Podcast

Podcast Episode 38: The Thunder Stone

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Thunder_Stone.jpg

In 1768, Catherine the Great ordered her subjects to move a 3-million-pound granite boulder intact into Saint Petersburg to serve as the pedestal for a statue of Peter the Great. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll learn how some inspired engineering moved the Thunder Stone 13 miles from its forest home to Senate Square, making it the largest stone ever moved by man.

We’ll also learn whether mutant squid are attacking Indiana and puzzle over why a stamp collector would be angry at finding a good bargain.

Our segment on the Thunder Stone is based on Yale linguist Alexander M. Schenker’s impeccably researched 2003 history The Bronze Horseman: Falconet’s Monument to Peter the Great. Here’s an engraving by Louis-Nicolas van Blarenberghe, The Barge With the Thunder Rock Steadied by Two Cutters of the Imperial Navy En Route to St. Petersburg:

thunder stone engraving - blarenberghe

And here’s the statue as it appears today:

Listener mail:

Intrepid listener Dan Noland has found five newspaper articles on Indiana’s oil pit squids — his page includes background information and commentary.

Wikipedia has an article on Lucian’s early satirical science fiction story, which can be found in Greek and English here.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle is from Paul Sloane and Des MacHale’s 1994 book Great Lateral Thinking Puzzles. Please keep sending puzzles — Sharon’s becoming impossible to stump.

Please consider becoming a patron of the Futility Closet podcast — 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 listen to this episode using the player at the top of this post, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

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!

Podcast Episode 37: Edgar Allan Poe’s Graveyard Visitor

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For most of the 20th century, a man in black appeared each year at the grave of Edgar Allan Poe. In the predawn hours of January 19, he would drink a toast with French cognac and leave behind three roses in a distinctive arrangement. No one knows who he was or why he did this. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we review the history of the “Poe Toaster” and his long association with the great poet’s memorial.

We’ll also consider whether Winnie-the-Pooh should be placed on Ritalin and puzzle over why a man would shoot an unoffending monk.

Sources for our segment on the Poe Toaster:

“Mystery Man’s Annual Visit to Poe Grave,” China Daily, Jan. 20, 2008.

“Poe Toaster Remains a Mystery,” WBAL Radio, Jan. 19, 2013.

“‘Toaster’ Rejects French Cognac at Poe’s grave,” Washington Times, Jan. 19, 2004.

Sarah Brumfield, “Poe Fans Call an End to ‘Toaster’ Tradition,” AP News, Jan. 19, 2012.

Liz F. Kay, “Poe Toaster Tribute Is ‘Nevermore’,” Baltimore Sun, Jan. 19, 2010.

Michael Madden, “Yes, Virginia, There Is a Poe Toaster,” Baltimore Sun, Jan. 26, 2011.

Mary Carole McCauley, “Poe Museum Could Reopen in Fall,” Baltimore Sun, Jan. 20, 2013.

Ben Nuckols and Joseph White, “Edgar Allan Poe’s Mysterious Birthday Visitor Doesn’t Show This Year,” Huffington Post, March 21, 2010 (accessed Dec. 1, 2014).

Here’s the only known photo of the toaster, taken at his 1990 apparition and published in the July 1990 issue of Life magazine:

poe toaster

The psychiatric diagnoses of Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends appear in Sarah E. Shea, Kevin Gordon, Ann Hawkins, Janet Kawchuk, and Donna Smith, “Pathology in the Hundred Acre Wood: A Neurodevelopmental Perspective on A.A. Milne,” Canadian Medical Association Journal, Dec. 12, 2000.

Many thanks to Harry’s for supporting this week’s episode. Enter coupon code CLOSETHOLIDAY and get $5 off a Winter Winston set at Harrys.com.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

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!

Podcast Episode 36: The Great Moon Hoax

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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.

Sources for our segment on the Great Moon Hoax:

Matthew Goodman, The Sun and the Moon, 2008.

The Museum of Hoaxes has an excellent summary of the hoax and its significance in media history, including the text of all six articles.

Listener mail:

Lauren May, “Terrified Banstead Family Confronted by ‘Dark Figure’ on Bypass,” Epsom Guardian, Feb. 23, 2012.

Michael Munro, “‘The Springer’ Leaps From WW2 Urban Legend to Anti-Fascist Superhero,” io9, Sept. 3, 2014 (accessed Nov. 30, 2014).

Eric A. Stern, “Yes, Miky, There Are Rabbis in Montana,” New York Times, Dec. 4, 2009.

“Body of Boy Found as Snow Melts,” The Hour, March 1, 1978.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

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!

Podcast Episode 35: Lateral Thinking Puzzles

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For this Thanksgiving episode of the Futility Closet podcast, enjoy seven lateral thinking puzzles that didn’t make it onto our regular shows. Solve along with us as we explore some strange scenarios using only yes-or-no questions. Happy Thanksgiving!

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Podcast Episode 34: Spring-Heeled Jack — A Victorian Supervillain

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jack_the_Devil_Penny_Dreadfuls_1838.jpg

Between 1837 and 1904, rumors spread of a strange bounding devil who haunted southern England, breathing blue flames and menacing his victims with steel talons. In the latest Futility Closet podcast we review the career of Spring-Heeled Jack and speculate about his origins.

We also recount Alexander Graham Bell’s efforts to help the wounded James Garfield before his doctors’ treatments could kill him and puzzle over why a police manual gives instructions in a language that none of the officers speak.

Source for our segment on Spring-Heeled Jack:

Mike Dash, “Spring-Heeled Jack: To Victorian Bugaboo From Suburban Ghost,” Fortean Studies 3 (1996).

Sources for our segment on Alexander Graham Bell and James Garfield:

Candice Millard, Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, 2011.

Amanda Schaffer, “A President Felled by an Assassin and 1880’s Medical Care,” New York Times, July 25, 2006.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

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!

Podcast Episode 33: Death and Robert Todd Lincoln

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Robert_Todd_Lincoln,_Brady-Handy_bw_photo_portrait,_ca1870-1880.jpg

Abraham Lincoln’s eldest son, Robert, is the subject of a grim coincidence in American history: He’s the only person known to have been present or nearby at the assassinations of three American presidents. In the latest Futility Closet podcast we describe the circumstances of each misfortune and explore some further coincidences regarding Robert’s brushes with fatality.

We also consider whether a chimpanzee deserves a day in court and puzzle over why Australia would demolish a perfectly good building.

Sources for our segment on Robert Todd Lincoln:

Jason Emerson, Giant in the Shadows: The Life of Robert T. Lincoln, 2012.

Charles Lachman, The Last Lincolns: The Rise and Fall of a Great American Family, 2008.

Merrill D. Peterson, Lincoln in American Memory, 1994.

Ralph Gary, Following in Lincoln’s Footsteps, 2002.

Sources for the listener mail segment:

“Lyman Dillon and the Military Road,” Tri-County Historical Society (accessed 11/06/2014).

Charles Siebert, “Should a Chimp Be Able to Sue Its Owner?”, New York Times Magazine, April 23, 2014.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle is from Paul Sloane and Des MacHale’s 1994 book Great Lateral Thinking Puzzles. Some corroboration is here (warning: this spoils the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

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!

Podcast Episode 32: The Wow! Signal

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In August 1977, Ohio astronomer Jerry Ehman discovered a radio signal so exciting that he wrote “Wow!” in the margin of its computer printout. Arriving from the direction of the constellation Sagittarius, the signal bore all the characteristics of an alien transmission. But despite decades of eager listening, astronomers have never heard it repeated. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review the story of the “Wow! signal,” which remains an intriguing, unexplained anomaly in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

We’ll also share some more nuggets from Greg’s database of oddities and puzzle over why a man chooses to drive a long distance at only 15 mph.

Sources for our segment on the Wow! signal:

Robert H. Gray, The Elusive Wow, 2012.

Giuseppe Cocconi and Philip Morrison, “Searching for Interstellar Communication,” Nature, Sept. 19, 1959.

Frank White, The SETI Factor, 1990.

David W. Swift, SETI Pioneers, 1990.

David Darling, The Extraterrestrial Encyclopedia, 2000.

Michael Brooks, 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense, 2008.

“Humanity Responds to ‘Alien’ Wow Signal, 35 Years Later,” space.com, Aug. 17, 2012 (accessed Oct. 31, 2014).

Here’s Stephen Colbert’s message to the denizens of Sagittarius:

Notes and sources for our miscellany from Greg’s notes:

Iowa City’s web page explains that Lyman Dillon plowed a furrow from Iowa City to Dubuque in 1839.

The item on oil pit squids is from George Eberhart’s 2002 book Mysterious Creatures. The squids were found in “oil-emulsion pits containing antifreeze, stripper, oil, and chemicals used in manufacturing plastic automobile bumpers.” Eberhart cites Ken de la Bastide, “Creature in Plant 9 Pits,” Anderson (Ind.) Herald Bulletin, March 5, 1997.

Thanks to reader John McKenna for letter from the ancient Greek boy Theon to his father. It’s from the Oxyrhynchus papyri, from the 2nd or 3rd century:

Theon to his father Theon, greeting. It was a fine thing of you not to take me with you to the city! If you won’t take me with you to Alexandria I won’t write you a letter or speak to you or say goodbye to you; and if you go to Alexandria I won’t take your hand nor ever greet you again. That is what will happen if you won’t take me. Mother said to Archelaus, ‘it quite upsets him to be left behind.’ It was good of you to send me presents … on the 12th, the day you sailed. Send me a lyre, I implore you. If you don’t, I won’t eat, I won’t drink; there now!

The item on William and Henry James is from Vincent Barry’s 2007 book Philosophical Thinking About Dying.

According to the Encyclopedia of Fictional and Fantastic Languages (2006), Gaff’s command to Deckard in Blade Runner is Monsieur, azonnal kövessen engem bitte (“Sir, follow me immediately please”).

The anecdote about Alfred Lunt and the green umbrella is from the Methuen Drama Dictionary of the Theatre (2013).

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle comes from Paul Sloane and Des MacHale’s 1998 book Ingenious Lateral Thinking Puzzles.

Many thanks to Harry’s for supporting this week’s episode. Enter coupon code CLOSET with your first purchase and they’ll give you a $5 discount.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

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!

Podcast Episode 31: Pigs on Trial

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For 500 years of European history, animals were given criminal trials: Bulls, horses, dogs, and sheep were arrested, jailed, given lawyers, tried, and punished at community expense. In the latest Futility Closet podcast we’ll explore this strange practice and try to understand its significance to the people of the time.

We’ll also rediscover the source of Futility Closet’s name and puzzle over how a ringing bell relates to a man’s death.

Sources for our segment on animal trials:

Anila Srivastava, “‘Mean, Dangerous, and Uncontrollable Beasts': Mediaeval Animal Trials,” Mosaic, March 2007.

Jen Girgen, “The Historical and Contemporary Prosecution and Punishment of Animals,” Animal Law Review, 2003.

Esther Cohen, “Law, Folklore, and Animal Lore,” Past & Present, February 1986.

“Medieval Animal Trials,” medievalists.net, Sept. 8, 2013 (accessed Oct. 20, 2014).

James E. McWilliams, “Beastly Justice,” Slate, Feb. 21, 2013.

E.P. Evans, The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals, 1906.

The Hour of the Pig (released in the United States as The Advocate), BBC, 1993.

Here’s the original UTILITY sign from American University’s administration building that inspired our name:

AU utility sign

(Thanks, Karl.)

This week’s lateral thinking puzzles come from Paul Sloane and Des MacHale’s 1994 book Great Lateral Thinking Puzzles and from listener Meaghan Gerard Walsh.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

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!

Podcast Episode 30: The Oak Island Money Pit


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Nova Scotia’s Oak Island hides a famously booby-trapped treasure cache — or so goes the legend. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast, we review the many attempts to recover the treasure and wonder who could have engineered such a site, what might be hidden there — and whether, indeed, it contains anything at all. We also puzzle over what a woman’s errands can tell us about how her husband died.

Sources for our segment on Oak Island:

“The Secrets of Oak Island”, Joe Nickell, Skeptical Inquirer, March/April 2000.

Richard Joltes, “History, Hoax, and Hype: The Oak Island Legend”, Critical Enquiry, accessed Oct. 19, 2014.

Edwin Teale, “Mystery Island Baffles Treasure Hunters,” Popular Science, May 1939.

D’Arcy O’Connor, The Money Pit, 1978.

The image above shows the dig as it existed in August 1931. Below is 27-year-old Franklin Roosevelt (third from right) at the 1909 dig:

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Photograph_of_Franklin_D._Roosevelt_and_Others_at_Oak_Island_in_Nova_Scotia_-_NARA_-_196803.tif

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Nicholas Madrid.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

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!

Podcast Episode 29: The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser

C:\Users\Greg\Dropbox\Podcast\029-The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser

In 1828, a 16-year-old boy appeared in Nuremberg, claiming that he’d spent his whole life alone in a dark cell. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the short, sad life of Kaspar Hauser and ponder who he might have been.

We’ll also revisit the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus, encounter some self-landing planes, and puzzle over why a man would bury 15 luxury cars in the desert.

Sources for our segment on Kaspar Hauser:

Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, Lost Prince: The Unsolved Mystery of Kaspar Hauser, 1996.

Martin Kitchen, Kaspar Hauser: Europe’s Child, 2001.

Links from listener mail:

Being in the Shadow, Australian psychologist Kate Russo’s site about the psychology of eclipse chasing.

A 1997 NTSB report regarding a Piper PA-24 that “landed itself” after the pilot passed out due to a carbon monoxide leak.

The “cornfield bomber,” a Convair F-106 Delta Dart that landed in a Montana farmer’s field in 1970 after the pilot ejected. When the local sheriff arrived, the jet’s engine was still idling.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle is from Paul Sloane and Des MacHale’s 1994 book Great Lateral Thinking Puzzles. Corroborating links are here and here (warning — they spoil the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset. 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. We’re off next week — Episode 30 will go up on Oct. 20. Thanks for listening!

Podcast Episode 28: The Real-Life Sherlock Holmes


Sherlock Holmes was based on a real man, a physician who trained Arthur Conan Doyle at the University of Edinburgh. During his medical lectures, Joseph Bell regularly astonished his students with insights into his patients’ lives and characters.

“From close observation and deduction, gentlemen,” he said, “it is possible to make a diagnosis that will be correct in any and every case. However, you must not neglect to ratify your deductions.”

In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll meet Joseph Bell and review the stories of his legendary acuity. We’ll also take a tour through Greg’s database of unpublished oddities and puzzle over how having your car damaged might be a good thing.

Our segment on Joseph Bell, the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes, was based on Northeastern Illinois University literature professor Ely Liebow’s 1982 book Dr. Joe Bell: Model for Sherlock Holmes. Our original post on Joseph Bell ran on April 27, 2014.

Harry How’s 1892 Strand feature “A Day With Dr. Conan Doyle” is reprinted in the Conan Doyle Encyclopedia.

Joseph Bell wrote the introduction to the 1892 edition of A Study in ScarletWikisource has a scan.

Somewhat related: When Arthur Guiterman twitted Doyle for having Holmes denigrate other fictional detectives that had obviously inspired him, Doyle responded in kind.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset. 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!

Podcast Episode 27: The Man Who Volunteered for Auschwitz

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In September 1940 Polish army captain Witold Pilecki volunteered to be imprisoned at Auschwitz. His reports first alerted the Allies to the horrors at the camp and helped to warn the world that a holocaust was taking place.

In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Pilecki into the camp, hear his reports of the atrocities he witnessed, and learn why his name isn’t better known today. We’ll also meet the elusive Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus and puzzle over how hitting a target could save thousands of lives.

Sources for our segment on Polish army captain Witold Pilecki:

The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery. By Witold Pilecki, translated by Jarek Garlinski, 2012.

Timothy Snyder, “Were We All People?”, New York Times, June 22, 2012.

“Meet The Man Who Sneaked Into Auschwitz,” National Public Radio, Sept. 18, 2010.

Listener mail: The hoax site on the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus was created by these researchers at the University of Connecticut. (Thanks to listener David Brooks for telling us about this story.)

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener David White. Related links (warning: these spoil the puzzle) are here, here, and here.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset. 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!

Podcast Episode 26: A Practical Joke on a Grand Scale

berners street hoax

In 1810 someone told hundreds of London merchants that Mrs. Tottenham at 54 Berners Street had requested their services. She hadn’t. For a full day the street was packed with crowds of deliverymen struggling to reach a single door — and the practical joker was never caught.

In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll hear descriptions of the chaos in Berners Street and meet Theodore Hook, the man who probably planned the whole thing. We’ll also revisit the mysterious corpse found on an Australian beach in 1948 and puzzle over an octopus stuck in a tree.

Sources for our segment on the Berners Street hoax:

Judith Flanders, The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London, 2012.

Robert Chambers, The Book of Days, 1832.

Richard Harris Dalton Barham, The Life and Remains of Theodore Edward Hook, 1849.

John Gibson Lockhart, Theodore Hook, A Sketch, 1852.

John Timbs, Lives of Wits and Humourists, 1862.

Satirist, or, Monthly Meteor, “The Hoax: An Epistle From Solomon Sappy, Esquire, in London, to his brother Simon at Liverpool,” Jan. 1, 1811, pp. 59-61.

Listener mail:

The new developments in the mystery of the Somerton man are detailed in this article in The Advertiser.

Here’s “No E,” four minutes of E-less hip-hop by Zach Sherwin and George Watsky (thanks, Jocelyn):

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Nick Madrid.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset. 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!

Podcast Episode 25: An Australian Enigma

On Dec. 1, 1948, a well-dressed corpse appeared on a beach in South Australia. Despite 66 years of investigation, no one has ever been able to establish who the man was, how he came to be there, or even how he died.

In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll delve into the mystery of the Somerton man, a fascinating tale that involves secret codes, a love triangle, and the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. We’ll also hear Franklin Adams praise the thesaurus and puzzle over some surprising consequences of firing a gun.

Sources for our segment on the Somerton man:

Mike Dash, “The Body on Somerton Beach,” Smithsonianmag.com, Aug. 12, 2011 (retrieved Aug. 31, 2014).

Lorena Allam, “The Somerton Man: A Mystery in Four Acts,” Radio Australia, Feb. 23, 2014.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:SomertonMan2.jpg

The corpse of a well-dressed, clean-shaven man, 5’11”, age 40-45 and in peak physical condition, was discovered on Somerton Beach in Adelaide, South Australia, early on the morning of Dec. 1, 1948.

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In a fob pocket of the man’s trousers the pathologist at the city morgue found a tiny slip of rolled-up paper bearing the words “Tamam Shud,” the final words of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:SomertonManCode.jpg

This led investigators to a copy of the book, which had been thrown into a car parked near the beach. In the back of the book were these penciled lines, which have never been deciphered.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:SomertonManStone.jpg

More than 60 years of inquiries around the world have brought us no closer to establishing the dead man’s identity. His tombstone gives only the bare facts of his discovery.

Franklin Pierce Adams’ poem “To a Thesaurus” appears in The Book of Humorous Verse, by Carolyn Wells, 1920.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset. The show notes are on the blog. 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!

Podcast Episode 24: The World’s Worst Poet

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William McGonagall has been called “the only truly memorable bad poet in our language,” responsible for tin-eared verse that could “give you cauliflower ears just from silent reading”:

Alas! Lord and Lady Dalhousie are dead, and buried at last,
Which causes many people to feel a little downcast;
And both lie side by side in one grave,
But I hope God in His goodness their souls will save.

In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll sample McGonagall’s writings, follow the poor poet’s sadly heroic wanderings, and wonder whether he may have been in on the joke after all. We’ll also consider a South Carolina seventh grader’s plea to Ronald Reagan and puzzle over a man’s outrageous public behavior.

Our segment on William McGonagall, the world’s worst poet, is drawn from Norman Watson’s beautifully researched 2010 book Poet McGonagall: A Biography. The best online source on McGonagall is Chris Hunt’s site McGonagall Online, which contains extensive biographical materials, a map of the poet’s travels, and a complete collection of his poems.

South Carolina seventh grader Andy Irmo’s 1984 letter to Ronald Reagan asking that his room be declared a disaster area appears in Dwight Young’s 2007 book Dear Mr. President: Letters to the Oval Office from the Files of the National Archives. Our post about it ran on Aug. 14, 2006.

Thanks to listener Nick Madrid for this week’s lateral thinking puzzle.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset. The show notes are on the blog. 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!

Podcast Episode 23: A Victorian Poisoning Mystery

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On New Year’s Day 1886, London grocer Edwin Bartlett was discovered dead in his bed with a lethal quantity of liquid chloroform in his stomach. Strangely, his throat showed none of the burns that chloroform should have caused. His wife, who admitted to having the poison, was tried for murder, but the jury acquitted her because “we do not think there is sufficient evidence to show how or by whom the chloroform was administered.”

In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll learn about Edwin and Adelaide Bartlett’s strange marriage and consider the various theories that have been advanced to explain Edwin’s death. We’ll also sample a 50,000-word novel written without the letter E and puzzle over a sure-footed American’s visit to a Japanese office building.

Sources for our segment on Adelaide Bartlett and the Pimlico poison mystery:

“The Pimlico Poisoning Case,” The Times, Feb. 16, 1886, 10.

“The Pimlico Poisoning Case,” The Times, March 8, 1886, 12.

“The Pimlico Mystery,” The Observer, March 21, 1886, 3.

“Central Criminal Court, April 13,” The Times, April 14, 1886, 6.

“Central Criminal Court, April 16,” The Times, April 17, 1886, 6.

“The Pimlico Mystery,” Manchester Guardian, April 19, 1886, 5.

Michael Farrell, “Adelaide Bartlett and the Pimlico Mystery,” British Medical Journal, December 1994, 1720-1723.

Stephanie J. Snow, Blessed Days of Anaesthesia: How Anaesthetics Changed the World, 2009.

A full record of the trial was published in 1886, with a preface by Edward Clarke, Adelaide’s barrister.

The full text of Ernest Vincent Wright’s 1939 novel Gadsby: A Story of Over 50,000 Words Without Using the Letter “E”, is available at Wikisource.

Here’s an excerpt from A Void, the English translation of George Perec’s 1969 novel La Disparition, also written without the letter E.

Two notable Futility Closet posts regarding lipograms:

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle comes from Mental Fitness Puzzles, by Kyle Hendrickson, Julie Hendrickson, Matt Kenneke, and Danny Hendrickson, 1998.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset. The show notes are on the blog. 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!

Podcast Episode 22: The Devil’s Hoofmarks

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On Feb. 9, 1855, the residents of Devon in southern England awoke to find a bewildering set of footprints in the newfallen snow. “These are to be found in fields, gardens, roads, house-tops, & other likely and unlikely places, deeply embedded in snow,” ran one contemporary account. “The shape was a hoof.”

In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll examine the surviving descriptions of the odd marks and consider the various explanations that have been offered. We’ll also revisit the compassionate Nazi fighter pilot Franz Stigler and puzzle over how to sneak into Switzerland across a guarded footbridge.

Our segment on the “devil’s hoofmarks” is drawn from Mike Dash’s excellent article “The Devil’s Hoofmarks: Source Material on the Great Devon Mystery of 1855,” which appeared in Fortean Studies 1:1 in 1994. The full text (2MB PDF) is here.

The Restricted Data Blog’s post on John W. Campbell and his 1941 article “Is Death Dust America’s Secret Weapon?” appeared on March 7, 2014. The comments include an extensive discussion about Campbell’s exchanges with Robert A. Heinlein.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset. The show notes are on the blog. 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!

Podcast Episode 21: A Gallant German Fighter Ace

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Boeing_B-17F_42-29513_in_flight,_1943.jpg

In December 1943, American bomber pilot Charlie Brown was flying a severely damaged B-17 out of Germany when he looked out the cockpit window and saw “the world’s worst nightmare” off his right wing — a fully armed German fighter whose pilot was staring back at him.

In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the strange drama that ensued, in which German fighter ace Franz Stigler weighed the human impulse to spare the wounded bomber against his patriotic duty to shoot him down. We’ll also consider whether animals follow the 10 commandments and wonder why a man might tell his nephew that his dog will be shot.

Our segment on Charlie Brown and Franz Stigler is drawn largely from Adam Makos’ 2012 book A Higher Call: The Incredible True Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-Torn Skies of World War II. The book trailer contains brief interviews with both men:

Sources for our segment on Ernest Thompson Seton and the 10 commandments:

Ernest Thompson Seton, “The Natural History of the Ten Commandments,” The Century, November 1907.

Theodore Roosevelt, “Nature Fakers,” Everybody’s Magazine, September 1907.

Ralph H. Lutts, The Nature Fakers: Wildlife, Science & Sentiment, 2001.

Paul Dickson, Words From the White House, 2013.

Our post about Seton’s belief that the commandments are “fundamental laws of all creation” and thus might be discovered in the animal world originally appeared on April 21, 2010.

The episode in which Seton’s father presented him with a bill for his rearing appears in his wife’s 1967 collection of his writings, By a Thousand Fires. Our post recounting it ran on July 8, 2014.

Here’s Jackie Cooper crying in Skippy (1931), just after hearing that his dog has been shot:

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset. The show notes are on the blog. 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!

Podcast Episode 20: Life Imitates Science Fiction

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Operation_Crossroads_Baker_Edit.jpg

In 1944, fully a year before the first successful nuclear test, Astounding Science Fiction magazine published a remarkably detailed description of an atomic bomb. The story, by the otherwise undistinguished author Cleve Cartmill, sent military intelligence racing to discover the source of his information — and his motives for publishing it.

In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the investigation that ensued, which involved legendary editor John W. Campbell and illuminated the imaginative power of science fiction and the role of censorship in times of war. We’ll also hear Mark Twain’s advice against being too clever and puzzle over the failure of a seemingly perfect art theft.

Sources for our segment on Cleve Cartmill:

Cleve Cartmill and Jean Marie Stine, Deadline & Other Controversial SF Classics, 2011.

Albert I. Berger, “The Astounding Investigation: The Manhattan Project’s Confrontation With Science Fiction,” Analog, September 1984.

Robert Silverberg, “Reflections: The Cleve Cartmill Affair” (in two parts), Asimov’s Science Fiction, September and October–November 2003.

Mark Twain appended the poem “Be Good, Be Good” to a letter to Margaret Blackmer on Nov. 14, 1907:

Be good, be good, be always good,
And now & then be clever,
But don’t you ever be too good,
Nor ever be too clever;
For such as be too awful good
They awful lonely are,
And such as often clever be
Get cut & stung & trodden on by persons of lesser mental capacity, for this kind do by a law of their construction regard exhibitions of superior intellectuality as an offensive impertinence leveled at their lack of this high gift, & are prompt to resent such-like exhibitions in the manner above indicated — & are they justifiable? alas, alas they

(It is not best to go on; I think the line is already longer than it ought to be for real true poetry.)

Listener mail:

The observation that a letter might be addressed to Glenn Seaborg by listing five chemical elements was made by Jeffrey Winters in “The Year in Science: Chemistry 1997,” Discover, January 1998. I don’t know whether any such letter was ever delivered successfully.

Jeff Van Bueren’s article “Postal Experiments” appeared in the Annals of Improbable Research, July/August 2000.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset. The show notes are on the blog. 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!

Podcast Episode 19: Testing the Post Office

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Duncan_Grant_artwork_for_a_British_Post_Office_poster.jpg

In 1898, 19-year-old W. Reginald Bray made a thorough study of British postal regulations, which laid out rules for mailing everything from bees to elephants and promised that “all letters must be delivered as addressed.” He resolved to give the service “a severe test without infringing its regulations.”

In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review the antics that followed, in which Bray sent turnips, bicycle pumps, shoes, and even himself through the British post. We’ll also sympathize with Lucius Chittenden, a U.S. Treasury official who had to sign 12,500 bonds in one harried weekend in 1862, and puzzle over the worrying train journey of a Wall Street banker.

Our segment on W.R. Bray, the Edwardian postal experimentalist, is based chiefly on John Tingey’s 2010 book The Englishman Who Posted Himself and Other Curious Objects.

Tingey maintains a website with an extensive catalog of the curios that Bray sent through the post.

Also David Leafe, “The Man Who Posted Himself,” Daily Mail, March 19, 2012.

In an article in the Royal Magazine in 1904, Bray noted the usefulness of the Post Office’s offer to conduct a person “to any address on payment of the mileage charge”:

What mothers know that, if they like, they can send their little ones to school as letters? Possibly, as soon as the ‘mother-readers’ see this, the Post Offices will be crowded with toddling infants, both in and out of ‘prams,’ all waiting to be taken to schools, or out for a day in the country. ‘But I should not like my child to be carried with postage stamps, and arrive at the school black with postmarks!’ That is what I expect some mothers will say.

Oh, don’t be alarmed, nothing like this will happen! All that you need to do is to take the child to the Post Office across the road, pay a small fee, and a messenger boy will escort the little one to the very door of the school. However Post Office officials do not appear anxious to gain fame as nurse providers to infants.

Past postal mischief on Futility Closet:

Torturing the Post Office

Post Haste

Riddling Letters

Sources for our segment on L.E. Chittenden, the iron-wristed Register of the Treasury under Lincoln:

Lucius Eugene Chittenden, Recollections of President Lincoln and His Administration, 1891.

Joseph F. Tuttle, “Abraham Lincoln, ‘The Perfect Ruler of Men,'” Historical Register of the Colorado Society of the Sons of the American Revolution, Nov. 1, 1906.

William Juengst, “In Ruffles and Starch Cuffs: The American Jews’ Part in Our International Relations,” The American Hebrew & Jewish Messenger, Sept. 30, 1921.

Arthur Laurents wrote a piece for the New York Herald Tribune in 1957 that discusses the development of West Side Story.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset. The show notes are on the blog. 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!

Podcast Episode 18: The Mystery of the Disappearing Airmen

http://www.history.navy.mil/photos/images/h53000/h53288c.htmpost

In 1942 Navy lieutenant Ernest Cody and ensign Charles Adams piloted a blimp out of San Francisco into the Pacific, looking for Japanese subs. A few hours later the blimp drifted back to land, empty. The parachutes and life raft were in their proper places and the radio was in working order, but there was no trace of Cody or Adams.

In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the events of that strange day and delve into the inquest that followed. We’ll also sample some unpublished items from Greg’s trove of Futility Closet research and puzzle over a drink of water that kills hundreds of people.

Sources for our segment on the L-8 blimp mystery:

Mark J. Price, “60 Years Later, Pilots’ Fate Still a Mystery — 2 Men Aboard Navy Blimp Vanished,” Seattle Times, Aug. 18, 2002.

Darold Fredricks, “Airships and Moffett Field,” San Mateo Daily Journal, July 22, 2013.

United Press International, “Goodyear Blimp Retires,” July 9, 1982.

Some inquest records are available online here.

Links mentioned in listener mail:

Thad Gillespie explains how George Washington came to have two different birth dates in this blog post.

This Gizmodo page, sent by Brian Drake, includes artists’ renditions of Pyke’s envisioned aircraft carrier and the Sagrada Familia made of pykrete; photos of students and professors from Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands using pykrete to make the world’s largest ice dome, with a 98-foot span; and a link to a video of the making of the dome.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset. The show notes are on the blog. 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!

Podcast Episode 17: An Aircraft Carrier Made of Ice

http://collectionscanada.gc.ca/pam_archives/index.php?fuseaction=genitem.displayItem&lang=&rec_nbr=3237626&rec_nbr_list=3237626

In 1943 German submarines were devastating the merchant convoys carrying supplies to Britain. Unable to protect them with aircraft or conventional ships, the resource-strapped Royal Navy considered an outlandish solution: a 2-million-ton aircraft carrier made of ice.

In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the strange history of the project, which Winston Churchill initially praised as dazzling but which ended in ignominy at the bottom of a Canadian lake. We’ll also discover a love pledge hidden for 200 years in the heart of a Yorkshire tree and puzzle over the deaths of two men in a remote cabin.

Our segment on Project Habbakuk is based chiefly on L.D. Cross’ 2012 book Code Name Habbakuk. In the photo above, research workers cut ice and form it into beams on Lake Louise near the Chateau Lake Louise resort hotel in 1943.

Our post on the Yorkshire inscription appeared on Dec. 18, 2009. Sources for the podcast segment:

John Lindley, The Theory and Practice of Horticulture, 1855, citing the Gardener’s Chronicle of 1841.

“Redcarre, a Poor Fysher Towne,” in the Journal of Horticulture and Practical Gardening, Aug. 4, 1870.

“Local Writers and Local Worthies: William and Cholmley Turner,” in William Hall Burnett, Old Cleveland: Being a Collection of Papers, 1886.

Kazlitt Arvine, Cyclopaedia of Anecdotes of Literature and the Fine Arts, 1856.

Here’s the illustration from Lindley:

tree inscription

The inscription reads:

THIS TRE
LOVNG
TIME
WITNES
BEARE
OF TOW
LOVRS
THAT DID
WALK HEA
RE

Thomas Browne’s poem “The Lovers to Their Favourite Tree” appears in his Poems on Several Occasions, from 1800:

Long the wintry tempests braving,
Still this short inscription keep;
Still preserve this rude engraving,
On thy bark imprinted deep:
This tree long time witness bear,
Two true-lovers did walk here.

By the softest ties united,
Love has bound our souls in one;
And by mutual promise plighted,
Waits the nuptial rite alone–
Thou, a faithful witness bear,
Of our plighted promise here.

Tho’ our sires would gladly sever
Those firm ties they disallow,
Yet they cannot part us ever —
We will keep our faithful vow,
And in spite of threats severe,
Still will meet each other here.

While the dusky shade concealing,
Veils the faultless fraud of love,
We from sleepless pillows stealing,
Nightly seek the silent grove;
And escaped from eyes severe,
Dare to meet each other here.

Wealth and titles disregarding
(Idols of the sordid mind),
Calm content true love rewarding,
In the bliss we wish to find.—
Thou tree, long time witness bear,
Two such Lovers did walk here.

To our faithful love consenting
(Love unchang’d by time or tide),
Should our haughty sires relenting,
Give the sanction yet deny’d;
‘Midst the scenes to mem’ry dear,
Still we oft will wander here.

Then our ev’ry wish compleated,
Crown’d by kinder fates at last,
All beneath thy shadow seated,
We will talk of seasons past;
When, by night, in silent fear,
We did meet each other here.

On thy yielding bark, engraving
Now in short our tender tale,
Long, time’s roughest tempest braving,
Spread thy branches to the gale;
And, for ages, witness bear,
Two True-lovers did walk here.

Browne writes, “There are likewise other letters, which seem to be the initial of the Lover’s names, who appear to have frequented the solitary spot where the tree has grown, to vent the effusions of their mutual passion, and to enjoy the pleasure of each other’s conversation sequestered and unobserved.” The other writers don’t mention this.

Frances Cornford’s triolet “To a Fat Lady Seen From the Train” appeared in her volume Poems in 1910:

O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
Missing so much and so much?
O fat white woman whom nobody loves,
Why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
When the grass is soft as the breast of doves
And shivering-sweet to the touch?
O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
Missing so much and so much?

G.K. Chesterton’s response, “The Fat Lady Answers,” appeared in his Collected Poems of 1927:

Why do you rush through the field in trains,
Guessing so much and so much?
Why do you flash through the flowery meads,
Fat-head poet that nobody reads;
And why do you know such a frightful lot
About people in gloves and such?

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset. The show notes are on the blog. 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!

Podcast Episode 16: A Very Popular Sack of Flour

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Reuel_Colt_Gridley_circa_1864.jpg

In 1864 Nevada mining merchant Reuel Gridley found a unique way to raise money for wounded Union soldiers: He repeatedly auctioned the same 50-pound sack of flour, raising $250,000 from sympathetic donors across the country.

In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll discover the origins of Gridley’s floury odyssey. We’ll also hear H.L. Mencken’s translation of the Declaration of Independence into American English and try to figure out where tourism increases the price of electricity.

Sources for our story on Reuel Gridley and the flour auction:

Ralph Lea and Christi Kennedy, “Reuel Gridley and a Sack of Flour,” Lodi, Calif., News-Sentinel, Sept. 30, 2005.

Mark Twain, Roughing It, 1872.

Here’s his monument, in the Stockton Rural Cemetery in California:

The empty flour sack is in the collection of the Nevada Historical Society.

“The Declaration of Independence in American,” by H.L. Mencken, from The American Language, 1921:

When things get so balled up that the people of a country have to cut loose from some other country, and go it on their own hook, without asking no permission from nobody, excepting maybe God Almighty, then they ought to let everybody know why they done it, so that everybody can see they are on the level, and not trying to put nothing over on nobody.

All we got to say on this proposition is this: first, you and me is as good as anybody else, and maybe a damn sight better; second, nobody ain’t got no right to take away none of our rights; third, every man has got a right to live, to come and go as he pleases, and to have a good time however he likes, so long as he don’t interfere with nobody else. That any government that don’t give a man these rights ain’t worth a damn; also, people ought to choose the kind of goverment they want themselves, and nobody else ought to have no say in the matter. That whenever any goverment don’t do this, then the people have got a right to can it and put in one that will take care of their interests. Of course, that don’t mean having a revolution every day like them South American coons and yellow-bellies and Bolsheviki, or every time some job-holder does something he ain’t got no business to do. It is better to stand a little graft, etc., than to have revolutions all the time, like them coons and Bolsheviki, and any man that wasn’t a anarchist or one of them I. W. W.’s would say the same. But when things get so bad that a man ain’t hardly got no rights at all no more, but you might almost call him a slave, then everybody ought to get together and throw the grafters out, and put in new ones who won’t carry on so high and steal so much, and then watch them. This is the proposition the people of these Colonies is up against, and they have got tired of it, and won’t stand it no more. The administration of the present King, George III, has been rotten from the start, and when anybody kicked about it he always tried to get away with it by strong-arm work. Here is some of the rough stuff he has pulled:

He vetoed bills in the Legislature that everybody was in favor of, and hardly nobody was against.

He wouldn’t allow no law to be passed without it was first put up to him, and then he stuck it in his pocket and let on he forgot about it, and didn’t pay no attention to no kicks.

When people went to work and gone to him and asked him to put through a law about this or that, he give them their choice: either they had to shut down the Legislature and let him pass it all by him-self, or they couldn’t have it at all.

He made the Legislature meet at one-horse thank-towns out in the alfalfa belt, so that hardly nobody could get there and most of the leaders would stay home and let him go to work and do things as he pleased.

He give the Legislature the air, and sent the members home every time they stood up to him and give him a call-down.

When a Legislature was busted up he wouldn’t allow no new one to be elected, so that there wasn’t nobody left to run things, but anybody could walk in and do whatever they pleased.

He tried to scare people outen moving into these States, and made it so hard for a wop or one of them poor kikes to get his papers that he would rather stay home and not try it, and then, when he come in, he wouldn’t let him have no land, and so he either went home again or never come.

He monkeyed with the courts, and didn’t hire enough judges to do the work, and so a person had to wait so long for his case to come up that he got sick of waiting, and went home, and so never got what was coming to him.

He got the judges under his thumb by turning them out when they done anything he didn’t like, or holding up their salaries, so that they had to cough up or not get no money.

He made a lot of new jobs, and give them to loafers that nobody knowed nothing about, and the poor people had to pay the bill, whether they wanted to or not.

Without no war going on, he kept an army loafing around the country, no matter how much people kicked about it.

He let the army run things to suit theirself and never paid no attention whatsoever to nobody which didn’t wear no uniform.

He let grafters run loose, from God knows where, and give them the say in everything, and let them put over such things as the following:

Making poor people board and lodge a lot of soldiers they ain’t got no use for, and don’t want to see loafing around.

When the soldiers kill a man, framing it up so that they would get off.

Interfering with business.

Making us pay taxes without asking us whether we thought the things we had to pay taxes for was something that was worth paying taxes for or not.

When a man was arrested and asked for a jury trial, not letting him have no jury trial.

Chasing men out of the country, without being guilty of nothing, and trying them somewheres else for what they done here.

In countries that border on us, he put in bum goverments, and then tried to spread them out, so that by and by they would take in this country too, or make our own goverment as bum as they was. He never paid no attention whatever to the Constitution, but he went to work and repealed laws that everybody was satisfied with and hardly nobody was against, and tried to fix the goverment so that he could do whatever he pleased.

He busted up the Legislatures and let on he could do all the work better by himself.

Now he washes his hands of us and even declares war on us, so we don’t owe him nothing, and whatever authority he ever had he ain’t got no more.

He has burned down towns, shot down people like dogs, and raised hell against us out on the ocean.

He hired whole regiments of Dutch, etc., to fight us, and told them they could have anything they wanted if they could take it away from us, and sicked these Dutch, etc., on us without paying no attention whatever to international law.

He grabbed our own people when he found them in ships on the ocean, and shoved guns into their hands, and made them fight against us, no matter how much they didn’t want to.

He stirred up the Indians, and give them arms ammunition, and told them to go to it, and they have killed men, women and children, and don’t care which.

Every time he has went to work and pulled any of these things, we have went to work and put in a kick, but every time we have went to work and put in a kick he has went to work and did it again. When a man keeps on handing out such rough stuff all the time, all you can say is that he ain’t got no class and ain’t fitten to have no authority over people who have got any rights, and he ought to be kicked out.

When we complained to the English we didn’t get no more satisfaction. Almost every day we warned them that the politicians over there was doing things to us that they didn’t have no right to do. We kept on reminding them who we were, and what we was doing here, and how we come to come here. We asked them to get us a square deal, and told them that if this thing kept on we’d have to do something about it and maybe they wouldn’t like it. But the more we talked, the more they didn’t pay no attention to us. Therefore, if they ain’t for us they must be agin us, and we are ready to give them the fight of their lives, or to shake hands when it is over.

Therefore be it resolved, That we, the representatives of the people of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, hereby declare as follows: That the United States, which was the United Colonies in former times, is now free and independent, and ought to be; that we have throwed out the English Kings and don’t want to have nothing to do with him no more, and are not in England no more; and that,being as we are now free and independent, we can do anything that free and independent parties can do, especially declare war, make peace, sign treaties, go into business, etc. And we swear on the Bible on this proposition, one and all, and agree to stick to it no matter what happens, whether we win or we lose, and whether we get away with it or get the worst of it, no matter whether we lose all our property by it or even get hung for it.

Sources for the gruesome story of the Smalls lighthouse:

Douglas Bland Hague, Lighthouses of Wales: Their Architecture and Archaeology, 1994.

Christopher Nicholson, Rock Lighthouses of Britain, 1983.

Nicholson writes that Howell’s “ordeal had affected him so greatly it was said that some of his friends did not recognize him on his return.”

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset. The show notes are on the blog. 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!

Podcast Episode 15: The Flannan Isles Mystery

In 1900 three lighthouse keepers vanished from a remote, featureless island in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. The lighthouse was in good order and the log showed no sign of trouble, but no trace of the keepers has ever been found. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll explore the conundrum of the men’s disappearance — a classic mystery of sea lore.

We’ll also ponder the whereabouts of Robert Louis Stevenson’s birthday, admire Esaw Wood’s quest for a wood saw that would saw wood, and wonder why drinking a glass of water might necessitate a call to the auto club.

Sources for our segment on the Flannan Isles lighthouse:

Christopher Nicholson, Rock Lighthouses of Britain, 1983.

“The Mystery of Flannan Isle,” Northern Lighthouse Board, retrieved June 18, 2014.

Mike Dash, “The Vanishing Lighthousemen of Eilean Mór,” Fortean Studies 4 (1998).

Sources for the story about Robert Louis Stevenson’s bequest of his birthday:

Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Graham Balfour, Works, Volume 24, 1905.

Elmo Scott Watson, “Famous Writer Gave Most Unusual ‘Christmas Gift’ in All History,” Ironwood [Mich.] Times, Dec. 23, 1938.

“Inherits Birthday,” Sherbrooke [Quebec] Telegram, Jan. 11, 1934.

Here’s the deed:

Vailima, June 19, 1891.

I, Robert Louis Stevenson, Advocate of the Scots Bar, author of The Master of Ballantrae and Moral Emblems, stuck civil engineer, sole owner and patentee of the Palace and Plantation known as Vailima in the island of Upolu, Samoa, a British Subject, being in sound mind, and pretty well, I thank you, in body:

In consideration that Miss Annie H. Ide, daughter of H.C. Ide, in the town of Saint Johnsbury, in the county of Caledonia, in the state of Vermont, United States of America, was born, out of all reason, upon Christmas Day, and is therefore out of all justice denied the consolation and profit of a proper birthday;

And considering that I, the said Robert Louis Stevenson, have attained an age when O, we never mention it, and that I have now no further use for a birthday of any description; …

And in consideration that I have met H.C. Ide, the father of the said Annie H. Ide, and found him about as white a land commissioner as I require:

Have transferred, and do hereby transfer, to the said Annie H. Ide, all and whole my rights and privileges in the thirteenth day of November, formerly my birthday, now, hereby, and henceforth, the birthday of the said Annie H. Ide, to have, hold, exercise, and enjoy the same in the customary manner, by the sporting of fine raiment, eating of rich meats, and receipt of gifts, compliments, and copies of verse, according to the manner of our ancestors;

And I direct the said Annie H. Ide to add to the said name of Annie H. Ide the name Louisa — at least in private; and I charge her to use my said birthday with moderation and humanity, et tamquam bona filia familia, the said birthday not being so young as it once was, and having carried me in a very satisfactory manner since I can remember;

And in case the said Annie H. Ide shall neglect or contravene either of the above conditions, I hereby revoke the donation and transfer my rights in the said birthday to the President of the United States of America for the time being:

In witness whereof I have hereto set my hand and seal this nineteenth day of June in the year of grace eighteen hundred and ninety-one.

Robert Louis Stevenson.
Witness, Lloyd Osbourne,
Witness, Harold Watts.

To Ide Stevenson wrote, “Herewith please find the Document, which I trust will prove sufficient in law. It seems to me very attractive in its eclecticism; Scots, English, and Roman law phrases are all indifferently introduced, and a quotation from the works of Haynes Bailey can hardly fail to attract the indulgence of the Bench.”

A bizarre coincidence: Just before we recorded this episode I discovered that Robert Louis Stevenson’s cousin, David Alan Stevenson, designed the Flannan Isles lighthouse! I’d had no inkling of this in planning or writing the episode; the two stories are set literally a world apart.

“The Story of Esaw Wood,” by W.E. Southwick, from Carolyn Wells’ 1918 anthology Such Nonsense!:

Esaw Wood sawed wood.

Esaw Wood would saw wood!

All the wood Esaw Wood saw Esaw Wood would saw. In other words, all the wood Esaw saw to saw Esaw sought to saw.

Oh, the wood Wood would saw! And oh, the wood-saw with which Wood would saw wood.

But one day Wood’s wood-saw would saw no wood, and thus the wood Wood sawed was not the wood Wood would saw if Wood’s wood-saw would saw wood.

Now, Wood would saw wood with a wood-saw that would saw wood, so Esaw sought a saw that would saw wood.

One day Esaw saw a saw saw wood as no other wood-saw Wood saw would saw wood.

In fact, of all the wood-saws Wood ever saw saw wood Wood never saw a wood-saw that would saw wood as the wood-saw Wood saw saw wood would saw wood, and I never saw a wood-saw that would saw as the wood-saw Wood saw would saw until I saw Esaw Wood saw wood with the wood-saw Wood saw saw wood.

Now Wood saws wood with the wood-saw Wood saw saw wood.

Oh, the wood the wood-saw Wood saw would saw!

Oh, the wood Wood’s woodshed would shed when Wood would saw wood with the wood-saw Wood saw saw wood!

Finally, no man may ever know how much wood the wood-saw Wood saw would saw, if the wood-saw Wood saw would saw all the wood the wood-saw Wood saw would saw.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset. The show notes are on the blog. 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!