A Premonition


First-Sergeant Thomas Innes Woods, of Company B, was killed on May 8th [1864]. The first time that Sergeant Woods was ever known to ask permission to leave his post on march or in battle occurred this day, after the Regiment’s all-night march to reach Spottsylvania ahead of Lee. When it became evident that a battle was imminent, Sergeant Woods asked Captain H.W. Grubbs for a pass to go to the rear. On his declaring that he was not sick, he was advised by the Captain that under the circumstances he could not be excused, and Sergeant Woods resumed his post at the head of the Company. Shortly after, during a halt by the roadside, Sergeant Woods wrote in his diary the following, addressed to his friend, Sergeant James A. McMillen: ‘I am going to fall to-day. If you find my body, I desire you to bury it and mark my grave so that if my friends desire to take it home they can find it. Please read the Ninetieth Psalm at my burial.’ He was killed early in the battle. His body was found by Sergeant McMillen and others of Company B, the diary being found in his pocket. His request for the Ninetieth Psalm to be read at the grave was complied with.

— Charles F. McKenna, ed., Under the Maltese Cross, Antietam to Appomattox: The Loyal Uprising in Western Pennsylvania, 1861-1865: Campaigns 155th Pennsylvania Regiment, 1910

Hear Hear


Where is a sound? If I play a note at the piano, you and I both seem to locate it at the instrument. But we both also know that we perceive the note because the piano sends waves through the air that strike our ears. That would mean that most of our auditory perception is illusion. Is that what we want to say?

Philosopher George Berkeley wrote, “When I hear a coach drive along the streets, immediately I perceive only the sound, but from experience I have had that such a sound is connected with a coach, I am said to hear the coach.” Perhaps the sound lies at our ears, or at our sensation of it, and it’s only our experience of the world that leads us to attribute it to some remote source. But that raises problems of its own. If sound is sensation, then can a sound occur if no one is present to hear it?

Perhaps the answer lies in between: Acoustics tells us that sounds are vibrations transmitted by the air. But vibrations of very high or low pitch aren’t perceptible to human ears. Are these still sounds?

A similar puzzle concerns smells.

A Long Swim


Just an oddity — in Nature, June 5, 1919, Cambridge zoologist John Stanley Gardiner notes that a Fiji harbormaster had informed him of a saltwater crocodile that had landed alive on Rotuma, 260 miles to the north and 600 miles east of the New Hebrides.

“It certainly did not come from Fiji or any lands to the east, as crocodiles do not now exist on them,” Gardiner wrote. “It must indeed have crossed from the west, and covered at least 600 miles of open, landless sea.

“This occurrence is sufficiently remarkable to be placed on permanent record.”

Podcast Episode 125: The Campden Wonder

Image: Wikimedia Commons

When William Harrison disappeared from Campden, England, in 1660, his servant offered an incredible explanation: that he and his family had murdered him. The events that followed only proved the situation to be even more bizarre. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe “the Campden wonder,” an enigma that has eluded explanation for more than 300 years.

We’ll also consider Vladimir Putin’s dog and puzzle over a little girl’s benefactor.


In 1921, Pennsylvania surgeon Evan O’Neill Kane removed his own appendix. (Soviet physician Leonid Rogozov did the same 40 years later.)

John Cowper Powys once promised to visit Theodore Dreiser “as a spirit or in some other astral form” — and, according to Dreiser, did so.

Sources for our feature on the Campden Wonder:

Sir George Clark, ed., The Campden Wonder, 1959.

“The Campden Wonder,” Arminian Magazine, August 1787, 434.

“Judicial Puzzles — The Campden Wonder,” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, July 1860, 54-64.

Andrew Lang, Historical Mysteries, 1904.

J.A. Cannon, “Campden Wonder,” in The Oxford Companion to British History, 2015.

Bruce P. Smith, “The History of Wrongful Execution,” Hastings Law Journal, June 2005.

Frances E. Chapman, “Coerced Internalized False Confessions and Police Interrogations: The Power of Coercion,” Law & Psychology Review 37 (2013), 159.

Listener mail:

Tim Hume, “Vladimir Putin: I Didn’t Mean to Scare Angela Merkel With My Dog,” CNN, Jan. 12, 2016.

Roland Oliphant, “Vladimir Putin Denies Setting His Dog on Angela Merkel,” Telegraph, Jan. 12, 2016.

Stefan Kornelius, “Six Things You Didn’t Know About Angela Merkel,” Guardian, Sept. 10, 2013.

Wikipedia, “Spall” (retrieved Oct. 7, 2016).

Associated Press, “Boise City to Celebrate 1943 Bombing Misguided B-17 Crew Sought,” Nov. 21, 1990.

Owlcation, “The WWII Bombing of Boise City in Oklahoma,” May 9, 2016.

“World War II Air Force Bombers Blast Boise City,” Boise City News, July 5, 1943.

“County Gets Second Air Bombardment,” Boise City News, April 5, 1945.

Antony Beevor, D-Day, 2009.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle is from Paul Sloane and Des MacHale’s 2014 book Remarkable 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 http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, 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 podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Altamura Man

altamura man

About 150,000 years ago, a Neanderthal man was exploring the Lamalunga Cave in southern Italy when he fell into a sinkhole. Too badly injured to climb out again, he died of dehydration or starvation. Over the ensuing centuries, water running down the cave walls gradually incorporated the man’s bones into concretions of calcium carbonate. Undisturbed by predators or weather, they lay in an immaculate state of preservation until cave researchers finally discovered them in 1993.

This is a great boon for paleoanthropologists — “Altamura Man” is one of the most complete Paleolithic skeletons ever discovered in Europe — but there’s a downside: The bones have become so deeply involved in their matrix of limestone that no one has found a way to remove them without destroying them. So, for now, all research must be carried out in the cave.

Moving Day


Something significant happened in Tandil, Argentina, on Feb. 29, 1912 — a 300-ton stone that had perched impossibly on the edge of a local hill suddenly tumbled to the bottom and broke into pieces.

Whether this happened due to vandalism or to blasting at a local quarry is unknown — there were no witnesses.

In 2007 the town replaced it with an exact replica. To date, it’s still there.

One Salad, To Go


Stranded in Java after the Japanese invasion of 1941, the Dutch minesweeper Abraham Crijnssen found a unique way to sneak out: The crew covered the decks with jungle foliage and painted the hull to resemble cliffs, giving the ship the appearance of a small island.

Traveling only at night and anchoring near shore, the minesweeper gradually made her way to West Australia, becoming the last Allied vessel to escape Java and the only one of her class in the region to survive.

(Thanks, Paul.)

The Heidelberg Tun


Germany’s Heidelberg Castle is home to a famously enormous wine barrel, capable of holding 57,853 U.S. gallons. This is actually the most recent of four enormous wine barrels that the castle has housed, the first built in 1591. Unfortunately it’s empty — today it serves mostly as a tourist attraction and a foundation for the fanciful dance floor above it.

“Everybody has heard of the great Heidelberg Tun,” wrote Mark Twain in A Tramp Abroad, “and most people have seen it, no doubt. It is a wine-cask as big as a cottage, and some traditions say it holds eighteen thousand bottles, and other traditions say it holds eighteen hundred million barrels. I think it likely that one of these statements is a mistake, and the other is a lie. However, the mere matter of capacity is a thing of no sort of consequence, since the cask is empty, and indeed has always been empty, history says. An empty cask the size of a cathedral could excite but little emotion in me.”