Podcast Episode 164: Vigil on the Ice

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1930, British explorer Augustine Courtauld volunteered to spend the winter alone on the Greenland ice cap, manning a remote weather station. As the snow gradually buried his hut and his supplies steadily dwindled, his relief party failed to arrive. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Courtauld’s increasingly desperate vigil on the ice.

We’ll also retreat toward George III and puzzle over some unexpected evidence.

See full show notes …

United Nations

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In August 1805, Lewis and Clark encountered a band of Shoshone Indians led by Chief Cameahwait. In order for Lewis to communicate with Cameahwait, the group had to speak four languages: Lewis spoke English to Private Francois Labiche, who spoke French to interpreter Toussaint Charbonneau, who spoke Hidatsa to his Shoshone wife Sacagawea, who spoke Shoshone to Chief Cameahwait. Cameahwait’s reply passed back up the chain in the opposite direction.

Amazingly, Cameahwait turned out to be Sacagawea’s brother. They had been separated for five years, ever since her abduction by Hidatsa in 1800. Overjoyed at the reunion, he gave the expedition much-needed guides and horses to help them cross the Rocky Mountains.

Freedom

In Under the Mask, his 1972 anthology about prejudice in America, Karel Weiss records a scene aboard the slave ship Young Hero in 1788, recounted by ship’s surgeon Ecroide Claxton before the House of Commons:

Some of the slaves on board the same ship, says Mr. Claxton, had such an aversion to leaving their native places, that they threw themselves overboard, with an idea that they should get back to their own country. The captain, in order to obviate this idea, thought of an expedient, viz. to cut off the heads of those who died, intimating to them, that if determined to go, they must return without their heads. The slaves were accordingly brought up to witness the operation. One of them seeing, when on deck, the carpenter standing with his hatchet up ready to strike off the head of a dead slave, with a violent exertion got loose, and flying to the place where the nettings had been unloosed, in order to empty the tubs, he darted overboard. The ship brought to, and a man was placed in the main chains to catch him, which he perceiving, dived under water, and rising again at a distance from the ship, made signs, which words cannot describe, expressive of his happiness in escaping. He then went down, and was seen no more.

Weiss says the idea of escaping into death was particularly prevalent among the Ibo of eastern Nigeria. Related:

In the West Indies, according to the Spanish historian Girolamo Benzoni, four thousand men and countless women and children died by jumping from cliffs or by killing each other. He adds that, out of the two million original inhabitants of Haiti, fewer than 150 survived as a result of the suicides and slaughter. In the end the Spaniards, faced with an embarrassing labor shortage, put a stop to the epidemic of suicides by persuading the Indians that they, too, would kill themselves in order to pursue them in the next world with even harsher cruelties.

— Alfred Alvarez, The Savage God: A Study of Suicide, 1971

A Grim Climate

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Though Republicans won a majority of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1930, fully 14 House members died during the ensuing 72nd Congress, including Speaker Nicholas Longworth. As a result, Democrats were able to elect one of their own as speaker.

Things weren’t much better in the Senate. Sen. Hiram Bingham (R-Ct.) said in 1931, “It is a very striking fact and one which cannot be too often called to the attention of Senators that there is no other body of this size in the world which has as high a death rate as this body. Out of the 96 Senators, during the past 7 or 8 years at least three have died each year, and if there is anything that can be done to cause members of this body to enjoy greater health and to prolong their lives, it seems to me that no one should object to it.”

In 1996 George Washington University political scientist Forrest Maltzman and his colleagues found evidence that the Capitol’s ventilation system might have been a significant factor. As early as 1859, one senator had called his chamber “the most unhealthful, uncomfortable, ill-contrived place I was ever in my life; and my health is suffering daily from the atmosphere.” A ban on smoking didn’t seem to help, but a new ventilation system, complete with air conditioning, was installed in 1932, and Maltzman found a significant decrease in mortality beyond this point, sparing an estimated three members per Congress.

“Accordingly, we think there is at least a ghost of a chance that [political scientist Nelson] Polsby is correct when he argues that the advent of air-conditioning in the 1930s and 1940s may have had no less momentous an impact on political life (and death) in the nation’s capital than the massive changes the city underwent during the 1960s and 1970s — racial desegregation, home rule, and rapid population growth.”

(Forrest Maltzman, Lee Sigelman, and Sarah Binder, “Leaving Office Feet First: Death in Congress,” PS: Political Science & Politics 29:4 [December 1996], 665-671.)

Podcast Episode 163: Enslaved in the Sahara

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In 1815 an American ship ran aground in northwestern Africa, and its crew were enslaved by merciless nomads. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the desperate efforts of Captain James Riley to find a way to cross the Sahara and beg for help from Western officials in Morocco.

We’ll also wade through more molasses and puzzle over a prospective guitar thief.

See full show notes …

Misc

  • Conceptual artist Joseph Beuys accepted responsibility for any snow that fell in Düsseldorf February 15-20, 1969.
  • Any three of the numbers {1, 22, 41, 58} add up to a perfect square.
  • Nebraska is triply landlocked — a resident must cross three states to reach an ocean, gulf, or bay.
  • The only temperature represented as a prime number in both Celsius and Fahrenheit is 5°C (41°F).
  • “A person reveals his character by nothing so clearly as the joke he resents.” — Georg Christoph Lichtenberg

“I was tossing around the names of various wars in which both the opponents appear: Spanish-American, Franco-Prussian, Sino-English, Russo-Japanese, Arab-Israeli, Judeo-Roman, Anglo-Norman, and Greco-Roman. Is it a quirk of historians or merely a coincidence that the opponent named first was always the loser? It would appear that a country about to embark on war would do well to see that the war is named before the fighting starts, with the enemy named first!” — David L. Silverman

Never Too Late

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Abraham Lincoln had less than a year of formal schooling.

The fifth Lincoln-Douglas debate was held before Knox College in 1858. As he crawled through a second-story window to reach the platform, he said, “At last I have gone through college.”

Tatlin’s Tower

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After the Bolshevik Revolution, architect Vladimir Tatlin proposed this enormous monument to house Communist headquarters in Petrograd. Two large helixes would spiral 400 meters into the air, surpassing the Eiffel Tower as the world’s foremost symbol of modernity. The helixes would point to Polaris, so that the star and the tower would remain motionless relative to each other. Suspended from the framework would be three office buildings of glass and steel, each moving in harmony with the cosmos: A is a cylindrical auditorium that rotates once a year, B is a cone-shaped office structure that rotates once a month, C is a cubical information center that rotates once a day, and on top is an open-air screen on which messages could be projected. (During overcast weather they planned to project the news onto clouds.)

In the end it was never built — even if Russia could have produced the steel, it’s not clear that it would have stood up.

Wanted

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In 1899 Winston Churchill was covering the Boer War as a correspondent when he was captured and put in a Pretoria prison. He climbed a wall and set out to flee 300 miles to neutral Portuguese East Africa while the Afrikaners raised the alarm and circulated a rather unflattering description:

Escaped prisoner-of-war Winston Spencer Churchill Englishman 25 years old about 5 foot 8 inches tall medium build walks with a slight stoop. Pale features. Reddish-brown hair almost invisible small moustache. Speaks through his nose and cannot pronounce the letter S. Had last a brown suit on and cannot speak one word of Dutch.

Churchill fled on foot for two days, hid in a coal mine for three, and finally boarded a freight train, where he hid under bales of wool to evade a Boer search party. When he reached safety, publicity of his adventure set him on the path toward a career in government.

Podcast Episode 158: The Mistress of Murder Farm

belle gunness

Belle Gunness was one of America’s most prolific female serial killers, luring lonely men to her Indiana farm with promises of marriage, only to rob and kill them. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of The LaPorte Black Widow and learn about some of her unfortunate victims.

We’ll also break back into Buckingham Palace and puzzle over a bet with the devil.

See full show notes …