Harry Truman’s daughter Margaret was a classically trained vocalist, and in 1950 Washington Post music critic Paul Hume drew Truman’s ire with a negative review. He wrote that Margaret was “extremely attractive on the stage… [but] cannot sing very well. She is flat a good deal of the time. And still cannot sing with anything approaching professional finish.” Truman wrote to him:

Mr. Hume:

I’ve just read your lousy review of Margaret’s concert. I’ve come to the conclusion that you are an ‘eight ulcer man on four ulcer pay.’

It seems to me that you are a frustrated old man [Hume was 34] who wishes he could have been successful. When you write such poppy-cock as was in the back section of the paper you work for it shows conclusively that you’re off the beam and at least four of your ulcers are at work.

Some day I hope to meet you. When that happens you’ll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!

[Columnist Westbrook] Pegler, a gutter snipe, is a gentleman alongside you. I hope you’ll accept that statement as a worse insult than a reflection on your ancestry.


Possibly sympathetic with Truman’s hurt feelings, neither Hume nor his editor wanted to run the letter, but it leaked out in the now-defunct Washington News and started a scandal, outraging citizens who felt that the president seemed more concerned with his daughter’s reviews than with the war in Korea. One telegram read:


William Banning of New Canaan, Connecticut, enclosed a Purple Heart with his letter:

Mr. Truman:

As you have been directly responsible for the loss of our son’s life in Korea, you might just as well keep this emblem on display in your trophy room, as a memory of one of your historic deeds.

Our major regret at this time is that your daughter was not there to receive the same treatment as our son received in Korea.

William Banning

According to biographer David McCullough, Truman kept the letter in his desk for several years.

Atomic Gardening
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1959, when the world was casting about for peaceful applications of fission energy, activist Muriel Howorth established the Atomic Gardening Society, a global group of amateur gardeners who cultivated irradiated seeds, hoping for useful mutations. Howorth published a book, Atomic Gardening for the Layman, and crowdsourced her effort, distributing seeds to her members and collating their results. She herself made news with “the first atomic peanut,” a 2-foot-tall peanut plant that had sprouted from an irradiated nut.

She teamed up with Tennessee dentist C.J. Speas, who had a license for a cobalt-60 source and had built a cinderblock bunker in his backyard. Via Howorth he distributed millions of seeds to thousands of society members, but the odds remained against them: It would likely require many times this number to hit on a mutation that was potentially useful.

The Atomic Gardening Society disbanded within a few years, but it gave way to more ambitious “gamma gardens” of 5 acres and more in which plants are arranged in rings around a central radiation source. This technique continues today in America and Japan.

Anatomy Lesson
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1808, English artist Benjamin Haydon was midway through painting the assassination of Dentatus when a friend convinced him to visit the Elgin Marbles, sculptures from the Parthenon recently brought to Britain:

The first thing I fixed my eyes on was the wrist of a figure in one of the female groups, in which were visible, though in a feminine form, the radius and ulna. I was astonished, for I had never seen them hinted at in any female wrist in the antique. I darted my eye to the elbow, and saw the outer condyle visibly affecting the shape as in nature. I saw that the arm was in repose and the soft parts in relaxation. That combination of nature and idea which I had felt was so much wanting for high art was here displayed to mid-day conviction. My heart beat! If I had seen nothing else I had beheld sufficient to keep me to nature for the rest of my life. But when I turned to the Theseus and saw that every form was altered by action or repose, — when I saw that the two sides of his back varied, one side stretched from the shoulder-blade being pulled forward, and the other side compressed from the shoulder-blade being pushed close to the spine as he rested on his elbow, with the belly flat because the bowels fell into the pelvis as he sat, — and when, turning to the Ilissus, I saw the belly protruded, from the figure lying on its side, — and again, when in the figure of the fighting metope I saw the muscle shown under the one arm-pit in that instantaneous action of darting out, and left out in the other arm-pits because not wanted — when I saw, in fact, the most heroic style of art combined with all the essential detail of actual life, the thing was done at once and for ever.

He “dashed out the abominable mass” of his own painting and devoted himself thereafter to drawing the marbles for as many as 15 hours a day. When he took the Swiss painter Henry Fuseli to see them, “Never shall I forget his uncompromising enthusiasm. He strode about saying, ‘De Greeks were godes! de Greeks were godes!'”

Horse Play

Nick Stafford’s stage adaptation of War Horse, Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 young-adult novel, features a life-size horse puppet devised by the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa. Three actors cooperate to bring the character to life; philosophically, puppeteer Basil Jones says that Handspring aimed to offer “a real horse on stage, … a horse that is disinterested in what the humans are saying around him” and that remains “slightly unpredictable.” That’s informed by an enormous amount of study and practice — new puppeteers visit stables, watch DVDs, and study horse gaits and psychology in what Jones calls “a total immersion”:

Together with the rehearsals the puppeteers have two months of training before they see their first audience. Over scores of performances, the puppeteers become shamans of the horse. Their intuition as to what their fellow puppeteers are about to do becomes finely tuned. This triple performance is a pretty special event to watch on stage.

It seems to work. In the Daily Telegraph, Charles Spencer wrote that “puppets are often an embarrassment, involving a lot of effort and fuss for negligible returns,” but in this case the puppets are “truly magnificent creations.” The Guardian‘s Michael Billington agreed: “The joy of the evening … lies in the skilled recreation of equine life and in its unshaken belief that mankind is ennobled by its love of the horse.”


Stanley Kubrick was an avid chess player, and the game in 2001: A Space Odyssey, though it’s incidental, makes sense and seems to have been planned with care. In fact it seems to have been based on an actual game, played between A. Roesch and Willi Schlage in Hamburg in 1910. That game started with the moves 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4 Nf6 5. Qe2 b5 6. Bb3 Be7 7. c3 0-0 8. 0-0 d5 9. exd5 Nxd5 10. Nxe5 Nf4 11. Qe4 Nxe5 12. Qxa8? Qd3! 13. Bd1 Bh3!:

2001 chess game

Here Roesch (and astronaut Frank Poole) played 14. Qxa6?, picking up a pawn but recklessly abandoning the long diagonal. Schlage (and supercomputer HAL 9000) pounced with 14. … Bxg2. When Poole withdraws the threatened rook, HAL says, “I’m sorry, Frank, I think you missed it: queen to bishop three [threatening 16. … Nh3#], bishop takes queen, knight takes bishop, mate.”

Technically White can hold out a bit longer with 16. Qc8 Rxc8 17. h3 Nxh3+ 18. Kh2, but then the ax falls with 18. … Ng4#. Poole, and Roesch, resigned.

The Last Ditch

A few months ago I read in The Guinness Book of Music Facts and Feats that Henry Bishop’s “Home! Sweet Home!” is the only song known to have been sung in a court of law — specifically, sung to a jury by a defense attorney. I had my doubts about this, but I’ve just gone scrounging around and lo it is true. From the New York Times, Sept. 28, 1935:

An attorney sang ‘Home, Sweet Home’ to a jury today in a vain attempt to save his client from prison. After listening to the rendition by John Brett, the lawyer, the jury convicted Lloyd Grable, Oklahoma city motor-car mechanic, of attempted bank robbery and specified life imprisonment.

The story is headlined “Lawyer Sings, Client Gets Life.” The defendant’s thoughts are not recorded.

The Dustman’s Compliment,_Duchess_of_Devonshire_as_Diana.jpg

When Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, was stepping out of her carriage one day, an Irish dustman exclaimed, “Love and bless you, my lady, let me light my pipe in your eyes!”

Afterward, whenever others would praise her, she would reply, “After the dustman’s compliment, all others are insipid.”

The Forgotten Winchester

In 2014, archaeologists conducting surveys in Nevada’s Great Basin National Park found a .44-40 Winchester rifle propped against a juniper tree. Manufactured in 1882, apparently it had stood there for a century.

“It looked like someone propped it up there, sat down to have their lunch and got up to walk off without it,” Nichole Andler, the park’s chief of interpretation, told the Washington Post.

Possibly it had belonged to a miner, a rancher, or a hunter. Winchester manufactured 25,000 of this model in 1882, so its presence isn’t exactly surprising. But why did the owner abandon a $25 rifle?

“It probably has a very good and interesting story,” Andler said, “but it probably is a story that could have happened to almost anyone living this sort of extraordinary existence out here in the Great Basin Desert.”

It’s now on permanent display at the park’s Lehman Caves Visitors Center.

Podcast Episode 212: The Lost Treasure of Cocos Island
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Cocos Island, in the eastern Pacific, was rumored to hold buried treasure worth millions of dollars, but centuries of treasure seekers had failed to find it. That didn’t deter August Gissler, who arrived in 1889 with a borrowed map and an iron determination. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Gissler’s obsessive hunt for the Treasure of Lima.

We’ll also marvel at the complexity of names and puzzle over an undead corpse.


In 1875, Frederick Law Olmsted warned his son of the dangers of unchecked pussycats.

Dogs were formerly so common at church services that “dog whippers” were employed to manage them.

Sources for our feature on August Gissler:

Ralph Hancock and Julian A. Weston, The Lost Treasure of Cocos Island, 1960.

John Chetwood, Our Search for the Missing Millions of Cocos Island: Being an Account of a Curious Cruise and a More Than Curious Character, 1904.

Hervey De Montmorency, On the Track of a Treasure: The Story of an Adventurous Expedition to the Pacific Island of Cocos in Search of Treasure of Untold Value Hidden by Pirates, 1904.

Theon Wright, The Voyage of the Herman, 1966.

David McIntee, Fortune and Glory: A Treasure Hunter’s Handbook, 2016.

Alex Capus, Sailing by Starlight: In Search of Treasure Island, 2013.

Judith Schalansky, Atlas of Remote Islands, 2010.

Alban Stewart, “Expedition of the California Academy of Sciences to the Galapagos Islands, 1905-1906: V. Notes on the Botany of Cocos Island,” Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences, Fourth Series, Vol. 1, Jan. 19, 1912, 375-404.

Laws of the American Republics Relating to Immigration and the Sale of Public Lands: Costa Rica, United States Congressional Serial Set, Issue 2, 1892.

Maarten Kappelle, Costa Rican Ecosystems, 2016.

“Gold of Cocos Not for Them,” San Francisco Call, Oct. 14, 1901.

“Race for Treasure,” Topeka State Journal, Aug. 4, 1902.

Alban Stewart, “Further Observations on the Origin of the Galapagos Islands,” The Plant World 18:7 (July 1915), 192-200.

“People Do Find Buried Treasure: Like to Join in the Search?” Changing Times 10:5 (May 1956), 44.

Stuart Mann, “Another ‘Treasure’ Island?” Toronto Star, Aug. 26, 1989, H5.

Denise Kusel, “Only in Santa Fe: Sailing Family Reaches Mystical Cocos,” Santa Fe New Mexican, June 24, 2001, B-1.

Jos Eduardo Mora, “Culture-Costa Rica: New Status to Help Preserve ‘Treasure Island,'” Global Information Network, Dec. 21, 2002, 1.

“Explorers Closing In on Pirate’s Fabled Buried Treasure,” Sunday Independent, Aug. 5, 2012.

Jasper Copping, “‘Treasure Island’ Jewels Sought,” Edmonton Journal, Aug. 6, 2012, A.2.

Graham Clifford, “Did an ‘Indo’ Man Get the Hidden €200m Pirates’ Treasure First?” Independent, Aug. 12, 2012.

Jasper Copping, “British Expedition to Pacific ‘Treasure Island’ Where Pirates Buried Their Plunder,” Telegraph, Aug. 5, 2012.

Jasper Copping, “Closing in on Treasure Island’s Hoard: An English Explorer Believes Hi-Tech Wizardry Can Finally Locate a Fabled 160m Stash Buried on Cocos, Off Costa Rica’s Coast,” Sunday Telegraph, Aug. 5, 2012, 27.

Karen Catchpole, “Crossing Paradise: Off Costa Rica’s Remote and Pristine Cocos Island, a Profusion of Fish Draws Divers — and Illegal Fishermen — to the Protected Marine Area,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, Sept. 23, 2012, G.1.

Bernie McClenny, “Cocos Island – TI9,” QST 99:2 (February 2015), 93-94.

Listener mail:

John Graham-Cumming, “Falsehoods Programmers Believe About Names,” June 17, 2010.

“Awesome Falsehood: A Curated List of Awesome Falsehoods Programmers Believe in,” GitHub (accessed August 11, 2018).

Richard Ishida, “Personal Names Around the World,” W3C, Aug. 17, 2011.

Wikipedia, “Chinese Name” (accessed August 11, 2018).

Wikipedia, “Mononymous Person” (accessed August 11, 2018).

Michael Tandy, “Falsehoods Programmers Believe About Addresses,” May 29, 2013.

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

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

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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!