Podcast Episode 364: Sidney Cotton’s Aerial Reconnaissance

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One of the most remarkable pilots of World War II never fired a shot or dropped a bomb. With his pioneering aerial reconnaissance, Sidney Cotton made a vital contribution to Allied planning. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe his daring adventures in the war’s early months.

We’ll also revisit our very first story and puzzle over an unknown Olympian.

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Podcast Episode 363: The Lambeth Poisoner

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In 1891, a mysterious figure appeared on the streets of London, dispensing pills to poor young women who then died in agony. Suspicion came to center on a Scottish-Canadian doctor with a dark past in North America. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the career of the Lambeth Poisoner, whose victims remain uncounted.

We’ll also consider a Hungarian Jules Verne and puzzle over an ambiguous sentence.

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First Class

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The Scientific American Supplement of June 25, 1881, presents this illustration of a diversion that the family of Louis XIV purportedly used at the chateau of Marly-le-Roi. Called the Jeu de la Roulette, it’s essentially a miniature railway in which the train is pushed along by servants:

According to Alex. Guillaumot the apparatus consisted of a sort of railway on which the car was moved by manual labor. In the car, which was decorated with the royal colors, are seen seated the ladies and children of the king’s household, while the king himself stands in the rear and seems to be directing operations. The remarkable peculiarity to which we would direct the attention of the reader is that this document shows that the car ran on rails very nearly like those used on the railways of the present time, and that a turn-table served for changing the direction to a right angle in order to place the car under the shelter of a small building.

Scientific American says that the engraving’s authenticity is certain — La Nature took it from the archives at Paris among documents dated 1714. In Unusual Railways (1958), John Robert Day and Brian Geoffrey Wilson are rather more reserved, noting that all the evidence for the railway lies in this single print. “There is no evidence that the date or the print are authentic, but we like to think that they are.”

If it did exist, they write, “This almost certainly was the first pleasure railway ever built.”

Precocious

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John Quincy Adams wrote this letter to his father at age 10, June 2, 1777:

DEAR SIR,–I love to receive letters very well; much better than I love to write them. I make but a poor figure at composition, my head is too fickle, my thoughts are running after birds eggs play and trifles, till I get vexed with myself. Mamma has a troublesome task to keep me steady, and I own I am ashamed of myself. I have but just entered the third volume of Smollett, tho’ I had designed to have got it half through by this time. I have determined this week to be more diligent, as Mr. Thaxter will be absent at Court, and I cannot pursue my other studies. I have Set myself a Stent and determine to read the 3rd volume Half out. If I can but keep my resolution, I will write again at the end of the week and give a better account of myself. I wish, Sir, you would give me some instructions, with regard to my time, and advise me how to proportion my Studies and my Play, in writing, and I will keep them by me, and endeavor to follow them. I am, dear Sir, with a present determination of growing better, yours.

P.S.–Sir, if you will be so good as to favor me with a Blank Book, I will transcribe the most remarkable occurances I meet with in my reading, which will serve to fix them upon my mind.

Five years later, at age 14, he was serving as private secretary to the American minister to Russia.

Mama Bird

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The Soviet Union redefined heavy bombers in 1930 with the introduction of the Tupolev TB-3, a four-engine behemoth so large that it could serve as a mothership to five little fighters, which could be released in flight and even hooked back onto the aircraft in order to refuel.

A TB-3 once did manage to take off with four fighters attached, then joined up with a fifth while circling the airfield, with a combined nine engines going. Then all five fighters were released at once. “The thing about events like that is, you always wonder how they entered the flight in their log books afterwards,” writes James Gilbert in The World’s Worst Aircraft. “I mean, if you were the pilot of one of the fighters, you could hardly log the take-off because you hadn’t made it, except as a passenger. But how can you log a landing with no prior take-off?”

The whole contraption, known as Vakhmistrov’s Circus, saw some early wartime service, but it was too complex and vulnerable to be adopted widely. Today it’s a historical curiosity.

Inspiration

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In the 1940s, journalist Stefan Lorant was researching a book on Abraham Lincoln when he came upon a photograph of the president’s funeral procession as it moved down Broadway in New York City. The image was dated April 25, 1865.

As Lorant tried to identify the location, he found that the shuttered house on the left belonged to Cornelius van Schaack Roosevelt, the grandfather of future president Teddy Roosevelt and his brother Elliott. Teddy would have been 6 years old at the time of the procession. And visible in a second-story window are the heads of two boys.

As it happened, Lorant had an opportunity to ask Roosevelt’s widow Edith about the image. “Yes, I think that is my husband, and next to him his brother,” she said. “That horrible man! I was a little girl then and my governess took me to Grandfather Roosevelt’s house on Broadway so I could watch the funeral procession. But as I looked down from the window and saw all the black drapings I became frightened and started to cry. Theodore and Elliott were both there. They didn’t like my crying. They took me and locked me in a back room. I never did see Lincoln’s funeral.”

Lincoln at Rest

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On the day after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, Army surgeons Edward Curtis and Joseph Janvier Woodward performed an autopsy at the White House. Curtis mentioned one sobering moment in a letter to his mother:

I proceeded to open the head and remove the brain down to the track of the ball. The latter had entered a little to the left of the median line at the back of the head, had passed almost directly forwards through the center of the brain and lodged. Not finding it readily, we proceeded to remove the entire brain, when, as I was lifting the latter from the cavity of the skull, suddenly the bullet dropped out through my fingers and fell, breaking the solemn silence of the room with its clatter, into an empty basin that was standing beneath. There it lay upon the white china, a little black mass no bigger than the end of my finger — dull, motionless and harmless, yet the cause of such mighty changes in the world’s history as we may perhaps never realize.

He added, “[S]ilently, in one corner of the room, I prepared the brain for weighing. As I looked at the mass of soft gray and white substance that I was carefully washing, it was impossible to realize that it was that mere clay upon whose workings, but the day before, rested the hopes of the nation. I felt more profoundly impressed than ever with the mystery of that unknown something which may be named ‘vital spark’ as well as anything else, whose absence or presence makes all the immeasurable difference between an inert mass of matter owning obedience to no laws but those covering the physical and chemical forces of the universe, and on the other hand, a living brain by whose silent, subtle machinery a world may be ruled.”

Podcast Episode 362: The Leatherman

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In 1856, a mysterious man appeared on the roads of Connecticut and New York, dressed in leather, speaking to no one, and always on the move. He became famous for his circuits through the area, which he followed with remarkable regularity. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the Leatherman, whose real identity remains unknown.

We’ll also consider the orientation of churches and puzzle over some balky ponies.

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The Wilcoxon Speech

The war drama Mrs. Miniver dominated the box office in 1942 and won six Oscars, but it’s remembered today chiefly for its final scene, in which a town vicar gives an inspiring speech in a bombed church, exhorting his flock to “free ourselves and those who come after us from the tyranny and terror that threaten to strike us down.”

The film was made before America had formally entered the war, and director William Wyler had rewritten this speech repeatedly on the night before shooting, in hopes that it would sway public opinion. “I’m a warmonger,” he said simply. “I was deeply concerned about Americans being isolationists. Mrs. Miniver obviously was a propaganda film.”

It succeeded beyond his hopes. Churchill claimed that the speech was “propaganda worth a hundred battleships,” and after a private screening at the White House, Franklin Roosevelt asked that it be translated into French, German, and Italian, broadcast throughout Europe on the Voice of America, and air-dropped in millions of leaflets into German-occupied territories.

Henry Wilcoxon, the actor who delivered the speech, must have had his own feelings about this — his only brother had been fatally injured at Dunkirk in 1940.

Podcast Episode 361: A Fight Over Nutmeg

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In 1616, British officer Nathaniel Courthope was sent to a tiny island in the East Indies to contest a Dutch monopoly on nutmeg. He and his men would spend four years battling sickness, starvation, and enemy attacks to defend the island’s bounty. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Courthope’s stand and its surprising impact in world history.

We’ll also meet a Serbian hermit and puzzle over an unusual business strategy.

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