Podcast Episode 218: Lost in the Amazon

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In 1769, a Peruvian noblewoman set out with 41 companions to join her husband in French Guiana. But a series of terrible misfortunes left her alone in the Amazon jungle. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Isabel Godin des Odonais on her harrowing adventure in the rain forest.

We’ll also learn where in the world “prices slippery traps” is and puzzle over an airport’s ingenuity.

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Podcast Episode 217: The Bone Wars

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The end of the Civil War opened a new era of fossil hunting in the American West — and a bitter feud between two rival paleontologists, who spent 20 years sabotaging one another in a constant struggle for supremacy. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Bone Wars, the greatest scientific feud of the 19th century.

We’ll also sympathize with Scunthorpe and puzzle over why a driver can’t drive.

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Singular

Churchill himself is a talented heckler. Sir William Joynson-Hicks was making a speech before Commons and noticed Churchill shaking his head so vigorously that attention was distracted from the address. ‘I see my right honourable friend shaking his head,’ cried Joynson-Hicks with exasperation. ‘I wish to remind him that I am only expressing my own opinion!’

‘And I wish to remind the speaker that I am only shaking my own head,’ replied Churchill.

— Brisbane Courier-Mail, 1952

Podcast Episode 216: The Tromelin Island Castaways

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1761 a French schooner was shipwrecked in the Indian Ocean, leaving more than 200 people stranded on a tiny island. The crew departed in a makeshift boat, leaving 60 Malagasy slaves to fend for themselves and wait for rescue. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Tromelin Island castaways, which one observer calls “arguably the most extraordinary story of survival ever documented.”

We’ll also admire some hardworking cats and puzzle over a racer’s death.

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The Body Politic

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This iconic image of Abraham Lincoln is not authentic — Lincoln never posed in this “heroic” style during his lifetime, so after his death an enterprising artist added Abe’s head to a portrait of South Carolina Democrat John C. Calhoun.

Both men would have been aghast. “Many in the South once believed that slavery was a moral and political evil,” Calhoun once wrote. “That folly and delusion are gone. We see it now in its true light, and regard it as the most safe and stable basis for free institutions in the world.”

Podcast Episode 215: The Lieutenant Nun

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In 1607, a 15-year-old girl fled her convent in the Basque country, dressed herself as a man, and set out on a series of unlikely adventures across Europe. In time she would distinguish herself fighting as a soldier in Spain’s wars of conquest in the New World. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of Catalina de Erauso, the lieutenant nun of Renaissance Spain.

We’ll also hunt for some wallabies and puzzle over a quiet cat.

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Cameo

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This is the only known photograph of Connecticut’s Charter Oak, a famous symbol of American independence before a storm blew it down in 1856.

Curiously, the father of the country seems to appear among its branches.

Podcast Episode 214: The Poison Squad

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In 1902, chemist Harvey Wiley launched a unique experiment to test the safety of food additives. He recruited a group of young men and fed them meals laced with chemicals to see what the effects might be. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Wiley’s “poison squad” and his lifelong crusade for food safety.

We’ll also follow some garden paths and puzzle over some unwelcome weight-loss news.

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Potential

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His father also relates another amusing little incident: ‘When he was about ten years old, a distinguished phrenologist came along and stayed several days in the place. He was frequently asked to examine heads, blindfolded. The phrenologist, among others, examined the boy Grant. He felt his head for several minutes without saying anything. Then he was asked if the boy had a capacity for mathematics. The phrenologist, after some further examinations, said: “You need not be surprised if you see this boy fill the Presidential chair some time.”‘

— William Ralston Balch, Life and Public Services of General Grant, 1885

Better Late

The Peloponnesian War ended in 1996. The bloody conflict between Athens and Sparta had stopped in 404 B.C. without an official peace pact, so after 2,500 years the cities decided to sign a symbolic agreement. It read, “Today we express our grief for the devastating war between the two key cities of ancient Greece and declare its end.”

Similarly, when the First Anglo-Dutch War ended in 1654, the Dutch Republic forgot to include the Isles of Scilly in the Treaty of Westminster, so the Dutch and the Scillonians remained pointlessly but arguably at war for 332 years, until they signed a symbolic peace in 1986.

The Dutch ambassador said, “It must have been awful to know we could have attacked at any moment.”