Images: Wikimedia Commons

When Michelangelo’s David was unveiled in 1504, it was seen to symbolize the civil liberties of the Republic of Florence in the face of the surrounding city-states and the powerful Medici.

A Medici duke commissioned Cellini’s Perseus With the Head of Medusa, which was unveiled 50 years later. Composed of bronze, it was situated opposite the David — so that Medusa’s gaze seemed to turn it to stone.

Podcast Episode 273: Alice Ramsey’s Historic Drive

In 1909, 22-year-old Alice Huyler Ramsey set out to become the first woman to drive across the United States. In an era of imperfect cars and atrocious roads, she would have to find her own way and undertake her own repairs across 3,800 miles of rugged, poorly mapped terrain. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Ramsey on her historic journey.

We’ll also ponder the limits of free speech and puzzle over some banned candy.


Journalist Henri de Blowitz received the Treaty of Berlin in the lining of a hat.

In 1895 John Haberle painted a slate so realistic that viewers were tempted to use it.

Sources for our feature on Alice Ramsey:

Alice Ramsey and Gregory M. Franzwa, Alice’s Drive: Republishing Veil, Duster, and Tire Iron, 2005.

Curt McConnell, A Reliable Car and a Woman Who Knows It: The First Coast-to-Coast Auto Trips by Women, 1899-1916, 2000.

Women’s Project of New Jersey, Past and Promise: Lives of New Jersey Women, 1997.

Catherine Gourley, Gibson Girls and Suffragists: Perceptions of Women from 1900 to 1918, 2008.

Christina E. Dando, Women and Cartography in the Progressive Era, 2017.

David Holmstrom, “On the Road With Alice,” American History 29:3 (July/August 1994).

Don Brown and Evan Rothman, “Queen of the Road,” Biography 1:2 (February 1997), 48-52.

Marina Koestler Ruben, “Alice Ramsey’s Historic Cross-Country Drive,”, June 4, 2009.

Katherine Parkin, “Alice Ramsey: Driving in New Directions,” New Jersey Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 4:2 (2018), 160-178.

Carla Rose Lesh, “‘What a Woman Can Do With an Auto’: American Women in the Early Automotive Era,” dissertation, State University of New York at Albany, 2010.

Brandon Dye, “Girls on the Road,” Autoweek 56:36 (Sept. 4, 2006), 34.

Jay Levin, “Daughter of Motoring Pioneer Dies,” [Bergen County, N.J.] Record, Nov. 18, 2015, L.6.

Joe Blackstock, “Alice Ramsey First Woman to Cross U.S. by Car,” Inland Valley [Calif.] Daily Bulletin, March 28, 2011.

Robert Peele, “History That’s More Than the Sum of Its Parts,” New York Times, March 26, 2010.

“Preservation Society Honors Historic Drive,” Reno Gazette-Journal, Oct. 9, 2009.

Robert Peele, “New York to San Francisco in a 1909 Maxwell DA,” New York Times, July 12, 2009.

Robert Peele, “Recreating a 100-Year-Old Road Trip,” New York Times, June 20, 2009.

Jane Palmer, “Driving Along Like It’s 1909,” McClatchy-Tribune Business News, June 18, 2009.

Jay Levin, “The Same Trip, 100 Years Later: N.J. Mother’s 1909 Milestone,” [Bergen County, N.J.] Record, June 10, 2009, L.3.

“Re-enacting a Ground-Breaking Journey,” New York Times, June 5, 2009.

Jay Levin, “Trailblazing Ride Made History: 1909 Road Trip First for a Woman,” [Bergen County, N.J.] Record, March 22, 2009, L.1.

“Women Transcontinentalists Nearing Chicago,” Automobile Topics 8:11 (June 19, 1909), 742.

David Conwill, “Alice Ramsey,” Hemmings Classic Car 164 (May 2018).

“Alice Ramsey,” Automotive Hall of Fame (accessed Nov. 3, 2019).

Guide to the Alice Huyler Ramsey Papers, 1905-1989, Vassar College (accessed Nov. 3, 2019).
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Listener mail:

Wikipedia, Rage (King novel),” (accessed Nov. 6, 2019).

Corey Adwar, “This Stephen King Novel Will Never Be Printed Again After It Was Tied to School Shootings,” Business Insider, April 1, 2014.

“Vermont Library Conference/VEMA Annual Meeting: The Bogeyboys,” (accessed Nov. 6, 2019).

Wikipedia, “Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors” (accessed Nov. 6, 2019).

Wikipedia, “Paladin Press” (accessed Nov. 10, 2019).

“Killer of Three Gets Reduced Sentence,” Washington Times, May 17, 2001.

Emilie S. Kraft, “Hit Man Manual,” First Amendment Encyclopedia, Middle Tennessee State University (accessed Nov. 10, 2019).

Calvin Reid, “Paladin Press Pays Millions to Settle ‘Hit Man’ Case,” Publishers Weekly, May 31, 1999.

David G. Savage, “Publisher of ‘Hit Man’ Manual Agrees to Settle Suit Over Triple Slaying,” Los Angeles Times, May 22, 1999.

Rice v. Paladin Enterprises, Inc., 128 F. 3d 233 – Court of Appeals, 4th Circuit 1997.

David Montgomery, “If Books Could Kill,” Washington Post, July 26, 1998.

Robert W. Welkos, “Judge Throws Out Lawsuit Against Oliver Stone,” Los Angeles Times, March 13, 2001.

“Natural Born Killers Lawsuit Finally Thrown Out,” Guardian, March 13, 2001.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Simone and her father. Here’s a corroborating link (warning — this spoils 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

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 Thanks for listening!

Podcast Episode 272: The Cannibal Convict

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.

See full show notes …


On Nov. 23, 1866, Secretary of State William Henry Seward inaugurated the first sustainable transatlantic telegraph line by sending a diplomatic cable. Seward’s message was a tidy 780 words, but he sent it using a Monroe cipher, which converted the text into groups of numbers. And the telegraph company stipulated that a coded message that used number groups had to spell out the numbers — so 387 was sent as THREE EIGHT SEVEN. Consequently Seward’s message expanded to 3,772 words. To add insult to injury, the Anglo-American Telegraph Company charged double, or $5 per word, for coded messages. Seward’s telegram ended up costing $19,540.40, more than three times his salary.

Seward refused to pay at first, but he lost a court fight. The editor of the New York Herald wrote sarcastically, “It is a shame for the United States government not to be able to pay its telegraph bills as promptly as a New York newspaper.”

(Ralph E. Weber, “Seward’s Other Folly: America’s First Encrypted Cable,” Studies in Intelligence 36 [1992], 105-109.) (Thanks, John.)

Podcast Episode 271: The Fraudulent Life of Cassie Chadwick

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.

See full show notes …

The Slave Bible

In 1807, three years after the Haitian Revolution, someone decided to edit the Bible that was provided to Caribbean slaves to omit any inducements to rebel. The result was Select Parts of the Holy Bible, for the Use of the Negro Slaves in the British West-India Islands, a heavily redacted version that includes Joseph’s enslavement in Egypt but omits Moses leading the Israelites to freedom.

The anonymous editors were “really highlighting portions that would instill obedience,” Museum of the Bible curator Anthony Schmidt told Also cut were Galatians 3:28 (“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus”) and the Book of Revelation, which tells of a new world in which evil will be punished.

But they retained Ephesians 6:5: “Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ.”

Here’s a copy.

Podcast Episode 270: Kidnapped by North Korea
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1978, two luminaries of South Korean cinema were abducted by Kim Jong-Il and forced to make films in North Korea in an outlandish plan to improve his country’s fortunes. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of Choi Eun-Hee and Shin Sang-Ok and their dramatic efforts to escape their captors.

We’ll also examine Napoleon’s wallpaper and puzzle over an abandoned construction.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 269: The Sack of Baltimore

One night in 1631, pirates from the Barbary coast stole ashore at the little Irish village of Baltimore and abducted 107 people to a life of slavery in Algiers — a rare instance of African raiders seizing white slaves from the British Isles. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the sack of Baltimore and the new life that awaited the captives in North Africa.

We’ll also save the Tower of London and puzzle over a controversial number.

See full show notes …

A Wine Slide Rule
Image: Science Museum Group

Revenue agents in 18th-century London faced a curious challenge: how to calculate the excise tax on a barrel that was partially full of liquor. The answer was an “ullage slide rule” — this gauging rod was dipped into the barrel, some brass sliding pieces were adjusted to reflect the height of the surface, and a mathematical calculation would tell how much liquid the barrel contained.

The Science Museum says, “The calculations were very complicated.” A correspondent to the Mathematical Gazette wrote in 1990, “I well remember puzzling, unsuccessfully, over graphs and calculations of measurements until I wrote to the makers whose name was stamped on the rule and who still existed [in 1966] at the same address in London Bridge. At that time they were still making a modern equivalent for the same use by revenue officers.” More at the link below.

(Tom Martin, “Gauging: The Art Behind the Slide Rule,” Brewery History 133 [2009], 69-86.)

“Let Liking Last”

Inscriptions found in 17th-century English wedding rings, from William Jones’ Finger-Ring Lore, 1898:

  • Let reason rule affection.
  • A token of good-will.
  • Live in Loue.
  • As I expect so let me find, A faithfull ❤ and constant mind.
  • Time lesseneth not my love.
  • Love the truth.
  • In loving wife spend all thy life.

A diamond ring bore the inscription “This sparke will grow.”