Unsolved

On June 30, 1999, the body of 41-year-old Ricky McCormick was discovered near a cornfield in West Alton, Missouri. He’d last been seen alive five days earlier; now he was 15 miles from home though he owned no car. In his pockets were two handwritten notes (click to enlarge):

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https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ricky_McCormick_note_2.jpg

In the ensuing 18 years both the FBI’s Cryptanalysis and Racketeering Records Unit and the American Cryptogram Association have failed to find any meaning in these messages. In 2011 the FBI appealed to the public for their insights: If you have any you can contact them via this page.

“We are really good at what we do,” said CRRU chief Dan Olson, “but we could use some help with this one.”

Cash and Carry

During the London Gin Craze of the early 18th century, when the British government started running sting operations on petty gin sellers, someone invented a device called the “Puss-and-Mew” so that the buyer couldn’t identify the seller in court:

The old Observation, that the English, though no great Inventors themselves, are the best Improvers of other Peoples Inventions, is verified by a fresh Example, in the Parish of St. Giles’s in the Fields, and in other Parts of the Town; where several Shopkeepers, Dealers in Spirituous Liquors, observing the Wonders perform’d by the Figures of the Druggist and the Blackmoor pouring out Wine, have turn’d them to their own great Profit. The Way is this, the Buyer comes into the Entry and cries Puss, and is immediately answer’d by a Voice from within, Mew. A Drawer is then thrust out, into which the Buyer puts his Money, which when drawn back, is soon after thrust out again, with the Quantity of Gin requir’d; the Matter of this new Improvement in Mechanicks, remaining all the while unseen; whereby all Informations are defeated, and the Penalty of the Gin Act evaded.

This is sometimes called the first vending machine.

(From Read’s Weekly Journal, Feb. 18, 1738. Thanks, Nick.)

Podcast Episode 167: A Manhattan Murder Mystery

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In May 1920, wealthy womanizer Joseph Elwell was found shot to death alone in his locked house in upper Manhattan. The police identified hundreds of people who might have wanted Elwell dead, but they couldn’t quite pin the crime on any of them. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review the sensational murder that the Chicago Tribune called “one of the toughest mysteries of all times.”

We’ll also learn a new use for scuba gear and puzzle over a sympathetic vandal.

See full show notes …

Case Closed

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“Witchfinder general” Matthew Hopkins hanged 300 women during the English Civil War, accounting for perhaps 60 percent of all executions for witchcraft at that time. After days of starvation, sleep deprivation, and forced walking, the accused women produced some extraordinary confessions:

Elizabeth Clark, an old, one-legged beggar-woman, gave the names of her ‘imps’ as ‘Holt,’ a ‘white kitling;’ ‘Jarmara,’ a ‘fat spaniel’ without legs; ‘Sacke and Sugar,’ a ‘black rabbet;’ ‘Newes,’ a ‘polcat;’ and ‘Vinegar Tom,’ a greyhound with ox-head and horns. Another called her ‘imps’ ‘Ilemauzar’ (or ‘Elemauzer’), ‘Pyewackett,’ ‘Pecke in the Crowne,’ and ‘Griezzell Greedigutt.’

This proved their guilt, Hopkins said — these were names “which no mortal could invent.”

Podcast Episode 165: A Case of Mistaken Identity

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In 1896, Adolf Beck found himself caught up in a senseless legal nightmare: Twelve women from around London insisted that he’d deceived them and stolen their cash and jewelry. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Beck’s incredible ordeal, which ignited a scandal and inspired historic reforms in the English justice system.

We’ll also covet some noble socks and puzzle over a numerical sacking.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 158: The Mistress of Murder Farm

belle gunness

Belle Gunness was one of America’s most prolific female serial killers, luring lonely men to her Indiana farm with promises of marriage, only to rob and kill them. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of The LaPorte Black Widow and learn about some of her unfortunate victims.

We’ll also break back into Buckingham Palace and puzzle over a bet with the devil.

See full show notes …

Moo

http://rarehistoricalphotos.com/cow-shoes-prohibition-1924/

This is clever — during Prohibition, moonshiners wore shoes that left hoofprints. From the St. Petersburg, Fla., Evening Independent, May 27, 1922:

A new method of evading prohibition agents was revealed here today by A.L. Allen, state prohibition enforcement director, who displayed what he called a ‘cow shoe’ as the latest thing from the haunts of moonshiners.

The cow shoe is a strip of metal to which is tacked a wooden block carved to resemble the hoof of a cow, which may be strapped to the human foot. A man shod with a pair of them would leave a trail resembling that of a cow.

“The shoe found was picked up near Port Tampa where a still was located some time ago. It will be sent to the prohibition department at Washington. Officers believe the inventor got his idea from a Sherlock Holmes story in which the villain shod his horse with shoes the imprint of which resembled those of a cow’s hoof.”

(Via Rare Historical Photos.)

Podcast Episode 153: A Victorian Stalker

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Between 1838 and 1841, an enterprising London teenager broke repeatedly into Buckingham Palace, sitting on the throne, eating from the kitchen, and posing a bewildering nuisance to Queen Victoria’s courtiers, who couldn’t seem to keep him out. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the exploits of Edward Jones — and the severe measures that were finally taken to stop them.

We’ll also salute some confusing flags and puzzle over an extraterrestrial musician.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 150: The Prince of Nowhere

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

We’ll also illuminate a hermit’s behavior and puzzle over Liechtenstein’s flag.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 149: The North Pond Hermit

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Image: Flickr

Without any forethought or preparation, Christopher Knight walked into the Maine woods in 1986 and lived there in complete solitude for the next 27 years, subsisting on what he was able to steal from local cabins. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the North Pond hermit, one man’s attempt to divorce himself completely from civilization.

We’ll also look for coded messages in crosswords and puzzle over an ineffective snake.

See full show notes …