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Book Lover

Florentine scholar Antonio Magliabechi (1633-1714) has been described as a literary glutton. His house was choked with 40,000 books and 10,000 manuscripts, and he spent hours each day in the Medici library.

The negligent Magliabechi reportedly once forgot to draw his salary for a full year, but his head was “an universal index, both of titles and matter.” When the Duke of Florence asked him for a particular volume he replied, “Signore, there is but one copy of that book in the world; it is in the Grand Signore’s library at Constantinople, and is the eleventh book in the second shelf on the right hand as you go in.”

That memory made him a human search engine for writers of the time. In Curiosities of Human Nature, Samuel Goodrich records that a priest might consult Magliabechi about a panegyric on a particular saint. “He would immediately tell him who had said anything of that saint, and in what part of their works, and that, sometimes, to the number of above a hundred authors. … All this he did with the greatest exactness, naming the author, the book, the words, and often the very number of the page in which the passage referred to was inserted.”

Surrounded by books, he lived to be 81, and in his will he left his library to the public.

Shadow Minister

There’s something curious about the Congolese minister of foreign trade — he doesn’t exist.

When the prime minister asked for two nominees for the post, UNACEF party leader Kisimba Ngoy nominated himself and “Kasongo Ilunga,” apparently thinking he was bound to win against a phantom.

The plan backfired when the prime minister chose Ilunga. The enigmatic 36-year-old failed to appear at the opening of the new government, and he hasn’t claimed his office. Ngoy says that the invisible bureaucrat has resigned, but the prime minister insists that he must do so in person.

That leaves Congo without a trade minister — and Kisimba helplessly offering that dubious resignation letter. “He wrote it himself,” he insists. “He signed it. Could an imaginary man do that?”

Long Knight

In Rouen, in 1509, in digging in the ditches near the Dominicans, they found a stone tomb, containing a skeleton whose skull held a bushel of corn, and whose shin bone reached up to the girdle of the tallest man there, being about four feet long; and, consequently, the body must have been seventeen or eighteen feet high. Upon the tomb was a plate of copper, whereon was engraved, ‘In this tomb lies the noble and puissant lord, the Chevalier Ricon De Vallemont, and his bones.’

– John Platts, Encyclopedia of Natural and Artificial Wonders and Curiosities, 1876

Wrong Addressee

During a business trip in the late 1950s, George D. Bryson registered at the Brown Hotel in Louisville, Ky., accepted the key to Room 307, and jokingly asked whether any letters had arrived for him.

He was confused to learn that there was indeed a letter for George D. Bryson in Room 307.

It wasn’t for him: The room’s previous occupant had also been named George D. Bryson.

Representing Rats


In the ecclesiastical courts of 16th-century France, lawyer Bartholomew de Chasseneux made his name by prosecuting the local vermin (“O snails, caterpillars, and other obscene creatures, which destroy the food of our neighbours, depart hence!”).

Impressed with his argument, the authorities in Autun asked him to advocate for the rats, which they put on trial in 1510 for eating the harvest of Burgundy.

That’s a tall order for even a master lawyer, but, amazingly, Chasseneux won the day:

In his defence, Chasseneux showed that the rats had not received formal notice; and, before proceeding with the case, he obtained a decision that all the priests of the afflicted parishes should announce an adjournment, and summon the defendants to appear on a fixed day.

At the adjourned trial, he complained that the delay accorded his clients had been too short to allow of their appearing, in consequence of the roads being infested with cats. Chasseneux made an able defence, and finally obtained a second adjournment. We believe that no verdict was given.

(From Sabine Baring-Gould, Curiosities of Olden Times, 1896)

“The Cassandra of Watergate”

When Martha Mitchell, the wife of Nixon attorney general John Mitchell, began to claim that the White House was engaged in illegal activities, she was rumored to be mentally ill.

But events proved her right. Nixon later told David Frost, “If it hadn’t been for Martha Mitchell, there’d have been no Watergate.”

Psychologists remember this as the “Martha Mitchell effect” — when a client insists that he’s being chased by the mob, or that the police have been spying on him, he’s not necessarily delusional. In the words of psychotherapist Joseph Berke, “even paranoids have enemies.”

Sea Dog


In 1939 a Great Dane was officially enlisted in the Royal Navy. “Just Nuisance” earned his name by lying at the top of the gangplanks at a South African dockyard. When he began to follow sailors onto local trains, the Navy decided to accept him as a sailor, thus supporting morale (and granting him free rail travel).

Nuisance generally stayed ashore, and his record shows that he went AWOL, lost his collar, and was found sleeping in a petty officer’s bed. But his faithfulness eventually earned him a promotion to Able Seaman, and he was even “wed” to another Great Dane, producing five puppies that were auctioned off in Cape Town.

He was discharged in 1944 and buried later that year with full naval honors, and he’s remembered today with an annual parade of Great Danes in Simon’s Town.

“Lord Dundreary’s Finger Puzzle to Count Eleven Fingers on the Two Hands”

Begin on one hand, and count the ten fingers throughout. Begin next time at the finger last counted in the first round, counting this time backwards — ten, nine, eight, seven, six — then holding up the other hand, say ‘And five are eleven.’

Cassell’s Complete Book of Sports and Pastimes, 1896

“A Watch Melted by Lightning”

Mr. E.N. Sponce, of Windhouse, in the island of Yell, relates, that about the beginning of the present century, during a violent thunderstorm off the Shetland Islands, a fishing-boat belonging to Mr. Midyell was struck by lightning, which came down the mast, tearing it in shivers, and melted into a mass a watch in the pocket of a man (the skipper) who was sitting close by the mast, and considerably scorched him, as well as materially injured the boat, and, more or less, the other five men in it. This account of the occurrence was received by Mr. Spence from the skipper himself.

– John Timbs, Things Not Generally Known, Familiarly Explained, 1859

Bad Luck

In June 1980, Maureen Wilcox found that she held the winning numbers in both the Massachusetts and the Rhode Island lotteries.

She won nothing, though: Her Massachusetts numbers won the Rhode Island lottery and vice versa.

So There


The autobiography of the American eccentric “Lord” Timothy Dexter (1748-1806) contains 8,847 words and no punctuation:

IME the first Lord in the younited States of Americary Now of Newburyport it is the voise of the peopel and I cant Help it and so Let it goue Now as I must be Lord there will foller many more Lords pretty soune for it dont hurt A Cat Nor the mouse Nor the son Nor the water Nor the Eare then goue on all is Easey Now …

When readers complained, he added a page of punctuation marks to the second edition, inviting them to “peper and solt it as thay plese.”

Pedal Pusher

At 8 a.m. on April 22, 1884, Thomas Stevens pedaled out of San Francisco on a 50-inch penny-farthing bicycle. Four months and 3,700 miles later, he arrived in Boston.

That was just the start. The following April he boarded a steamer for Liverpool, cycled across Europe and through Turkey to Calcutta, sailed to Hong Kong, and cycled across Japan, arriving at Yokohama on Dec. 17, 1886.

Even allowing for the steamship passages, he estimates that he actually pedaled about 13,500 miles — and became the first person to “circumbicycle” the globe.

“A Note for Little Boys”

In order that all good little boys may know how much more lucky it is for them to be little boys now, than it was in the ancient times, be informed of the cruel manner in which even good little boys were liable to be treated by the law of the Ripuarians. When a sale of land took place, it was required that there should be twelve witnesses, and with these as many boys, in whose presence the price of the land should be paid, and its formal surrender take place; and then the boys were beaten, and their ears pulled, so that the pain thus inflicted upon them should make an impression upon their memory, and that they might, if necessary, be afterwards witnesses as to the sale and delivery of the land.

– Robert Conger Pell, Milledulcia, 1857

Fairies Unmasked?


For 60 years, cousins Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths maintained that the photographs they had taken in 1917 depicted real fairies and gnomes they’d encountered behind the family house near Bradford, England.

In 1981 they admitted that the creatures had been paper cutouts held up with hatpins.

But Frances maintained until her death that the photo above was genuine.

A Premonition


A queer dream or illusion had haunted Lincoln at times through the winter [of 1860]. On the evening of his election he had thrown himself on one of the haircloth sofas at home, just after the first telegrams of November 6 had told him he was elected President, and looking into a bureau mirror across the room he saw himself full length, but with two faces. … A few days later he tried it once more and the illusion of the two faces again registered to his eyes. But that was the last; the ghost since then wouldn’t come back, he told his wife, who said it was a sign he would be elected to a second term, and the death pallor of one face meant he wouldn’t live through his second term.

– Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years, 1926

“Almost Too Strange for Credence”

We all went over to Mannheim, and dined at the hotel where, seventeen years before, I, being fourteen months old, was given away to my aunt, who was also my godmother, to live with her forever as if I were her own child, and never to see my own parents, as such, any more. … When we returned to the station in the evening, we had a long time to wait for the train. On the platform was a poor woman, crying very bitterly, with a little child in her arms. Emmie Penrhyn, who was tender-hearted, went up to her, and said she was afraid she was in some great trouble. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘it is about my little child. My little child, who is only fourteen months old, is going away from me forever in the train which is coming. It is going away to be adopted by its aunt, who is also its godmother, and I shall never, never have anything to do with it any more.’ It was of an adoption under exactly the same circumstances that we had been to Mannheim to keep the seventeenth anniversary!

– Augustus Hare, The Story of My Life, 1896

The Plague Village

In 1665, the Black Death came to Eyam in Derbyshire.

To prevent the spread of the disease, the entire village quarantined itself. In the ensuing year, its population dropped from 350 to 83.

The gravedigger survived.

Pulp Friction

Each February, the residents of Ivrea, Italy, throw oranges at each other. On the three days preceding Shrove Tuesday, thousands of costumed “revolutionaries” battle an “aristocracy” by hurling citrus fruits. Supposedly this commemorates a droit de seigneur drama in the 12th century, but in practice it’s just a bunch of people throwing oranges.

Eight hundred miles to the west, they’re throwing tomatoes.

Giglioli’s Whale


In 1867, off the coast of Chile, zoologist Enrico Giglioli spotted a whale with two dorsal fins, a feature unheard of in any known whale.

A similar whale was spotted off Scotland in 1868, and another more than a century later near Corsica.

If “Giglioli’s whale” exists, it’s been spotted only three times, and no specimen, living or dead, and has ever been captured.

See also MacFarlane’s Bear.

Help Wanted

H. Hamilton, once the proprietor of Payne’s Hill, near Cobham, Surrey, advertised for a person who was willing to become a hermit in that beautiful retreat of his. The conditions were, that he was to continue in the hermitage seven years, where he should be provided with a Bible, optical glasses, a mat for his bed, a hassock for his pillow, an hour-glass for his timepiece, water for his beverage, food from the house, but never to exchange a syllable with the servant. He was to wear a camlet robe, never to cut his beard or nails, nor ever to stray beyond the limits of the grounds. If he lived there, under all these restrictions, till the end of the term, he was to receive seven hundred guineas. But on breach of any of them, or if he quitted the place any time previous to that term, the whole was to be forfeited. One person attempted it, but a three weeks’ trial cured him.

– Robert Conger Pell, Milledulcia, 1857

The Bach Motif


Bach’s name forms a musical motif. The German note B is equivalent to the English B-flat, and H indicates B natural. So if you revolve this cross counterclockwise, the note at the center takes successively the German values B (treble clef), A (tenor clef), C (alto clef), and H (treble clef).

Bach himself used the four-note motif as a subject in The Art of Fugue, and it’s appeared since in works by Schumann, Liszt, Rimsky-Korsakov, Poulenc, and Webern.

Waltzing Solitaire


Sad and creepy, yes, but it saves money on corsages.

Sidney Feist patented this “figure for ballroom dancing practice” in 1921.

Two Down

On Aug. 10, 1628, as hundreds of Swedish spectators looked on, the new royal warship Vasa crossed the Stockholm waterfront, set her sails, foundered, and sank. She had covered less than 1 nautical mile.

During the Battle of Öland in 1676, the Swedish flagship Kronan was heeling to port when commander Baron Lorentz Creutz said, “In the name of Jesus, make sure that the cannon ports are closed and the cannon made fast, so that in turning we don’t suffer the same fate as befell the Vasa.” They didn’t; they did.

The Vision Thing

Mr. Evelyn mentions a Dutch boy, eight or nine years old, who was carried about by his parents as a show. He had about the iris of one eye the words Deus meus, and about the other Eloihim, in the Hebrew characters. How this was done by artifice none could imagine, and his parents affirmed he was born so.

Sketches of Imposture, Deception, and Credulity, 1845