Podcast Episode 277: The Mad Trapper of Rat River

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In the winter of 1931, a dramatic manhunt unfolded in northern Canada when a reclusive trapper shot a constable and fled across the frigid landscape. In the chase that followed the mysterious fugitive amazed his pursuers with his almost superhuman abilities. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the hunt for the “Mad Trapper of Rat River.”

We’ll also visit a forgotten windbreak and puzzle over a father’s age.

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Podcast Episode 275: A Kidnapped Painting

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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.

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Podcast Episode 274: Death in a Nutshell

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In the 1940s, Frances Glessner Lee brought new rigor to crime scene analysis with a curiously quaint tool: She designed 20 miniature scenes of puzzling deaths and challenged her students to investigate them analytically. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death and their importance to modern investigations.

We’ll also appreciate an overlooked sled dog and puzzle over a shrunken state.

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Podcast Episode 272: The Cannibal Convict

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In 1822, Irish thief Alexander Pearce joined seven convicts fleeing a penal colony in western Tasmania. As they struggled eastward through some of the most inhospitable terrain on Earth, starvation pressed the party into a series of grim sacrifices. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the prisoners on their nightmarish bid for freedom.

We’ll also unearth another giant and puzzle over an eagle’s itinerary.

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Podcast Episode 271: The Fraudulent Life of Cassie Chadwick

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In 1902, scam artist Cassie Chadwick convinced an Ohio lawyer that she was the illegitimate daughter of steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. She parlayed this reputation into a life of unthinkable extravagance — until her debts came due. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Chadwick’s efforts to maintain the ruse — and how she hoped to get away with it.

We’ll also encounter a haunted tomb and puzzle over an exonerated merchant.

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No One Home

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On the afternoon of Oct. 24, 1961, 31-year-old Joan Risch was found to be missing from her home in Lincoln, Massachusetts. Blood that matched her type was found in the kitchen and the driveway, a table had been overturned, and a telephone handset had been torn from the wall. Risch’s 2-year-old son was safe in his crib upstairs. Her husband, returning from a business trip, said he could not explain the source of some empty beer bottles in a wastebasket.

Risch had last been seen wearing a trench coat and carrying something red quickly up her driveway, toward the garage. Several people reported having seen a two-tone blue car in the neighborhood, and possibly in Risch’s driveway, at about the time of her disappearance, and a number of witnesses reported having seen a disoriented woman matching Risch’s description walking along nearby roads.

Some time after her disappearance, it was discovered that Risch had checked out 25 books on murders and missing-persons cases over the summer of 1961. The case has never been solved. Both Risch’s husband and police chief Leo Algeo died in 2009. Algeo said, “I thought they’d find a body or bones or something. … Things do turn up. People don’t disappear without a trace.”

Podcast Episode 268: The Great Impostor

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Ferdinand Demara earned his reputation as the Great Impostor: For over 22 years he criss-crossed the country, posing as everything from an auditor to a zoologist and stealing a succession of identities to fool his employers. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review Demara’s motivation, morality, and techniques — and the charismatic spell he seemed to cast over others.

We’ll also make Big Ben strike 13 and puzzle over a movie watcher’s cat.

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Podcast Episode 267: The Murchison Murders

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In 1929, detective novelist Arthur Upfield wanted to devise the perfect murder, so he started a discussion among his friends in Western Australia. He was pleased with their solution — until local workers began disappearing, as if the book were coming true. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the Murchison murders, a disturbing case of life imitating art.

We’ll also incite a revolution and puzzle over a perplexing purchase.

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Cant

The Coquillars, a 16th-century company of French bandits, created “an exquisite language” “that other people cannot understand”:

A crocheteur is someone who picks locks. A vendegeur is a snatcher of bags. A beffleur is a thief who draws fools into the game. An envoyeur is a murderer. A desrocheur is someone who leaves nothing to the person he robs. … A blanc coulon is someone who sleeps with a merchant or someone else and robs him of his money, his clothes and everything he has, and throws it from the window to his companion, who waits below. A baladeur is someone who rushes ahead to speak to a churchman or someone else to whom he wants to offer a fake golden chain or a fraudulent stone. A pipeur is a player of dice and other games in which there are tricks and treachery. … Fustiller is to change the dice. They call the court of any place the marine or the rouhe. They call the sergeant the gaffres. … A simple man who knows nothing of their ways is a sire or a duppe or a blanc. … A bag is a fellouse. … To do a roy David is to open a lock, a door, a coffer, and to close it again. … To bazir someone is to kill him. … Jour is torture. … When one of them says, ‘Estoffe!’ it means that he is asking for his booty from some earnings made somehow from the knowledge of the Shell [their syndicate]. And when he says, ‘Estoffe, ou je faugerey!’ it means that he will betray whoever does not pay his part.

Jean Rabustel, public prosecutor and clerk of the court of the viscountcy of Dijon, wrote in summary, “Every trickery of which they make use has its name in their jargon, and no one could understand it, were he not of their number and compact, or if one of them did not reveal it to another.”

(From Daniel Heller-Roazen, Dark Tongues: The Art of Rogues and Riddlers, 2013.)

Podcast Episode 261: The Murder of Lord William Russell

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In May 1840 London was scandalized by the murder of Lord William Russell, who’d been found in his bed with his throat cut. The evidence seemed to point to an intruder, but suspicion soon fell on Russell’s valet. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the investigation and trial, and the late revelation that decided the case.

We’ll also marvel at Ireland’s greenery and puzzle over a foiled kidnapping.

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