Podcast Episode 82: Stealing Abe Lincoln

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In 1876, a gang of inept Chicago counterfeiters launched an absurd plot to steal the body of Abraham Lincoln and hold it for ransom. In today’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast, we’ll follow their comical attempts to carry out the bizarre scheme, and uncover the secret society that was formed afterward to protect Lincoln’s corpse.

We’ll also puzzle over an overlooked way to reduce the odds of dying of a heart attack.

Sources for our feature on Lincoln’s bodysnatchers:

Thomas J. Craughwell, Stealing Lincoln’s Body, 2007.

Bonnie Stahlman Speer, The Great Abraham Lincoln Hijack, 1997.

John Carroll Power, History of an Attempt to Steal the Body of Abraham Lincoln, 1890.

Thomas J. Craughwell, “A Plot to Steal Lincoln’s Body,” U.S. News, June 24, 2007.

David B. Williams, “The Odd Reburials of Abraham Lincoln,” Seattle Times, April 13, 2007.

Ray Bendici, “Thomas J. Craughwell Discusses the Odd Plot to Steal Lincoln’s Body,” Connecticut Magazine, Nov. 12, 2013.

Don Babwin, “Presidential Heist,” Associated Press, May 13, 2007.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle is adapted from a puzzle in Edward J. Harshman’s 1996 book Fantastic Lateral Thinking Puzzles.

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

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation via the Donate button in the sidebar 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!

Last Words

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A letter from Arthur Conan Doyle to Light, April 5, 1930:

SIR, — It might interest your readers to know that some weeks ago I had a communication which professed to come from Thomas Hardy. It came through an amateur Medium from whom I had only once before had a message, which was most veridical. Therefore, I was inclined to take Hardy’s message seriously, the more so as intrinsically it was worthy of him. I should place it on the same level of internal evidence as the Oscar Wilde and the Jack London scripts. Hardy gave a posthumous review of his own work, some aspects of which he now desired to revise and modify. The level of his criticism was a very high and just one. He then, as a sign of identity, sent a poem, which seems to me to be a remarkable one. It describes evening in a Dorsetshire village. Without quoting it all I will give here the second verse which runs thus:

Full well we know the shadow o’er the green,
When Westering sun reclines behind the trees,
The little hours of evening, when the scene
Is faintly fashioned, fading by degrees.

The third and fourth lines are in my opinion exquisite. I do not know if they were memories of something written in life. I should be glad to know if anyone recognises them.

Arthur Conan Doyle

Last Thoughts

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Belgian painter Antoine Wiertz unveiled a gruesome triptych in 1853: Thoughts and Visions of a Severed Head depicts a guillotined head’s impressions of its final three minutes of awareness.

Wietz added a verbal description of each of the panels. Here’s an excerpt from the second minute, “Under the Scaffold”:

For the first time the executed prisoner is conscious of his position.

He measures with his fiery eyes the distance that separates his head from his body and tells himself, ‘My head really is cut off.’

Now the frenzy redoubles in force and energy.

The executed prisoner imagines that his head is burning and turning on itself, that the universe is collapsing and turning with it, that a phosphorescent fluid is whirling around his skull as it melts down.

In this midst of this horrible fever, a mad, incredible, unheard of idea takes possession of the dying brain.

Would you believe it? This man whose head has been chopped off still conceives of a hope. All the blood that remains bubbles, gushes, and courses with fury through all the canals of life to grasp at this hope.

At this moment the executed prisoner is convinced that he is stretching out his convulsive and rage-filled hands toward his expiring head.

I don’t know what this imaginary movement means. Wait … I understand … It’s horrible!

Oh! My God, what is life that it continues the struggle to the very last drop of blood?

In the same year, American author Theodore Witmer had recorded his own impressions of seeing an execution in the 1840s. “Why don’t somebody give us ‘The Reflections of a Decapitated Man?'” he asked. “If it turned out stupid, he might excuse himself for want of a head.”

A Grave Irony

“I have seen a thousand graves opened, and always perceived that whatever was gone, the teeth and the hair remained of those who had died with them. Is this not odd? They go the very first things in youth and yet last the longest in the dust.” — Lord Byron, letter to John Murray, Nov. 18, 1820

Podcast Episode 72: The Strange Misadventures of Famous Corpses

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What do René Descartes, Joseph Haydn, and Oliver Cromwell have in common? All three lost their heads after death. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast, we’ll run down a list of notable corpses whose parts have gone wandering.

We’ll also hear readers chime in on John Lennon, knitting, diaries and Hitchcock, and puzzle over why a pilot would choose to land in a field of grazing livestock.

Sources for our feature on posthumously itinerant body parts:

Bess Lovejoy, Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, 2013.

Edith Sitwell, English Eccentrics, 1993.

I’d written previously about Descartes, Haydn, Cromwell, Bentham, Einstein, and Juan Perón. Thanks to listener Alejandro Pareja for the tip about Goya.

Listener mail:

Barney Snow’s documentary about Gerald and Linda Polley is Where Has Eternity Gone?

QI, “Knitting in Code.”

Douglas Martin, “Robert Shields, Wordy Diarist, Dies at 89,” New York Times, Oct. 29, 2007.

Listener Christine Fisher found Charles Thomas Samuels’ interview with Alfred Hitchcock in Sidney Gottlieb’s 2003 book Alfred Hitchcock: Interviews. It appeared originally in Samuels’ 1972 book Encountering Directors.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle is from Kyle Hendrickson’s 1998 book Mental Fitness Puzzles.

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

Enter coupon code CLOSET at Harry’s and get $5 off their starter set of high-quality razors.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation via the Donate button in the sidebar 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!

Working Late

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Jack London died in 1916, but he turned up, gamely, in 1920 when psychic Margaret More Oliver tried to reach him through automatic writing. “I am at last attuned to life,” he wrote. “There is no discord — no conflict — the clash of mind and will with heart and impulse of soul has ended.”

She proposed that he write a story through her, and after many false starts they succeeded. “I am getting it over!” he wrote. “I am jubilant! Oh, God! it’s good to be able to do it. My pen is coming back to earth and I shall do wonders yet.”

She sent the manuscript to London’s widow, Charmian, proposing to publish it as “Death’s Sting, by Jack London, Deceased.” But Charmian refused: “If I allowed a book to come out under such ‘authorship,’ immediately every faker in the land — and they are legion — would have perfect right to do the same … the selling value of bona fide work of Jack London’s would be more or less injured, and too much depends on this.”

Oliver pressed her, but Charmian was adamant: “If I should ever be convinced, beyond the flutter of a doubt, I’d eat cyanide of potassium so quickly that I’d be on the Other Side, groping around for Jack, before I had time to think about it!”

The text of Death’s Sting seems to have been lost, but evidently it wasn’t very good — Charmian’s aunt, Netta Payne, wrote, “It has no touch of literary merit, no hint of power or idealistic beauty. It is a tedious detail of sordid facts without the least alleviation of literary artistry.” London’s spirit finally agreed: “I tried to speak with my old tongue, but my old tongue is silenced.”

One person who wasn’t surprised at any of this was Arthur Conan Doyle, who had written to Charmian a year after London’s death to suggest that “a strong soul dying prematurely with many earth interests in its thoughts, would be very likely to come back.”

“Mrs. London received my intrusion with courtesy,” Doyle wrote, “but I am not aware that any practical steps were taken toward this end. They seem now to have come from the other side.”

(Edward Biron Payne, The Soul of Jack London, 1927.)

Podcast Episode 67: Composing Beyond the Grave

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In 1933, violinist Jelly d’Aranyi declared that the spirit of Robert Schumann was urging her to find a concerto that he’d written shortly before his death in 1856. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the discovery of Schumann’s lost violin concerto, as well as a similar case in which a London widow claimed to receive new compositions from 12 dead composers.

We’ll also puzzle over how a man earns $250,000 for going on two cruises.

Sources for our feature on Jelly d’Aranyi and Rosemary Brown:

Joseph Macleod, The Sisters d’Aranyi, 1969.

Erik Palmstierna and Adila Fachiri, Horizons of Immortality, 1938.

Rosemary Brown, Unfinished Symphonies, 1971.

Douglas Martin, “Rosemary Brown, a Friend of Dead Composers, Dies at 85,” New York Times, Dec. 2, 2001.

Michael Steinberg, The Concerto: A Listener’s Guide, 1998.

Nicolas Slonimsky, Slonimsky’s Book of Musical Anecdotes, 1948.

Here’s the Schumann violin concerto played by Frank Peter Zimmermann, and here’s a rather blurry interview with Rosemary Brown, in which she transcribes a composition for Beethoven.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle is from Jed’s List of Situation Puzzles.

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

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation via the Donate button in the sidebar 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. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for listening!

The Hasanlu Lovers

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In 1972, archaeologists unearthed a plaster-lined brick bin in the Teppe Hasanlu site in northwestern Iran, an ancient city that had been violently sacked and burned at the end of the ninth century B.C. University of Pennsylvania archaeologist Robert Dyson wrote:

Lying in the bottom of the bin were two human skeletons, a male and a female. The male had one of its arms under the shoulder of the female, while the female was looking into the face of the male and reaching out with one hand to touch his lips. Both were young adults. Neither showed any evidence of injury; there were no obvious cuts or broken bones. There were no objects with the skeletons, but under the female’s head was a stone slab. The other contents of the bin consisted of broken pieces of plaster, charcoal, and small pieces of burned brick but nothing heavy enough to crush the bones.

“Two theories have been suggested to explain this unusual scene,” he wrote. “One, that a pair of lovers had crawled into the bin under some light material of some kind to hide in the hope of escaping the destruction of the citadel, and that this is a very tender moment between them. The other is that they were hiding and one is telling the other not to make any noise. In either case it would appear they died peacefully — probably by asphyxiation.”

The Death Mask Stamps

In 1903 Serbian king Alexander I and his queen were murdered in their palace. Alexander’s successor, Peter Karageorgevich, rescinded postage stamps bearing the dead king’s portrait and marked his own coronation with this stamp, depicting twin profiles of himself and his ancestor Black George, a Serbian patriot:

karageorgevich stamp

If he’d hoped this would allay suspicion, he was mistaken. In Through Savage Europe (1907), writer Harry De Windt notes that when the stamp is turned upside down, “the gashed and ghastly features of the murdered King stand out with unmistakable clearness”:

karageorgevich stamp - inverted

That’s a bit overstated. Here’s Alexander’s original stamp and the purported “death mask” — gaze at it blankly and Alexander’s features will emerge from the noses, brows, and chins:

alexander and the "death mask"

“Needless to state, the issue was at once prohibited.”