History

Practical Politics

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

On May 22, 1856, South Carolina representative Preston Brooks approached Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner as he sat writing at his desk in the U.S. Senate chamber. “Mr. Sumner,” he said, “I have read your speech twice over carefully. It is a libel on South Carolina, and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine.” Then he began to beat Sumner savagely with his gold-headed walking cane. Blinded with blood, Sumner at first was trapped under the desk, which was bolted to the floor, but he wrenched it free and staggered up the aisle, Brooks raining blows on his head until the cane snapped and Sumner collapsed unconscious. Even then Brooks held him by the lapel and continued to beat him with half the cane until the two were separated.

Sumner had denounced South Carolina senator Andrew Butler in a speech two days earlier in a dispute over slavery in the new territories of Kansas and Nebraska. Brooks was convicted of assault and fined $300, but he received no prison sentence, and his constituents returned him to office. Pro-slavery Southerners sent him hundreds of new canes, one inscribed “Hit him again.”

On Nov. 9, 1889, Col. A.M. Swope encountered Col. William Cassius Goodloe in the corridor of the Lexington, Ky., post office. The two had been battling for control of the state Republican party, and tragically they had adjoining mailboxes.

“You obstruct the way,” said Goodloe.

“You spoke to me,” said Swope. “You insulted me.”

Goodloe drew a knife. Swope drew a Smith & Wesson .38. Goodloe stabbed Swope 13 times, piercing his heart and nearly cutting off his hand. Swope shot Goodloe twice, tearing up his belly and setting his clothes afire. Swope died on the post office floor, and Goodloe staggered to a doctor’s office. He died two days later.

One witness said he never thought he would witness “such a magnificent display of manly courage and bravery.” Goodloe’s uncle, Cassius M. Clay, said of his nephew’s conduct, “I couldn’t have done better myself.”

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 Alexander’s successor, Peter Karageorgevich, rescinded postage stamps bearing the dead king’s portrait and marked his own coronation with this stamp, depicting twin profiles of himself and his ancestor Black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.”

Forward and Back

http://www.archives.gov/press/press-kits/picturing-the-century-photos/orville-wright-in-aeroplane.jpg

When my brother and I built and flew the first man-carrying flying machine, we thought that we were introducing into the world an invention which would make further wars practically impossible. That we were not alone in this thought is evidenced by the fact that the French Peace Society presented us with medals on account of our invention. We thought governments would realize the impossibility of winning by surprise attacks, and that no country would enter into war with another of equal size when it knew that it would have to win by simply wearing out its enemy.

— Orville Wright to C.M. Hitchcock, June 21, 1917

In a Word

quisquilian
adj. worthless, trivial

noncurantist
adj. marked by indifference

diversivolent
adj. desiring strife

On April 18, 1930, in place of its 6:30 p.m. radio news bulletin, the BBC announced, “Good evening. Today is Good Friday. There is no news.” It filled the time with two minutes of piano music.

In 2010 computer programmer William Tunstall-Pedoe sifted 300 million facts about “people, places, business and events” and determined that April 11, 1954, was the single most boring day in the 20th century.

He told the Telegraph, “Nobody significant died that day, no major events apparently occurred and, although a typical day in the 20th century has many notable people being born, for some reason that day had only one who might make that claim — Abdullah Atalar, a Turkish academic.

“The irony is, though, that — having done the calculation — the day is interesting for being exceptionally boring. Unless, that is, you are Abdullah Atalar.”

(Thanks, Duncan.)

Podcast Episode 54: Escape From Stalag Luft III

stalag luft iii

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 around the world.

We’ll also hear about the chaotic annual tradition of Moving Day in several North American cities and puzzle over how a severely injured hiker beats his wife back to their RV.

Sources for our feature on the escape from Stalag Luft III:

Eric Williams, The Wooden Horse, 1949.

The Wooden Horse, British Lion Film Corporation, 1950.

Oliver Philpot, Stolen Journey, 1952.

Here’s the movie:

It became the third most popular film at the British box office in 1950. The book’s success led Williams to write The Tunnel, a prequel that described his and Michael Codner’s earlier escape from the Oflag XXI-B camp in Poland.

Sources for listener mail:

Ian Austen, “When a City Is on the Move, With Mattresses and Dishwashers in Tow,” New York Times, July 1, 2013.

Localwiki, Davis, Calif., “Moving Day” (accessed April 16, 2015).

Samara Kalk Derby, “Happy Holiday or Horror Story? Moving Day Hits UW,” Wisconsin State Journal, Aug. 15, 2011.

City of Madison Streets & Recycling, “August Moving Days” (accessed April 16, 2015).

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener David White and his daughter Katherine.

This episode is sponsored by our patrons and by The Great Courses — go to http://www.thegreatcourses.com/closet to order from eight of their best-selling courses at up to 80 percent off the original price.

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. And you can finally follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Thanks for listening!

Podcast Episode 53: The Lost Colony

https://books.google.com/books?id=eu1neCSs4RsC&pg=PA254

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 podcast we’ll trace the history of the “lost colony” and consider what might have happened to the settlers.

We’ll also visit an early steam locomotive in 1830 and puzzle over why writing a letter might prove to be fatal.

Sources for our feature on the lost colony at Roanoke:

James Horn, A Kingdom Strange: The Brief and Tragic History of the Lost Colony of Roanoke, 2011.

Karen Ordahl Kupperman, Roanoke: The Abandoned Colony, 2007.

Giles Milton, Big Chief Elizabeth: The Adventures and Fate of the First English Colonists in America, 2011.

Lee Miller, Roanoke: Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony, 2013.

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:First_passenger_railway_1830.jpg

Fanny Kemble wrote of her encounter with an early locomotive in a letter dated Aug. 26, 1830 (“A common sheet of paper is enough for love, but a foolscap extra can alone contain a railroad and my ecstasies”). It appears in her 1878 memoir Records of a Girlhood.

She sat alongside engineer George Stephenson, who explained his great project and with whom she fell “horribly in love.” At one point on their 15-mile journey they passed through a rocky defile:

You can’t imagine how strange it seemed to be journeying on thus, without any visible cause of progress other than the magical machine, with its flying white breath and rhythmical, unvarying pace, between these rocky walls, which are already clothed with moss and ferns and grasses; and when I reflected that these great masses of stone had been cut asunder to allow our passage thus far below the surface of the earth, I felt as if no fairy tale was ever half so wonderful as what I saw.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Blaine, who sent this corroborating link (warning — this spoils the puzzle).

This episode is sponsored by our patrons and by The Great Courses — go to http://www.thegreatcourses.com/closet to order from eight of their best-selling courses at up to 80 percent off the original price.

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. And you can finally follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for listening!

Podcast Episode 52: Moving Day in New York

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Goethe_1791.jpg

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 Day” and wonder how it lasted through two centuries.

We’ll also recount some surprising escapes from sinking ships and puzzle over a burglar’s ingenuity.

Sources for our feature on Moving Day, New York City’s historic custom of changing residence on May 1:

Kenneth A. Scherzer, The Unbounded Community: Neighborhood Life and Social Structure in New York City, 1830-1875, 1992.

Elizabeth Blackmar, Manhattan for Rent, 1785-1850, 1991.

William Shepard Walsh, Curiosities of Popular Customs … Illustrated, 1897.

“Expressmen and Cartmen’s Charges — The Laws Relative Thereto,” New York Times, April 14, 1870.

“Rich Are Homeless This Moving Day,” New York Times, Oct. 1, 1919.

“Rain Adds to Gloom of City Moving Day,” New York Times, Oct. 2, 1919.

“May 1 Moving Rush a Thing of the Past,” New York Times, May 2, 1922.

In 1890 the New York Times published a list of the maximum prices that city ordinances permitted cartmen to charge:

http://www.baruch.cuny.edu/library/alumni/online_exhibits/digital/2007/moving_day/images/015_lg.gif

Sources for our feature on oddities in maritime disasters:

“Andrea Doria Tragedy Recalled by the Survivors,” Associated Press, July 24, 1981.

“A Remarkable Maritime Disaster,” Scientific American, Nov. 24, 1888.

“A Remarkable Collision,” New Zealand Herald, July 26, 1884.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Ken Murphy.

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. And you can finally follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for listening!

Boom Town

https://books.google.com/books?id=A7pZAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA3

In the summer of 1903, the United States Cartridge Company of Tewksbury, Mass., noticed a stain on the floor of its gunpowder magazine. Apparently the dynamite magazine next door had been leaking nitroglycerine. The company asked the dynamite’s owner, American Powder Mills, to attend to the matter, and on July 29 Cartridge’s powder was loaded onto three wagons and moved a few hundred feet away, and an unlucky foreman named Goodwin entered the building, poured a solution on the stain, and began to sweep it with a broom. The spot began to smoke.

The ensuing blast killed 20 people and flattened a score of houses. “Buildings were shaken and windows broken in hundreds of places within a radius of fifteen miles,” reported New England Magazine. “People as far away as Dedham on the south and the mid-New Hampshire towns on the north, felt the shock and guessed at reckless blasts or earthquakes.”

It appears that the fire had caused the dynamite magazine to explode, which set off the three wagons of gunpowder, which set off a third magazine, leased by the Dupont Powder Company. “The ruin caused by the accident was appalling in its perfection,” notes the report. “Three acres of ground were entirely laid waste, the trees and bushes in a considerable radius being torn and blasted as by a breath from a huge furnace.”

The magazines had been built 30 years earlier, when the area had been remote, and the town had grown up around them. “The only safe assumption is that sooner or later every magazine is bound to explode, and must therefore be kept a safe distance from dwelling houses and other buildings.”

(Thanks, Meredith.)

Chin Up

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:British_wounded_Bernafay_Wood_19_July_1916.jpg

“I adore war. It is like a big picnic without the objectlessness of a picnic. I’ve never been so well or so happy. No one grumbles at one for being dirty.” So wrote professional soldier and poet Julian Grenfell in October 1914, shortly after arriving at the western front.

The unparalleled horrors of the First World War seemed to call forth untapped reserves of mannerly British sang-froid, a “stoical reticence” that artillery officer P.H. Pilditch traced to training in the public schools: “Everything is toned down. … Nothing is ‘horrible.’ That word is never used in public. Things are ‘darned unpleasant,’ ‘Rather nasty,’ or, if very bad, simply ‘damnable.'”

General James Jack reported, “On my usual afternoon walk today a shrapnel shell scattered a shower of bullets around me in an unpleasant manner.” When Private R.W. Mitchell moved to trenches in Hebuterne in June 1916, he complained of “strafing and a certain dampness.”

This unreality reached its peak in the Field Service Post Card, which soldiers were required to complete to reassure next of kin after a particularly dangerous engagement:

I am quite well.

I have been admitted into hospital (sick) (wounded) (and am going on well) (and hope to be discharged soon).

I am being sent down to base.

I have received your (letter dated ____) (telegram dated ____) (parcel dated ____)

Letter follows at first opportunity.

I have received no letter from you (lately) (for a long time).

(Signature only)

(Date)

A soldier would cross out any text that did not apply, perhaps leaving only the line “I am quite well.” “The implicit optimism of the post card is worth noting,” writes Paul Fussell in The Great War and Modern Memory (1975), “the way it offers no provision for transmitting news like ‘I have lost my left leg’ or ‘I have been admitted into hospital wounded and do not expect to recover.’ Because it provided no way of saying ‘I am going up the line again’ its users have to improvise. Wilfred Owen had an understanding with his mother that when he used a double line to cross out ‘I am being sent down to the base,’ he meant he was at the front again.”

(Thanks, Garrett.)

Last Words

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Amelia_earhart_1937.jpg

Amelia Earhart left behind what she called “popping off letters,” to be opened in the event of her death. This one, discovered by her husband and biographer, George Putnam, was addressed to her father:

May 20, 1928

Dearest Dad:

Hooray for the last grand adventure! I wish I had won, but it was worth while anyway. You know that.

I have no faith we’ll meet anywhere again, but I wish we might.

Anyway, good-by and good luck to you.

Affectionately, your doter,

Mill

Another, addressed to her mother, read simply, “Even though I have lost, the adventure was worth while. Our family tends to be too secure. My life has really been very happy, and I don’t mind contemplating its end in the midst of it.”

Offside

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gen._Sir_William_Howe.jpg

After the Battle of Germantown in 1777, an American soldier approached the British line carrying a white flag, a fox terrier, and a note:

General Washington’s compliments to General Howe, does himself the pleasure to return him a Dog, which accidentally fell into his hands, and by the inscription on the collar, appears to belong to General Howe.

An officer conveyed the dog to British general Sir William Howe:

The General seemed most pleased at the return of the dog. He took him upon his lap, seemingly uncaring that the mud from the dog’s feet soiled his tunic. Whilst he stroked the dog, he discovered a tightly folded message that had been secreted under the dog’s wide collar. The General read the message, which seemed to have a good effect upon him. Although I know not what it said, it is likely to have been penned by the commander of the rebellion.

There’s no record of what this second note said, but Sir William later referred to the incident as “an honorable act of a gentleman.”

(Caroline Tiger, General Howe’s Dog, 2005.)

Unquote

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Christian_VII_1772_by_Roslin.jpg

“It has been said, not truly, but with a possible approximation to truth, that in 1802 every hereditary monarch was insane.” — Walter Bagehot

Dry Humor

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dust-storm-Texas-1935.png

Jokes from the Dust Bowl:

The drought was so bad that when one man was hit on the head with a rain drop, he was so overcome that two buckets of sand had to be thrown in his face to revive him. Housewives supposedly scoured pans clean by holding them up to a keyhole for sandblasting, and sportsmen allegedly shot ground squirrels overhead as the animals tunneled upward through the dust for air. Some farmers claimed that they planted their crops by throwing seed into the air as their fields blew past and that birds flew backwards to keep the sand out of their eyes.

In 1935 Dalhart Texan editor John McCarty founded a Last Man’s Club in which each member took an oath: “In the absence of an act of God, serious family injury, or some other emergency, I pledge to stay here as the last man and to do everything I can to help other last men remain in this country. We promise to stay here till hell freezes over and skate out on the ice.”

As a joke he proposed to build a huge hotel amid the dunes north of Dalhart where tourists would pay “fancy prices” for the privilege of witnessing the “noble grandeur an imposing beauty of a Panhandle sandstorm.” “We’ve got the greatest country in the world if we can just get a few kinks straightened out,” he wrote. “Let’s keep boosting our country.” About 100 people joined the club; more said they wanted to do so but acknowledged they were afraid they’d have to leave.

(From R. Douglas Hurt’s The Dust Bowl: An Agricultural and Social History, 1981.)

In a Word

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:MawsonMcKayDavid.jpg

interturb
v. to disturb by interrupting

In late 1908 Douglas Mawson, Alastair Mackay, and Edgeworth David left Ernest Shackleton’s party in hopes of discovering the location of the South Magnetic Pole. On Dec. 11, while Mackay left the camp to reconnoiter, David prepared to sketch the mountains and Mawson retired into the tent to work on his camera equipment:

I was busy changing photographic plates in the only place where it could be done — inside the sleeping bag. … Soon after I had done up the bag, having got safely inside, I heard a voice from outside — a gentle voice — calling:

‘Mawson, Mawson.’

‘Hullo!’ said I.

‘Oh, you’re in the bag changing plates, are you?’

‘Yes, Professor.’

There was a silence for some time. Then I heard the Professor calling in a louder tone:

‘Mawson!’

I answered again. Well the Professor heard by the sound I was still in the bag, so he said:

‘Oh, still changing plates, are you?’

‘Yes.’

More silence for some time. After a minute, in a rather loud and anxious tone:

‘Mawson!’

I thought there was something up, but could not tell what he was after. I was getting rather tired of it and called out:

‘Hullo. What is it? What can I do?’

‘Well, Mawson, I am in a rather dangerous position. I am really hanging on by my fingers to the edge of a crevasse, and I don’t think I can hold on much longer. I shall have to trouble you to come out and assist me.’

I came out rather quicker than I can say. There was the Professor, just his head showing and hanging on to the edge of a dangerous crevasse.

David later explained, “I had scarcely gone more than six yards from the tent, when the lid of a crevasse suddenly collapsed under me. I only saved myself from going right down by throwing my arms out and staying myself on the snow lid on either side.”

Mawson helped him out, and David began his sketching. The party reached the pole in January.

Misc

  • Juneau, Alaska, is larger than Rhode Island.
  • After reading Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, Byron said, “I wish he would explain his explanation.”
  • If A + B + C = 180°, then tan A + tan B + tan C = (tan A)(tan B)(tan C).
  • Five counties meet in the middle of Lake Okeechobee.
  • “Life resembles a novel more often than novels resemble life.” — George Sand

No one knows whether Andrew Jackson was born in North Carolina or South Carolina. The border hadn’t been surveyed well at the time.

Vision

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Scene_at_the_Signing_of_the_Constitution_of_the_United_States.jpg

In short my dear Friend you and I have been indefatigable Labourers through our whole Lives for a Cause which will be thrown away in the next generation, upon the Vanity and Foppery of Persons of whom we do not now know the Names perhaps. — The War that is now breaking out will render our Country, whether she is forced into it, or not, rich, great and powerful in comparison of what she now is, and Riches Grandeur and Power will have the same effect upon American as it has upon European minds.

— John Adams, letter to Thomas Jefferson, Oct. 9, 1787

A Bit Too Dashing

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:G%C3%A9n%C3%A9ral_FRANCOIS_FOURNIER_SARLOVEZE.jpg

In 1794, at Strasbourg, the French Hussar François Fournier-Sarlovèze challenged a young man to a duel and killed him. When his fellow officer Pierre Dupont de l’Étang denied him entrance to a ball on the eve of the funeral, the fiery Fournier challenged him to a duel. The two fought with swords, and Fournier was wounded.

When he had recovered he challenged Dupont to a second duel, and wounded him. In their third meeting each inflicted a slight wound on the other. Finally the two agreed to a private war that would continue until one of them confessed that he was beaten or “satisfied.” They even drew up a contract:

  1. Every time that Dupont and Fournier shall be a hundred miles from each other they will each approach from a distance to meet sword in hand.
  2. Should one of the contracting parties be prevented by service duties, he who is free must travel the entire distance, so as to reconcile the obligations of service with the demands of the present treaty.
  3. No excuse whatever, excepting those resulting from military obligations, will be admitted.
  4. The present being a bona fide treaty, no alteration can be made to the conditions agreed upon by the contracting parties.

Over the ensuing 19 years the two fought at least 30 duels, each eventually rising to the rank of general. Finally, after a particularly savage meeting in Switzerland in 1813, in which Dupont ran his sword through Fournier’s neck, Dupont explained that he would be married soon and wanted to conclude the matter with a pistol duel in a nearby wood. Dupont twice tricked his opponent into firing at empty clothing, then advanced on him with pistols primed and claimed his victory. In The Duel, Robert Baldick writes, “Thus ended after a total period of nineteen years, the longest, friendliest and most mobile duel in history.”

(This story is so absurdly romantic that I doubted whether it happened at all, but every source I can find confirms at least the essentials. Joseph Conrad found an account of the rivalry in a provincial newspaper and turned it into his 1908 short story “The Duel,” and Ridley Scott turned Conrad’s story into the 1977 film The Duellists. I’ll keep digging.)

Tipu’s Tiger

When British forces plundered the palace of Indian prince Tipu Sultan in May 1799, they found an infuriating trophy:

In a room appropriated for musical instruments was found an article which merits particular notice, as another proof of the deep hate, and extreme loathing of Tippoo Saib towards the English. This piece of mechanism represents a royal Tyger in the act of devouring a prostrate European. There are some barrels in imitation of an Organ, within the body of the Tyger. The sounds produced by the Organ are intended to resemble the cries of a person in distress intermixed with the roar of a Tyger. The machinery is so contrived that while the Organ is playing, the hand of the European is often lifted up, to express his helpless and deplorable condition.

Tipu had allied himself with France against the encroaching East India Company, and the Fourth Mysore War brought his downfall. The tiger, it appears, had symbolized his defiance of British colonialism. The instrument was removed to London, where it became a centerpiece in the Company’s Leadenhall Street gallery; John Keats saw it there and immortalized it in The Cap and Bells, his satirical verse of 1819:

Replied the Page: “that little buzzing noise,
Whate’er your palmistry may make of it,
Comes from a play-thing of the Emperor’s choice,
From a Man-Tiger-Organ, prettiest of his toys.”

“Indeed, the horrific image of a wild beast attacking a helpless fellow Briton must have stirred strong reactions in the British audience so few years after the brutal Mysore campaigns,” write Jane Kromm and Susan Benforado Bakewell in A History of Visual Culture (2010). “Contained within one wondrous work of art was an illustration of the intensity of resentment toward European imperialism, the ferocious power of the enemy prince, and the moral justification for colonization.”

Podcast Episode 46: The 1925 Serum Run to Nome

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gunnar_Kaasen_with_Balto.jpg

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 to save the town from epidemic.

We’ll also hear a song about S.A. Andree’s balloon expedition to the North Pole and puzzle over a lost accomplishment of ancient civilizations.

Our segment on the 1925 serum run to Nome was based chiefly on Gay Salisbury and Laney Salisbury’s excellent 2003 book The Cruelest Miles. Here’s the statue of Balto, who led the final sled into Nome, in Central Park:

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Balto_east_hazy_day_jeh.jpg

The inscription reads “Dedicated to the indomitable spirit of the sled dogs that relayed antitoxin 600 miles over rough ice, across treacherous waters, through arctic blizzards, from Nenona to the relief of stricken Nome.”

“The Ballad of Knut and Nils,” Yann and Cory Seznec’s song honoring S.A. Andrée’s disastrous 1897 attempt to reach the North Pole by balloon, is on Yann’s blog. You can find more of the brothers’ music here.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle is from Paul Sloane and Des McHale’s 1998 book Ingenious Lateral Thinking Puzzles. Sloane invites interested readers to his Lateral Puzzles Forum, where visitors can set and solve these puzzles interactively.

This week’s episode is sponsored by our patrons and by Harry’s — go to Harrys.com now and they’ll give you $5 off if you use the coupon code CLOSET with your first purchase.

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!

Turning Points

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lincoln-Warren-1865-03-06.jpeg

During the drive on Washington city in July 1863, Confederate sharpshooters were unknowingly presented with a particularly high-value target. Captain Robert E. Park wrote: ‘The sharpshooters and the Fifth Alabama, which supported them, were hotly engaged; some of this enemy, seen behind their breastworks, were dressed in civilians’ clothes, and a few had on linen coats. I suppose they were “Home Guards” composed of Treasury, Post Office and other Department clerks.’ Park’s ‘Home Guards’ were in fact President Abraham Lincoln and his retinue, who had left the White House to inspect the defences around Washington. A doctor standing a few feet away from Lincoln was hit, and only prompt action by a nearby Union officer in throwing the president to the ground prevented a sudden and dramatic change in the course of Civil War history.

— John Anderson Morrow, The Confederate Whitworth Sharpshooters, 2002

[After the Battle of Belmont,] Grant went into a cabin and lay down on a sofa to rest, but he was there only a moment. He got up almost immediately to see what was happening on deck. As he rose a musket ball cut cleanly through the boat’s wooden side and splintered the head of the sofa where he had been lying. And still we waste ink and paper in trying to prove that there is no such thing as luck!

— W.E. Woodward, Meet General Grant, 1928

Podcast Episode 45: Crossing Africa for Love

https://books.google.com/books?id=MT4uAQAAIAAJ

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 also get an update on the criminal history of Donald Duck’s hometown, and try to figure out how a groom ends up drowning on his wedding night.

Sources for our segment on Ewart Grogan’s traversal of Africa:

Ewart Scott Grogan and Arthur Henry Sharp, From the Cape to Cairo: The First Traverse of Africa From South to North, 1902.

Edward Paice, Lost Lion of Empire: The Life of Cape-to-Cairo Grogan, 2001.

Julian Smith, Crossing the Heart of Africa: An Odyssey of Love and Adventure, 2010.

Norman Wymer, The Man From the Cape, 1959.

Martin Dugard, The Explorers, 2014.

Brian O’Brien, “All for the Love of a Lady,” in The Best of Field and Stream: 100 Years of Great Writing from America’s Premier Sporting Magazine, 2002.

“One Incredibly Long Church Aisle,” Times Higher Education, June 15, 2001.

“A Man Who Did Derring-Do,” Telegraph, March 31, 2001.

Listener Ed Kitson directed us to this letter from Jane Baillie Welsh to Thomas Carlyle, dated May 7, 1822, in which she writes, “I am not at all the sort of person you and I took me for.”

And listener Alex Klapheke sent us a copy of Swiss criminologist Karl-Ludwig Kunz’s 2004 paper “Criminal Policy in Duckburg,” from Images of Crime II: Representations of Crime and the Criminal in Politics, Society, the Media, and the Arts, edited by Hans-Jörg Albrecht, Telemach Serassis, and Harald Kania.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Price Tipping.

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!

Podcast Episode 43: Ben Franklin’s Guide to Living

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Franklin-Benjamin-LOC.jpg

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 Franklin’s self-improvement plan and find out which vices gave him the most trouble.

We’ll also learn how activist Natan Sharansky used chess to stay sane in Soviet prisons and puzzle over why the Pentagon has so many bathrooms.

Sources for our segment on Benjamin Franklin’s 13 virtues:

Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography, 1791.

Gordon S. Wood, The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, 2005.

Dinah Birch, ed., The Oxford Companion to English Literature, 2009.

Here’s Franklin’s list of virtues:

  1. Temperance. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
  2. Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
  3. Order. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
  4. Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
  5. Frugality. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
  6. Industry. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
  7. Sincerity. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly; and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
  8. Justice. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
  9. Moderation. Avoid extreams; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
  10. Cleanliness. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.
  11. Tranquillity. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
  12. Chastity. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
  13. Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

And here’s a sample page from his “little book”:

https://books.google.com/books?id=w0YSAAAAYAAJ

Related: As an exercise in penmanship, the teenage George Washington copied out “110 rules of civility and decent behavior in company and conversation,” and Thomas Jefferson once sent a “decalogue of canons for observation in practical life” to the new father of a baby boy.

Listener mail: Human rights activist Natan Sharansky’s use of mental chess to keep himself sane in Soviet prisons is detailed in his 1988 memoir Fear No Evil and in this BBC News Magazine article.

Greg’s research queries:

The authority on jumping up steps at Trinity College, Cambridge, seems to be G.M. Trevelyan, who became Master there in 1940. In his Trinity College: An Historical Sketch (1972), he writes:

It is a well-authenticated Trinity tradition that Whewell, when Master, jumped up the hall steps at one leap, a feat that is very seldom accomplished even by youthful athletes. Sir George Young told his son Geoffrey Young that he had actually witnessed this performance; Sir George said that the master, in cap and gown, found some undergraduates trying in vain to accomplish the feat. He clapped his cap firmly on his head, took the run, and reached the top of the steps at one bound.

In a letter to the Times on March 16, 1944, he writes, “On a recent visit to Cambridge, General Montgomery, on entering the Great Court at this college, pointed to the hall steps and said to me, ‘Those were the steps my father jumped up at one bound.’ The general’s father, Henry Hutchinson Montgomery, afterwards Bishop, was an undergraduate at Trinity from 1866 to 1870. He came here from Dr Butler’s Harrow with a great reputation as a runner and jumper.”

He adds, “Now we have a fully authenticated case of which I had not heard. Bishop Montgomery himself told his son the general, and the story was often told in the family. The general has asked me to send the facts to you in the hope that publication may elicit further facts.” I don’t know whether he ever received any.

As far as I can tell, Swiss criminologist Karl-Ludwig Kunz’s essay “Criminal Policy in Duckburg” was published only in a 2009 collection titled Images of Crime 3: Representations of Crime and the Criminal, which I can’t seem to get my hands on. The fullest discussion I’ve been able to find in English is this brief 1998 article from the Independent.

The program to distribute bananas to Icelandic children in 1952 is mentioned in science writer Willy Ley’s 1954 book Engineers’ Dreams.

The credit “Diversions by Irving Schwartz” in the 1966 movie The Sand Pebbles is mentioned (but not really explained) in this 2007 Telegram obituary of character actor Joseph di Reda.

MIT historian T.F. Peterson’s 2003 book Nightwork: A History of Hacks and Pranks at MIT says that the legend IHTFP (“I hate this fucking place”) “has been unofficially documented in both the U.S. Air Force and at MIT as far back as the 1950s.” This MIT page traces it as far back as 1960 and gives dozens of euphemistic variants.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was submitted by listener Paul Kapp.

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!

Podcast Episode 42: The Balmis Expedition: Using Orphans to Combat Smallpox


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 of transporting a fragile vaccine over a long voyage and is credited with saving at least 100,000 lives in the New World.

We’ll also get some listener updates to the Lady Be Good story and puzzle over why a man would find it more convenient to drive two cars than one.

Sources for our segment on the Balmis expedition:

J. Antonio Aldrete, “Smallpox Vaccination in the Early 19th Century Using Live Carriers: The Travels of Francisco Xavier de Balmis,” Southern Medical Journal, April 2004.

Carlos Franco-Paredes, Lorena Lammoglia and José Ignacio Santos-Preciado, “The Spanish Royal Philanthropic Expedition to Bring Smallpox Vaccination to the New World and Asia in the 19th Century,” Clinical Infectious Diseases, Nov. 1, 2005.

Catherine Mark and José G. Rigau-Pérez, “The World’s First Immunization Campaign: The Spanish Smallpox Vaccine Expedition, 1803-1813,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine, Spring 2009.

John W.R. McIntyre, “Smallpox and Its Control in Canada,” Canadian Medical Association Journal, Dec. 14, 1999.

Pan-American Health Organization: The Balmis-Salvany Smallpox Expedition: The First Public Health Vaccination Campaign in South America (accessed Jan. 18, 2015).

Listener Roger Beck sent these images of the memorial and propeller from the Lady Be Good in Houghton, Mich.:

Lady Be Good memorial

Lady Be Good propeller

And listener Dan Patterson alerted us to ladybegood.net, an impressive and growing repository of information about the “ghost bomber,” including the recovered diaries of co-pilot Robert Toner and flight engineer Harold Ripslinger and some ingenious reconstructions of the lost plane’s flight path after the nine crewmen bailed out.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was submitted by listener David White, 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 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!

Sound Measure

On Nov. 11 each year the British Commonwealth observes two minutes’ silence to remember the fallen in World War I. Of the first observance, in 1919, the Daily Express wrote, “There is nothing under heaven so full of awe as the complete silence of a mighty crowd.”

In 2001, artist Jonty Semper released Kenotaphion, a two-CD collection of these silences drawn from 70 years of BBC, British Movietone, and Reuters broadcasts — he had spent four years assembling every surviving recording. “I really don’t think people will find it boring,” he told the Guardian. “This is raw history.”

Is this a contradiction, an audio recording of an absence of sound? “Unlike the Cenotaph at Whitehall, these recordings are far from empty, with Big Ben drowning out the coughs and uncomprehending children of the reverent, amid atmospheric weather effects, broadcast static, startled birds, and rifle reports,” notes Craig Dworkin in No Medium (2013). “The ony truly silent Armistice minutes occurred during the Second World War, from 1941 to 1944, when the ceremony was suspended. Absent from Semper’s discs, those years speak the loudest and are by far the most moving.”