Podcast Episode 147: The Call of Mount Kenya

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mount_Kenya_1936.jpg

Stuck in an East African prison camp in 1943, Italian POW Felice Benuzzi needed a challenge to regain his sense of purpose. He made a plan that seemed crazy — to break out of the camp, climb Mount Kenya, and break back in. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Benuzzi and two companions as they try to climb the second-highest mountain in Africa using homemade equipment.

We’ll also consider whether mirages may have doomed the Titanic and puzzle over an ineffective oath.

Intro:

Under the law of the United Kingdom, a sturgeon when caught becomes the personal property of the monarch.

On July 4, 1853, 32 people held a dance on the stump of a California sequoia.

Sources for our feature on Felice Benuzzi:

Felice Benuzzi, No Picnic on Mount Kenya, 1953.

Dave Pagel, “The Great Escape,” Climbing 215 (Sept. 15, 2002), 87.

Matthew Power and Keridwen Cornelius, “Escape to Mount Kenya,” National Geographic Adventure 9:7 (September 2007), 65-71.

Stephan Wilkinson, “10 Great POW Escapes,” Military History 28:4 (November 2011), 28-33.

Jon Mooallem, “In Search of Lost Ice,” New York Times Magazine, Dec. 21, 2014, 28-35.

“Because It Was There; Great Escapes,” Economist 417:8965 (Nov. 21, 2015), 78.

This is the package label that showed the prisoners the southern face of the mountain:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Kenylon_label.jpg

Listener mail:

Tim Maltin and Andrew T. Young, “The Hidden Cause of the Titanic Disaster” (accessed March 24, 2017).

Smithsonian, “Did the Titanic Sink Because of an Optical Illusion?” (accessed March 24, 2017).

Telegraph, “Titanic Sank Due to ‘Mirage’ Caused by Freak Weather” (accessed March 24, 2017).

Matt Largey, “He Got a Bad Grade. So, He Got the Constitution Amended. Now He’s Getting the Credit He Deserves,” kut.org, March 21, 2017.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener David White.

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 go to http://podsurvey.com/futility to take a quick, anonymous survey to help us get the best advertisers for the show.

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!

The Jump

schumann jump

On Aug. 15, 1961, during the third day of construction of the Berlin Wall, 19-year-old Communist German border guard Hans Conrad Schumann was standing on the corner of Ruppiner Straße and Bernauer Straße. A roll of concertina wire 3 feet high was strung before him; behind him cement slabs were being positioned to replace it. Opposite, in West Berlin, a group of protesters had gathered to denounce the building of the wall, which was intended to stop the exodus of young professionals from the East German state.

“The people were swearing at us,” he wrote later. “We felt we were simply doing our duty but we were getting scolded from all sides. The West Berliners yelled at us and the Eastern demonstrators yelled at us. We were standing there in the middle. There was the barbed wire, there was us guards, West Berliners, East Berliners. For a young person, it was terrible.”

West Berliners began to shout, “Come over! Come over!” A West Berlin police car pulled into sight, its engine running and its rear door open, inviting him to desert. For two hours Schumann debated, thinking about his parents and his sister. Then, at 4:00, he jumped over the wire and ran. “Then I was in the West and they received me with a great cheer. I was the first.”

Caught by photographer Peter Leibing, the image appeared in newspapers around the world. Within a month, 68 members of the East German special police had deserted to the West.

Schumann settled in Ingolstadt and worked in an Audi factory for 20 years. When the wall came down in 1989, he returned to his hometown and discovered he was a pariah, the “wall jumper,” a tool of the Western imperialists. Dismayed and depressed, he hanged himself in 1998 at the age of 56.

(From James E. Wise Jr. and Scott Baron, Dangerous Games, 2010.)

Podcast Episode 146: Alone in the Wilderness

https://archive.org/details/aloneinwildernes00knowrich

In 1913 outdoorsman Joseph Knowles pledged to spend two months in the woods of northern Maine, naked and alone, fending for himself “without the slightest communication or aid from the outside world.” In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Knowles’ adventures in the woods and the controversy that followed his return to civilization.

We’ll also consider the roots of nostalgia and puzzle over some busy brothers.

Intro:

In 1972, a French physicist discovered a natural uranium reactor operating underground in Gabon.

In the 13th century the English royal menagerie included a polar bear.

Sources for our feature on Joseph Knowles:

Jim Motavalli, Naked in the Woods, 2007.

Joseph Knowles, Alone in the Wilderness, 1913.

Bill Donahue, “Naked Joe,” Boston Magazine, April 2013.

Richard O. Boyer, “The Nature Man,” New Yorker, June 18, 1938.

John Gould, “Tarzan of the Pines,” Christian Science Monitor, June 18, 1999.

Roderick Nash, “The American Cult of the Primitive,” American Quarterly 18:3 (Autumn 1966), 517-537.

Robert Moor, “The 1913 ‘Nature Man’ Whose Survivalist Stunts Were Not What They Seemed,” Atlas Obscura, July 7, 2016.

“Joe Knowles, Lived in Wilds Unarmed!”, New York Times, Oct. 23, 1942.

Joseph B. Frazier, “An Early Nature Buff: By Going Into the Woods Alone, Did Joe Knowles Remind America of Its Potential?”, Orlando Sentinel, March 2, 2008.

Joseph B. Frazier, “‘Natural Man’ Inspired, Despite Fraud Claims,” Augusta Chronicle, March 16, 2008.

“The 100th Anniversary of Joe Knowles’ Famous Odyssey into the Wilds,” Lewiston [Maine] Sun Journal, April 14, 2013.

“Joe Knowles and the Legacy of Wilderness Adventures,” Lewiston [Maine] Sun Journal, May 12, 2013.

“Nature Man Badly Injured,” Los Angeles Times, May 18, 1915.

“The Nature Man,” The Billboard, Nov. 6, 1915.

Grace Kingley, “Joe Knowles, Nature Man, at Republic,” Los Angeles Times, Sept. 23, 1914.

https://archive.org/details/aloneinwildernes00knowrich

Still dressed in his bearskin and cedar-bark shoes, Knowles was examined by Harvard physician Dudley Sargent on Oct. 9, 1913. “He surpassed every test he took before starting on the trip,” Sargent declared. “His scientific experiment shows what a man can do when he is deprived of the luxuries which many people have come to regard as necessities.”

https://archive.org/details/aloneinwildernes00knowrich

A portion of the crowd that met him in Boston.

Listener mail:

Fireworks disasters in Oban, Scotland, and San Diego.

MURDERCASTLE, from the Baltimore Rock Opera Society.

John Tierney, “What Is Nostalgia Good For? Quite a Bit, Research Shows,” New York Times, July 8, 2013.

University of Southampton, “What Nostalgia Is and What It Does” (accessed March 18, 2017).

“Nostalgia,” Google Books Ngram Viewer, March 18, 2017.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Rod Guyler.

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!

Letter From Home

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:German_POWs_lined_up_in_camp.png
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In Love Letters of the Great War (2014), Mandy Kirkby quotes this letter sent from Gleiwitz, Upper Silesia, in April 1917:

Dear Husband!

This is the last letter I am writing to you, because on the 24th I am going to marry another man. Then I don’t have to work any longer. I have already been working for three years as long as you are away from home. All the other men come home for leave, only you POWs never come. Nobody knows how long it will take until you come home. That’s why I am going to have a new husband. I will give the children to the orphanage. I don’t give a rat’s ass about a life like that! There is no way to survive with these few Pfennig benefits. At work they have a big mouth about the women. Now I don’t need to go to work, now the other man is going to work for me. All wives whose husbands are POWs will do the same thing and they will all get rid of the children. Three years at work are too much for the women and 20 Mark for benefit and 10 Mark child benefit are not enough. One cannot live on that. Everything is so expensive now. One pound of bacon costs 8 Mark, a shirt, 9 Mark.

Your wife

“We don’t know anything more about this unfortunate couple, but the strain of separation has brought the wife to breaking point,” Kirkby writes. “Whether she carried out her threat, we’ll never know.”

A Guilty Key

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

In the contentious presidential election of 1876, the campaign of Democrat Samuel Tilden sent many enciphered messages to its agents in contested states. Two years after the election, the New York Daily Tribune published some of the deciphered telegrams, showing that Tilden’s campaign had tried to bribe election officials to win the race. Here’s one of the telegrams:

https://archive.org/details/41748389078762

Since only 10 letters are used, it seems likely that the cipher refers to pairs of letters. So if each successive pair in the message is assigned to an arbitrary letter:

https://archive.org/details/41748389078762

… then we have a simple cryptogram that can be solved to give the message:

https://archive.org/details/41748389078762

Tilden’s campaign did the same thing with pairs of numbers. For example, this message:

https://archive.org/details/41748389078762

… turns out to mean:

https://archive.org/details/41748389078762

In 1879 the Tribune’s experts worked out the letter and number pairs that had corresponded to each letter of the alphabet:

https://archive.org/details/41748389078762

But it wasn’t until 1952 that cryptographer William F. Friedman reconstructed the table that the agents had used to remember this system:

https://archive.org/details/41748389078762

“It is amusing to note that the conspirators selected as their key a phrase quite in keeping with their attempted illegalities — HIS PAYMENT — for bribery seems to have played a considerable part in that campaign.”

(From Beaird Glover, Secret Ciphers of the 1876 Presidential Election, 1991.)

Podcast Episode 145: The Pied Piper of Saipan

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gabaldon_1944.jpg

Guy Gabaldon was an untested Marine when he landed on the Pacific island of Saipan during World War II. But he decided to fight the war on his own terms, venturing alone into enemy territory and trying to convince Japanese soldiers to surrender voluntarily. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Gabaldon’s dangerous crusade and learn its surprising results.

We’ll also examine Wonder Woman’s erotic origins and puzzle over an elusive murderer.

Intro:

In 1955 Dodge introduced the La Femme — “the first car ever exclusively designed for the woman motorist.”

In 1911 a 16-year-old English girl died when a gust of wind carried her 20 feet into the air.

Sources for our feature on Guy Gabaldon:

Guy Gabaldon, Saipan: Suicide Island, 1990.

“Diminutive WWII Hero Gabaldon Dies at 80,” Associated Press, Sept. 4, 2006.

Richard Goldstein, “Guy Gabaldon, 80, Hero of Battle of Saipan, Dies,” New York Times, Sept. 4, 2006.

Jocelyn Y. Stewart, “Guy Gabaldon, 80; WWII Hero Captured 1,000 Japanese on Saipan,” Los Angeles Times, Sept. 6, 2006.

“Guy Gabaldon,” Latino Americans, PBS, Sept. 24, 2013.

Richard Gonzalez, “Filmmaker: Pacific War Hero Deserved Higher Honor,” Morning Edition, National Public Radio, April 25, 2008.

“Guy Gabaldon: An Interview and Discussion,” War Times Journal (accessed Feb. 26, 2017).

“Milestones,” Time 168:12, Sept. 18, 2006.

Gregg K. Kakesako, “‘Pied Piper’ Returning to Saipan,” Honolulu Star Bulletin, June 6, 2004.

“Guy Gabaldon,” University of Texas Oral History Project (accessed Feb. 26, 2017).

Gabaldon receives the Navy Cross, 1960:

Listener mail:

Wikipedia, “William Moulton Marston” (accessed March 9, 2017).

“The Man Behind Wonder Woman Was Inspired By Both Suffragists And Centerfolds,” NPR Books, October 27, 2014.

Jill Lepore, “The Surprising Origin Story of Wonder Woman,” Smithsonian Magazine, October 2014.

Katha Pollitt, “Wonder Woman’s Kinky Feminist Roots,” Atlantic, November 2014.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Steven Jones (thanks also to Hanno Zulla). Here are three corroborating links (warning — these 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!

Gratitude

guerrero clock case

During the Great Depression, Texas carpenter Ernesto Guerrero could not find work, and his family received boxes of food through Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal assistance program. To show her appreciation, Ernesto’s daughter Ernestine spent a year developing her skills with a coping saw and another year carving this fretwork clock case from the leftover grocery boxes.

She sent it to Roosevelt in 1937. “This is the best I have ever done in my life,” she wrote. “I know that you have many pretty things, but please accept and keep this piece of work from a poor girl that doesn’t have anything, also to show you how much we admire you … as a man of great ideals and a big heart toward humanity.”

FDR put the case on display, first at his family estate in Hyde Park, N.Y., and later as part of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library Museum Collection — the first presidential library.

(From Robert Cohen, Dear Mrs. Roosevelt: Letters from Children of the Great Depression, 2003.)

Ships That Pass

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

For four months in 1840 Edgar Allan Poe conducted a puzzle column for the Philadelphia newspaper Alexander’s Daily Messenger. In that time he defied his readers to send him a cryptogram that he could not solve, and at the end of his tenure he declared himself undefeated. One of the later challenges came from 17-year-old Schuyler Colfax of New Carlisle, Iowa, who would grow up to become vice president of the United States:

Dear Sir — As you have in your Weekly Messenger defied the world to puzzle you by substituting arbitrary signs, figures, etc. for the different letters of the alphabet, I have resolved to try my utmost to corner you and your system together, and have manufactured the two odd looking subjects which accompany this as avant couriers. … If you succeed in solving the accompanying, I will, of course, as you request, acknowledge it publicly to my friends.

Poe responded: “We have only time, this week, to look at the first and longest cypher — the unriddling of which, however, will no doubt fully satisfy Mr. Colfax that we have not been playing possum with our readers.” Here’s Colfax’s cryptogram:

8n()58†d w!0 b† !x6n†z k65 !nz k65,8l†n b)x 8nd)Pxd !zw8x 6k n6 36w-†nd!x86n;

x=†0 z†,5!z† x=† w8nz 8n 8xd 62n †dx††w !nz k653† 8x x6 5†36l†5 8xd P†l†P b0 5†l†n,†.

()n8)d

What’s the solution?

Click for Answer

Shame and Fortune

http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=1503504&partId=1&searchText=cruikshank+hanging&page=3

In 1818 caricaturist George Cruikshank saw several people hanging from a gibbet near Newgate Prison in London and learned to his horror that they had been executed for passing forged one-pound notes — at the time, doing so even unknowingly was punishable by death or transportation.

The fact that a poor woman could be put to death for such a minor offence had a great effect upon me — and I at that moment determined, if possible, to put a stop to this shocking destruction of life for merely obtaining a few shillings by fraud; and well knowing the habits of the low class of society in London, I felt quite sure that in very many cases the rascals who forged the notes induced these poor ignorant women to go into the gin-shops to ‘get something to drink,’ and thus pass the notes, and hand them the change.

He went home and dashed off this sketch, which was then printed on the post paper used by the bank, so that it would resemble counterfeit currency. “The general effect was of a counterfeit, but closer examination revealed that every element of the official design had been replaced by a savage parody,” writes Robert L. Patten in George Cruikshank’s Life, Times, and Art. The seal shows Britannia eating her children, the stamp depicts 12 tiny heads in prison, and the pound sign is a coiled hangman’s rope.

The protest created a sensation, and remedial legislation was passed. Cruikshank’s satire, noted the Examiner, “ought to make the hearts of the Bank Directors ache at the sight.”

Podcast Episode 144: The Murder Castle

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:H._H._Holmes_Castle.jpg

When detectives explored the Chicago hotel owned by insurance fraudster H.H. Holmes in 1894, they found a nightmarish warren of blind passageways, trapdoors, hidden chutes, and asphyxiation chambers in which Holmes had killed dozens or perhaps even hundreds of victims. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the career of America’s first documented serial killer, who headlines called “a fiend in human shape.”

We’ll also gape at some fireworks explosions and puzzle over an intransigent insurance company.

Intro:

In 1908 a Strand reader discovered an old London horse omnibus on the outskirts of Calgary.

If Henry Jenkins truly lived to 169, then as an English subject he’d have changed religions eight times.

Sources for our feature on H.H. Holmes:

Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City, 2004.

John Borowski, The Strange Case of Dr. H.H. Holmes, 2005.

Harold Schechter, Depraved: The Definitive True Story of H.H. Holmes, 1994.

Alan Glenn, “A Double Dose of the Macabre,” Michigan Today, Oct. 22, 2013.

John Bartlow Martin, “The Master of the Murder Castle,” Harper’s, December 1943.

Corey Dahl, “H.H. Holmes: The Original Client From Hell,” Life Insurance Selling, October 2013.

“Claims an Alibi: Holmes Says the Murders Were Committed by a Friend,” New York Times, July 17, 1895.

“Holmes in Great Demand: Will Be Tried Where the Best Case Can Be Made,” New York Times, July 24, 1895.

“Accused of Ten Murders: The List of Holmes’s Supposed Victims Grows Daily,” New York Times, July 26, 1895.

“The Holmes Case,” New York Times, July 28, 1895.

“Expect to Hang Holmes: Chicago Police Authorities Say They Can Prove Murder,” New York Times, July 30, 1895.

“Chicago and Holmes,” New York Times, July 31, 1895.

“No Case Against Holmes: Chicago Police Baffled in the Attempt to Prove Murder,” New York Times, Aug. 2, 1895.

“Did Holmes Kill Pitzel: The Theory of Murder Gaining Ground Steadily,” New York Times, Nov. 20, 1894.

“Holmes Fears Hatch: Denies All the Charges of Murder Thus Far Made Against Him,” New York Times, Aug. 2, 1895.

“Quinlan’s Testimony Against Holmes: They Think He Committed Most of the Murders in the Castle,” New York Times, Aug. 4, 1895.

“Modern Bluebeard: H.H. Holmes’ Castles Reveals His True Character,” Chicago Tribune, Aug. 18, 1895.

“The Case Opened: A Strong Plea, by the Prisoner for a Postponement,” New York Times, Oct. 29, 1895.

“Holmes and His Crimes: Charged with Arson, Bigamy, and Numerous Murders,” New York Times, Oct. 29, 1895.

“Holmes Grows Nervous: Unable to Face the Portrait of One of His Supposed Victims,” New York Times, Oct. 30, 1895.

“Holmes Is Found Guilty: The Jury Reaches Its Verdict on the First Ballot,” New York Times, Nov. 3, 1895.

“Holmes Sentenced to Die: The Murderer of Benjamin F. Pietzel to Be Hanged,” New York Times, Dec. 1, 1895.

“The Law’s Delays,” New York Times, Feb. 4, 1896.

“Holmes’ Victims,” Aurora [Ill.] Daily Express, April 13, 1896.

“Holmes Cool to the End,” New York Times, May 8, 1896.

Rebecca Kerns, Tiffany Lewis, and Caitlin McClure of Radford University’s Department of Psychology have compiled an extensive profile of Holmes and his crimes (PDF).

Listener mail:

The Seest disaster:

Wikipedia, “Seest Fireworks Disaster” (accessed March 3, 2017).

“Dutch Fireworks Disaster,” BBC News, May 14, 2000.

Wikipedia, “Enschede Fireworks Disaster” (accessed March 3, 2017).

“Vuurwerkramp,” Visit Enschede (accessed March 3, 2017).

Beverly Jenkins, “10 Worst Fireworks Disasters Ever,” Oddee, July 4, 2013.

Jessie Guy-Ryan, “Inside the World’s Deadliest Fireworks Accident,” Atlas Obscura, July 4, 2016.

Wikipedia, “Puttingal Temple Fire” (accessed March 3, 2017).

Rajiv G, “Kollam Temple Fire: Death Toll Reaches 111, 40 Badly Wounded,” Times of India, April 12, 2016.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Daniel Sterman, 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!