Podcast Episode 333: Stranded in the Kimberley


Crossing the world in 1932, two German airmen ran out of fuel in a remote region of northwestern Australia. With no food and little water, they struggled to find their way to safety while rescuers fought to locate them. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the airmen’s ordeal, a dramatic story of perseverance and chance.

We’ll also survey some escalators and puzzle over a consequential crash.


Winston Churchill had a confusing namesake in the United States.

Shelley’s friend Horace Smith wrote a competing version of “Ozymandias.”

Sources for our feature on the 1932 Kimberley rescue:

Barbara Winter, Atlantis Is Missing: A Gripping True Story of Survival in the Australian Wilderness, 1979.

Brian H. Hernan, Forgotten Flyer, 2007.

Anthony Redmond, “Tracks and Shadows: Some Social Effects of the 1938 Frobenius Expedition to the North-West Kimberley,” in Nicolas Peterson and Anna Kenny, eds., German Ethnography in Australia, 2017, 413-434.

Frank Koehler, “Descriptions of New Species of the Diverse and Endemic Land Snail Amplirhagada Iredale, 1933 From Rainforest Patches Across the Kimberley, Western Australia (Pulmonata, Camaenidae),” Records of the Australian Museum 63:2 (2011), 163-202.

Bridget Judd, “The Unexpected Rescue Mission That Inspired ABC Mini-Series Flight Into Hell — And Other Survivalists,” Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Jan. 16, 2021.

Peter de Kruijff, “Survivalist Retraces Lost Aviators’ Trek,” Kimberley Echo, Jan. 29, 2018.

Michael Atkinson, “Surviving the Kimberley,” Australian Geographic, June 28, 2018.

Erin Parke, “No Food, No Water, No Wi-Fi: Adventurer Tests Skills in One of Australia’s Most Remote Places,” ABC Premium News, Jan. 29, 2018.

“Forgotten Territory,” [Darwin, N.T.] Northern Territory News, Feb. 28, 2016.

Graeme Westlake, “They Accepted Their Saviour’s Fish and Ate It Raw,” Canberra Times, May 15, 1982.

“German Fliers Got Lost in Our Nor-West,” [Perth] Mirror, June 2, 1956.

“37 Days in a Torture Chamber,” [Adelaide] News, April 21, 1954.

“Air Passenger,” [Grafton, N.S.W.] Examiner, July 18, 1938.

“Hans Bertram,” Sydney Morning Herald, July 16, 1938.

“Aviation: Pilot Bertram,” [Charters Towers, Qld.] Northern Miner, April 20, 1933.

“Bertram Lands at Crawley,” [Perth] Daily News, Sept. 24, 1932.

“Bertram’s Marooned ‘Plane,” Singleton [N.S.W.] Argus, Sept. 21, 1932.

“Captain Bertram,” Sydney Morning Herald, Sept. 20, 1932.

“Fully Recovered,” Sydney Morning Herald, Aug. 6, 1932.

“The Search for the German Airmen,” [Perth] Western Mail, July 21, 1932.

“The German Airmen,” Albany [W.A.] Advertiser, July 7, 1932.

“Death Cheated,” Cincinnati Enquirer, July 5, 1932.

“Lost German Fliers,” [Adelaide] Chronicle, June 30, 1932.

“Search for Hans Bertram,” [Carnarvon, W.A.] Northern Times, June 16, 1932.

“Strangers on the Shore: Shipwreck Survivors and Their Contact With Aboriginal Groups in Western Australia 1628-1956,” Department of Maritime Archaeology, Western Australian Maritime Museum, 1998.

Listener mail:

“Escalator Etiquette,” Wikipedia (accessed Feb. 8, 2021).

Brian Ashcraft, “It’s Hard For Japan to Change Its Escalator Manners,” Kotaku, June 20, 2019.

Jack Malvern, “Mystery Over Tube Escalator Etiquette Cleared Up by Restored Film,” Times, Oct. 21, 2009.

Laura Reynolds, “11 Secrets of Harrods,” Londonist (accessed Feb. 14, 2021).

Adam Taylor, “A Japanese Campaign Wants to Rewrite the Global Rules of Escalator Etiquette,” Washington Post, Aug. 26, 2015.

Linda Poon, “Tokyo Wants People to Stand on Both Sides of the Escalator,” Bloomberg City Lab, Dec. 20, 2018.

Johan Gaume and Alexander M. Puzrin, “Mechanisms of Slab Avalanche Release and Impact in the Dyatlov Pass Incident in 1959,” Communications Earth & Environment 2:10 (Jan. 28, 2021), 1-11.

Robin George Andrews, “Has Science Solved One of History’s Greatest Adventure Mysteries?”, National Geographic, Jan. 28, 2021.

Nature Video, “Explaining the Icy Mystery of the Dyatlov Pass Deaths” (video), Jan. 28, 2021.

New Scientist, “The Dyatlov Pass incident, which saw nine Russian mountaineers die in mysterious circumstances in 1959, has been the subject of many conspiracy theories. Now researchers say an unusual avalanche was to blame,” Twitter, Jan. 28, 2021.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Alex Baumans. Here are two corroborating links (warning — these spoil 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 https://futilitycloset.libsyn.com/rss.

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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!

Life and Art


An April 1832 letter of Heinrich Heine strangely prefigures “The Masque of the Red Death”:

On March 29th, the night of mi-careme, a masked ball was in progress, the chabut in full swing. Suddenly, the gayest of the harlequins collapsed, cold in the limbs, and, underneath his mask, ‘violet-blue’ in the face. Laughter died out, dancing ceased, and in a short while carriage-loads of people were hurried from the redoute to the Hotel Dieu to die, and to prevent a panic among the patients, were thrust into rude graves in their dominoes. Soon the public halls were filled with dead bodies, sewed in sacks for want of coffins. Long lines of hearses stood en queue outside Pere Lachaise. Everybody wore flannel bandages. The rich gathered up their belongings and fled the town. Over 120,000 passports were issued at the Hotel de Ville.

He was witnessing the advent of cholera in Paris; Poe had seen similar scenes in Baltimore the year before. The story appeared 10 years later.

Podcast Episode 332: Princess Caraboo


In 1817 a young woman appeared in the English village of Almondsbury, speaking a strange language and seeking food and shelter. She revealed herself to be an Eastern princess, kidnapped by pirates from an exotic island. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of Princess Caraboo, who was both more and less than she seemed.

We’ll also discover a June Christmas and puzzle over some monster soup.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 331: The Starvation Doctor


In 1911 English sisters Claire and Dora Williamson began consulting a Seattle “fasting specialist” named Linda Burfield Hazzard. As they underwent her brutal treatments, the sisters found themselves caught in a web of manipulation and deceit. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Williamsons’ ordeal and the scheme it brought to light.

We’ll also catch a criminal by the ear and puzzle over a prohibited pig.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 330: The Abernathy Boys


In 1909, Oklahoma brothers Bud and Temple Abernathy rode alone to New Mexico and back, though they were just 9 and 5 years old. In the years that followed they would become famous for cross-country trips totaling 10,000 miles. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll trace the journeys of the Abernathy brothers across a rapidly evolving nation.

We’ll also try to figure out whether we’re in Belgium or the Netherlands and puzzle over an outstretched hand.

See full show notes …

One Nation, Indivisible

The second professor of mathematics in the American colonies suggested reckoning coins, weights, and measures in base 8.

Arguing that ordinary arithmetic had already become “mysterious to Women and Youths and often troublesome to the best Artists,” the Rev. Hugh Jones of the College of William and Mary wrote that his proposal was “only to divide every integer in each species into eight equal parts, and every part again into 8 real or imaginary particles, as far as is necessary. For tho’ all nations count universally by tens (originally occasioned by the number of digits on both hands) yet 8 is a far more complete and commodious number; since it is divisible into halves, quarters, and half quarters (or units) without a fraction, of which subdivision ten is uncapable.”

Successive powers of 8 would be called ers, ests, thousets, millets, and billets; cash, casher, and cashest would be used in counting money, ounce, ouncer, and ouncest in weighing, and yard, yarder, and yardest in measuring distance (so “352 yardest” would signify 3 × 82 + 5 × 8 + 2 yards).

Jones pressed this system zealously, arguing that “Arithmetic by Octaves seems most agreeable to the Nature of Things, and therefore may be called Natural Arithmetic in Opposition to that now in Use, by Decades; which may be esteemed Artificial Arithmetic.” But he seems to have had no illusions about its prospects, acknowledging that “there seems no Probability that this will be soon, if ever, universally complied with.”

(H.R. Phalen, “Hugh Jones and Octave Computation,” American Mathematical Monthly 56:7 [August-September 1949), 461-465.)

Podcast Episode 329: The Cock Lane Ghost


In 1759, ghostly rappings started up in the house of a parish clerk in London. In the months that followed they would incite a scandal against one man, an accusation from beyond the grave. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Cock Lane ghost, an enduring portrait of superstition and justice.

We’ll also see what you can get hit with at a sporting event and puzzle over some portentous soccer fields.

See full show notes …

A New Outlook

Sculptor Anna Coleman Ladd found an unusual application for her artistry during World War I, creating prostheses for the dramatic injuries produced by machine guns and heavy artillery. After reading about artist Francis Derwent Wood’s “Tin Noses Shop” in London, she moved to London and opened a “Studio for Portrait-Masks.”

Her copper and silver masks, 1/32″ thick and weighing 4-9 ounces, were founded on facial casts and painted to match the precise skin tone of each patient. Held in place by eyeglasses, many included realistic mustaches, eyebrows, and eyelashes. By the end of 1919 Ladd had created 185 of them, charging $18 for each and donating her own services. The Red Cross called them “miracles,” and in 1932 France made her a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour.


A Look Back

kruševac window

On the grounds of the Fortress of Kruševac, in Serbia, is a “window to the past” that depicts the donjon tower as it appeared in its medieval heyday. At its height it served as the entrance to a medieval fortified town, the seat of Moravian Serbia.

Podcast Episode 328: A Canine Prisoner of War


In 1944, British captives of the Japanese in Sumatra drew morale from an unlikely source: a purebred English pointer who cheered the men, challenged the guards, and served as a model of patient fortitude. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of Judy, the canine POW of World War II.

We’ll also consider the frequency of different birthdays and puzzle over a little sun.

See full show notes …