Podcast Episode 201: The Gardner Heist


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.


In 1938, Italian physicist Ettore Majorana vanished without a trace.

Many of the foremost intellectuals of the early 20th century frequented the same café in Vienna.

Sources for our feature on the Gardner heist:

Ulrich Boser, The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World’s Largest Unsolved Art Theft, 2008.

Stephen Kurkjian, Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World’s Greatest Art Heist, 2015.

Michael Brenson, “Robbers Seem to Know Just What They Want,” New York Times, March 19, 1990.

Peter S. Canellos, Andy Dabilis, and Kevin Cullen, “Art Stolen From Gardner Museum Was Uninsured, Cost of Theft Coverage Described as Prohibitive,” Boston Globe, March 20, 1990, 1.

Robert Hughes, “A Boston Theft Reflects the Art World’s Turmoil,” Time 135:14 (April 2, 1990), 54.

Peter Plagens, Mark Starr, and Kate Robins, “To Catch an Art Thief,” Newsweek 115:14 (April 2, 1990), 52.

Scott Baldauf, “Museum Asks: Does It Take a Thief to Catch a Degas?,” Christian Science Monitor 89:193 (Aug. 29, 1997), 3.

Steve Lopez and Charlotte Faltermayer, “The Great Art Caper,” Time 150:21 (Nov. 17, 1997), 74.

“Missing Masterpieces,” Security 37:6 (June 2000), 14-18.

Robert M. Poole, “Ripped From the Walls (And the Headlines),” Smithsonian 36:4 (July 2005), 92-103.

Paige Williams, “The Art of the Story,” Boston Magazine, March 2010.

Randy Kennedy, “20th Anniversary of a Boston Art Heist,” New York Times, March 17, 2010.

Mark Durney and Blythe Proulx, “Art Crime: A Brief Introduction,” Crime, Law and Social Change 56:115 (September 2011).

Katharine Q. Seelye and Tom Mashberg, “A New Effort in Boston to Catch 1990 Art Thieves,” New York Times, March 18, 2013.

Tom Mashberg, “Isabella Stewart Gardner: 25 Years of Theories,” New York Times, Feb. 26, 2015.

Shelley Murphy, “Search for Artworks From Gardner Heist Continues 25 Years Later,” Boston Globe, March 17, 2015.

Tom Mashberg, “Arrest by F.B.I. Is Tied to $500 Million Art Theft From Boston Museum, Lawyer Says,” New York Times, April 17, 2015.

Serge F. Kovaleski and Tom Mashberg, “Reputed Mobster May Be Last Link to Gardner Museum Art Heist,” New York Times, April 24, 2015.

“New Video in 25-Year-Old Art Heist at Boston’s Isabella Gardner Museum,” New York Daily News, Aug. 6, 2015.

Tom Mashberg, “25 Years After Gardner Museum Heist, Video Raises Questions,” New York Times, Aug. 6, 2015.

Rodrigue Ngowi and William J. Kole, “2 Suspects in Boston Art Theft Worth $500 Million Are Dead, FBI Says,” Washington Post, Aug. 7, 2015.

Sarah Kaplan, “Surveillance Video Raises Questions — and Possible Clues — in 25-Year-Old Museum Mystery,” Washington Post, Aug. 7, 2015.

Justin Peters, “Why Is Stolen Art So Hard to Find?,” Slate, Aug. 14, 2015.

Erick Trickey, “The Gardner Museum Heist: Who’s Got the Art?,” Boston Magazine, March 13, 2016.

Shelley Murphy and Stephen Kurkjian, “Six Theories Behind The Stolen Gardner Museum Paintings,” Boston Globe, March 18, 2017.

Graham Bowley, “Gardner Museum Doubles Reward for Recovery of Stolen Masterpieces,” New York Times, May 23, 2017.

Edmund H. Mahony, “Stubborn Stand-Off Over Stolen Gardner Museum Art Could End With Sentencing of Hartford Gangster,” Hartford Courant, Sept. 5, 2017.

Katharine Q. Seelye, “Clock Is Ticking on $10 Million Reward in Gardner Art Heist,” New York Times, Dec. 26, 2017.

Camila Domonoske, “Got the Scoop on the Gardner Museum Art Heist? You Have 4 Days to Earn $10 Million,” The Two-Way, National Public Radio, Dec. 27, 2017.

Edmund H. Mahony, “Museum Extends $10 Million Reward in Notorious Boston Gardner Museum Art Heist,” Hartford Courant, Jan. 11, 2018.

Colin Moynihan, “Gardner Museum Extends $10 Million Reward for Information in Art Heist,” New York Times, Jan. 11, 2018.

Nadja Sayej, “Will Boston’s $500m Art Heist Ever Be Solved?,” Guardian, Jan. 19, 2018.

Leah Silverman, “Suspect in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Heist Sentenced to Four Years in Prison,” Town & Country, Feb. 28, 2018.

Sarah Cascone, “Paintings Stolen in America’s Biggest Art Heist Have Returned to Their Frames — Thanks to Augmented Reality,” Artnet, March 26, 2018.

“Learn About the Theft,” Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (accessed April 29, 2018).

Listener mail:

Derek Lowe, “Understanding Antidepressants — or Not,” Science Translational Medicine, Feb. 12, 2018.

Johnathan Frunzi, “From Weapon to Wonder Drug,” Hospitalist, February 2007.

“Evolution of Cancer Treatments: Chemotherapy,” American Cancer Society (accessed May 17, 2018).

Augustus De Morgan, A Budget of Paradoxes Reprinted, With the Author’s Additions, From the Athenaeum, 1872.

Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein, “Medicinal Notes: Honey Works Better Than Cow-Dung,” Independent, May 4, 1999.

Ole Peter Grell, Paracelsus, 1998.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Steven Jones.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — you can choose the amount you want to pledge, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support. You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.

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!



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


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

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


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.)


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):



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


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


“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.”

Podcast Episode 165: A Case of Mistaken Identity


In 1896, Adolf Beck found himself caught up in a senseless legal nightmare: Twelve women from around London insisted that he’d deceived them and stolen their cash and jewelry. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Beck’s incredible ordeal, which ignited a scandal and inspired historic reforms in the English justice system.

We’ll also covet some noble socks and puzzle over a numerical sacking.

See full show notes …