Podcast Episode 14: The Unsinkable Violet Jessop


Stewardess Violet Jessop was both cursed and blessed — during the 1910s she met disaster on all three of the White Star Line’s Olympic class of gigantic ocean liners, but she managed to escape each time.

In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll accompany Violet on her three ill-fated voyages, including the famous sinkings of the Titanic and the Britannic, and learn the importance of toothbrushes in ocean disasters.

We’ll also play with the International Date Line and puzzle over the identity of Salvador Dalí’s brother.

University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt discusses his coin-flipping experiment about halfway through this BBC podcast. The associated website is here.

We first wrote about Violet Jessop on March 11, 2009. Maritime historian John Maxtone-Graham interviewed her in 1970 for The Only Way to Cross, his 1978 book about the era of ocean liners. When Violet died in 1971 she left a manuscript to her daughters, which, edited by Maxtone-Graham, came to light in 1997 as Titanic Survivor: The Newly Discovered Memoirs of Violet Jessop, Who Survived Both the Titanic and Britannic Disasters. A poetic note from Maxtone-Graham in that book:

“One particular service commemorates the 1500 lost on the Titanic: Every 14th of April, a United States Coast Guard cutter comes to pay the homage of the Ice Patrol, which owes its inception to the disaster. With engines stilled and church pennant at the masthead, officers and men line the deck in full dress, while the commander reads the burial service. Three volleys of rifle fire can be heard, then the cutter passes on, leaving a lone wreath on the waves above the broken hull.”

Lewis Carroll underscored the need for an international date line with this conundrum, which he presented among the mathematical puzzle stories he wrote for the Monthly Packet in the 1880s:

The day changes only at midnight. Suppose it’s midnight in Chelsea; Wednesday has concluded and Thursday is about to begin. It’s still Wednesday in Ireland and America, and it’s already Thursday in Germany and Russia.

That’s fine. But continue in both directions. If it’s Wednesday in America, is it Wednesday in Hawaii? If it’s Thursday in Russia, is it Thursday in Japan? Mustn’t the two days “meet” on the farther side of the globe?

“It isn’t midnight anywhere else; so it can’t be changing from one day to another anywhere else. And yet, if Ireland and America and so on call it Wednesday, and Germany and Russia and so on call it Thursday, there must be some place, not Chelsea, that has different days on the two sides of it. And the worst of it is, the people there get their days in the wrong order: they’ve got Wednesday east of them, and Thursday west — just as if their day had changed from Thursday to Wednesday!”

Carroll normally presented the solution to each problem in the following month’s number. In this case he postponed the solution, “partly because I am myself so entirely puzzled by it,” and then discontinued the column without resolving the problem.

Further curiosities regarding the International Date Line:

Paul Sloane and Des MacHale have written a whole series of books of lateral thinking puzzles. This week’s puzzle on Salvador Dalí’s brother comes from their Ingenious Lateral Thinking Puzzles (1998).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset. The show notes are on the blog. 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!