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

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.

See full show notes …

Letter From Home
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

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:

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:

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

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

… turns out to mean:

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

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

“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

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.

See full show notes …


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

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,†.


What’s the solution?

Click for Answer

Shame and Fortune

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

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.

See full show notes …

Banishing Gloom

quin historical atlas

For his Historical Atlas of 1830, Edward Quin took a different approach than other cartographers: Rather than present history as a series of discrete moments, he illustrates the growth of knowledge by covering the earth in obscuring clouds that are beaten back from panel to panel.

“In Quin’s Historical Atlas, the world is shown first in darkness, with clouds obscuring everything outside the Garden of Eden,” note Anthony Grafton and Daniel Rosenberg in Cartographies of Time. “Gradually, as history reveals more of the world, the clouds roll back. Turning the pages of the atlas is a bit like riffling through a flip book, watching darkness recede and the world known to Europeans grow.”