Podcast Episode 223: The Prince of Forgers

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Denis Vrain-Lucas was an undistinguished forger until he met gullible collector Michel Chasles. Through the 1860s Lucas sold Chasles thousands of phony letters by everyone from Plato to Louis the 14th, earning thousands of francs and touching off a firestorm among confused scholars. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll trace the career of the world’s most prolific forger.

We’ll also count Queen Elizabeth’s eggs and puzzle over a destroyed car.

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Vision

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

One of the most exquisite of telephone hoaxes known to me was one contrived by Dr Carl Bosch when he was a research student in Germany. He happened to work in a laboratory situated several floors up, where from his window he found that he could survey a block of flats across the road. Having discovered that the occupant of one of the flats was a newspaper correspondent, Bosch telephoned him pretending to be his own professor. Excitedly he explained to the correspondent that he had just invented a marvellous system of television (the date was 1933) which you could clip on to an ordinary telephone set, look into it and see the man that you were speaking to at the other end. Of course, the newspaper man was incredulous. The ‘professor’ then offered to demonstrate the system to him, inviting him to point the telephone towards the middle of his room, then stand in front of it and do anything that he liked, such as standing on one leg, after which the ‘professor’ would tell him what he had done. The result was a rave article in the local newspaper, an embarrassed newspaperman, and an astonished ‘professor’.

— Robert L. Pfaltzgraff et al., Intelligence Policy and National Security, 1981

Podcast Episode 208: Giving Birth to Rabbits

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In 1726 London was rocked by a bizarre sensation: A local peasant woman began giving birth to rabbits, astounding the city and baffling the medical community. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review the strange case of Mary Toft, which has been called “history’s most fascinating medical mystery.”

We’ll also ponder some pachyderms and puzzle over some medical misinformation.

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Podcast Episode 195: A Case of Musical Plagiarism

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When the English concert pianist Joyce Hatto died in 2006, she was remembered as a national treasure for the brilliant playing on her later recordings. But then doubts arose as to whether the performances were really hers. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review a surprising case of musical plagiarism, which touched off a scandal in the polite world of classical music.

We’ll also spot foxes in London and puzzle over a welcome illness.

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Podcast Episode 185: The Man From Formosa

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In 1703, London had a strange visitor, a young man who ate raw meat and claimed that he came from an unknown country on the island of Taiwan. Though many doubted him, he was able to answer any question he was asked, and even wrote a best-selling book about his homeland. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll consider the curious question of the man from Formosa.

We’ll also scrutinize a stamp forger and puzzle over an elastic Utah.

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Support

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In early 1919, under the headline “The Great Indian Rope Trick Photographed for the First Time,” the Strand published this image by Lieutenant F.W. Holmes, VC, MM. He said he’d taken it at Kirkee, near Poona, in 1917. An old man had begun “by unwinding from about his waist a long rope, which he threw upwards in the air, where it remained erect. The boy climbed to the top, where he balanced himself, as seen in the photograph, which I took at that moment. He then descended … I offer no explanation.”

London’s Magic Circle invited Holmes to present his photo at a special meeting open to the public, who were asked to wear evening dress “to give a good impression.” Holmes repeated his story, which seemed to challenge the position that the trick had never been performed or was the effect of hallucination or hypnosis.

The editor of the Magic Circular, S.W. Clarke, charged that the photo showed a boy “balanced on top of a rigid rope or pole.” Holmes had already stated that the juggler “had no pole — a thing that would have been impossible of concealment.” But under questioning he admitted that there had been no rope — he’d merely seen a boy balancing atop a bamboo pole and had taken a photo of it.

That should have disposed of the story. But, as often happens, news of the debunking was much less interesting than news of the “proof,” and few newspapers published it. “If the question of the rope trick’s existence arose, and it arose many times,” writes Peter Lamont in The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick, “somebody regularly pointed out that the camera never lied, but nobody ever suspected the photographer. As a result, the Holmes photograph remained for many definitive proof that the rope trick was real.”

Podcast Episode 180: An Academic Impostor

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Marvin Hewitt never finished high school, but he taught advanced physics, engineering, and mathematics under assumed names at seven different schools and universities between 1945 and 1953. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll trace the curious career of an academic impostor, whose story has been called “one of the strangest academic hoaxes in history.”

We’ll also try on a flashproof scarf and puzzle over why a healthy man would check into a hospital.

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Overdue

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Harry Houdini worked out a code with his wife, Bess, so that they could communicate during his performances:

Pray = 1 = A
Answer = 2 = B
Say = 3 = C
Now = 4 = D
Tell = 5 = E
Please = 6 = F
Speak = 7 = G
Quickly = 8 = H
Look = 9 = I
Be quick = 10 or 0 = J

Each of the first 10 letters of the alphabet is represented by both a word and a number, so BAD, for example, could be represented by “Answer, Pray, Now.” Letters beyond the 10th would be represented with two digits; for example, S, the 19th letter, could be indicated by 1 and 9, “Pray-Look.”

After Houdini died in 1926, Bess waited for a message in this code, according to an agreement between them. In 1929, psychic Arthur Ford claimed to have received it:

Rosabelle, answer, tell, pray-answer, look, tell, answer-answer, tell.

“Rosabelle” is a song that Bess used to sing. The rest, decoded, spells out BELIEVE. At first Bess took this as a genuine message from her husband, but skeptics pointed out that by this time she had revealed the code to Harold Kellock, who had published it in a biography that had appeared the previous year. So Ford could simply have learned the code and prepared the message himself. Bess repudiated Ford’s claim and in 1936 stopped attending séances. She said, “Ten years is long enough to wait for any man.”

“Houdini never said he could come back,” observed Henry Muller, curator of the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame. “He just thought that if anybody could do it, it would be him.”

(From Craig Bauer, Unsolved!, 2017.)

Podcast Episode 170: The Mechanical Turk

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In 1770, Hungarian engineer Wolfgang von Kempelen unveiled a miracle: a mechanical man who could play chess against human challengers. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll meet Kempelen’s Mechanical Turk, which mystified audiences in Europe and the United States for more than 60 years.

We’ll also sit down with Paul Erdős and puzzle over a useful amateur.

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False Glory

1956 olympic torch hoax

Sydney mayor Pat Hills had a trying day on Nov. 18, 1956. That year’s Olympic torch had been wending its way across Australia and was scheduled to arrive in town that evening, carried by former marathon champion Harry Dillon. Huge crowds lined the streets, perching on fences and climbing poles for a better view.

Presently a runner appeared, holding a torch aloft. He bounded up the steps and handed it to Hills, who started his welcome address and then stopped, realizing that the handle he was holding bore wet paint.

It turned out to be a chair leg surmounted by a plum pudding can. Students at the University of Sydney had organized the hoax to protest thoughtless reverence for the Olympic torch. “It was being treated as a god, whereas in fact it was originally invented by the Nazis for the Berlin Games in 1936,” said veterinary student Barry Larkin, who had melted into the crowd after handing the fake torch to Hills.

“Our friends from the university think things like that are funny,” Hill told the crowd. “I hope you are enjoying the joke.” He was lucky it hadn’t gone off as planned — the torch had originally contained a pair of burning underwear.