Podcast Episode 123: Washington D.C.’s Hidden Tunnels

dyar's 21st street tunnel

In 1924 a curious network of catacombs was discovered in Washington D.C. They were traced to Harrison Dyar, a Smithsonian entomologist who had been industriously digging tunnels in the city for almost two decades. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Dyar’s strange hobby — and the equally bizarre affairs in his personal life.

We’ll also revisit balloons in World War II and puzzle over a thief’s change of heart.

Intro:

The melody of Peter Cornelius’ 1854 composition “Ein Ton” is a single repeated note.

Japanese puzzle maven Nob Yoshigahara devised this optical illusion.

Sources for our feature on Harrison Dyar:

Marc E. Epstein, Moths, Myths, and Mosquitoes, 2016.

Marc E. Epstein and Pamela M. Henson, “Digging for Dyar: The Man Behind the Myth,” American Entomologist 38:3 (July 1, 1992), 148-169.

Ryan P. Smith, “The Bizarre Tale of the Tunnels, Trysts and Taxa of a Smithsonian Entomologist,” Smithsonian, May 13, 2016.

John Kelly, “Who Was Harrison G. Dyar?”, Washington Post, Oct. 27, 2012.

John Kelly, “Inside the Tunnels of Washington’s Mole Man, Harrison G. Dyar,” Washington Post, Nov. 3, 2012.

John Kelly, “A Final Look at D.C.’s Tunnel-Digging Bug Man,” Washington Post, Nov. 7, 2012.

Associated Press, “Secret Tunnels Shrouded in Mystery,” Oct. 21, 1992.

United Press, “Scientist Admits He Dug Tunnels That Caused Furore,” Sept. 28, 1924.

http://blog.modernmechanix.com/tunnel-digging-as-a-hobby/

Modern Mechanix published this diagram of Dyar’s B Street catacomb in its August 1932 issue. The inset photo at top left corresponds to the 32-foot shaft at right, which was lined in concrete and fitted with iron pipes to serve as ladder rungs. Two more shafts (partially obscured) can be seen to the left. The inset photo at bottom shows the inscription H.G. DYAR FEB 14 1923 on an archway near the cellar entrance. That date was Dyar’s 57th birthday.

Listener mail:

David Hambling, “How 100,000 Weather Balloons Became Britain’s Secret Weapon,” Guardian, Sept. 15, 2016.

Wikipedia, “Operation Outward” (accessed Sept. 24, 2016).

Wanderlust has a short video about the operation:

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was devised by Sharon, who offers 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!

Coming and Going

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Aliceroom.jpg

In Through the Looking-Glass, John Tenniel’s two illustrations above are designed to fall on opposite sides of a single page. In this way the page itself becomes the looking-glass — Alice enters one side and emerges from the other, where all the details are reversed, including Tenniel’s signature and initials.

“Tenniel this time clearly draws the borderline between the world of dreams and reality,” writes Isabelle Nières. The dream occupies the center of the physical book. “Yet not all perceived that Alice’s return was not a symmetrical one, i.e. back through the mirror, but is symbolized by an almost perfect superimposition of the Red Queen on the kitten.”

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Black_Queen.jpg

(Isabelle Nières, “Tenniel: The Logic Behind His Interpretation of the Alice Books,” in Rachel Fordyce and Carla Marello, eds., Semiotics and Linguistics in Alice’s Worlds, 1994.)

Shifting Ground

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Erik_Werenskiold_-_Bondebegravelse_(Nasjonalmuseet).jpg

For her 2000 book Obituaries in American Culture, Janice Hume collated thousands of newspaper death notices to reveal the most admired characteristics of American men in various eras:

1818: Patriotism, gallantry, vigilance, boldness, merit as an officer
1838: Benevolence, intellect, kindness, affection, indulgence, devotion to family
1855: Public esteem, activity, amiability, fame, intelligence, generosity
1870: Christianity, education, generosity, energy, perseverance, eminence
1910: Professional accomplishments, wealth, long years at work, associations, education
1930: Long years at work, career promotions, education, associations, prominence, fame

In general, men who died in the 19th century were remembered for personal virtues such as piety and kindness, while 20th-century obituaries listed associations and accomplishments. Women, when they were remembered at all in 1818, were praised for passive traits such as patience, resignation, obedience, and amiability; by 1930 women were becoming recognized for accomplishments such as political voice and philanthrophy, but their most noted attribute was still their association with men.

Attitude

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Harvey_Ball.jpg

The designer of the smiley, commercial artist Harvey Ball, never trademarked it and received just $45 for his work.

His son said, “He was not a money-driven guy. He used to say, ‘Hey, I can only eat one steak at a time, drive one car at a time.'”

(Thanks, Drake.)

Souvenir

https://books.google.com/books?id=IG8JoTZeTggC&pg=PA387

In May 1864, Union corporal James Denn was hit in the hand by a Confederate minie ball in the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse. Denn survived the fighting, but the ball remained lodged in his now-useless hand, and he was discharged from the service in December.

The ball remained in Denn’s hand for 38 years, during which time he would often rattle it to entertain (or appall) visiting children. In 1902 he moved into the Soldiers’ Home in Washington D.C., where surgeon Louis A. LaGarde finally removed it, arguably performing the last surgical operation of the Civil War.

“Missile was loose in a thick sac under palmar fascia,” LaGarde memorably reported. “Sac contained about 1 ounce of hemorrhagic fluid, the blood being no doubt the result of frequent traumatisms from shaking the hand violently near the ears of his friends to cause them to hear the ball rattle in the cyst. The succussion sound made by the loose ball and the fluid in the unyielding sac was very perceptible to the sense of hearing.”

Unquote

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wood-framed_house.jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

“It is odd that the skeleton of a house is cheerful when the skeleton of a man is mournful, since we only see it after the man is destroyed. … There is something strangely primary and poetic about the sight of the scaffolding and main lines of a human building; it is a pity there is no scaffolding round a human baby.” — G.K. Chesterton, “The Wings of Stone,” Alarms and Discursions, 1911

Resolution

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sherwood_Anderson_(1933).jpg

In June 1918, frustrated novelist Sherwood Anderson sent this letter to his day job at a Chicago advertising agency:

Dear Barton:

You have a man in your employ that I have thought for a long time should be fired. I refer to Sherwood Anderson. He is a fellow of a good deal of ability but for a long time I have been convinced that his heart is not in his work. There is no question but that this man Anderson has in some ways been an ornament to our organization. His hair, for one thing, being long and mussy gives an artistic carelessness to his personal appearance that somewhat impresses such men as Frank Lloyd Wright and Mr. Curtiniez of Kalamazoo when they come into the office. But Anderson is not really productive, as I have said, his heart is not in his work. I think he should be fired, and if you will not do the job, I should like permission to fire him myself. I, therefore, suggest that Anderson be asked to sever his connections with the company on August 1st. He is a nice fellow. We will let him down easy, but let’s can him.

Respectfully submitted,

Sherwood Anderson

He published Winesburg, Ohio the following year.

Finders Keepers

https://pixabay.com/en/milky-way-galaxy-night-sky-stars-984050/

On June 15, 1936, A. Dean Lindsay of Ocilla, Ga., visited a Pittsburgh notary public and presented a claim for

[a]ll of the property known as planets, islands-of-space or other matter, henceforth to be known as ‘A.D. Lindsay’s archapellago’ [sic] located in all the region visible (by any means) upward, (or in any other direction) from the city of Ocilla, Ga, together with all planets, islands-of-space or other matter (except this world, the Moon and the planet Saturn) visible from any other planet, island-of-space or other matter.

“On a May night in 1936,” he explained later, “I was watching the full moon. It seemed so large and beautiful that I thought of it as real estate, and said to myself, ‘Nobody owns it!’ Then I decided to acquire it by original claim deed.”

He left Earth to its inhabitants but in two separate deeds claimed

All of the property in ‘A. Dean Lindsay’s archapellago’ (commonly called the sky, or heavens) known as the planet ‘Saturn’ and periodically seen from the city of Ocilla, Ga.

and

All of the property in ‘A. Dean Lindsay’s archapellago’ commonly called ‘The Moon’, a planet in the sky.

He sent the deeds and the required payment to R.K. Brown, clerk of the Superior Court in Ocilla, and accordingly on June 28 Brown recorded them in Deed Book 11, pages 28-29, at Irwin County Courthouse in Ocilla.

So that’s that. “Can you believe it?” Lindsay wrote in a letter to Ramon P. Coffman. “That I own the Moon and the Sun, the stars, the comets, meteors, asteroids — everything, everywhere beyond this world?”

Occasionally thereafter he would receive requests to purchase the moon, a constellation, or a star. He sent them all the same answer: “Henry Ford is not rich enough to buy them, so I know that you cannot.”

Summing Up

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lamb_Horace_bw.jpg

In 1932, at the end of a 60-year career studying hydrodynamics, Sir Horace Lamb addressed the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

“I am an old man now,” he said, “and when I die and go to heaven there are two matters on which I hope for enlightenment. One is quantum electrodynamics, and the other is the turbulent motion of fluids. And about the former I am rather more optimistic.”