Podcast Episode 131: Escape From Libby Prison

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Libby Prison was one of the most infamous prison camps of the Civil War — thousands of Union prisoners were packed together in a converted warehouse, facing months or years of starvation and abuse. The Confederates thought the prison was escape-proof, and in this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll show how a determined group of prisoners set out to prove them wrong.

We’ll also duel with a barrel and puzzle over why an admitted forger would be found innocent.

Intro:

Iowa attorney Townsend M. Zink directed that his money be used to build a library that would exclude women and stock books written only by men.

In the early 1960s, the American Automobile Association forgot to include Seattle on its road map of the United States.

Sources for our feature on the Libby Prison breakout:

Joseph Wheelan, Libby Prison Breakout, 2010.

Jonathan Franklin William Vance, Encyclopedia of Prisoners of War and Internment, 2006.

Bruce Klee, “Libby Prison,” Civil War Times Illustrated 37:7 (February 1999), 32-38.

Steven Trent Smith, “The Great Libby Prison Breakout,” Civil War Times 49:4 (August 2010), 46-53.

Michael Morgan, “Breakout From Rat Hell,” Civil War Times Illustrated 40:5 (October 2001), 28-37.

A.G. Hamilton, “Story of the Famous Tunnel Escape From Libby Prison,” 1893.

Emeric Szabad, “Diary in Libby Prison,” Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country 77:459 (March 1868), 385-406.

Frank E. Moran, “Libby Prison’s Tunnel,” Toledo Blade, Nov. 9, 1882.

This diagram accompanied “Colonel Rose’s Tunnel at Libby Prison,” Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, March 1888 (click to enlarge):

https://books.google.com/books?id=fdNPAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA770

Second feature:

“Five Accidents, But Only One Indemnity,” American Lawyer, August 1906.

This story was a staple of vaudeville, made most famous, I think, by Fred Allen. But Allen was 12 when this version appeared, and 1 when the joke made its debut.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Adam Behring, 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!

Sunrise, Sunset

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Is it unjust to adopt a constitution that binds both ourselves and future members of our society? We need a set of fundamental laws to regulate ourselves, but is it fair to extend that to future citizens? Shouldn’t they have the right to choose their own rules?

Thomas Jefferson thought so. In a 1789 letter to James Madison, he held that “the earth belongs in usufruct to the living”: He thought a constitution (or any law) should expire automatically when succeeding generations make up a majority of the population. “The constitution and the laws of their predecessors extinguished … in their natural course with those who gave them being,” he wrote. “This could preserve that being till it ceased to be itself, and no longer. … If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force, and not of right.”

There’s a tension here: In order for a constitution to be successful, it has to define the organization of its society and the freedoms of its citizens, and these rules need to remain in effect for at least several generations in order to produce a healthy liberal democracy. “But those born under a perpetual constitution are expected to acquiesce to the foundational norms approved by their predecessors with neither their consent nor their participation,” writes McGill University political philosopher Víctor M. Muñiz-Fraticelli. “If a constitution is discussed, negotiated, and approved by citizens who are, necessarily, contemporaries, what normatively binding force does it retain for future generations who took no part in its discussion, negotiation, or approval?”

(Víctor M. Muñiz-Fraticelli, “The Problem of a Perpetual Constitution,” in Axel Gosseries and Lukas H. Meyer, eds., Intergenerational Justice, 2009.)

Ready-Made

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Australia was named before it was discovered. Ancient geographers had supposed that land in the north must be balanced by land in the south — Aristotle had written, “there must be a region bearing the same relation to the southern pole as the place we live in bears to our pole” — and Romans told legends of a Terra Australis Incognita, an “unknown land of the South,” more than a millennium before Europeans first sighted the continent.

In 1814 the British explorer Matthew Flinders suggested applying the speculative name, Terra Australis, to the actual place — and in a footnote he wrote, “Had I permitted myself any innovation on the original term, it would have been to convert it to AUSTRALIA; as being more agreeable to the ear, and an assimilation to the names of the other great portions of the earth.”

Podcast Episode 128: The Battle for Castle Itter

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Schloss_Itter_in_1979.jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

The closing days of World War II witnessed a bizarre battle with some unlikely allies: American and German soldiers joined forces to rescue a group of French prisoners from a medieval castle in the Austrian Alps. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the Battle for Castle Itter, the only time that Allies and Germans fought together in the war.

We’ll also dodge another raft of aerial bombs and puzzle over a bottled pear.

Intro:

In 1917, Royal Flying Corps trainee Graham Donald fell out of his plane at the top of a loop.

In 1750, the 1st Earl of Hardwicke installed an artificial ruin near his country house, Wimpole Hall.

Sources for our feature on the Battle for Castle Itter:

Stephen Harding, The Last Battle, 2013.

Stephen Harding, “The Battle for Castle Itter,” World War II 23:3 (August/September 2008), 38-45.

George Hodge, “The Last Battle: When U.S. and German Soldiers Joined Forces in the Waning Hours of World War II in Europe,” Military Review 94:4 (July/August 2014), 100.

John G. Mayer, “12th Men Free French Big-Wigs,” 12th Armored Division Hellcat News, May 26, 1945.

Andrew Roberts, “World War II’s Strangest Battle: When Americans and Germans Fought Together,” Daily Beast, May 12, 2013.

Bethany Bell, “The Austrian Castle Where Nazis Lost to German-US Force,” BBC News, May 7, 2015.

Listener mail:

Roadside America, “Omaha, Nebraska: Plaque: Japanese Balloon Bomb Exploded Here,”.

“B-52 Accidentally Bombs Kansas Lake,” Aero News Network, Dec. 16, 2006.

Bill Kaczor, “Bombs Rained on Florida Family in 1944,” Los Angeles Times, Aug. 14, 1994.

Wikipedia, “MOVE: 1985 bombing” (accessed Nov. 4, 2016).

Wikipedia, “Pavlovsk Experimental Station” (accessed Nov. 4, 2016).

Ian Crofton, A Curious History of Food and Drink, 2014.

Wikipedia, “1958 Tybee Island Mid-Air Collision” (accessed Nov. 4, 2016).

This week’s lateral thinking puzzles were adapted from the Soviet popular science magazine Kvant and the 2000 book Lateral Mindtrap Puzzles and contributed by listener Steve Scheuermann. We refer to this image in the second puzzle:

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Williams_Christ_Obstbrand.JPG
Image: Wikimedia Commons

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!

Ups and Downs

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Here’s how the Union enciphered its messages during the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln sent this dispatch on June 1, 1863:

GUARD ADAM THEM THEY AT WAYLAND BROWN FOR KISSING VENUS CORRESPONDENTS AT NEPTUNE ARE OFF NELLY TURNING UP CAN GET WHY DETAINED TRIBUNE AND TIMES RICHARDSON THE ARE ASCERTAIN AND YOU FILLS BELLY THIS IF DETAINED PLEASE ODOR OF LUDLOW COMMISSIONER

The first word, GUARD, indicates the size of a containing rectangle and the paths on which the words must be laid out to decipher the message. In this case, they’ll go up the first column, down the second, up the fifth, down the fourth, and up the third. Also, just to confuse the Confederates, every eighth word after GUARD is a null and should be discarded. So we get:

FOR     VENUS          LUDLOW   RICHARDSON AND
BROWN   CORRESPONDENTS OF       THE        TRIBUNE
WAYLAND AT             ODOR     ARE        DETAINED
AT      NEPTUNE        PLEASE   ASCERTAIN  WHY
THEY    ARE            DETAINED AND        GET
THEM    OFF            IF       YOU        CAN
ADAM    NELLY          THIS     FILLS      UP

The last steps are to remove THIS FILLS UP, which is only there to fill out the block, and to replace a few code words:

VENUS = colonel
WAYLAND = captured
ODOR = Vicksburg
NEPTUNE = Richmond
ADAM = President of the United States
NELLY = 4:30 p.m.

That gives us the final message:

For Colonel Ludlow,

Richardson and Brown, correspondents of the Tribune, captured at Vicksburg, are detained at Richmond. Please ascertain why they are detained and get them off if you can.

The President, 4:30 p.m.

This system was such a valuable source of breaking news that Lincoln often visited the military telegraph office in the War Department, next to the White House, and would chat with the operators there. One of them, David Homer Bates, who was only 18 when the war started, remembered, “Outside the members of his cabinet and his private secretaries, none were brought into closer or more confidential relations with Lincoln than the cipher-operators, … for during the Civil War the President spent more of his waking hours in the War Department telegraph office than in any other place, except the White House. … His tall, homely form could be seen crossing the well-shaded lawn between the White House and the War Department day after day with unvaried regularity.”

(From David Kahn, The Codebreakers, 1996.)

A Point of Duty

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Secessionist Roger A. Pryor was visiting Fort Sumter just before the outbreak of the Civil War when he accidentally drank a bottle of poison. A Union doctor named Samuel Crawford pumped his stomach, saving his life.

“Some of us questioned the doctor’s right to interpose in a case of this kind,” wrote Union captain Abner Doubleday. “It was argued that if any rebel leader chose to come over to Fort Sumter and poison himself, the Medical Department had no business to interfere with such a laudable intention.”

“The doctor, however, claimed, with some show of reason, that he himself was held responsible to the United States for the medicine in the hospital, and therefore he could not permit Pryor to carry any of it away.”

Asked and Answered

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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.)

Directions

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

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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