Podcast Episode 151: Double-Crossing the Nazis

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In 1941, Catalonian chicken farmer Juan Pujol made an unlikely leap into the world of international espionage, becoming a spy first for the Germans, then for the British, and rising to become one of the greatest double agents of World War II. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Pujol’s astonishing talent for deceiving the Nazis, which led one colleague to call him “the best actor in the world.”

We’ll also contemplate a floating Chicago and puzzle over a winding walkway.

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Podcast Episode 150: The Prince of Nowhere

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In 1821, Scottish adventurer Gregor MacGregor undertook one of the most brazen scams in history: He invented a fictional Central American republic and convinced hundreds of his countrymen to invest in its development. Worse, he persuaded 250 people to set sail for this imagined utopia with dreams of starting a new life. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the disastrous results of MacGregor’s deceit.

We’ll also illuminate a hermit’s behavior and puzzle over Liechtenstein’s flag.

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Back Channels

In 1863 Union soldiers seized a bag of rebel correspondence as it was about to cross Lake Pontchartrain. In one of the letters, a woman named Anna boasted of a trick she’d played on a Boston newspaper — she’d sent them a poem titled “The Gypsy’s Wassail,” which she assured them was written in Sanskrit:

Drol setaredefnoc evarb ruo sselb dog
Drageruaeb dna htims nosnhoj eel
Eoj nosnhoj dna htims noskcaj pleh
Ho eixid ni stif meht evig ot

The paper published this “beautiful and patriotic poem, by our talented contributor.” A few days later a reader discovered the trick — it was simply English written in reverse:

God bless our brave Confederates, Lord!
Lee, Johnson, Smith, and Beauregard!
Help Jackson, Smith, and Johnson Joe,
To give them fits in Dixie, oh!

She had signed her name only “Anna,” but in the same bag they found a letter from her sister to her husband, saying “Anna writes you one of her amusing letters,” and this contained her signature and address. Union general Wickham Hoffman wrote to her: “I told her that her letter had fallen into the hands of one of those ‘Yankee’ officers whom she saw fit to abuse, and who was so pleased with its wit that he should take great pleasure in forwarding it to its destination; that in return he had only to ask that when the author of ‘The Gypsy’s Wassail’ favored the expectant world with another poem, he might be honored with an early copy. Anna must have been rather surprised.”

(From Hoffman’s 1877 memoir Camp, Court and Siege.)

Podcast Episode 126: The Great Australian Poetry Hoax

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In 1943, fed up with modernist poetry, two Australian servicemen invented a fake poet and submitted a collection of deliberately senseless verses to a Melbourne arts magazine. To their delight, they were accepted and their author hailed as “one of the most remarkable and important poetic figures of this country.” In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Ern Malley hoax, its perpetrators, and its surprising legacy in Australian literature.

We’ll also hear a mechanized Radiohead and puzzle over a railroad standstill.

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Podcast Episode 117: The Road to En-dor

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Image: Flickr

In 1917 a pair of Allied officers combined a homemade Ouija board, audacity, and imagination to hoax their way out of a remote prison camp in the mountains of Turkey. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the remarkable escape of Harry Jones and Cedric Hill, which one observer called “the most colossal fake of modern times.”

We’ll also consider a cactus’ role in World War II and puzzle over a cigar-smoking butler.

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Different Strokes

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In 1964, Swedish journalist Åke Axelsson paid a zookeeper to give a brush and paint to a 4-year-old chimpanzee named Peter. Then he chose the best of Peter’s paintings and exhibited them at the Gallerie Christinae in Göteborg, saying they were the work of a previously unknown French artist named Pierre Brassau.

Critic Rolf Anderberg of the Göteborgs-Posten wrote, “Brassau paints with powerful strokes, but also with clear determination. His brush strokes twist with furious fastidiousness. Pierre is an artist who performs with the delicacy of a ballet dancer.”

After Axelsson revealed the hoax, Anderberg maintained that Peter’s work was “still the best painting in the exhibition.”

Reverses

In one oft-repeated anecdote from the memoirs of Melville Stone, publisher of the Chicago Daily News in the 1870s, the News suspected that the Chicago Post and Mail, published by the McMullen brothers, was pirating its stories. The News retaliated by printing an account of a famine in Serbia, in which the local mayor was quoted as saying (ostensibly in Serbian) ‘Er us siht la Etsll iws nel lum cmeht.’ When the afternoon edition of the Post and Mail duly reproduced the quote, Stone ran to all the other Chicago papers to reveal the hoax: read backward, the supposed quote said ‘The McMullens will steal this sure.’ According to Stone, the Post and Mail never recovered from the embarrassment, and the Daily News was able to buy it for a pittance less than two years later.

— Stuart Banner, American Property: A History of How, Why, and What We Own, 2011

(Thanks, Keith.)

Podcast Episode 89: An African From Baltimore

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In the 1920s Bata Kindai Amgoza ibn LoBagola toured the United States and Europe to share the culture of his African homeland with fascinated audiences. The reality was actually much more mundane: His name was Joseph Lee and he was from Baltimore. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the curious story of this self-described “savage” and trace the unraveling of his imaginative career.

We’ll also dump a bucket of sarcasm on Duluth, Minnesota, and puzzle over why an acclaimed actor loses a role.

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Podcast Episode 84: The Man Who Never Was

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In 1942, Germany discovered a dead British officer floating off the coast of Spain, carrying important secret documents about the upcoming invasion of Europe. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Operation Mincemeat, which has been called “the most imaginative and successful ruse” of World War II.

We’ll also hear from our listeners about Scottish titles and mountain-climbing pussycats and puzzle over one worker’s seeming unwillingness to help another.

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Podcast Episode 81: The Typhus Hoax

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In 1939, as Germany was sending the people of Poland to labor and death camps, two doctors found a unique way to save their countrymen — by faking an epidemic. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll learn about their clever plan, which ultimately saved 8,000 people.

We’ll also consider four schemes involving tiny plots of land and puzzle over why a library would waive its fees for a lost book.

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