Podcast Episode 189: The “Wild White Man”


In 1835, settlers in Australia discovered a European man dressed in kangaroo skins, a convict who had escaped an earlier settlement and spent 32 years living among the natives of southern Victoria. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review the extraordinary life of William Buckley, the so-called “wild white man” of colonial Australia.

We’ll also try to fend off scurvy and puzzle over some colorful letters.


Radar pioneer Sir Robert Watson-Watt wrote a poem about ironically being stopped by a radar gun.

The programming language Ook! is designed to be understood by orangutans.

Sources for our feature on William Buckley:

John Morgan, Life and Adventures of William Buckley, 1852.

R.S. Brain, Letters From Victorian Pioneers, 1898.

Francis Peter Labillière, Early History of the Colony of Victoria, 1878.

James Bonwick, Port Phillip Settlement, 1883.

William Thomas Pyke, Savage Life in Australia, 1889.

Marcus Andrew Hislop Clarke, Stories of Australia in the Early Days, 1897.

John M. White, “Before the Mission Station: From First Encounters to the Incorporation of Settlers Into Indigenous Relations of Obligation,” in Natasha Fijn, Ian Keen, Christopher Lloyd, and Michael Pickering, eds., Indigenous Participation in Australian Economies II, 2012.

Patrick Brantlinger, “Eating Tongues: Australian Colonial Literature and ‘the Great Silence’,” Yearbook of English Studies 41:2 (2011), 125-139.

Richard Broome, “Buckley, William,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Sept. 23, 2004.

Marjorie J. Tipping, “Buckley, William (1780–1856),” Australian Dictionary of Biography, 1966.

Reminiscenses of James Buckley Who Lived for Thirty Years Among the Wallawarro or Watourong Tribes at Geelong Port Phillip, Communicated by Him to George Langhorne (manuscript), State Library of Victoria (accessed Jan. 28, 2018).

“William Buckley,” Culture Victoria (accessed Jan. 28, 2018).

Jill Singer, “Here’s a True Hero,” [Melbourne] Herald Sun, June 8, 2001, 22.

“Australia’s Most Brazen, Infamous Jailbreaks,” ABC Premium News, Aug. 19, 2015.

“Extraordinary Tale of Our Early Days,” Centralian Advocate, April 6, 2010, 13.

Bridget McManus, “Buckley’s Story Revisited: Documentary,” The Age, April 8, 2010, 15.

Albert McKnight, “Legend Behind Saying ‘You’ve Got Buckley’s’,” Bega District News, Oct. 21, 2016, 11.

David Adams, “Wild Man Lives Anew,” [Melbourne] Sunday Age, Feb. 16, 2003, 5.

Leighton Spencer, “Convict Still a Controversial Figure,” Echo, Jan. 10, 2013, 14.

“Fed: Museum Buys Indigenous Drawings of Convict,” AAP General News Wire, April 23, 2012.

The drawing above is Buckley Ran Away From Ship, by the Koorie artist Tommy McRae, likely drawn in the 1880s. From Culture Victoria.

Listener mail:

Yoshifumi Sugiyama and Akihiro Seita, “Kanehiro Takaki and the Control of Beriberi in the Japanese Navy,” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 106:8 (August 2013), 332–334.

Wikipedia, “Takaki Kanehiro” (accessed Feb. 9, 2018).

Yoshinori Itokawa, “Kanehiro Takaki (1849–1920): A Biographical Sketch,” Journal of Nutrition 106:5, 581–8.

Alan Hawk, “The Great Disease Enemy, Kak’ke (Beriberi) and the Imperial Japanese Army,” Military Medicine 171:4 (April 2006), 333-339.

Alexander R. Bay, Beriberi in Modern Japan: The Making of a National Disease, 2012.

“Scott and Scurvy,” Idle Words, March 6, 2010.

Marcus White, “James Lind: The Man Who Helped to Cure Scurvy With Lemons,” BBC News, Oct. 4, 2016.

Jonathan Lamb, “Captain Cook and the Scourge of Scurvy,” BBC History, Feb. 17, 2011.

Wikipedia, “Vitamin C: Discovery” (accessed Feb. 9, 2018).

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Miles, 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.

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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 188: The Bat Bomb


During World War II, the U.S. Army experimented with a bizarre plan: using live bats to firebomb Japanese cities. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the crazy history of the bat bomb, the extraordinary brainchild of a Pennsylvania dentist.

We’ll also consider the malleable nature of mental illness and puzzle over an expensive quiz question.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 187: A Human Being in the Bronx Zoo


The Bronx Zoo unveiled a controversial exhibit in 1906 — a Congolese man in a cage in the primate house. The display attracted jeering crowds to the park, but for the man himself it was only the latest in a string of indignities. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review the sad tale of Ota Benga and his life in early 20th-century America.

We’ll also delve into fugue states and puzzle over a second interstate speeder.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 186: The Children’s Blizzard


In January 1888, after a disarming warm spell, a violent storm of blinding snow and bitter cold suddenly struck the American Midwest, trapping farmers in fields, travelers on roads, and hundreds of children in schoolhouses with limited fuel. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the Children’s Blizzard, one of the most harrowing winter storms in American history.

We’ll also play 20 Questions with a computer and puzzle over some vanishing vultures.

See full show notes …



Miss Alice E. Lewis sent this curiosity to the Strand in 1903:

These false horseshoes were found in the moat at Birtsmorton Court, near Tewkesbury. It is supposed that they were used in the time of the Civil Wars, so as to deceive any person tracking the marks. The one on the left is supposed to leave the mark of a cow’s hoof, the one on the right that of a child’s foot.

The same idea has been used by moonshiners and patented at least twice. Does this really work?


The only surviving exchange between Ulysses Grant and his wife is dated May 22, 1875.

She wrote, “How many years ago to day is that we were engaged? Just such a day as this too was it not?”

He responded, “Thirty-one years ago. I was so frightened however that I do not remember whether it was warm or snowing.”

A Gettysburg Reunion

William Milford of Company H, Twenty-third Pennsylvania, while lying in the breastworks at Culp’s Hill, on the morning of July 3d [1863], picked up the head of a penny which some one had cut out, probably to make a stickpin. Some months afterwards while on reserve picket under Lieutenant Vodges of F Company, talking over campaigns, told of a relic he found at Gettysburg, and pulling it out showed it to the lieutenant.

‘Why, Milford, you are the man I have been looking for,’ and pulling out of his pocket a ring or rim of a penny, it was found the two pieces fitted together. The lieutenant stated that he had found the ring when the regiment went over from Culp’s Hill to the left of Meade’s headquarters, on the afternoon of July 3d. He gave the relic to Milford, and when the regiment erected its monument at Culp’s Hill, Gettysburg, in 1886, Milford had the relic go in with others that are now in the box sunken in the lower base of the monument.

History of the Twenty-Third Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, Birney’s Zouaves, 1904


Images: Wikimedia Commons

During the Falklands War in 1982, the RAF airfield closest to the action was on Ascension Island near the equator, thousands of miles away. Tasked with destroying the runway at Port Stanley, the RAF organized a complicated relay in which 11 tankers accompanied a single bomber (mauve), refueling it and each other in midair to support its journey of 3,400 nautical miles to the target. The attacking Vulcan bomber was refueled four times on the way out and once on the way back, using more than 220,000 gallons of aviation fuel altogether.

At the time this was the longest-ranged bombing raid in history — the return journey alone took 16 hours. It put one crater in the runway, which was repaired within 24 hours, but it discouraged the Argentinians from using it more heavily.

See The Jeep Problem. (Thanks, Tom.)

Great and Small

michelangelo list

When the Seattle Art Museum presented an exhibition of Michelangelo’s early drawings in 2009, it included three menus that the sculptor had scrawled on the back of an envelope in 1518 — grocery lists for a servant.

Oregonian reviewer Steve Duin explained, “Because the servant he was sending to market was illiterate, Michelangelo illustrated the shopping lists — a herring, tortelli, two fennel soups, four anchovies and ‘a small quarter of a rough wine’ — with rushed (and all the more exquisite for it) caricatures in pen and ink.”

Related: In the 1490 manuscript below, Leonardo da Vinci tries to list successive doublings of 2 but mistakenly calculates 213 as 8092:


“Unmistakable this is a miscalculation of Leonardo and not of some sloppy copyists, as it was found in the original (mirrored) manuscript of da Vinci himself,” notes Ghent University computer scientist Peter Dawyndt. “That it was only discovered right now, five hundred years after da Vinci’s death, is probably due to the late discovery of the manuscript, barely fifty years ago.”

(Thanks, Peter.)