Futility Closet

Futility Closet

United Kingdom

A celebration of the quirky and the curious, the thought-provoking and the simply amusing. Each episode explores unusual historical events and other curiosities and features a lateral thinking puzzle that you can try to solve along with us.

Episodes

147-The Call of Mount Kenya  

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 oath.

Intro:

Under the law of the United Kingdom, a sturgeon when caught becomes the personal property of the monarch.

On July 4, 1853, 32 people held a dance on the stump of a California sequoia.

Sources for our feature on Felice Benuzzi:

Felice Benuzzi, No Picnic on Mount Kenya, 1953.

Dave Pagel, "The Great Escape," Climbing 215 (Sept. 15, 2002), 87.

Matthew Power and Keridwen Cornelius, "Escape to Mount Kenya," National Geographic Adventure 9:7 (September 2007), 65-71.

Stephan Wilkinson, "10 Great POW Escapes," Military History 28:4 (November 2011), 28-33.

Jon Mooallem, "In Search of Lost Ice," New York Times Magazine, Dec. 21, 2014, 28-35.

"Because It Was There; Great Escapes," Economist 417:8965 (Nov. 21, 2015), 78.

This is the package label that showed the prisoners the southern face of the mountain:

Listener mail:

Tim Maltin and Andrew T. Young, "The Hidden Cause of the Titanic Disaster" (accessed March 24, 2017).

Smithsonian, "Did the Titanic Sink Because of an Optical Illusion?" (accessed March 24, 2017).

Telegraph, "Titanic Sank Due to 'Mirage' Caused by Freak Weather" (accessed March 24, 2017).

Matt Largey, "He Got a Bad Grade. So, He Got the Constitution Amended. Now He's Getting the Credit He Deserves," kut.org, March 21, 2017.

This week's lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener David White.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Please go to http://podsurvey.com/futility to take a quick, anonymous survey to help us get the best advertisers for the show.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet -- on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and we've set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

146-Alone in the Wilderness  

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 uranium reactor operating underground in Gabon.

In the 13th century the English royal menagerie included a polar bear.

Sources for our feature on Joseph Knowles:

Jim Motavalli, Naked in the Woods, 2007.

Joseph Knowles, Alone in the Wilderness, 1913.

Bill Donahue, "Naked Joe," Boston Magazine, April 2013.

Richard O. Boyer, "The Nature Man," New Yorker, June 18, 1938.

John Gould, "Tarzan of the Pines," Christian Science Monitor, June 18, 1999.

Roderick Nash, "The American Cult of the Primitive," American Quarterly 18:3 (Autumn 1966), 517-537.

Robert Moor, "The 1913 'Nature Man' Whose Survivalist Stunts Were Not What They Seemed," Atlas Obscura, July 7, 2016.

"Joe Knowles, Lived in Wilds Unarmed!", New York Times, Oct. 23, 1942.

Joseph B. Frazier, "An Early Nature Buff: By Going Into the Woods Alone, Did Joe Knowles Remind America of Its Potential?", Orlando Sentinel, March 2, 2008.

Joseph B. Frazier, "'Natural Man' Inspired, Despite Fraud Claims," Augusta Chronicle, March 16, 2008.

"The 100th Anniversary of Joe Knowles' Famous Odyssey into the Wilds," Lewiston [Maine] Sun Journal, April 14, 2013.

"Joe Knowles and the Legacy of Wilderness Adventures," Lewiston [Maine] Sun Journal, May 12, 2013.

"Nature Man Badly Injured," Los Angeles Times, May 18, 1915.

"The Nature Man," The Billboard, Nov. 6, 1915.

Grace Kingley, "Joe Knowles, Nature Man, at Republic," Los Angeles Times, Sept. 23, 1914.

Still dressed in his bearskin and cedar-bark shoes, Knowles was examined by Harvard physician Dudley Sargent on Oct. 9, 1913. "He surpassed every test he took before starting on the trip," Sargent declared. "His scientific experiment shows what a man can do when he is deprived of the luxuries which many people have come to regard as necessities."

A portion of the crowd that met him in Boston, Oct. 9, 1913.

Listener mail:

Fireworks disasters in Oban, Scotland, and San Diego.

MURDERCASTLE, from the Baltimore Rock Opera Society.

John Tierney, "What Is Nostalgia Good For? Quite a Bit, Research Shows," New York Times, July 8, 2013.

University of Southampton, "What Nostalgia Is and What It Does" (accessed March 18, 2017).

"Nostalgia," Google Books Ngram Viewer, March 18, 2017.

This week's lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Rod Guyler.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet -- on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and we've set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

145-The Pied Piper of Saipan  

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 introduced the La Femme -- "the first car ever exclusively designed for the woman motorist."

In 1911 a 16-year-old English girl died when a gust of wind carried her 20 feet into the air.

Sources for our feature on Guy Gabaldon:

Guy Gabaldon, Saipan: Suicide Island, 1990.

"Diminutive WWII Hero Gabaldon Dies at 80," Associated Press, Sept. 4, 2006.

Richard Goldstein, "Guy Gabaldon, 80, Hero of Battle of Saipan, Dies," New York Times, Sept. 4, 2006.

Jocelyn Y. Stewart, "Guy Gabaldon, 80; WWII Hero Captured 1,000 Japanese on Saipan," Los Angeles Times, Sept. 6, 2006.

"Guy Gabaldon," Latino Americans, PBS, Sept. 24, 2013.

Richard Gonzalez, "Filmmaker: Pacific War Hero Deserved Higher Honor," Morning Edition, National Public Radio, April 25, 2008.

"Guy Gabaldon: An Interview and Discussion," War Times Journal (accessed Feb. 26, 2017).

"Milestones," Time 168:12, Sept. 18, 2006.

Gregg K. Kakesako, "'Pied Piper' Returning to Saipan," Honolulu Star Bulletin, June 6, 2004.

"Guy Gabaldon," University of Texas Oral History Project (accessed Feb. 26, 2017).

Gabaldon receives the Navy Cross, 1960:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MVKEdyt_mvo

Listener mail:

Wikipedia, "William Moulton Marston" (accessed March 9, 2017).

"The Man Behind Wonder Woman Was Inspired By Both Suffragists And Centerfolds," NPR Books, October 27, 2014.

Jill Lepore, "The Surprising Origin Story of Wonder Woman," Smithsonian Magazine, October 2014.

Katha Pollitt, "Wonder Woman's Kinky Feminist Roots," Atlantic, November 2014.

This week's lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Steven Jones (thanks also to Hanno Zulla). Here are three corroborating links (warning -- these spoil the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet -- on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and we've set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

144-The Murder Castle  

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 over an intransigent insurance company.

Intro:

In 1908 a Strand reader discovered an old London horse omnibus on the outskirts of Calgary.

If Henry Jenkins truly lived to 169, then as an English subject he'd have changed religions eight times.

Sources for our feature on H.H. Holmes:

Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City, 2004.

John Borowski, The Strange Case of Dr. H.H. Holmes, 2005.

Harold Schechter, Depraved: The Definitive True Story of H.H. Holmes, 1994.

Alan Glenn, "A Double Dose of the Macabre," Michigan Today, Oct. 22, 2013.

John Bartlow Martin, "The Master of the Murder Castle," Harper's, December 1943.

Corey Dahl, "H.H. Holmes: The Original Client From Hell," Life Insurance Selling, October 2013.

"Claims an Alibi: Holmes Says the Murders Were Committed by a Friend," New York Times, July 17, 1895.

"Holmes in Great Demand: Will Be Tried Where the Best Case Can Be Made," New York Times, July 24, 1895.

"Accused of Ten Murders: The List of Holmes's Supposed Victims Grows Daily," New York Times, July 26, 1895.

"The Holmes Case," New York Times, July 28, 1895.

"Expect to Hang Holmes: Chicago Police Authorities Say They Can Prove Murder," New York Times, July 30, 1895.

"Chicago and Holmes," New York Times, July 31, 1895.

"No Case Against Holmes: Chicago Police Baffled in the Attempt to Prove Murder," New York Times, Aug. 2, 1895.

"Did Holmes Kill Pitzel: The Theory of Murder Gaining Ground Steadily," New York Times, Nov. 20, 1894.

"Holmes Fears Hatch: Denies All the Charges of Murder Thus Far Made Against Him," New York Times, Aug. 2, 1895.

"Quinlan's Testimony Against Holmes: They Think He Committed Most of the Murders in the Castle," New York Times, Aug. 4, 1895.

"Modern Bluebeard: H.H. Holmes' Castles Reveals His True Character," Chicago Tribune, Aug. 18, 1895.

"The Case Opened: A Strong Plea, by the Prisoner for a Postponement," New York Times, Oct. 29, 1895.

"Holmes and His Crimes: Charged with Arson, Bigamy, and Numerous Murders," New York Times, Oct. 29, 1895.

"Holmes Grows Nervous: Unable to Face the Portrait of One of His Supposed Victims," New York Times, Oct. 30, 1895.

"Holmes Is Found Guilty: The Jury Reaches Its Verdict on the First Ballot," New York Times, Nov. 3, 1895.

"Holmes Sentenced to Die: The Murderer of Benjamin F. Pietzel to Be Hanged," New York Times, Dec. 1, 1895.

"The Law's Delays," New York Times, Feb. 4, 1896.

"Holmes' Victims," Aurora [Ill.] Daily Express, April 13, 1896.

"Holmes Cool to the End," New York Times, May 8, 1896.

Rebecca Kerns, Tiffany Lewis, and Caitlin McClure of Radford University's Department of Psychology have compiled an extensive profile of Holmes and his crimes (PDF).

Listener mail:

The Seest disaster:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l4iNOguCNFQ

Wikipedia, "Seest Fireworks Disaster" (accessed March 3, 2017).

"Dutch Fireworks Disaster," BBC News, May 14, 2000.

Wikipedia, "Enschede Fireworks Disaster" (accessed March 3, 2017).

"Vuurwerkramp," Visit Enschede (accessed March 3, 2017).

Beverly Jenkins, "10 Worst Fireworks Disasters Ever," Oddee, July 4, 2013.

Jessie Guy-Ryan, "Inside the World's Deadliest Fireworks Accident," Atlas Obscura, July 4, 2016.

Wikipedia, "Puttingal Temple Fire" (accessed March 3, 2017).

Rajiv G, "Kollam Temple Fire: Death Toll Reaches 111, 40 Badly Wounded," Times of India, April 12, 2016.

This week's lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Daniel Sterman, who sent this corroborating link (warning -- this spoils the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet -- on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per

143-The Conscience Fund  

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 elders into a living chair.

According to his colleagues, Wolfgang Pauli's mere presence would cause accidents.

Sources for our feature on the conscience fund:

Warren Weaver Jr., "'Conscience Fund' at New High," New York Times, March 18, 1987.

"$10,000 to Conscience Fund," New York Times, July 21, 1915.

"$6,100 to Conscience Fund," New York Times, Feb. 4, 1925.

"Swell Conscience Fund; Two Remittances, Small and Large, Bring In $4,876.70," New York Times, Feb. 6, 1916.

"Sends $50 to War Department for Equipment Stolen in 1918," New York Times, March 2, 1930.

"Depression Swells Total of Federal Conscience Fund," New York Times, April 21, 1932.

"Federal Treasury Gets $300 to Add to Conscience Fund," New York Times, March 25, 1932.

"9,896 Two-Cent Stamps Sent to City's Conscience Fund," New York Times, May 15, 1930.

"$30,000 to Conscience Fund; Contributor Says He Has Sent Four Times Amount He Stole," New York Times, March 10, 1916.

"Guilt: Settling With Uncle Sam," Time, March 30, 1987.

"The Conscience Fund: Many Thousands Contributed -- Some Peculiar Cases," New York Times, Aug. 5, 1884.

"Pays Government Fourfold; Conscience Bothered Man Who Took $8,000 from Treasury," New York Times, June 13, 1908.

Rick Van Sant, "Guilt-Stricken Pay Up to IRS 'Conscience Fund' Gets Cash, Quilts," Cincinnati Post, Jan. 26, 1996.

John Fairhall, "The Checks Just Keep Coming to the 'Conscience Fund,'" Baltimore Sun, Dec. 10, 1991.

Donna Fox, "People Who Rip Off Uncle Sam Pay the 'Conscience Fund,'" Christian Science Monitor, Feb. 24, 1987.

Associated Press, "Ten Thousand Dollars in Currency Is Sent to U.S. 'Conscience Fund,'" Harrisburg [Pa.] Telegraph, July 20, 1915.

"Washington Letter," Quebec Daily Telegraph, July 3, 1889.

"Figures of the Passing Show," Evening Independent, Sept. 16, 1909.

James F. Clarity and Warren Weaver Jr., "Briefing: The Conscience Fund," New York Times, Dec. 24, 1985.

Warren Weaver Jr., "'Conscience Fund' at New High," New York Times, March 18, 1987.

"Conscience Fund Too Small," Los Angeles Times, Aug. 16, 1925.

"Laborer Swells Conscience Fund," New York Times, June 28, 1912.

"A Conscience Fund Contribution," New York Times, Feb. 14, 1895.

"The Conscience Fund," New York Times, March 27, 1932.

"Swells Conscience Fund: Californian, Formerly in the Navy, Gets Religion and Pays for Stationery on His Ship," Los Angeles Times, May 5, 1915.

"2 Cents, Conscience Fund: Sent to Pay for Twice-Used Stamp -- Costs Post Office a Dollar," New York Times, June 2, 1910.

"$30,000 to Conscience Fund: Contributor Says He Has Sent Four Times Amount He Stole," New York Times, March 10, 1916.

"'Conscience Fund' Rises: New Yorker's $8 Is Item in $896.49 Sent Treasury," New York Times, Nov. 28, 1937.

"The Conscience Fund: Many Thousands Contributed -- Some Peculiar Cases," New York Times, Aug. 5 1884.

"The Conscience Fund: Young Woman Seeks a Loan From It From a Belief It Was Created for Benefit of Honest People," Los Angeles Times, July 13, 1914.

"Gives to Conscience Fund: Contributor of $36 'Forgot Tax Item' -- Another Sends $32," New York Times, April 3, 1936.

"Conscience-Fund Flurries: Due to Religious Revivals," Los Angeles Times, Nov. 28, 1903.

"$100 for Conscience Fund: Customs Officials Think Same Person Sent $10c a Few Days Ago," New York Times, March 10, 1928.

"Swell Conscience Fund: Two Remittances, Small and Large, Bring In $4,876.70," New York Times, Feb. 6, 1916.

"Conscience Fund for President: Pasadena Writer Sends Dollar to Harding to Make Good for 20-Year-Old Theft," Los Angeles Times, April 17, 1921.

"$33 for Conscience Fund: Smuggler Sent Taft the Money After Selling His Goods," New York Times, May 21, 1911.

"$1 to Conscience Fund: Remorseful Laborer Pays Off Debt to Government by Installments," New York Times, Nov. 10, 1912.

"The Nation's Conscience Fund," Scrap Book, May 1906.

"Uncle Sam's Conscience Fund," Book of the Royal Blue, November 1904.

"The Conscience Fund," Lippincott's Monthly Magazine, July 1894.

"Gives $18,669 to Cons

142-Fingerprints and Polygraphs  

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 California businessman built a 7,900-ton steamer out of ferrocement.

Sources for our feature on fingerprints and polygraphs:

Ken Alder, The Lie Detectors, 2007.

Jack Fincher, “Lifting 'Latents' Is Now Very Much a High-Tech Matter,” Smithsonian, October 1989, 201.

James O'Brien, The Scientific Sherlock Holmes, 2013.

Ian Leslie, Born Liars, 2011.

William J. Tilstone, Kathleen A. Savage, and Leigh A. Clark, Forensic Science: An Encyclopedia of History, Methods, and Techniques, 2006.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Criminal Justice: New Technologies and the Constitution, 1989.

Kenneth R. Moses et al., "Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS)," in The Fingerprint Sourcebook, Scientific Working Group on Friction Ridge Analysis Study and Technology and National Institute of Justice, 2011, 1-33.

Raymond Dussault, "The Latent Potential of Latent Prints," Government Technology, Dec. 31, 1998.

Barbara Bradley, "Fingered by the Police Computer," Christian Science Monitor, June 9, 1988.

U.S. Office of Technology Assessment, "New Technology for Investigation, Identification, and Apprehension," in Special Report: Criminal Justice, New Technologies, and the Constitution, May 1988.

Thanks to listener Pål Grønås Drange for suggesting the Ken Moses story.

Listener mail:

Wikipedia, "Mirage" (accessed Feb. 17, 2017).

W.H. Lehn, "The Nova Zemlya Effect: An Arctic Mirage," Journal of the Optical Society of America 69:5 (May 1979), 776-781.

Wikipedia, "Novaya Zemlya Effect" (accessed Feb. 17, 2017).

This week's lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Tommy Honton, who sent these corroborating links (warning -- these spoil the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

If you have a moment, please go to podcastsurvey.net to take a very short anonymous survey about today's episode.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet -- on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and we've set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

141-Abducted by Indians, a Captive of Whites  

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 ball might bounce forever without finding a hole.

In 1874 a Massachusetts composer set the American constitution to music.

Sources for our feature on Cynthia Ann Parker:

Margaret Schmidt Hacker, Cynthia Ann Parker: The Life and the Legend, 1990.

Jack K. Selden, Return: The Parker Story, 2006.

Jan Reid, "One Who Was Found: The Legend of Cynthia Ann Parker," in Michael L. Collins, ed., Tales of Texoma, 2005.

Jo Ella Powell Exley, Frontier Blood, 2001.

Jack C. Ramsay Jr., Sunshine on the Prairie, 1990.

Richard Selcer, "The Robe," Wild West 28:5 (February 2016), 60-64.

Glen Sample Ely, “Myth, Memory, and Massacre: The Pease River Capture of Cynthia Ann Parker [review],” Southwestern Historical Quarterly 115:1 (July 2011), 91-92.

Gregory Michno, "Nocona's Raid and Cynthia Ann's Recapture," Wild West 23:2 (August 2010), 36-43.

Paul H. Carlson and Tom Crum, "The 'Battle' at Pease River and the Question of Reliable Sources in the Recapture of Cynthia Ann Parker," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 113:1 (July 2009), 32-52.

Anne Dingus, "Cynthia Ann and Quanah Parker," Texas Monthly 27:5 (May 1999), 226.

"Cynthia Ann Seized History," Southern Living 25:3 (March 5, 1990), 61.

Lawrence T. Jones III, "Cynthia Ann Parker and Pease Ross: The Forgotten Photographs," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 93:3 (January 1990), 379-384.

Rupert N. Richardson, "The Death of Nocona and the Recovery of Cynthia Ann Parker," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 46:1 (July 1942), 15-21.

Listener mail:

Donald MacGillivray, "When Is a Fake Not a Fake? When It's a Genuine Forgery," Guardian, July 1, 2005.

Noah Charney, "Why So Many Art Forgers Want to Get Caught," Atlantic, Dec. 22, 2014.

Jonathon Keats, "Masterpieces for Everyone? The Case of the Socialist Art Forger Tom Keating," Forbes, Dec. 13, 2012.

This week's lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Paul Sophocleous, who sent this corroborating link (warning -- this spoils the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet -- on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and we've set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

 

140-Ramanujan  

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 amputee.

Intro:

W.H. Hill's signature was unchanged when inverted.

Room 308 of West Java's Samudra Beach Hotel is reserved for the Indonesian goddess Nyai Loro Kidul.

Sources for our feature on Srinivasa Ramanujan:

Robert Kanigel, The Man Who Knew Infinity, 1991.

K. Srinivasa Rao, Srinivasa Ramanujan: A Mathematical Genius, 1998.

S.R. Ranganathan, Ramanujan: The Man and the Mathematician, 1967.

Bruce C. Berndt and Robert A. Rankin, Ramanujan: Letters and Commentary, 1991.

G.H. Hardy, "The Indian Mathematician Ramanujan," American Mathematical Monthly 44:3 (March 1937), 137-155.

Gina Kolata, "Remembering a 'Magical Genius,'" Science 236:4808 (June 19, 1987), 1519-1521.

E.H. Neville, "Srinivasa Ramanujan," Nature 149:3776 (March 1942), 293.

Bruce C. Berndt, "Srinivasa Ramanujan," American Scholar 58:2 (Spring 1989), 234-244.

B.M. Srikantia, "Srinivasa Ramanujan," American Mathematical Monthly 35:5 (May 1928), 241-245.

S.G. Gindikin, "Ramanujan the Phenomenon," Quantum 8:4 (March/April 1998), 4-9.

"Srinivasa Ramanujan" in Timothy Gowers, June Barrow-Green, and Imre Leader, eds., Princeton Companion to Mathematics, 2010.

"Srinivasa Aiyangar Ramanujan," MacTutor History of Mathematics (accessed Jan. 22, 2017).

In the photo above, Ramanujan is at center and Hardy is at far right.

Listener mail:

"Myth Debunked: Audrey Hepburn Did Not Work for the Resistance" [in Dutch], Dutch Broadcast Foundation, Nov. 17, 2016.

"Audrey Hepburn's Son Remembers Her Life," Larry King Live, CNN, Dec. 24, 2003.

This week's lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Tyler Rousseau.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet -- on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and we've set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

139-The Painter's Revenge  

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 "March 10, 1075."

In 1987, University of Illinois freshman Mike Hayes financed his education by asking Chicago Tribune readers for a penny apiece.

Sources for our feature on Han van Meegeren:

Edward Dolnick, The Forger's Spell, 2008.

Jonathan Lopez, The Man Who Made Vermeers, 2008.

John Raymond Godley, Van Meegeren: A Case History, 1967.

John Raymond Godley, Master Art Forger: The Story of Han Van Meegeren, 1966.

P.B. Coremans, Van Meegeren's Faked Vermeers and de Hooghs: A Scientific Examination, 1949.

Humphrey Van Loo, "Art Hoax Which Cost the World Millions," Britannia and Eve 33:4 (October 1946).

"The Man Who Paints: Hans Van Meegeren Stands Trial at Amsterdam," Sphere 191:2493 (Nov. 15, 1947).

"The Strange Story of the Forged Vermeers," Sphere 184:2400 (Jan. 19, 1946).

Serena Davies, "The Forger Who Fooled the World," Telegraph, Aug. 5, 2006.

"Han van Meegeren," Fake or Fortune?, BBC One.

Peter Schjeldahl, "Dutch Master," New Yorker, Oct. 27, 2008.

Listener mail:

Chris Ingalls, "Scientists Say They May Have New Evidence in D.B. Cooper Case," USA Today, Jan. 16, 2017.

Erik Lacitis, "Does That Evidence Truly Tie D.B. Cooper to Boeing? Plot Thickens," Seattle Times, Jan. 20, 2017.

Citizen Sleuths.

Wikipedia, "Avoidance Speech" (accessed Jan. 27, 2017).

Bryant Rousseau, "Talking to In-laws Can Be Hard. In Some Languages, It's Impossible," New York Times, Jan. 9, 2017.

Danny Lewis, "Austrian Town Seeks Professional Hermit," Smithsonian, Jan. 17, 2017.

This week's lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Ned Harkness. The "Lincolnshire Household Riddle" appears in Notes and Queries, Nov. 2, 1872.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet -- on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and we've set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

 

138-Life in a Cupboard  

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 printers' strike in 1923, New York newspapers put out a paper with 10 nameplates.

Henry Hudson's journal reports an encounter with a mermaid in 1610.

Sources for our feature on Harriet Jacobs and Patrick Fowler:

Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, 1861.

Jean Fagan Yellin, Harriet Jacobs: A Life, 2004.

Jean Fagan Yellin, ed., The Harriet Jacobs Family Papers, 2008.

Daneen Wardrop, "'I Stuck the Gimlet in and Waited for Evening': Writing and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl," Texas Studies in Literature and Language 49:3 (Fall 2007), 209-229.

Christina Accomando, "'The Laws were Laid Down to Me Anew': Harriet Jacobs and the Reframing of Legal Fictions," African American Review 32:2 (Summer 1998), 229-245.

Georgia Kreiger, "Playing Dead: Harriet Jacobs's Survival Strategy in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl," African American Review 42:3/4 (Fall 2008), 607-621, 795.

Anne Bradford Warner, "Harriet Jacobs at Home in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl," Southern Quarterly 45.3 (Spring 2008), 30-47.

Miranda A. Green-Barteet, "'The Loophole of Retreat': Interstitial Spaces in Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl," South Central Review 30:2 (Summer 2013) 53-72.

Anna Stewart, "Revising 'Harriet Jacobs' for 1865," American Literature 82:4 (2010), 701-724.

John Devine and Chris Glennon, "WWI Film to Tell How Irish Soldier Spent Four Years in Cupboard," Irish Independent, Jan. 6, 2000.

Frank Moss, "He Lived in Cupboard for 4 Years: True-Life Adventure," Answers 127:3287 (April 30, 1955).

"By the Skin of His Teeth," Top Spot, Nov. 28, 1959.

"Left-Hand Door," Time 9:12 (March 21, 1927), 16.

Tony Millett, "WW 1 Centenary: The Soldier Who Came Home to Devizes After Four Years in Hiding Behind German Lines," Marlborough News, Aug. 1, 2014.

"Cupboard Used by Trooper Patrick Fowler as Refuge During the First World War," Imperial War Museums (accessed Jan. 22, 2017).

Listener mail:

Wikipedia, "Islay" (accessed Jan. 21, 2017).

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islay?oldformat=true

Stand Still, Stay Silent, "Old World Language Families," Oct. 14, 2014.

Reuters has two photos from the 1999 molasses flood in Delft, the Netherlands.

Listener Vadas Gintautas' bluegrass band:

This week's lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Sid Collins, who sent two corroborating links (warning -- these spoil the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet -- on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and we've set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

137-The Mystery of Fiona Macleod  

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 surprisingly unsuccessful bank robber.

Intro:

In 1904 Mrs. Membury, of Hyde Corner, Bridport, Dorset, set out to make a snake of stamps.

In 1996, mathematician Michael J. Bradley noticed that his son's Little League rulebook specified a geometrically impossible home plate.

Sources for our feature on Fiona Macleod:

Flavia Alaya, William Sharp -- “Fiona Macleod,” 1855-1905, 1970.

Terry L. Meyers, The Sexual Tensions of William Sharp, 1996.

John Sutherland, Curiosities of Literature, 2013.

"Sharp's Death Solves a Literary Mystery," New York Times, Dec. 15, 1905.

Emmeline Pethick Lawrence, "A Man With Two Souls," Votes for Women, Jan. 6, 1911.

"The Past Year's Literary Output," Sydney Morning Herald, Feb. 16, 1901.

"Fiona Macleod," Athenaeum 3733 (May 13, 1899), 596.

"Fiona Macleod," The Academy, May 15, 1897, 525-526.

Georgiana Goddard King, "Fiona Macleod," Modern Language Notes 33:6 (June 1918), 352-356.

Alfred Noyes, "Fiona Macleod," Fortnightly Review 79:469 (January 1906), 163.

"Fiona Macleod," The Academy, Dec. 16, 1905, 1312-1313.

Ethel Rolt-Wheeler, "Fiona Macleod -- The Woman," Fortnightly Review 106:635 (November 1919), 780-790.

Frank Rinder, "William Sharp -- 'Fiona Macleod,'" Art Journal, February 1906, 44-45.

"Miss Fiona Macleod," The Sketch 23:296 (Sept. 28, 1898), 430.

"Fiona Macleod," Vogue 13:13 (March 30, 1899), 206.

Catharine A. Janvier, "Fiona Macleod and Her Creator William Sharp," North American Review 184:612 (April 5, 1907), 718-732.

William Sharp "Fiona Macleod" Archive, Institute of English Studies, University of London.

James Norman Hall, Oh Millersville!, 1940.

Edward Brunner, "'Writing Another Kind of Poetry': James Norman Hall as 'Fern Gravel' in Oh Millersville!", Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies 8/9 (Spring 2006), 44-59.

Listener mail:

Cara Giaimo, "How Millions of Secret Silk Maps Helped POWs Escape Their Captors in WWII," Atlas Obscura, Dec. 20, 2016.

"A Tiger in Town," Straits Times, Aug. 13, 1902.

"Notes of the Day," Straits Times, Oct. 27, 1930.

Tom Standage, A History of the World in Six Glasses, 2010.

Mark Pendergrast, Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World, 2010.

This week's lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Davide Tassinari, who sent this corroborating link (warning -- this spoils the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet -- on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and we've set up some rewards to help thank you for your support. You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

136-The Boston Molasses Disaster  

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 women reported encountering a 15-foot flying serpent in the woods near Columbia, S.C.

In 1834 the American Journal of Science and Arts reported the capture of a pair of conjoined catfish near Fort Johnston, N.C.

Sources for our feature on the Boston Molasses Disaster:

Stephen Puleo, Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919, 2003.

Fred Durso Jr., "The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919," NFPA Journal 105:3 (May/June 2011), 90-93.

Sean Potter, "Retrospect: January 15, 1919: Boston Molasses Flood," Weatherwise 64:1 (January/February 2011), 10-11.

Kaylie Duffy, "Today in Engineering History: Molasses Tanker Explodes, Kills 21," Product Design & Development, Jan. 15, 2015.

Steve Puleo, "Death by Molasses," American History 35:6 (February 2001), 60-66.

Chuck Lyons, "A Sticky Tragedy," History Today 59.1 (January 2009), 40-42.

Dick Sinnott, "21 Persons Drowned in Molasses Flood," Reading [Pa.] Eagle, Jan. 15, 1959.

Edwards Park, "Without Warning, Molasses in January Surged Over Boston," Smithsonian 14:8 (November 1983), 213-230.

"12 Killed When Tank of Molasses Explodes," New York Times, Jan. 16, 1919.

Ferris Jabr, "The Science of the Great Molasses Flood," Scientific American, Aug. 1, 2013.

United Press International, "The Great Boston Molasses Disaster of 1919," Jan. 17, 1979.

Peter Schworm, "Nearly a Century Later, Structural Flaw in Molasses Tank Revealed," Boston Globe, Jan. 14, 2015.

William J. Kole, "Slow as Molasses? Sweet but Deadly 1919 Disaster Explained," Associated Press, Nov. 24, 2016.

Erin McCann, "Solving a Mystery Behind the Deadly 'Tsunami of Molasses' of 1919," New York Times, Nov. 26, 2016. (The corn syrup video is midway down the page.)

Jason Daley, "The Sticky Science Behind the Deadly Boston Molasses Disaster," Smithsonian, Nov. 28, 2016.

Jennifer Ouellette, "Incredible Physics Behind the Deadly 1919 Boston Molasses Flood," New Scientist, Nov. 24, 2016.

The Boston Public Library has photos and newspaper headlines.

Listener mail:

Erik Bye's song on the 15th Wisconsin Regiment:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8o5TUozjQXw

Statistics Norway's names database.

Wikipedia, "Old Norse" (accessed Jan. 5, 2017).

This week's lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Tommy Honton, who sent this corroborating link (warning -- this spoils the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet -- on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and we've set up some rewards to help thank you for your support. You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

135-Lateral Thinking Puzzles  

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 sent these corroborating links.

Puzzle #3 is from listener Jonathan Knoell.

Puzzle #4 is from listener Nick Hare.

Puzzle #5 is from Paul Sloane and Des MacHale's 2014 book Remarkable Lateral Thinking Puzzles.

Puzzle #6 was devised by Greg. Here's a link.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet -- on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and we've set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

134-The Christmas Truce  

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.

Intro:

In 1898, G.W. Roberts of Birmingham made a full-size piano from 3,776 matchboxes and 5 pounds of glue.

In 1892, 69 men raced 302 miles on stilts, from Bordeaux to Bayonne and Biarritz and back.

Sources for our feature on the Christmas truce:

Terri Blom Crocker, The Christmas Truce: Myth, Memory, and the First World War, 2016.

Stanley Weintraub, Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce, 2001.

Chris Baker, The Truce: The Day the War Stopped, 2014.

Peter Hart, "Christmas Truce," Military History 31:5 (January 2015), 64-70.

Joe Perry, Christmas in Germany: A Cultural History, 2010.

Ian Herbert, "Muddy Truth of the Christmas Truce Game," Independent, Dec. 24, 2014.

David Brown, "Remembering a Victory For Human Kindness," Washington Post, Dec. 25, 2004.

"Alfred Anderson, 109, Last Man From 'Christmas Truce' of 1914," New York Times, Nov. 22, 2005.

"The Christmas Truce, 1914," The Henry Williamson Society (accessed Dec. 16, 2016).

Mike Dash, "The Story of the WWI Christmas Truce," Smithsonian, Dec. 23, 2011.

Stephen Moss, "Truce in the Trenches Was Real, But Football Tales Are a Shot in the Dark," Guardian, Dec. 16, 2014.

Listener mail:

Kirk Ross, The Sky Men: A Parachute Rifle Company's Story of the Battle of the Bulge and the Jump Across the Rhine, 2004.

A short version of the barrel-of-bricks episode from MythBusters:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vt230Pd1oSo

Listener Daniel Sterman recommends the original episode, "Barrel of Bricks," from Oct. 10, 2003.

Wikipedia, "Sandman (Wesley Dodds)" (accessed Dec. 16, 2016).

Wikipedia, "Sala Gang" (accessed Dec. 16, 2016).

This week's lateral thinking puzzle was suggested by listeners Greg Askins, Stacey Irvine, and Donald Mates. Here are three corroborating links (warning -- these spoil the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet -- on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and we've set up some rewards to help thank you for your support. You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

133-Notes and Queries  

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 that he had defeated.

In 1994 the city council of Green River, Wyoming, designated an airstrip south of town as an "intergalactic spaceport."

Sources for our feature on notes and queries:

The story of the Singapore tiger shooting appears in this history of the Raffles hotel.

Neil Kagan's 2013 book The Untold Civil War alleges that the 15th Wisconsin Volunteer Regiment was so thick with Norwegians that it contained dozens of men named Ole Olson. The Norwegian American Genealogical Center says that the Roster of Wisconsin Volunteers shows that the 15th had 128 men whose first name was Ole, 75 men whose last name was Olson, Olsen, or Oleson, but just 15 whose names were Ole Olson, Ole Olsen, or Ole Oleson.

The anecdote about the Gettysburg ordinance is mentioned in Michael Sanders' 2006 More Strange Tales of the Civil War, which cites Gregory A. Coco's A Strange and Blighted Land, Gettysburg: The Aftermath of a Battle, 1995. I found it in Allen C. Guelzo's Gettysburg: The Last Invasion, 2013.

Frances Wilson describes Titanic survivor Lawrence Beesley's visit to the set of A Night to Remember in her 2011 book How to Survive the Titanic, Or The Sinking of J. Bruce Ismay.

The observation about John Ford's eye for camerawork appears in Robert L. Carringer's 1996 book The Making of Citizen Kane.

Dan Murphy's Puritan name is spelled out in Willard R. Espy's An Almanac of Words at Play, 1975. (I first wrote about unusual Puritan names in 2009.) The two long names cited by H.L. Mencken appear in his 1921 study The American Language.

Douglas Hofstadter describes Stanford art professor Matt Kahn's confetti illusion in his foreword to Al Seckel's 2004 book Masters of Deception.

Mark Twain wrote about Cheiro's prophecy in his notebook in 1903. His affidavit regarding the palmist's insight into his character is described in Sarah E. Chinn's 2000 book Technology and the Logic of American Racism.

Three sources regarding Georges Simenon's prolificity:

Stanley G. Eskin, Simenon, A Critical Biography, 1987.

Henry Anatole Grunwald, "World's Most Prolific Novelist," Life 45:18 (Nov. 3, 1958).

Aubrey Dillon-Malone, Stranger Than Fiction: A Book of Literary Lists, 1999.

Also in Stranger Than Fiction, Dillon-Malone says that Anthony Trollope's quota of seven pages a day would sometimes carry him out of one book and into the next. Dillon-Malone says he's quoting Malcolm Cowley, who indeed says as much in this Paris Review interview, but I'd like to confirm the anecdote.

British fighter pilot Ray Holmes' severing of a Dornier bomber's tail is depicted in this painting. In his 2010 book Royal Prayer: A Surprising History, David Baldwin says "the whole engagement was captured on film," but I've never been able to find it. The best I've found is the opening moments of this National Geographic documentary:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lACDhxSLbYQ

The anecdote about Arthur Conan Doyle in Africa is from Russell Miller's 2008 book The Adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle: A Biography.

Among other places, the story about Kant's soul appears in Arthur Stone Dewing's 1903 Introduction to the History of Modern Philosophy.

And Cornelia Parker's comment about her conversation with Noam Chomsky appears in "Apocalypse Later," Guardian, Feb. 11, 2008.

Listener mail:

Noah Shachtman, "They Cracked This 250-Year-Old Code, and Found a Secret Society Inside," Wired, Nov. 16, 2012.

Wikipedia, "Copiale cipher" (accessed Dec. 8, 2016).

"Scientists Crack Mysterious 'Copiale Cipher,'" Guardian, Oct. 26, 2011.

Jon Watts, "The Forbidden Tongue," Guardian, Sept. 23, 2005.

Wikipedia, "Nüshu script" (accessed Dec. 8, 2016).

David Kahn, The Codebreakers, 1967.

This week's lateral thinking puzzle is from Paul Sloane and Des MacHale's 2014 book Remarkable Lateral Thinking Puzzles.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet -- on our

132-The Mad Gasser of Mattoon  

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:

Enterprise, Ala., erected an $1,800 monument to the boll weevil.

In the late 1930s, a plaster mannequin named Cynthia archly toured the New York social scene.

Sources for our feature on the Mad Gasser of Mattoon:

Bob Ladendorf and Robert E. Bartholomew, "The Mad Gasser of Mattoon: How the Press Created an Imaginary Chemical Weapons Attack," Skeptical Inquirer 26:4 (July/August 2002), 50-54.

Robert E. Bartholomew and Jeffrey S. Victor, "A Social-Psychological Theory of Collective Anxiety Attacks: The 'Mad Gasser' Reexamined," Sociological Quarterly 45:2 (March 2004), 229–248.

Robert E. Bartholomew and Erich Goode, "Phantom Assailants & the Madness of Crowds: The Mad Gasser of Botetourt County," Skeptic 7:4 (1999), 50.

D.M. Johnson, "The 'Phantom Anesthetist' of Mattoon: A Field Study of Mass Hysteria," Journal of Abnormal Psychology 40:2 (April 1945), 175-186.

Debbie Carlson, "The Mattoon Mad Gasser -- Looking Back at a Textbook Case of Mass Hysteria," Belt Magazine, June 4, 2015.

Romeo Vitelli, "The Mad Gasser of Mattoon," James Randi Educational Foundation Swift Blog, April 23, 2011.

Robert E. Bartholomew, Little Green Men, Meowing Nuns and Head-Hunting Panics, 2001.

Mike Dash, Borderlands, 2000.

Listener mail:

Wikipedia, "Battle of Blair Mountain" (accessed December 2, 2016).

Wikipedia, "Shelton Brothers Gang" (accessed December 2, 2016).

Wikipedia, "Tulsa race riot" (accessed December 2, 2016).

Wikipedia, "The Patty Duke Show" (accessed December 2, 2016).

The Dubliners -- The Sick Note:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T_Vfxuk8x_A

The Corries -- The Bricklayer's Song:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NZwGk5xmlq0

This week's lateral thinking puzzle was devised by Greg, who gathered these corroborating links (warning -- these spoil the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet -- on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and we've set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

131-Escape From Libby Prison  

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 attorney Townsend M. Zink directed that his money be used to build a library that would exclude women and stock books written only by men.

In the early 1960s, the American Automobile Association forgot to include Seattle on its road map of the United States.

Sources for our feature on the Libby Prison breakout:

Joseph Wheelan, Libby Prison Breakout, 2010.

Jonathan Franklin William Vance, Encyclopedia of Prisoners of War and Internment, 2006.

Bruce Klee, "Libby Prison," Civil War Times Illustrated 37:7 (February 1999), 32-38.

Steven Trent Smith, "The Great Libby Prison Breakout," Civil War Times 49:4 (August 2010), 46-53.

Michael Morgan, "Breakout From Rat Hell," Civil War Times Illustrated 40:5 (October 2001), 28-37.

A.G. Hamilton, "Story of the Famous Tunnel Escape From Libby Prison," 1893.

Emeric Szabad, "Diary in Libby Prison," Fraser's Magazine for Town and Country 77:459 (March 1868), 385-406.

Frank E. Moran, "Libby Prison's Tunnel," Toledo Blade, Nov. 9, 1882.

This diagram accompanied "Colonel Rose's Tunnel at Libby Prison," Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, March 1888:

Second feature:

"Five Accidents, But Only One Indemnity," American Lawyer, August 1906.

This story was a staple of vaudeville, made most famous, I think, by Fred Allen. But Allen was 12 when this version appeared, and 1 when the joke made its debut.

This week's lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Adam Behring, who sent this corroborating link (warning -- this spoils the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet -- on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and we've set up some rewards to help thank you for your support. You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

130-The Unlikely Ultramarathoner  

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 7.5-inch nose throughout Yorkshire in the 1770s.

Two meteorologists played ping-pong on a solid block of snow atop Scotland's Ben Nevis in 1902.

Sources for our feature on Cliff Young:

Julietta Jameson, Cliffy: The Cliff Young Story, 2013.

Phil Essam, ed., I've Finally Found My Hero, 2016.

Matthew Ricketson, "Cliff's Not Finished Yet," The Age, Nov. 29, 1983.

J. Freeman, "Cliff Calls It a Day," Telegraph, April 17, 1985.

Greg Truman, "A Long-Running Favorite Draws to an End," The Advertiser, May 5, 1986.

Louise Evans, "Cliff, the Battler's Hero, Refuses to Shuffle Off Into the Sunset," Sydney Morning Herald, June 4, 1988.

R. Reed, "Westfield Highway Closed to Cliff: Old Shuffler 'Saved' From Himself," Sunday Herald, March 11, 1990.

G. Legg, "Cliff, 70, Has Enough Puff for 170km," Courier-Mail, May 23, 1992.

Derek Ballantine, "For Cliff, a Long Road to Nowhere," The Advertiser, April 10, 1993.

Alan Rider, "'Where's Cliffy?': In Hobart Run-Walk!," Hobart Mercury, April 20, 1993.

Tony Baker, "An Epic of Eccentricity," Hobart Mercury, April 25, 1997.

"End of the Road for Cliff," Sydney Morning Herald, Nov. 3, 2003.

Graeme Leech, "Shy Runner Shuffled Into a Nation's Heart," The Australian, Nov. 7, 2003.

Charles Happell, "A Gumbooted Forrest Gump, Cliff Young Ran His Own Race," The Australian, March 23, 2013.

"Running Legend's Cup Will Return to District," Colac Herald, April 17, 2015.

Here's Neil Kearney's 1983 documentary Cliffy, made shortly after Young's victory and showing his trademark shuffling gait:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R276S1KMgQ0

Listener mail:

"Frenemies — Churchill’s Planned 1945 Surprise Attack on the Soviets," Military History Now, Oct. 15, 2012.

Wikipedia, "Operational Unthinkable" (accessed Nov. 18, 2016).

Historical Board Gaming: Operation Unthinkable Custom Map & Rules.

BoardGameGeek: Castle Itter.

Digital Capricorn Studios: Castle Itter.

National Public Radio, "No, Yes, Definitely: On the Rise of 'No, Totally' as Linguistic Quirk," Morning Edition, April 12, 2015.

Kathryn Schulz, "What Part of 'No, Totally' Don't You Understand?", New Yorker, April 7, 2015.

This week's lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Jon Sweitzer-Lamme, who sent this corroborating link (warning: this spoils the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet -- on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and we've set up some rewards to help thank you for your support. You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

129-The Voynich Manuscript  

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.

Intro:

In 1851, George Merryweather invented the Tempest Prognosticator, a rack of bottled leeches who would ring a bell when a storm approached.

Between 1884 and 1896, visitors to Coney Island could stay in a 31-room hotel shaped like an elephant.

Sources for our feature on the Voynich manuscript:

Gerry Kennedy and Rob Churchill, The Voynich Manuscript, 2004.

"Voynich Manuscript," Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Klaus Schmeh, "The Voynich Manuscript: The Book Nobody Can Read," Skeptical Inquirer 35:1 (January/February 2011).

Diego R. Amancio et al., "Probing the Statistical Properties of Unknown Texts: Application to the Voynich Manuscript," PLoS One, July 2, 2013.

Andreas Schinner, "The Voynich Manuscript: Evidence of the Hoax Hypothesis," Cryptologia 31:2 (March 2007).

Marcelo A. Montemurro and Damián H. Zanette, "Keywords and Co-Occurrence Patterns in the Voynich Manuscript: An Information-Theoretic Analysis," PLoS One, June 21, 2013.

Bec Crew, "Researcher Finds Evidence That the 'World's Most Mysterious Book' Is an Elaborate Hoax," Science Alert, Sept. 23, 2016.

Melissa Hogenboom, "Mysterious Voynich Manuscript Has 'Genuine Message'," BBC News, June 22, 2013.

Reed Johnson, "The Unread: The Mystery of the Voynich Manuscript," New Yorker, July 9, 2013.

Rich McCormick, "Decrypting the Most Mysterious Book in the World," The Verge, Feb. 28, 2014.

Wikipedia has scans of the entire manuscript, sortable by page, folio, or topic.

Listener mail:

Wikipedia, "Hostage MP" (accessed Nov. 12, 2016).

Wikipedia, "State Opening of Parliament" (accessed Nov. 12, 2016).

Matt Field, "Queen's Speech: Your Guide to All the Parliamentary Pomp and Pageantry," Guardian, May 27, 2015.

"Intertwined Love Story: Twins Who Married Twins," Morning Edition, National Public Radio, May 28, 2010.

"Identical Twins Marry, Give Birth to Identical Twins," Telegraph, July 22, 2008.

Danielle Centoni, "The Secret Life of Pears (in Brandy)," Oregon Live, September 2011.

This week's lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Jake Koethler.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet -- on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and we've set up some rewards to help thank you for your support. You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

128-The Battle for Castle Itter  

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 Graham Donald fell out of his plane at the top of a loop.

In 1750, the 1st Earl of Hardwicke installed an artificial ruin near his country house, Wimpole Hall.

Sources for our feature on the Battle for Castle Itter:

Stephen Harding, The Last Battle, 2013.

Stephen Harding, "The Battle for Castle Itter," World War II 23:3 (August/September 2008), 38-45.

George Hodge, "The Last Battle: When U.S. and German Soldiers Joined Forces in the Waning Hours of World War II in Europe," Military Review 94:4 (July/August 2014), 100.

John G. Mayer, "12th Men Free French Big-Wigs," 12th Armored Division Hellcat News, May 26, 1945.

Andrew Roberts, "World War II's Strangest Battle: When Americans and Germans Fought Together," Daily Beast, May 12, 2013.

Bethany Bell, "The Austrian Castle Where Nazis Lost to German-US Force," BBC News, May 7, 2015.

Listener mail:

Roadside America, "Omaha, Nebraska: Plaque: Japanese Balloon Bomb Exploded Here."

"B-52 Accidentally Bombs Kansas Lake," Aero News Network, Dec. 16, 2006.

Bill Kaczor, "Bombs Rained on Florida Family in 1944," Los Angeles Times, Aug. 14, 1994.

Wikipedia, "MOVE: 1985 bombing" (accessed Nov. 4, 2016).

Wikipedia, "Pavlovsk Experimental Station" (accessed Nov. 4, 2016).

Ian Crofton, A Curious History of Food and Drink, 2014.

Wikipedia, "1958 Tybee Island Mid-Air Collision" (accessed Nov. 4, 2016).

This week's lateral thinking puzzles were adapted from the Soviet popular science magazine Kvant and the 2000 book Lateral Mindtrap Puzzles and contributed by listener Steve Scheuermann. We refer to this image in the second puzzle:

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet -- on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and we've set up some rewards to help thank you for your support. You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

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