Podcast Episode 109: Trapped in a Cave

Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1925, Kentucky caver Floyd Collins was exploring a new tunnel when a falling rock caught his foot, trapping him 55 feet underground. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the desperate efforts to free Collins, whose plight became one of the first popular media sensations of the 20th century.

We’ll also learn how Ronald Reagan invented a baseball record and puzzle over a fatal breakfast.

Sources for our feature on Floyd Collins:

Robert K. Murray and Roger W. Brucker, Trapped!, 1979.

Gary Alan Fine and Ryan D. White, “Creating Collective Attention in the Public Domain: Human Interest Narratives and the Rescue of Floyd Collins,” Social Forces 81:1 (September 2002), 57-85.

“Floyd Collins Is Found Dead,” Madison Lake [Minn.] Times, Feb. 19, 1925.

Associated Press, “Sand Cave Is to Be Grave of Explorer,” Feb. 18, 1925.

Associated Press, “Floyd Collins Will Be Left in Sand Cave for His Last Sleep,” Feb. 18, 1925.

Associated Press, “Ancient ‘Floyd Collins’ Found in Mammoth Cave,” June 19, 1935.

Ray Glenn, “Floyd Collins Trapped in Cave 35 Years Ago,” Park City [Ken.] Daily News, Feb. 7, 1960.

Carl C. Craft, “Floyd Collins Case Recalled After 40 Years,” Kentucky New Era, Feb. 1, 1965.

William Burke Miller, “40 Years Ago, World Prayed for Floyd Collins,” Eugene [Ore.] Register-Guard, Feb. 11, 1965.

Paul Raupp, “Floyd Collins Finds Final Resting Place,” Bowling Green [Ken.] Daily News, March 26, 1989.

Listener mail:

Howard Breuer et al., “Dumb Criminals,” People 81:1 (Jan. 13, 2014).

Ronald Reagan, “Remarks at a White House Luncheon for Members of the Baseball Hall of Fame, March 27, 1981,” The American Presidency Project.

Ronald Reagan, An American Life, 1990.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Stephen Harvey.

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

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

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

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

Distant Early Warning


Alexandre Dumas’ cat knew when he was coming home:

At the time I speak of, I held a situation in the service of the Duc d’Orléans, with a salary of 1500 francs. My work occupied me from ten in the morning until five in the afternoon. We had a cat in those days, whose name was Mysouff. This cat had missed his vocation; he ought to have been a dog. Every morning I started for my office at half-past nine, and came back every evening at half-past five. Every morning Mysouff followed me to the corner of a particular street, and every evening I found him in the same street, at the same corner, waiting for me. Now the curious thing was that on the days when I had found some amusement elsewhere, and was not coming home to dinner, it was of no use to open the door for Mysouff to go and meet me. Mysouff, in the attitude of the serpent with its tail in its mouth, refused to stir from his cushion. On the other hand, on the days I did come, Mysouff would scratch at the door until some one opened it for him.

“My mother was very fond of Mysouff,” he wrote. “She used to call him her barometer.”

Coming and Going


In 1978 the Chronicle of Higher Education mentioned an old exam question:

Q. How far can a dog run into the woods?

A. Halfway. The rest of the time he is running out.

Harvard’s Richard E. Baym wrote in to take issue with the answer:

The correct answer is ‘All the way’. Certainly we understand that the dog is running ‘in’ only until he reaches the middle of the forest, but this is in fact, all the way in. If the dog ran only half ‘in’, he would not yet be at the middle. Indeed if the dog ran halfway in and then ran halfway out, he would still be in the woods.

The editors noted, “It occurs to us that the dog’s continued presence there would be useful, in case something happens to that tree that we’ve been hearing about since high school physics — the one that falls when no one is in the forest and since there is no eardum to register sound waves, makes no noise. You know what a fine sense of hearing a dog has. Let him run halfway in (or as Mr. Baym argues, all the way), settle there, and keep an ear cocked for that tree.”

(from Robert L. Weber, ed., Science With a Smile, 1992.)


In presenting the rules of chess, some writers carelessly say that a pawn that reaches the eighth rank can be promoted to any piece that the player chooses. That’s a bit too generous, as a couple of puzzle composers have noted. In 1941 Leonid Kubbel presented this problem — White is to mate in two moves:

kubbel promotion puzzle

It’s not immediately clear how to release Black from his stalemate and still mate him on the next move. The solution is to promote the e7 pawn to a black king!

kubbel promotion puzzle - solution

Now it’s Black’s move — he has to play 1. … Kd8, and White can mate both kings with 2. Qd7#!

The Polish master Johannes Zukertort offered this one: White is to mate on the move:

zukertort promotion puzzle

Here White promotes the pawn to a black knight, ending the game. (Note that it must be a knight — crazy as it seems, this is the only black piece that produces mate.)

Divide and Conquer

Facing dental surgery one day, mathematician Matt Parker asked Twitter for a math puzzle to distract him. A friend challenged him to put the digits 1-9 in order so that the first two digits formed a number that was a multiple of 2, the first three digits were a multiple of 3, and so on.

Leaving the digits in the conventional order 1234356789 doesn’t work: 12 is divisible by 2 and 123 by 3, but 1234 isn’t evenly divisible by 4. “By the end of my dental procedure, I had some but not all of the digits worked out, but, apparently, you’re not allowed to stay in the dentist’s chair after they’re finished.” At home he finished working out the solution, which is unique. What is it?

Click for Answer

Last Words


Note found in the pocketbook of an English corporal killed during the battle of the Somme:

Dear Mother

I am writing these few lines severely wounded. We have done well our Batt. advanced about 3 quarters of a mile. I am laid in a shell hole with 2 wounds in my hip and through my back. I cannot move or crawl. I have been here for 24 hours and never seen a living soul. I hope you will receive these few lines as I don’t expect anyone will come to take me away, but you know I have done my duty out here now for 1 year and 8 months and you will always have the consolation that I died quite happy doing my duty.

Must give my best of love to all the cousins who [have] been so kind to me since I have been out here and the Best of love to Arthur and Harry and all at Swinefleet. xxx

He was identified as John Duesbery of Bradford, and the note and his other belongings were sent home to his family. In The Quick and the Dead, Richard van Emden writes, “His grave would have been marked in a rudimentary way, perhaps with a piece of wood or an upturned rifle, but whatever was placed there it was subsequently destroyed and John’s body lost.”

The One-Seventh Ellipse

The decimal expansion of 1/7 is 0.142857142857 …, a repeating decimal. Arrange the six repeating digits into overlapping ordered pairs, like so:

(1, 4), (4, 2), (2, 8), (8, 5), (5, 7) (7, 1),

and, remarkably, all six lie on an ellipse:

19x2 + 36yx + 41y2 – 333x – 531y + 1638 = 0

one-seventh ellipse #1

Even more remarkably, if we take the digits two at a time:

(14, 28), (42, 85), (28, 57), (85, 71), (57, 14), (71, 42),

these points also lie on an ellipse:

-165104x2 + 160804yx + 8385498x – 41651y2 – 3836349y – 7999600 = 0

one-seventh ellipse #2

That’s from David Wells, The Penguin Dictionary of Curious and Interesting Numbers (1986). Victor Hugo wrote, “Mankind is not a circle with a single center but an ellipse with two focal points, of which facts are one and ideas the other.”

Overdone Bacon


Exponents of the theory that Francis Bacon wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare have gone to sometimes elaborate lengths to find messages hidden in the plays. American physician Orville Ward Owen even invented a “cipher wheel” that could pass the texts under his eyes at various speeds as he looked for hidden meanings.

He didn’t find many supporters. Even Owen’s friend Frederick Mann wrote, “We are asked to believe that such peerless creations as Hamlet, The Tempest, and Romeo and Juliet were not prime productions of the transcendent genius who wrote them, but were subsidiary devices which Bacon designed for the purpose of concealing the cipher therein.”

In his 1910 book Bacon Is Shake-speare, Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence argues that the long word honorificabilitudinitatibus in Love’s Labour’s Lost is really an anagram:

These plays, F. Bacon’s offspring, are preserved for the world.

“It surpasses the wit of man,” he wrote, to produce another sensible anagram from the long word, and he offered a hundred guineas to anyone who could do it. A Mr. Beevor of St. Albans rather promptly sent him this:

Be off, F. Bacon, the actor has entered and is playing.

Durning-Lawrence was taken aback, but he was a good sport: He paid Beevor his money.

(From John Michell, Who Wrote Shakespeare?, 1996.)

In a Word


n. violent shaking

n. a severe shaking

A lion attacks David Livingstone, 1843:

Starting, and looking half round, I saw the lion just in the act of springing upon me. I was upon a little height; he caught my shoulder as he sprang, and we both came to the ground below together. Growling horribly close to my ear, he shook me as a terrier dog does a rat. The shock produces a stupor similar to that which seems to be felt by a mouse after the first shake of the cat. It caused a sort of dreaminess, in which there was no sense of pain nor feeling of terror, though quite conscious of all that was happening. It was like what patients partially under the influence of chloroform describe, who see all the operation, but feel not the knife. This singular condition was not the result of any mental process. The shake annihilated fear, and allowed no sense of horror in looking round at the beast. This peculiar state is probably produced in all animals killed by carnivora; and if so, is a merciful provision by our benevolent Creator for lessening the pain of death.

The lion left him to attack his companions, who eventually dispatched it. Livingstone could never afterward raise his left arm above his shoulder; when asked by a group of sympathetic friends what he had been thinking during the attack, he said, “I was thinking, with a feeling of disinterested curiosity, which part of me the lion would eat first.”