Podcast Episode 154: Spared by a Volcano

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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 Futility Closet podcast we’ll meet Ludger Sylbaris, who P.T. Barnum called “The Only Living Object That Survived in the Silent City of Death.”

We’ll also address some Indian uncles and puzzle over a gruesome hike.

Intro:

The French newspaper La Bougie du Sapeur is published only on Leap Day.

When a vat burst in 1814, 323,000 imperial gallons of beer flooded a London street.

Sources for our feature on Ludger Sylbaris:

Peter Morgan, Fire Mountain, 2003.

Edmund Otis Hovey, The 1902-1903 Eruptions of Mont Pelé, Martinique and the Soufrière, St. Vincent, 1904.

Ludger Sylbaris, “Buried Alive in St. Pierre,” Wide World Magazine, November 1903.

Matthew St. Ville Hunte, “Inside the Volcano,” Paris Review, Sept. 16, 2016.

“Prison Cell of ‘The Man Who Lived Through Doomsday,'” Slate, July 31, 2013.

Brian Morton, “There’s No Smoke Without Fire,” Financial Times, Feb. 13, 2003.

Tony Jones, “Lone Survivor,” New Scientist 177:2382 (Feb. 15, 2003), 48-49.

“[front page — no title],” New York Times, Oct. 13, 1906.

Listener mail:

Kate Connolly, “He’s Hired: Belgian Lands ‘Dream Job’ as Hermit for Austrian Cliffside Retreat,” Guardian, April 19, 2017.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener David White, who sent two sets of corroborating links — these contain explicit photos, and these don’t.

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!

Leaping Lena

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A stirring story emerged from eastern Europe in 1954, at the height of the Cold War: During a routine flight, a West German racing pigeon got lost in communist Czechoslovakia, and when she returned two days later, her leg bore a message addressed to Radio Free Europe:

We plead with you not to slow down in the fight against communism because communism must be destroyed. We beg for a speedy liberation from the power of the Kremlin and the establishment of a United States of Europe.

We listen to your broadcasts. They present a completely true picture of life behind the Iron Curtain. We would like you to tell us how we can combat bolshevism and the tyrannical dictatorship existing here.

We are taking every opportunity to work against the regime and do everything in our power to sabotage it.

The message was signed “Unbowed Pilsen.” (Pilsen is a city in western Bohemia.)

The pigeon was brought to the United States, where she was used in American Cold War morale efforts and became the emblem of the 1955 Crusade for Freedom.

How much of the story is true isn’t clear — the facts vary significantly with each telling, and the Crusade for Freedom was funded principally by the CIA, explicitly as a propaganda effort. Someone deserves credit for imagination, at least.

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.

Intro:

Tourists who remove rocks from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park face a legendary curse.

Periodicals of the 19th century featured at least two cats that got along on two legs.

Sources for our feature on “the boy Jones”:

Jan Bondeson, Queen Victoria’s Stalker: The Strange Case of the Boy Jones, 2011.

Joan Howard, The Boy Jones, 1943.

Lytton Strachey, Queen Victoria, 1921.

John Ashton, Gossip in the First Decade of Victoria’s Reign, 1903.

Thomas Raikes, A Portion of the Journal Kept by Thomas Raikes, Esq., from 1831 to 1847, vol. 4, 136.

Paul Thomas Murphy, “Jones, Edward,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (accessed April 22, 2017).

“The Boy Jones,” Examiner 1750 (Aug. 14, 1841), 524-524.

“The Boy Jones,” Court and Lady’s Magazine, Monthly Critic and Museum 21 (September 1841), 223-225.

Punch, July–December 1841.

“Occurrences,” Examiner 1793 (June 11, 1842), 381-381.

“The Boy Jones,” Reynold’s Miscellany of Romance, General Literature, Science, and Art 17:424 (Aug. 23, 1856), 56.

“The Boy Jones,” All the Year Round 34:814 (July 5, 1884), 234-237.

“The Latest News of the Boy Jones,” Examiner 1902 (July 13, 1844), 434-434.

“Palace Intruder Stayed 3 Days and Sat on Throne,” Globe and Mail, July 21, 1982.

“Strange Tale of the First Royal Stalker,” Express, Nov. 6, 2010, 14.

“Story of Boy Jones Who Stole Queen Victoria’s Underwear,” BBC News, Feb. 2, 2011.

Helen Turner, “Royal Rumpus of First Celebrity Stalker,” South Wales Echo, Feb. 3, 2011, 26.

Jan Bondeson, “The Strange Tale of the First Royal Stalker,” Express, Nov. 1, 2010.

Listener mail:

Wikipedia, “Chad–Romania Relations” (accessed May 12, 2017).

“‘Identical Flag’ Causes Flap in Romania,” BBC News, April 14, 2004.

Wanderlust, “10 of the World’s Most Confusing Flags — and How to Figure Them Out,” Aug. 9, 2016.

Erin Nyren, “‘Whitewashing’ Accusations Fly as Zach McGowan Cast as Hawaiian WWII Hero,” Variety, May 9, 2017.

Kamlesh Damodar Sutar, “Highway Liquor Ban: Bar Owners Say They Will Be Forced to Commit Suicide Like Farmers,” India Today, April 3, 2017.

“Government Officials Rush to Denotify Highways Running Through Cities,” Economic Times, April 4, 2017.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Greg Yurkovic, who sent this corroborating link (warning: this spoils 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!

Grant and the Mule

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From Judge Jacob W. Wilkin’s “Personal Reminiscences of General U.S. Grant,” 1907:

One day while riding on the lines, he saw a teamster beating a mule, and riding up to him, ordered him to stop. Wearing an army blouse without shoulder straps, the man did not recognize him and not very politely told him to mind his own business, using profane language, whereupon Grant told his orderly to arrest him and bring him to headquarters. He was turned over to me with orders to tie him up by the thumbs. When the fellow realized that he had used insulting language to General Grant he was the most humiliated man imaginable and protested he did not know it was General Grant. His punishment lasted but a little while and because of my sympathy, was not the most severe of the kind, when I was directed to bring him up to the headquarters tent and there he renewed his protestation that he did not know it was the general he was talking to and that he would not under any circumstances have insulted him. But the general said, ‘You don’t understand, it was not I that was hurt, it was the mule. I could defend myself but the poor dumb animal could say or do nothing for its own protection.’

“He dismissed the culprit with the admonition that he would be closely watched and if again found abusing his team, he would be summarily dealt with.”

The Swimming Reindeer

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1866 French engineer Peccadeau de l’Isle discovered the sculptures of two swimming reindeer on the banks of the River Aveyron. Each had been carved from a mammoth tusk about 13,000 years ago. The carvings had historic as well as artistic value: They showed that humans, mammoths, and reindeer had coexisted in France during the ice age, when the climate of France resembled that of modern Siberia.

Amazingly, it wasn’t until 1904 that anyone thought to try fitting the two pieces together — it was discovered that they were two parts of a single sculpture. Today they form the oldest piece of art in the British Museum.

That Good Night

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Image: Flickr

There’s a statue of Lenin in Seattle. Originally sculpted by Bulgarian artist Emil Venkov, it was installed in Poprad, Czechoslovakia, in 1988, just a year before the Velvet Revolution. Visiting American English teacher Lewis Carpenter found it lying in a scrapyard waiting to be melted down; he offered $13,000 for it and shipped it home to Issaquah, Washington.

When Carpenter died in an auto accident, the statue found its way to Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, where the local chamber of commerce has agreed to hold it in trust until a buyer can be found. The current asking price is $250,000.

For now the founder of the League of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class stands at the intersection of Fremont Place North, North 36th Street, and Evanston Avenue North, where he is regularly decorated with Christmas lights. Six-year-old Colin Sackett told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, “It just makes me remember Christmas is coming. And it makes me remember Hanukkah, too.”

A Moment

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During the burning of Washington in the War of 1812, when a British expeditionary force leveled a cannon at the Patent Office, superintendent William Thornton “put himself before the gun, and in a frenzy of excitement exclaimed: ‘Are you Englishmen or only Goths and Vandals? This is the Patent Office, a depository of the ingenuity of the American nation, in which the whole civilized world is interested. Would you destroy it? If so, fire away, and let the charge pass through my body.'”

“The effect is said to have been magical upon the soldiers, and to have saved the Patent Office from destruction. … When the smoke cleared from the dreadful attack, the Patent Office was the only Government building … left untouched.”

(From R. Beresford’s Brief History of the United States Patent Office From Its Foundation, 1886.)

Podcast Episode 151: Double-Crossing the Nazis

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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 week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Pujol’s astonishing talent for deceiving the Nazis, which led one colleague to call him “the best actor in the world.”

We’ll also contemplate a floating Chicago and puzzle over a winding walkway.

Intro:

In 1999, Kevin Baugh declared his Nevada house an independent republic.

Foxie the dog stayed by her master’s side for three months after his hiking death in 1805.

Sources for our feature on Juan Pujol:

Juan Pujol, Operation Garbo, 1985.

Jason Webster, The Spy With 29 Names, 2014.

Tomás Harris, Garbo: The Spy Who Saved D-Day, 2000.

Stephan Talty, Agent Garbo, 2012.

Thomas M. Kane, Understanding Contemporary Strategy, 2012.

David C. Isby, “Double Agent’s D-Day Victory,” World War II 19:3 (June 2004), 18,20.

Marc De Santis, “Overlooked Reasons Overlord Succeeded,” MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History 26:4 (Summer 2014), 15-16.

David Kahn, “How I Discovered World War II’s Greatest Spy,” Cryptologia 34:1 (December 2009), 12-21.

Stephen Budiansky, “The Art of the Double Cross,” World War II 24:1 (May 2009), 38-45,4.

Kevin D. Kornegay, “Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies,” Army Lawyer, April 2014, 40-43.

Gene Santoro, “Harbor of Hope and Intrigue,” World War II 26:2 (July/August 2011), 26-28.

P.R.J. Winter, “Penetrating Hitler’s High Command: Anglo-Polish HUMINT, 1939-1945,” War in History 18:1 (January 2011), 85-108.

Neville Wylie, “‘An Amateur Learns his Job’? Special Operations Executive in Portugal, 1940–42,” Journal of Contemporary History 36:3 (July 2001), 441-457.

“An Unexpected Threat to the Normandy Invasion,” World War II 31:5 (January/February 2017), 16.

“‘Agent Garbo,’ The Spy Who Lied About D-Day,” All Things Considered, National Public Radio, July 7, 2012.

Tom Morgan, “Revealed: How a Homesick Wife Nearly Blew It for the British Double Agent Who Fooled Hitler,” Telegraph, Sept. 28, 2016.

Adam Lusher, “How a Dozen Silk Stockings Helped Bring Down Adolf Hitler,” Independent, Sept. 27, 2016.

Ian Cobain, “D-Day Landings Put at Risk by Double-Agent’s Homesick Wife,” Guardian, Sept. 27, 2016.

Listener mail:

Mark Torregrossa, “Superior Mirages Over Chicago Skyline Now Appearing,” mlive, April 18, 2017.

Allison Eck, “The Perfectly Scientific Explanation for Why Chicago Appeared Upside Down in Michigan,” Nova Next, May 8, 2015.

Jonathan Belles, “Fata Morgana Provides Eerie Look at Chicago Across Lake Michigan,” weather.com, April 18, 2017.

Listener Jason Gottshall directed us to these striking photos of the Chicago mirage.

“5.17a- Supplemental Gregor MacGregor,” Revolutions, Oct. 24, 2016.

Brooke Borel, The Chicago Guide to Fact-Checking, 2016.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Alon Shaham, who sent this corroborating link (warning: this spoils 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!

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.

Intro:

In 1878, a neurologist noted that French-Canadian lumberjacks tended to startle violently.

Each year on Valentine’s Day, someone secretly posts paper hearts in Montpelier, Vt.

Sources for our feature on Gregor MacGregor:

David Sinclair, Sir Gregor MacGregor and the Land That Never Was, 2003.

Matthew Brown, “Inca, Sailor, Soldier, King: Gregor MacGregor and the Early Nineteenth-Century Caribbean,” Bulletin of Latin American Research 24:1 (January 2005), 44-70.

T. Frederick Davis, “MacGregor’s Invasion of Florida, 1817,” Florida Historical Society Quarterly 7:1 (July 1928), 2-71.

Emily Beaulieu, Gary W. Cox, and Sebastian Saiegh, “Sovereign Debt and Regime Type: Reconsidering the Democratic Advantage,” International Organization 66:4 (Fall 2012), 709-738.

R.A. Humphreys, “Presidential Address: Anglo-American Rivalries in Central America,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 18 (1968), 174-208.

Courtenay de Kalb, “Nicaragua: Studies on the Mosquito Shore in 1892,” Journal of the American Geographical Society of New York 25:1 (1893), 236-288.

A.R. Hope Moncrieff, “Gregor MacGregor,” Macmillan’s Magazine 92:551 (September 1905), 339-350.

“The King of Con-Men,” Economist 405:8816 (Dec. 22, 2012), 109-112.

“Sir Gregor MacGregor,” Quebec Gazette, Oct. 18, 1827.

Guardian, “From the Archive, 25 October 1823: Settlers Duped Into Believing in ‘Land Flowing With Milk and Honey,'” Oct. 25, 2013.

Maria Konnikova, “The Con Man Who Pulled Off History’s Most Audacious Scam,” BBC Future, Jan. 28, 2016.

“Thomas Strangeways”, Sketch of the Mosquito Shore, 1822.

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A Bank of Poyais dollar, printed by the official printer of the Bank of Scotland. MacGregor traded these worthless notes for the settlers’ gold as they departed for his nonexistent republic.

Listener mail:

Robert McCrum, “The 100 Best Novels: No 42 – The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan (1915),” Guardian, July 7, 2014.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was inspired by an item in Dan Lewis’ Now I Know newsletter. Here’s a corroborating link (warning — both links 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!

Overheard

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On May 10, 1857, the Indian troops of the East India Company’s army started an uprising against the British soldiers in the garrison town of Meerut.

Lord Canning, the Governor-General, first heard of the Mutiny in a curious fashion. The Lieutenant-Governor of Agra passed on to him a copy of a private telegram which had been sent by the British postmaster at Meerut before the line was cut. The postmaster’s aunt was in Agra and had planned to visit him. He wired that the cavalry had risen, houses were on fire and Europeans were being killed. ‘If aunt intend starting tomorrow evening please detain her.’ It was several days before the Governor-General of India could learn more than this of what had taken place in Meerut. Only gradually did the news of what had happened and what was happening in northern India seep out to the rest of the world.

That’s from Byron Farwell, Queen Victoria’s Little Wars, 1973. Related: On Sept. 1, 1939, English journalist Clare Hollingworth called the British embassy in Warsaw to report that Germany had invaded Poland. The secretary told her this was impossible, as Britain and Germany were still negotiating. “So I hung the telephone receiver out of the window,” she later recalled, “so he could listen to the Germans invading.” Hers was the first report that the British Foreign Office received of the invasion — later described as “the scoop of the century.”