Podcast Episode 240: The Shark Papers


In 1799 two Royal Navy ships met on the Caribbean Sea, and their captains discovered they were parties to a mind-boggling coincidence that would expose a crime and make headlines around the world. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the shark papers, one of the strangest coincidences in maritime history.

We’ll also meet some Victorian kangaroos and puzzle over an expedient fire.


Hungarian composer György Ligeti wrote a symphonic poem for 100 metronomes.

In 1935 a 7-year-old Berliner fell in love with Adolf Hitler.

Sources for our feature on the shark papers:

Edgar K. Thompson, “Tale of the Nancy Brig,” Mariner’s Mirror 56:1 (January 1970), 97-104.

D.A. Proctor, “Notes: Michael Fitton,” Mariner’s Mirror 79:2 (May 1993), 206-208.

Edward Warren Guyol, “The Navy, the Shark, and the ‘Nancy’ Brig,” Harper’s Weekly 52:2708 (Nov. 14, 1908), 29.

W.J. Fletcher, “Michael Fitton,” Temple Bar 114:5 (July 1898), 350-364.

Clinton Vane de Brosse Black, Tales of Old Jamaica, 1966.

Edward Rowe Snow, Marine Mysteries and Dramatic Disasters of New England, 1976.

Sir Philip Manderson Sherlock, Jamaica Way, 1962.

Caroline Rochford, Forgotten Songs and Stories of the Sea, 2016.

Xavier Maniguet, The Jaws of Death: Sharks as Predator, Man as Prey, 2007.

Julia W. Wolfe, “Shark Tale of Jamaica; Old Papers at Kingston Tell a Strange Sea Story of 1799,” New York Times, April 20, 1941.

“Pirates Convicted by Shark,” [Burnie, Tasmania] Advocate, July 2, 1935.

“The Shark That Ate the Papers of the Nancy Brig,” Otago [New Zealand] Daily Times, June 12, 1920.

“The King’s Dominion of the Islands: Major and Minor West Indian Notes,” United Empire: The Royal Colonial Institute Journal 7:4 (April 1916), 271-276.

“Odds and Ends,” Wide World Magazine 1:5 (August 1898), 554-560.

“Miscellaneous,” [Portland, Maine] Eastern Argus, June 5, 1833, 1.

Henry Baynham, “Fitton, Michael,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Jan. 3, 2008.

Listener mail:

Angus Trumble, “‘O Uommibatto’: How the Pre-Raphaelites Became Obsessed With the Wombat,” Public Domain Review, Jan. 10, 2019.

“The Kangaroo in England,” Country Life Illustrated 3:72 (May 21, 1898), 617-618.

David J. Travis, Andrew M. Carleton, and Ryan G. Lauritsen, “Regional Variations in US Diurnal Temperature Range for the 11–14 September 2001 Aircraft Groundings: Evidence of Jet Contrail Influence on Climate,” Journal of Climate 17:5 (2004), 1123-1134.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Bob Seidensticker.

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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 podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!