Podcast Episode 289: The Johnstown Flood

Image: Ron Shawley

In 1889, a dam failed in southwestern Pennsylvania, sending 20 million tons of water down an industrialized valley toward the unsuspecting city of Johnstown. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe some of the dramatic and harrowing personal stories that unfolded on that historic day.

We’ll also celebrate Christmas with Snoopy and puzzle over a deadly traffic light.


For an 1866 California lecture tour, Mark Twain wrote his own handbills.

Raymond Chandler’s unused titles include The Diary of a Loud Check Suit.

Sources for our feature on the Johnstown flood:

David McCullough, Johnstown Flood, 1968.

Richard O’Connor, Johnstown the Day the Dam Broke, 1957.

Neil M. Coleman, Johnstown’s Flood of 1889: Power Over Truth and the Science Behind the Disaster, 2018.

Frank Connelly and George C. Jenks, Official History of the Johnstown Flood, 1889.

John Stuart Ogilvie, History of the Great Flood in Johnstown, Pa., May 31, 1889, 1889.

Willis Fletcher Johnson, History of the Johnstown Flood, 1889.

Neil M. Coleman, Uldis Kaktins, and Stephanie Wojno, “Dam-Breach Hydrology of the Johnstown Flood of 1889 — Challenging the Findings of the 1891 Investigation Report,” Heliyon 2:6 (2016), e00120.

Christine M. Kreiser, “Wave of Destruction,” American History 50:4 (October 2015), 38-41.

Uldis Kaktins et al., “Revisiting the Timing and Events Leading to and Causing the Johnstown Flood of 1889,” Pennsylvania History 80:3 (2013), 335-363.

Sid Perkins, “Johnstown Flood Matched Volume of Mississippi River,” Science News, Oct. 20, 2009.

Emily Godbey, “Disaster Tourism and the Melodrama of Authenticity: Revisiting the 1889 Johnstown Flood,” Pennsylvania History 73:3 (2006), 273-315.

Mary P. Lavine, “The Johnstown Floods: Causes and Consequences,” in S.K. Majumdar et al., eds., Natural and Technological Disasters: Causes, Effects and Preventative Measures, Pennsylvania Academy of Science, 1992.

Robert D. Christie, “The Johnstown Flood,” Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine 54:2 (April 1971), 198-210.

John Bach McMaster, “The Johnstown Flood,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 57:3 (1933), 209-243.

John Bach McMaster, “The Johnstown Flood: II,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 57:4 (1933), 316-354.

“The Johnstown Disaster,” Scientific American 60:26 (June 29, 1889), 406-407.

Jason Zweig, “National News, 1889: Club Is Found Culpable in Johnstown Flood,” Wall Street Journal, July 7, 2014.

David Hurst, “‘It’s Still Controversial’: Debate Rages Over Culpability of Wealthy Club Members,” [Johnstown, Pa.] Tribune-Democrat, May 25, 2014.

Peter Smith, “Johnstown Flood of 1889: Greatest Disaster in the State Continues to Resonate,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 24, 2014.

Henry Fountain, “Research at the Source of a Pennsylvania Flood,” New York Times, Oct. 26, 2009.

“Town’s Ads Say Its Catastrophic Flood ‘Is Over,'” [Prescott, Ariz.] Daily Courier, March 31, 2002.

“Bones May Be From 1889 Flood,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 8, 1998, B-4.

Eric Pace, “Frank Shomo, Infant Survivor of Johnstown Flood, Dies at 108,” New York Times, March 24, 1997.

D. Byron Yake, “In Johnstown, They Still Talk About the Flood 85 Years Ago,” [Washington, Pa.] Observer-Reporter, May 31, 1974, B-6.

“Black Day in 1889; Johnstown, Pa., Marks Flood Anniversary,” New York Times, May 24, 1964.

“Flood Just Part of Little Known Tale Behind Johnstown Woes,” [Washington D.C.] Evening Star, May 30, 1939.

“A Valley of Death,” Three Rivers [Mich.] Tribune, June 7, 1889, 6.

Johnstown Area Heritage Association, “Johnstown Flood Museum: Pennsylvania Railroad Interview Transcripts,” 2013.

Listener mail:

Kelly Servick, “Brain Parasite May Strip Away Rodents’ Fear of Predators — Not Just of Cats,” Science, Jan. 14, 2020.

Madlaina Boillat et al., “Neuroinflammation-Associated Aspecific Manipulation of Mouse Predator Fear by Toxoplasma gondii,” Cell Reports 30:2 (2020), 320-334.

“Toxoplasma Infection in Mice Reduces Generalized Anxiety, Not Just Feline Fear,” Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News, Jan. 15, 2020.

The Royal Guardsmen, “Snoopy’s Christmas,” 1967:

The Royal Guardsmen, “Snoopy vs. The Red Baron,” 1966:

Wikipedia, “Snoopy’s Christmas” (accessed March 15, 2020).

Alistair Hughes, “Snoopy Still Flying at Christmas,” Stuff, Dec. 8, 2014.

“Snoopy’s Christmas ‘Worst Christmas Song of All Time,'” New Zealand Herald, Dec. 18, 2007.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was suggested by listeners David and Becky Pruessner. Here are two corroborating links (warning — these spoil the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on Google Podcasts, on Apple Podcasts, or via the RSS feed at https://futilitycloset.libsyn.com/rss.

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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!

In a Word

n. a wayfarer; traveler

adj. likely to cause harm or damage

adj. exploding or detonating

adj. in heaps

British director Cecil Hepworth made “How It Feels To Be Run Over” in 1900. The car is on the wrong side of the road. (The intertitle at the end, “Oh! Mother will be pleased,” may have been scratched directly into the celluloid.)

Hepworth followed it up with “Explosion of a Motor Car,” below, later the same year.

Medieval Music

In 2016, after 20 years of research, Cambridge University medieval music specialist Sam Barrett used the rediscovered leaf of an 11th-century manuscript to reconstruct music as it would have been heard a thousand years ago.

Melodies in those days were not recorded as precise pitches but relied on the memory of musicians and on aural traditions that died out in the 12th century. “We know the contours of the melodies and many details about how they were sung, but not the precise pitches that made up the tunes,” Barrett said. The missing leaf, appropriated by a Germanic scholar in 1840, contained vital neumes, or musical symbols, that allowed him and his colleagues to finish their reconstruction of Boethius’ “Songs of Consolation” as it was performed in the Middle Ages.

“There have been times while I’ve been working on this that I have thought I’m in the 11th century, when the music has been so close it was almost touchable,” Barrett said. “And it’s those moments that make the last 20 years of work so worthwhile.”

A Near Thing

British infantryman Charlie “Ginger” Byrne was advancing on the German-held village of Beaumont-Hamel on July 1, 1916, when the other members of his gun crew were hit and he was forced to take refuge in a shallow shell hole. He lay there among the ammunition boxes he’d been carrying with only four inches of earth above his head.

I lay as I fell because I daren’t move. I had my legs folded under me and my bloomin’ bayonet was on my left-hand side. I was dying to move that bayonet out of the way so I could get my hip down lower. But that Jerry decided he hadn’t anything better to do than play his gun across my shell-hole. He knew I wasn’t hit. I knew what he was doing. I was a machine gunner myself, wasn’t I? He’d be holding the two handles of his gun, then he’d tap, tap so it played right across the top of the hole; then he’d turn the wheel at the bottom to lower the barrel and then he’d tap, tap the other side to bring it back again. He was hitting the dust just above my head and he smashed the bloomin’ boxes. Bits of ammo flew about everywhere. In a queer sort of way I was lying there almost admiring what he was doing, as though it wasn’t me he was aiming at. He was a fellow machine-gunner, wasn’t he? And he certainly knew his job. But he just couldn’t get that trajectory low enough.

Byrne waited 14 hours through the interminable summer day with the German gunner “nagging away,” firing just over the hole. “Sometimes he’d stop for a bit and turn the gun on someone else; but he’d got right fond of me. Wasted a lot of ammo on me that Jerry did.” When darkness finally came he crawled and then ran across no-man’s-land and escaped, entirely uninjured.

(From Richard van Emden, Meeting the Enemy: The Human Face of the Great War, 2013.)

Podcast Episode 288: Death at the Lane Cove River

Image: Wikimedia Commons

On New Year’s Day 1963, two bodies were discovered on an Australian riverbank. Though their identities were quickly determined, weeks of intensive investigation failed to uncover a cause or motive for their deaths. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Bogle-Chandler case, which riveted Australia for years.

We’ll also revisit the Rosenhan study and puzzle over a revealing lighthouse.

See full show notes …



  • The state sport of Maryland is jousting.
  • North and South Dakota were established together, in 1889.
  • Percentages are reversible: 25% of 16 is 16% of 25.
  • “Success in research needs four Gs: Glück, Geduld, Geschick, und Geld [luck, patience, skill, and money].” — Paul Ehrlich

Podcast Episode 287: The Public Universal Friend


After a severe fever in 1776, Rhode Island farmer’s daughter Jemima Wilkinson was reborn as a genderless celestial being who had been sent to warn of the coming Apocalypse. But the general public was too scandalized by the messenger to pay heed to the message. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Public Universal Friend and the prejudiced reaction of a newly formed nation.

We’ll also bid on an immortal piano and puzzle over some Icelandic conceptions.

See full show notes …



“The actual building of roads devoted to motor cars is not for the near future, in spite of many rumors to that effect.” — Harper’s Weekly, Aug. 2, 1902

“That the automobile has practically reached the limit of its development is suggested by the fact that during the past year no improvements of a radical character have been introduced.” — Scientific American, Jan. 2, 1909

Full Speed Ahead


I just liked this — during World War I, the British painted false bow waves on the sides of their transport ships to deceive German submarines as to their speed.

From The Times History of the War, 1917.

Castaway Depots


Following a series of shipwrecks in the 19th century, the government of New Zealand began to establish huts on remote subantarctic islands for the use of castaways, who otherwise might die of starvation or exposure.

The depots were stocked with firewood, rations, clothing, hunting and fishing equipment, medicine, and matches. Some included boat sheds, and steamers visited each island twice a year. To discourage opportunistic thieves, the government posted warnings on the provisions; one read, “The curse of the widow and fatherless light upon the man that breaks open this box, whilst he has a ship at his back.”

The project was discontinued after about 1927 as radio technology improved and the old clipper route fell out of use, but the depots were proving their value as late as 1908, when 22 crewmembers from the French barque President Félix Faure were shipwrecked in the Antipodes Islands. A depot there helped to sustain them until they could signal a passing warship.