Podcast Episode 81: The Typhus Hoax


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.

Sources for our feature on Eugene Lazowski:

Damon Adams, “2 Doctors Used Typhus to Save Thousands in Wartime,” American Medical News, July 5, 2004.

Yoav Goor, “When the Test Tube Was Mightier Than the Gun: A Polish Doctor Out-Frightens the Nazis,” Israel Medical Association Journal, 15:4 (April 2013), 198.

Bernard Dixon, “Mimicry and More,” British Medical Journal, Nov. 24, 1990.

Mohammad Mooty and Larry I Lutwick, “Epidemic Typhus Fever,” in Larry I. Lutwick and Suzanne M. Lutwick, Beyond Anthrax: The Weaponization of Infectious Diseases, 2009.

Trevor Jensen, “Dr. Eugene Lazowski: 1913-2006,” Chicago Tribune, Dec. 22, 2006.

Listener mail:

J. Craig Anderson, “Cards Against Humanity Buys Remote Maine Island, Calls It ‘Hawaii 2’,” Portland Press Herald, December 24, 2014.

Sarah Hulett, “Inchvesting In Detroit: A Virtual Realty,” NPR, March 4, 2010.

Wikipedia, The Good Earth (Manfred Mann’s Earth Band album).

Weekend Telegraph, “Sitting on a Slice of the Good Earth,” Sept. 23, 1995.

Patrick Barkham, “What Greenpeace Could Learn From Manfred Mann About Saving the Environment,” Guardian, July 5, 2015.

Paul Evans, “Diversionary Tactics — The Imaginative Campaigns Protecting the Countryside From Developers,” Guardian, March 31, 2009.

Wikipedia, “Alice’s Meadow.”

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

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.

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.

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!

In a Word


adj. keeping silence, silent

As a joke, Elbert Hubbard published an “Essay on Silence” that consisted of 12 blank pages, bound in brown suede and stamped with gold. It was advertised with these testimonials:

“Your elaborate work on ‘Silence’ received, and perused this day. The depth of your argument is perceptible from the start. The continued logic is convincing to the end, and makes its impression on the attentive mind. It is singular how much can be said in a limited space. You are certainly master of our language.” — G.E.Nelson

“Kindly accept my heartiest thanks for your little volume on ‘Silence.’ The subject is treated so exhaustively, and in such a quaintly original manner, that it is beyond the pale of criticism.” — Alex L. Pach

“Your valuable ‘Essay on Silence’ is a masterpiece, for it appeals to one in purity, like a cloudless sky. The language is grand as the voice of God; the story it tells is as deep in its meaning as that which is written on the pages of the book of Nature.” — Albert J. Atkins

“Your ‘Essay on Silence’ is all that the bills promised, and could not be more to the point. Thirty cents is exactly the right price.” — Alice L. LeCouver

“It is with great pleasure that I have looked into your ‘Essay on Silence.’ There is nothing in it to prevent its becoming a classic. No word has been wasted, and there is not one line that can be misunderstood. In the perusal of many writings, we realize that the same thought has been framed in our own minds without having been given an utterance; and so it is that this last work of yours has found me most sympathetic and appreciative, for in turning over your pages I am struck frequently with resemblances to my own mental condition. Your little book is simple, direct and convincing. I am reminded, in putting it down, of a certain passage in the biblical story, in which it is set forth that from nothing God made heaven and earth and all that therein is, consequently it is not surprising that you in this case have done so well.” — George W. Stevens

The Masked Marauders


In 1969, as a joke, Rolling Stone published a review of a nonexistent album by a nonexistent band, a supposed “supergroup” made up of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, and Bob Dylan. Editor Greil Marcus had intended this as a self-evident parody of groups like Blind Faith and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, but readers began clamoring for the album. So Marcus and editor Langdon Winner recruited a Berkeley skiffle band and retroactively recorded a few of the songs that had been mentioned in the review.

When California radio stations began to play these songs, the hoax took on a life of its own. Marcus began to shop the band to major labels, and Warner Bros. won the contract with a $15,000 advance. The Masked Marauders came out that November with liner notes making it clear that the whole thing was a joke. Nonetheless, on the strength of its own bootstrapped glamor the record sold 100,000 copies and spent 12 weeks on the Billboard charts.

Related: In 2004 Dave Stewart and Kara DioGuardi invented a band called Platinum Weird that they insisted had existed in 1974. Supposedly it had been a partnership between Stewart and a mysterious singer/songwriter named Erin Grace who, among other accomplishments, had introduced Stevie Nicks to Lindsey Buckingham. In July 2006 VH1 even aired a documentary in which Ringo Starr, Bob Geldof, Elton John, and Mick Jagger pretended to reminisce about the band. On the same day, though, Stewart admitted to the Los Angeles Times that the whole thing had been a hoax.

“Lots of artists from the ’60s created mythology about themselves,” he said. “We’re in our own perception of our own world. So what’s reality and what’s not?”

(Thanks, Jeremy.)

Podcast Episode 36: The Great Moon Hoax


In 1835 the New York Sun announced that astronomers had discovered bat-winged humanoids on the moon, as well as reindeer, unicorns, bipedal beavers and temples made of sapphire. The fake news was reprinted around the world, impressing even P.T. Barnum; Edgar Allan Poe said that “not one person in ten” doubted the story. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review the Great Moon Hoax, the first great sensation of the modern media age.

We’ll also learn why Montana police needed a rabbi and puzzle over how a woman’s new shoes end up killing her.

Sources for our segment on the Great Moon Hoax:

Matthew Goodman, The Sun and the Moon, 2008.

The Museum of Hoaxes has an excellent summary of the hoax and its significance in media history, including the text of all six articles.

Listener mail:

Lauren May, “Terrified Banstead Family Confronted by ‘Dark Figure’ on Bypass,” Epsom Guardian, Feb. 23, 2012.

Michael Munro, “‘The Springer’ Leaps From WW2 Urban Legend to Anti-Fascist Superhero,” io9, Sept. 3, 2014 (accessed Nov. 30, 2014).

Eric A. Stern, “Yes, Miky, There Are Rabbis in Montana,” New York Times, Dec. 4, 2009.

“Body of Boy Found as Snow Melts,” The Hour, March 1, 1978.

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!

Occupational Hazards

In 1974, British physician Elaine Murphy read a letter in the British Medical Journal regarding “guitar nipple,” a form of contact dermatitis found in some guitarists. Thinking the letter was a joke, Murphy composed a letter of her own and sent it in over her husband’s signature. To their surprise, the journal published it:

SIR, — Though I have not come across ‘guitar nipple’ as reported by Dr. P. Curtis (27 April, p. 226), I did once come across a case of ‘cello scrotum’ caused by irritation from the body of the cello. The patient in question was a professional musician and played in rehearsal, practice, or concert for several hours each day. — I am, etc.,

J.M. Murphy

The condition was referenced in other medical journals over the ensuing years. When it was mentioned again in BMJ in 2008 the couple admitted their hoax. “Anyone who has ever watched a cello being played would realise the physical impossibility of our claim,” Murphy, now a member of the House of Lords, wrote.

“We may have to organise a formal retraction or correction now,” said a spokesman for the journal. “Once these things get into the scientific literature, they stay there for good. But it all adds to the gaiety of life.”

Black Mischief


Max Beerbohm was regularly flummoxed by the crossword in the London Times. So in 1940, mad for vengeance, he devised a puzzle that was completely impossible and submitted it to the editors. “No doubt you, like most people, have sometimes thought of some utterly awful thing that you could do if you chose to, some disastrous and devastating thing the very thought of which has brought cold sweat to your brow?” he prompted. “And you may have at some time thought: ‘Suppose I released into the columns of The Times, one of these fine days, a Crossword Puzzle with clues signifying nothing — nothing whatsoever,’ and may have hideously pictured to yourself the effect on all the educated parts of Great Britain?”

They published it. A selection of clues:


9. An insect with a girl on each side (8).
12. The cockney’s goddess appears to have been a slimmer (6).
22. A nudist’s aunt? (6).
26. Not what the wicket-keeper tries for in Essex (6).


6. Wordsworth’s fan mail? (8).
8. They are up and going, no doubt, in ‘the sweet o’ the year’ (8).
13. Little Tommy thought it meant a red-faced blacksmith (10).
19. Such buns are eaten on a good day (two words) (3, 5).

The newspaper published Beerbohm’s letter along with the puzzle, so solvers were forewarned. But he did have his revenge: He announced that six of the clues were actually solvable — but wouldn’t say which six.

“A Magic-Ridden People”

Excerpts from “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema,” a paper published by Horace Miner in the June 1956 edition of American Anthropologist:

  • “They are a North American group living in the territory between the Canadian Cree, the Yaqui and Tarahumare of Mexico, and the Carib and Arawak of the Antilles. Little is known of their origin, although tradition states that they came from the east.”
  • “The fundamental belief underlying the whole system appears to be that the human body is ugly and that its natural tendency is to debility and disease. Incarcerated in such a body, man’s only hope is to avert these characteristics through the use of ritual and ceremony. Every household has one or more shrines devoted to this purpose.”
  • “In addition to the private mouth-rite, the people seek out a holy-mouth-man once or twice a year. These practitioners have an impressive set of paraphernalia, consisting of a variety of augers, awls, probes, and prods. The use of these items in the exorcism of the evils of the mouth involves almost unbelievable ritual torture of the client.”
  • “There are ritual fasts to make fat people thin and ceremonial feasts to make thin people fat. Still other rites are used to make women’s breasts larger if they are small, and smaller if they are large. A few women afflicted with almost inhuman hyper-mammary development are so idolized that they make a handsome living by simply going from village to village and permitting the natives to stare at them for a fee.”

It’s a satire. What’s Nacirema spelled backward?

Season’s Greetings


Apparently bored in December 1936, the eccentric Gerald Tyrwhitt-Wilson, 14th Baron Berners, placed an advertisement in the personals column of the London Times:

“Lord Berners wishes to dispose of two elephants and one small rhinoceros (latter house-trained). Would make delightful Christmas presents.”

When a newspaperman telephoned, Berners took the call himself, pretending to be the butler. “Actually, I haven’t seen the rhino, myself, sir,” he said, “but it’s often about the house. It’s quite gentle, I’m told. The weather was getting too cold for the elephants, so I’m glad they’ve gone. They went on Saturday. I understand Mr. Harold Nicolson has bought one and Lady Colefax the other. I hope they have good homes.”

A bewildered Nicolson found himself insisting, “I have NOT bought an elephant! I do not intend to buy one! I do not want an elephant, and I have nowhere to put an elephant! This looks like a joke. I have known Lord Berners for twenty-five years, but I don’t feel friendly to him this morning. I do not want an elephant, have never wanted one, and I have not bought one.”

More Berners mischief.

Man Bites Dog


The New York Times carried an alarming item on July 28, 1874: “A Dog and Man Fight in England,” about a dwarf named Brummy who had undertaken to fight a bulldog on a wager, “without weapons and without clothes, except his trousers.” The fight took place in “a quiet house,” where the combatants were chained to opposite walls, and Brummy agreed to assume all fours throughout. The first to knock out the other for 60 seconds was to be declared the victor:

The man was on all fours when the words ‘Let go’ were uttered, and, making accurate allowance for the length of the dog’s chain, he arched his back, cat wise, so as just to escape its fangs, and fetched it a blow on the crown of its head that brought it almost to its knees. The dog’s recovery, however, was instantaneous; and before the dwarf could draw back, Physic made a second dart forward, and this time its teeth grazed, the biped’s arm, causing a slight red trickling. He grinned scornfully, and sucked the place; but there was tremendous excitement among the bull-dog’s backers, who clapped their hands with delight, rejoicing in the honour of first blood.

After 10 rounds of this “the bull-dog’s head was swelled much beyond its accustomed size; it had lost two teeth, and one of its eyes was entirely shut up; while as for the dwarf, his fists, as well as his arms, were reeking, and his hideous face was ghastly pale with rage and despair of victory.” But then “the dwarf dealt him a tremendous blow under the chin, and with such effect that the dog was dashed against the wall, where, despite all its master could do to revive it it continued to lie, and being unable to respond when ‘time’ was called, Brummy was declared to be victorious.”

The Times, which had picked up the story from the London Telegraph, noted that in the ensuing outrage the Home Secretary had directed the mayor of Hanley to investigate, and as no confirmation could be found, “there is a strong hope that, after all, the whole thing is a canard.” The Telegraph, however, “stands by its correspondent, and insists upon the truth of the report.”

Fish Story


Here’s an imaginative newspaper hoax from the American West — James Wickham, a “scientific English gentleman,” was said to have released two 35-foot whales in the Great Salt Lake in 1873:

Mr. Wickham came from London in person to superintend the ‘planting’ of his leviathan pets. He selected a small bay near the mouth of Bear River connected with the main water by a shallow strait half a mile wide. Across this strait he built a wide fence, and inside the pen so formed he turned the whales loose. After a few minutes inactivity they disported themselves in a lively manner, spouting water as in mid-ocean, but as if taking in by instinct or intention the cramped character of their new home, they suddenly made a bee line for deep water and shot through the wire fence as if it had been made of threads. In twenty minutes they were out of sight, and the chagrined Mr. Wickham stood gazing helplessly at the big salt water.

If Great Salt lake were in Asia it would be called a sea. It is seventy-five miles long and from thirty to forty wide, so it is easy to perceive how readily the whales could vanish from sight. Though the enterprising owner was of course, disappointed and doubtful of the results, he left an agent behind him to look after his floating property.

Six months later Mr. Wickham’s representative came upon the whales fifty miles from the bay where they had broken away, and from that time to the present they have been observed at intervals by him and the watermen who ply the lake, spouting and playing.

Within the last few days, however, Mr. Wickham cabled directions to make careful inspection and report the developments, and the agent followed the whales for five successive days and nights, discovering that the original pair are now sixty feet in length, and followed about by a school of several hundred young, varying in length from three to fifteen feet. The scheme is a surprising and complete success, and Mr. Wickham has earned the thanks of mankind.

I’m not sure when it first appeared. The earliest publication I can find is in the Salt Lake Herald of June 27, 1890, which noted that the article was “again going the rounds” and reprinted it “merely to show that while great interest is taken by the country generally in that wonderful body of water known as the Great Salt lake, there is also great ignorance shown by outside people who endeavor to explain its beauties and advantages.”