Late Service

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The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is still paying a pension earned by a Civil War soldier.

Union infantryman Mose Triplett was 19 at the war’s end in 1865. In the 1920s he married a woman nearly 50 years his junior, and they had a daughter, Irene, in 1930, when Mose was 83 and his wife was 34.

Irene Triplett, now 85 years old and the last child of any Civil War veteran still on the VA benefits rolls, lives today in a nursing home in Wilkesboro, N.C. She collects $73.13 each month through the pension her father earned for her in 1865.

(Thanks, Tom.)

Better Late

In 1895, hoping to marry sound and pictures, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson played a violin into a phonograph horn in Thomas Edison’s experimental film studio, and the sound was recorded on a wax cylinder.

The experiment went well, but the team made no attempt to unite sound and image at the time. The film portion remained well known, but the wax cylinder drifted into another archive and was rediscovered only in the 1960s. It wasn’t until 2000 that film editor Walter Murch succeeded in adding the music to the long-famous fragment, and Dickson’s violin could finally be heard.

The vignette, now the oldest known piece of sound film, shows that sound was not a late addition to moviemaking, film preservationist Rick Schmidlin told the New York Times. “This teaches that sound and film started together in the beginning.”

Podcast Episode 95: A New Day at Charleston

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In 1862, slave Robert Smalls was working as a pilot aboard a Confederate transport ship in Charleston, S.C., when he siezed a unique chance to escape. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow his daring predawn journey, which rescued 17 people from slavery and changed the course of South Carolina history.

We’ll also reflect on justice for bears and puzzle over a hijacker’s surprising request.

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.

Sources for our feature on Robert Smalls:

Andrew Billingsley, Yearning to Breathe Free: Robert Smalls of South Carolina and His Families, 2007.

Kitt Haley Alexander, Robert Smalls: First Black Civil War Hero, 2001.

Peggy Cooper Davis, “Introducing Robert Smalls,” Fordham Law Review 69:5 (April 2001), 1695.

“Robert Smalls,” American National Biography Online, accessed Feb. 14, 2016.

Henry Louis Gates Jr., “Which Slave Sailed Himself to Freedom?”, PBS.org (accessed Feb. 14, 2016).

Micah White, “Black History Unsung Heroes: Robert Smalls,” biography.com, Feb 9, 2015.

“Smalls, Robert,” History, Art & Archives, U.S. House of Representatives (accessed Feb. 14, 2016).

Blain Roberts and Ethan J. Kytle, “Robert Smalls’s Great Escape,” New York Times, May 12, 2012.

Avis Thomas-Lester, “Civil War Hero Robert Smalls Seized the Opportunity to Be Free,” Washington Post, March 2, 2012.

Amy Geier Edgar, “Bill Would Honor Black Pioneer in Business, Politics,” Associated Press, March 26, 2004.

Listener mail:

Todd Wilkinson, “What Do You Do With a Bear That Kills a Person?”, National Geographic, Aug. 20, 2015.

Sarene Leeds, “‘Downton Abbey’ Recap: Season 6, Episode 5,” Wall Street Journal, Jan. 31, 2016.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Rini Rikka.

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.

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!

Another Day

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Flying alone over France in April 1917, German flying ace Ernst Udet engaged another lone pilot in aerial combat. The other pilot, a Frenchman, was exceptionally talented, anticipating all of Udet’s moves and reacting instantly. “Sometimes we pass so closely I can clearly recognize a narrow, pale face under the leather helmet,” Udet wrote later. “On the fuselage, between the wings, there is a word in black letters. As he passes me for the fifth time, so close that his propwash shakes me back and forth, I can make it out: ‘Vieux‘ it says there — vieux — the old one. That’s Guynemer’s sign.”

Guynemer was Georges Guynemer, France’s top fighter ace, who had brought down 30 Germans in fights like this. “Slowly I realize his superiority,” Udet wrote. “His aircraft is better, he can do more than I, but I continue to fight.” For a moment he managed to get Guynemer into his sights, but he found that his gun wouldn’t fire — it was blocked.

Udet tried to clear the stoppage by hand but failed. He considered diving away but knew that Guynemer would instantly shoot him down. They circled one another for another eight minutes as Udet sought to evade the Frenchman’s guns. When Guynemer swooped overhead, Udet hammered the gun with his fists and then realized his mistake:

Guynemer has observed this from above, he must have seen it, and now he knows what gives with me. He knows I’m helpless prey.

Again he skims over me, almost on his back. Then it happens: he sticks out his hand and waves to me, waves lightly, and dives to the west in the direction of his lines.

I fly home. I’m numb.

“There are people who claim Guynemer had a stoppage himself then,” Udet wrote in Ace of the Iron Cross. “Others claim he feared I might ram him in desperation. But I don’t believe any of them. I still believe to this day that a bit of chivalry from the past has continued to survive. For this reason I lay this belated wreath on Guynemer’s unknown grave.”

Misc

  • When written in all caps, the title of John Hiatt’s song “Have a Little Faith in Me” contains no curves.
  • Tycho Brahe kept a tame elk.
  • It isn’t known whether the sum of π and e is irrational.
  • Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, Ulysses Grant, and James Garfield died without wills.
  • “Selfishness is one of the qualities apt to inspire love.” — Nathaniel Hawthorne

The medieval Latin riddle In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (“We enter the circle at night and are consumed by fire”) is a palindrome. The answer is “moths.”

Podcast Episode 94: The Living Unknown Soldier

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A quarter million Frenchmen vanished in World War I, leaving their families no clue whether they were still alive. During these anxious years, a lone man appeared on a Lyon railway platform without memory, possessions, or identification. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the strange story of Anthelme Mangin, whose enigmatic case attracted hundreds of desperate families.

We’ll also consider some further oddities of constitutional history and puzzle over an unpopular baseball victory.

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.

Sources for our feature on Anthelme Mangin:

Jean-Yves Le Naour, The Living Unknown Soldier, 2005.

Martha Hanna, “The Tidal Wave of War,” European History Quarterly 38:1 (January 2008), 93-100.

Stefan Goebel, “Review: Beyond Discourse? Bodies and Memories of Two World Wars,” Journal of Contemporary History 42:2 (April 2007), 377-385.

Carole Blair, V. William Balthrop, and Neil Michel, “The Arguments of the Tombs of the Unknown: Relationality and National Legitimation,” Argumentation 25:4 (November 2011), 449-468.

“Unknown Soldier Claimed as Own by 15 Families,” Reading [Pa.] Eagle, March 19, 1926.

Minott Saunders, “Two Mothers Battle for Memoryless War Veteran,” Ottawa Citizen, June 30, 1928.

“French Derelict Is Unidentified,” Eugene [Ore.] Register-Guard, July 2, 1928.

Adam Nicolson, “A Living Ghost From the Trenches Whose Plight Confused a Nation Riven by Grief,” Telegraph, Jan. 16, 2005.

Listener mail:

Hershey Community Archives, in particular the history of the Hershey bar.

Wikipedia, Titles of Nobility Amendment (accessed Feb. 19, 2016).

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Keith Noto.

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.

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!

A Sad Memory

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The last surviving person to witness Lincoln’s assassination died in 1956. Samuel J. Seymour, born in 1860, was 5 years old when his godmother took him to see Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865.

They sat opposite the president’s box, which was draped with flags, and she lifted him up when Lincoln entered. “He was a tall, stern-looking man,” Seymour told the Milwaukee Sentinel in 1954. “I guess I just thought he looked stern because of his whiskers, because he was smiling and waving to the crowd.”

The play began and “all of a sudden a shot rang out — a shot that always will be remembered — and someone in the president’s box screamed. I saw Lincoln slumped forward in his seat.” The crowd began to stir and Seymour saw the assassin John Wilkes Booth tumble over the balcony rail and land on the stage. He called, “Hurry, hurry, let’s go help the poor man who fell down.”

Lincoln died the following morning, and the fleeing Booth was killed 12 days later. Seymour carried the memory of the experience with him for 90 years, until his death on April 12, 1956, at age 96. “That night I was shot 50 times, at least, in my dreams — and I sometimes still relive the horror of Lincoln’s assassination, dozing in my rocker as an old codger like me is bound to do.”

02/19/2016 UPDATE: In February 1956, two months before his death, Seymour appeared on the American game show I’ve Got a Secret, where contestants had to guess his claim to notability:

(Thanks, Andrew.)

Podcast Episode 93: The Old Flying Days

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In the early days of English aviation, journalist C.C. Turner seemed to be everywhere, witnessing bold new feats and going on some harrowing adventures of his own. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll sample Turner’s record of Edwardian aviation, including his own clumsy first attempt to fly an airplane and a record-setting balloon voyage to Sweden.

We’ll also ponder the nuances of attempted murder and puzzle over a motel guest’s noisemaking.

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.

Sources for our feature on early aviation in England:

Charles Cyril Turner, The Old Flying Days, 1927.

Charles Cyril Turner, The Marvels of Aviation, 1917.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listeners J.C. and Brenna Lundberg, who found it in this collection.

Sources for listener mail:

Wikipedia, “Death of Sammy Yatim” (accessed Feb. 2, 2016).

Diana Mehta, “Toronto Cop Found Not Guilty of Murdering Sammy Yatim, But Is Found Guilty of Attempted Murder,” National Post, Jan. 25, 2016.

Jillian Bell, “Forcillo Attempted Murder Verdict Explained,” CBC News, Jan. 25, 2016.

Alyshah Hasham, “Forcillo Guilty of Attempted Murder in Shooting Death of Sammy Yatim,” Toronto Star, Jan. 25, 2016.

Wendy Gillis and Alyshah Hasham, “‘Mystery’ Charge Only One That Sticks in Sammy Yatim Slaying,” Toronto Star, Jan. 25, 2016.

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.

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!

Right of Way

slippers and roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt’s friend Jacob A. Riis remembers an encounter with Slippers, the White House cat, during a state dinner in 1906:

The dinner was over, and the President, with the wife of a distinguished Ambassador on his arm, led the procession from the state dining-room along the wide corridor to the East Room at the other end of the building, the ambassadors and plenipotentiaries and ministers following, according to their rank in the official world, all chatting happily with their ladies, seeing no cloud on the diplomatic horizon; when all of a sudden the glittering procession came to a halt. There, on the rug, in the exact middle of the corridor, lay Slippers, stretched at full length, and blinking lazily at the fine show which no doubt he thought got up especially to do him honor. The President saw him in time to avoid treading on him, and stopped. His first impulse was to pick Slippers up, but a little shiver of his lady and a half-suppressed exclamation, as he bent over the cat, warned him that she did not like cats, or was afraid, and for a moment he was perplexed. Slippers, perceiving the attention bestowed on him, rolled luxuriously on the rug, purring his delight. No thought of moving out of the path was in his mind.

There was but one other thing to do, and the man who found a way to make peace between Russia and Japan, did it quickly. With an amused bow, as if in apology to the Ambassadress, he escorted her around Slippers, and kept on his way toward the East Room. Whereupon the representatives of Great Britain, and of France, of Germany, and Italy, of all the great empires and of the little kingdoms clear down to the last on the long list, followed suit, paying their respects to Slippers quite as effectually as if the war-ships of their nations had thundered out a salute at an expenditure of powder that would have kept a poor man comfortable for a year, and certainly have scared even a White House cat almost to death.

(From St. Nicholas, January 1908.)

Lost in Translation

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In January 1968, North Korea captured the American spy vessel Pueblo and held 82 crew members captive for 11 months. During the crisis, the North Korean government released the photo above, claiming that the Americans were apologetic and cooperating with their captors.

The Americans managed to send a different message — three of them are extending their middle fingers. They had told the Koreans this was a “Hawaiian good luck sign.”

Commander Lloyd M. Bucher found a way to accomplish the same thing verbally — he wrote the confession “We paean the DPRK [North Korea]. We paean their great leader Kim Il Sung.”