Podcast Episode 117: The Road to En-dor

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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.

See full show notes …

Different Strokes


In 1964, Swedish journalist Åke Axelsson paid a zookeeper to give a brush and paint to a 4-year-old chimpanzee named Peter. Then he chose the best of Peter’s paintings and exhibited them at the Gallerie Christinae in Göteborg, saying they were the work of a previously unknown French artist named Pierre Brassau.

Critic Rolf Anderberg of the Göteborgs-Posten wrote, “Brassau paints with powerful strokes, but also with clear determination. His brush strokes twist with furious fastidiousness. Pierre is an artist who performs with the delicacy of a ballet dancer.”

After Axelsson revealed the hoax, Anderberg maintained that Peter’s work was “still the best painting in the exhibition.”


In one oft-repeated anecdote from the memoirs of Melville Stone, publisher of the Chicago Daily News in the 1870s, the News suspected that the Chicago Post and Mail, published by the McMullen brothers, was pirating its stories. The News retaliated by printing an account of a famine in Serbia, in which the local mayor was quoted as saying (ostensibly in Serbian) ‘Er us siht la Etsll iws nel lum cmeht.’ When the afternoon edition of the Post and Mail duly reproduced the quote, Stone ran to all the other Chicago papers to reveal the hoax: read backward, the supposed quote said ‘The McMullens will steal this sure.’ According to Stone, the Post and Mail never recovered from the embarrassment, and the Daily News was able to buy it for a pittance less than two years later.

— Stuart Banner, American Property: A History of How, Why, and What We Own, 2011

(Thanks, Keith.)

Podcast Episode 89: An African From Baltimore


In the 1920s Bata Kindai Amgoza ibn LoBagola toured the United States and Europe to share the culture of his African homeland with fascinated audiences. The reality was actually much more mundane: His name was Joseph Lee and he was from Baltimore. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the curious story of this self-described “savage” and trace the unraveling of his imaginative career.

We’ll also dump a bucket of sarcasm on Duluth, Minnesota, and puzzle over why an acclaimed actor loses a role.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 84: The Man Who Never Was


In 1942, Germany discovered a dead British officer floating off the coast of Spain, carrying important secret documents about the upcoming invasion of Europe. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Operation Mincemeat, which has been called “the most imaginative and successful ruse” of World War II.

We’ll also hear from our listeners about Scottish titles and mountain-climbing pussycats and puzzle over one worker’s seeming unwillingness to help another.

See full show notes …

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.

See full show notes …

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.

See full show notes …

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.”