A Look Back

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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

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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 …

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

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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.

See full show notes …

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 …

Background

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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.)

Decorum

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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

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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 …

Hostilities

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“[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