Podcast Episode 188: The Bat Bomb


During World War II, the U.S. Army experimented with a bizarre plan: using live bats to firebomb Japanese cities. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the crazy history of the bat bomb, the extraordinary brainchild of a Pennsylvania dentist.

We’ll also consider the malleable nature of mental illness and puzzle over an expensive quiz question.

See full show notes …

Special Issue

Images: Wikimedia Commons

In 1901 Colombia minted special coins for use in leper colonies. Following the first leprosy congress in Berlin in 1897, the nation minted coins in five values for use in three colonies. The Philippines followed suit in 1913, followed by Japan and Malaysia. The United States produced special coins for a colony in the Panama Canal Zone.

The coins were produced to protect healthy people, but in 1938 Gordon Alexander Ryrie, director of Malaysia’s Sungei Buloh Settlement, proved that the disease can’t spread by such casual contact. His colony burned the notes it had printed.



During World War I the Red Cross solicited contributions by literally sucking them out of a crowd with a vacuum cleaner.

The stunt took place on May 25, 1917, before the New York Public Library. From Scientific American: “While a soldier and a sailor urged the public to hand in their contributions the suction tube of the machine was reached out over the crowd. The suction was sufficient to draw up pieces of money of any denomination and deposit them in the bag of the vacuum cleaner. By this means it was possible to reach the crowd readily and it was unnecessary for a contributor to elbow his way through the jam in order to reach the Red Cross workers.”

The National Archives notes, “So great was the eagerness of the people to have their coins taken in by the cleaner that the bag inside the vacuum cleaner had to be emptied several times.”

Breathing Room


In 1928 Cleveland’s Cunningham Sanitarium erected the largest hyperbaric chamber ever built, five stories tall and weighing 900 tons. It was inspired by Kansas City physician Orval J. Cunningham’s belief that diabetes and cancer are caused by anaerobic organisms that would die off if patients could be sequestered in a highly oxygenated environment.

After a year of work and a million dollars, the finished sphere was ready. It could accommodate 40 patients at a time in a climate-controlled environment of 68° and 65% humidity. With steel doors and circular portholes, it had the atmosphere of a ship. To minimize the risk of fire, none of the 36 patient rooms contained any wooden components.

Unfortunately, Cunningham ran into financial straits and had to sell the chamber after only five years. Renamed the Ohio Institute of Oxygen Therapy, it failed to attract patients, operated briefly as a general hospital, and closed finally in 1936. In 1942 the U.S. War Production Board ordered it scrapped, and the metal went into military tanks.

Some photos are here.

Signs of the Times


For years the village of Fucking, Austria, was plagued by sniggering tourists, who stole its distinctive road signs to keep as souvenirs. Replacing them cost 300 Euros per sign, which meant higher taxes for the residents. They considered changing the name of the village, but, said mayor Siegfried Höppl, “Everyone here knows what it means in English, but for us Fucking is Fucking — and it’s going to stay Fucking.”

Finally they installed theft-resistant signs that are welded to steel and secured in concrete. “We will not stand for the Fucking signs being removed,” said the local police chief. “It may be very amusing for you British, but Fucking is simply Fucking to us. What is this big Fucking joke? It is puerile.”

The residents of Shitterton, Dorset, had a simpler idea — they had their hamlet’s name carved into a 1.5-ton block of stone and had it installed with a crane. “We would get a nice new shiny sign from the council and five minutes later, it was gone,” said Ian Ventham, chairman of Bere Regis Parish Council. “We thought, ‘Let’s put in a ton and a half of stone and see them try and take that away in the back of a Ford Fiesta.'”

UDPATE: Another frequently stolen road sign is in East Kent, half a mile from Ham and 3 miles from Sandwich:

Image: Wikimedia Commons

(Thanks, Dave.)


A 1907 magazine reports two curiously ingrown family trees. The first is that of an alleged Neapolitan sailor:

I married a widow. She had by her first husband a handsome girl named Silvietta, with whom my father fell in love and who became his second wife. Thus my father became my son-in-law and my stepdaughter became my mother, since she had married my father. Soon afterward my wife gave birth to a son, who became my father’s stepbrother and at the same time my uncle, since he was my stepmother’s brother.

But that was not all, for in due time my father’s wife also gave birth to a boy, who was my brother and also my stepson [grandson?], since he was the son of my daughter. My wife was also my grandmother, for she was the mother of my mother, and thus I was my wife’s husband and at the same time her grandson. Finally, as the husband of a person’s grandmother is naturally that person’s grandfather, I am forced to the conclusion that I am my own grandfather.

We’ve seen that before, but the second story describes a more complicated route to the same outcome. Fifteen-year-old Ida Kriebel of Pennsylvania married 60-year-old Jacob Doney and became her own grandmother:

Domey’s first wife was the widow of John Wieden. She had three more children by Doney. One of her children married Samuel Kriebel, and a year later died. The widower married again. From this second union came Ida Kriebel. By this arrangement Doney became the stepgrandfather of his own child [wife?].

“The second Mrs. Doney also became stepgrandmother of twenty-five men and women, and stepgreat-grandmother of a lot of boys and girls of about her own age.”

One Two Three

This is in my notes with the words “ridiculous escape”: An 1889 article in Charles Dickens’ All the Year Round tells how Italian humanist Celio Secondo Curione outsmarted the Inquisition:

In my new prison I had been confined for a week, with huge pieces of wood chained to my feet, where I was favoured with a sudden inspiration from Heaven.

As soon as the young man who acted as my keeper entered my chamber, I begged and prayed of him to release one of my feet from its encumbrances. It would be sufficient security, I said, that I should still by the other foot be fastened to an enormous log. As he was a humane sort of fellow, he consented, and set one foot free. A day, two days passed, during which I applied myself to work. Taking off my shirt, and also the stocking from the leg which was at liberty, I made them up into a dummy resembling a leg, on which I put a shoe. I was in want of something, however, to give it consistency, and was anxiously looking about in all directions, when I caught sight of a cane-stick lying under a row of seats. Seizing it joyfully, I inserted it into the sham limb, and concealing the true one under my cloak, waited the result of my stratagem. When my young keeper made his appearance next morning, he asked me how I was. ‘I should do pretty well,’ I said, ‘if you would be good enough to put my fetters on the other leg, so that each may have a rest in turn.’ He assented; and, without perceiving it, attached the log to the dummy.

“At night, when their loud snores informed him that his gaolers were asleep, Curion threw aside the false leg, resumed his shirt and stocking, and opened noiselessly the prison door, which was fastened by a simple bolt. Afterwards, though not without difficulty, he scaled the wall, and got away without interruption.”

A Gettysburg Reunion

William Milford of Company H, Twenty-third Pennsylvania, while lying in the breastworks at Culp’s Hill, on the morning of July 3d [1863], picked up the head of a penny which some one had cut out, probably to make a stickpin. Some months afterwards while on reserve picket under Lieutenant Vodges of F Company, talking over campaigns, told of a relic he found at Gettysburg, and pulling it out showed it to the lieutenant.

‘Why, Milford, you are the man I have been looking for,’ and pulling out of his pocket a ring or rim of a penny, it was found the two pieces fitted together. The lieutenant stated that he had found the ring when the regiment went over from Culp’s Hill to the left of Meade’s headquarters, on the afternoon of July 3d. He gave the relic to Milford, and when the regiment erected its monument at Culp’s Hill, Gettysburg, in 1886, Milford had the relic go in with others that are now in the box sunken in the lower base of the monument.

History of the Twenty-Third Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, Birney’s Zouaves, 1904

Podcast Episode 182: The Compulsive Wanderer


In the 1870s, French gas fitter Albert Dadas started making strange, compulsive trips to distant towns, with no planning or awareness of what he was doing. His bizarre affliction set off a 20-year epidemic of “mad travelers” in Europe, which evaporated as mysteriously as it had begun. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll consider the parable of pathological tourism and its meaning for psychiatry.

We’ll also contemplate the importance of sick chickens and puzzle over a farmyard contraption.

See full show notes …