Case Closed

“Witchfinder general” Matthew Hopkins hanged 300 women during the English Civil War, accounting for perhaps 60 percent of all executions for witchcraft at that time. After days of starvation, sleep deprivation, and forced walking, the accused women produced some extraordinary confessions:

Elizabeth Clark, an old, one-legged beggar-woman, gave the names of her ‘imps’ as ‘Holt,’ a ‘white kitling;’ ‘Jarmara,’ a ‘fat spaniel’ without legs; ‘Sacke and Sugar,’ a ‘black rabbet;’ ‘Newes,’ a ‘polcat;’ and ‘Vinegar Tom,’ a greyhound with ox-head and horns. Another called her ‘imps’ ‘Ilemauzar’ (or ‘Elemauzer’), ‘Pyewackett,’ ‘Pecke in the Crowne,’ and ‘Griezzell Greedigutt.’

This proved their guilt, Hopkins said — these were names “which no mortal could invent.”

Welcome Wagon,_Im_Westen,_deutsche_Soldaten_mit_getarnter_Pak_Recolored.png
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1941, the German infantry found that its 3.7 cm Pak 36 anti-tank gun was practically useless against Soviet T-34 tanks — the Pak could only announce its presence by bouncing rounds harmlessly off the tank’s rugged armor.

Accordingly the Germans nicknamed it Heeresanklopfgerät — literally, “army door-knocking device.”

Marital Duels

marital duels

In the Middle Ages, husbands and wives would sometimes settle their differences with physical combat. To compensate for the man’s greater strength, his wife was given certain advantages:

The woman must be so prepared that a sleeve of her chemise extend a small ell beyond her hand like a little sack. There indeed is put a stone weighing three pounds; and she has nothing else but her chemise, and that is bound together between the legs with a lace. Then the man makes himself ready in the pit over against his wife. He is buried therein up to the girdle, and one hand is bound at the elbow to the side.

In other drawings the man sits in a tub; in one the two fight with drawn swords. “Judicial duels were common enough in the medieval and early modern period to merit etiquette books,” writes scholar Allison Coudert, “but, as far as I know, nowhere except in the Holy Roman Empire were judicial duels ever considered fitting means to settle marital disputes, and no record of such a duel has been found after 1200, at which time a couple is reported to have fought with the sanction of the civic authorities at Bâle.” The drawings that have survived come from historical treatises of the 15th and 16th centuries.

(Allison Coudert, “Judicial Duels Between Husbands and Wives,” Notes in the History of Art 4:4 [Summer 1985], 27-30.)

The Susquehanna Ice Bridge

susquehanna ice bridge

In the 1850s, railroad passengers traveling from Baltimore to Philadelphia would debark at the Susquehanna River, cross the river on a ferryboat, and board a train waiting on the other side. In the severe winter of 1852, so much floating ice had piled up at this point that the ferry couldn’t be used, so railroad engineer Isaac R. Trimble came up with a novel solution: He built a railway across the ice for the baggage and freight cars, and a sledge road beside it along which horses could draw his passengers. The cars had to descend 10 to 15 feet from the bank to the surface of the ice, and at the other side they were tied to a locomotive and pulled up. The “ice bridge” opened on Jan. 15 and was accounted a great success. The Franklin Journal reported, “Forty freight cars per day, laden with valuable merchandise, have been worked over this novel tract by the means above referred to, and were propelled across the ice portion by two-horse sleds running upon the sledge road, and drawing the cars by a lateral towing line, of the size of a man’s finger.”

“At the present writing, this novel and effectual means of maintaining the communication at Havre de Grace is still in successful operation, and will so continue until the ice in the river is about to break up. Then, by means of the sledges, the rails (the only valuable part of the track), can be rapidly moved off by horse power, not probably requiring more than a few hours’ time, so that the communication may be maintained successfully until the last moment. If properly timed, as it doubtless will be, the railroad may be removed, the ice may run out, and the ferry be resumed, it may be, in less than forty-eight hours.”

In fact, wrote historian Charles P. Dare, the ice bridge operated until Feb. 24, “when it was taken up, and, in a few days, the river was free of ice. During this time, 1378 cars loaded with mails, baggage and freight were transported upon this natural bridge, the tonnage amounting to about 10,000 tons. The whole was accomplished without accident of any kind; and the materials were all removed prior to the breaking up of the river without the loss of a cross-tie or bar of iron.”

Image: Wikimedia Commons

It used to be said that the sun never set on the British Empire; it still doesn’t set on the Commonwealth of Nations, as Gibraltar is on the opposite side of the earth from New Zealand’s Te Arai Beach.

At their height, the sun didn’t set on the French Empire, the Dutch Empire, or the Spanish Empire, either. New Caledonia, an overseas territory of France, is opposite Mauritania, once part of French West Africa. Parts of Suriname, a former Dutch colony, are opposite the Indonesian island Sulawesi, once part of the Netherlands East Indies. And Luzon, the largest island of the Philippines, is opposite eastern Bolivia; both were once controlled by Spain.

The Pacific Ocean is so large that it stretches more than halfway around the world — parts of the ocean are on opposite sides of the earth.

The Bear Gates
Image: Flickr

These gates, at the main entrance to the grounds of Scotland’s Traquair House, were installed in 1738.

After a visit by Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745, earl Charles Stuart vowed they would never open again until a Stuart king returned to the throne.

They never have.

Podcast Episode 164: Vigil on the Ice
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1930, British explorer Augustine Courtauld volunteered to spend the winter alone on the Greenland ice cap, manning a remote weather station. As the snow gradually buried his hut and his supplies steadily dwindled, his relief party failed to arrive. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Courtauld’s increasingly desperate vigil on the ice.

We’ll also retreat toward George III and puzzle over some unexpected evidence.


Rudyard Kipling hid messages in his illustrations for the Just So Stories.

In the early 1900s, Danes bred pigs colored to resemble the Danish flag.

Sources for our feature on Augustine Courtauld:

Nicholas Wollaston, The Man on the Ice Cap, 1980.

Mollie Butler, August and Rab, 1987.

“Augustine Courtauld,” Encyclopedia Arctica (accessed July 23, 2017).

“Augustine Courtauld,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (accessed July 23, 2017).

“The British Arctic Air Route Expedition,” Geographical Journal 76:1 (July 1930), 67-68.

“British Air Route to the Arctic Regions,” Science, New Series, 72:1857 (Aug. 1, 1930), 108-109.

“Swedish Flier Ready to Hop for Greenland to Rescue Courtauld, Young British Explorer,” New York Times, April 27, 1931, 4.

Svend Carstensen, “Ahrenberg to Start Rescue Flight Today,” New York Times, April 29, 1931, 12.

Svend Carstensen, “Ahrenberg on Way to Save Courtauld, Lost in Greenland,” New York Times, April 30, 1931, 1.

“Rescuers Race to Locate Lost Arctic Explorer,” China Press, May 2, 1931, 13.

E. Lemon, “Plane in Greenland to Hunt Courtauld,” New York Times, May 3, 1931, 2.

Percy Lemon, “Ahrenberg Ready to Fly to Ice Cap,” New York Times, May 5, 1931, 6.

“Courtauld Hunted by Sea, Air And Land: Area of Great Arctic Search,” New York Times, May 8, 1931, 12.

“Courtauld Rescued,” Los Angeles Times, May 8, 1931, 3.

Percy Lemon, “Courtauld Is Found Safe on the Greenland Ice Cap,” New York Times, May 8, 1931, 1.

Albin Ahrenberg, “Ahrenberg to Guide Courtauld To Camp,” New York Times, May 9, 1931, 1.

Percy Lemon, “Courtauld Back Safely on Greenland Coast,” New York Times, May 12, 1931, 1.

H.G. Watkins, “Courtauld Search a Surprise to Him,” New York Times, May 14, 1931, 12.

“Courtauld Buried in Igloo 2 Months,” Associated Press, May 15, 1931.

“Arctic Burial Escape Told,” Los Angeles Times, May 15, 1931, 4.

“Courtauld Tells Story of Long Imprisonment,” China Press, May 15, 1931, 1.

“Rescued From Greenland’s Icy Cap,” Sphere 125:1634 (May 16, 1931), 278.

“Courtauld to Sail Home on First Ship,” New York Times, May 17, 1931, 2.

T.J.C. Martyn, “Greenland Is Still a Scientific Puzzle,” New York Times, May 24, 1931, 4.

Augustine Courtauld, “Courtauld’s Story of the Five Months He Spent on Ice Cap,” New York Times, May 29, 1931, 1.

“The Ice-Cap Hero,” New York Times, May 30, 1931, 8.

“The British Arctic Air Route Expedition,” Geographical Journal 77:6 (June 1931), 551-554.

“From the Four Winds: Mr. Courtauld’s Arctic Vigil,” China Herald, June 30, 1931, 459.

“The British Arctic Air Route Expedition,” Geographical Journal 78:3 (September 1931), 291.

F.S. Chapman, “Watkins and Aides Held in No Danger,” New York Times, Sept. 19, 1931, 17.

“Explorers Return From Greenland,” New York Times, Nov. 14, 1931, 8.

William Goodenough, Augustine Courtauld, Lauge Koch, J.M. Wordie, and H.R. Mill, “The British Arctic Air Route Expedition: Discussion,” Geographical Journal 79:6 (June 1932), 497-501.

Percy Cox, Helge Larsen, Augustine Courtauld, M.A. Spender and J.M. Wordie, “A Journey in Rasmussen Land: Discussion,” Geographical Journal 88:3 (September 1936), 208-215.

Henry Balfour, E.C. Fountaine, W.A. Deer, Augustine Courtauld, L.R. Wager, and Ebbe Munck, “The Kangerdlugssuak Region of East Greenland: Discussion,” Geographical Journal 90:5 (November 1937), 422-425.

“Augustine Courtauld Dies at 54: Explored Greenland in Thirties,” New York Times, March 4, 1959, 31.

L.R. Wager, “Mr. Augustine Courtauld,” Nature 183:4666 (April 4, 1959).

Quintin Riley, “Obituary: Augustine Courtauld 1904-1959,” Geographical Journal 125:2 (June 1959), 286-287.

Ronald Porter, “Lady Butler of Saffron Walden,'” Independent, April 1, 2009.

Listener mail:

Matthew J. Kinservik, Sex, Scandal, and Celebrity in Late Eighteenth-Century England, 2007.

Chris Best, “Watch: Hungry Bear Opens Fridge, Rummages Through Home,”, July 6, 2017.

“NC Bear Opens SUV Door, Climbs Inside and Destroys It,”, July 8, 2017.

Mark Price, “NC’s Bears Are Now Opening Car Doors, Leading to Strange Driveway Encounters,” Charlotte Observer, July 9, 2017.

“Bear and the SUV,” Sylva Herald, June 21, 2017.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was devised by Sharon. Here are three corroborating links (warning — these spoil the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, 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 or browse our online store for Futility Closet merchandise.

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!

United Nations

In August 1805, Lewis and Clark encountered a band of Shoshone Indians led by Chief Cameahwait. In order for Lewis to communicate with Cameahwait, the group had to speak four languages: Lewis spoke English to Private Francois Labiche, who spoke French to interpreter Toussaint Charbonneau, who spoke Hidatsa to his Shoshone wife Sacagawea, who spoke Shoshone to Chief Cameahwait. Cameahwait’s reply passed back up the chain in the opposite direction.

Amazingly, Cameahwait turned out to be Sacagawea’s brother. They had been separated for five years, ever since her abduction by Hidatsa in 1800. Overjoyed at the reunion, he gave the expedition much-needed guides and horses to help them cross the Rocky Mountains.


In Under the Mask, his 1972 anthology about prejudice in America, Karel Weiss records a scene aboard the slave ship Young Hero in 1788, recounted by ship’s surgeon Ecroide Claxton before the House of Commons:

Some of the slaves on board the same ship, says Mr. Claxton, had such an aversion to leaving their native places, that they threw themselves overboard, with an idea that they should get back to their own country. The captain, in order to obviate this idea, thought of an expedient, viz. to cut off the heads of those who died, intimating to them, that if determined to go, they must return without their heads. The slaves were accordingly brought up to witness the operation. One of them seeing, when on deck, the carpenter standing with his hatchet up ready to strike off the head of a dead slave, with a violent exertion got loose, and flying to the place where the nettings had been unloosed, in order to empty the tubs, he darted overboard. The ship brought to, and a man was placed in the main chains to catch him, which he perceiving, dived under water, and rising again at a distance from the ship, made signs, which words cannot describe, expressive of his happiness in escaping. He then went down, and was seen no more.

Weiss says the idea of escaping into death was particularly prevalent among the Ibo of eastern Nigeria. Related:

In the West Indies, according to the Spanish historian Girolamo Benzoni, four thousand men and countless women and children died by jumping from cliffs or by killing each other. He adds that, out of the two million original inhabitants of Haiti, fewer than 150 survived as a result of the suicides and slaughter. In the end the Spaniards, faced with an embarrassing labor shortage, put a stop to the epidemic of suicides by persuading the Indians that they, too, would kill themselves in order to pursue them in the next world with even harsher cruelties.

— Alfred Alvarez, The Savage God: A Study of Suicide, 1971

A Grim Climate

Though Republicans won a majority of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1930, fully 14 House members died during the ensuing 72nd Congress, including Speaker Nicholas Longworth. As a result, Democrats were able to elect one of their own as speaker.

Things weren’t much better in the Senate. Sen. Hiram Bingham (R-Ct.) said in 1931, “It is a very striking fact and one which cannot be too often called to the attention of Senators that there is no other body of this size in the world which has as high a death rate as this body. Out of the 96 Senators, during the past 7 or 8 years at least three have died each year, and if there is anything that can be done to cause members of this body to enjoy greater health and to prolong their lives, it seems to me that no one should object to it.”

In 1996 George Washington University political scientist Forrest Maltzman and his colleagues found evidence that the Capitol’s ventilation system might have been a significant factor. As early as 1859, one senator had called his chamber “the most unhealthful, uncomfortable, ill-contrived place I was ever in my life; and my health is suffering daily from the atmosphere.” A ban on smoking didn’t seem to help, but a new ventilation system, complete with air conditioning, was installed in 1932, and Maltzman found a significant decrease in mortality beyond this point, sparing an estimated three members per Congress.

“Accordingly, we think there is at least a ghost of a chance that [political scientist Nelson] Polsby is correct when he argues that the advent of air-conditioning in the 1930s and 1940s may have had no less momentous an impact on political life (and death) in the nation’s capital than the massive changes the city underwent during the 1960s and 1970s — racial desegregation, home rule, and rapid population growth.”

(Forrest Maltzman, Lee Sigelman, and Sarah Binder, “Leaving Office Feet First: Death in Congress,” PS: Political Science & Politics 29:4 [December 1996], 665-671.)