Asked and Answered
Image: Wikimedia Commons

During World War II, Alan Turing enrolled in the infantry section of the Home Guard so that he could learn to shoot a rifle. After completing this section of his training he stopped attending parades, as he had no further use for the service. Summoned to account for this, he explained that he was now an excellent shot and this was why he had joined.

“But it is not up to you whether to attend parades or not,” said Colonel Fillingham. “When you are called on parade, it is your duty as a soldier to attend.”

“But I am not a soldier.”

“What do you mean, you are not a soldier! You are under military law!”

“You know, I rather thought this sort of situation could arise,” Turing said. “I don’t know I am under military law. If you look at my form you will see that I protected myself against this situation.”

It was true. On his application form Turing had encountered the question “Do you understand that by enrolling in the Home Guard you place yourself liable to military law?” He could see no advantage in answering yes, so he answered no, and the clerk had filed the form without looking at it.

“So all they could do was to declare that he was not a member of the Home Guard,” remembered Peter Hilton. “Of course that suited him perfectly. It was quite characteristic of him. And it was not being clever. It was just taking this form, taking it at its face value and deciding what was the optimal strategy if you had to complete a form of this kind. So much like the man all the way through.”

(From Andrew Hodges, Alan Turing: The Enigma, 1992.)


wetalltok map

Before 1914, white explorers of Hudson’s Bay knew very little about the location, size, or number of the Belcher Islands — cartographers placed them on maps largely by guesswork, and some even doubted their existence.

In 1895, an Inuit named Wetalltok sketched the map above on the back of an old missionary lithograph, but explorers remained skeptical. “That a land mass of such extent … could exist not a hundred miles to seaward of the centuries-old post at Great Whale River and remain unknown to the Hudson’s Bay Company seemed to me altogether improbable,” wrote anthropologist Robert J. Flaherty.

Only 20 years later, with Flaherty’s expedition of 1912-16, was the striking accuracy of Wetalltok’s map borne out (below). “In its grasp of the intricacies of the island system this map is a specially noteworthy example of its kind,” Flaherty wrote. “The Big Islands are ancient history in the bay now, and Wetalltok stands vindicated.”

flaherty map

(Robert J. Flaherty, “The Belcher Islands of Hudson Bay: Their Discovery and Exploration,” Geographical Review 5:6 [June 1918], 433-458.)

A Premonition

First-Sergeant Thomas Innes Woods, of Company B, was killed on May 8th [1864]. The first time that Sergeant Woods was ever known to ask permission to leave his post on march or in battle occurred this day, after the Regiment’s all-night march to reach Spottsylvania ahead of Lee. When it became evident that a battle was imminent, Sergeant Woods asked Captain H.W. Grubbs for a pass to go to the rear. On his declaring that he was not sick, he was advised by the Captain that under the circumstances he could not be excused, and Sergeant Woods resumed his post at the head of the Company. Shortly after, during a halt by the roadside, Sergeant Woods wrote in his diary the following, addressed to his friend, Sergeant James A. McMillen: ‘I am going to fall to-day. If you find my body, I desire you to bury it and mark my grave so that if my friends desire to take it home they can find it. Please read the Ninetieth Psalm at my burial.’ He was killed early in the battle. His body was found by Sergeant McMillen and others of Company B, the diary being found in his pocket. His request for the Ninetieth Psalm to be read at the grave was complied with.

— Charles F. McKenna, ed., Under the Maltese Cross, Antietam to Appomattox: The Loyal Uprising in Western Pennsylvania, 1861-1865: Campaigns 155th Pennsylvania Regiment, 1910


In 1942, uncertain whether one of its spies had been replaced by a German impersonator, Britain’s Special Operations Executive hit on a clever plan: After a regular radio communication, the British radio operator signed off with HH, short for “Heil Hitler,” the standard farewell among Nazi operators. His counterpart, “Netball,” responded HH automatically, giving himself away.

They confirmed this at the next session:

Netball was several minutes late for his sked (not significant) and signalled ‘q r u’ (‘I have no traffic for London’). Howell replied ‘q t c’ (‘We have a message for you’), and proceeded to transmit it (the message warned Netball never to send less than 150 letters). Howell then signalled ‘HH’, and Netball immediately replied ‘HH’.

‘Right,’ Nick was heard to say to his companion, ‘that’s it then.’

(From Leo Marks, Between Silk and Cyanide, 2001.)

Podcast Episode 125: The Campden Wonder
Image: Wikimedia Commons

When William Harrison disappeared from Campden, England, in 1660, his servant offered an incredible explanation: that he and his family had murdered him. The events that followed only proved the situation to be even more bizarre. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe “the Campden wonder,” an enigma that has eluded explanation for more than 300 years.

We’ll also consider Vladimir Putin’s dog and puzzle over a little girl’s benefactor.


In 1921, Pennsylvania surgeon Evan O’Neill Kane removed his own appendix. (Soviet physician Leonid Rogozov did the same 40 years later.)

John Cowper Powys once promised to visit Theodore Dreiser “as a spirit or in some other astral form” — and, according to Dreiser, did so.

Sources for our feature on the Campden Wonder:

Sir George Clark, ed., The Campden Wonder, 1959.

“The Campden Wonder,” Arminian Magazine, August 1787, 434.

“Judicial Puzzles — The Campden Wonder,” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, July 1860, 54-64.

Andrew Lang, Historical Mysteries, 1904.

J.A. Cannon, “Campden Wonder,” in The Oxford Companion to British History, 2015.

Bruce P. Smith, “The History of Wrongful Execution,” Hastings Law Journal, June 2005.

Frances E. Chapman, “Coerced Internalized False Confessions and Police Interrogations: The Power of Coercion,” Law & Psychology Review 37 (2013), 159.

Listener mail:

Tim Hume, “Vladimir Putin: I Didn’t Mean to Scare Angela Merkel With My Dog,” CNN, Jan. 12, 2016.

Roland Oliphant, “Vladimir Putin Denies Setting His Dog on Angela Merkel,” Telegraph, Jan. 12, 2016.

Stefan Kornelius, “Six Things You Didn’t Know About Angela Merkel,” Guardian, Sept. 10, 2013.

Wikipedia, “Spall” (retrieved Oct. 7, 2016).

Associated Press, “Boise City to Celebrate 1943 Bombing Misguided B-17 Crew Sought,” Nov. 21, 1990.

Owlcation, “The WWII Bombing of Boise City in Oklahoma,” May 9, 2016.

“World War II Air Force Bombers Blast Boise City,” Boise City News, July 5, 1943.

“County Gets Second Air Bombardment,” Boise City News, April 5, 1945.

Antony Beevor, D-Day, 2009.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle is from Paul Sloane and Des MacHale’s 2014 book Remarkable Lateral Thinking Puzzles.

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

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 Thanks for listening!


On D-Day, Dwight Eisenhower carried this note in his wallet:

Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.

He threw it away the next day, but an aide retrieved it. Today it’s in his presidential library.

Something Borrowed

Just a fragment: During Japan’s U Go offensive into India in 1944, British officer Tony “Raj” Fowler would reportedly inspire his Indian troops by reciting passages from Shakespeare in Urdu before leading them in charges against the Japanese trenches. From Arthur Swinson’s Kohima, 2015:

Here they waited, with the Punjabis,who were to attack the D.I.S., on their left. The latter were in great heart, recorded Major Arthur Marment, and ‘anxious to avenge the death of the large number of the Queens lost a few days previously’. Their adjutant, Major R.A.J. Fowler, had translated a short passage from Shakespeare’s King John into Urdu — ‘Come the three corners of the world in arms and we shall shock them. Naught shall make us rue’ — which became: ‘Dunia ka char kunion se larne dena, aur ham log unke kafi mardenge. Kuch bhi nahin hamko assosi denge.’

“This, says Marment, ‘had a most tremendous effect on the troops’.”

In a Word

n. a field of bloodshed

n. the action of snatching something away

n. a means of defence; a safeguard

Strange freaks these round shot play! We saw a man coming up from the rear with his full knapsack on, and some canteens of water held by the straps in his hands. He was walking slowly, and with apparent unconcern, though the iron hailed around him. A shot struck the knapsack, and it and its contents flew thirty yards in every direction; the knapsack disappeared like an egg thrown spitefully against the rock. The soldier stopped, and turned about in puzzled surprise, put up one hand to his back to assure himself that the knapsack was not there, and then walked slowly on again unharmed, with not even his coat torn.

— Franklin Aretas Haskell, The Battle of Gettysburg, 1908