Podcast Episode 11: A Woolf in Sheikh’s Clothing

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Irish practical joker Horace de Vere Cole orchestrated his masterpiece in 1910: He dressed four friends as Abyssinian princes and inveigled a tour of a British battleship. One of the friends, improbably, was Virginia Woolf (far left) disguised in a false beard and turban. We’ll describe how the prank was inspired and follow the six through their tension-filled visit to the HMS Dreadnought.

We’ll also examine the value of whistles to Benjamin Franklin and present the next Futility Closet Challenge.

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Podcast Episode 10: A Baboon Soldier, Lighthouse Rescues, and a Parliament of Owls

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When Albert Marr joined the South African army in 1915, he received permission to bring along his pet baboon, Jackie. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Jackie’s adventures in England, Egypt, and Belgium, his work for the Red Cross after the war, and his triumphant return to Pretoria in 1919.

We’ll also meet a Rhode Island lighthouse keeper’s daughter who saved the lives of 18 people over a period of 48 years, and present the next Futility Closet Challenge.

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Podcast Episode 9: The Monkey Signalman, Racetrack ESP, and Toxic Dumps

After losing his feet in an accident in the 1880s, South Africa railway worker James “Jumper” Wide found an unlikely friend in a baboon named Jack. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll learn how Jumper taught Jack to work as a signalman on the railway line, where he won the trust of both authorities and passengers.

We’ll also meet an Englishman who dreamed the winners of horse races, ponder the strange case of the Stringfellow Acid Pits, and present the next Futility Closet Challenge.

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Podcast Episode 8: Owney the Mail Dog, Candy Bombers, and Bertrand Russell

In 1888 a mixed-breed terrier appointed himself mascot of America’s railway postal service, accompanying mailbags throughout the U.S. and eventually traveling around the world. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll recount Owney’s postal adventures and the wave of human affection that followed him.

We’ll also look at an Air Force pilot who dropped candy on parachutes to besieged German children in 1948, learn the link between drug lord Pablo Escobar and feral hippos in Colombia, and present the next Futility Closet Challenge.

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Podcast Episode 7: Louisiana Hippos, Imaginary Epidemics, and Charles Lindbergh

Two weeks before Charles Lindbergh’s famous flight, a pair of French aviators attempted a similar feat. Their brave journey might have changed history — but they disappeared en route. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the flight of the “White Bird” — and ponder what became of it.

We’ll also examine a proposal to build hippo ranches in the Louisiana bayou in 1910, investigate historical outbreaks of dancing, laughing, and other strange behavior, and present the next Futility Closet challenge.

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Podcast Episode 6: Texas Camels, Zebra Stripes, and an Immortal Piano

The 1850s saw a strange experiment in the American West: The U.S. Army imported 70 camels for help in managing the country’s suddenly enormous hinterland. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll see how the animals acquitted themselves in an unfamiliar land under inexperienced human masters.

We’ll also learn a surprising theory regarding the origin of zebra stripes; follow the further adventures of self-mailing ex-slave Henry “Box” Brown; ask whether a well-wrought piano can survive duty as a beehive, chicken incubator, and meat safe; and present the next Futility Closet Challenge.

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Podcast Episode 5: Mailing People, Alien Shorthand, and Benjamin Franklin

Henry Brown found a unique way to escape slavery: He mailed himself to Pennsylvania. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll accompany Brown on his perilous 1849 journey from Richmond to Philadelphia, follow a 5-year-old Idaho girl who was mailed to her grandparents in 1914, and delve deeper into a mysterious lion sighting in Illinois in 1917.

We’ll also decode a 200-year-old message enciphered by Benjamin Franklin, examine an engraved ball reputed to have fallen out of the Georgia sky in 1887, and present the next Futility Closet Challenge.

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Podcast Episode 4: Mystery Airships, Marauding Lions, and Nancy Drew

In 1896 a strange wave of airship sightings swept Northern California; the reports of strange lights in the sky created a sensation that would briefly engulf the rest of the country. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll examine some of the highlights of this early “UFO” craze, including the mysterious role of a San Francisco attorney who claimed to have the answer to it all.

We’ll also examine the surprising role played by modern art in disguising World War I merchant ships and modern cars, discover unexpected lions in central Illinois and southern England, and present the next Futility Closet Challenge.

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Podcast Episode 3: Extreme Pedestrians, Kangaroo Stew, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge

In 1926, a woman named Lillian Alling grew disenchanted with her life as a maid in New York City and resolved to return to her native Russia. She lacked the funds to sail east, so instead she walked west — trekking 6,000 miles alone across the breadth of Canada and into Alaska. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast, we’ll consider Alling’s lonely, determined journey, compare it to the efforts of other long-distance pedestrians, and suggest a tool to plot your own virtual journey across the United States.

We’ll also learn the truth about the balloon-borne messenger dogs of 1870 Paris, ponder the significance of October 4 to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and offer a chance to win a book in the next Futility Closet Challenge.

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Podcast Episode 2: Mass Hysteria, Airborne Sheepdogs and Mark Twain’s Brother

As skywatchers prepared for the return of Halley’s comet in 1910, they heard some alarming scientific predictions: Poisonous gases in the comet’s tail might “snuff out all life on the planet,” “leaving the burnt and drenched Earth no other atmosphere than the nitrogen now present in the air.” How should a responsible citizen evaluate a dire prediction by a minority of experts? In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast, we explore the Halley’s hysteria, remember the alarming predictions made for Y2K, and recall a forgotten novella in which Arthur Conan Doyle imagined a dead Earth fumigated by cosmic ether.

We also consider the odd legacy of an Australian prime minister who disappeared in 1967, investigate the role of balloon-borne sheepdogs during the Siege of Paris, learn why Mark Twain’s brother telegraphed the entire Nevada constitution to Washington D.C. in 1864, and offer a chance to win a book in the next Futility Closet Challenge.

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