What it’s like to be attacked by the Red Baron:

Richthofen dove down out of the sun and took Dunn by surprise. The first notice I had of the attack was when I heard Dunn from his seat behind me shout something at me, and at the same time a spray of bullets went over my shoulder from behind and splintered the dashboard almost in front of my face.

I kicked over the rudder and dived instantly, and just got a glance at the red machine passing under me to the rear. I did not know it was Richthofen’s. … I endeavoured to get my forward machine gun on the red plane, but Richthofen was too wise a pilot, and his machine was too speedy for mine. He zoomed up again and was on my tail in less than half a minute. Another burst of lead came over my shoulder, and the glass faces of the instruments on the dashboard popped up in my face. I dived again, but he followed my every move. …

Another burst of lead from behind, and the bullets spattered on the breech of my own machine gun, cutting the cartridge belt. At the same time, my engine stopped, and I knew that the fuel tanks had been hit. There were more clouds below me at about six thousand feet. I dove for them and tried to pull up in them as soon as I reached them. No luck! My elevators didn’t answer the stick. …

I was busy with the useless controls all the time and going down at a frightful speed, but the red machine seemed to be able to keep itself poised just above and behind me all the time, and its machine guns were working every minute. I found later that bullets had gone through both of my sleeves and both of my boot legs but in all of the firing, not one of them touched me, although they came uncomfortably close. I managed to flatten out somehow in the landing and piled up with an awful crash. As I hit the ground, the red machine swooped over me, but I don’t remember him firing on me when I was on the ground.

Richthofen instructed his pilots: “Aim for the man and don’t miss him. If you are fighting a two-seater, get the observer first; until you have silenced the gun, don’t bother about the pilot.”

(From Floyd Gibbons’ The Red Knight of Germany, 1927, quoting British lieutenant Peter Warren.)

Podcast Episode 117: The Road to En-dor
Image: Flickr

In 1917 a pair of Allied officers combined a homemade Ouija board, audacity, and imagination to hoax their way out of a remote prison camp in the mountains of Turkey. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the remarkable escape of Harry Jones and Cedric Hill, which one observer called “the most colossal fake of modern times.”

We’ll also consider a cactus’ role in World War II and puzzle over a cigar-smoking butler.


A 1962 writer to the London Times contends that all thrushes “sooner or later sing the tune of the first subject of Mozart’s G minor Symphony.”

The U.S. Senate maintains a tradition of hiding candy in a desk on the chamber floor.

Sources for our feature on the Yozgad escape:

E.H. Jones, The Road to En-dor, 1919.

Tony Craven Walker’s En-dor Unveiled (2014) (PDF) is a valuable source of background information, with descriptions of Harry Jones’ early life; the siege of Kut-el-Amara, where he was captured; his punishing trek across Syria; the prison camp; and his life after the war. It includes many letters and postcards, including some hinting at his efforts toward an escape.

S.P. MacKenzie, “The Ethics of Escape: British Officer POWs in the First World War,” War in History 15:1 (January 2008), 1-16.

“A Note for Spiritualists,” The Field, March 27, 1920, 457.

“Jones, Elias Henry,” Dictionary of Welsh Biography (accessed 07/30/2016).

“En-dor,” in Rudyard Kipling’s Verse, 1919.

Listener mail:

Associated Press, “Japanese Submarine Attack in California Unnerved U.S.,” Feb. 23, 1992.

William Scheck, “Japanese Submarine Commander Kozo Nishino Gained Personal Satisfaction From Shelling the California Coast,” World War II 13:2 (July 1998), 16.

Wikipedia, “Bombardment of Ellwood” (accessed Aug. 12, 2016).

California Military Museum, “The Shelling of Ellwood” (accessed Aug. 12, 2016).

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was adapted from Paul Sloane and Des MacHale’s 1998 book Ingenious Lateral Thinking Puzzles.

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

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 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 Thanks for listening!


Canadian prime minister Mackenzie King took peculiar note of the relative position of clock hands. This began as early as 1918, when his diary shows that he began to notice moments when the hands overlapped (as at 12:00) or formed a straight line (as at 6:00). By the 1940s the diary sometimes refers to clock hands several times a day. On Aug. 25, 1943, when Franklin Roosevelt was visiting Ottawa, King wrote a whole “Memo re hands of clock”:

  • “Exactly 10 past 8 when I looked at clock on waking — straight line.”
  • “12 noon when noon day gun fired & I read my welcome to President — together.”
  • “25 to 8 when I was handed in my room a letter from Churchill re supply of whiskey to troops … — both together.”

A year later, Nov. 2, 1944: “As I look at the clock from where I am standing as I dictate this sentence, the hands are both together at 5 to 11.”

Biographer Robert Macgregor Dawson writes, “What significance he attached to the occurrences is difficult to determine; there is no key to his interpretation.” But one clue comes later in 1944, when King records a conversation with Violet Markham: “As I … went to take the watch out of my pocket, to show her how the face had been broken, I looked at it and the two hands were exactly at 10 to 10. I mentioned it to her as an illustration of my belief that some presence was making itself known to me. That I was on the right line, and that the thought was a true one which I was expressing.” But the two had been discussing the death of King’s dog, so the meaning is still very obscure.

(From C.P. Stacey, A Very Double Life, 1976.)


In the U.S. presidential election of 1884, Republican James G. Blaine was accused of having sold his influence in Congress and of manipulating stocks. Democrat Grover Cleveland had fathered a child out of wedlock and had paid a substitute $150 to take his place in the Civil War. One journalist wrote:

Mr. Blaine has been delinquent in office but blameless in private life, while Mr. Cleveland has been a model of official integrity but culpable in his personal relations. We should therefore elect Mr. Cleveland to the public office which he is so qualified to fill and remand Mr. Blaine to the private station which he is so admirably fitted to adorn.

The people agreed, narrowly electing Cleveland and breaking a six-election losing streak for the Democrats.


In March 1945 the Japanese painted the giant image of an American B-29 on the Tien Ho airfield in China. They gave it a burning engine and a 300-foot wingspan, so that when viewed from a great altitude it would look like a stricken bomber flying at several thousand feet. Their hope was that this would induce high-flying Allied planes to drop down to investigate, bringing them within range of their anti-aircraft guns. I don’t know whether it worked.

The Atlantic has a collection of similar deceptive exploits from World War II.

Too Late

For 500 years it was thought that Geoffrey Chaucer had written The Testament of Love, a medieval dialogue between a prisoner and a lady.

But in the late 1800s, British philologists Walter Skeat and Henry Bradshaw discovered that the initial letters of the poem’s sections form an acrostic, spelling “MARGARET OF VIRTU HAVE MERCI ON THINUSK” [“thine Usk”].

It’s now thought that the poem’s true author was Thomas Usk, a contemporary of Chaucer who was accused of conspiring against the duke of Gloucester. Apparently he had written the Testament in prison in an attempt to seek aid — Margaret may have been Margaret Berkeley, wife of Thomas Berkeley, a literary patron of the time.

If it’s aid that Usk was seeking, he never found it: He was hanged at Tyburn in March 1388.

Three Exclusive Clubs

The Caterpillar Club is an international association of people who have saved their lives by using a parachute to bail out of a disabled aircraft. It was founded in 1922 by Leslie Irvin, inventor of the first free-fall parachute. The name pays tribute to the silkworm, whose contribution made the canopies possible; the club’s motto is “Life depends on a silken thread.” Famous members include Jimmy Doolittle, Charles Lindbergh, and John Glenn.

The Goldfish Club accepts people who have escaped an aircraft by parachuting into water, or who have crashed into water and survived by using a life jacket or other device. The club’s stated goal is “to keep alive the spirit of comradeship arising from the mutual experience of members surviving ‘coming down in the drink’.” It was founded in November 1942 by a British manufacturer of air-sea rescue equipment. Gold reflects the value of life, and fish represent water. “Money, position or power cannot gain a man or woman entry to the exclusive circles of the Goldfish Club,” noted the Australian newspaper Burra Record in 1945. “To become a member one has to float about upon the sea for a considerable period with nothing but a Carley Rubber Float between one and a watery death.”

The Guinea Pig Club, above, was a social club for patients who had undergone experimental reconstructive plastic surgery, generally after receiving burns injuries in aircraft during World War II. It was founded in 1941 by New Zealand plastic surgeon Archibald McIndoe and included patients and their surgeons and anaesthetists at Queen Victoria Hospital, East Grinstead, Sussex. The surgical treatment of burns was in its infancy, and McIndoe wanted to make the patients’ lives as normal as he could. The club continued to meet for 60 years after the war; annual reunions continued until 2007. They had their own theme song, known as “The Guinea Pig Anthem”:

We are McIndoe’s army,
We are his Guinea Pigs.
With dermatomes and pedicles,
Glass eyes, false teeth and wigs.
And when we get our discharge
We’ll shout with all our might:
“Per ardua ad astra”
We’d rather drink than fight.

John Hunter runs the gas works,
Ross Tilley wields the knife.
And if they are not careful
They’ll have your flaming life.
So, Guinea Pigs, stand ready
For all your surgeon’s calls:
And if their hands aren’t steady
They’ll whip off both your ears.

We’ve had some mad Australians,
Some French, some Czechs, some Poles.
We’ve even had some Yankees,
God bless their precious souls.
While as for the Canadians –
Ah! That’s a different thing.
They couldn’t stand our accent
And built a separate Wing.

We are McIndoe’s army …

08/04/2016 One more: Ejection seat manufacturer Martin Baker maintains the Ejection Tie Club, made up of pilots who have ejected from an aircraft in an emergency using a Martin Baker ejection seat and thereby saved their lives. The club has had more than 5800 members. (Thanks, Gareth.)

Podcast Episode 115: Gettysburg’s Unknown Soldier

After the Battle of Gettysburg, a dead Union soldier was found near the center of town. He bore no identification, but in his hands he held a photograph of three children. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the efforts of one Philadelphia physician to track down the lost man’s family using only the image of his children.

We’ll also sample a 9-year-old’s comedy of manners and puzzle over a letter that copies itself.


The mayor of Talkeetna, Alaska, is a cat named Stubbs.

According to multiple sources, the 3rd Earl of Darnley, an eccentric bachelor, suffered from the delusion that he was a teapot.

Sources for our feature on Amos Humiston:

Mark H. Dunkelman, Gettysburg’s Unknown Soldier, 1999.

Mark H. Dunkelman, “Key to a Mystery,” American History 32:2 (May/June 1997), 16-20.

Errol Morris, “Whose Father Was He?” (parts 1-5), New York Times, March 29-April 5, 2009.

Ronald S. Coddington, “At Gettysburg, Life Imitates Art,” Military Images 34:3 (Summer 2016), 54-55.

“Visit Recalls Wartime Story,” Gettysburg, Pa., Star and Sentinel, Oct. 28, 1914.

The full text of Daisy Ashford’s The Young Visiters, including J.M. Barrie’s preface, is on Project Gutenberg.

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

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

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 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 Thanks for listening!

An Elizabethan Word Square

lok square

Princeton scholar Thomas P. Roche Jr. calls this “an astounding piece of ingenuity,” one of “the most elaborately numerological poems I have found in the Renaissance.” Poet Henry Lok created it in 1597, in honor of Elizabeth I. It can be read as a conventional 10-line poem, but there are fully eight other ways to read it:

“1. A Saint George’s crosse [+] of two collumbs, in discription of her Maiestie, beginning at A, and B, in the middle to be read downward, and crossing at C and D to be read either singly or double.”

Rare Queen, fair, mild, wise
Shows you proof
For heavens have upheld
Just world’s praise sure.

Here Grace in that Prince
Of earth’s race, who
There shields thus God
Whom choice (rich Isle, stay!) builds.

“2. A S[aint] Andrew’s crosse [X], beginning at E and read thwartwaies, and ending with F, containing the description of our happie age, by her highnesse.”

God crowned this time, wise choice of all the Rest,
And so truth, joy of just kings’ known, God blest.

“3. Two Pillars in the right and left side of the square, in verse reaching from E and F perpenddicularly, containing the sum of the whole, the latter columbe hauing the words placed counterchangeably to rime to the whole square.”

God makes kings rule for heauens; your state hold blest
And still stand will their shields; fear yields best rest.

“4. The first and last two verses or the third and fourth, with seuenth and eighth, are sense in them selues, containing also sense of the whole.”

“5. The whole square of 100, containing in it self fiue squares, the angles of each of them are sense particularly, and vnited depend each on other, beginning at the center.”

1 Just, wise of choice
2 Joy of kings’ time
3 This truth all known
4 So crowned the God
5 Blessed God and rest.

“6. The out-angles are to be read 8 seuerall waies in sense and verse.”

“7. The eight words placed also in the ends of the St. George’s crosse, are sense and verse, alluding to the whole crosse.”

Rare grace here builds
There shields for heaven.

Rare Grace there shields
For heaven here builds.

“8. The two third words in the bend dexeter of the St. Andrew’s crosse, being the middle from the angles to the center, haue in their first letters T. and A. for the Author, and H.L. in their second, for his name, which to be true, the words of the angles in that square confirme.”

THis ALl
T[he]H[enry]is A[uthor]L[ok]l

“9. The direction to her Maiestie in prose aboue, containeth onely of numerall letters, the yeare and day of the composition, as thus, DD. C. LL. LL. LL. LL. VV. VV. VV. IIIIIIIIIIIII. For, 1593. June V.”

The whole square is intended to demonstrate the powers of language to accommodate the queen’s praises in God’s providential order. Further, the arrangement of the words forms a comment on the political situation at the time: St. George is the patron saint of England, St. Andrew is the patron saint of Scotland, and the pillars may represent Elizabeth’s chosen emblem, the Pillars of Hercules. “The fact that the words of the square can be forced to yield meaning within the imposed specifications is amazing in itself.”

(Thomas P. Roche Jr., Petrarch and the English Sonnet Sequences, 1989.)

First Person!.jpg

When Elizabeth Thompson married Maj. Sir William Butler in 1877, she was already a respected painter of military subjects. But becoming Lady Butler gave her a unique opportunity: She could now watch maneuvers in person and even stand in front of charging cavalry to study the momentum of the horses.

The startling result, Scotland for Ever, depicts a head-on charge of the Royal Scots Greys, the cavalry regiment that Napoleon had hailed as “those terrible men on grey horses” at Waterloo.

The painting was an enormous success and became a symbol of British military heroism. The scene is a bit exaggerated — in their famous charge the advancing horses had never reached a full gallop due to the broken ground. But then most of the painting’s admirers would never have guessed that the artist had never witnessed a battle.