Student Debt

Around 1220, Oxford University proposed this form letter for young scholars seeking money from their patrons:

To his venerable master A., greeting. This is to inform you that I am studying at Oxford with great diligence, but the matter of money stands greatly in the way of my promotion, as it is now two months since I spent the last of what you sent me. The city is expensive and makes many demands. I have to rent lodgings, buy necessaries, and provide for many other things which I cannot now specify. Wherefore I respectfully beg your paternity that by the promptings of divine pity you may assist me, so that I may be able to complete what I have well begun.

One father wrote, “A student’s first song is a demand for money, and there will never be a letter which does not ask for cash.”

(From Charles H. Haskins, The Life of Medieval Students as Illustrated by Their Letters, 1898.) (Thanks, Paul.)

Podcast Episode 327: The Misplaced Tourist,_Bangor,_Maine_(67541).jpg

In 1977, West German tourist Erwin Kreuz spent three days enjoying the sights, sounds, and hospitality of Bangor, Maine. Unfortunately, he thought he was in San Francisco, on the other side of the continent. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast, we’ll describe Kreuz’s unlikely adventure, which made him a local hero in his adopted city.

We’ll also consider an invisible killer and puzzle over a momentous measurement.


In 1712, Sweden observed a February 30.

In 1898, J.W. Dunne dreamed correctly that his watch had stopped.

Sources for our feature on Erwin Kreuz:

Geoffrey Wolff, The Edge of Maine, 2011.

William Langewiesche, “Reporting Points,” Flying Magazine 102:1 (January 1978), 29-32.

Joseph Owen, “On This Date in Maine History: Oct. 20,” Portland [Me.] Press Herald, Oct. 20, 2020.

Emily Burnham, “The Story of How a German Tourist Ended Up Mistaking Bangor for San Francisco,” Bangor Daily News, Oct. 17, 2020.

Kent Ward, “A Feel-Good Story From the Archives,” Bangor Daily News, Dec. 4, 2009.

Sara Kehaulani Goo, “Bangor Is Used to Surprise Landings,” Washington Post, Oct. 17, 2004.

Joshua Weinstein, “Bangor International Familiar With Hosting Unexpected Guests,” Portland [Me.] Press Herald, Sept. 23, 2004.

Tom Weber, “Mall Man,” Bangor Daily News, Oct. 18, 1997.

John S. Day, “City of Bangor Urged to Hold Fire on I-Man,” Bangor Daily News, July 26, 1997.

Kim Strosnider, “An Accidental Tourist Put Bangor on Map,” Portland [Me.] Press Herald, July 7, 1996.

Richard Haitch, “Follow-Up on the News: California in Maine,” New York Times, July 15, 1984.

Ed Lion, “A Look Back at the Saga of Erwin Kreuz,” United Press International, July 8, 1984.

“New England News Briefs; Payments Never Late From W. Germany,” Boston Globe, July 4, 1984.

“Wrong-Way German Tourist Still Paying Maine Taxes,” United Press International, July 3, 1984.

Maureen Williams, “Future in Bangor Pales, Erwin Kreuz Returns to Germany,” Bangor Daily News, March 16, 1979.

“Superstar Attractions to Highlight Bangor Mall’s Supergrand Opening,” Bangor Daily News, Oct. 4, 1978.

“Instant Celebrity to Revisit Bangor,” Associated Press, Sept. 18, 1978.

“German Tourist Misses Maine,” United Press International, Sept. 15, 1978.

“Bangor, Me., Family in Temporary Limelight,” New York Times, Feb. 18, 1978.

Jeanne Bolstridge, “Not Political,” Bangor Daily News, Nov. 15, 1977.

“So riesig,” Der Spiegel, Nov. 7, 1977.

“Lives It Up Wild West Frisco Style,” The [Fairfield County, Conn.] Hour, Nov. 1, 1977.

“It’s Wong for Kreuz in Frisco,” Miami Herald, Nov. 1, 1977.

“Ja, Erwin Kreuz ist ein ‘Bangor,'” Minneapolis Star, Nov. 1, 1977.

“People,” Chicago Tribune, Nov. 1, 1977.

“Wrong-Way Tourist’s Weekend Fit for King,” United Press International, Oct. 31, 1977.

“In San Francisco: Lost German Partial to Maine,” Quad-City [Iowa] Times, Oct. 30, 1977.

Ted Sylvester, “Andre Tries to Kiss Kreuz,” Bangor Daily News, Oct. 28, 1977.

“Famed Figures,” [Pittsfield, Mass.] Berkshire Eagle, Oct. 28, 1977.

“San Francisco Paper Lays Red Carpet for Kreuz,” Bangor Daily News, Oct. 28, 1977.

“Erwin Kreuz,” Bangor Daily News, Oct. 28, 1977.

David Platt, “Column One,” Bangor Daily News, Oct. 28, 1977.

“Land for Erwin Kreuz,” Bangor Daily News, Oct. 27, 1977.

“That’d Be a Long Taxi Ride,” Kingsport [Tenn.] Daily News, Oct. 26, 1977.

“German Tourist Ready to Stay in Maine,” Associated Press, Oct. 26, 1977.

“3,000-Mile Error Ends With a Pleasant Visit,” United Press International, Oct. 25, 1977.

“Airline Puts Out Call for Errant Passenger,” Bangor Daily News, Oct. 21, 1977.

“A Big Mac Blitz,” Bangor Daily News, Oct. 21, 1977.

Nancy Remsen, “Golden Gate-Bound German Visits Bangor by Mistake,” Bangor Daily News, Oct. 20, 1977.

(Five unheadlined Associated Press wire reports, dated Oct. 29, 1977; Oct. 31, 1977; Sept. 25, 1978; Oct. 4, 1978; and March 19, 1979.)

Listener mail:

Wikipedia, “Lake Nyos Disaster” (accessed Dec. 29, 2020).

Wikipedia, “Limnic Eruption” (accessed Dec. 29, 2020).

Kevin Krajick, “Defusing Africa’s Killer Lakes,”, September 2003.

“Falklands Cleared of Landmines Following 1982 Conflict,”, Nov. 10, 2020.

Matthew Teller, “The Falklands Penguins That Would Not Explode,” BBC News, May 6, 2017.

“Japanese Town Deploys Monster Wolf Robots to Deter Bears,” Reuters, Nov. 11, 2020.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Nick Claus. Here are three 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

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!

Podcast Episode 326: The Recluse of Herald Square

ida wood

In 1931, a 93-year-old widow was discovered to be hoarding great wealth in New York’s Herald Square Hotel. Her death touched off an inquiry that revealed a glittering past — and a great secret. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast, we’ll tell the story of Ida Wood, which has been called “one of the most sensational inheritance cases in American history.”

We’ll also revisit the Candy Bomber and puzzle over some excessive travel.

See full show notes …


An avid stamp collector in earlier life, Franklin Roosevelt brought a surprisingly detailed knowledge of remote regions to his role as commander-in-chief.

“The president’s knowledge of world geography was amazing,” wrote his naval aide, John McCrea. “I once remarked about this, and he replied, ‘If a stamp collector really studies his stamps, he can pick up a great deal of information.'”

(From McCrea’s 2016 memoir, Captain McCrea’s War.)


We were all used to the heat; but whereas the desert was dry, Sicily was humid. … I well remember an incident that occurred one day as I was driving in my open car up to the front. I saw a lorry coming towards me with a soldier apparently completely naked in the driver’s seat, wearing a silk top hat. As the lorry passed me, the driver leant out from his cab and took off his hat to me with a sweeping and gallant gesture. I just roared with laughter. However, while I was not particular about dress so long as the soldiers fought well and we won our battles, I at once decided that there were limits. When I got back to my headquarters I issued the only order I ever issued about dress in the Eighth Army; it read as follows: ‘Top hats will not be worn in the Eighth Army.’

The Memoirs of Field Marshal Montgomery, 1958

Podcast Episode 324: The Bizarre Death of Alfred Loewenstein

In 1928, Belgian financier Alfred Loewenstein fell to his death from a private plane over the English Channel. How it happened has never been explained. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast, we’ll describe the bizarre incident, which has been called “one of the strangest fatalities in the history of commercial aviation.”

We’ll also consider whether people can be eaten by pythons and puzzle over an enigmatic horseman.

See full show notes …


“[Braxton] Bragg was a remarkably intelligent and well-informed man, professionally and otherwise. He was also thoroughly upright. But he was possessed of an irascible temper, and was naturally disputatious. A man of the highest moral character and the most correct habits, yet in the old army he was in frequent trouble. As a subordinate he was always on the lookout to catch his commanding officer infringing his prerogatives; as a post commander he was equally vigilant to detect the slightest neglect, even of the most trivial order.

“I have heard in the old army an anecdote very characteristic of Bragg. On one occasion, when stationed at a post of several companies commanded by a field officer, he was himself commanding one of the companies and at the same time acting as post quartermaster and commissary. He was first lieutenant at the time, but his captain was detached on other duty. As commander of the company he made a requisition upon the quartermaster — himself — for something he wanted. As quartermaster he declined to fill the requisition, and endorsed on the back of it his reasons for so doing. As company commander he responded to this, urging that his requisition called for nothing but what he was entitled to, and that it was the duty of the quartermaster to fill it. As quartermaster he still persisted that he was right. In this condition of affairs Bragg referred the whole matter to the commanding officer of the post. The latter, when he saw the nature of the matter referred, exclaimed: ‘My God, Mr. Bragg, you have quarrelled with every officer in the army, and now you are quarrelling with yourself!'”

Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, 1885


But for the next [Maryland] assembly in 1638 the records show that some free men attended in person while others delegated representatives, each of whom was entitled to his own vote and also to all the votes of those who had selected him as their representative. …

The result was a politically bizarre situation: within the assembly some men had only their own vote, while others had the votes of all their proxies in addition to their own. One one occasion an aspiring politician named Giles Brent had enough proxies (seventy-three) to constitute a majority of the assembly all by himself.

— Edmund S. Morgan, Inventing the People: The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America, 1988

(Thanks, Keith.)

Podcast Episode 323: The Blind Traveler

When a mysterious illness blinded him at age 25, British naval officer James Holman took up a new pursuit: travel. For the next 40 years he roamed the world alone, describing his adventures in a series of popular books. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast, we’ll describe Holman’s remarkable career and his unique perspective on his experiences.

We’ll also remember some separating trains and puzzle over an oddly drawn battle plan.

See full show notes …