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!

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.”

Back Channels

In 1863 Union soldiers seized a bag of rebel correspondence as it was about to cross Lake Pontchartrain. In one of the letters, a woman named Anna boasted of a trick she’d played on a Boston newspaper — she’d sent them a poem titled “The Gypsy’s Wassail,” which she assured them was written in Sanskrit:

Drol setaredefnoc evarb ruo sselb dog
Drageruaeb dna htims nosnhoj eel
Eoj nosnhoj dna htims noskcaj pleh
Ho eixid ni stif meht evig ot

The paper published this “beautiful and patriotic poem, by our talented contributor.” A few days later a reader discovered the trick — it was simply English written in reverse:

God bless our brave Confederates, Lord!
Lee, Johnson, Smith, and Beauregard!
Help Jackson, Smith, and Johnson Joe,
To give them fits in Dixie, oh!

She had signed her name only “Anna,” but in the same bag they found a letter from her sister to her husband, saying “Anna writes you one of her amusing letters,” and this contained her signature and address. Union general Wickham Hoffman wrote to her: “I told her that her letter had fallen into the hands of one of those ‘Yankee’ officers whom she saw fit to abuse, and who was so pleased with its wit that he should take great pleasure in forwarding it to its destination; that in return he had only to ask that when the author of ‘The Gypsy’s Wassail’ favored the expectant world with another poem, he might be honored with an early copy. Anna must have been rather surprised.”

(From Hoffman’s 1877 memoir Camp, Court and Siege.)

Podcast Episode 141: Abducted by Indians, a Captive of Whites

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

In 1836, Indians abducted a 9-year-old girl from her home in East Texas. She made a new life among the Comanche, with a husband and three children. Then, after 24 years, the whites abducted her back again. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of Cynthia Ann Parker, caught up in a war between two societies.

We’ll also analyze a forger’s motives and puzzle over why a crowd won’t help a dying woman.

Intro:

Mathematician Ernst Straus invented a shape in which a ball might bounce forever without finding a hole.

In 1874 a Massachusetts composer set the American constitution to music.

Sources for our feature on Cynthia Ann Parker:

Margaret Schmidt Hacker, Cynthia Ann Parker: The Life and the Legend, 1990.

Jack K. Selden, Return: The Parker Story, 2006.

Jan Reid, “One Who Was Found: The Legend of Cynthia Ann Parker,” in Michael L. Collins, ed., Tales of Texoma, 2005.

Jo Ella Powell Exley, Frontier Blood, 2001.

Jack C. Ramsay Jr., Sunshine on the Prairie, 1990.

George U. Hubbard, The Humor and Drama of Early Texas, 2003.

Richard Selcer, “The Robe,” Wild West 28:5 (February 2016), 60-64.

Glen Sample Ely, “Myth, Memory, and Massacre: The Pease River Capture of Cynthia Ann Parker [review],” Southwestern Historical Quarterly 115:1 (July 2011), 91-92.

Gregory Michno, “Nocona’s Raid and Cynthia Ann’s Recapture,” Wild West 23:2 (August 2010), 36-43.

Paul H. Carlson and Tom Crum, “The ‘Battle’ at Pease River and the Question of Reliable Sources in the Recapture of Cynthia Ann Parker,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly 113:1 (July 2009), 32-52.

Anne Dingus, “Cynthia Ann and Quanah Parker,” Texas Monthly 27:5 (May 1999), 226.

“Cynthia Ann Seized History,” Southern Living 25:3 (March 5, 1990), 61.

Lawrence T. Jones III, “Cynthia Ann Parker and Pease Ross: The Forgotten Photographs,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly 93:3 (January 1990), 379-384.

Rupert N. Richardson, “The Death of Nocona and the Recovery of Cynthia Ann Parker,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly 46:1 (July 1942), 15-21.

Listener mail:

Donald MacGillivray, “When Is a Fake Not a Fake? When It’s a Genuine Forgery,” Guardian, July 1, 2005.

Noah Charney, “Why So Many Art Forgers Want to Get Caught,” Atlantic, Dec. 22, 2014.

Jonathon Keats, “Masterpieces for Everyone? The Case of the Socialist Art Forger Tom Keating,” Forbes, Dec. 13, 2012.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Paul Sophocleous, 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!