The Harcourt Interpolation

Here are two transcriptions of a speech by Home Secretary Sir William Harcourt, reprinted in the London Times on Jan. 23, 1882. At left is the column as it originally appeared; at right is the same speech in a hastily issued replacement edition. What’s the difference between them?

In the column on the left, about midway down, a disgruntled compositor has inserted the line “The speaker then said he felt inclined for a bit of fucking.”

The paper issued an apology and suppressed the offending edition as well as it could, but that only increased public interest, driving the price of a copy up from threepence to £5 in some areas (it would reach £100 by the 1990s). The Times’ quarterly index recorded the offense:

Harcourt (Sir W.) at Burton on Trent, 23 j 7 c
———Gross Line Maliciously Interpolated in a
Few Copies only of the Issue, 23 j 7 d — 27 j 9 f

The paper tried to rise above all this, but it made a new rule: If you sack a compositor, get him off the premises immediately.

(Thanks, Alejandro.)

Signing Off

That’s the final entry in a minutes book discovered in May 2015 at the YMCA Buffalo Niagara in Buffalo, N.Y. The management committee of the local railroad department had met there in December 1899.

Who knows what it means? University at Buffalo archivist-in-training Matthew Oliver found it while reorganizing the YMCA’s records. Details are here.

02/20/2017 A number of readers have written in with a likely answer: The reference is to 1 Samuel 7:12, “Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen. He named it Ebenezer, saying, ‘Thus far the LORD has helped us.'” The Israelites erected the stone to commemorate their victory over the Philistines. This meeting took place during the Third Great Awakening, when the reference would have been well understood.

Reader Phil Moberg Jr. writes, “The ‘Railroad Ys,’ as they were known to those of us in the business, were a great improvement in the general living conditions to crews between runs, being a more than welcome change from the seedy flophouses and saloons that preceded them. The last of them in Southern New England closed in the early ’70s, with the building that housed the New Haven (CT) Railroad Y having been torn down late last year.”

(Thanks also to Delyth Yabar and Anthony Douglas.)

The Full Story

U.S. senator Alan Cranston once lost a copyright suit to Adolf Hitler. Cranston, who had begun his career in journalism, spotted an abridged translation of Mein Kampf in a New York bookstore in 1939. He had read the full text in German and was concerned that the English adaptation omitted Hitler’s anti-Semitism and ambitions to dominate Europe.

To publicize the truth, Cranston worked with a friend to publish an anti-Nazi version of the book. “I wrote this, dictated it [from Hitler’s German text] in about eight days, to a battery of secretaries in a loft in Manhattan,” Cranston told the Los Angeles Times in 1988. They produced a tabloid edition of 32 pages, reducing Hitler’s 270,000 words to 70,000 to yield a “Reader’s Digest-like version [showing] the worst of Hitler.”

At 10 cents apiece, Cranston’s version sold half a million copies in 10 days. But by that time the original was a best-seller in Germany, and the publishers sued Cranston for undercutting the market. In June the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York ordered the presses stopped. The truth had gotten out, Cranston said, but “we had to throw away half a million copies.”

Podcast Episode 134: The Christmas Truce

In December 1914 a remarkable thing happened on the Western Front: British and German soldiers stopped fighting and left their trenches to greet one another, exchange souvenirs, bury their dead, and sing carols in the spirit of the holiday season. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Christmas truce, which one participant called “one of the highlights of my life.”

We’ll also remember James Thurber’s Aunt Sarah and puzzle over an anachronistic twin.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 131: Escape From Libby Prison,_Richmond,_05-1865_-_NARA_-_533454.tif

Libby Prison was one of the most infamous prison camps of the Civil War — thousands of Union prisoners were packed together in a converted warehouse, facing months or years of starvation and abuse. The Confederates thought the prison was escape-proof, and in this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll show how a determined group of prisoners set out to prove them wrong.

We’ll also duel with a barrel and puzzle over why an admitted forger would be found innocent.

See full show notes …

Sunrise, Sunset

Is it unjust to adopt a constitution that binds both ourselves and future members of our society? We need a set of fundamental laws to regulate ourselves, but is it fair to extend that to future citizens? Shouldn’t they have the right to choose their own rules?

Thomas Jefferson thought so. In a 1789 letter to James Madison, he held that “the earth belongs in usufruct to the living”: He thought a constitution (or any law) should expire automatically when succeeding generations make up a majority of the population. “The constitution and the laws of their predecessors extinguished … in their natural course with those who gave them being,” he wrote. “This could preserve that being till it ceased to be itself, and no longer. … If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force, and not of right.”

There’s a tension here: In order for a constitution to be successful, it has to define the organization of its society and the freedoms of its citizens, and these rules need to remain in effect for at least several generations in order to produce a healthy liberal democracy. “But those born under a perpetual constitution are expected to acquiesce to the foundational norms approved by their predecessors with neither their consent nor their participation,” writes McGill University political philosopher Víctor M. Muñiz-Fraticelli. “If a constitution is discussed, negotiated, and approved by citizens who are, necessarily, contemporaries, what normatively binding force does it retain for future generations who took no part in its discussion, negotiation, or approval?”

(Víctor M. Muñiz-Fraticelli, “The Problem of a Perpetual Constitution,” in Axel Gosseries and Lukas H. Meyer, eds., Intergenerational Justice, 2009.)


Australia was named before it was discovered. Ancient geographers had supposed that land in the north must be balanced by land in the south — Aristotle had written, “there must be a region bearing the same relation to the southern pole as the place we live in bears to our pole” — and Romans told legends of a Terra Australis Incognita, an “unknown land of the South,” more than a millennium before Europeans first sighted the continent.

In 1814 the British explorer Matthew Flinders suggested applying the speculative name, Terra Australis, to the actual place — and in a footnote he wrote, “Had I permitted myself any innovation on the original term, it would have been to convert it to AUSTRALIA; as being more agreeable to the ear, and an assimilation to the names of the other great portions of the earth.”

Podcast Episode 128: The Battle for Castle Itter
Image: Wikimedia Commons

The closing days of World War II witnessed a bizarre battle with some unlikely allies: American and German soldiers joined forces to rescue a group of French prisoners from a medieval castle in the Austrian Alps. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the Battle for Castle Itter, the only time that Allies and Germans fought together in the war.

We’ll also dodge another raft of aerial bombs and puzzle over a bottled pear.

See full show notes …

Ups and Downs,_poetry,_and_incidents_of_the_war_-_North_and_South_-_1860-1865_(1866)_(14759540261).jpg

Here’s how the Union enciphered its messages during the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln sent this dispatch on June 1, 1863:


The first word, GUARD, indicates the size of a containing rectangle and the paths on which the words must be laid out to decipher the message. In this case, they’ll go up the first column, down the second, up the fifth, down the fourth, and up the third. Also, just to confuse the Confederates, every eighth word after GUARD is a null and should be discarded. So we get:

WAYLAND AT             ODOR     ARE        DETAINED
THEY    ARE            DETAINED AND        GET
THEM    OFF            IF       YOU        CAN
ADAM    NELLY          THIS     FILLS      UP

The last steps are to remove THIS FILLS UP, which is only there to fill out the block, and to replace a few code words:

VENUS = colonel
WAYLAND = captured
ODOR = Vicksburg
NEPTUNE = Richmond
ADAM = President of the United States
NELLY = 4:30 p.m.

That gives us the final message:

For Colonel Ludlow,

Richardson and Brown, correspondents of the Tribune, captured at Vicksburg, are detained at Richmond. Please ascertain why they are detained and get them off if you can.

The President, 4:30 p.m.

This system was such a valuable source of breaking news that Lincoln often visited the military telegraph office in the War Department, next to the White House, and would chat with the operators there. One of them, David Homer Bates, who was only 18 when the war started, remembered, “Outside the members of his cabinet and his private secretaries, none were brought into closer or more confidential relations with Lincoln than the cipher-operators, … for during the Civil War the President spent more of his waking hours in the War Department telegraph office than in any other place, except the White House. … His tall, homely form could be seen crossing the well-shaded lawn between the White House and the War Department day after day with unvaried regularity.”

(From David Kahn, The Codebreakers, 1996.)