Podcast Episode 185: The Man From Formosa


In 1703, London had a strange visitor, a young man who ate raw meat and claimed that he came from an unknown country on the island of Taiwan. Though many doubted him, he was able to answer any question he was asked, and even wrote a best-selling book about his homeland. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll consider the curious question of the man from Formosa.

We’ll also scrutinize a stamp forger and puzzle over an elastic Utah.

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In early 1919, under the headline “The Great Indian Rope Trick Photographed for the First Time,” the Strand published this image by Lieutenant F.W. Holmes, VC, MM. He said he’d taken it at Kirkee, near Poona, in 1917. An old man had begun “by unwinding from about his waist a long rope, which he threw upwards in the air, where it remained erect. The boy climbed to the top, where he balanced himself, as seen in the photograph, which I took at that moment. He then descended … I offer no explanation.”

London’s Magic Circle invited Holmes to present his photo at a special meeting open to the public, who were asked to wear evening dress “to give a good impression.” Holmes repeated his story, which seemed to challenge the position that the trick had never been performed or was the effect of hallucination or hypnosis.

The editor of the Magic Circular, S.W. Clarke, charged that the photo showed a boy “balanced on top of a rigid rope or pole.” Holmes had already stated that the juggler “had no pole — a thing that would have been impossible of concealment.” But under questioning he admitted that there had been no rope — he’d merely seen a boy balancing atop a bamboo pole and had taken a photo of it.

That should have disposed of the story. But, as often happens, news of the debunking was much less interesting than news of the “proof,” and few newspapers published it. “If the question of the rope trick’s existence arose, and it arose many times,” writes Peter Lamont in The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick, “somebody regularly pointed out that the camera never lied, but nobody ever suspected the photographer. As a result, the Holmes photograph remained for many definitive proof that the rope trick was real.”

Podcast Episode 180: An Academic Impostor

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Marvin Hewitt never finished high school, but he taught advanced physics, engineering, and mathematics under assumed names at seven different schools and universities between 1945 and 1953. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll trace the curious career of an academic impostor, whose story has been called “one of the strangest academic hoaxes in history.”

We’ll also try on a flashproof scarf and puzzle over why a healthy man would check into a hospital.

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Harry Houdini worked out a code with his wife, Bess, so that they could communicate during his performances:

Pray = 1 = A
Answer = 2 = B
Say = 3 = C
Now = 4 = D
Tell = 5 = E
Please = 6 = F
Speak = 7 = G
Quickly = 8 = H
Look = 9 = I
Be quick = 10 or 0 = J

Each of the first 10 letters of the alphabet is represented by both a word and a number, so BAD, for example, could be represented by “Answer, Pray, Now.” Letters beyond the 10th would be represented with two digits; for example, S, the 19th letter, could be indicated by 1 and 9, “Pray-Look.”

After Houdini died in 1926, Bess waited for a message in this code, according to an agreement between them. In 1929, psychic Arthur Ford claimed to have received it:

Rosabelle, answer, tell, pray-answer, look, tell, answer-answer, tell.

“Rosabelle” is a song that Bess used to sing. The rest, decoded, spells out BELIEVE. At first Bess took this as a genuine message from her husband, but skeptics pointed out that by this time she had revealed the code to Harold Kellock, who had published it in a biography that had appeared the previous year. So Ford could simply have learned the code and prepared the message himself. Bess repudiated Ford’s claim and in 1936 stopped attending séances. She said, “Ten years is long enough to wait for any man.”

“Houdini never said he could come back,” observed Henry Muller, curator of the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame. “He just thought that if anybody could do it, it would be him.”

(From Craig Bauer, Unsolved!, 2017.)

Podcast Episode 170: The Mechanical Turk


In 1770, Hungarian engineer Wolfgang von Kempelen unveiled a miracle: a mechanical man who could play chess against human challengers. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll meet Kempelen’s Mechanical Turk, which mystified audiences in Europe and the United States for more than 60 years.

We’ll also sit down with Paul Erdős and puzzle over a useful amateur.

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False Glory

1956 olympic torch hoax

Sydney mayor Pat Hills had a trying day on Nov. 18, 1956. That year’s Olympic torch had been wending its way across Australia and was scheduled to arrive in town that evening, carried by former marathon champion Harry Dillon. Huge crowds lined the streets, perching on fences and climbing poles for a better view.

Presently a runner appeared, holding a torch aloft. He bounded up the steps and handed it to Hills, who started his welcome address and then stopped, realizing that the handle he was holding bore wet paint.

It turned out to be a chair leg surmounted by a plum pudding can. Students at the University of Sydney had organized the hoax to protest thoughtless reverence for the Olympic torch. “It was being treated as a god, whereas in fact it was originally invented by the Nazis for the Berlin Games in 1936,” said veterinary student Barry Larkin, who had melted into the crowd after handing the fake torch to Hills.

“Our friends from the university think things like that are funny,” Hill told the crowd. “I hope you are enjoying the joke.” He was lucky it hadn’t gone off as planned — the torch had originally contained a pair of burning underwear.

Podcast Episode 151: Double-Crossing the Nazis


In 1941, Catalonian chicken farmer Juan Pujol made an unlikely leap into the world of international espionage, becoming a spy first for the Germans, then for the British, and rising to become one of the greatest double agents of World War II. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Pujol’s astonishing talent for deceiving the Nazis, which led one colleague to call him “the best actor in the world.”

We’ll also contemplate a floating Chicago and puzzle over a winding walkway.

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Podcast Episode 150: The Prince of Nowhere


In 1821, Scottish adventurer Gregor MacGregor undertook one of the most brazen scams in history: He invented a fictional Central American republic and convinced hundreds of his countrymen to invest in its development. Worse, he persuaded 250 people to set sail for this imagined utopia with dreams of starting a new life. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the disastrous results of MacGregor’s deceit.

We’ll also illuminate a hermit’s behavior and puzzle over Liechtenstein’s flag.

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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 126: The Great Australian Poetry Hoax


In 1943, fed up with modernist poetry, two Australian servicemen invented a fake poet and submitted a collection of deliberately senseless verses to a Melbourne arts magazine. To their delight, they were accepted and their author hailed as “one of the most remarkable and important poetic figures of this country.” In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Ern Malley hoax, its perpetrators, and its surprising legacy in Australian literature.

We’ll also hear a mechanized Radiohead and puzzle over a railroad standstill.

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