Podcast Episode 125: The Campden Wonder

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

When William Harrison disappeared from Campden, England, in 1660, his servant offered an incredible explanation: that he and his family had murdered him. The events that followed only proved the situation to be even more bizarre. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe “the Campden wonder,” an enigma that has eluded explanation for more than 300 years.

We’ll also consider Vladimir Putin’s dog and puzzle over a little girl’s benefactor.

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Podcast Episode 124: D.B. Cooper

https://archives.fbi.gov/archives/news/stories/2007/december/dbcooper_123107

In 1971 a mysterious man hijacked an airliner in Portland, Oregon, demanding $200,000 and four parachutes. He bailed out somewhere over southwestern Washington and has never been seen again. In today’s show we’ll tell the story of D.B. Cooper, the only unsolved hijacking in American history.

We’ll also hear some musical disk drives and puzzle over a bicyclist’s narrow escape.

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Rotary Jails

https://patents.google.com/patent/US244358A/en

Architect William H. Brown had a curious brainstorm in 1881 — a jail in which moving cells shared a single door:

The object of our invention is to produce a jail or prison in which prisoners can be controlled without the necessity of personal contact between them and the jailer or guard. … [It] consists, first, of a circular cell structure of considerable size (inside the usual prison-building) divided into several cells capable of being rotated, and surrounded by a grating in close proximity thereto, which has only such number of openings (usually one) as is necessary for the convenient handling of the prisoners.

The cell block, supported by ball bearings, could be turned by a single man with a hand crank. While it had a certain efficient appeal, in practice the jail proved dangerous, crushing prisoners’ limbs and raising concerns about safety during a fire. The last rotary jail was condemned in 1939; the only surviving example is in Crawfordsville, Indiana.

(Strangely related: Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon. Thanks, Jon.)

Podcast Episode 120: The Barnes Mystery

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In 1879 a ghastly crime gripped England: A London maid had dismembered her employer and then assumed her identity for two weeks, wearing her clothes and jewelry and selling her belongings. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the murder of Julia Thomas and its surprising modern postscript.

We’ll also discover the unlikely origins of a Mary Poppins character and puzzle over a penguin in a canoe.

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The Oddfather

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Vincent Gigante, head of the Genovese crime family from 1981 to 2005, feigned mental illness for 30 years in order to throw law enforcement authorities off his trail. Beginning in the 1960s he could regularly be seen shuffling around his Greenwich Village neighborhood in pajamas, a bathrobe, and slippers, mumbling to himself, and quietly playing pinochle at a local club. His lawyers and relatives insisted he had become mentally disabled, with an IQ of 69 to 72.

But informants told the FBI that during this time he was really leading the wealthiest and most powerful crime family in the nation and a dominant force in the New York mob.

At arraignments he appeared in pajamas, and psychiatrists testified that he had been confined 28 times for hallucinations and “dementia rooted in organic brain damage.” “He was probably the most clever organized-crime figure I have ever seen,” former FBI supervisor John S. Pritchard told the New York Times. Mob rival John Gotti called him “crazy like a fox.”

It wasn’t until April 2003, in exchange for a plea deal, that he acknowledged that the whole thing had been a con to delay his racketeering trial. His lawyer said, “I think you get to a point in life — I think everyone does — where you become too old and too sick and too tired to fight.” He died in prison in 2005.

Expecting

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Embryo_Firearms,_1995.jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

During a visit to the Colt firearms factory in Connecticut in 1995, English sculptor Cornelia Parker was captivated by the recognizably gun-shaped casts of metal produced early in the manufacturing process. As blank casts they had none of the capacities of working weapons, but “in one further step, a hole drilled, a surface filed, they would technically become firearms.”

Fascinated by this transition, “I asked the foreman if I could possibly have a pair of guns at this early stage in the production, and if he could give them the same finish that they’d get at the end of the process,” she wrote later. “Amazingly, he agreed, and they became Embryo Firearms, conflating the idea of birth and death in the same object.”

Ironically, as she was leaving America, customs officials discovered the casts in her luggage and “an argument ensued that perfectly reflected the questions raised by Parker’s work,” writes Jessica Morgan in Cornelia Parker (2000). “The American Customs department insisted that Embryo Guns were weapons, while the police department, in Parker’s defense, argued that they were harmless metal forms and Parker was released from questioning.”

Crime and Punishment

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stadelheim_Wachturm.jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

German playwright Ernst Toller was arrested for socialist activities in 1919. His 1937 collection of letters from prison, Look Through the Bars, includes this memory:

Stadelheim 1919

Dear ——,

We are a hundred men here in prison, separated from our wives for months. Every conversation between any two men always ends in the same way — women.

The high walls prevent any view. Within the walls is a small hut. It was, we heard, some sort of wash-house, which was not used. One day one of us saw that the shutters of the hut were opened. He saw two women at work. One stayed in the wash-house, the other went away and locked the door. Soon we knew all. The two women were a wardress and a prisoner, who was to be released in a short time. She had been sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment for child-murder. She had already served five years; in a few weeks’ time she was to be pardoned.

It would be too complicated to tell you how we contrived to exchange notes with the girl. First playful and harmless ones, then feverish, passionate and confused ones. Everything which, in that closed-in existence, had come in dreams, wishes and fantasies went out to that woman. One morning she gave us a signal. We were to stand near the window at a certain hour.

Impossible to describe what happened. The woman opened her dress and stood naked at the window. She was surprised and taken away. We never saw her again. But we learned that the pardon had been annulled.

Never has a woman moved me so much as that little prisoner, who, in order to make men happy for a few seconds (in a very questionable way) suffered with unsophisticated wisdom three more years in prison.

Appeals

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Advertisements in the Sing Sing inmate newspaper Star of Hope, May 19, 1900:

WANTED — A home-like home. Present one, not what it is cracked up to be. Address Clinton 4,320.

WANTED — A good night’s rest. Gallery shouters and instrumentalists take note. Nemo, Star Office.

WANTED — An eraser, (must be mighty sharp) to blot out the past. A stock of experience, (fringed and threadbare) given in exchange. For particulars, Auburn 20,101.

WANTED — That rara avis, the con who does not think he is better able to manage the Star than the present Editor. Applications solicited by Sing Sing 51,094.

WANTED — A few blank pages in the Book of Life, wherein we desire to make some new entries — on the Cr. side. Address Summa Summarum, New York State Prisons.

WANTED — Immediately — an Opportunity. Price no object if goods are fair and in good working order. Anxious, Clinton 4,298.

WANTED — Anno Domini 1902. Will give in exchange one and a quarter yards of warranted genuine, homemade Spring po’ms — just too lovely for every day wear. Samantha, Auburn 595 (W. P.)

LOST — Five days’ ‘short time.’ Finder can have same by arranging with the Powers That Be. Address Nostalgic, Auburn 20,210.

(From Karel Weiss, The Prison Experience, 1976.)

Ground Rules

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Articles of the pirate ship Revenge, captain John Phillips, 1723:

  1. Every man shall obey a civil command. The captain shall have one share and a half of all prizes. The master, carpenter, boatswain and gunner shall have one share and [a] quarter.
  2. If any man shall offer to run away or keep any secret from the company, he shall be marooned with one bottle of powder, one bottle of water, one small arm and shot.
  3. If any man shall steal anything in the company or game to the value of a piece-of-eight, he shall be marooned or shot.
  4. If at any time we should meet another marooner [pirate], that man that shall sign his articles without the consent of our company shall suffer such punishment as the captain and company shall think fit.
  5. That man that shall strike another whilst these articles are in force shall receive Moses’s Law (that is, forty stripes lacking one) on the bare back.
  6. That man that shall snap his arms or smoke tobacco in the hold without a cap on his pipe, or carry a candle lighted without a lantern, shall suffer the same punishment as in the former article.
  7. That man that shall not keep his arms clean, fit for an engagement, or neglect his business, shall be cut off from his share and suffer such other punishment as the captain and the company shall think fit.
  8. If any man shall lose a joint in time of an engagement, he shall have 400 pieces-of-eight. If a limb, 800.
  9. If at any time we meet with a prudent woman, that man that offers to meddle with her without her consent, shall suffer present death.

That’s from Charles Johnson’s General History of the Pyrates, 1724. It’s one of only four surviving sets of articles from the golden age of piracy.

Phillips lasted less than eight months as a pirate captain but captured 34 ships in the West Indies.

Podcast Episode 104: The Harvey’s Casino Bombing

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In August 1980, an extortionist planted a thousand-pound bomb in Harvey’s Wagon Wheel Casino in western Nevada. Unless the owners paid him $3 million within 24 hours, he said, the bomb would go off and destroy the casino. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the tense drama that followed and the FBI’s efforts to catch the criminal behind it.

We’ll also consider some dubious lawn care shortcuts and puzzle over why a man would tear up a winning ticket.

See full show notes …