In 1943 Alexander Woollcott died of a heart attack during a radio show in which he was discussing Hitler with four other people. Listeners noticed only that he was unusually quiet.

In 1958 Tyrone Power succumbed to a heart attack while filming a fencing scene in Solomon and Sheba.

In 1960 baritone Leonard Warren died during a performance of Verdi’s La forza del destino at the Met. He was about to sing Morir, tremenda cosa (“to die, a momentous thing”).

In 1968 Joseph Keilberth collapsed while conducting Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in exactly the same place that Felix Mottl was similarly stricken in 1911.

In 1984 British comedian Tommy Cooper collapsed and died during a performance on a TV variety show. Cooper was famous for pratfalls, and for some minutes the audience assumed that his struggles were part of the act.

In 1991 Redd Foxx died of a heart attack while shooting his sitcom The Royal Family. At first onlookers thought he was joking, as his character Fred Sanford was famous for faking heart attacks.

In 1996 tenor Richard Versalle died at the Met during the première of Janácek’s The Makropulos Case. He had just sung the line “Too bad you can live only so long.”

(Thanks, Kyle.)

Moving Day


Something significant happened in Tandil, Argentina, on Feb. 29, 1912 — a 300-ton stone that had perched impossibly on the edge of a local hill suddenly tumbled to the bottom and broke into pieces.

Whether this happened due to vandalism or to blasting at a local quarry is unknown — there were no witnesses.

In 2007 the town replaced it with an exact replica. To date, it’s still there.



On D-Day, Dwight Eisenhower carried this note in his wallet:

Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.

He threw it away the next day, but an aide retrieved it. Today it’s in his presidential library.



“Blasphemy depends upon belief, and is fading with it. If any one doubts this, let him sit down seriously and try to think blasphemous thoughts about Thor. I think his family will find him at the end of the day in a state of some exhaustion.”

— G.K. Chesterton, Heretics, 1906

One Salad, To Go


Stranded in Java after the Japanese invasion of 1941, the Dutch minesweeper Abraham Crijnssen found a unique way to sneak out: The crew covered the decks with jungle foliage and painted the hull to resemble cliffs, giving the ship the appearance of a small island.

Traveling only at night and anchoring near shore, the minesweeper gradually made her way to West Australia, becoming the last Allied vessel to escape Java and the only one of her class in the region to survive.

(Thanks, Paul.)

The Heidelberg Tun


Germany’s Heidelberg Castle is home to a famously enormous wine barrel, capable of holding 57,853 U.S. gallons. This is actually the most recent of four enormous wine barrels that the castle has housed, the first built in 1591. Unfortunately it’s empty — today it serves mostly as a tourist attraction and a foundation for the fanciful dance floor above it.

“Everybody has heard of the great Heidelberg Tun,” wrote Mark Twain in A Tramp Abroad, “and most people have seen it, no doubt. It is a wine-cask as big as a cottage, and some traditions say it holds eighteen thousand bottles, and other traditions say it holds eighteen hundred million barrels. I think it likely that one of these statements is a mistake, and the other is a lie. However, the mere matter of capacity is a thing of no sort of consequence, since the cask is empty, and indeed has always been empty, history says. An empty cask the size of a cathedral could excite but little emotion in me.”

Missing You


The first men to spend a winter in Antarctica were so desperate for feminine society that they organized a “beauty contest” among the illustrations in a Paris journal. Icebound in the Bellinghausen Sea in 1898, the men of the Belgian research ship Belgica numbered 464 magazine pictures, “illustrating women famous for graces of form and manner, and public notoriety,” and for each of its members the group chose the woman “most suitable for his welfare, happiness, etc.” They also awarded a “prize of honor” to the most beautiful woman:


The rules say that hydrographer Georges Lecointe, “Minister of the Land of Beautiful Women,” planned to send the awards to the women themselves when the ship reached port. I don’t know whether this ever happened. “The presentation of the prizes is conditional upon the later appearance of the woman before the committee to exhibit the parts for which ballot has been cast, not for re-examination, but to obtain an official photograph.”

(From Cook’s Through the First Antarctic Night, 1900.)

Podcast Episode 124: D.B. Cooper


In 1971 a mysterious man hijacked an airliner in Portland, Oregon, demanding $200,000 and four parachutes. He bailed out somewhere over southwestern Washington and has never been seen again. In today’s show we’ll tell the story of D.B. Cooper, the only unsolved hijacking in American history.

We’ll also hear some musical disk drives and puzzle over a bicyclist’s narrow escape.


In 1973, Swedish mathematician Per Enflo won a goose for solving a problem posed 37 years earlier.

Established in 1945 by a sympathetic actor, the Conrad Cantzen Shoe Fund will reimburse working artists $40 toward a pair of shoes.

Sources for our feature on D.B. Cooper:

Ralph P. Himmelsbach and Thomas K. Worcester, Norjak: The Investigation of D.B. Cooper, 1986.

Kay Melchisedech Olson, The D.B. Cooper Hijacking, 2011.

Associated Press, “First D.B. Cooper Clue Discovered,” Jan. 18, 1979.

Associated Press, “Clue to D.B. Cooper’s Fate Found by a Washington Family on Picnic,” Feb. 13, 1980.

Farida Fawzy, “D.B. Cooper: FBI Closes the Books 45 Years After Skyjacking Mystery,” CNN, July 14, 2016.

Christine Hauser, “Where Is D.B. Cooper? F.B.I. Ends 45-Year Hunt,” New York Times, July 13, 2016.

FBI, “D.B. Cooper Hijacking” (retrieved Sept. 18, 2016).

FBI, “Update on Investigation of 1971 Hijacking by D.B. Cooper” (retrieved Sept. 18, 2016).

David A. Graham and Juleyka Lantigua-Williams, “D.B. Cooper’s Final Escape,” Atlantic, July 12, 2016.

Peter Holley, “The D.B. Cooper Case Has Baffled the FBI for 45 Years. Now It May Never Be Solved,” Washington Post, July 12, 2016.

Listener mail:

Listener Mike Burns sent these photos from the Museum of World War II in Natick, Mass.: a coal torpedo with instructions, playing cards concealing maps, and a baby carriage rigged by the French Resistance to conceal sabotage equipment and a radio (click to enlarge).




Brian Dewan’s song “The Cowboy Outlaw,” about Elmer McCurdy.

MrSolidSnake745’s Musical Floppy Drives on Facebook.

Star Wars‘ “Imperial March” on eight floppy drives:

“In the Hall of the Mountain King,” from Grieg’s Peer Gynt, by Sammy1Am:

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Philip Ogren.

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

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support. You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

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

Rotary Jails


Architect William H. Brown had a curious brainstorm in 1881 — a jail in which moving cells shared a single door:

The object of our invention is to produce a jail or prison in which prisoners can be controlled without the necessity of personal contact between them and the jailer or guard. … [It] consists, first, of a circular cell structure of considerable size (inside the usual prison-building) divided into several cells capable of being rotated, and surrounded by a grating in close proximity thereto, which has only such number of openings (usually one) as is necessary for the convenient handling of the prisoners.

The cell block, supported by ball bearings, could be turned by a single man with a hand crank. While it had a certain efficient appeal, in practice the jail proved dangerous, crushing prisoners’ limbs and raising concerns about safety during a fire. The last rotary jail was condemned in 1939; the only surviving example is in Crawfordsville, Indiana.

(Strangely related: Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon. Thanks, Jon.)