Podcast Episode 150: The Prince of Nowhere

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In 1821, Scottish adventurer Gregor MacGregor undertook one of the most brazen scams in history: He invented a fictional Central American republic and convinced hundreds of his countrymen to invest in its development. Worse, he persuaded 250 people to set sail for this imagined utopia with dreams of starting a new life. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the disastrous results of MacGregor’s deceit.

We’ll also illuminate a hermit’s behavior and puzzle over Liechtenstein’s flag.

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Podcast Episode 149: The North Pond Hermit

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Without any forethought or preparation, Christopher Knight walked into the Maine woods in 1986 and lived there in complete solitude for the next 27 years, subsisting on what he was able to steal from local cabins. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the North Pond hermit, one man’s attempt to divorce himself completely from civilization.

We’ll also look for coded messages in crosswords and puzzle over an ineffective snake.

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Podcast Episode 148: The Perfect Murder

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Insurance agent William Herbert Wallace had a terrible night in January 1931 — summoned to a nonexistent address in Liverpool, he returned home to find that his wife had been murdered in his absence. An investigation seemed to show a senseless crime with no weapon, no motive, and no likely suspects. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll revisit the slaying of Julia Wallace, which Raymond Chandler called “the impossible murder.”

We’ll also recount some wobbly oaths and puzzle over an eccentric golfer.

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Shame and Fortune

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In 1818 caricaturist George Cruikshank saw several people hanging from a gibbet near Newgate Prison in London and learned to his horror that they had been executed for passing forged one-pound notes — at the time, doing so even unknowingly was punishable by death or transportation.

The fact that a poor woman could be put to death for such a minor offence had a great effect upon me — and I at that moment determined, if possible, to put a stop to this shocking destruction of life for merely obtaining a few shillings by fraud; and well knowing the habits of the low class of society in London, I felt quite sure that in very many cases the rascals who forged the notes induced these poor ignorant women to go into the gin-shops to ‘get something to drink,’ and thus pass the notes, and hand them the change.

He went home and dashed off this sketch, which was then printed on the post paper used by the bank, so that it would resemble counterfeit currency. “The general effect was of a counterfeit, but closer examination revealed that every element of the official design had been replaced by a savage parody,” writes Robert L. Patten in George Cruikshank’s Life, Times, and Art. The seal shows Britannia eating her children, the stamp depicts 12 tiny heads in prison, and the pound sign is a coiled hangman’s rope.

The protest created a sensation, and remedial legislation was passed. Cruikshank’s satire, noted the Examiner, “ought to make the hearts of the Bank Directors ache at the sight.”

Podcast Episode 144: The Murder Castle

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When detectives explored the Chicago hotel owned by insurance fraudster H.H. Holmes in 1894, they found a nightmarish warren of blind passageways, trapdoors, hidden chutes, and asphyxiation chambers in which Holmes had killed dozens or perhaps even hundreds of victims. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the career of America’s first documented serial killer, who headlines called “a fiend in human shape.”

We’ll also gape at some fireworks explosions and puzzle over an intransigent insurance company.

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Podcast Episode 143: The Conscience Fund

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For 200 years the U.S. Treasury has maintained a “conscience fund” that accepts repayments from people who have defrauded or stolen from the government. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the history of the fund and some of the more memorable and puzzling contributions it’s received over the years.

We’ll also ponder Audrey Hepburn’s role in World War II and puzzle over an illness cured by climbing poles.

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Podcast Episode 142: Fingerprints and Polygraphs

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Fingerprint identification and lie detectors are well-known tools of law enforcement today, but both were quite revolutionary when they were introduced. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the memorable cases where these innovations were first used.

We’ll also see some phantom ships and puzzle over a beer company’s second thoughts.

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Podcast Episode 139: The Painter’s Revenge

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When critics dismissed his paintings, Dutch artist Han van Meegeren decided to seek his revenge on the art world: He devoted himself to forgery and spent six years fabricating a Vermeer masterpiece. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast, we’ll recount the career of a master forger and the surprising mistake that eventually brought him down.

We’ll also drop in on D.B. Cooper and puzzle over an eyeless fruit burglar.

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New Light

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Our legal system assumes that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. But what constitutes a reasonable doubt? Law professors Ariel Porat and Alon Harel suggest that an “aggregate probabilities principle” might help to determine whether an accused party is innocent or guilty.

Suppose we’ve decided that the evidence must indicate a probability of 95 percent guilt before we’re willing to declare a defendant guilty. Mr. Smith is accused of two separate crimes, with a 90 percent probability of guilt in each case. Under the 95 percent rule he’d be acquitted of both crimes. But Porat and Harel point out that there’s a 10 percent chance that Smith is innocent of each crime, and aggregating the probabilities gives a 0.10 × 0.10 = 0.01 chance that Smith is innocent of both — that is, there’s a 99 percent chance that he’s guilty of at least one of the offenses.

On the other hand, consider Miller, who is also accused of two different crimes. Suppose that the evidence gives a 95 percent probability that he committed each crime. Normally he’d be convicted of both offenses, but aggregating the probabilities gives a 0.95 × 0.95 = 0.9025 chance that he’s guilty of both offenses, and hence he’d be acquitted of one.

In A Mathematical Medley (2010), mathematician George Szpiro points out that this practice can produce some paradoxical outcomes. Peter and Paul are each accused of a crime, each with a 90 percent chance of being guilty. Normally both would be acquitted. But suppose that each was accused of a similar crime in the past, Peter with a 90 percent chance of guilt and Paul with a 95 percent chance. Accordingly Peter was acquitted and Paul went to prison. But historically Peter has now been accused of two crimes, with a 90 percent chance of guilt in each case; according to the reasoning above he ought to be convicted of one of the two crimes and hence ought to go to jail today. Paul has also been accused of two crimes, with a 0.95 × 0.90 = 0.855 chance that he’s guilty of both. He’s already served one prison term, so the judge ought to acquit him today.

Szpiro writes, “Thus we have the following scenario: in spite of the evidence being identical, the previously convicted Peter is acquitted, while Paul, with a clean record, is incarcerated.”

(Ariel Porat and Alon Harel, “Aggregating Probabilities Across Offences in Criminal Law,” Public Law Working Paper #204, University of Chicago, 2008; George Szpiro, A Mathematical Medley, 2010.)

Podcast Episode 132: The Mad Gasser of Mattoon

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In 1944, a bizarre criminal assaulted the small town of Mattoon, Illinois. Victims reported smelling a sickly sweet odor in their bedrooms before being overcome with nausea and a feeling of paralysis. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll pursue the mad gasser of Mattoon, who vanished as quickly as he had struck, leaving residents to wonder whether he had ever existed at all.

We’ll also ponder the concept of identical cousins and puzzle over a midnight stabbing.

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