Beginnings

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Victoriatothrone.jpg

First entry in Victoria’s diary, Aug. 1, 1832, when she was 13:

We left K.P. at 6 minutes past 7 and went through the Lower-field gate to the right. We went on, & turned to the left by the new road to Regent’s Park. The road & scenery is beautiful. 20 minutes to 9. We have just changed horses at Barnet a very pretty little town. 5 minutes past 1/2 past 9. We have just changed horses at St. Albans. The situation is very pretty & there is a beautiful old abbey there. 5 minutes past 10. The country is beautiful here: they have began to cut the corn here; it is so golden & fine that I think they will have a very good harvest, at least here. There are also pretty hills & trees.

Five years later, on the day of her accession, she wrote, “Since it has pleased Providence to place me in this station, I shall do my utmost to fulfil my duty towards my country; I am very young and perhaps in many, though not in all things, inexperienced, but I am sure that very few have more real good will and more real desire to do what is fit and right than I have.”

Collage

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Going_over_the_top_01.jpg

Glimpses from the first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1, 1916:

“I was ordered to fetch the breakfast from the kitchens about a mile away. On the way back, in the trench, we came across a covey of young partridges and, as we walked along, we were driving them in front of us. A lot fell in a sump which was full of water so they would surely drown. But I could not see them drown, so I pulled the top off and got them out, put them in my steel helmet and lifted it up to the top of the trench. There, their mother was waiting and she chuckled them all together and off they went, never to be seen by us again.” — Pte F.G. Foskett, 7th Bedfords

“I suppose a shell hole is not the best place from which to admire anything but, believe it or not, waving about just over my head were two full-blown red poppies which stood out in pleasant contrast against the azure blue sky.” — Pte G.E. Waller, Glasgow Boys’ Brigade Battalion

“The worst sights were in our own trenches where some of the badly wounded had managed to crawl. We were not allowed to help any of them, but kept our machine-gun mounted on the parapet in case of a counter-attack. The wounded were trying to patch each other up with their field dressings. A chaplain tore his dog collar off in front of me and, with curses, said, ‘It is a mockery to wear it.'” — Pte C.A. Turner, 97th Brigade Machine Gun Company

“I could see, away to my left and right, long lines of men. Then I heard the ‘patter, patter’ of machine-guns in the distance. By the time I’d gone another ten yards there seemed to be only a few men left around me; by the time I had gone twenty yards, I seemed to be on my own. Then I was hit myself.” — Sgt. J. Galloway, 3rd Tyneside Irish

“Now we came on to a German machine-gun post and there were all the twelve of the crew lying dead around the machine-gun; a short distance away we saw the body of one of our sergeants, formerly one of the king’s footmen who joined up with us at Norwich. He had obviously accounted for the machine-gun crew, before he himself received his death blow. A strange feeling possesses one at such a moment. It seems as if one is detached and merely looking at a scene of carnage from a great distance.” — Pte WC. Bennett, 8th Norfolks

“I then went on to the second-line trench and jumped in, to see a German soldier lying on the parapet. With fixed bayonet I approached, then I saw his putty-coloured face which convinced me he was mortally wounded. The German brought up an arm and actually saluted me. I understood no German language but the poor chap kept muttering two words ‘Wasser, Wasser,’ and ‘Mutter, Mutter.’ It took me a minute or so to realize he wanted a drink of water. The second word I could not cotton on to. I am glad to this day that I gave him a drink from my precious water.” — Pte G.R.S. Mayne 11th Royal Fusiliers

“We are filled with a terrible hate. Our actions are born of a terrible fear, the will to survive. Some of the Germans were getting out of their trenches, their hands up in surrender; others were running back to their reserve trenches. To us they had to be killed. Kill or be killed. You are not normal.” — L/Cpl J.J. Cousins, 7th Bedfords

A company commander in the London Division’s Pioneer battalion was left out of the battle: “My recollection, after all these years, is of being in a trench discussing the rumours, helping with the wounded (we had four men killed) and occasionally lying in a bit of shelter, reading Pickwick Papers and watching the activities of a fat and grey rat.” — Capt. P.H. Jolliffe, 1/5th Cheshires

(From Martin Middlebrook, The First Day on the Somme, 1971.)

Podcast Episode 68: The Niihau Incident

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Shigenori_Nishikaichi,_The_Niihau_Incident.jpg
Images: Wikimedia Commons

After taking part in the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese fighter pilot Shigenori Nishikaichi crash-landed on the isolated Hawaiian island of Niihau. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll recount the six days of escalating drama that unfolded between the desperate pilot and the terrified islanders.

We’ll also hear a list of open questions from Greg’s research and puzzle over why a man can’t sell a solid gold letter opener.

Sources for our feature on the Niihau incident:

William Hallstead and Raymond Denkhaus, “The Niihau Incident,” World War II 14:5 (January 2000), 38.

Andrew Carroll, “A Japanese Pilot Brings World War II to Hawaii’s Farthest Shore,” American History 48:5 (December 2013): 29-30.

Richard B. Frank, “Zero Hour on Niihau,” World War II 24:2 (July 2009): 54-61.

“U.S. Won First WWII Victory Just Days After Pearl Harbor,” Associated Press, Dec. 27, 1991.

One particularly gruesome account of the whipping of Emmanuel Dannan appeared in The Living Age in 1855:

Accordingly, the man procured six whips — the toughest kind of swamp willow — which, by his own confession, were four feet in length, and as large at the butt as one’s little finger and about 9 o’clock at night took Emanuel — who still persisted in telling the truth — to the loft of the cabin, and having stripped him to his shirt, wound that around his neck, and tied him up, by a cord, by both wrists, to a rafter, so that his feet but barely touched the ground.

Here he whipped him for two hours, only resting at intervals to procure a fresh whip, or to demand of his victim that he should own that he told a lie. The boy’s only answer was, ‘Pa, I told the truth. Pa, I did not lie.’ The girl [his sister, the only witness] said that Emanuel did not cry much; and it is probable that he fainted during a portion of the time, as the injuries upon his body, testified that there was not a spot, from the armpits to the ankles, large enough to place your finger upon, but was covered with livid welts; and that in very many places the skin was broken!

In this account, which is explicitly directed “to the Sabbath school children of the United States,” the foster father tries to “whip the lie out of” Emmanuel — that is, persuade him to agree that he had imagined his mother’s crime. In other tellings the lie is whipped into him — he’s urged to tell a cover story to protect his mother, and he cries, “Pa, I will not lie!”

Sources for this week’s lateral thinking puzzles:

Kyle Hendrickson, Mental Fitness Puzzles, 1998.

Erwin Brecher, Lateral Thinking Puzzles, 2010.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes 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 all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation via the Donate button in the sidebar 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. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for listening!

Practical Politics

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

On May 22, 1856, South Carolina representative Preston Brooks approached Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner as he sat writing at his desk in the U.S. Senate chamber. “Mr. Sumner,” he said, “I have read your speech twice over carefully. It is a libel on South Carolina, and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine.” Then he began to beat Sumner savagely with his gold-headed walking cane. Blinded with blood, Sumner at first was trapped under the desk, which was bolted to the floor, but he wrenched it free and staggered up the aisle, Brooks raining blows on his head until the cane snapped and Sumner collapsed unconscious. Even then Brooks held him by the lapel and continued to beat him with half the cane until the two were separated.

Sumner had denounced South Carolina senator Andrew Butler in a speech two days earlier in a dispute over slavery in the new territories of Kansas and Nebraska. Brooks was convicted of assault and fined $300, but he received no prison sentence, and his constituents returned him to office. Pro-slavery Southerners sent him hundreds of new canes, one inscribed “Hit him again.”

On Nov. 9, 1889, Col. A.M. Swope encountered Col. William Cassius Goodloe in the corridor of the Lexington, Ky., post office. The two had been battling for control of the state Republican party, and tragically they had adjoining mailboxes.

“You obstruct the way,” said Goodloe.

“You spoke to me,” said Swope. “You insulted me.”

Goodloe drew a knife. Swope drew a Smith & Wesson .38. Goodloe stabbed Swope 13 times, piercing his heart and nearly cutting off his hand. Swope shot Goodloe twice, tearing up his belly and setting his clothes afire. Swope died on the post office floor, and Goodloe staggered to a doctor’s office. He died two days later.

One witness said he never thought he would witness “such a magnificent display of manly courage and bravery.” Goodloe’s uncle, Cassius M. Clay, said of his nephew’s conduct, “I couldn’t have done better myself.”

The Death Mask Stamps

In 1903 Serbian king Alexander I and his queen were murdered in their palace. Alexander’s successor, Peter Karageorgevich, rescinded postage stamps bearing the dead king’s portrait and marked his own coronation with this stamp, depicting twin profiles of himself and his ancestor Black George, a Serbian patriot:

karageorgevich stamp

If he’d hoped this would allay suspicion, he was mistaken. In Through Savage Europe (1907), writer Harry De Windt notes that when the stamp is turned upside down, “the gashed and ghastly features of the murdered King stand out with unmistakable clearness”:

karageorgevich stamp - inverted

That’s a bit overstated. Here’s Alexander’s original stamp and the purported “death mask” — gaze at it blankly and Alexander’s features will emerge from the noses, brows, and chins:

alexander and the "death mask"

“Needless to state, the issue was at once prohibited.”

Forward and Back

http://www.archives.gov/press/press-kits/picturing-the-century-photos/orville-wright-in-aeroplane.jpg

When my brother and I built and flew the first man-carrying flying machine, we thought that we were introducing into the world an invention which would make further wars practically impossible. That we were not alone in this thought is evidenced by the fact that the French Peace Society presented us with medals on account of our invention. We thought governments would realize the impossibility of winning by surprise attacks, and that no country would enter into war with another of equal size when it knew that it would have to win by simply wearing out its enemy.

— Orville Wright to C.M. Hitchcock, June 21, 1917

In a Word

quisquilian
adj. worthless, trivial

noncurantist
adj. marked by indifference

diversivolent
adj. desiring strife

On April 18, 1930, in place of its 6:30 p.m. radio news bulletin, the BBC announced, “Good evening. Today is Good Friday. There is no news.” It filled the time with two minutes of piano music.

In 2010 computer programmer William Tunstall-Pedoe sifted 300 million facts about “people, places, business and events” and determined that April 11, 1954, was the single most boring day in the 20th century.

He told the Telegraph, “Nobody significant died that day, no major events apparently occurred and, although a typical day in the 20th century has many notable people being born, for some reason that day had only one who might make that claim — Abdullah Atalar, a Turkish academic.

“The irony is, though, that — having done the calculation — the day is interesting for being exceptionally boring. Unless, that is, you are Abdullah Atalar.”

(Thanks, Duncan.)

Podcast Episode 54: Escape From Stalag Luft III

stalag luft iii

In 1943 three men came up with an ingenious plan to escape from the seemingly escape-proof Stalag Luft III prison camp in Germany. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll learn about their clever deception, which made them briefly famous around the world.

We’ll also hear about the chaotic annual tradition of Moving Day in several North American cities and puzzle over how a severely injured hiker beats his wife back to their RV.

Sources for our feature on the escape from Stalag Luft III:

Eric Williams, The Wooden Horse, 1949.

The Wooden Horse, British Lion Film Corporation, 1950.

Oliver Philpot, Stolen Journey, 1952.

Here’s the movie:

It became the third most popular film at the British box office in 1950. The book’s success led Williams to write The Tunnel, a prequel that described his and Michael Codner’s earlier escape from the Oflag XXI-B camp in Poland.

Sources for listener mail:

Ian Austen, “When a City Is on the Move, With Mattresses and Dishwashers in Tow,” New York Times, July 1, 2013.

Localwiki, Davis, Calif., “Moving Day” (accessed April 16, 2015).

Samara Kalk Derby, “Happy Holiday or Horror Story? Moving Day Hits UW,” Wisconsin State Journal, Aug. 15, 2011.

City of Madison Streets & Recycling, “August Moving Days” (accessed April 16, 2015).

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener David White and his daughter Katherine.

This episode is sponsored by our patrons and by The Great Courses — go to http://www.thegreatcourses.com/closet to order from eight of their best-selling courses at up to 80 percent off the original price.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes 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 all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation via the Donate button in the sidebar 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. And you can finally follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Thanks for listening!

Podcast Episode 53: The Lost Colony

https://books.google.com/books?id=eu1neCSs4RsC&pg=PA254

It’s been called America’s oldest mystery: A group of 100 English colonists vanished from North Carolina’s Roanoke Island shortly after settling there in 1587. But was their disappearance really so mysterious? In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll trace the history of the “lost colony” and consider what might have happened to the settlers.

We’ll also visit an early steam locomotive in 1830 and puzzle over why writing a letter might prove to be fatal.

Sources for our feature on the lost colony at Roanoke:

James Horn, A Kingdom Strange: The Brief and Tragic History of the Lost Colony of Roanoke, 2011.

Karen Ordahl Kupperman, Roanoke: The Abandoned Colony, 2007.

Giles Milton, Big Chief Elizabeth: The Adventures and Fate of the First English Colonists in America, 2011.

Lee Miller, Roanoke: Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony, 2013.

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:First_passenger_railway_1830.jpg

Fanny Kemble wrote of her encounter with an early locomotive in a letter dated Aug. 26, 1830 (“A common sheet of paper is enough for love, but a foolscap extra can alone contain a railroad and my ecstasies”). It appears in her 1878 memoir Records of a Girlhood.

She sat alongside engineer George Stephenson, who explained his great project and with whom she fell “horribly in love.” At one point on their 15-mile journey they passed through a rocky defile:

You can’t imagine how strange it seemed to be journeying on thus, without any visible cause of progress other than the magical machine, with its flying white breath and rhythmical, unvarying pace, between these rocky walls, which are already clothed with moss and ferns and grasses; and when I reflected that these great masses of stone had been cut asunder to allow our passage thus far below the surface of the earth, I felt as if no fairy tale was ever half so wonderful as what I saw.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Blaine, who sent this corroborating link (warning — this spoils the puzzle).

This episode is sponsored by our patrons and by The Great Courses — go to http://www.thegreatcourses.com/closet to order from eight of their best-selling courses at up to 80 percent off the original price.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes 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 all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation via the Donate button in the sidebar 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. And you can finally follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for listening!

Podcast Episode 52: Moving Day in New York

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Goethe_1791.jpg

For centuries, May 1 brought chaos to New York, as most tenants had to move on the same day, clogging the streets with harried people and all their belongings. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review the colorful history of “Moving Day” and wonder how it lasted through two centuries.

We’ll also recount some surprising escapes from sinking ships and puzzle over a burglar’s ingenuity.

Sources for our feature on Moving Day, New York City’s historic custom of changing residence on May 1:

Kenneth A. Scherzer, The Unbounded Community: Neighborhood Life and Social Structure in New York City, 1830-1875, 1992.

Elizabeth Blackmar, Manhattan for Rent, 1785-1850, 1991.

William Shepard Walsh, Curiosities of Popular Customs … Illustrated, 1897.

“Expressmen and Cartmen’s Charges — The Laws Relative Thereto,” New York Times, April 14, 1870.

“Rich Are Homeless This Moving Day,” New York Times, Oct. 1, 1919.

“Rain Adds to Gloom of City Moving Day,” New York Times, Oct. 2, 1919.

“May 1 Moving Rush a Thing of the Past,” New York Times, May 2, 1922.

In 1890 the New York Times published a list of the maximum prices that city ordinances permitted cartmen to charge:

http://www.baruch.cuny.edu/library/alumni/online_exhibits/digital/2007/moving_day/images/015_lg.gif

Sources for our feature on oddities in maritime disasters:

“Andrea Doria Tragedy Recalled by the Survivors,” Associated Press, July 24, 1981.

“A Remarkable Maritime Disaster,” Scientific American, Nov. 24, 1888.

“A Remarkable Collision,” New Zealand Herald, July 26, 1884.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Ken Murphy.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes 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 all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation via the Donate button in the sidebar 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. And you can finally follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for listening!