Better Safe
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In January 1943, a brick “hive” was built around Michelangelo’s David to protect it from incendiary bombs.

Two and a half years later, preservationist Deane Keller wrote to his wife, “The bright spot yesterday was seeing Michelangelo’s David at length divested of its air raid protection. It was dusty and dirty but it was a great thrill.”

(From Ilaria Dagnini Brey, The Venus Fixers, 2010.)

Podcast Episode 311: A Disputed Russian Princess

In 1920, a young woman was pulled from a canal in Berlin. When her identity couldn’t be established, speculation started that she was a Russian princess who had escaped the execution of the imperial family. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the strange life of Anna Anderson and her disputed identity as Grand Duchess Anastasia.

We’ll also revisit French roosters and puzzle over not using headlights.


In 1899, English engineer E.W. Barton-Wright introduced his own martial art.

One early American locomotive was driven by a horse walking on a belt.

Photo: The Russian royal family at Livadiya, Crimea, 1913, five years before the execution. Left to right: Olga, Maria, Nicholas II, Alexandra Fyodorovna, Anastasia, Alexei, and Tatiana. Sources for our feature on Anna Anderson:

Greg King and Penny Wilson, The Resurrection of the Romanovs: Anastasia, Anna Anderson, and the World’s Greatest Royal Mystery, 2010.

John Klier and Helen Mingay, The Quest for Anastasia: Solving the Mystery of the Lost Romanovs, 1999.

James B. Lovell, Anastasia: The Lost Princess, 1995.

Frances Welch, A Romanov Fantasy: Life at the Court of Anna Anderson, 2007.

Toby Saul, “Death of a Dynasty: How the Romanovs Met Their End,” National Geographic, July 20, 2018.

Alan Cooperman, “An Anastasia Verdict,” U.S. News & World Report 117:11 (Sept. 19, 1994), 20.

“What Really Happened to Russia’s Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanov,” Haaretz, Dec. 27, 2018.

Nancy Bilyeau, “Will the Real Anastasia Romanov Please Stand Up?”, Town & Country, April 25, 2017.

“Is This Princess Alive?”, Life 38:7 (Feb. 14, 1955), 31-35.

Martin Sieff, “Romanov Mystery Finally Solved,” UPI, May 1, 2008.

“Amateurs Unravel Russia’s Last Royal Mystery,” New York Times, Nov. 24, 2007.

Lena Williams, “Chronicle,” New York Times, Oct. 6, 1994, D.24.

“Topics of The Times; Anastasia Lives,” New York Times, Sept. 11, 1994.

John Darnton, “Scientists Confirm Identification of Bones as Czar’s,” New York Times, July 10, 1993.

“Appeal in Anastasia Case Rejected in West Germany,” New York Times, Feb. 18, 1970.

“Appeal in Anastasia Mystery Is Rejected by Hamburg Court,” New York Times, March 1, 1967.

Arthur J. Olsenbonn, “Anastasia: Grand Duchess or Grand Hoax?”, New York Times, Aug. 24, 1958.

Left: Franziska Schanzkowska in 1913. Right: Anna Anderson in 1920.

Listener mail:

Wikipedia, “Lynmouth Flood” (accessed Sept. 2, 2020).

Wikipedia, “Project Cumulus” (accessed Sept. 2, 2020).

Wikipedia, “Philip Eden” (accessed Sept. 2, 2020).

John Vidal and Helen Weinstein, “RAF Rainmakers ‘Caused 1952 Flood,'” Guardian, Aug. 30, 2001.

Susan Borowski, “Despite Past Failures, Weather Modification Endures,”, Dec. 31, 2012.

“Rain-Making Link to Killer Floods,” BBC News, Aug. 30, 2001.

Laura Joint, “Lynmouth Flood Disaster,” BBC, Jan. 25, 2008.

Philip Eden, “The Day They Made It Rain,” Weather Online.

Locust Watch.

Sam Harrison, “The Sights, Sounds, and Smells of Rural France May Soon Be Protected by Law,” Atlas Obscura, July 28, 2020.

“Proposition de loi nº 2211 visant à définir et protéger le patrimoine sensoriel des campagnes françaises,” French National Assembly, Sept. 11, 2019.

“France: 74,000 Sign Petition Calling for Justice for Murdered Rooster,” Euronews, Aug. 17, 2020.

Agence France-Presse, “Justice Sought for Marcel, French Rooster Shot for Crowing,” Courthouse News Service, Aug. 17, 2020.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Jule Ann Wakeman.

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 310: The Case of Bobby Dunbar

In 1912, 4-year-old Bobby Dunbar went missing during a family fishing trip in Louisiana. Eight months later, a boy matching his description appeared in Mississippi. But was it Bobby Dunbar? In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the dispute over the boy’s identity.

We’ll also contemplate a scholarship for idlers and puzzle over an ignorant army.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 309: The ‘Grain of Salt’ Episode

Sometimes in our research we come across stories that are regarded as true but that we can’t fully verify. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll share two such stories from the 1920s, about a pair of New York fruit dealers and a mythologized bank robber, and discuss the strength of the evidence behind them.

We’ll also salute a retiring cat and puzzle over a heartless spouse.

See full show notes …

The Stairs of Reconciliation
Image: Flickr

The Burg, the official headquarters of the regional government in Graz, Austria, contains a double spiral staircase, two flights of stairs spiraling in opposite directions that “reunite” at each floor, a masterpiece of architecture designed in 1499.

Bonus: Interestingly, several facades of the building bear the inscription A.E.I.O.U., a motto coined by Frederick III in 1437, when he was Duke of Styria. It’s not clear what this means, and over the ensuing centuries heraldists have offered more than 300 interpretations:

  • “All the world is subject to Austria” (Alles Erdreich ist Österreich untertan or Austriae est imperare orbi universo)
  • “I am loved by the elect” (from the Latin amor electis, iniustis ordinor ultor)
  • “Austria is best united by the Empire” (Austria est imperio optime unita)
  • “Austria will be the last (surviving) in the world” (Austria erit in orbe ultima)
  • “It is Austria’s destiny to rule the whole world” (Austriae est imperare orbi universo)

At the time Styria was not yet part of Austria, so here it would refer to the House of Austria, or the Habsburg dynasty — which historically adopted the curious motto itself.

Podcast Episode 308: Nicholas Winton and the Czech Kindertransport
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1939, as the shadow of war spread over Europe, British stockbroker Nicholas Winton helped to spirit hundreds of threatened children out of Czechoslovakia. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Winton’s struggle to save the children and the world’s eventual recognition of his achievements.

We’ll also consider some ghostly marriages and puzzle over a ship’s speed.


There’s a “technical version” of “A Visit From St. Nicholas.”

Critic A.E. Wilson translated Hamlet’s nunnery soliloquy into “Americanese.”

Sources for our feature on Nicholas Winton:

Barbara Winton, If It’s Not Impossible–: The Life of Sir Nicholas Winton, 2014.

William Chadwick, The Rescue of the Prague Refugees 1938-39, 2010.

Andrea Hammel and Bea Lewkowicz, The Kindertransport to Britain 1938/39: New Perspectives, 2012.

Rod Gragg, My Brother’s Keeper: Christians Who Risked All to Protect Jewish Targets of the Nazi Holocaust, 2016.

Ivan A. Backer, My Train to Freedom: A Jewish Boy’s Journey From Nazi Europe to a Life of Activism, 2016.

Laura E. Brade and Rose Holmes, “Troublesome Sainthood: Nicholas Winton and the Contested History of Child Rescue in Prague, 1938-1940,” History & Memory 29:1 (Spring/Summer 2017), 3-40.

Anna Hájková, “Marie Schmolka and the Group Effort,” History Today 68:12 (December 2018), 36-49.

Sona Patel, “Winton’s Children Share Their Stories,” New York Times, July 13, 2015.

“A Job Well Done; Nicholas Winton,” Economist 416:8946 (July 11, 2015), 82.

“Train Tribute to Holocaust ‘Hero’ Sir Nicholas Winton,” BBC News, July 9, 2015.

Alasdair Steven, “Sir Nicholas Winton,” Scotsman, July 7, 2015, 34.

Sarah Sedghi, “Sir Nicholas Winton, the Man Who Saved 669 Children From the Holocaust,” Australian Broadcasting Corporation, July 2, 2015.

“Sir Nicholas Winton,” Scotsman, July 2, 2015, 42.

Raymond Johnston, “Sir Nicholas Winton to Be Honored in US,” Prague Post, Sept. 25, 2013.

Robert D. McFadden, “Nicholas Winton, Rescuer of 669 Children From Holocaust, Dies at 106,” New York Times, July 1, 2015.

“Holocaust ‘Hero’ Sir Nicholas Winton Dies Aged 106,” BBC News, July 1, 2015.

Stephen Bates, “Sir Nicholas Winton Obituary,” Guardian, July 1, 2015.

Daniel Victor, “Nicholas Winton’s ‘Most Emotional Moment,'” New York Times, July 1, 2015.

Jake Flanagin, “Britain’s Schindler, a Reluctant Hero,” New York Times, July 10, 2014.

Caroline Sharples, “Winton [formerly Wertheim], Sir Nicholas George (Nicky),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Jan. 10, 2019.

“Sir Nicholas Winton,” Biography, July 16, 2015.

“Nicholas Winton and the Rescue of Children From Czechoslovakia, 1938–1939,” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (accessed Aug. 9, 2020).

Winton appeared twice on the BBC1 television series That’s Life!, on Feb. 27 and March 6, 1988. This video combines both appearances:

Listener mail:

“Did You Know Why Marrying Dead People Is Possible in France?”, The Local, Jan. 28, 2019.

Lizzy Davies, “French Woman Marries Dead Partner,” Guardian, Nov. 17, 2009.

Wikipedia, “Posthumous Marriage” (accessed Aug. 7, 2020).

Vicky Xiuzhong Xu and Bang Xiao, “Ghost Marriages: A 3,000-Year-Old Tradition of Wedding the Dead Is Still Thriving in Rural China,” ABC News, April 6, 2018.

Grace Tsoi, “China’s Ghost Weddings and Why They Can Be Deadly,” BBC News, Aug. 24, 2016.

Wikipedia, “Chinese Ghost Marriage” (accessed Aug. 7, 2020).

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Ken Somolinos, who sent this 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!

Russell’s Decalogue

In a 1951 article in the New York Times Magazine, Bertrand Russell laid out “the Ten Commandments that, as a teacher, I should wish to promulgate”:

  1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
  2. Do not think it worthwhile to produce belief by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.
  3. Never try to discourage thinking, for you are sure to succeed.
  4. When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.
  5. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.
  6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.
  7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
  8. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.
  9. Be scrupulously truthful, even when truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.
  10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.

“The essence of the liberal outlook in the intellectual sphere is a belief that unbiased discussion is a useful thing and that men should be free to question anything if they can support their questioning by solid arguments,” he wrote. “The opposite view, which is maintained by those who cannot be called liberals, is that the truth is already known, and that to question it is necessarily subversive.”

All’s Fair

History’s ancient example of camouflage, the Trojan Horse, has a modern variation of peculiar interest. During the fighting near Craonne on the western front, some time ago, a horse broke his traces and dashed across ‘No Man’s Land’ toward the German defenses. When near the edge of a first-line trench he fell. The French immediately made the best of the opportunity and set camouflage artists at work fashioning a papier-mâché replica of the dead animal. Under cover of darkness the carcass was replaced with the dummy. For three days observers stationed in the latter were able to watch the enemy’s movements at close range and telephone their information to headquarters. Finally, when one observer was relieving another, the Germans discovered they had been tricked, and destroyed the post.

“Observer Hides in Dummy Horse Near Enemy Trench,” Popular Mechanics 29:1 (January 1918), 72.

On another occasion, a standing tree, whose branches had all been shot away, was carefully photographed and an exact copy of it made, but with a space inside in which an observer could be concealed. One night, while the noise of the workmen was drowned by heavy cannonading, this tree was replaced by its facsimile. And there it remained for many a day before the enemy discovered that it was a fake tree-trunk. It provided a tall observation-post from which an observer could direct the fire of his own artillery.

— A. Russell Bond, “Warriors of the Paint-Brush,” St. Nicholas 46:6 (April 1919), 499-505.

Podcast Episode 307: The Cyprus Mutiny
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1829 a group of convicts commandeered a brig in Tasmania and set off across the Pacific, hoping to elude their pursuers and win their freedom. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the mutineers of the Cyprus and a striking new perspective on their adventure.

We’ll also consider a Flemish dog and puzzle over a multiplied Oscar.

See full show notes …

Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Anthem Veterans Memorial, in Anthem, Arizona, consists of five white pillars representing the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard. Each pillar contains a slanted elliptical opening, and the five are arranged so that at 11:11 a.m. on Veterans Day, November 11, the sun’s light passes through all five and illuminates the Great Seal of the United States, which is inlaid among 750 red paving stones engraved with the names of veterans.