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.
At the site where apartheid police officers arrested Nelson Mandela in 1962, sculptor Marco Cianfanelli has erected 50 laser-cut steel columns. They range in height from 21 to 31 feet and appear randomly placed, but the approach to the site leads visitors down a path at the correct angle, and at a distance of 115 feet their meaning becomes clear.
“The fifty columns represent the fifty years since his capture, but they also suggest the idea of many making the whole, of solidarity,” Cianfanelli said in a statement at the sculpture’s dedication in 2012. “It points to an irony as the political act of Mandela’s incarceration cemented his status as an icon of struggle, which helped ferment the groundswell of resistance, solidarity, and uprising, bringing about political change and democracy.”
06/14/2017 UPDATE: I’m told there’s also a scale model of the sculpture at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg, which may be more accessible. (Thanks, Martin.)
06/14/2017 UPDATE: There’s a similar installation on the wall of 105 Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Denis in Paris (below), by artist Jean-Pierre Yvaral, depicting Vincent de Paul, who established a mission here to care for the needy. (Thanks, Nick.)
06/19/2017 UPDATE: And Daniël Hoek noted that a portrait of Steve Jobs is hidden in fence pickets in Lower Manhattan, near Silicon Alley:
Each Ascension Day between 1311 and 1798, the doge of Venice was rowed into the Adriatic aboard a palatial barge to perform the “Marriage of the Sea,” a ceremony that symbolically wedded Venice to the sea. The ship, known as the Bucentaur, led a solemn procession of boats out of the city, where the doge dropped a consecrated ring into the water with the words Desponsamus te, mare (“We wed thee, sea”) to indicate that the city and the sea were indissolubly one.
After the Treaty of Versailles, Polish general Jozef Haller marked his country’s renewed access to the Baltic Sea by throwing a ring into the water with the words “In the name of the Holy Republic of Poland, I, General Jozef Haller, am taking control of this ancient Slavic Baltic Sea shore”:
His act was repeated in 1945 in several ceremonies by members of the First Polish Army, who threw rings, dipped flags, and swore an oath pledging their nation’s devotion to the Baltic. The text of the oath was later printed in the Polish Army newspaper Zwyciezymy: “I swear to you, Polish Sea, that I, a soldier of the Homeland, faithful son of the Polish nation, will not abandon you. I swear to you that I will always follow this road, the road which has been paved by the State National Council, the road which has led me to the sea. I will guard you, I will not hesitate to shed my blood for the Fatherland, neither will I hesitate to give my life so that you do not return to Germany. You will remain Polish forever.”
In 1629, a Dutch trading vessel struck a reef off the coast of Australia, marooning 180 people on a tiny island. As they struggled to stay alive, their leader descended into barbarity, gathering a band of cutthroats and killing scores of terrified castaways. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll document the brutal history of Batavia’s graveyard, the site of Australia’s most infamous shipwreck.
We’ll also lose money in India and puzzle over some invisible Frenchmen.
On August 23, 1989, two million peaceful demonstrators joined hands across Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to protest the occupation of the Baltic states by the Soviet Union. The chain, 675 kilometers long, connected the capitals of Vilnius, Riga, and Tallinn. Coordinated by portable radios, the protesters peacefully joined hands for 15 minutes at 7 p.m. local time, saying they wanted to demonstrate solidarity among the three nations in their desire for independence.
“This is something I feel in my heart,” said Rita Urbanovich, who had brought her 7-year-old twin sons to a spot along the Viljandi Highway outside Tallinn. “We suffered. Our whole country suffered — every person. And I brought my children because this is my way to explain to them why independence is important for their future.”
Moscow responded with heated rhetoric but backed down when the activists appealed to the United Nations. Within seven months, Lithuania had declared its independence, and by the end of 1991 all three Baltic states were free.
In 1899, preparing for festivities in Lyon marking the new century, French toy manufacturer Armand Gervais commissioned a set of 50 color engravings from freelance artist Jean-Marc Côté depicting the world as it might exist in the year 2000.
The set itself has a precarious history. Gervais died suddenly in 1899, when only a few sets had been run off the press in his basement. “The factory was shuttered, and the contents of that basement remained hidden for the next twenty-five years,” writes James Gleick in Time Travel. “A Parisian antiques dealer stumbled upon the Gervais inventory in the twenties and bought the lot, including a single proof set of Côté’s cards in pristine condition. He had them for fifty years, finally selling them in 1978 to Christopher Hyde, a Canadian writer who came across his shop on rue de l’Ancienne-Comédie.”
Hyde showed them to Isaac Asimov, who published them in 1986 as Futuredays, with a gentle commentary on what Côté had got right (widespread automation) and wrong (clothing styles). But maybe some of these visions are still ahead of us:
When American forces overran the Philippine island of Lubang in 1945, Japanese intelligence officer Hiroo Onoda withdrew into the mountains to wait for reinforcements. He was still waiting 29 years later. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll meet the dedicated soldier who fought World War II until 1974.
We’ll also dig up a murderer and puzzle over an offensive compliment.
In 1824 the viceroy of Egypt sent a unique gift to the new king of France: a two-month-old giraffe that had just been captured in the highlands of Sudan. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the 4,000-mile journey of Zarafa, the royal giraffe, from her African homeland to the king’s menagerie in Paris.
We’ll also visit Queen Victoria’s coronation and puzzle over a child’s surprising recovery.
Thomas Paine came to an ignominious end. The revolutionary activist so inspired English journalist William Cobbett that Cobbett dug up his bones in 1819 and transported them back to England, hoping to give Paine a heroic reburial in the land of his birth. (G.K. Chesterton wrote, “I wonder what he said when asked if he had anything to declare?”)
But Cobbett never got around to it. When he himself died in 1835, Paine’s bones were still among his effects, and they’ve since been lost: His skull may be in Australia, his jawbone may be in Brighton, or maybe Cobbett’s son buried everything in the family plot when he couldn’t auction it off. In 1905 part of his brain (“resembling hard putty”) may have been buried under a monument in New Rochelle, N.Y. But no one knows for sure.
The worst volcanic disaster of the 20th century struck Martinique in 1902, killing 30,000 people in the scenic town of Saint-Pierre. But rescuers found one man alive — a 27-year-old laborer in a dungeon-like jail cell. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll meet Ludger Sylbaris, who P.T. Barnum called “The Only Living Object That Survived in the Silent City of Death.”
We’ll also address some Indian uncles and puzzle over a gruesome hike.