This is the so-called Droeshout portrait of William Shakespeare, engraved by Martin Droeshout as the frontispiece for the First Folio, published in 1623. In his 1910 book Bacon Is Shake-Speare, Edwin Durning-Lawrence draws attention to the fit of the coat on the figure’s right arm. “Every tailor will admit that this is not and cannot be the front of the right arm, but is, without possibility of doubt, the back of the left arm.” Compare this with the figure’s left arm, where “you at once perceive that you are no longer looking at the back of the coat but at the front of the coat.”

If that’s not enough, note the line beneath Shakespeare’s jaw, suggesting that he’s wearing a false face. The engraving is in fact “a cunningly drawn cryptographic picture, shewing two left arms and a mask” and proving that Shakespeare is a fraud and not the author of the plays attributed to him.

I’ll admit that I don’t quite see the problem with the coat, but apparently I’m just not discerning enough: In 1911 Durning-Lawrence reported that the trade journal Tailor and Cutter had agreed that Droeshout’s figure “was undoubtedly clothed in an impossible coat composed of the back and front of the same left arm.” Indeed, the Gentleman’s Tailor Magazine printed “the two halves of the coat put tailor fashion, shoulder to shoulder” and observed that “it is passing strange that something like three centuries should have been allowed to elapse before the tailor’s handiwork should have been appealed to in this particular manner.”

In a Word

n. a field of bloodshed

n. the action of snatching something away

n. a means of defence; a safeguard

Strange freaks these round shot play! We saw a man coming up from the rear with his full knapsack on, and some canteens of water held by the straps in his hands. He was walking slowly, and with apparent unconcern, though the iron hailed around him. A shot struck the knapsack, and it and its contents flew thirty yards in every direction; the knapsack disappeared like an egg thrown spitefully against the rock. The soldier stopped, and turned about in puzzled surprise, put up one hand to his back to assure himself that the knapsack was not there, and then walked slowly on again unharmed, with not even his coat torn.

— Franklin Aretas Haskell, The Battle of Gettysburg, 1908

Podcast Episode 123: Washington D.C.’s Hidden Tunnels

dyar's 21st street tunnel

In 1924 a curious network of catacombs was discovered in Washington D.C. They were traced to Harrison Dyar, a Smithsonian entomologist who had been industriously digging tunnels in the city for almost two decades. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Dyar’s strange hobby — and the equally bizarre affairs in his personal life.

We’ll also revisit balloons in World War II and puzzle over a thief’s change of heart.


The melody of Peter Cornelius’ 1854 composition “Ein Ton” is a single repeated note.

Japanese puzzle maven Nob Yoshigahara devised this optical illusion.

Sources for our feature on Harrison Dyar:

Marc E. Epstein, Moths, Myths, and Mosquitoes, 2016.

Marc E. Epstein and Pamela M. Henson, “Digging for Dyar: The Man Behind the Myth,” American Entomologist 38:3 (July 1, 1992), 148-169.

Ryan P. Smith, “The Bizarre Tale of the Tunnels, Trysts and Taxa of a Smithsonian Entomologist,” Smithsonian, May 13, 2016.

John Kelly, “Who Was Harrison G. Dyar?”, Washington Post, Oct. 27, 2012.

John Kelly, “Inside the Tunnels of Washington’s Mole Man, Harrison G. Dyar,” Washington Post, Nov. 3, 2012.

John Kelly, “A Final Look at D.C.’s Tunnel-Digging Bug Man,” Washington Post, Nov. 7, 2012.

Associated Press, “Secret Tunnels Shrouded in Mystery,” Oct. 21, 1992.

United Press, “Scientist Admits He Dug Tunnels That Caused Furore,” Sept. 28, 1924.

Modern Mechanics published this diagram of Dyar’s B Street catacomb in its August 1932 issue. The inset photo at top left corresponds to the 32-foot shaft at right, which was lined in concrete and fitted with iron pipes to serve as ladder rungs. Two more shafts (partially obscured) can be seen to the left. The inset photo at bottom shows the inscription H.G. DYAR FEB 14 1923 on an archway near the cellar entrance. That date was Dyar’s 57th birthday.

Listener mail:

David Hambling, “How 100,000 Weather Balloons Became Britain’s Secret Weapon,” Guardian, Sept. 15, 2016.

Wikipedia, “Operation Outward” (accessed Sept. 24, 2016).

Wanderlust has a short video about the operation:

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was devised by Sharon, who offers these corroborating links (warning — these spoil the puzzle).

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

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 Thanks for listening!


In May 1864, Union corporal James Denn was hit in the hand by a Confederate minie ball in the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse. Denn survived the fighting, but the ball remained lodged in his now-useless hand, and he was discharged from the service in December.

The ball remained in Denn’s hand for 38 years, during which time he would often rattle it to entertain (or appall) visiting children. In 1902 he moved into the Soldiers’ Home in Washington D.C., where surgeon Louis A. LaGarde finally removed it, arguably performing the last surgical operation of the Civil War.

“Missile was loose in a thick sac under palmar fascia,” LaGarde memorably reported. “Sac contained about 1 ounce of hemorrhagic fluid, the blood being no doubt the result of frequent traumatisms from shaking the hand violently near the ears of his friends to cause them to hear the ball rattle in the cyst. The succussion sound made by the loose ball and the fluid in the unyielding sac was very perceptible to the sense of hearing.”

Finders Keepers

On June 15, 1936, A. Dean Lindsay of Ocilla, Ga., visited a Pittsburgh notary public and presented a claim for

[a]ll of the property known as planets, islands-of-space or other matter, henceforth to be known as ‘A.D. Lindsay’s archapellago’ [sic] located in all the region visible (by any means) upward, (or in any other direction) from the city of Ocilla, Ga, together with all planets, islands-of-space or other matter (except this world, the Moon and the planet Saturn) visible from any other planet, island-of-space or other matter.

“On a May night in 1936,” he explained later, “I was watching the full moon. It seemed so large and beautiful that I thought of it as real estate, and said to myself, ‘Nobody owns it!’ Then I decided to acquire it by original claim deed.”

He left Earth to its inhabitants but in two separate deeds claimed

All of the property in ‘A. Dean Lindsay’s archapellago’ (commonly called the sky, or heavens) known as the planet ‘Saturn’ and periodically seen from the city of Ocilla, Ga.


All of the property in ‘A. Dean Lindsay’s archapellago’ commonly called ‘The Moon’, a planet in the sky.

He sent the deeds and the required payment to R.K. Brown, clerk of the Superior Court in Ocilla, and accordingly on June 28 Brown recorded them in Deed Book 11, pages 28-29, at Irwin County Courthouse in Ocilla.

So that’s that. “Can you believe it?” Lindsay wrote in a letter to Ramon P. Coffman. “That I own the Moon and the Sun, the stars, the comets, meteors, asteroids — everything, everywhere beyond this world?”

Occasionally thereafter he would receive requests to purchase the moon, a constellation, or a star. He sent them all the same answer: “Henry Ford is not rich enough to buy them, so I know that you cannot.”

Podcast Episode 122: The Bear Who Went to War

During World War II a Polish transport company picked up an unusual mascot: a Syrian brown bear that grew to 500 pounds and traveled with his human friends through the Middle East and Europe. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll meet Wojtek, the “happy warrior,” and follow his adventures during and after the war.

We’ll also catch up with a Russian recluse and puzzle over a murderous daughter.


In 1956, U.S. Navy pilot Tom Attridge overtook his cannon rounds and shot down his own plane.

At Petersburg, Va., during the American Civil War, a Union and a Confederate bullet met in midair.

Sources for our feature on Wojtek the shell-toting bruin:

Aileen Orr, Wojtek the Bear, 2012.

Karen Jensen, “Private Wojtek, Reporting for Duty,” World War II 27:3 (September-October 2012), 54.

The Wojtek Memorial Trust raised £250,000 to build Wojtek’s memorial statue in Edinburgh.

“Scottish District News,” Glasgow Herald, Nov. 21, 1947.

“Smarter Than the Average Bear … by Far,” Edinburgh News, March 28, 2007.

David Sapsted, “Private Wojtek the ‘Hero Bear’ to be Honoured in Edinburgh,” Abu Dhabi National, Jan. 7, 2012.

David McCann, “Soldier Bear Wojtek to Be Given Statue in Edinburgh,” Berwickshire Advertiser, Dec. 28, 2012.

“Krakow Votes for WWII Soldier Bear Statue,” Radio Poland, April 26, 2013.

David McCann, “Prince Street Gardens Statue of Polish Army Bear,” Scotsman, May 29, 2013.

Alistair Grant, “Polish War Hero Bear Wojtek to Appear on Bus,” Edinburgh Evening News, Nov. 11, 2014.

Wojtek’s unit, the 22nd Artillery Support Company of the 2nd Polish Corps, adopted this design as its emblem. In Wojtek the Bear, Aileen Orr writes, “It was very much 22nd Company’s trademark; the bear logo even appeared on regimental equipment. Within weeks of its being created and approved, shortly after the Battle of Monte Cassino, the Wojtek military logo was everywhere. The bear had pretty much become a legend in his own not inconsiderable lunchtime as curious Allied soldiers from other regiments inquired about the badge’s significance.”

Listener mail:

Some recent photos of Agafia Lykov can be seen on this Facebook page.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was composed by Greg, who gathered these corroborating links (warning — these spoil the puzzle).

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

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 Thanks for listening!

The Paradox of Musical Description

Unlike the visual or literary arts, music seems to be impossible to describe in words — we’re forced to choose between the senselessly subjective and the incomprehensibly technical. Rutgers philosopher Peter Kivy cataloged four common types of music criticism:

  • Biographical: a description of the composer rather than his music. “We are allowed to gaze upon a deeply agitated life, that seeks, with strong endeavour, to support itself at the high level of the day.”
  • Autobiographical: a description of the critic’s impressions rather than the music. “I closed my eyes, and whilst listening to the divine gavotte … I seemed to be surrounded on all sides by enfolding arms, adorable, intertwining feet, floating hair, shining eyes, and intoxicating smiles.”
  • Emotive: a subjective description of emotions in composers or listeners. “The first episode is a regular trio in the major mode, beginning in consolation and twice bursting into triumph.”
  • Technical: the coldly clinical: “The joint between the second movement and the third can hang on the progression D-B♭-B♮, which is parallel to F-D♭-D♮ between the first and second.”

There just doesn’t seem to be an adequate way to convey the experience of hearing a piece of music without actually playing it for someone. “Description of music is in a way unique,” Kivy writes. “When it is understandable to the nonmusician, it is cried down as nonsense by the contemporary musician. And when the musician or musical scholar turn their hands to it these days, likely as not the non-musician finds it as mysterious as the Cabala, and about as interesting as a treatise on sewage disposal.”

(From The Corded Shell, 1980.)

Starting Over

On Dec. 24, 2010, Lori Erica Ruff shot herself to death with a shotgun in Longview, Texas. After her death, her ex-husband’s family discovered a lockbox in her home that revealed that in May 1988 she had stolen the identity of Becky Sue Turner, a 2-year-old girl who had died in a fire in 1971. She had then changed her name to Lori Erica Kennedy and received a Social Security account, erasing all trace of her origins.

After this she had qualified for a GED and eventually graduated from the University of Texas with a degree in business administration. At a Bible study class she met Blake Ruff, who describes her as extremely secretive. She told him that she was from Arizona, that her parents were dead, and that she had no siblings. The two married in 2003 and Lori gave birth to a girl, of whom she was “extremely protective.” The marriage broke down, Ruff divorced her, and she committed suicide.

The lockbox contained a note with the phrases “North Hollywood police,” “402 months,” and “Ben Perkins,” but none of these clues has led anywhere. No one knows the woman’s real identity, or her history before 1988. Social Security Administration investigator Joe Velling received the case in 2011. “My immediate reaction was, I’ll crack this pretty quickly,” he told the Seattle Times in 2013. It remains unsolved.

(Thanks, Tuvia.)

09/23/2016 UPDATE: Wow, that was timely — Velling just solved the case. (Thanks, Jay.)

Hoist, Petard

The U.S. Navy submarine USS Tang was sunk by her own torpedo. Patrolling off China in October 1944, she fired at a Japanese transport and the electric torpedo, its rudder jammed, curved to the left in a great circle. The submarine put on emergency power to escape the circle, but it had only seconds to do so. Captain Richard O’Kane later said, “The problem was akin to moving a ship longer than a football field and proceeding at harbor speed clear of a suddenly careening speedboat.”

It struck her abreast the aft torpedo room and she went down in 180 feet of water. Seventy-eight men were lost, and the nine who survived were picked up by a Japanese frigate and taken prisoner. Until the accident the Tang had had the most successful submarine patrol in the war.

Here and There

In 1976, Australian monkey trainer Alex Brackstone declared his four-hectare property northeast of Adelaide to be the independent Province of Bumbunga and named himself its governor-general. He was concerned that Australia was drifting toward republicanism and wanted to be sure that at least a part of the continent would always be loyal to the British Crown.

To underscore his devotion to the queen he drew a huge scale model of Great Britain using strawberry plants. He planned to sprinkle each county with authentic soil imported from Britain, but customs authorities put a stop to that, and the strawberries eventually died in a drought. Full points for effort, though.

Related: In her 1981 book The Emperor of the United States of America, Catherine Caufield says that British eccentric John Alington laid out a giant street map of London on the grounds of his estate at Letchworth, to rehearse his laborers who were traveling there to see the Great Exhibition. This article repeats the story, noting that Alington was greatly taken with giant maps: “In 1855, he had a reproduction of the fortifications of Sebastopol built so his workers could better understand the progress of the Crimean War. He also had a pond remodelled into a map of the world, which the men toured in rowboats as he lectured them in geography.” I haven’t been able to confirm this elsewhere, though.