Shelter Morality

At a 1962 meeting on civil defense, one local resident of Hartford, Conn., warned the rest that his fallout shelter contained only enough food and water for his immediate family, and so during a nuclear attack he’d be forced to shoot any who tried to join them. His neighbor appealed to him:

‘John,’ she said, ‘you and your family have been our closest friends for ten years. Do you mean to say that if this city was bombed and my baby and I were caught in the open, and we were hurt, and came to your shelter you would turn us away?’

John nodded in the affirmative. His neighbor pressed the point.

‘But suppose we wouldn’t turn away and begged to get in?’

‘It would be too bad,’ John said. ‘You should have built a shelter of your own. I’ve got to look out for my own family.’

‘But suppose we had built a shelter of our own, yet were caught by surprise, being out in the open at the time of an attack, and we discovered that the entrance to our shelter was covered with rubble and we had no place to turn except to you. Would you still turn us back?’

The answer was still yes.

‘But suppose I wouldn’t go away and kept trying to get in. Would you shoot us?’

John said that if the only way he could keep his friend out would be by shooting her and her baby, he would have to do it.

These questions raised disagreements even among clergymen during the Cold War. In an article titled “Ethics at the Shelter Doorway,” Father L.C. McHugh urged his readers to “think twice before you rashly give your family shelter space to friends and neighbors or to the passing stranger.” The nondenominational Christian Century opposed this sentiment. “Men and women who manage to survive a nuclear attack by locking doors on imperiled neighbors or shooting them down to save themselves might conceivably survive,” the editors wrote. “But who would want to live in the kind of social order such people would create out of the shambles?”

(From Kenneth D. Rose, One Nation Underground: The Fallout Shelter in American Culture, 2001.)

Podcast Episode 257: The Sledge Patrol
Image: NASA Earth Observatory

In 1943 an isolated sledge patrol came upon a secret German weather station in northeastern Greenland. The discovery set off a series of dramatic incidents that unfolded across 400 miles of desolate coast. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow this arctic struggle, an often overlooked drama of World War II.

We’ll also catch some speeders and puzzle over a disastrous remedy.


In 1970 the Journal of Organic Chemistry published a paper in blank verse.

In 1899 the Journal of Mental Science described a man who cycled in his sleep.

Sources for our feature on the North-East Greenland Sledge Patrol:

David Howarth, The Sledge Patrol, 1957.

Mark Llewellyn Evans, Great World War II Battles in the Arctic, 1999.

John McCannon, A History of the Arctic: Nature, Exploration and Exploitation, 2012.

Bjørnar Olsen and Þóra Pétursdóttir, Ruin Memories: Materialities, Aesthetics and the Archaeology of the Recent Past, 2014.

Spencer Apollonio, Lands That Hold One Spellbound: A Story of East Greenland, 2008.

Jens Fog Jensen and Tilo Krause, “Wehrmacht Occupations in the New World: Archaeological and Historical Investigations in Northeast Greenland,” Polar Record 48:3 (2012), 269-279.

Leif Vanggaard, “The Effects of Exhaustive Military Activities in Man: The Performance of Small Isolated Military Units in Extreme Environmental Conditions,” Royal Danish Navy Gentofte (Denmark) Danish Armed Forces Health Services, 2001.

“History: The Sledge Patrol,” Arctic Journal, April 6, 2017.

M.J. Dunbar, “Greenland During and Since the Second World War,” International Journal 5:2 (Spring 1950), 121-140.

Maria Ackrén and Uffe Jakobsen, “Greenland as a Self-Governing Sub-National Territory in International Relations: Past, Current and Future Perspectives,” Polar Record 51:4 (July 2015), 404-412.

Anthony K. Higgins, “Exploration History and Place Names of Northern East Greenland,” Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, Bulletin 21, 2010.

David Howarth, “Secrets of the Unknown War,” Saturday Evening Post 230:9 (Aug. 31, 1957), 30-90.

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

Denver David Robinson, “The World’s Most Unusual Military Unit,” Christian Science Monitor, June 22, 2016.

Robert P. Sables, “Coast Guard Emergency Acquisitions in WWII,” Sea Classics 36:10 (October 2003), 12.

“News From the Field,” American Foreign Service Journal 21:7 (July 1944), 363, 397.

Joe Alex Morris, “The Nazis Get Licked in Greenland,” Saturday Evening Post 216:35 (Feb. 26, 1944), 16-86.

Kevin L. Jamison, “The Sledge Patrol: A WWII Epic of Escape, Survival and Victory [review],” Military Review 83:4 (July/August 2003), 67.

Denver David Robinson, “The Men on the Ice,” Boston Globe, March 19, 2016, 1.

“Danes Get Merit Medals; Group Is Honored for Reporting Nazi Base in Greenland,” New York Times, June 10, 1944.

Sidney Shalett, “Secret Nazi Base in Arctic Erased; U.S. Planes and Coast Guard Discover and Destroy Radio Station Off Greenland,” New York Times, Nov. 10, 1943.

Eric Niderost, “The Weather War of WWII,” Warfare History Network, Dec. 11, 2018.

Listener mail:

“Debate to Decide How ‘Shrewsbury’ Should be Pronounced?”, BBC News, July 2, 2015.

“Shroosbury Voted the Triumphant Pronunciation in Charity Debate,” University Centre Shrewsbury, July 3, 2015.

“What Means ‘Strekningsmåling’ on Norwegian Roads?”, Travel Blog Europe, June 19, 2018.

Tanya Mohn, “Does The U.S. Take Road Safety Seriously? The Low Cost of Traffic Violations Suggests We Don’t,” Forbes, Nov. 27, 2018.

“BBC’s ‘Top Gear’ Allegedly Caught Speeding Through Norway at 151 MPH,” Fox News, June 26, 2017.

“Norway,” Speeding Europe, July 7, 2019.

Wikipedia, “SPECS (speed camera)” (accessed July 3, 2019).

“Speed Cameras Catch One Million Offenders on A2 and A12 Last Year,”, Feb. 7, 2018.

Patrick Scott and Ellie Kempster, “A Record Two Million Speeding Tickets Were Handed Out Last Year — How Punitive Are the Roads You Drive on?”, Telegraph, Oct. 25, 2018.

Wikipedia, “Pit Stop” (accessed July 4, 2019).

Wikipedia, “Denny Hulme” (accessed July 4, 2019).

“Denny Hulme,” New Zealand History, Nov. 8, 2017.

“Denny Hulme,” ESPN (accessed July 4, 2019).

Susan Orlean, Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, 2011.

Susan Orlean, “The Dog Star,” New Yorker, Aug. 22, 2011.

Bruce Davis, “No, Rin Tin Tin Didn’t Really Win the First Best Actor Oscar,” The Wrap, Feb. 15, 2017.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was devised by Greg. Here’s a 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!

The Spirit Battery

When the electric telegraph was making its appearance in the 1840s, it was strangely easy to confuse it with spiritualism: Both were uncanny means of talking with absent people through systems of symbols. In a bid for legitimacy, spiritualists appealed to the principles of “electrical science.” In his 1853 book The Present Age and Inner Life, Andrew Jackson Davis proposed a “spirit battery” by which a medium could improve her contact with the spirit world by asking her guests to hold a magnetic rope whose ends were dipped in water-filled buckets made of copper and zinc:

The males and females (the positive and negative principles) are placed alternately; as so many zinc and copper plates in the construction of magnetic batteries. The medium or media have places assigned them on either side of the junction whereat the rope is crossed, the ends terminating each in a pail or jar of cold water. … But these new things should be added. The copper wire should terminate in, or be clasped to, a zinc plate; the steel wire should, in the same manner, be attached to a copper plate. These plates should be dodecahedral, or cut with twelve angles or sides, because, by means of the points, the volume of terrestrial electricity is greatly augmented, and its accumulation is also, by the same means, accelerated, which the circle requires for a rudimental aura (or atmosphere) through which spirits can approach and act upon material bodies.

“We are negative to our guardian spirits; they are positive to us,” Davis wrote. “The whole mystery is illustrated by the workings of the common magnetic telegraph. The principles involved are identical.”

Alarming bonus factoid: When Samuel Morse appeared before Congress in 1838 to seek funding for an experimental telegraph line, some congressmen introduced amendments that would provide funds for research on mesmerism as well. The committee chair wrote, “It would require a scientific analysis to determine how far the magnetism of mesmerism was analogous to the magnetism to be employed in telegraphs.” When the bill came to a vote, 70 congressmen left their seats; many hoped “to avoid spending the public money for a machine they could not understand.”

(From Jeffrey Sconce, Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television, 2000.)

Podcast Episode 255: Death on the Ice

In 1914, 132 sealers found themselves stranded on a North Atlantic icefield as a bitter blizzard approached. Thinly dressed and with little food, they faced a harrowing night on the ice. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Newfoundland sealing disaster, one of the most dramatic chapters in Canadian maritime history.

We’ll also meet another battlefield dog and puzzle over a rejected necklace.

See full show notes …

When in Rome
Image: IWM

In German East Africa during World War I, soldiers painted this pony to resemble one of the local zebras so it could be tethered in the open.

The Imperial War Museum adds, “Two white ponies behind anxiously await their makeovers.”

Podcast Episode 253: The Dame of Sark
Image: Flickr

In June 1940, German forces took the Channel Islands, a small British dependency off the coast of France. They expected the occupation to go easily, but they hadn’t reckoned on the island of Sark, ruled by an iron-willed noblewoman with a disdain for Nazis. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of Sibyl Hathaway and her indomitable stand against the Germans.

We’ll also overtake an earthquake and puzzle over an inscrutable water pipe.

See full show notes …

Tight Squeeze

Above: From Paris, 1927: a novelty car that can “sidle” into parking spaces.

Below: Someone was actually working on this in the 1950s (thanks, Martin):

A related puzzle from The Chicken From Minsk, Yuri B. Chernyak’s 1995 collection of math and physics problems: Why is it easier to parallel-park a (conventional) car by backing into the space rather than pulling in directly?

Click for Answer

Podcast Episode 252: The Wild Boy of Aveyron

In 1800 a 12-year-old boy emerged from a forest in southern France, where he had apparently lived alone for seven years. His case was taken up by a young Paris doctor who set out to see if the boy could be civilized. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll explore the strange, sad story of Victor of Aveyron and the mysteries of child development.

We’ll also consider the nature of art and puzzle over the relationship between salmon and trees.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 251: Joseph Palmer’s Beard

In 1830 Joseph Palmer created an odd controversy in Fitchburg, Massachusetts: He wore a beard when beards were out of fashion. For this social sin he was shunned, attacked, and ultimately jailed. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of a bizarre battle against irrational prejudice.

We’ll also see whether a computer can understand knitting and puzzle over an unrewarded long jump.

See full show notes …

The Apology Paradox

We ought to apologize for what our ancestors did to other people. This requires that we sincerely regret those deeds. But that means that we would prefer that the deeds had not been done, and if this were the case then world history would be significantly different and we ourselves would probably not exist. Yet most of us are glad to be alive. Can we sincerely regret deeds that are necessary to our own existence?

(That’s from La Trobe University philosopher Janna Thompson. She says the best solution is to interpret the apology as regret for this state of affairs. “[T]he regret expressed is that we owe our existence and other things we enjoy to the injustices of our ancestors. Our preference is for a possible world in which our existence did not depend on these deeds.”)

(Janna Thompson, “The Apology Paradox,” Philosophical Quarterly 50:201 [2000], 470-475.)