Inspiration

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In the 1950s, journalist Stefan Lorant was researching a book on Abraham Lincoln when he came upon a photograph of the president’s funeral procession as it moved down Broadway in New York City. The image was dated April 25, 1865.

As Lorant tried to identify the location, he found that the shuttered house on the left belonged to Cornelius van Schaack Roosevelt, the grandfather of future president Teddy Roosevelt and his brother Elliott. Teddy would have been 6 years old at the time of the procession. And visible in a second-story window are the heads of two boys.

As it happened, Lorant had an opportunity to ask Roosevelt’s widow Edith about the image. “Yes, I think that is my husband, and next to him his brother,” she said. “That horrible man! I was a little girl then and my governess took me to Grandfather Roosevelt’s house on Broadway so I could watch the funeral procession. But as I looked down from the window and saw all the black drapings I became frightened and started to cry. Theodore and Elliott were both there. They didn’t like my crying. They took me and locked me in a back room. I never did see Lincoln’s funeral.”

Lincoln at Rest

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On the day after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, Army surgeons Edward Curtis and Joseph Janvier Woodward performed an autopsy at the White House. Curtis mentioned one sobering moment in a letter to his mother:

I proceeded to open the head and remove the brain down to the track of the ball. The latter had entered a little to the left of the median line at the back of the head, had passed almost directly forwards through the center of the brain and lodged. Not finding it readily, we proceeded to remove the entire brain, when, as I was lifting the latter from the cavity of the skull, suddenly the bullet dropped out through my fingers and fell, breaking the solemn silence of the room with its clatter, into an empty basin that was standing beneath. There it lay upon the white china, a little black mass no bigger than the end of my finger — dull, motionless and harmless, yet the cause of such mighty changes in the world’s history as we may perhaps never realize.

He added, “[S]ilently, in one corner of the room, I prepared the brain for weighing. As I looked at the mass of soft gray and white substance that I was carefully washing, it was impossible to realize that it was that mere clay upon whose workings, but the day before, rested the hopes of the nation. I felt more profoundly impressed than ever with the mystery of that unknown something which may be named ‘vital spark’ as well as anything else, whose absence or presence makes all the immeasurable difference between an inert mass of matter owning obedience to no laws but those covering the physical and chemical forces of the universe, and on the other hand, a living brain by whose silent, subtle machinery a world may be ruled.”

Podcast Episode 362: The Leatherman

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In 1856, a mysterious man appeared on the roads of Connecticut and New York, dressed in leather, speaking to no one, and always on the move. He became famous for his circuits through the area, which he followed with remarkable regularity. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the Leatherman, whose real identity remains unknown.

We’ll also consider the orientation of churches and puzzle over some balky ponies.

See full show notes …

The Wilcoxon Speech

The war drama Mrs. Miniver dominated the box office in 1942 and won six Oscars, but it’s remembered today chiefly for its final scene, in which a town vicar gives an inspiring speech in a bombed church, exhorting his flock to “free ourselves and those who come after us from the tyranny and terror that threaten to strike us down.”

The film was made before America had formally entered the war, and director William Wyler had rewritten this speech repeatedly on the night before shooting, in hopes that it would sway public opinion. “I’m a warmonger,” he said simply. “I was deeply concerned about Americans being isolationists. Mrs. Miniver obviously was a propaganda film.”

It succeeded beyond his hopes. Churchill claimed that the speech was “propaganda worth a hundred battleships,” and after a private screening at the White House, Franklin Roosevelt asked that it be translated into French, German, and Italian, broadcast throughout Europe on the Voice of America, and air-dropped in millions of leaflets into German-occupied territories.

Henry Wilcoxon, the actor who delivered the speech, must have had his own feelings about this — his only brother had been fatally injured at Dunkirk in 1940.

Podcast Episode 361: A Fight Over Nutmeg

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In 1616, British officer Nathaniel Courthope was sent to a tiny island in the East Indies to contest a Dutch monopoly on nutmeg. He and his men would spend four years battling sickness, starvation, and enemy attacks to defend the island’s bounty. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Courthope’s stand and its surprising impact in world history.

We’ll also meet a Serbian hermit and puzzle over an unusual business strategy.

See full show notes …

Plausible Deniability

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The Boston Gazette published this cleverly seditious “Enigmatical Ballad” on June 24, 1782. If each line is read in full, the poem supports British rule of the American colonies, but if either the italic or the roman text is read alone, then it advocates revolution:

I justify every part, of King and Parliament,
Of a whig with all my heart, I hate their cursed intent;
For to support I’ll try, friends of administration,
Friends of Liberty, are troubles to the nation;
I think the association, a cruel, base intent,
An honor to the nation, the act of Parliament,
I wish the best success, to North and his conclusion,
Unto the grand Congress, the worst of all confusion;
All luck beneath the sun, to Mansfield, Bute and North;
To General Washington, destruction and so forth,
Hark! Hark! the trumpet sounds, the din of war’s alarms,
O’er seas and solid ground, doth call us all to arms;
Who for King George doth stand, their honors soon will shine;
Their ruin is at hand, who with the Congress join;
The acts of Parliament, in them I much delight;
I hate their cursed intent, who for the Congress fight,
The Tories of the day, they are my daily toast;
They soon will sneak away, who independence boast,
Who non-resistance hold, they have my hand and heart;
May they for slaves be sold, who act a whiggish part;
On Mansfield, North and Bute, may daily blessings pour,
Confusion and dispute, on Congress evermore;
To North, that British Lord, may honors still be done;
I wish a block or cord, to General Washington.

Podcast Episode 360: Haggard’s Dream

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In 1904, adventure novelist H. Rider Haggard awoke from a dream with the conviction that his daughter’s dog was dying. He dismissed the impression as a nightmare, but the events that followed seemed to give it a grim significance. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Haggard’s strange experience, which briefly made headlines around the world.

We’ll also consider Alexa’s expectations and puzzle over a college’s name change.

See full show notes …

Progress

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Letters to the Sydney Morning Herald during the planning of the Sydney Opera House:

“Faced with the nightmare illustrated in your columns, some 25th century Bluebeard’s lair, its ominous vanes pointed skywards apparently only for the purpose of discharging guided missiles or some latter-day nuclear Evil Eye, words fail.”

— W.H. Peters, Sydney, Jan. 31, 1957

“To me, the winning design suggests some gargantuan monster which may have wandered over the land millions of years ago. It certainly is right out of place beside the dignity of the Harbour Bridge.”

— M. Rathbone, Kensington, Jan. 31, 1957

“This whale of a monument to the clever ugliness of ‘modern’ art will be a constant eyesore. Its over-finished roof with many curved surfaces all covered with white tiles will be a glaring monstrosity. Could not the suffering which it will cause be more equitably distributed by constructing the fins in such a way that they will act as giant megaphones and thus keep residents on the north supplied with the dying screams of melodramatic sopranos?”

— J.R.L. Johnstone Beecroft, Feb. 1, 1957

“With all respects to so-called modern art, I feel that the design is completely unbefitting our foreshores. Perhaps the judges had in mind the installation of a Big Dipper on the peak of the roof to help the opera company balance its budget.”

— Jack Zuber, Kingsgrove, Feb. 1, 1957

In 2003 Danish architect Jørn Utzon received the Pritzker Architecture Prize, architecture’s highest honour. The citation read, “There is no doubt that the Sydney Opera House is his masterpiece. It is one of the great iconic buildings of the 20th century, an image of great beauty that has become known throughout the world — a symbol for not only a city, but a whole country and continent.”

Podcast Episode 359: Stranded in Shangri-La

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1945, a U.S. Army transport plane crashed in New Guinea, leaving three survivors marooned in the island’s mountainous interior. Injured, starving, and exhausted, the group seemed beyond the hope of rescue. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the plight of the stranded survivors and the remarkable plan to save them.

We’ll also reflect on synthetic fingerprints and puzzle over a suspicious notebook.

See full show notes …

A Silver Lining

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The opening of England’s Liverpool and Manchester Railway in 1830 took a direful turn when William Huskisson, a member of Parliament for Liverpool, approached the Duke of Wellington’s railway carriage. Huskisson became so engrossed in their conversation that he failed to notice an oncoming train, and when he realized his danger and tried to climb into Wellington’s carriage, the door swung outward and deposited him in its path. His leg was badly mangled.

“Immediately after the accident, he was placed on the ‘Northumbrian’ — another of Stephenson’s engines — and raced to Liverpool at the then unprecedented speed of 36 m.p.h., with Stephenson himself as driver,” writes Ernest Frank Carter in Unusual Locomotives. “It was the news of this accident, and the speed of the engine, which was one of the causes of the immediate adoption and rapid spread of railways over the world. Thus was the death of the first person to be involved in a railway accident turned to some good account.”