Podcast Episode 207: The Bluebelle’s Last Voyage

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Terry_Jo_Duperrault_on_raft.jpg

In 1961, Wisconsin optometrist Arthur Duperrault chartered a yacht to take his family on a sailing holiday in the Bahamas. After two days in the islands, the ship failed to return to the mainland, and the unfolding story of its final voyage made headlines around the world. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll recount the fate of the Bluebelle and its seven passengers and crew.

We’ll also sympathize with some digital misfits and puzzle over some incendiary cigarettes.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 201: The Gardner Heist

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Empty_Frames_at_Isabella_Stewart_Gardner_Museum.jpg

In 1990, two thieves dressed as policemen walked into Boston’s Gardner museum and walked out with 13 artworks worth half a billion dollars. After 28 years the lost masterpieces have never been recovered. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the largest art theft in history and the ongoing search for its solution.

We’ll also discover the benefits of mustard gas and puzzle over a surprisingly effective fighter pilot.

See full show notes …

Prepared

https://www.fbi.gov/wanted/topten/topten-history/hires_images/FBI-236-JamesRobertRingrose.jpg/view

Verbatim from the FBI’s “most wanted” website:

Former Ten Most Wanted Fugitive #236: On March 29, 1967, [James Robert] Ringrose was apprehended in Osaka, Japan, by Japanese police while attempting to pass bad checks. He was arrested in Hawaii after his return to the United States from Japan. He told the FBI agents he had been saving an item for several years and now he needed it. He then presented them with the Monopoly game card, ‘Get out of jail free.’

I’m pretty sure they’d have to honor this, wouldn’t they? It’s in the rules.

Podcast Episode 198: The Man Who Wouldn’t Die

https://pixabay.com/en/coffin-dracula-black-casket-150647/

In 1932 a quartet of Bronx gangsters set out to murder a friend of theirs in order to collect his life insurance. But Michael Malloy proved to be almost comically difficult to kill. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review what one observer called “the most clumsily executed insurance scam in New York City history.”

We’ll also burrow into hoarding and puzzle over the value of silence.

See full show notes …

Intellectual Property

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Anthony_Burgess_appearing_on_%22After_Dark%22,_21_May_1988.jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1973 Anthony Burgess lost a book manuscript to a scippatore, a thief on a Vespa.

He was living in Rome and working on Joysprick, his study of the language in Finnegans Wake. “I carried it in its Gucci case towards a Xeroxshop to be copied, but it was scippato on the way.”

He was remarkably philosophical about the loss. “The typescript was presumably fluttered into the Tiber or Tevere and the case sold for a few thousand lire. I had to write the book again, not with too much resentment: it was probably better the second time.”

“These scippatori were never caught by the police, who probably shared in their proceeds: their little motorcycles were not legally obliged to be fitted with a targa or numberplate. Petty crime is excused, or even exalted, by the greater crimes of the Quirinale.”

(From Burgess’ memoir You’ve Had Your Time, 1990.)

Nip and Tuck

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:John_Dillinger_full_mug_shot.jpg

In May 1934, desperate to escape the authorities, John Dillinger engaged two underworld plastic surgeons, Wilhelm Loeser and Harold Cassidy, to change his appearance.

[T]he two doctors removed the moles between the eyes — Loeser working on one side, Cassidy on the other. Then they cut the cheek along the ear and the edge of the jaw and transplanted some of the flesh to the dimple on the chin. Finally they tightened up the cheeks with kangaroo tendons.

Five days later the doctors returned to remove Dillinger’s fingerprints, using a combination of nitric and hydrochloric acid. The gangster told them he was unhappy with their facial work — he thought that apart from being “messed up,” his appearance hadn’t changed. Dillinger’s attorney, Louis Piquett, convinced him that the job had been a success, but “secretly he thought his client looked as if he’d been in a dog fight.”

It scarcely mattered — he was gunned down outside Chicago’s Biograph Theater two months later.

(From John Toland, The Dillinger Days, 1995.)

Unsolved

On June 30, 1999, the body of 41-year-old Ricky McCormick was discovered near a cornfield in West Alton, Missouri. He’d last been seen alive five days earlier; now he was 15 miles from home though he owned no car. In his pockets were two handwritten notes (click to enlarge):

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ricky_McCormick_note_1.jpg

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ricky_McCormick_note_2.jpg

In the ensuing 18 years both the FBI’s Cryptanalysis and Racketeering Records Unit and the American Cryptogram Association have failed to find any meaning in these messages. In 2011 the FBI appealed to the public for their insights: If you have any you can contact them via this page.

“We are really good at what we do,” said CRRU chief Dan Olson, “but we could use some help with this one.”

Cash and Carry

During the London Gin Craze of the early 18th century, when the British government started running sting operations on petty gin sellers, someone invented a device called the “Puss-and-Mew” so that the buyer couldn’t identify the seller in court:

The old Observation, that the English, though no great Inventors themselves, are the best Improvers of other Peoples Inventions, is verified by a fresh Example, in the Parish of St. Giles’s in the Fields, and in other Parts of the Town; where several Shopkeepers, Dealers in Spirituous Liquors, observing the Wonders perform’d by the Figures of the Druggist and the Blackmoor pouring out Wine, have turn’d them to their own great Profit. The Way is this, the Buyer comes into the Entry and cries Puss, and is immediately answer’d by a Voice from within, Mew. A Drawer is then thrust out, into which the Buyer puts his Money, which when drawn back, is soon after thrust out again, with the Quantity of Gin requir’d; the Matter of this new Improvement in Mechanicks, remaining all the while unseen; whereby all Informations are defeated, and the Penalty of the Gin Act evaded.

This is sometimes called the first vending machine.

(From Read’s Weekly Journal, Feb. 18, 1738. Thanks, Nick.)

Podcast Episode 167: A Manhattan Murder Mystery

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Old_New_York_yesterday_and_today_(1922)_(14594592410).jpg

In May 1920, wealthy womanizer Joseph Elwell was found shot to death alone in his locked house in upper Manhattan. The police identified hundreds of people who might have wanted Elwell dead, but they couldn’t quite pin the crime on any of them. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review the sensational murder that the Chicago Tribune called “one of the toughest mysteries of all times.”

We’ll also learn a new use for scuba gear and puzzle over a sympathetic vandal.

See full show notes …

Case Closed

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Matthewhopkins.png

“Witchfinder general” Matthew Hopkins hanged 300 women during the English Civil War, accounting for perhaps 60 percent of all executions for witchcraft at that time. After days of starvation, sleep deprivation, and forced walking, the accused women produced some extraordinary confessions:

Elizabeth Clark, an old, one-legged beggar-woman, gave the names of her ‘imps’ as ‘Holt,’ a ‘white kitling;’ ‘Jarmara,’ a ‘fat spaniel’ without legs; ‘Sacke and Sugar,’ a ‘black rabbet;’ ‘Newes,’ a ‘polcat;’ and ‘Vinegar Tom,’ a greyhound with ox-head and horns. Another called her ‘imps’ ‘Ilemauzar’ (or ‘Elemauzer’), ‘Pyewackett,’ ‘Pecke in the Crowne,’ and ‘Griezzell Greedigutt.’

This proved their guilt, Hopkins said — these were names “which no mortal could invent.”