Futility Closet

Futility Closet

www.futilitycloset.com/podcast
Forgotten stories from the pages of history.
201-The Gardner Heist
May 21 • 32 min
The world’s largest art heist remains unsolved.
200-Lateral Thinking Puzzles
May 14 • 31 min
Play along as we untangle five strange-sounding situations using yes-or-no questions.
199-The Mystery of the Carroll A. Deering
May 7 • 33 min
In 1921 a schooner was discovered aground off Cape Hatteras. There was no one aboard.
198-The Man Who Wouldn’t Die
Apr 30 • 33 min
In 1932 four gangsters set out to kill their friend and failed five times in a row.
197-Alone Across the Outback
Apr 23 • 32 min
In 1975 a woman set out alone to lead four camels across the deserts of western Australia.
196-The Long Way Home
Apr 16 • 30 min
After Pearl Harbor was attacked, one American seaplane had to circle the world to get home.
195-A Case of Musical Plagiarism
Apr 9 • 32 min
A surprising case of classical music plagiarism.
194-The Double Life of Clarence King
Mar 26 • 32 min
For 13 years white geologist Clarence King maintained a second identity as a black man in New York.
193-The Collyer Brothers
Mar 19 • 31 min
Brothers Homer and Langley Collyer filled their Harlem townhouse with 140 tons of junk.
192-The Winchester Diver
Mar 12 • 31 min
Diver William Walker spent five years in flooded pits under Winchester Cathedral to restore the building’s foundations.
191-The Longest Flight
Mar 5 • 31 min
In 1958, two pilots managed to stay aloft in a small plane for two months continuously.
190-Mary Patten and the Neptune’s Car
Feb 26 • 31 min
In 1856, 19-year-old Mary Patten commanded a clipper ship around Cape Horn.
189-The “Wild White Man”
Feb 19 • 32 min
In the early 1800s, an escaped convict spent 32 years living among the aborigines of southeastern Australia.
188-The Bat Bomb
Feb 12 • 33 min
In World War II, the U.S. Army experimented with firebombs carried by live bats.
187-A Human Being in the Bronx Zoo
Jan 29 • 33 min
In 1906, the Bronx Zoo displayed a Congolese man in its primate house.
186-The Children’s Blizzard
Jan 22 • 32 min
In 1888 a harrowing blizzard trapped children in schoolhouses across the American Midwest.
185-The Man From Formosa
Jan 15 • 32 min
In 1703, a blond young man arrived in London who ate raw meat and claimed to be a native of Taiwan.
184-Lateral Thinking Puzzles
Jan 1 • 29 min
Play along as we untangle six strange-sounding situations using yes-or-no questions.
183-An Everest Mystery
Dec 25, 2017 • 32 min
In 1924, two British mountaineers disappeared climbing the world’s highest peak.
182-The Compulsive Wanderer
Dec 18, 2017 • 32 min
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…
181-Operation Gunnerside
Dec 11, 2017 • 33 min
A daring 1943 commando raid to stop Germany from getting an atomic bomb.
180-An Academic Impostor
Dec 4, 2017 • 33 min
Bogus professor Marvin Hewitt taught at seven different schools and universities.
179-Two Vanished Young Writers
Nov 27, 2017 • 31 min
In the 1930s, two promising young American writers disappeared without a trace.
178-Lateral Thinking Puzzles
Nov 20, 2017 • 33 min
Play along as we untangle six strange-sounding situations using yes-or-no questions.
177-Averting a Catastrophe in Manhattan
Nov 13, 2017 • 31 min
In 1977, architects realized that Manhattan’s Citicorp Tower could be toppled by a high wind.
176-The Bear That Inspired Winnie-the-Pooh
Nov 6, 2017 • 32 min
A.A. Milne and his son met an inspiring bear in the London Zoo in 1924.
175-The Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island
Oct 30, 2017 • 30 min
In the 19th century, a Native American woman lived alone on a California island for 18 years.
174-Cracking the Nazi Code
Oct 23, 2017 • 33 min
In 1940 Swedish mathematician Arne Beurling confronted a sophisticated German cipher.
173-The Worst Journey in the World
Oct 16, 2017 • 30 min
In 1911, three men traveled 70 miles through the Antarctic winter to collect penguin eggs.
172-An American in Feudal Japan
Oct 2, 2017 • 33 min
Ranald MacDonald ventured into Japan’s closed society for “the mere gratification of a love of adventure.”
171-The Emperor of the United States
Sep 25, 2017 • 32 min
Joshua Norton “reigned” over San Francisco for 21 years.
170-The Mechanical Turk
Sep 18, 2017 • 32 min
Did an 18th-century engineer manage to build a chess-playing automaton?
169-John Harrison and the Problem of Longitude
Sep 11, 2017 • 33 min
For centuries, navigators sought a way to reckon their precise position at sea.
168-The Destruction of the Doves Type
Sep 4, 2017 • 33 min
T.J. Cobden-Sanderson deliberately threw a ton of beautiful type into the river Thames.
167-A Manhattan Murder Mystery
Aug 28, 2017 • 32 min
A classic locked-room murder from 1920.
166-A Dangerous Voyage
Aug 21, 2017 • 33 min
During World War II, two Americans set out to sail 3,000 miles from the Philippines to Australia.
165-A Case of Mistaken Identity
Aug 14, 2017 • 31 min
The conviction of Adolph Beck, “one of the strangest true stories in British legal history.”
164-Vigil on the Ice
Aug 7, 2017 • 33 min
Augustine Courtauld was marooned at a remote weather station in Greenland in 1930.
163-Enslaved in the Sahara
Jul 31, 2017 • 31 min
Twelve Americans were enslaved in Africa after an 1815 shipwreck.
162-John Muir and Stickeen
Jul 17, 2017 • 32 min
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…
161-The Girl Who Fell From the Sky
Jul 10, 2017 • 30 min
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…
160-The Birmingham Sewer Lion
Jul 3, 2017 • 32 min
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…
159-The Mozart of Mathematics
Jun 26, 2017 • 32 min
Mathematician Paul ErdÅ‘s 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…
158-The Mistress of Murder Farm
Jun 19, 2017 • 33 min
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…
157-The Brutal History of Batavia’s Graveyard
Jun 12, 2017 • 33 min
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…
156-The Most Dedicated Soldier
Jun 5, 2017 • 34 min
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…
155-The Giraffe Who Walked to Paris
May 29, 2017 • 33 min
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,…
154-Spared by a Volcano
May 22, 2017 • 29 min
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…
153-A Victorian Stalker
May 15, 2017 • 32 min
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…
152-Lateral Thinking Puzzles
May 1, 2017 • 30 min
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…
151-Double-Crossing the Nazis
Apr 24, 2017 • 31 min
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…
150-The Prince of Nowhere
Apr 17, 2017 • 30 min
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…
149-The North Pond Hermit
Apr 10, 2017 • 29 min
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…
148-The Perfect Murder
Apr 3, 2017 • 30 min
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…
147-The Call of Mount Kenya
Mar 27, 2017 • 30 min
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…
146-Alone in the Wilderness
Mar 20, 2017 • 30 min
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…
145-The Pied Piper of Saipan
Mar 13, 2017 • 31 min
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…
144-The Murder Castle
Mar 6, 2017 • 32 min
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…
143-The Conscience Fund
Feb 27, 2017 • 32 min
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…
142-Fingerprints and Polygraphs
Feb 20, 2017 • 30 min
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…
141-Abducted by Indians, a Captive of Whites
Feb 13, 2017 • 32 min
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…
140-Ramanujan
Feb 6, 2017 • 30 min
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…
139-The Painter’s Revenge
Jan 30, 2017 • 31 min
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,…
138-Life in a Cupboard
Jan 23, 2017 • 33 min
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,…
137-The Mystery of Fiona Macleod
Jan 16, 2017 • 33 min
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…
136-The Boston Molasses Disaster
Jan 9, 2017 • 31 min
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…
135-Lateral Thinking Puzzles
Dec 26, 2016 • 35 min
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…
134-The Christmas Truce
Dec 19, 2016 • 30 min
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…
133-Notes and Queries
Dec 12, 2016 • 33 min
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…
132-The Mad Gasser of Mattoon
Dec 5, 2016 • 31 min
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…
131-Escape From Libby Prison
Nov 28, 2016 • 30 min
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…
130-The Unlikely Ultramarathoner
Nov 21, 2016 • 34 min
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…
129-The Voynich Manuscript
Nov 14, 2016 • 32 min
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.…
128-The Battle for Castle Itter
Nov 7, 2016 • 30 min
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…
127-Rowing Across the Atlantic
Oct 24, 2016 • 35 min
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…
126-The Great Australian Poetry Hoax
Oct 17, 2016 • 31 min
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…
125-The Campden Wonder
Oct 10, 2016 • 34 min
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…
124-D.B. Cooper
Oct 3, 2016 • 33 min
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…
123-Washington D.C.’s Hidden Tunnels
Sep 26, 2016 • 31 min
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…
122-The Bear Who Went to War
Sep 19, 2016 • 30 min
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…
121-Starving for Science
Sep 12, 2016 • 31 min
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…
120-The Barnes Mystery
Sep 5, 2016 • 30 min
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…
119-Lost in the Taiga
Aug 29, 2016 • 33 min
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…
118-The Restless Corpse of Elmer McCurdy
Aug 22, 2016 • 30 min
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…
117-The Road to En-dor
Aug 15, 2016 • 33 min
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…
116-Notes and Queries
Aug 8, 2016 • 31 min
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,…
115-Gettysburg’s Unknown Soldier
Jul 25, 2016 • 30 min
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…
114-The Desperation of Donald Crowhurst
Jul 18, 2016 • 36 min
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…
113-The Battle Over Mother’s Day
Jul 11, 2016 • 31 min
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…
112-The Disappearance of Michael Rockefeller
Jul 4, 2016 • 34 min
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…
111-Japanese Fire Balloons
Jun 27, 2016 • 32 min
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…
110-The Brooklyn Chameleon
Jun 20, 2016 • 31 min
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…
109-Trapped in a Cave
Jun 12, 2016 • 31 min
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…
108-The Greenwich Time Lady
Jun 6, 2016 • 33 min
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…
107-Arthur Nash and the Golden Rule
May 29, 2016 • 29 min
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…
106-The Popgun War
May 23, 2016 • 31 min
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…
105-Surviving on Seawater
May 8, 2016 • 34 min
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…
104-The Harvey’s Casino Bombing
May 2, 2016 • 32 min
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…
103-Legislating Pi
Apr 24, 2016 • 33 min
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…
102-The Bunion Derby
Apr 18, 2016 • 34 min
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…
101-Jerome
Apr 11, 2016 • 30 min
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…
100-Lateral Thinking Puzzles
Apr 4, 2016 • 36 min
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…
099-Notes and Queries
Mar 28, 2016 • 33 min
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…
098-The St. Albans Raid
Mar 21, 2016 • 32 min
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…
097-The Villisca Ax Murders
Mar 14, 2016 • 31 min
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…
096-The Abduction of Edgardo Mortara
Mar 7, 2016 • 32 min
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…
095-A New Day at Charleston
Feb 29, 2016 • 30 min
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…
094-The Living Unknown Soldier
Feb 22, 2016 • 33 min
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…
093-The Old Flying Days
Feb 8, 2016 • 33 min
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…
092-The Forgotten Amendment
Feb 1, 2016 • 29 min
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…
091-The Voyage of the Damned
Jan 25, 2016 • 34 min
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…
090-The Candy Bar War
Jan 18, 2016 • 31 min
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…
089-An African From Baltimore
Jan 11, 2016 • 31 min
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…
088-Mrs. Wilkinson and the Lyrebird
Jan 4, 2016 • 32 min
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…
087-A Sleuthing Cabbie, Edward VI’s Homework, and a Self-Aware Crow
Dec 28, 2015 • 31 min
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…
086-Lateral Thinking Puzzles
Dec 21, 2015 • 30 min
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…
085-Raising Chicago
Dec 14, 2015 • 34 min
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…
084-The Man Who Never Was
Dec 7, 2015 • 34 min
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…
083-Nuclear Close Calls
Nov 30, 2015 • 36 min
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…
082-Stealing Abe Lincoln
Nov 23, 2015 • 34 min
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,…
081-The Typhus Hoax
Nov 15, 2015 • 32 min
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,…
080-‘Black Like Me’: Race Realities Under Jim Crow
Nov 2, 2015 • 34 min
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…
079-One Square Inch of the Yukon
Oct 25, 2015 • 34 min
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…
078-Snowshoe Thompson
Oct 19, 2015 • 37 min
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…
077-The Sourdough Expedition
Oct 12, 2015 • 33 min
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…
076-Get Out of Jail Free
Oct 4, 2015 • 30 min
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…
075-The Sea Devil
Sep 28, 2015 • 35 min
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,…
074-Charley Parkhurst’s Secret
Sep 21, 2015 • 34 min
“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…
073-The Tichborne Claimant
Sep 14, 2015 • 34 min
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…
072-The Strange Misadventures of Famous Corpses
Sep 7, 2015 • 35 min
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…
071-Godless in Missouri
Aug 31, 2015 • 33 min
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…
070-Sunk by a Whale
Aug 24, 2015 • 33 min
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…
069-Lateral Thinking Puzzles
Aug 10, 2015 • 32 min
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…
068-The Niihau Incident
Aug 2, 2015 • 38 min
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…
067-Composing Beyond the Grave
Jul 27, 2015 • 30 min
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…
066-Eighteen Holes in Vietnam
Jul 20, 2015 • 31 min
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…
065-The Merchant Prince of Cornville
Jul 13, 2015 • 33 min
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…
064-Murder at the Priory
Jul 6, 2015 • 32 min
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…
063-The Rainmaker
Jun 28, 2015 • 32 min
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…
062-Marconi Catches a Murderer
Jun 21, 2015 • 29 min
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…
061-The Strange Custom of Garden Hermits
Jun 14, 2015 • 34 min
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…
060-The Day They Hanged an Elephant
Jun 1, 2015 • 33 min
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…
059-The Wizard of Mauritius
May 24, 2015 • 33 min
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…
058-English as She Is Spoke
May 18, 2015 • 30 min
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…
057-Jules Verne’s Lost Novel
May 11, 2015 • 35 min
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…
056-Lateral Thinking Puzzles
May 4, 2015 • 38 min
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…
055-The Dyatlov Pass Incident
Apr 26, 2015 • 31 min
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’…
054-Escape From Stalag Luft III
Apr 20, 2015 • 36 min
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…
053-The Lost Colony
Apr 13, 2015 • 31 min
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…
052-Moving Day in New York
Apr 6, 2015 • 29 min
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…
051-Poet Doppelgängers
Mar 29, 2015 • 32 min
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…
050-The Great Tea Race
Mar 23, 2015 • 34 min
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…
049-Can a Kitten Climb the Matterhorn?
Mar 16, 2015 • 34 min
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…
048-The Shark Arm Affair
Mar 9, 2015 • 33 min
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…
047-The Scariest Travel Books Ever Written
Feb 22, 2015 • 35 min
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…
046-The 1925 Serum Run to Nome
Feb 16, 2015 • 34 min
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…
045-Crossing Africa for Love
Feb 8, 2015 • 30 min
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…
044-Ballooning to the North Pole
Feb 1, 2015 • 32 min
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.…
043-Ben Franklin’s Guide to Living
Jan 25, 2015 • 34 min
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…
042-The Balmis Expedition: Using Orphans to Combat Smallpox
Jan 19, 2015 • 33 min
(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…
041-The Tragic Tale of the Lady Be Good
Jan 12, 2015 • 31 min
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…
040-The Mary Celeste: A Great Sea Mystery
Jan 5, 2015 • 38 min
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…
039-Lateral Thinking Puzzles
Dec 22, 2014 • 30 min
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…
038-The Thunder Stone
Dec 14, 2014 • 30 min
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…
037-Edgar Allan Poe’s Graveyard Visitor
Dec 8, 2014 • 32 min
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…
036-The Great Moon Hoax
Dec 1, 2014 • 34 min
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;…
035-Lateral Thinking Puzzles
Nov 24, 2014 • 25 min
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…
034-Spring-Heeled Jack — A Victorian Supervillain
Nov 17, 2014 • 37 min
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…
033-Death and Robert Todd Lincoln
Nov 10, 2014 • 35 min
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…
032-The Wow! Signal
Nov 3, 2014 • 33 min
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…
031-Pigs on Trial
Oct 27, 2014 • 30 min
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…
030-The Oak Island Money Pit
Oct 20, 2014 • 33 min
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…
029-The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser
Oct 6, 2014 • 37 min
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…
028-The Real-Life Sherlock Holmes
Sep 29, 2014 • 32 min
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…
027-The Man Who Volunteered for Auschwitz
Sep 22, 2014 • 33 min
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…
026-A Practical Joke on a Grand Scale
Sep 15, 2014 • 32 min
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…
025-An Australian Enigma
Sep 8, 2014 • 29 min
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…
024-The World’s Worst Poet
Sep 1, 2014 • 30 min
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…
023-A Victorian Poisoning Mystery
Aug 25, 2014 • 33 min
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…
022-The Devil’s Hoofmarks
Aug 18, 2014 • 35 min
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,”…
021-A Gallant German Fighter Ace
Aug 4, 2014 • 32 min
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…
020-Life Imitates Science Fiction
Jul 28, 2014 • 37 min
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…
019-Testing the Post Office
Jul 21, 2014 • 34 min
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…
018-The Mystery of the Disappearing Airmen
Jul 14, 2014 • 31 min
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…
017-An Aircraft Carrier Made of Ice
Jul 7, 2014 • 30 min
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…
016-A Very Popular Sack of Flour
Jun 30, 2014 • 29 min
In 1864 Nevada mining merchant Reuel Gridley found a unique way to raise money for wounded Union soldiers: He repeatedly auctioned the same 50-pound sack of flour, raising $250,000 from sympathetic donors across the country. In this episode of the…
015-The Flannan Isles Mystery
Jun 23, 2014 • 32 min
In 1900 three lighthouse keepers vanished from a remote, featureless island in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. The lighthouse was in good order and the log showed no sign of trouble, but no trace of the keepers has ever been found. In this episode of the…
014-The Unsinkable Violet Jessop
Jun 16, 2014 • 31 min
Stewardess Violet Jessop was both cursed and blessed — during the 1910s she met disaster on all three of the White Star Line’s Olympic class of gigantic ocean liners, but she managed to escape each time. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast…
013-An Ingenious Escape From Slavery
Jun 9, 2014 • 35 min
Georgia slaves Ellen and William Craft made a daring bid for freedom in 1848: Ellen dressed as a white man and, attended by William as her servant, undertook a perilous 1,000-mile journey by carriage, train, and steamship to the free state of Pennsylvania…
012-The Great Race, Grace Kelly’s Tomahawk, and Dreadful Penmanship
Jun 2, 2014 • 29 min
The New York Times proposed an outrageous undertaking in 1908: An automobile race westward from New York to Paris, a journey of 22,000 miles across all of North America and Asia in an era when the motorcar was “the most fragile and capricious thing on…
011-A Woolf in Sheikh’s Clothing
May 26, 2014 • 33 min
Irish practical joker Horace de Vere Cole orchestrated his masterpiece in 1910: He dressed four friends as Abyssinian princes and inveigled a tour of a British battleship. One of the friends, improbably, was Virginia Woolf disguised in a false beard and…
010-A Baboon Soldier, Lighthouse Rescues, and a Parliament of Owls
May 19, 2014 • 34 min
When Albert Marr joined the South African army in 1915, he received permission to bring along his pet baboon, Jackie. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Jackie’s adventures in England, Egypt, and Belgium, his work for the…
009-The Monkey Signalman, Racetrack ESP, and Toxic Dumps
May 12, 2014 • 34 min
After losing his feet in an accident in the 1880s, South Africa railway worker James “Jumper” Wide found an unlikely friend in a baboon named Jack. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll learn how Jumper taught Jack to work as a…
008-Owney the Mail Dog, Candy Bombers, and Bertrand Russell
May 5, 2014 • 33 min
In 1888 a mixed-breed terrier appointed himself mascot of America’s railway postal service, accompanying mailbags throughout the U.S. and eventually traveling around the world. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll recount Owney’s…
007-Louisiana Hippos, Imaginary Epidemics, and Charles Lindbergh
Apr 28, 2014 • 29 min
Two weeks before Charles Lindbergh’s famous flight, a pair of French aviators attempted a similar feat. Their brave journey might have changed history — but they disappeared en route. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the…
006-Texas Camels, Zebra Stripes, and an Immortal Piano
Apr 21, 2014 • 33 min
The 1850s saw a strange experiment in the American West: The U.S. Army imported 70 camels for help in managing the country’s suddenly enormous hinterland. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll see how the animals acquitted themselves…
005-Mailing People, Alien Shorthand, and Benjamin Franklin
Apr 14, 2014 • 32 min
Henry Brown found a unique way to escape slavery: He mailed himself to Pennsylvania. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll accompany Brown on his perilous 1849 journey from Richmond to Philadelphia, follow a 5-year-old Idaho girl who…
004-Mystery Airships, Marauding Lions, and Nancy Drew
Apr 7, 2014 • 35 min
In 1896 a strange wave of airship sightings swept Northern California; the reports of strange lights in the sky created a sensation that would briefly engulf the rest of the country. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll examine some…
003-Extreme Pedestrians, Kangaroo Stew, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Mar 31, 2014 • 34 min
In 1926, a woman named Lillian Alling grew disenchanted with her life as a maid in New York City and resolved to return to her native Russia. She lacked the funds to sail east, so instead she walked west — trekking 6,000 miles alone across the breadth of…
002-Mass Hysteria, Airborne Sheepdogs and Mark Twain’s Brother
Mar 24, 2014 • 28 min
As skywatchers prepared for the return of Halley’s comet in 1910, they heard some alarming scientific predictions: Poisonous gases in the comet’s tail might “snuff out all life on the planet,” “leaving the burnt and drenched Earth no other atmosphere than…
001-Calendar Reform, Doll Mansions, and Hitchcock’s Vertigo
Mar 14, 2014 • 30 min
Will New Year’s Day fall on a weekend in the year 2063? If calendar reformer Moses Cotsworth had succeeded, anyone in the world could have answered that question instantly — any of us could name the day of the week on which any future date would fall, no…