In 1913, New York publicist John Duval Gluck founded an association to answer Santa’s mail. For 15 years its volunteers fulfilled children’s Christmas wishes, until Gluck’s motivation began to shift. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the rise and fall of “Santa’s Secretary” in New York City.
We’ll also survey some splitting trains and puzzle over a difference between twins.
An odd encounter between Thomas Edison and Henry Ford at a Democratic fundraising luncheon at New York’s Biltmore Hotel, 1916, from the memoir of Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels:
I do not suppose anything so strange ever occurred at a luncheon in New York and elsewhere. … After the first course, Edison, pointing to a large chandelier, with many globes, in the middle of the room, said, ‘Henry, I’ll bet anything you want that I can kick the globe off that chandelier.’ It hung high toward the ceiling. Ford said he would take the bet. Edison rose, pushed the table to one side of the room, took his stand in the center and with his eye fixed on the globe, made the highest kick I have ever seen a man make and smashed the globe into smithereens. He then said, ‘Henry, let’s see what you can do.’ The automobile manufacturer took careful aim, but his foot missed the chandelier by a fraction of an inch. Edison had won and for the balance of the meal or until the ice-cream was served, he was crowing over Ford, ‘You are a younger man than I am, but I can out-kick you.’ He seemed prouder of that high kick than if he had invented a means of ending the U-boat warfare.
(Via Edmund Morris’ 2019 biography Edison.) (Thanks, Aditya.)
In August 1945, a few weeks before the end of World War II, a Soviet delegation presented a replica of the Great Seal of the United States as a gift to American ambassador W. Averell Harriman, who hung it in the study of his Moscow residence.
In 1951, a radio operator at the British embassy overheard American voices on an open radio traffic channel used by the Russian air force. An investigation showed that they’d been beaming radio waves at the ambassador’s office: The gift had contained a passive listening device that could be activated by a radio signal. The Soviets had been listening in on the ambassador’s residence for six years.
When a U-2 spy plane was shot down over Soviet territory in 1960, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. displayed the device to show that both sides had been guilty of spying.
In 1911 an exhausted man emerged from the wilderness north of Oroville, California. He was discovered to be the last of the Yahi, a people who had once flourished in the area but had been decimated by white settlers. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Ishi’s sad history and his new life in San Francisco.
We’ll also consider the surprising dangers of baseball and puzzle over a forceful blackout.
In January 1943, a brick “hive” was built around Michelangelo’s David to protect it from incendiary bombs.
Two and a half years later, preservationist Deane Keller wrote to his wife, “The bright spot yesterday was seeing Michelangelo’s David at length divested of its air raid protection. It was dusty and dirty but it was a great thrill.”
(From Ilaria Dagnini Brey, The Venus Fixers, 2010.)
In 1920, a young woman was pulled from a canal in Berlin. When her identity couldn’t be established, speculation started that she was a Russian princess who had escaped the execution of the imperial family. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the strange life of Anna Anderson and her disputed identity as Grand Duchess Anastasia.
We’ll also revisit French roosters and puzzle over not using headlights.
In 1912, 4-year-old Bobby Dunbar went missing during a family fishing trip in Louisiana. Eight months later, a boy matching his description appeared in Mississippi. But was it Bobby Dunbar? In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the dispute over the boy’s identity.
We’ll also contemplate a scholarship for idlers and puzzle over an ignorant army.
Sometimes in our research we come across stories that are regarded as true but that we can’t fully verify. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll share two such stories from the 1920s, about a pair of New York fruit dealers and a mythologized bank robber, and discuss the strength of the evidence behind them.
We’ll also salute a retiring cat and puzzle over a heartless spouse.
The Burg, the official headquarters of the regional government in Graz, Austria, contains a double spiral staircase, two flights of stairs spiraling in opposite directions that “reunite” at each floor, a masterpiece of architecture designed in 1499.
Bonus: Interestingly, several facades of the building bear the inscription A.E.I.O.U., a motto coined by Frederick III in 1437, when he was Duke of Styria. It’s not clear what this means, and over the ensuing centuries heraldists have offered more than 300 interpretations:
“All the world is subject to Austria” (Alles Erdreich ist Österreich untertan or Austriae est imperare orbi universo)
“I am loved by the elect” (from the Latin amor electis, iniustis ordinor ultor)
“Austria is best united by the Empire” (Austria est imperio optime unita)
“Austria will be the last (surviving) in the world” (Austria erit in orbe ultima)
“It is Austria’s destiny to rule the whole world” (Austriae est imperare orbi universo)
At the time Styria was not yet part of Austria, so here it would refer to the House of Austria, or the Habsburg dynasty — which historically adopted the curious motto itself.
In 1939, as the shadow of war spread over Europe, British stockbroker Nicholas Winton helped to spirit hundreds of threatened children out of Czechoslovakia. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Winton’s struggle to save the children and the world’s eventual recognition of his achievements.
We’ll also consider some ghostly marriages and puzzle over a ship’s speed.