In September 1780 Erasmus Darwin and Anna Seward exchanged letters “in the name of their respective cats.” Darwin’s Persian cat Snow wrote to Miss Po Felina at the Bishop’s Palace:

Dear Miss Pussey,

As I sat, the other day, basking myself in the Dean’s Walk, I saw you in your stately palace, washing your beautiful round face, and elegantly brinded ears, with your velvet paws, and whisking about, with graceful sinuosity, your meandering tail. That treacherous hedgehog, Cupid, concealed himself behind your tabby beauties, and darting one of his too well-aimed quills, pierced, O cruel imp! my fluttering heart.

Ever since that fatal hour have I watched, day and night, in my balcony, hoping that the stillness of the starlight evenings might induce you to take the air on the leads of the palace. Many serenades have I sung under your windows; and, when you failed to appear, with the sound of my voice made the vicarage re-echo through all its winding lanes and dirty alleys. All heard me but my cruel Fair-one; she, wrapped in fur, sat purring with contented insensibility, or slept with untroubled dreams. …

Permit me this afternoon, to lay at your divine feet the head of an enormous Norway rat, which has even now stained my paws with its gore.

He received this response:

I am but too sensible of the charms of Mr. Snow; but while I admire the spotless whiteness of his ermine, and the tyger-strength of his commanding form, I sigh in secret, that he, who sucked the milk of benevolence and philosophy, should yet retain the extreme of that fierceness, too justly imputed to the Grimalkin race. Our hereditary violence is perhaps commendable when we exert it against the foes of our protestors, but deserves much blame when it annoys their friends. …

Marry you, Mr Snow, I am afraid I cannot; since, though the laws of our community might not oppose our connection, yet those of principle, of delicacy, of duty to my mistress, do very powerfully oppose it. …

The still too much admired Mr Snow will have the goodness to pardon the freedom of these expostulations, and excuse their imperfections. The morning, O Snow! had been devoted to this my correspondence with thee, but I was interrupted in that employment by the visit of two females of our Species, who fed my ill-starred passion by praising thy wit and endowments, exemplified by thy elegant letter, to which the delicacy of my sentiments obliges me to send so inauspicious a reply.

(From Seward’s Memoir of the Life of Dr. Darwin, 1804.)


At his death in 1794, Czech composer František Xaver Pokorný had written more than 160 symphonies, concertos, serenades, and divertimentos. But more than half of them were then reattributed to other composers. The culprit was apparently Theodor von Schacht, a competing Regensburg composer who may have been jealous of Pokorný’s large output. After Pokorný’s death it appears that Schacht went through more than half his compositions, systematically removed Pokorný’s name, and inserted the name of another composer who he thought might not find out. He assigned most of the pieces to composers whose names began with A or B, which suggests that Schacht might have intended to eradicate Pokorný’s name entirely.

It wasn’t until the early 1960s that musicologists Jan la Rue and J. Murray Barbour uncovered this strange crime and Pokorný was given proper credit. “It would seem as if Baron von Schacht had been galled by the fact that his lowly colleague (the name ‘Pokorny’ means ‘humble’) had written six or seven times as many orchestral works as he had himself,” Barbour wrote. “So, after Pokorny’s death, he had tried to bring him down to his level by falsifying … 109 works. This is a most extraordinary piece of jealousy and arrogance. But, after all, he almost did get away with it!”

(J. Murray Barbour, “Pokorny Vindicated,” Musical Quarterly 49:1 [January 1963], 38-58.)


Violinist Georges Enesco was saddled with a poor pupil who eventually wanted to give a recital. Enesco agreed to accompany him on the piano but realized at the last minute that he needed a page turner. He prevailed on Alfred Cortot, who was sitting in the audience. A review the next morning read:

“There was a most remarkable concert last night at the Salle Pleyel. The man who should have been playing the violin was playing the piano, the man who should have been playing the piano was turning the pages, and the man who should have been turning the pages was playing the violin.”

(Likewise: “It is a maxim among practical statisticians that ‘The data you need are not the data you have, the data you have are not the data you want, and the data you want are not the data you need.'” — T.W. Körner, The Pleasures of Counting, 1996)


As an exercise at the end of his 1887 book The Game of Logic, Lewis Carroll presents pairs of premises for which conclusions are to be found:

  • No bald person needs a hair-brush; No lizards have hair.
  • Some oysters are silent; No silent creatures are amusing.
  • All wise men walk on their feet; All unwise men walk on their hands.
  • No bridges are made of sugar; Some bridges are picturesque.
  • No frogs write books; Some people use ink in writing books.
  • Some dreams are terrible; No lambs are terrible.
  • All wasps are unfriendly; All puppies are friendly.
  • All ducks waddle; Nothing that waddles is graceful.
  • Bores are terrible; You are a bore.
  • Some mountains are insurmountable; All stiles can be surmounted.
  • No Frenchmen like plum-pudding; All Englishmen like plum-pudding.
  • No idlers win fame; Some painters are not idle.
  • No lobsters are unreasonable; No reasonable creatures expect impossibilities.
  • No fossils can be crossed in love; Any oyster may be crossed in love.
  • No country, that has been explored, is infested by dragons; Unexplored countries are fascinating.
  • A prudent man shuns hyaenas; No banker is imprudent.
  • No misers are unselfish; None but misers save egg-shells.
  • All pale people are phlegmatic; No one, who is not pale, looks poetical.
  • All jokes are meant to amuse; No Act of Parliament is a joke.
  • No quadrupeds can whistle; Some cats are quadrupeds.
  • Gold is heavy; Nothing but gold will silence him.
  • No emperors are dentists; All dentists are dreaded by children.
  • Caterpillars are not eloquent; Jones is eloquent.
  • Some bald people wear wigs; All your children have hair.
  • Weasels sometimes sleep; All animals sometimes sleep.
  • Everybody has seen a pig; Nobody admires a pig.

He gives no solutions, so you’re on your own.

Podcast Episode 193: The Collyer Brothers

the collyer brothers' harlem townhouse

In the 1930s, brothers Homer and Langley Collyer withdrew from society and began to fill their Manhattan brownstone with newspapers, furniture, musical instruments, and assorted junk. By 1947, when Homer died, the house was crammed with 140 tons of rubbish, and Langley had gone missing. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the strange, sad story of the Hermits of Harlem.

We’ll also buy a bit of Finland and puzzle over a banker’s misfortune.


When New Amsterdam governor Wilhelm Kieft tried to outlaw smoking in the 1630s, his citizens literally puffed him into submission.

Residents of the Canary island La Gomera communicate over long distances using a unique whistled language.

Sources for our feature on the Collyer brothers:

Franz Lidz, Ghosty Men, 2003.

Franz Lidz, “The Paper Chase,” New York Times, Oct. 26, 2003.

William Bryk, “The Collyer Brothers,” New York Sun, April 13, 2005.

Michael Kernan, “The Collyer Saga And How It Grew; Recalling the Men Who Turned Trash Into Legend,” Washington Post, February 8, 1983, B1.

“Strange Case of the Collyer Brothers,” Life, April 7, 1947.

Robert M. Jarvis, “The Curious Legal Career of Homer L. Collyer,” Journal of Maritime Law and Commerce 38:4 (October 2007), 571-582.

Keith P. Ronan, “Navigating the Goat Paths: Compulsive Hoarding, or Collyer Brothers Syndrome, and the Legal Reality of Clutter,” Rutgers Law Review 64:1 (Fall 2011), 235-266.

Kenneth J. Weiss, “Hoarding, Hermitage, and the Law: Why We Love the Collyer Brothers,” Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law 38:2 (June 2010), 251-257.

Kenneth J. Weiss and Aneela Khan, “Hoarding, Housing, and DSM-5,” Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law 43:4 (December 2015), 492-498.

Scott Herring, “Collyer Curiosa: A Brief History of Hoarding,” Criticism 53:2 (Spring 2011), 159-188.

Patrick W. Moran, “The Collyer Brothers and the Fictional Lives of Hoarders,” Modern Fiction Studies 62:2 (Summer 2016), 272-I.

Jackie McAllister, “The Collyer Brothers,” Grand Street 14:2 (Fall 1995), 201.

Joyce Carol Oates, “Love and Squalor,” New Yorker, Sept. 7, 2009.

“Collyer Mansion Keeps Its Secrets,” New York Times, Sept. 30, 1942.

Harold Faber, “Homer Collyer, Harlem Recluse, Found Dead at 70,” New York Times, March 22, 1947.

“Thousands Gape at Collyer House,” New York Times, March 24, 1947.

Harold Faber, “Police Fail to Find Collyer in House,” New York Times, March 25, 1947.

“The Collyer Mystery,” New York Times, March 26, 1947.

“Collyer Mansion Yields Junk, Cats,” New York Times, March 26, 1947.

“Langley Collyer Is Dead, Police Say,” New York Times, March 27, 1947.

Russell Owen, “Some for O. Henry: Story of the Collyers,” New York Times, March 30, 1947.

“3D Search Starts at Collyer House,” New York Times, April 1, 1947.

“53 Attend Burial of Homer Collyer,” New York Times, April 2, 1947.

“More Secrets Taken From Collyer Home,” New York Times, April 4, 1947.

Harold Faber, “Body of Collyer Is Found Near Where Brother Died,” New York Times, April 9, 1947.

“Langley Collier Dead Near Month,” New York Times, April 10, 1947.

“200 Bid Spiritedly for Collyer Items,” New York Times, June 11, 1947.

“Collyer Home ‘Unsafe,'” New York Times, June 26, 1947.

“Collyer Brothers Park,” Atlas Obscura (accessed March 4, 2018).

Andy Newman, “Origin Aside, ‘Collyers’ Mansion’ Is Code for Firefighter Nightmare,” New York Times, July 5, 2006, B1.

Listener mail:

Wikipedia, “Category:Drugs With Unknown Mechanisms of Action” (accessed March 16, 2018).

Wikipedia, “Theories of General Anaesthetic Action” (accessed March 16, 2018).

Wikipedia, “Paracetamol” (accessed March 16, 2018).

Tanya Lewis, “Mystery Mechanisms,” The Scientist, July 29, 2016.

Bruce Schneier, “Harassment by Package Delivery,” Schneier on Security, Feb. 22, 2018.

Sean P. Murphy, “‘I Just Want It To Stop’: Women Get Sex Toys In Packages They Didn’t Order,” Boston Globe, Feb. 20, 2018.

Sean P. Murphy, “This Couple Keeps Getting Mystery Packages From Amazon They Didn’t Order,” Boston Globe, Feb. 6, 2018.

“Bow Tie – Every Buyer Gets 100 Square Feet of Scandinavian Forest – Hand Made in Finland from Finnish Curly Birch – By Woodinavia,” Amazon UK (accessed March 16, 2018).


This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Tommy Honton, who sent this corroborating link (warning — this spoils the puzzle).

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

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 Thanks for listening!

More Theatre Reviews

C.A. Lejeune wrote of The Iceman Cometh, “It is longeth and it stinketh.”

The New York Post titled its review of a new Clifford Odets play: ODETS WHERE IS THY STING?

Walter Kerr after the Broadway opening of I Am a Camera: “Me no Leica.”

Of a 1920s play whose author happened to be a vicar of Brockenhurst, the Daily Graphic’s critic wrote that it was “the best play ever written by a vicar of Brockenhurst.”

George Jean Nathan on a 1920s musical: “I’ve knocked everything in this show except the chorus girls’ knees, and there God anticipated me.”

Brooks Atkinson on First Impressions, a 1959 musical version of Pride and Prejudice: “Farley Granger played Mr. Darcy with all the flexibility of a telegraph pole.”

Walter Kerr on Jay Robinson in Buy Me Blue Ribbons: “Mr. Robinson has delusions of adequacy.”

John Mason Brown on a 1937 production of Antony and Cleopatra: “Tallulah Bankhead barged down the Nile last night as Cleopatra and sank.”

Nathan on Maureen Stapleton’s opening in 1953’s The Emperor’s Clothes: “Miss Stapleton played the part as though she had not yet signed the contract with the producer.”

Dorothy Parker on a 1931 Empire Theatre production: “The only thing I didn’t like about The Barretts of Wimpole Street was the play.”

George S. Kaufman on Gertrude Lawrence in Skylark: “A bad play saved by a bad performance.”

A critic wrote that that Wilfrid Hyde-White had spent one West End performance “prowling round the stage looking for laughs with the single-mindedness of a tortoise on a lettuce-hunt.”

Max Beerbohm once had to greet a great Edwardian actress after watching her give a tedious performance. Thinking quickly, he said, “Darling! Good is not the word!”

A Quick Walk

The world’s shortest St. Patrick’s Day parade starts at 11 a.m. today in the Village of Carmangay in Alberta. It should be over by 11:02.

Mayor Kym Nichols told the Calgary Eyeopener, “About 32 years ago, the owner of the hotel, who was Irish, came over to the village office with his shillelagh stick on St. Paddy’s Day and said to the mayor at the time, ‘Why don’t you come across and have a beer with me for St. Patrick’s Day?’ And that started it.”

The Carmangay parade covers less than 100 meters, but Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas holds a 29-meter parade that starts at 7:30 tonight. Presumably there are also quantum parades that are too short to measure.

(Thanks, Dan.)

Two by Two

kelly diagram

Cambridge mathematician Hallard T. Croft once asked whether it was possible to have a finite set of points in the plane with the property that the perpendicular bisector of any pair of them passes through at least two other points in the set.

In 1972 Leroy M. Kelly of Michigan State University offered the elegant solution above, a square with an equilateral triangle erected outward on each side (it also works if the triangles are erected inward).

“Croft is a great problemist,” Kelley said later. “He keeps putting out lists of problems and he keeps including that one. He’s trying to get the mathematical community to get a better example — one with more points in it. … Eight is the smallest number; and whether it’s the largest number is another question.”

So far as I know Croft’s question is still unanswered.