortimer, and puzzle over an unavenged killing at a sporting event. Sou...more

  • 047-The Scariest Travel Books Ever Written

    Feb 22 2015

    Victorian children's author Favell Lee Mortimer published three bizarre travel books that described a world full of death, vice, and peril. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll sample her terrifying descriptions of the lands beyond England and wonder what led her to write them. We'll also review the movie career of an Alaskan sled dog, learn about the Soviet Union's domestication of silver foxes, and puzzle over some curious noises in a soccer stadium. Favell Lee Morti...more

  • 046-The 1925 Serum Run to Nome

    Feb 16 2015

    In 1925, Nome, Alaska, was struck by an outbreak of diphtheria, and only a relay of dogsleds could deliver the life-saving serum in time. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow the dogs' desperate race through arctic blizzards to save the town from epidemic. We'll also hear a song about S.A. Andree's balloon expedition to the North Pole and puzzle over a lost accomplishment of ancient civilizations. Our segment on the 1925 serum run to Nome was based chiefly on Ga...more

  • 045-Crossing Africa for Love

    Feb 08 2015

    When Ewart Grogan was denied permission to marry his sweetheart, he set out to walk the length of Africa to prove himself worthy of her. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll find out whether Ewart's romantic quest succeeded. We'll also get an update on the criminal history of Donald Duck's hometown, and try to figure out how a groom ends up drowning on his wedding night. Sources for our segment on Ewart Grogan's traversal of Africa: Ewart Scott Grogan and Arthur Henry...more

  • 044-Ballooning to the North Pole

    Feb 01 2015

    In 1897, Swedish patent engineer S.A. Andrée set out in a quixotic bid to reach the North Pole in a hydrogen balloon, departing from Norway with two companions and hoping to drift over the top of the world and come down somewhere in the Bering Strait. Instead the expedition vanished. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll learn what happened to the Eagle and its three brave passengers, and consider the role of hindsight in the writing of history. We'll also learn what the White ...more

  • 043-Ben Franklin's Guide to Living

    Jan 25 2015

    As a young man, Benjamin Franklin drew up a "plan for attaining moral perfection" based on a list of 13 virtues. Half a century later he credited the plan for much of his success in life. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll explore Franklin's self-improvement plan and find out which vices gave him the most trouble. We'll also learn how activist Natan Sharansky used chess to stay sane in Soviet prisons and puzzle over why the Pentagon has so many bathrooms. Sources for our se...more

  • 042-The Balmis Expedition: Using Orphans to Combat Smallpox

    Jan 19 2015

    (Image: Wikimedia Commons) In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell how Spanish authorities found an ingenious way to use orphans to bring the smallpox vaccine to the American colonies in 1803. The Balmis Expedition overcame the problems of transporting a fragile vaccine over a long voyage and is credited with saving at least 100,000 lives in the New World. We'll also get some listener updates to the Lady Be Good story and puzzle over why a man would find it more convenient ...more

  • 041-The Tragic Tale of the Lady Be Good

    Jan 12 2015

    The American bomber Lady Be Good left North Africa for a bombing run over Italy in 1943. It wasn't seen again until 15 years later, when explorers discovered its broken remains deep in the Libyan desert. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll review the strange history of the lost aircraft and trace the desperate last days of its nine crewmen. We'll also climb some twisted family trees and puzzle over the Greek philosopher Thales' struggles with a recalcitrant mule. Sources for...more

  • 040-The Mary Celeste: A Great Sea Mystery

    Jan 05 2015

    In 1872 the British merchant ship Mary Celeste was discovered drifting and apparently abandoned 600 miles off the coast of Portugal. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll review this classic mystery of the sea: Why would 10 people flee a well-provisioned, seaworthy ship in fine weather? We'll also get an update on the legal rights of apes and puzzle over why a woman would not intervene when her sister is drugged. Sources for our segment on the Mary Celeste: Paul Begg, Mary Ce...more

  • 039-Lateral Thinking Puzzles

    Dec 22 2014

    Here are eight new lateral thinking puzzles that you can try on your friends and family over the holidays -- see who can make sense of these odd scenarios using only yes-or-no questions. Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet -- on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we've set up some rewards to help thank you for your support. You can also make a one-time do...more

  • 038-The Thunder Stone

    Dec 14 2014

    In 1768, Catherine the Great ordered her subjects to move a 3-million-pound granite boulder intact into Saint Petersburg to serve as the pedestal for a statue of Peter the Great. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll learn how some inspired engineering moved the Thunder Stone 13 miles from its forest home to Senate Square, making it the largest stone ever moved by man. We'll also learn whether mutant squid are attacking Indiana and puzzle over why a stamp collector would be ang...more

  • 037-Edgar Allan Poe's Graveyard Visitor

    Dec 08 2014

    For most of the 20th century, a man in black appeared each year at the grave of Edgar Allan Poe. In the predawn hours of January 19, he would drink a toast with French cognac and leave behind three roses in a distinctive arrangement. No one knows who he was or why he did this. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll review the history of the "Poe Toaster" and his long association with the great poet's memorial. We'll also consider whether Winnie-the-Pooh should be placed on Rital...more

  • 036-The Great Moon Hoax

    Dec 01 2014

    In 1835 the New York Sun announced that astronomers had discovered bat-winged humanoids on the moon, as well as reindeer, unicorns, bipedal beavers and temples made of sapphire. The fake news was reprinted around the world, impressing even P.T. Barnum; Edgar Allan Poe said that "not one person in ten" doubted the story. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll review the Great Moon Hoax, the first great sensation of the modern media age. We'll also learn why Montana police needed ...more

  • 035-Lateral Thinking Puzzles

    Nov 24 2014

    For this Thanksgiving episode of the Futility Closet podcast, enjoy seven lateral thinking puzzles that didn't make it onto our regular shows. Solve along with us as we explore some strange scenarios using only yes-or-no questions. Happy Thanksgiving! You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset. If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thank...more

  • 034-Spring-Heeled Jack -- A Victorian Supervillain

    Nov 17 2014

    Between 1837 and 1904, rumors spread of a strange bounding devil who haunted southern England, breathing blue flames and menacing his victims with steel talons. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we review the career of Spring-Heeled Jack and speculate about his origins. We also recount Alexander Graham Bell's efforts to help the wounded James Garfield before his doctors' treatments could kill him and puzzle over why a police manual gives instructions in a language that none of th...more

  • 033-Death and Robert Todd Lincoln

    Nov 10 2014

    Abraham Lincoln's eldest son, Robert, is the subject of a grim coincidence in American history: He's the only person known to have been present or nearby at the assassinations of three American presidents. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we describe the circumstances of each misfortune and explore some further coincidences regarding Robert's brushes with fatality. We also consider whether a chimpanzee deserves a day in court and puzzle over why Australia would demolish a perfec...more

  • 032-The Wow! Signal

    Nov 03 2014

    In August 1977, Ohio astronomer Jerry Ehman discovered a radio signal so exciting that he wrote "Wow!" in the margin of its computer printout. Arriving from the direction of the constellation Sagittarius, the signal bore all the characteristics of an alien transmission. But despite decades of eager listening, astronomers have never heard it repeated. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll review the story of the "Wow! signal," which remains an intriguing, unexplained anomaly in th...more

  • 031-Pigs on Trial

    Oct 27 2014

    For 500 years of European history, animals were given criminal trials: Bulls, horses, dogs, and sheep were arrested, jailed, given lawyers, tried, and punished at community expense. In the latest Futility Closet podcast we'll explore this strange practice and try to understand its significance to the people of the time. We'll also rediscover the source of Futility Closet's name and puzzle over how a ringing bell relates to a man's death. Sources for our segment on animal trials: Anila Sriva...more

  • 030-The Oak Island Money Pit

    Oct 20 2014

    Nova Scotia's Oak Island hides a famously booby-trapped treasure cache -- or so goes the legend. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast, we review the many attempts to recover the treasure and wonder who could have engineered such a site, what might be hidden there -- and whether, indeed, it contains anything at all. We also puzzle over what a woman's errands can tell us about how her husband died. Sources for our segment on Oak Island: "The Secrets of Oak Island", Joe Nickell, Skept...more

  • 029-The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser

    Oct 06 2014

    In 1828, a 16-year-old boy appeared in Nuremberg, claiming that he'd spent his whole life alone in a dark cell. In the latest Futility Closet podcast we'll follow the short, sad life of Kaspar Hauser and ponder who he might have been. We'll also revisit the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus, encounter some self-landing planes, and puzzle over why a man would bury 15 luxury cars in the desert. Sources for our segment on Kaspar Hauser: Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, Lost Prince: The Unsolved Mystery o...more

  • 028-The Real-Life Sherlock Holmes

    Sep 29 2014

    Sherlock Holmes was based on a real man, a physician who trained Arthur Conan Doyle at the University of Edinburgh. During his medical lectures, Joseph Bell regularly astonished his students with insights into his patients' lives and characters. "From close observation and deduction, gentlemen," he said, "it is possible to make a diagnosis that will be correct in any and every case. However, you must not neglect to ratify your deductions." In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll...more

  • 027-The Man Who Volunteered for Auschwitz

    Sep 22 2014

    In September 1940 Polish army captain Witold Pilecki volunteered to be imprisoned at Auschwitz. His reports first alerted the Allies to the horrors at the camp and helped to warn the world that a holocaust was taking place. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow Pilecki into the camp, hear his reports of the atrocities he witnessed, and learn why his name isn't better known today. We'll also meet the elusive Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus and puzzle over how hitting a tar...more

  • 026-A Practical Joke on a Grand Scale

    Sep 15 2014

    In 1810 someone told hundreds of London merchants that Mrs. Tottenham at 54 Berners Street had requested their services. She hadn't. For a full day the street was packed with crowds of deliverymen struggling to reach a single door -- and the practical joker was never caught. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll hear descriptions of the chaos in Berners Street and meet Theodore Hook, the man who probably planned the whole thing. We'll also revisit the mysterious corpse found on an...more

  • 025-An Australian Enigma

    Sep 08 2014

    On Dec. 1, 1948, a well-dressed corpse appeared on a beach in South Australia. Despite 66 years of investigation, no one has ever been able to establish who he was, how he came to be there, or even how he died. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll delve into the mystery of the Somerton man, a fascinating tale that involves secret codes, a love triangle, and the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. We'll also hear Franklin Adams praise the thesaurus and puzzle over some surprising consequen...more

  • 024-The World's Worst Poet

    Sep 01 2014

    William McGonagall has been called "the only truly memorable bad poet in our language," responsible for tin-eared verse that could "give you cauliflower ears just from silent reading": Alas! Lord and Lady Dalhousie are dead, and buried at last, Which causes many people to feel a little downcast; And both lie side by side in one grave, But I hope God in His goodness their souls will save. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll sample McGonagall's writings, follow the poor poet'...more

  • 023-A Victorian Poisoning Mystery

    Aug 25 2014

    On New Year's Day 1886, London grocer Edwin Bartlett was discovered dead in his bed with a lethal quantity of liquid chloroform in his stomach. Strangely, his throat showed none of the burns that chloroform should have caused. His wife, who admitted to having the poison, was tried for murder, but the jury acquitted her because "we do not think there is sufficient evidence to show how or by whom the chloroform was administered." In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll learn about ...more

  • 022-The Devil's Hoofmarks

    Aug 18 2014

    On Feb. 9, 1855, the residents of Devon in southern England awoke to find a bewildering set of footprints in the newfallen snow. "These are to be found in fields, gardens, roads, house-tops, & other likely and unlikely places, deeply embedded in snow," ran one contemporary account. "The shape was a hoof." In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll examine the surviving descriptions of the odd marks and consider the various explanations that have been offered. We'll also revisit the ...more

  • 021-A Gallant German Fighter Ace

    Aug 04 2014

    In December 1943, American bomber pilot Charlie Brown was flying a severely damaged B-17 out of Germany when he looked out the cockpit window and saw "the world's worst nightmare" off his right wing -- a fully armed German fighter whose pilot was staring back at him. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow the strange drama that ensued, in which German fighter ace Franz Stigler weighed the human impulse to spare the wounded bomber against his patriotic duty to shoot him do...more

  • 020-Life Imitates Science Fiction

    Jul 28 2014

    In 1944, fully a year before the first successful nuclear test, Astounding Science Fiction magazine published a remarkably detailed description of an atomic bomb. The story, by the otherwise undistinguished author Cleve Cartmill, sent military intelligence racing to discover the source of his information -- and his motives for publishing it. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow the investigation that ensued, which involved legendary editor John W. Campbell and illuminated...more

  • 019-Testing the Post Office

    Jul 21 2014

    In 1898, 19-year-old W. Reginald Bray made a thorough study of British postal regulations, which laid out rules for mailing everything from bees to elephants and promised that "all letters must be delivered as addressed." He resolved to give the service "a severe test without infringing its regulations." In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll review the antics that followed, in which Bray sent turnips, bicycle pumps, shoes, and even himself through the British post. We'll also sym...more

  • 018-The Mystery of the Disappearing Airmen

    Jul 14 2014

    In 1942 Navy lieutenant Ernest Cody and ensign Charles Adams piloted a blimp out of San Francisco into the Pacific, looking for Japanese subs. A few hours later the blimp drifted back to land, empty. The parachutes and life raft were in their proper places and the radio was in working order, but there was no trace of Cody or Adams. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow the events of that strange day and delve into the inquest that followed. We'll also sample some unpubli...more

  • 017-An Aircraft Carrier Made of Ice

    Jul 07 2014

    In 1943 German submarines were devastating the merchant convoys carrying supplies to Britain. Unable to protect them with aircraft or conventional ships, the resource-strapped Royal Navy considered an outlandish solution: a 2-million-ton aircraft carrier made of ice. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we follow the strange history of the project, which Winston Churchill initially praised as dazzling but which ended in ignominy at the bottom of a Canadian lake. We'll also discover ...more