Putting Words

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In 1946, when Japanese prime minister Hideki Tojo was being held prisoner by the victorious Allies, he asked for a set of dentures so that he could speak clearly during his war crimes trial.

The dentures were made by 22-year-old military dentist E.J. Mallory. “I figured it was my duty to carry out the assignment,” Mallory remembered in 1988. “But that didn’t mean I couldn’t have fun with it.”

An amateur ham radio operator, he inscribed the phrase “Remember Pearl Harbor” in Morse code into the dentures and delivered them to Tojo.

Mallory and his colleague George Foster told a few friends, but the secret got out and the two had to awaken Tojo in the middle of the night to borrow back the dentures and grind out the message. The next day, when a colonel confronted them, they were able to say truthfully that there was no message.

It’s not known whether Tojo ever found out what had happened. He was executed in 1948.

“It wasn’t anything done in anger,” Mallory remembered in 1995. “It’s just that not many people had the chance to get those words into his mouth.”

Podcast Episode 84: The Man Who Never Was

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In 1942, Germany discovered a dead British officer floating off the coast of Spain, carrying important secret documents about the upcoming invasion of Europe. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Operation Mincemeat, which has been called “the most imaginative and successful ruse” of World War II.

We’ll also hear from our listeners about Scottish titles and mountain-climbing pussycats and puzzle over one worker’s seeming unwillingness to help another.

See full show notes …

A Last Look

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On Sept. 26, 1901, 13-year-old Fleetwood Lindley was attending school in Springfield, Ill., when his teacher handed him a note: His father wanted him urgently. He rode his bicycle to the Oak Ridge cemetery two miles out of town and found his father, Joseph, in the memorial hall of Abraham Lincoln’s tomb. The assassinated president, now 36 years dead, was being transferred to a new resting place, and a small group of caretakers had decided to open his coffin to confirm his identity.

The casket had been laid across a pair of sawhorses. A pair of workmen used a blowtorch to unseal the lead panel that covered Lincoln’s upper body, and the small group peered in.

Afterward the coffin was lowered into a hole 10 feet deep, encased in a cage of steel bars, and buried under tons of concrete. Over the years, as the other witnesses passed away, Lindley became the last living person to have looked on Lincoln’s body.

“His face was chalky white,” he remembered for a Life reporter in 1963, three days before his own death. “His clothes were mildewed. And I was allowed to hold one of the leather straps as we lowered the casket for the concrete to be poured.”

“I was not scared at the time, but I slept with Lincoln for the next six months.”

Podcast Episode 83: Nuclear Close Calls

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In 1983, Soviet satellites reported that the United States had launched a nuclear missile toward Moscow, and one officer had only minutes to decide whether to initiate a counterstrike. In today’s show we’ll learn about some nuclear near misses from the Cold War that came to light only decades after they occurred.

We’ll also hear listeners’ input about crescent moons and newcomers to India, and puzzle over the fatal consequences of a man’s departure from his job.

See full show notes …

Practical Math

Sample questions from L. Johnson’s 1864 textbook Elementary Arithmetic Designed for Beginners, used in North Carolina during the Civil War:

  1. A Confederate soldier captured 8 Yankees each day for 9 successive days; how many did he capture in all?
  2. If one Confederate soldier kill 90 Yankees how many Yankees can 10 Confederate soldiers kill?
  3. If one Confederate soldier can whip 7 Yankees, how many soldiers can whip 49 Yankees?

Students were also asked to imagine rolling cannonballs out of their bedrooms and dividing Confederate soldiers into squads and companies. Let’s hope they didn’t take field trips.

Podcast Episode 82: Stealing Abe Lincoln

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In 1876, a gang of inept Chicago counterfeiters launched an absurd plot to steal the body of Abraham Lincoln and hold it for ransom. In today’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast, we’ll follow their comical attempts to carry out the bizarre scheme, and uncover the secret society that was formed afterward to protect Lincoln’s corpse.

We’ll also puzzle over an overlooked way to reduce the odds of dying of a heart attack.

See full show notes …

The Thought That Counts

A Mississippi soldier’s incoherent letter to his fiancée, quoted in Bell Irvin Wiley’s The Life of Johnny Reb, 1943:

I can bare the Storms of the wintery Blast for thy sake oh Miss S.J.H be thou ever Bless as Butiful as thou art and idol to my throbbing hart oh had I the mind of the poet So that I could penetrate the verry depts of my hart but I can but express my Simple thoughts I am hear but my heart is Theire, we are in four miles of the yankees … could we not enjoy ourselves better if was at home with the girles … vainley I alas thou woulds soothe the pangs I feel, fond love betrayed what hopes I can poses Death alone my greaf may heal then farewell for ever more welth I have none they Farthers care thearefore I love one on Earth that I adore my only wealth is the love I bare then farewel perhaps for ever more never forsake me I Still will faithfull be Still on thy hand every bliss I will imploy Hence duty calls me they first my only love farewell perhaps for ever more but my hopes if far different I think will again meet if nothing happens more then I expect one thought from you would cheer my dropping mind I have more in my hart then ten thousand toungs can express if I had wings of and Eagle to the I would fly me thinks I can hear in my midnight drams thy Soft and gentle voice but alas when I awake I am in a Soldier tent

He adds, “I have nothing of importance to write you at this time but I will write soon and let you know all that happens.”

Podcast Episode 81: The Typhus Hoax

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In 1939, as Germany was sending the people of Poland to labor and death camps, two doctors found a unique way to save their countrymen — by faking an epidemic. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll learn about their clever plan, which ultimately saved 8,000 people.

We’ll also consider four schemes involving tiny plots of land and puzzle over why a library would waive its fees for a lost book.

See full show notes …

Have Gun

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Welshman Henry Morton Stanley — famous for seeking explorer David Livingstone in Africa — fought on both sides in the American Civil War.

In April 1862, when just 21 years old, he fought in the Confederate Army’s 6th Arkansas infantry regiment at the Battle of Shiloh. Captured, he swore allegiance to the United States and joined the Union Army in June. He was discharged after two weeks’ service due to severe illness, but recovered and went on to join the U.S. Navy in 1864.

In The Galvanized Yankees, Dee Brown writes, Stanley “probably became the only man ever to serve in the Confederate Army, the Union Army, and the Union Navy.”

Podcast Episode 80: ‘Black Like Me’: Race Realities Under Jim Crow

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In 1959, Texas journalist John Howard Griffin darkened his skin and lived for six weeks as a black man in the segregated South. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe his harrowing experience and what it taught him about the true state of race relations in America.

We’ll also ponder crescent moons, German submarines, and griffins in India and puzzle over why a man would be arrested for winning a prize at a county fair.

See full show notes …