A Movable Lake


In order to confuse enemy aircraft during World War II, the residents of Hamburg disguised the Binnenalster, a lake in the main business district, as terrain and built a dummy viaduct parallel to the real viaduct, in effect “moving” an attractive target to a less vulnerable location.

Unfortunately the work was done in daylight and the change was too dramatic to be convincing. “Even so, the protection must have been of real value at least in Hamburg, where the addition of a dummy viaduct, displaced from, but parallel to, the real (Lombard’s) viaduct may have contributed to saving the latter very vital rail and transportation link.”

(U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, Civilian Defense Division Final Report: Dates of Survey: 15 Jan.-15 Aug. 1945, 1947.)

Podcast Episode 284: The Red Barn


When Maria Marten disappeared from the English village of Polstead in 1827, her lover said that they had married and were living on the Isle of Wight. But Maria’s stepmother began having disturbing dreams that hinted at a much grimmer fate. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Red Barn, which transfixed Britain in the early 19th century.

We’ll also encounter an unfortunate copycat and puzzle over some curious births.


In 1859, a penurious Henry Thoreau donated $5 to a college library.

Georges Perec rendered “Ozymandias” without the letter E.

Sources for our feature on the Red Barn:

James Curtis, The Murder of Maria Marten, 1828.

Shane McCorristine, William Corder and the Red Barn Murder: Journeys of the Criminal Body, 2014.

Lucy Worsley, The Art of the English Murder: From Jack the Ripper and Sherlock Holmes to Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock, 2014.

James Moore, Murder at the Inn: A History of Crime in Britain’s Pubs and Hotels, 2015.

Colin Wilson, A Casebook of Murder, 2015.

Maryrose Cuskelly, Original Skin: Exploring the Marvels of the Human Hide, 2011.

Henry Vizetelly, The Romance of Crime, 1860.

“Trial of William Corder for the Murder of Maria Marten,” Annual Register, 1828, 337-349.

James Redding Ware, Wonderful Dreams of Remarkable Men and Women, 1884.

Jessie Dobson, “The College Criminals: 4. William Corder,” Annals of the Royal College of Surgeons of England 11:4 (1952), 249.

Richard Grady, “Personal Identity Established by the Teeth; the Dentist a Scientific Expert,” American Journal of Dental Science 17:9 (1884), 385.

Harry Cocks, “The Pre-History of Print and Online Dating, c. 1690-1990,” in I. Alev Degim, James Johnson, and Tao Fu, Online Courtship: Interpersonal Interactions Across Borders, 2015.

Sarah Tarlow, “Curious Afterlives: The Enduring Appeal of the Criminal Corpse,” Mortality 21:3 (2016), 210–228.

Ruth Penfold-Mounce, “Consuming Criminal Corpses: Fascination With the Dead Criminal Body,” Mortality 15:3 (August 2010), 250-265.

“The Trial of William Corder, for the Wilful Murder of Maria Marten, Etc.,” 1828.

“The Trial, at Length, of William Corder, Convicted of the Murder of Maria Marten,” 1828.

“An Accurate Account of the Trial of William Corder for the Murder of Maria Marten,” 1828.

“The Trial of William Corder at the Assizes, Bury St. Edmunds,” 1828.

“Dream Testimony,” Notes & Queries 52, Dec. 27, 1856.

Paul Collins, “The Molecatcher’s Daughter,” Independent on Sunday, Nov. 26, 2006, 20.

Peter Watson, “Alternatives: Natural Barn Killer,” Guardian, Feb. 19, 1995, 23.

Jonathan Kay, “Lessons From a Molecatcher’s Daughter,” National Post, Jan. 9, 2007, A17.

Michael Horsnell, “Red Barn Murderer Finally Laid to Rest,” Times, Aug. 18, 2004, 10.

Max Haines, “The Red Barn Murder,” Sudbury [Ontario] Star, Aug. 16, 2003, D.11.

Maryrose Cuskelly, “Of Human Bondage,” Australian, June 3, 2009, 18.

“Gruesome Murder Still Has the Power to Fascinate,” East Anglian Daily Times, Oct. 28, 2013.

“True Crime From the 1820s: Shades of Capote,” Weekend Edition Saturday, National Public Radio, Oct. 28, 2006.

Colin Wilson, “A Murder Mystery: Why Do Some Killings Dominate the Headlines?”, Times, Jan. 28, 2006, 25.

Pamela Owen, “The Day Murder Became a National Obsession,” The People, Sept. 22, 2013, 34.

Stephanie Markinson, “Dark History,” Yorkshire Post, Jan. 10, 2020, 7.

“Collection Articles: The Trial, at Length, of William Corder, Convicted of the Murder of Maria Marten,” British Library (accessed Feb. 2, 2020).

Alsager Richard Vian, “Corder, William,” Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Vol. 12.

Alsager Vian, “Corder, William,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Sept. 23, 2004.

Listener mail:

Malcolm Gladwell, “Safety in the Skies,” Gladwell.com, Oct. 1, 2001.

Hugh Morris, “The Strangest Stories From the Golden Age of Plane Hijacking,” Telegraph, July 5, 2019.

Thom Patterson, “How the Era of ‘Skyjackings’ Changed the Way We Fly,” CNN, Oct. 2, 2017.

“Three Cheeseburgers and a Rental Car,” Fear of Landing, July 26, 2019.

Wikipedia, “D. B. Cooper” (accessed Feb. 4, 2020).

Joni Balter, “Attorney: Hijacker Couldn’t Hurt Anyone,” UPI, Jan. 21, 1983.

“Man Killed in Attempted Hijacking on Coast,” UPI, Jan. 21, 1983.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by both Ronald Gainey and Chris Zinsli, based on an item they heard on the podcast 99% Invisible. Here are four additional 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.

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!

A Lofty Honor

Image: Wikimedia Commons

The names of 72 French scientists, engineers, and mathematicians are engraved on the Eiffel Tower, under the first balcony, in letters about 60 cm high:

Petiet • Daguerre • Wurtz • Le Verrier • Perdonnet • Delambre • Malus • Breguet • Polonceau • Dumas • Clapeyron • Borda • Fourier • Bichat • Sauvage • Pelouze • Carnot • Lamé • Cauchy • Belgrand • Regnault • Fresnel • De Prony • Vicat • Ebelmen • Coulomb • Poinsot • Foucault • Delaunay • Morin • Haüy • Combes • Thénard • Arago • Poisson • Monge • Jamin • Gay-Lussac • Fizeau • Schneider • Le Chatelier • Berthier • Barral • De Dion • Goüin • Jousselin • Broca • Becquerel • Coriolis • Cail • Triger • Giffard • Perrier • Sturm • Seguin • Lalande • Tresca • Poncelet • Bresse • Lagrange • Belanger • Cuvier • Laplace • Dulong • Chasles • Lavoisier • Ampère • Chevreul • Flachat • Navier • Legendre • Chaptal

Gustave Eiffel added the names when artists had protested against the tower on aesthetic grounds. But the choice of the honorees is itself open to criticism: None of the 72 are women, and none has a name longer than 12 letters.

A Very Bad Day

In September 1914, three ships from Britain’s 7th Cruiser Squadron were on patrol in the North Sea to prevent the Imperial German Navy from entering the English Channel to interrupt supply lines between England and France.

Fifteen-year-old midshipman Wenman Wykeham-Musgrave was aboard HMS Aboukir when the German U-boat U-9 attacked. His sister recalled in 2003:

“He went overboard when the Aboukir was going down and he swam like mad to get away from the suction. He was then just getting on board the Hogue and she was torpedoed. He then went and swam to the Cressy and she was also torpedoed. He eventually found a bit of driftwood, became unconscious and was eventually picked up by a Dutch trawler.”

U-9 had sunk all three cruisers, killing 1,500 men. Wykeham-Musgrave was eventually rescued by a Dutch trawler.

An Early Voice

On October 21, 1889, Prussian field marshal Helmuth von Moltke the Elder made two audio recordings on Thomas Edison’s new cylinder phonograph. The first contains a congratulatory message to Edison and an excerpt from Faust, the second a line from Hamlet.

This is the only voice recording we have of a person born in the 18th century — Moltke had been born in 1800, technically the last year of that century. Ironically, he had been known as der große Schweiger, “the great silent one,” for his taciturnity.

Podcast Episode 282: Helga Estby’s Walk


In 1896, Norwegian immigrant Helga Estby faced the foreclosure of her family’s Washington farm. To pay the debt she accepted a wager to walk across the United States within seven months. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow her daring bid to win the prize, and its surprising consequence.

We’ll also toast Edgar Allan Poe and puzzle over a perplexing train.

See full show notes …



In 1951 Clement Attlee received this message from 15-year-old Ann Glossop, who had completed her final exams at Penrhos College only to discover that under recent reforms she was considered too young to graduate and must wait a year and go through them again:

Would you please explain, dear Clement
Just why it has to be
That Certificates of Education
Are barred to such as me?

I’ve worked through thirteen papers
But my swot is all in vain
Because at this time next year
I must do them all again.

Please have pity, Clement,
And tell the others too.
Remove the silly age-limit
It wasn’t there for you.

He replied:

I received with real pleasure
Your verses, my dear Ann.
Although I’ve not much leisure
I’ll reply as best I can.

I’ve not the least idea why
They have this curious rule
Condemning you to sit and sigh
Another year at school.

You’ll understand that my excuse
For lack of detailed knowledge
Is that school certs were not in use
When I attended college.

George Tomlinson is ill, but I
Have asked him to explain
And when I get the reason why
I’ll write to you again.

He lost office shortly thereafter, so Ann’s problem was never solved.

Podcast Episode 281: Grey Owl

Image: Wikimedia Commons

In the 1930s the world’s best-known conservationist was an ex-trapper named Grey Owl who wrote and lectured ardently for the preservation of the Canadian wilderness. At his death, though, it was discovered that he wasn’t who he’d claimed to be. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of his curious history and complicated legacy.

We’ll also learn how your father can be your uncle and puzzle over a duplicate record.

See full show notes …

Lost in Translation

A dry footnote from Walter Scott’s The Heart of Midlothian, regarding the Porteous Riots of 1736, in which a guard captain was lynched in Edinburgh:

The Magistrates were closely interrogated before the House of Peers, concerning the particulars of the Mob, and the patois in which these functionaries made their answers, sounded strange in the ears of the Southern nobles. The Duke of Newcastle having demanded to know with what kind of shot the guard which Porteous commanded had loaded their muskets, was answered naively, ‘Ow, just sic as ane shoots dukes and fools with.’ This reply was considered as a contempt of the House of Lords, and the Provost would have suffered accordingly, but that the Duke of Argyle explained, that the expression, properly rendered into English, meant ducks and waterfowl.

(Thanks, Fred.)

Podcast Episode 280: Leaving St. Kilda

Image: Wikimedia Commons

1930 saw the quiet conclusion of a remarkable era. The tiny population of St. Kilda, an isolated Scottish archipelago, decided to end their thousand-year tenure as the most remote community in Britain and move to the mainland. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the remarkable life they’d shared on the island and the reasons they chose to leave.

We’ll also track a stork to Sudan and puzzle over the uses of tea trays.

See full show notes …