Starting Over

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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

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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

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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.

Big News

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The Soviet Union took propaganda to a ludicrous extreme in the 1930s with the Maksim Gorki, a multimedia communications empire in the sky. With a wingspan of 206 feet and a takeoff weight of 42 tons, it was the largest land aircraft ever built at the time, requiring eight huge 900-horsepower engines to get aloft.

Aboard were a complete printing plant, capable of printing 10,000 copies per hour of an illustrated 12″ x 16″ newspaper, a photographic darkroom, and a high-speed radio apparatus and telegraph. On the ground, a projection room could cast movies onto a folding screen for up to 10,000 spectators through a window in the fuselage.

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“The aircraft also contained a cafe, its own internal telephone exchange, and sleeping quarters and toilets,” notes James Gilbert in The World’s Worst Aircraft. “Four auxiliary engines were required to generate the power to run the huge loudspeakers that broadcast the Soviet message down upon the astonished peasants over which the aircraft flew, and at night to power a system of lights along the underside flashing slogans.” Whether anyone wanted to hear all this is another question.

Extremities

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In 1626, Dutch artist Roelandt Savery composed this historic portrait of a dodo, one of the few painted from a live specimen. Unfortunately, he gave it two left feet.

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Likewise, in Johann Tischbein’s 1787 portrait of Goethe in the Roman Campagna, the poet’s right leg bears a left foot.

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And what has happened to Thomas Jefferson’s left foot on the back of the $2 bill? “Unless Jefferson can bend his leg in the wrong direction at the knee, it is hard to see how this foot can be attached to his leg,” writes William Poundstone in Bigger Secrets. “If it’s someone else’s foot, he is standing in a more incredible position yet.”

The $2 bill engraving is based on John Trumbull’s painting The Declaration of Independence, below. But “The perspective is easier to judge in that painting, and the foot in question (definitely Jefferson’s) does not look so strange as on the bill.”

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Podcast Episode 119: Lost in the Taiga

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In 1978 a team of geologists discovered a family of five living deep in the Siberian forest, 150 miles from the nearest village. Fearing persecution, they had lived entirely on their own since 1936, praying, tending a meager garden, and suffering through winter temperatures of 40 below zero. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll meet the Lykov family, whose religious beliefs committed them to “the greatest solitude on the earth.”

We’ll also learn about Esperanto’s role in a Spanish prison break and puzzle over a self-incriminating murderer.

Intro:

The London Review and Literary Journal of August 1796 records a cricket match “by eleven Greenwich Pensioners with one leg against eleven with one arm, for one thousand guineas, at the new Cricket ground, Montpelier Gardens, Walworth.”

The British Veterinary Journal of March 1888 reports that a Manchester horse fitted with eyeglasses “now stands all the morning looking over the half-door of his stable with his spectacles on, gazing around him with an air of sedate enjoyment.”

Sources for our feature on the Lykov family:

Vasily Peskov, Lost in the Taiga, 1994.

Mike Dash, “For 40 Years, This Russian Family Was Cut Off From All Human Contact, Unaware of World War II,” Smithsonian, Jan. 28, 2013.

Russia Today, “From Taiga to Kremlin: A Hermit’s Gifts for Medvedev,” Feb. 24, 2010.

Alexis Sostre, “Siberia: Woman Who Lived Her Entire Life in Wilderness Airlifted to Hospital,” Sostre News, Jan. 16, 2016.

Listener mail:

The original article on the 1938 San Cristobál prison break, by Jose Antonio del Barrio, in Esperanto.

An article (in Spanish) about the escape on del Barrio’s blog.

A description (in Spanish) of conditions in San Cristobál, by one of the successful escapees.

A description (in Spanish) of the escape plot, from research carried out by Fermín Ezkieta.

A documentary film (in Spanish) about the escape.

A study (in Esperanto) on the role of Esperanto in the working-class culture in Spain.

Del Barrio’s presentation (in Esperanto) on the use of Esperanto by socialists in the Basque region.

A presentation (in Esperanto) by Ulrich Lins and del Barrio on the use of Esperanto during the Spanish Civil War. Lins is the German author of “La Dangera Lingvo,” on the persecutions suffered by esperantists.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was devised by Sharon, who collected 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 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 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!

Four-for-All

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Here’s an odd bit of African geography: The finger of land in the upper left is Namibia, the region at the top is Zambia, Zimbabwe is at bottom right, and Botswana is at bottom left. Is the border between Zambia and Botswana long enough to permit a bridge to be built between the two? Or do the two peninsulas intrude far enough to make this impossible?

The answer isn’t clear. In 1970 Namibia had insisted that the four nations meet at a single point, meaning that the Kazungula Ferry linking Botswana and Zambia was illegal, as the border between them had no breadth. After an armed confrontation the ferry was sunk. Thirty-five years later Botswana and Zambia proposed building a bridge where the ferry had run. Is that geometrically permissible? The shaky consensus is that the two nations share a brief boundary of 150 meters between two “tripoints.” But the truth is as murky as the Zambezi itself.

(See Point of Interest. Thanks, Steve.)

The Oddfather

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Vincent Gigante, head of the Genovese crime family from 1981 to 2005, feigned mental illness for 30 years in order to throw law enforcement authorities off his trail. Beginning in the 1960s he could regularly be seen shuffling around his Greenwich Village neighborhood in pajamas, a bathrobe, and slippers, mumbling to himself, and quietly playing pinochle at a local club. His lawyers and relatives insisted he had become mentally disabled, with an IQ of 69 to 72.

But informants told the FBI that during this time he was really leading the wealthiest and most powerful crime family in the nation and a dominant force in the New York mob.

At arraignments he appeared in pajamas, and psychiatrists testified that he had been confined 28 times for hallucinations and “dementia rooted in organic brain damage.” “He was probably the most clever organized-crime figure I have ever seen,” former FBI supervisor John S. Pritchard told the New York Times. Mob rival John Gotti called him “crazy like a fox.”

It wasn’t until April 2003, in exchange for a plea deal, that he acknowledged that the whole thing had been a con to delay his racketeering trial. His lawyer said, “I think you get to a point in life — I think everyone does — where you become too old and too sick and too tired to fight.” He died in prison in 2005.

Podcast Episode 118: The Restless Corpse of Elmer McCurdy

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In 1976 a television crew discovered a mummified corpse in a California funhouse. Unbelievably, an investigation revealed that it belonged to an Oklahoma outlaw who had been shot by sheriff’s deputies in 1911 and whose remains had been traveling the country ever since. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll trace the postmortem odyssey of Elmer McCurdy, “the bandit who wouldn’t give up.”

We’ll also reflect on a Dutch artist’s disappearance and puzzle over some mysterious hospital deaths.

Intro:

In 1922, mechanical engineer Elis Stenman built a summer home with walls of varnished newspaper.

Winston Churchill’s country home Chartwell must always maintain a marmalade cat named Jock.

Sources for our feature on Elmer McCurdy:

Mark Svenvold, Elmer McCurdy, 2002.

Robert Barr Smith, “After Elmer McCurdy’s Days as a Badman, He — or at Least His Corpse — Had a Fine Second Career,” Wild West 12:1 (June 1999), 24-26.

United Press International, “Amusement Park Mummy Was Elmer McCurdy, a Wild West Desperado,” Dec. 10, 1976.

Associated Press, “Died With His Boots On,” Dec. 11, 1976.

Associated Press, “Wax Figure Maybe No Dummy, May Be Old Outlaw’s Mummy,” Dec. 12, 1976.

Associated Press, “Elmer McCurdy Goes Home to Boot Hill,” April 23, 1977.

Listener mail:

Alexander Dumbadze, Bas Jan Ader: Death Is Elsewhere, 2013.

Jan Verwoert, Bas Jan Ader: In Search of the Miraculous, 2006.

Brad Spence, “The Case of Bas Jan Ader,” www.basjanader.com (accessed 08/18/2016) (PDF).

Rachel Kent, “Pun to Paradox: Bas Jan Ader Revisited,” Parkett 75 (2005), 177-181.

Wikipedia, “Bas Jan Ader” (accessed 08/18/2016).

Richard Dorment, “The Artist Who Sailed to Oblivion,” Telegraph, May 9, 2006.

(We had referred to a collection of Ader’s silent films on YouTube. Unfortunately, this has been pulled by Ader’s estate.)

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Steven Jones.

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 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 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!

The Paulding Light

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1966, a group of teenagers in the town of Paulding, on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, reported seeing a ghostly light in a valley nearby. Locals claimed that the light, which appears every night when viewed from a precise location, was the lantern of a ghostly railroad brakeman who had been killed trying to warn an oncoming train of railway cars stopped on the track.

A more prosaic explanation is that the specter is produced by the headlights of cars traveling on US 45, about 5 miles away. In 2010, a group of student engineers from Michigan Tech studied the light with a telescope and distinguished individual vehicles and even an Adopt a Highway sign. They were able to produce the effect themselves by driving a car along the suspected stretch of highway. It’s thought that an inversion layer may create a volume of unusually stable air that accounts for the lights’ visibility at such a distance.

That didn’t end the ghost theory, though. “We’ve been told we haven’t seen the real Paulding Light,” Ph.D. candidate Jeremy Bos told Michigan Tech News in 2010. “I’ve been out there 15 times, hours at a time, in the heat, the cold, and the rain. It’s always the same. We were there Monday with a man who saw the headlights on our computer, and he refused to believe it.”

“No matter what, some people will believe what they want to believe.”