Podcast Episode 264: Jack Renton and the Saltwater People


In 1868, Scottish sailor Jack Renton found himself the captive of a native people in the Solomon Islands, but through luck and skill he rose to become a respected warrior among them. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of Renton’s life among the saltwater people and his return to the Western world.

We’ll also catch some more speeders and puzzle over a regrettable book.


Thanks to one representative’s 1904 demand, the U.S. House dining room serves a perpetual bean soup.

A 1962 Times correspondent asserts that all thrushes quote Mozart.

Sources for our feature on Jack Renton:

Nigel Randell, The White Headhunter: The Story of a 19-Century Sailor Who Survived a South Seas Heart of Darkness, 2004.

Clive Moore, Making Mala: Malaita in Solomon Islands, 1870s–1930s, 2017.

Judith A. Bennett, Wealth of the Solomons: A History of a Pacific Archipelago, 1800-1978, 1987.

Walter George Ivens, Revival: Melanesians of the South-East Solomon Islands, 1927.

Dennis Chute, “Shipwrecked on an Island Paradise,” Edmonton Journal, Feb. 1, 2004, D11.

Christopher Hudson, “Life and Death of a White Headhunter,” [Melbourne] Sunday Herald-Sun, Aug. 17, 2003, 37.

“The White Headhunter,” Geographical 75:8 (August 2003), 64.

Stephen McGinty, “Portrait of a Head Hunter,” Scotsman, July 26, 2003, 1.

“Secret Life of the White Headhunter,” Scotsman, March 2, 2003.

“The Adventures of John Renton,” [Melbourne] Argus, Oct. 23, 1875.

“The Recovery of John Renton From the Solomon Islands,” Rockhampton [Queensland] Bulletin, Sept. 17, 1875.

“Renton, John,” Solomon Islands Historical Encyclopaedia 1893-1978 (accessed Aug. 25, 2019).

Listener mail:

“German Constitutional Court Questions Speed Camera Reliability,” TheNewspaper.com, July 5, 2019.

“Finland,” SpeedingEurope.com, July 7, 2019.

Joe Pinsker, “Finland, Home of the $103,000 Speeding Ticket,” Atlantic, March 12, 2015.

Wikipedia, “Day-Fine” (accessed Aug. 31, 2019).

Bill McKelvey, “Along the Delaware & Raritan Canal: A History & Resources Database,” D&R Canal Watch, 2011.

Ken Hansen, “How-to: Texas Amateur Radio Operator License Plate,” Irving Amateur Radio Club, Jan. 25, 2018.

“Speed and Red Light Cameras,” Governors Highway Safety Association (accessed Sept. 3, 2019).

“Automated Speed-Camera Enforcement,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (accessed Sept. 3, 2019).

Wikipedia, “Traffic Enforcement Camera” (accessed Sept. 3, 2019).

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was devised by Sharon. Here are three corroborating links (warning — these spoil the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on Google Podcasts, on Apple Podcasts, or via the RSS feed at https://futilitycloset.libsyn.com/rss.

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Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Podcast Episode 263: Memories of Proust


Confined in a Soviet prison camp in 1941, Polish painter Józef Czapski chose a unique way to cope: He lectured to the other prisoners on Marcel Proust’s novel In Search of Lost Time. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Czapski’s ambitious project and the surprising importance of literature to the prisoners of oppressive regimes.

We’ll also race some lemons and puzzle over a woman’s birthdays.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 262: A Modern-Day Thoreau


In 1968, Richard Proenneke left his career as a heavy equipment operator and took up an entirely new existence. He flew to a remote Alaskan lake, built a log cabin by hand, and began a life of quiet self-reliance. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll hear Proenneke’s reflections on a simple life lived in harmony with nature.

We’ll also put a rooster on trial and puzzle over a curious purchase.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 261: The Murder of Lord William Russell

Image: Harvard Digital Collections

In May 1840 London was scandalized by the murder of Lord William Russell, who’d been found in his bed with his throat cut. The evidence seemed to point to an intruder, but suspicion soon fell on Russell’s valet. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the investigation and trial, and the late revelation that decided the case.

We’ll also marvel at Ireland’s greenery and puzzle over a foiled kidnapping.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 260: The Rugged Road

florence blenkiron and theresa wallach

In 1934, two Englishwomen set out to do what no one had ever done before: travel the length of Africa on a motorcycle. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Theresa Wallach and Florence Blenkiron from Algiers to Cape Town on a 14,000-mile adventure that many had told them was impossible.

We’ll also anticipate some earthquakes and puzzle over a daughter’s age.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 259: The Astor Place Riot


The second-bloodiest riot in the history of New York was touched off by a dispute between two Shakespearean actors. Their supporters started a brawl that killed as many as 30 people and changed the institution of theater in American society. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Astor Place riot, “one of the strangest episodes in dramatic history.”

We’ll also fertilize a forest and puzzle over some left-handed light bulbs.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 258: The First Great Train Robbery


In 1855 a band of London thieves set their sights on a new target: the South Eastern Railway, which carried gold bullion to the English coast. The payoff could be enormous, but the heist would require meticulous planning. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the first great train robbery, one of the most audacious crimes of the 19th century.

We’ll also jump into the record books and puzzle over a changing citizen.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 257: The Sledge Patrol

Image: NASA Earth Observatory

In 1943 an isolated sledge patrol came upon a secret German weather station in northeastern Greenland. The discovery set off a series of dramatic incidents that unfolded across 400 miles of desolate coast. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow this arctic struggle, an often overlooked drama of World War II.

We’ll also catch some speeders and puzzle over a disastrous remedy.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 256: Lasseter’s Reef


In 1930 Harold Lasseter claimed he’d discovered an enormous deposit of gold in the remote interior of Australia, and a small group of men set off into the punishing desert in search of a fortune estimated at 66 million pounds. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of Lasseter’s reef, one of the most enduring legends of the Australian outback.

We’ll also reconsider the mortality rates of presidents and puzzle over an unlocked door.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 255: Death on the Ice


In 1914, 132 sealers found themselves stranded on a North Atlantic icefield as a bitter blizzard approached. Thinly dressed and with little food, they faced a harrowing night on the ice. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Newfoundland sealing disaster, one of the most dramatic chapters in Canadian maritime history.

We’ll also meet another battlefield dog and puzzle over a rejected necklace.

See full show notes …