Time Trial

When Florence Ilott began working at the House of Commons in the early 1930s, she learned that the staff there had set a standing challenge: to run across Westminster Bridge in the time it took Big Ben to strike noon. An amateur sprinter, Ilott donned her running gear and on April 14, 1934, became the first person to fulfill the challenge, as witnessed by reporters and photographers from the Associated Press, the Daily Sketch, and the Evening Standard.

The feat was reported in other newspapers around the world, but in researching this story recently with his father, Ilott’s grandson, Scott Pack, found a more compelling record:

(Via MetaFilter.)



In 1806 British scholar Benjamin Heath Malkin published A Father’s Memoirs of His Child to record the almost alarming gifts of his son Thomas, who had taught himself to read and write by age 2, inquired into mathematics and Latin, and at age 5 invented an imaginary country called Allestone:

Allestone … was so strongly impressed on his own mind, as to enable him to convey an intelligible and lively transcript of its description. Of this delightful territory he considered himself as king. He had formed the project of writing its history, and had executed the plan in detached parts. Neither did his ingenuity stop here; for he drew a map of the country, giving names of his own invention to the principal mountains, rivers, cities, seaports, villages, and trading towns.

“The country is an island,” the father explained, “and therefore the better calculated for the scene of the transactions he has assigned to it. The rivers, for the most part, rise in such situations, and flow in such directions, as they would in reality assume. Their course is marked out with reference to the position of principal towns, and other objects of general convenience.”

Thomas sketched out the country’s political history, principal actors, and monetary system, and had composed a series of representative adventures among its people and a comic opera (“only imaginary music, made by Thomas Williams Malkin, who does not understand real music”), when he died, probably of peritonitis, at age 6 — leaving his subjects without a king.

The Ghost in the Garret


When Los Angeles police were alerted to gunshots at the home of Fred Oesterreich on Aug. 22, 1922, they found the wealthy clothier dead in his bedroom and his wife locked in the closet. She told them that burglars had killed Fred when he’d resisted them. The story seemed plausible — Fred’s diamond watch was missing, and Dolly couldn’t have locked herself in the closet — but it seemed odd that Fred had been killed with a .25-caliber handgun, a relatively modest choice for an armed robber.

The story held up for nearly a year, but then detectives learned that Dolly had offered a diamond watch to the attorney settling her husband’s estate and had asked two other men to dispose of guns for her. She was jailed for murder, but detectives couldn’t prove that the rusted guns had been used in the crime, and still no one could explain how Dolly could have locked herself in the closet when the key was found in the hall. Eventually the charges were dropped for lack of evidence.

Seven years went by before her attorney finally revealed the bizarre truth. In 1913 Dolly had seduced Otto Sanhuber, a sewing-machine repairman who had worked in her husband’s factory. For nearly 10 years he’d lived in the Oesterreichs’ house as Dolly’s sex slave, hiding in the attic to evade Fred. On the night of the murder he’d heard the couple in a violent quarrel and emerged with two guns, astonishing Fred and, in a struggle, shooting him three times. He and Dolly had invented the tale of the burglary and he’d locked her in the closet. In jail she had begged the attorney to take food to a man in her attic. He’d thrown Otto out of the house but kept the secret because he and Dolly had become lovers themselves.

A jury found Otto guilty of manslaughter, but by that time the statute of limitations had passed. In a separate trial Dolly was charged with conspiracy but saved by a hung jury. She lived quietly thereafter until her death in 1961.

(Michael Parrish, For the People: Inside the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office 1850-2000, 2001.)

In a Word

n. the rearing of dogs

adj. in danger of shipwreck

adj. inclined to laughter; happy, lively

v. to mystify

In January 2004 Greg Clark was making a supply run from his home on Kosciusko Island in southeastern Alaska when he radioed that his boat had lost power. With him was his constant companion, Brick, an 8-year-old Labrador retriever. After a three-day search, the Coast Guard found part of the boat’s stern on rocks on the west side of the island, which lies within the 17-million-acre Tongass National Forest.

More than a month afterward, two local fishermen were motoring past Heceta Island, several miles from the accident, when they saw a black animal on the beach. They recognized Brick, who swam to the boat and was hauled aboard. He was underweight, his leg was injured, and his fur was matted with tree sap, but he was “wiggling with joy,” according to CBS News. How the dog had stayed alive for four weeks in the harsh Alaskan winter is unknown.

Podcast Episode 219: The Greenbrier Ghost


In 1897, shortly after Zona Shue was found dead in her West Virginia home, her mother went to the county prosecutor with a bizarre story. She said that her daughter had been murdered — and that her ghost had revealed the killer’s identity. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Greenbrier Ghost, one of the strangest courtroom dramas of the 19th century.

We’ll also consider whether cats are controlling us and puzzle over a delightful oblivion.

See full show notes …



This is the only known photograph of Connecticut’s Charter Oak, a famous symbol of American independence before a storm blew it down in 1856.

Curiously, the father of the country seems to appear among its branches.


In 1984, a British homemaker was reading at home when a voice told her, “Please don’t be afraid. I know it must be shocking for you to hear me speaking to you like this, but this is the easiest way I could think of. My friend and I used to work at the Children’s Hospital, Great Ormond Street, and we would like to help you.” She tried to ignore it, but the voice said, “To help you see that we are sincere, we would like you to check out the following,” and gave her three pieces of information that she had not known. When these proved to be true, she consulted her doctor, who referred her to Ikechukwu Obialo Azuonye, a consulting psychiatrist at the Lambeth Healthcare NHS trust.

An examination found nothing, so he diagnosed her with a functional hallucinatory psychosis, and after two weeks of counseling and thioridazine the voices ceased and she went on holiday. But they soon returned, telling her that she needed immediate treatment and giving an address, which turned out to be the computerized tomography department of a large London hospital. The voices told her that she needed a brain scan because she had a tumor and her brain stem was inflamed.

Azuonye found no evidence of this, but she was so distressed at this point that he ordered the scan anyway, and it showed evidence of a meningioma with a left posterior frontal parafalcine mass extending through the falx to the right side. She elected immediate surgery (the voices agreed), and the operation was carried out in May 1984. When she regained consciousness, she heard the voices for the last time. They said, “We are pleased to have helped you. Goodbye.”

When Azuonye presented this case at a conference in 1996, three opinions seemed to prevail. Some thought that the voices had been telepathic communications from people who had learned about the tumor psychically and were trying to warn the patient. Others thought that the patient had known about the tumor before coming to the U.K. and had invented the story in order to get free medical care under the National Health Service (this seems unlikely, as she’d been living in the U.K. for 15 years before hearing the voices).

The third explanation, which Azuonye shared, was that the presence of the meningioma had triggered enough residual sensations to alert her that something was wrong, and that her fear had led her unconsciously to take in information about London hospitals, which was expressed by the voices. The fact that the voices stopped when the tumor was removed showed that the symptoms had been related to the presence of the lesion.

(Ikechukwu Obialo Azuonye, “A Difficult Case: Diagnosis Made by Hallucinatory Voices,” BMJ 315:7123 [December 20, 1997], 1685-1686.)

Last Call

The last confirmed sighting of New Zealand’s huia wattlebird occurred in 1907. Sound recording was then in its infancy, so no recording of the bird’s call is known to exist. But in 1949 local historian Robert Batley arranged this recording of Hēnare Hāmana, a skilled caller who as a young man had participated in an expedition to seek the huia in the Ruahine Ranges north of Wellington. That effort was unsuccessful, but Hāmana, now in his 60s, remembered the call and performed it in the studios of radio station 2YA. So, to that extent, the call has been “rescued.”

Birds have occasionally returned the favor: See The Parrot of Atures and Ghosts of Scotland.

(Thanks, Charles.)



In 1659, when Louis XIV of France and Philip IV of Spain met to sign the Treaty of the Pyrenees following the Thirty Years’ War, they did so on Pheasant Island, an uninhabited island in the Bidasoa river between their two nations.

Ever since, the island has remained under joint sovereignty — it’s governed alternately by Spain and France, changing hands every six months.