A Moment

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Flickr_-_USCapitol_-_Dr._William_Thornton.jpg

During the burning of Washington in the War of 1812, when a British expeditionary force leveled a cannon at the Patent Office, superintendent William Thornton “put himself before the gun, and in a frenzy of excitement exclaimed: ‘Are you Englishmen or only Goths and Vandals? This is the Patent Office, a depository of the ingenuity of the American nation, in which the whole civilized world is interested. Would you destroy it? If so, fire away, and let the charge pass through my body.'”

“The effect is said to have been magical upon the soldiers, and to have saved the Patent Office from destruction. … When the smoke cleared from the dreadful attack, the Patent Office was the only Government building … left untouched.”

(From R. Beresford’s Brief History of the United States Patent Office From Its Foundation, 1886.)

Podcast Episode 151: Double-Crossing the Nazis

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Joan_Pujol_7th_Light_Infantry.jpg

In 1941, Catalonian chicken farmer Juan Pujol made an unlikely leap into the world of international espionage, becoming a spy first for the Germans, then for the British, and rising to become one of the greatest double agents of World War II. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Pujol’s astonishing talent for deceiving the Nazis, which led one colleague to call him “the best actor in the world.”

We’ll also contemplate a floating Chicago and puzzle over a winding walkway.

Intro:

In 1999, Kevin Baugh declared his Nevada house an independent republic.

Foxie the dog stayed by her master’s side for three months after his hiking death in 1805.

Sources for our feature on Juan Pujol:

Juan Pujol, Operation Garbo, 1985.

Jason Webster, The Spy With 29 Names, 2014.

Tomás Harris, Garbo: The Spy Who Saved D-Day, 2000.

Stephan Talty, Agent Garbo, 2012.

Thomas M. Kane, Understanding Contemporary Strategy, 2012.

David C. Isby, “Double Agent’s D-Day Victory,” World War II 19:3 (June 2004), 18,20.

Marc De Santis, “Overlooked Reasons Overlord Succeeded,” MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History 26:4 (Summer 2014), 15-16.

David Kahn, “How I Discovered World War II’s Greatest Spy,” Cryptologia 34:1 (December 2009), 12-21.

Stephen Budiansky, “The Art of the Double Cross,” World War II 24:1 (May 2009), 38-45,4.

Kevin D. Kornegay, “Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies,” Army Lawyer, April 2014, 40-43.

Gene Santoro, “Harbor of Hope and Intrigue,” World War II 26:2 (July/August 2011), 26-28.

P.R.J. Winter, “Penetrating Hitler’s High Command: Anglo-Polish HUMINT, 1939-1945,” War in History 18:1 (January 2011), 85-108.

Neville Wylie, “‘An Amateur Learns his Job’? Special Operations Executive in Portugal, 1940–42,” Journal of Contemporary History 36:3 (July 2001), 441-457.

“An Unexpected Threat to the Normandy Invasion,” World War II 31:5 (January/February 2017), 16.

“‘Agent Garbo,’ The Spy Who Lied About D-Day,” All Things Considered, National Public Radio, July 7, 2012.

Tom Morgan, “Revealed: How a Homesick Wife Nearly Blew It for the British Double Agent Who Fooled Hitler,” Telegraph, Sept. 28, 2016.

Adam Lusher, “How a Dozen Silk Stockings Helped Bring Down Adolf Hitler,” Independent, Sept. 27, 2016.

Ian Cobain, “D-Day Landings Put at Risk by Double-Agent’s Homesick Wife,” Guardian, Sept. 27, 2016.

Listener mail:

Mark Torregrossa, “Superior Mirages Over Chicago Skyline Now Appearing,” mlive, April 18, 2017.

Allison Eck, “The Perfectly Scientific Explanation for Why Chicago Appeared Upside Down in Michigan,” Nova Next, May 8, 2015.

Jonathan Belles, “Fata Morgana Provides Eerie Look at Chicago Across Lake Michigan,” weather.com, April 18, 2017.

Listener Jason Gottshall directed us to these striking photos of the Chicago mirage.

“5.17a- Supplemental Gregor MacGregor,” Revolutions, Oct. 24, 2016.

Brooke Borel, The Chicago Guide to Fact-Checking, 2016.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Alon Shaham, who sent this corroborating link (warning: this spoils the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

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.

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!

Podcast Episode 150: The Prince of Nowhere

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:General_Gregor_MacGregor_retouched.jpg

In 1821, Scottish adventurer Gregor MacGregor undertook one of the most brazen scams in history: He invented a fictional Central American republic and convinced hundreds of his countrymen to invest in its development. Worse, he persuaded 250 people to set sail for this imagined utopia with dreams of starting a new life. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the disastrous results of MacGregor’s deceit.

We’ll also illuminate a hermit’s behavior and puzzle over Liechtenstein’s flag.

Intro:

In 1878, a neurologist noted that French-Canadian lumberjacks tended to startle violently.

Each year on Valentine’s Day, someone secretly posts paper hearts in Montpelier, Vt.

Sources for our feature on Gregor MacGregor:

David Sinclair, Sir Gregor MacGregor and the Land That Never Was, 2003.

Matthew Brown, “Inca, Sailor, Soldier, King: Gregor MacGregor and the Early Nineteenth-Century Caribbean,” Bulletin of Latin American Research 24:1 (January 2005), 44-70.

T. Frederick Davis, “MacGregor’s Invasion of Florida, 1817,” Florida Historical Society Quarterly 7:1 (July 1928), 2-71.

Emily Beaulieu, Gary W. Cox, and Sebastian Saiegh, “Sovereign Debt and Regime Type: Reconsidering the Democratic Advantage,” International Organization 66:4 (Fall 2012), 709-738.

R.A. Humphreys, “Presidential Address: Anglo-American Rivalries in Central America,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 18 (1968), 174-208.

Courtenay de Kalb, “Nicaragua: Studies on the Mosquito Shore in 1892,” Journal of the American Geographical Society of New York 25:1 (1893), 236-288.

A.R. Hope Moncrieff, “Gregor MacGregor,” Macmillan’s Magazine 92:551 (September 1905), 339-350.

“The King of Con-Men,” Economist 405:8816 (Dec. 22, 2012), 109-112.

“Sir Gregor MacGregor,” Quebec Gazette, Oct. 18, 1827.

Guardian, “From the Archive, 25 October 1823: Settlers Duped Into Believing in ‘Land Flowing With Milk and Honey,'” Oct. 25, 2013.

Maria Konnikova, “The Con Man Who Pulled Off History’s Most Audacious Scam,” BBC Future, Jan. 28, 2016.

“Thomas Strangeways”, Sketch of the Mosquito Shore, 1822.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Bank_of_Poyais-1_Hard_Dollar_(1820s)_SCAM.jpg

A Bank of Poyais dollar, printed by the official printer of the Bank of Scotland. MacGregor traded these worthless notes for the settlers’ gold as they departed for his nonexistent republic.

Listener mail:

Robert McCrum, “The 100 Best Novels: No 42 – The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan (1915),” Guardian, July 7, 2014.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was inspired by an item in Dan Lewis’ Now I Know newsletter. Here’s a corroborating link (warning — both links spoil the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

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.

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!

Overheard

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Sepoy_revolt_at_Meerut.jpg

On May 10, 1857, the Indian troops of the East India Company’s army started an uprising against the British soldiers in the garrison town of Meerut.

Lord Canning, the Governor-General, first heard of the Mutiny in a curious fashion. The Lieutenant-Governor of Agra passed on to him a copy of a private telegram which had been sent by the British postmaster at Meerut before the line was cut. The postmaster’s aunt was in Agra and had planned to visit him. He wired that the cavalry had risen, houses were on fire and Europeans were being killed. ‘If aunt intend starting tomorrow evening please detain her.’ It was several days before the Governor-General of India could learn more than this of what had taken place in Meerut. Only gradually did the news of what had happened and what was happening in northern India seep out to the rest of the world.

That’s from Byron Farwell, Queen Victoria’s Little Wars, 1973. Related: On Sept. 1, 1939, English journalist Clare Hollingworth called the British embassy in Warsaw to report that Germany had invaded Poland. The secretary told her this was impossible, as Britain and Germany were still negotiating. “So I hung the telephone receiver out of the window,” she later recalled, “so he could listen to the Germans invading.” Hers was the first report that the British Foreign Office received of the invasion — later described as “the scoop of the century.”

Scoop

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Luna_9_moon_surface_image.gif

In February 1966, the Soviet Union’s Luna 9 landed safely on the moon and became the first spacecraft to transmit photographs of the moon seen from surface level.

The Soviets didn’t release the photos immediately, but scientists at England’s Jodrell Bank Observatory, who were observing the mission, realized that the signal format was the same as the Radiofax system that newspapers used to transmit pictures. So they just borrowed a receiver from the Daily Express, decoded the images, and published them.

The BBC observes, “It is thought that Russian scientists had deliberately fitted the probe with the standard television equipment, either to ensure that they would get the higher-quality pictures from Jodrell Bank without having the political embarrassment of asking for them, or to prevent the Soviet authorities from making political capital out of the achievement.”

(Thanks, Andrew.)

An Audio Ghost

When Alexander Graham Bell died in 1922, it was thought that no recordings of his voice had survived. But in 2013 the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History announced that it had a fragile wax-on-cardboard disc that Bell had made as an experiment in sound recording … and that now this could be played using optical scanning technology.

The disc is dated April 15, 1885. Bell spends most of the 4-minute recording reciting figures, but he concludes with the distinct words “Hear my voice: … Alexander … Graham … Bell.” Bell biographer Charlotte Gray wrote:

In that ringing declaration, I heard the clear diction of a man whose father, Alexander Melville Bell, had been a renowned elocution teacher (and perhaps the model for the imperious Prof. Henry Higgins, in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion; Shaw acknowledged Bell in his preface to the play).

I heard, too, the deliberate enunciation of a devoted husband whose deaf wife, Mabel, was dependent on lip reading. And true to his granddaughter’s word, the intonation of the British Isles was unmistakable in Bell’s speech. The voice is vigorous and forthright — as was the inventor, at last speaking to us across the years.

Amazingly, scientists resurrected the voice of Bell’s father too — a man who had been born in 1819.

First Contact

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On April 12, 1961, witnesses saw a spaceship enter Earth’s atmosphere and descend to the ground in a ploughed field in the Leninsky Put Collective Farm near the Soviet village of Smelovka. At a height of 7 kilometers, a spaceman left the ship and drifted to earth on a parachute. The spaceman later reported:

As I stepped on the firm soil, I saw a woman and a girl. They were standing beside a spotted calf and gazing at me with curiosity. I started walking towards them and they began walking towards me. But the nearer they got to me the slower their steps became. I was still wearing my flaming orange spacesuit and they were probably frightened by it. They had never seen anything like it before.

‘I’m a Russian, comrades. I’m a Russian,’ I shouted, taking off my helmet.

The woman was Anna Takhtarova, wife of the local forester, and the girl, Rita, was her granddaughter.

‘Have you really come from outer space?’ she asked a little uncertainly.

‘Just imagine, I certainly have,’ I replied.

He was Yuri Gagarin, and the site would soon receive a permanent monument marking the landing place of Vostok-1.

See To Whom It May Concern.

Podcast Episode 148: The Perfect Murder

william herbert wallace

Insurance agent William Herbert Wallace had a terrible night in January 1931 — summoned to a nonexistent address in Liverpool, he returned home to find that his wife had been murdered in his absence. An investigation seemed to show a senseless crime with no weapon, no motive, and no likely suspects. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll revisit the slaying of Julia Wallace, which Raymond Chandler called “the impossible murder.”

We’ll also recount some wobbly oaths and puzzle over an eccentric golfer.

Intro:

In the 1960s, Washington state televised the World Octopus Wrestling Championships.

Kansas schoolteacher Samuel Dinsmoor spent two decades fashioning a Garden of Eden out of concrete.

Sources for our feature on William Herbert Wallace:

W.F. Wyndham-Brown, ed., The Trial of William Herbert Wallace, 1933.

Yseult Bridges, Two Studies in Crime, 1959.

Roger Wilkes, Wallace: The Final Verdict, 1984.

Ronald Bartle, The Telephone Murder, 2012.

Hans Von Hentig, “Pre-Murderous Kindness and Post-Murder Grief,” Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science 48:4 (November-December 1957), 369-377.

Roger Wilkes, “The 1931 Slaying of a Liverpool Housewife Remains to This Day the Perfect Murder,” Telegraph, May 12, 2001.

Liverpool Echo, “Riddle of Man from the Pru,” April 7, 2008.

David Harrison, “PD James Unmasks the Perfect Killer,” Sunday Times, Oct. 27, 2013.

Edward Winter, “Chess and the Wallace Murder Case,” Chess History (accessed March 19, 2017).

Listener mail:

“Murder Castle,” Lights Out, Feb. 16, 1938.

Wikipedia, Lights Out (radio show)” (accessed March 30, 2017).

Wikipedia, “Oath of Office of the President of the United States” (accessed March 30, 2017).

Jeffrey Toobin, The Oath, 2013.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Jake Koethler. Here’s a corroborating link (warning — this spoils the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

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.

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!

Podcast Episode 147: The Call of Mount Kenya

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Stuck in an East African prison camp in 1943, Italian POW Felice Benuzzi needed a challenge to regain his sense of purpose. He made a plan that seemed crazy — to break out of the camp, climb Mount Kenya, and break back in. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Benuzzi and two companions as they try to climb the second-highest mountain in Africa using homemade equipment.

We’ll also consider whether mirages may have doomed the Titanic and puzzle over an ineffective oath.

Intro:

Under the law of the United Kingdom, a sturgeon when caught becomes the personal property of the monarch.

On July 4, 1853, 32 people held a dance on the stump of a California sequoia.

Sources for our feature on Felice Benuzzi:

Felice Benuzzi, No Picnic on Mount Kenya, 1953.

Dave Pagel, “The Great Escape,” Climbing 215 (Sept. 15, 2002), 87.

Matthew Power and Keridwen Cornelius, “Escape to Mount Kenya,” National Geographic Adventure 9:7 (September 2007), 65-71.

Stephan Wilkinson, “10 Great POW Escapes,” Military History 28:4 (November 2011), 28-33.

Jon Mooallem, “In Search of Lost Ice,” New York Times Magazine, Dec. 21, 2014, 28-35.

“Because It Was There; Great Escapes,” Economist 417:8965 (Nov. 21, 2015), 78.

This is the package label that showed the prisoners the southern face of the mountain:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Kenylon_label.jpg

Listener mail:

Tim Maltin and Andrew T. Young, “The Hidden Cause of the Titanic Disaster” (accessed March 24, 2017).

Smithsonian, “Did the Titanic Sink Because of an Optical Illusion?” (accessed March 24, 2017).

Telegraph, “Titanic Sank Due to ‘Mirage’ Caused by Freak Weather” (accessed March 24, 2017).

Matt Largey, “He Got a Bad Grade. So, He Got the Constitution Amended. Now He’s Getting the Credit He Deserves,” kut.org, March 21, 2017.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener David White.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Please go to http://podsurvey.com/futility to take a quick, anonymous survey to help us get the best advertisers for the show.

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.

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!

The Jump

schumann jump

On Aug. 15, 1961, during the third day of construction of the Berlin Wall, 19-year-old Communist German border guard Hans Conrad Schumann was standing on the corner of Ruppiner Straße and Bernauer Straße. A roll of concertina wire 3 feet high was strung before him; behind him cement slabs were being positioned to replace it. Opposite, in West Berlin, a group of protesters had gathered to denounce the building of the wall, which was intended to stop the exodus of young professionals from the East German state.

“The people were swearing at us,” he wrote later. “We felt we were simply doing our duty but we were getting scolded from all sides. The West Berliners yelled at us and the Eastern demonstrators yelled at us. We were standing there in the middle. There was the barbed wire, there was us guards, West Berliners, East Berliners. For a young person, it was terrible.”

West Berliners began to shout, “Come over! Come over!” A West Berlin police car pulled into sight, its engine running and its rear door open, inviting him to desert. For two hours Schumann debated, thinking about his parents and his sister. Then, at 4:00, he jumped over the wire and ran. “Then I was in the West and they received me with a great cheer. I was the first.”

Caught by photographer Peter Leibing, the image appeared in newspapers around the world. Within a month, 68 members of the East German special police had deserted to the West.

Schumann settled in Ingolstadt and worked in an Audi factory for 20 years. When the wall came down in 1989, he returned to his hometown and discovered he was a pariah, the “wall jumper,” a tool of the Western imperialists. Dismayed and depressed, he hanged himself in 1998 at the age of 56.

(From James E. Wise Jr. and Scott Baron, Dangerous Games, 2010.)