A Double Disaster

Image: Wikimedia Commons

The high-altitude glacial lake Roopkund, in the Indian state of Uttarakhand, contains a large number of human skeletons. Local legend tells of a royal party who were killed by a large hailstorm near here, and many of the skeletons show signs of blows by large round objects falling from above. Radiocarbon dating estimates that these people died around 850 CE.

But another set of victims seem to have succumbed much more recently, a group from the eastern Mediterranean who died only 200 years ago. So the casualties can’t all be attributed to a single catastrophic event, but the full truth is still emerging.

An Urgent Question

Based on a James Blish short story, The Beast Must Die (1974) is a curious twist on the Clue genre: A millionaire invites a group of people to a remote island and reveals that one of them is a werewolf, and they must work out who it is.

The movie includes a 30-second “werewolf break” near the end, in which the audience are asked to guess the werewolf’s identity based on the clues.


In 1924 British journalist William Norman Ewer published an antisemitic couplet:

How odd of God
To choose the Jews.

It’s been met with at least six responses. From Leo Rosten:

Not odd of God.
Goyim annoy ‘im.

From Cecil Brown:

But not so odd
As those who choose
A Jewish God
Yet spurn the Jews.

Three anonymous replies:

Not odd of God
His son was one.

Not odd, you sod
The Jews chose God.

How strange of man
To change the plan.

And Yale political scientist Jim Sleeper wrote:

Moses, Jesus, Marx, Einstein, and Freud;
No wonder the goyim are annoyed.

Who’s There?

Image: Wikimedia Commons

In some parts of Amsterdam, residents mount mirrors on the sides of parlor windows in order to monitor neighborly activities. This window bears two, one directed sideward and the other down. They’re called spionnetjes, or “little spies.”

“Little spies are relics of an earlier period when they enabled residents to preview visitors, but they are now used to see what is going on up and down the block,” writes John L. Locke in Eavesdropping: An Intimate History (2010). “At one time, similar mirrors were used in America, including Society Hill in Philadelphia.”

Black and White

visserman chess puzzle

A “grid-chess” problem by E. Visserman, from Fairy Chess Review, 1954. A grid divides the board into 16 large squares, and each move by each side must cross at least one line of the grid. For example, in this position it would be illegal for the black king to move to f3. How can White mate in two moves?

Click for Answer

Podcast Episode 275: A Kidnapped Painting


In 1961, Goya’s famous portrait of the Duke of Wellington went missing from London’s National Gallery. The case went unsolved for four years before someone unexpectedly came forward to confess to the heist. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe one of the greatest art thefts in British history and the surprising twists that followed.

We’ll also discover Seward’s real folly and puzzle over a man’s motherhood.


One of the desks on the U.S. Senate floor is full of candy.

Astronaut John Young smuggled a corned beef sandwich into space.

The following list of “Sasha Spottings” comes from Brandi Sweet, caretaker of Bella, Ojo, Schatzi, Babu, and Atte:

Episode 9
Episode 46
Episode 63
Episode 114
Episode 139
Episode 144
Episode 146 (“mentioned as purring but I couldn’t hear her”)
Episode 148
Episode 156
Episode 164
Episode 168
Episode 173
Episode 183
Episode 201
Episode 207
Episode 215

Sources for our feature on Kempton Bunton and Goya’s Portrait of the Duke of Wellington:

Alan Hirsch, The Duke of Wellington, Kidnapped!, 2016.

Simon Mackenzie, “Criminal and Victim Profiles in Art Theft: Motive, Opportunity and Repeat Victimisation,” Art Antiquity and Law 10:4 (November 2005), 353-370.

Melvin E. DeGraw, “Art Theft in Perspective,” International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology 31:1 (1987), 1-10.

Richard LeBlanc, “Thief-Proofing Our Art Museums: Security Expensive? … Not the Morning After,” UNESCO Courier 18:10 (November 1965), 4-6, 10-17

“Hugh Courts’ Papers Relating to the Trial of Kempton Bunton,” National Gallery (accessed Nov. 17, 2019).

“The National Gallery: The Missing Masterpiece,” Royal Society (accessed Nov. 17, 2019).

James Whitfield, “The Duke Disappears” History Today 61:8 (August 2011), 43-49.

“Thefts From Museums,” Burlington Magazine 109:767 (February 1967), 55-56.

Noah Charney, “The Wackiest Art Heist Ever,” Salon, Nov. 15, 2015.

“Spectre of Goya: Letters to the Editor,” Times, Oct. 31, 2019, 28.

“‘The Thieves Vanished Into the Rio Carnival Crowds’ – The 10 Most Audacious Art Heists in History,” Telegraph.co.uk, Jan. 26, 2018.

Adrian Lee, “Britain’s Most Bizarre Art Heist,” Daily Express, April 16, 2016, 37.

Alan Travis, “Revealed: 1961 Goya ‘Theft’ From National Gallery Was a Family Affair,” Guardian, Nov. 30, 2012.

“A Blizzard and a Blaze,” [Newcastle-upon-Tyne] Evening Chronicle, Dec. 31, 2011, 10.

Noah Charney, “Art Thieves No Longer Oddballs,” [Christchurch, New Zealand] Press, Sept. 2, 2011.

Sandy Nairne, “From National Gallery to Dr No’s lair,” Guardian, Aug. 6, 2011, 14.

Sandy Nairne, “How Goya’s Duke of Wellington Was Stolen,” Guardian, Aug. 5, 2011.

“Hero or Villain?: Geordie’s Bizarre Crime of Conscience,” [Newcastle-upon-Tyne] Evening Chronicle, June 30, 2010, 10.

David Lee, “It’s a Steal: Why Art Remains a Favourite Among Thieves,” Times, May 22, 2010, 21.

Chris Cobb, “Stolen Masterpieces,” Ottawa Citizen, Jan. 11, 2009, B.1.

“Goya Thief Sent for Trial,” Times, Aug. 18, 2001, 25.

Peter Lennon and Edward Pilkington, “Files Reveal Innocent Man Was Jailed for Stealing Goya Painting From the National Gallery in 1961,” Guardian, Jan. 13, 1996, 3.

Paul Hoffman, “Psst! Wanna Buy a Hot Rembrandt?”, New York Times, June 1, 1975.

“Stolen Wellington by Goya Rehung in London Gallery,” New York Times, Jan. 12, 1966.

W. Granger Blair, “Briton Acquitted of Stealing Goya; But Admitted Thief Is Guilty of Taking the Frame,” New York Times, Nov. 17, 1965.

Clyde H. Farnsworth, “Ransom Asked for Goya Stolen in ’61,” New York Times, Dec. 31, 1964.

“Work Said to Be Uninsured,” New York Times, Feb. 18, 1964.

“‘No Questions’ Deal Is Offered for Goya,” New York Times, Jan. 8, 1964.

“Scotland Yard to Examine Alleged Ashes of Painting,” New York Times, Jan. 2, 1964.

“Greatest Heists in Art History,” BBC News, Aug. 23, 2004.

“Portrait of the Duke of Wellington,” Paintings in Movies (accessed 11/17/2019).

Jillian Elizabeth Seaton, “Touching the Void: The Museological Implications of Theft on Public Art Collections,” dissertation, University of Edinburgh, 2014.

algiers inn

County Cork’s Algiers Inn, from listener Ken Murphy.

Listener mail:

The Algiers Inn.

Barry Roche, “Pirate Raid That Stunned Nation,” Sun, Jan. 10, 2003, 8.

Wikipedia, “Alaska Purchase” (accessed Nov. 22, 2019).

Jesse Greenspan, “Why the Purchase of Alaska Was Far From ‘Folly,'” History.com, March 30, 2017.

“Purchase of Alaska, 1867,” Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State (accessed Nov. 22, 2019).

“History of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security of the United States Department of State,” U.S. Department of State, October 2011 (page xxiii).

Ralph E. Weber, “Seward’s Other Folly: America’s First Encrypted Cable,” Studies in Intelligence 36 (1992), 105-109.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Jesse Schlaud.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on Google Podcasts, on Apple Podcasts, or via the RSS feed at https://futilitycloset.libsyn.com/rss.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — you can choose the amount you want to pledge, 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!

One of a Kind

Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Yemeni island Socotra, off the tip of the Horn of Africa in the Arabian Sea, is so isolated that nearly 700 of its species are found nowhere else on Earth. The island’s bitter aloe has valuable pharmaceutical and medicinal properties, and the red sap of Dracaena cinnabari, above, was once thought to be the blood of dragons.

And this is only what remains after two millennia of human settlement; the island once featured wetlands and pastures that were home to crocodiles and water buffaloes. Tanzanian zoologist Jonathan Kingdon says, “The animals and plants that remain represent a degraded fraction of what once existed.”