Podcast

Podcast Episode 47: The Scariest Travel Books Ever Written

Favell Lee Mortimer

Victorian children’s author Favell Lee Mortimer published three bizarre travel books that described a world full of death, vice, and peril. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll sample her terrifying descriptions of the lands beyond England and wonder what led her to write them.

We’ll also review the movie career of an Alaskan sled dog, learn about the Soviet Union’s domestication of silver foxes, and puzzle over some curious noises in a soccer stadium.

Favell Lee Mortimer’s travel books for children are all available online:

The Countries of Europe Described (1850)

Far Off, or, Asia and Australia Described (1852)

Far Off, or, Africa and America Described (1854)

In 2005 Todd Pruzan published a collection of the most xenophobic passages, titled The Clumsiest People in Europe: Or, Mrs. Mortimer’s Bad-Tempered Guide to the Victorian World.

Listener mail:

Here’s a BBC documentary on 1925 serum run to Nome.

Fast Company has an article about the breeding of friendly foxes by Russian researchers.

And National Geographic goes into greater depth regarding the genetics and evolutionary aspects of domestication in this 2011 article.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was submitted by listener David White, who sent these corroborating links (warning — these 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.

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 via the Donate button in the sidebar 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. And you can finally follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Thanks for listening!

Podcast Episode 46: The 1925 Serum Run to Nome

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

In 1925, Nome, Alaska, was struck by an outbreak of diphtheria, and only a relay of dogsleds could deliver the life-saving serum in time. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the dogs’ desperate race through arctic blizzards to save the town from epidemic.

We’ll also hear a song about S.A. Andree’s balloon expedition to the North Pole and puzzle over a lost accomplishment of ancient civilizations.

Our segment on the 1925 serum run to Nome was based chiefly on Gay Salisbury and Laney Salisbury’s excellent 2003 book The Cruelest Miles. Here’s the statue of Balto, who led the final sled into Nome, in Central Park:

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

The inscription reads “Dedicated to the indomitable spirit of the sled dogs that relayed antitoxin 600 miles over rough ice, across treacherous waters, through arctic blizzards, from Nenona to the relief of stricken Nome.”

“The Ballad of Knut and Nils,” Yann and Cory Seznec’s song honoring S.A. Andrée’s disastrous 1897 attempt to reach the North Pole by balloon, is on Yann’s blog. You can find more of the brothers’ music here.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle is from Paul Sloane and Des McHale’s 1998 book Ingenious Lateral Thinking Puzzles. Sloane invites interested readers to his Lateral Puzzles Forum, where visitors can set and solve these puzzles interactively.

This week’s episode is sponsored by our patrons and by Harry’s — go to Harrys.com now and they’ll give you $5 off if you use the coupon code CLOSET with your first purchase.

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.

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 via the Donate button in the sidebar 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!

Podcast Episode 45: Crossing Africa for Love

https://books.google.com/books?id=MT4uAQAAIAAJ

When Ewart Grogan was denied permission to marry his sweetheart, he set out to walk the length of Africa to prove himself worthy of her. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll find out whether Ewart’s romantic quest succeeded.

We’ll also get an update on the criminal history of Donald Duck’s hometown, and try to figure out how a groom ends up drowning on his wedding night.

Sources for our segment on Ewart Grogan’s traversal of Africa:

Ewart Scott Grogan and Arthur Henry Sharp, From the Cape to Cairo: The First Traverse of Africa From South to North, 1902.

Edward Paice, Lost Lion of Empire: The Life of Cape-to-Cairo Grogan, 2001.

Julian Smith, Crossing the Heart of Africa: An Odyssey of Love and Adventure, 2010.

Norman Wymer, The Man From the Cape, 1959.

Martin Dugard, The Explorers, 2014.

Brian O’Brien, “All for the Love of a Lady,” in The Best of Field and Stream: 100 Years of Great Writing from America’s Premier Sporting Magazine, 2002.

“One Incredibly Long Church Aisle,” Times Higher Education, June 15, 2001.

“A Man Who Did Derring-Do,” Telegraph, March 31, 2001.

Listener Ed Kitson directed us to this letter from Jane Baillie Welsh to Thomas Carlyle, dated May 7, 1822, in which she writes, “I am not at all the sort of person you and I took me for.”

And listener Alex Klapheke sent us a copy of Swiss criminologist Karl-Ludwig Kunz’s 2004 paper “Criminal Policy in Duckburg,” from Images of Crime II: Representations of Crime and the Criminal in Politics, Society, the Media, and the Arts, edited by Hans-Jörg Albrecht, Telemach Serassis, and Harald Kania.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Price Tipping.

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.

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 via the Donate button in the sidebar 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!

Podcast Episode 44: Ballooning to the North Pole

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Andree.launch.02.png

In 1897, Swedish patent engineer S.A. Andrée set out in a quixotic bid to reach the North Pole in a hydrogen balloon, departing from Norway with two companions and hoping to drift over the top of the world and come down somewhere in the Bering Strait. Instead the expedition vanished. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll learn what happened to the Eagle and its three brave passengers, and consider the role of hindsight in the writing of history.

We’ll also learn what the White House planned to do if Neil Armstrong became stranded on the moon, and puzzle over why seeing a plane flying upside down would impact a woman’s job.

Sources for our segment on S.A. Andrée’s attempt to reach the North Pole by balloon:

Henri Lachambre and Alexis Machuron, Andrée and His Balloon, 1898.

George Palmer Putnam, Andrée: The Record of a Tragic Adventure, 1930.

Swedish Society for Anthropology and Geology, Andrée’s Story, 1930.

Swedish Society for Anthropology and Geology, The Andrée Diaries, 1931.

Alec Wilkinson, The Ice Balloon: S.A. Andrée and the Heroic Age of Arctic Exploration, 2011.

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Eagle-crashed.jpg

Here’s the Eagle after its downfall, as recorded by Nils Strindberg’s cartographic camera. Even if he’d succeeded, Andrée’s bid would have tested the limits of balloon flight: 750 miles separated Spitzbergen from the pole, and the three men would have had to cross another thousand miles to reach the Bering Strait. To get to the pole and then return safely to land in almost any direction would have meant traveling 1,500 miles aloft, and a balloon must travel almost always directly to leeward.

Here’s the eulogy that William Safire prepared for Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in the event they became stranded on the moon in July 1969:

Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.

These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.

These two men are laying down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.

They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by the nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown.

In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man.

In ancient days, men looked at the stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.

Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.

For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.

The last line is an allusion to Rupert Brooke’s 1914 poem “The Soldier”:

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener David White, who sent these associated links (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.

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 via the Donate button in the sidebar 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!

Podcast Episode 43: Ben Franklin’s Guide to Living

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As a young man, Benjamin Franklin drew up a “plan for attaining moral perfection” based on a list of 13 virtues. Half a century later he credited the plan for much of his success in life. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll explore Franklin’s self-improvement plan and find out which vices gave him the most trouble.

We’ll also learn how activist Natan Sharansky used chess to stay sane in Soviet prisons and puzzle over why the Pentagon has so many bathrooms.

Sources for our segment on Benjamin Franklin’s 13 virtues:

Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography, 1791.

Gordon S. Wood, The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, 2005.

Dinah Birch, ed., The Oxford Companion to English Literature, 2009.

Here’s Franklin’s list of virtues:

  1. Temperance. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
  2. Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
  3. Order. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
  4. Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
  5. Frugality. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
  6. Industry. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
  7. Sincerity. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly; and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
  8. Justice. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
  9. Moderation. Avoid extreams; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
  10. Cleanliness. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.
  11. Tranquillity. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
  12. Chastity. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
  13. Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

And here’s a sample page from his “little book”:

https://books.google.com/books?id=w0YSAAAAYAAJ

Related: As an exercise in penmanship, the teenage George Washington copied out “110 rules of civility and decent behavior in company and conversation,” and Thomas Jefferson once sent a “decalogue of canons for observation in practical life” to the new father of a baby boy.

Listener mail: Human rights activist Natan Sharansky’s use of mental chess to keep himself sane in Soviet prisons is detailed in his 1988 memoir Fear No Evil and in this BBC News Magazine article.

Greg’s research queries:

The authority on jumping up steps at Trinity College, Cambridge, seems to be G.M. Trevelyan, who became Master there in 1940. In his Trinity College: An Historical Sketch (1972), he writes:

It is a well-authenticated Trinity tradition that Whewell, when Master, jumped up the hall steps at one leap, a feat that is very seldom accomplished even by youthful athletes. Sir George Young told his son Geoffrey Young that he had actually witnessed this performance; Sir George said that the master, in cap and gown, found some undergraduates trying in vain to accomplish the feat. He clapped his cap firmly on his head, took the run, and reached the top of the steps at one bound.

In a letter to the Times on March 16, 1944, he writes, “On a recent visit to Cambridge, General Montgomery, on entering the Great Court at this college, pointed to the hall steps and said to me, ‘Those were the steps my father jumped up at one bound.’ The general’s father, Henry Hutchinson Montgomery, afterwards Bishop, was an undergraduate at Trinity from 1866 to 1870. He came here from Dr Butler’s Harrow with a great reputation as a runner and jumper.”

He adds, “Now we have a fully authenticated case of which I had not heard. Bishop Montgomery himself told his son the general, and the story was often told in the family. The general has asked me to send the facts to you in the hope that publication may elicit further facts.” I don’t know whether he ever received any.

As far as I can tell, Swiss criminologist Karl-Ludwig Kunz’s essay “Criminal Policy in Duckburg” was published only in a 2009 collection titled Images of Crime 3: Representations of Crime and the Criminal, which I can’t seem to get my hands on. The fullest discussion I’ve been able to find in English is this brief 1998 article from the Independent.

The program to distribute bananas to Icelandic children in 1952 is mentioned in science writer Willy Ley’s 1954 book Engineers’ Dreams.

The credit “Diversions by Irving Schwartz” in the 1966 movie The Sand Pebbles is mentioned (but not really explained) in this 2007 Telegram obituary of character actor Joseph di Reda.

MIT historian T.F. Peterson’s 2003 book Nightwork: A History of Hacks and Pranks at MIT says that the legend IHTFP (“I hate this fucking place”) “has been unofficially documented in both the U.S. Air Force and at MIT as far back as the 1950s.” This MIT page traces it as far back as 1960 and gives dozens of euphemistic variants.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was submitted by listener Paul Kapp.

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.

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 via the Donate button in the sidebar 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!

Podcast Episode 42: The Balmis Expedition: Using Orphans to Combat Smallpox


In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell how Spanish authorities found an ingenious way to use orphans to bring the smallpox vaccine to the American colonies in 1803. The Balmis Expedition overcame the problems of transporting a fragile vaccine over a long voyage and is credited with saving at least 100,000 lives in the New World.

We’ll also get some listener updates to the Lady Be Good story and puzzle over why a man would find it more convenient to drive two cars than one.

Sources for our segment on the Balmis expedition:

J. Antonio Aldrete, “Smallpox Vaccination in the Early 19th Century Using Live Carriers: The Travels of Francisco Xavier de Balmis,” Southern Medical Journal, April 2004.

Carlos Franco-Paredes, Lorena Lammoglia and José Ignacio Santos-Preciado, “The Spanish Royal Philanthropic Expedition to Bring Smallpox Vaccination to the New World and Asia in the 19th Century,” Clinical Infectious Diseases, Nov. 1, 2005.

Catherine Mark and José G. Rigau-Pérez, “The World’s First Immunization Campaign: The Spanish Smallpox Vaccine Expedition, 1803-1813,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine, Spring 2009.

John W.R. McIntyre, “Smallpox and Its Control in Canada,” Canadian Medical Association Journal, Dec. 14, 1999.

Pan-American Health Organization: The Balmis-Salvany Smallpox Expedition: The First Public Health Vaccination Campaign in South America (accessed Jan. 18, 2015).

Listener Roger Beck sent these images of the memorial and propeller from the Lady Be Good in Houghton, Mich.:

Lady Be Good memorial

Lady Be Good propeller

And listener Dan Patterson alerted us to ladybegood.net, an impressive and growing repository of information about the “ghost bomber,” including the recovered diaries of co-pilot Robert Toner and flight engineer Harold Ripslinger and some ingenious reconstructions of the lost plane’s flight path after the nine crewmen bailed out.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was submitted by listener David White, who sent these corroborating links (warning — these 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.

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 via the Donate button in the sidebar 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!

Podcast Episode 41: The Tragic Tale of the Lady Be Good

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The American bomber Lady Be Good left North Africa for a bombing run over Italy in 1943. It wasn’t seen again until 15 years later, when explorers discovered its broken remains deep in the Libyan desert. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review the strange history of the lost aircraft and trace the desperate last days of its nine crewmen.

We’ll also climb some twisted family trees and puzzle over the Greek philosopher Thales’ struggles with a recalcitrant mule.

Sources for our segment on the Lady Be Good:

Mario Martinez, Lady’s Men, 1995.

Dennis E. McClendon, The Lady Be Good: Mystery Bomber of World War II, 1962.

Above: The Lady Be Good as she was discovered 440 miles southeast of Benghazi, in remarkably good condition for a plane that had landed itself with one working engine and then lain in the desert for 15 years. The tires on the nose wheel and one of the main landing wheels were undamaged and fully inflated.

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

The crew: William J. Hatton, pilot; Robert F. Toner, co-pilot; D.P. Hays, navigator; John S. Woravka, bombardier; Harold J. Ripslinger, flight engineer; Robert E. LaMotte, radio operator; Guy E. Shelley Jr., waist gunner; Vernon L. Moore, waist gunner; and S.E. Adams, tail gunner. Hatton, the leader, was probably the first to die. Five months before his posting to Libya, he had written to his mother, “There are about four places they can send me. Arizona, Idaho, and Spokane or Tacoma, Washington. I am sitting here waiting to see which one it is. I hope it isn’t Arizona because I am tired of sand.”

Listener mail:

Our Dec. 21 post “A Man His Own Grandfather,” reprinting an 1868 item about a man whose stepdaughter marries his father, follows a similar post from 2009, “Proof That a Man Can Be His Own Grandfather,” which includes a diagram.

The song “I’m My Own Grandpa” was released by Lonzo & Oscar in 1947. This cover version includes a diagram that explains the relationships:

Thanks to reader David Wright for sending a link to an article in Geneaology Magazine that traces the history of the idea, and to reader Mark Williamson for sharing his own convoluted family tree:

My own mother was an only child, whose father died when she was 9 years old. Her mother then remarried an older man who had several children (and they went on to have several more together). My maternal grandmother’s younger brother was in the military, and when home on leave fell in love with one of my mother’s stepsisters, and they got married and had children of their own. So my grandmother’s brother was my great-uncle, and his wife was my great-aunt, and their children were my second cousins, but he was also my uncle because he was married to my aunt (my mother’s stepsister) and their children were my first cousins. And their father was also their great-uncle, since he was their grandmother’s brother, and therefore their mother was their great-aunt since she was married to their great-uncle. And since they were their great-aunt’s children, that made them their own second cousins.

The first of this week’s two lateral thinking puzzles was inspired by a chance encounter with N.L. Mackenzie’s article “The Nastiness of Mathematicians” in the Pi Mu Epsilon Journal (vol. 9, no. 10, Spring 1994) while toiling at NC State this week. It’s not certain that the story actually befell Thales; the same story is told in Aesop’s fable “The Salt Merchant and His Ass.”

The second puzzle is drawn from Eliot Hearst and John Knott’s excellent 2009 book Blindfold Chess and from Miguel Najdorf’s New York Times obituary (warning: this spoils the puzzle).

Hearst and Knott’s website explains how Najdorf’s longstanding record of 45 blindfold games played simultaneously was broken in 2011 by Marc Lang of Günzburg, Germany. Lang played 46 games and scored +25, =19, -2, as against Najdorf’s astounding +39, =4, -2 in São Paulo in 1947.

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.

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 via the Donate button in the sidebar 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!

Podcast Episode 40: The Mary Celeste: A Great Sea Mystery

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

In 1872 the British merchant ship Mary Celeste was discovered drifting and apparently abandoned 600 miles off the coast of Portugal. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review this classic mystery of the sea: Why would 10 people flee a well-provisioned, seaworthy ship in fine weather?

We’ll also get an update on the legal rights of apes and puzzle over why a woman would not intervene when her sister is drugged.

Sources for our segment on the Mary Celeste:

Paul Begg, Mary Celeste: The Greatest Mystery of the Sea, 2005.

Charles Edey Fay, Mary Celeste: The Odyssey of an Abandoned Ship, 1942.

J.L. Hornibrook, “The Case of the ‘Mary Celeste': An Ocean Mystery,” Chambers Journal, Sept. 17, 1904.

Listener mail:

George M. Walsh, “Chimpanzees Don’t Have The Same Rights As Humans, New York Court Rules,” Associated Press, Dec. 5, 2014.

The opinion from the New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division:

The People of the State of New York ex rel. The Nonhuman Rights Project, Inc., on Behalf of Tommy, Appellant, v. Patrick C. Lavery, Individually and as an Officer of Circle L Trailer Sales, Inc., et al.

“Orangutan in Argentina Zoo Recognised by Court as ‘Non-Human Person’,” Guardian, Dec. 21, 2014.

Coffitivity “recreates the ambient sounds of a cafe to boost your creativity and help you work better.”

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was submitted 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.

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 via the Donate button in the sidebar 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!

Podcast Episode 39: Lateral Thinking Puzzles

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Here are eight new lateral thinking puzzles that you can try on your friends and family over the holidays — see who can make sense of these odd scenarios using only yes-or-no questions.

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 via the PayPal button in the sidebar of this website.

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 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.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Actual-tamam-shud.jpg

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!