Podcast Episode 163: Enslaved in the Sahara


In 1815 an American ship ran aground in northwestern Africa, and its crew were enslaved by merciless nomads. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the desperate efforts of Captain James Riley to find a way to cross the Sahara and beg for help from Western officials in Morocco.

We’ll also wade through more molasses and puzzle over a prospective guitar thief.

See full show notes …


  • Conceptual artist Joseph Beuys accepted responsibility for any snow that fell in Düsseldorf February 15-20, 1969.
  • Any three of the numbers {1, 22, 41, 58} add up to a perfect square.
  • Nebraska is triply landlocked — a resident must cross three states to reach an ocean, gulf, or bay.
  • The only temperature represented as a prime number in both Celsius and Fahrenheit is 5°C (41°F).
  • “A person reveals his character by nothing so clearly as the joke he resents.” — Georg Christoph Lichtenberg

“I was tossing around the names of various wars in which both the opponents appear: Spanish-American, Franco-Prussian, Sino-English, Russo-Japanese, Arab-Israeli, Judeo-Roman, Anglo-Norman, and Greco-Roman. Is it a quirk of historians or merely a coincidence that the opponent named first was always the loser? It would appear that a country about to embark on war would do well to see that the war is named before the fighting starts, with the enemy named first!” — David L. Silverman

Never Too Late


Abraham Lincoln had less than a year of formal schooling.

The fifth Lincoln-Douglas debate was held before Knox College in 1858. As he crawled through a second-story window to reach the platform, he said, “At last I have gone through college.”

Tatlin’s Tower

tatlin's tower

After the Bolshevik Revolution, architect Vladimir Tatlin proposed this enormous monument to house Communist headquarters in Petrograd. Two large helixes would spiral 400 meters into the air, surpassing the Eiffel Tower as the world’s foremost symbol of modernity. The helixes would point to Polaris, so that the star and the tower would remain motionless relative to each other. Suspended from the framework would be three office buildings of glass and steel, each moving in harmony with the cosmos: A is a cylindrical auditorium that rotates once a year, B is a cone-shaped office structure that rotates once a month, C is a cubical information center that rotates once a day, and on top is an open-air screen on which messages could be projected. (During overcast weather they planned to project the news onto clouds.)

In the end it was never built — even if Russia could have produced the steel, it’s not clear that it would have stood up.



In 1899 Winston Churchill was covering the Boer War as a correspondent when he was captured and put in a Pretoria prison. He climbed a wall and set out to flee 300 miles to neutral Portuguese East Africa while the Afrikaners raised the alarm and circulated a rather unflattering description:

Escaped prisoner-of-war Winston Spencer Churchill Englishman 25 years old about 5 foot 8 inches tall medium build walks with a slight stoop. Pale features. Reddish-brown hair almost invisible small moustache. Speaks through his nose and cannot pronounce the letter S. Had last a brown suit on and cannot speak one word of Dutch.

Churchill fled on foot for two days, hid in a coal mine for three, and finally boarded a freight train, where he hid under bales of wool to evade a Boer search party. When he reached safety, publicity of his adventure set him on the path toward a career in government.

Podcast Episode 158: The Mistress of Murder Farm

belle gunness

Belle Gunness was one of America’s most prolific female serial killers, luring lonely men to her Indiana farm with promises of marriage, only to rob and kill them. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of The LaPorte Black Widow and learn about some of her unfortunate victims.

We’ll also break back into Buckingham Palace and puzzle over a bet with the devil.

See full show notes …

Many in One

At the site where apartheid police officers arrested Nelson Mandela in 1962, sculptor Marco Cianfanelli has erected 50 laser-cut steel columns. They range in height from 21 to 31 feet and appear randomly placed, but the approach to the site leads visitors down a path at the correct angle, and at a distance of 115 feet their meaning becomes clear.

“The fifty columns represent the fifty years since his capture, but they also suggest the idea of many making the whole, of solidarity,” Cianfanelli said in a statement at the sculpture’s dedication in 2012. “It points to an irony as the political act of Mandela’s incarceration cemented his status as an icon of struggle, which helped ferment the groundswell of resistance, solidarity, and uprising, bringing about political change and democracy.”

06/14/2017 UPDATE: I’m told there’s also a scale model of the sculpture at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg, which may be more accessible. (Thanks, Martin.)

06/14/2017 UPDATE: There’s a similar installation on the wall of 105 Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Denis in Paris (below), by artist Jean-Pierre Yvaral, depicting Vincent de Paul, who established a mission here to care for the needy. (Thanks, Nick.)

Image: David Partridge

06/19/2017 UPDATE: And Daniël Hoek noted that a portrait of Steve Jobs is hidden in fence pickets in Lower Manhattan, near Silicon Alley:

manhattan jobs portrait

A Stormy Mistress


Each Ascension Day between 1311 and 1798, the doge of Venice was rowed into the Adriatic aboard a palatial barge to perform the “Marriage of the Sea,” a ceremony that symbolically wedded Venice to the sea. The ship, known as the Bucentaur, led a solemn procession of boats out of the city, where the doge dropped a consecrated ring into the water with the words Desponsamus te, mare (“We wed thee, sea”) to indicate that the city and the sea were indissolubly one.

After the Treaty of Versailles, Polish general Jozef Haller marked his country’s renewed access to the Baltic Sea by throwing a ring into the water with the words “In the name of the Holy Republic of Poland, I, General Jozef Haller, am taking control of this ancient Slavic Baltic Sea shore”:


His act was repeated in 1945 in several ceremonies by members of the First Polish Army, who threw rings, dipped flags, and swore an oath pledging their nation’s devotion to the Baltic. The text of the oath was later printed in the Polish Army newspaper Zwyciezymy: “I swear to you, Polish Sea, that I, a soldier of the Homeland, faithful son of the Polish nation, will not abandon you. I swear to you that I will always follow this road, the road which has been paved by the State National Council, the road which has led me to the sea. I will guard you, I will not hesitate to shed my blood for the Fatherland, neither will I hesitate to give my life so that you do not return to Germany. You will remain Polish forever.”

Podcast Episode 157: The Brutal History of Batavia’s Graveyard


In 1629, a Dutch trading vessel struck a reef off the coast of Australia, marooning 180 people on a tiny island. As they struggled to stay alive, their leader descended into barbarity, gathering a band of cutthroats and killing scores of terrified castaways. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll document the brutal history of Batavia’s graveyard, the site of Australia’s most infamous shipwreck.

We’ll also lose money in India and puzzle over some invisible Frenchmen.

See full show notes …

The Baltic Way

Image: Wikimedia Commons

On August 23, 1989, two million peaceful demonstrators joined hands across Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to protest the occupation of the Baltic states by the Soviet Union. The chain, 675 kilometers long, connected the capitals of Vilnius, Riga, and Tallinn. Coordinated by portable radios, the protesters peacefully joined hands for 15 minutes at 7 p.m. local time, saying they wanted to demonstrate solidarity among the three nations in their desire for independence.

“This is something I feel in my heart,” said Rita Urbanovich, who had brought her 7-year-old twin sons to a spot along the Viljandi Highway outside Tallinn. “We suffered. Our whole country suffered — every person. And I brought my children because this is my way to explain to them why independence is important for their future.”

Moscow responded with heated rhetoric but backed down when the activists appealed to the United Nations. Within seven months, Lithuania had declared its independence, and by the end of 1991 all three Baltic states were free.