The Green Book

During the Jim Crow era, it was difficult and dangerous for African-Americans to travel — they were routinely refused even basic amenities such as food and lodging. Civil rights leader (and now Georgia congressman) John Lewis remembered a family trip in 1951:

There would be no restaurant for us to stop at until we were well out of the South, so we took our restaurant right in the car with us. … Stopping for gas and to use the bathroom took careful planning. Uncle Otis had made this trip before, and he knew which places along the way offered ‘colored’ bathrooms and which were better just to pass on by. Our map was marked and our route was planned that way, by the distances between service stations where it would be safe for us to stop.

Accordingly New York mail carrier Victor H. Green began to publish The Negro Motorist Green Book, a guide “to give the Negro traveler information that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments and to make his trip more enjoyable.” Green paid his readers to contribute reports of road conditions, sites of interest, and information about their travel experiences. Julian Bond later recalled:

You think about the things that most travelers take for granted, or most people today take for granted. If I go to New York City and want a hair cut, it’s pretty easy for me to find a place where that can happen, but it wasn’t easy then. White barbers would not cut black peoples’ hair. White beauty parlors would not take black women as customers — hotels and so on, down the line. You needed the Green Book to tell you where you can go without having doors slammed in your face.

The book was published annually nationwide from 1937 to 1964. The New York Public Library has the full collection.

Marital Duels

marital duels

In the Middle Ages, husbands and wives would sometimes settle their differences with physical combat. To compensate for the man’s greater strength, his wife was given certain advantages:

The woman must be so prepared that a sleeve of her chemise extend a small ell beyond her hand like a little sack. There indeed is put a stone weighing three pounds; and she has nothing else but her chemise, and that is bound together between the legs with a lace. Then the man makes himself ready in the pit over against his wife. He is buried therein up to the girdle, and one hand is bound at the elbow to the side.

In other drawings the man sits in a tub; in one the two fight with drawn swords. “Judicial duels were common enough in the medieval and early modern period to merit etiquette books,” writes scholar Allison Coudert, “but, as far as I know, nowhere except in the Holy Roman Empire were judicial duels ever considered fitting means to settle marital disputes, and no record of such a duel has been found after 1200, at which time a couple is reported to have fought with the sanction of the civic authorities at Bâle.” The drawings that have survived come from historical treatises of the 15th and 16th centuries.

(Allison Coudert, “Judicial Duels Between Husbands and Wives,” Notes in the History of Art 4:4 [Summer 1985], 27-30.)

Podcast Episode 165: A Case of Mistaken Identity

In 1896, Adolf Beck found himself caught up in a senseless legal nightmare: Twelve women from around London insisted that he’d deceived them and stolen their cash and jewelry. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Beck’s incredible ordeal, which ignited a scandal and inspired historic reforms in the English justice system.

We’ll also covet some noble socks and puzzle over a numerical sacking.


A 1631 edition of the Bible omitted not in “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”

When the first hydrogen balloon landed in 1783, frightened villagers attacked it with pitchforks.

Sources for our feature on Adolph Beck:

Tim Coates, The Strange Story of Adolph Beck, 1999.

Jim Morris, The Who’s Who of British Crime, 2015.

“An English Dreyfus,” Goodwin’s Weekly, Sept. 22, 1904, 6.

“Police Effort Was Tragedy,” [Grand Forks, N.D.] Evening Times, Dec. 24, 1909, 1.

“Errors of English Court,” Holt County [Mo.] Sentinel, Dec. 2, 1904, 2.

“England’s Dreyfus Case Is at an End,” [Scotland, S.D.] Citizen-Republican, Dec. 1, 1904, 3.

“Sir Arthur Conan Doyle a Detective in Real Life,” New York Sun, May 31, 1914, 3.

“Jailed for Another’s Crime,” [Astoria, Ore.] Morning Astorian, Aug. 13, 1904, 4.

Judith Rowbotham, Kim Stevenson, and Samantha Pegg, Crime News in Modern Britain: Press Reporting and Responsibility, 1820-2010.

Graham Davies and Laurence Griffiths, “Eyewitness Identification and the English Courts: A Century of Trial and Error,” Psychiatry, Psychology and Law 15:3 (November 2008), 435-449.

Haia Shpayer-Makov, “Journalists and Police Detectives in Victorian and Edwardian England: An Uneasy Reciprocal Relationship,” Journal of Social History 42:4 (Summer 2009), 963-987.

D. Michael Risinger, “Unsafe Verdicts: The Need for Reformed Standards for the Trial and Review of Factual Innocence Claims,” Houston Law Review 41 (January 2004), 1281.

“Remarkable Case of A. Beck: Innocent Man Twice Convicted of a Mean Offense,” New York Times, Aug 13, 1904, 6.

J.H. Wigmore, “The Bill to Make Compensation to Persons Erroneously Convicted of Crime,” Journal of the American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology 3:5 (January 1913), 665-667.

C. Ainsworth Mitchell, “Handwriting and Its Value as Evidence,” Journal of the Royal Society of Arts 71:3673 (April 13, 1923), 373-384.

Brian Cathcart, “The Strange Case of Adolf Beck,” Independent, Oct. 16, 2004.

“Adolf Beck, Unlawfully Obtaining From Fanny Nutt Two Gold Rings,” Proceedings of the Old Bailey, Feb. 24, 1896.

In the photo above, Adolph Beck is on the left, John Smith on the right. In July 1904, Smith was actually brought to Brixton Prison while Beck was being held there. Beck wrote, “I saw him at chapel two or three times. There is no resemblance between us.”

Listener mail:

“Why Weren’t the Clothes of the Pompeii Victims Destroyed by the Heat of a Pyroclastic Current?” Pompeii: The Mystery of the People Frozen in Time, Learning Zone, BBC, March 28, 2013.

Natasha Sheldon, “How Did the People of Pompeii Die? Suffocation Versus Thermal Shock,” Decoded Past, April 1, 2014.

Harriet Torry, “It’s a Vasectomy Party! Snips, Chips and Dips With Your Closest Friends,” Wall Street Journal, July 23, 2017.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Anees Rao, who sent this corroborating link (warning — this spoils the puzzle).

Please visit Littleton Coin Company to sell your coins and currency, or call them toll free 1-877-857-7850.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.

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

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at Thanks for listening!

His and Hers
Image: Wikimedia Commons

When Triberg, Germany, unveiled a new parking garage in 2012, it included 12 parking spaces designated for women’s use, as has been required by German law since the 1990s. The spaces are somewhat larger than normal and located near the mall entrance, to reduce the possibility of sexual assault.

Due to the Triberg mall’s shape, it also has one space on each level that requires a complex parking maneuver. Mayor Gallus Strobel decided to designate these for men … which brought on a backlash from people who felt that it insults women’s parking skills.

“It’s a joke,” Strobel told ABC. “Everyone in Triberg thinks it is a joke. We looked at the two parking spaces and we said, ‘They could be dangerous for your car,’ so at the same time, we decided to make them for men, and then give 12 others for women.”

Is this sexist? Considerate? Unnecessary? Germany isn’t the only nation that uses women’s parking spaces — they’ve also been introduced in Austria, Switzerland, and China, where the spokesman for one northern mall told AFP, “The fact that our women’s parking spaces are wider is simply due to practical reasons and shouldn’t imply that women are worse at driving than men.”

For his part, Strobel seems to have his eye on the bottom line — after Triberg controversy made the news, the town’s tourist traffic increased from 250,000 to 400,000. “Women can come here and prove me wrong,” he told the Times of India, “and while they’re at it, they can see the town’s attractions.”


In Under the Mask, his 1972 anthology about prejudice in America, Karel Weiss records a scene aboard the slave ship Young Hero in 1788, recounted by ship’s surgeon Ecroide Claxton before the House of Commons:

Some of the slaves on board the same ship, says Mr. Claxton, had such an aversion to leaving their native places, that they threw themselves overboard, with an idea that they should get back to their own country. The captain, in order to obviate this idea, thought of an expedient, viz. to cut off the heads of those who died, intimating to them, that if determined to go, they must return without their heads. The slaves were accordingly brought up to witness the operation. One of them seeing, when on deck, the carpenter standing with his hatchet up ready to strike off the head of a dead slave, with a violent exertion got loose, and flying to the place where the nettings had been unloosed, in order to empty the tubs, he darted overboard. The ship brought to, and a man was placed in the main chains to catch him, which he perceiving, dived under water, and rising again at a distance from the ship, made signs, which words cannot describe, expressive of his happiness in escaping. He then went down, and was seen no more.

Weiss says the idea of escaping into death was particularly prevalent among the Ibo of eastern Nigeria. Related:

In the West Indies, according to the Spanish historian Girolamo Benzoni, four thousand men and countless women and children died by jumping from cliffs or by killing each other. He adds that, out of the two million original inhabitants of Haiti, fewer than 150 survived as a result of the suicides and slaughter. In the end the Spaniards, faced with an embarrassing labor shortage, put a stop to the epidemic of suicides by persuading the Indians that they, too, would kill themselves in order to pursue them in the next world with even harsher cruelties.

— Alfred Alvarez, The Savage God: A Study of Suicide, 1971

A Grim Climate

Though Republicans won a majority of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1930, fully 14 House members died during the ensuing 72nd Congress, including Speaker Nicholas Longworth. As a result, Democrats were able to elect one of their own as speaker.

Things weren’t much better in the Senate. Sen. Hiram Bingham (R-Ct.) said in 1931, “It is a very striking fact and one which cannot be too often called to the attention of Senators that there is no other body of this size in the world which has as high a death rate as this body. Out of the 96 Senators, during the past 7 or 8 years at least three have died each year, and if there is anything that can be done to cause members of this body to enjoy greater health and to prolong their lives, it seems to me that no one should object to it.”

In 1996 George Washington University political scientist Forrest Maltzman and his colleagues found evidence that the Capitol’s ventilation system might have been a significant factor. As early as 1859, one senator had called his chamber “the most unhealthful, uncomfortable, ill-contrived place I was ever in my life; and my health is suffering daily from the atmosphere.” A ban on smoking didn’t seem to help, but a new ventilation system, complete with air conditioning, was installed in 1932, and Maltzman found a significant decrease in mortality beyond this point, sparing an estimated three members per Congress.

“Accordingly, we think there is at least a ghost of a chance that [political scientist Nelson] Polsby is correct when he argues that the advent of air-conditioning in the 1930s and 1940s may have had no less momentous an impact on political life (and death) in the nation’s capital than the massive changes the city underwent during the 1960s and 1970s — racial desegregation, home rule, and rapid population growth.”

(Forrest Maltzman, Lee Sigelman, and Sarah Binder, “Leaving Office Feet First: Death in Congress,” PS: Political Science & Politics 29:4 [December 1996], 665-671.)

Podcast Episode 163: Enslaved in the Sahara

In 1815 an American ship ran aground in northwestern Africa, and its crew were enslaved by merciless nomads. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the desperate efforts of Captain James Riley to find a way to cross the Sahara and beg for help from Western officials in Morocco.

We’ll also wade through more molasses and puzzle over a prospective guitar thief.


In 1972 archaeologists in northwestern Iran found evidence of one couple’s tender final moment.

An anonymous author recast “A Visit From St. Nicholas” in legal language.

Sources for our feature on James Riley:

Dean King, Skeletons on the Zahara, 2004.

James Riley, An Authentic Narrative of the Loss of the American Brig Commerce, 1817.

Archibald Robbins, A Journal, Comprising an Account of the Loss of the Brig Commerce, of Hartford Conn., 1847.

James Riley and William Willshire Riley, Sequel to Riley’s Narrative, 1851.

Robert J. Allison, The Crescent Obscured: The United States and the Muslim World, 1776-1815, 1995.

Christine E. Sears, American Slaves and African Masters, 2012.

Paul Baepler, ed., White Slaves, African Masters: An Anthology of American Barbary Captivity Narratives, 1999.

Eamonn Gearon, The Sahara: A Cultural History, 2011.

Dean King, “The Cruelest Journey,” National Geographic Adventure 6:1 (February 2004), 46.

Paul Michel Baepler, “The Barbary Captivity Narrative in American Culture,” Early American Literature 39:2 (2004), 217-246.

Sven D. Outram-Leman, “Alexander Scott: Constructing a Legitimate Geography of the Sahara From a Captivity Narrative, 1821,” History in Africa 43 (2016), 63-94.

Gordon M. Sayre, “Renegades From Barbary: The Transnational Turn in Captivity Studies,” American Literary History 22:2 (Summer 2010), 347-359.

Glenn James Voelz, “Images of Enemy and Self in the Age of Jefferson: The Barbary Conflict in Popular Literary Depiction,” War & Society 28:2 (2009), 21-47.

Hester Blum, “Pirated Tars, Piratical Texts: Barbary Captivity and American Sea Narratives,” Early American Studies 1:2 (Fall 2003), 133-158.

Paul Baepler, “White Slaves, African Masters,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 588:1 (July 2003), 90-104.

R. Gerald McMurtry, “The Influence of Riley’s Narrative Upon Abraham Lincoln,” Indiana Magazine of History 30:2 (June 1934), 133-138.

K. Gerald McMurtry, “Some Books That Lincoln Read,” Journal of Developmental Reading 1:2 (Winter 1958), 19-26.

Mark Kirby, “Author’s Sahara Trek Inspired by Classic Tale,” National Geographic Adventure, Jan. 27, 2004.

“Riley’s Sufferings in the Great Desert,” Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal, Dec. 24, 1836, 382-383.

Robert C. Davis, “Slavery in North Africa — The Famous Story of Captain James Riley,” Public Domain Review (accessed July 9, 2017).

Lev Grossman, “Sailing the Seas of Sand,” Time 163:9 (March 1, 2004), 47.

Listener mail:

Dana Rieck, “Loveland’s Sticky Situation Reaches 25-Year Anniversary,” Loveland [Colo.] Reporter-Herald, Feb. 16, 2015.

“Meet Stan, the New Flemish Hermit!” Flanders News, Feb. 5, 2017.

Ben Gilbert, “These Incredible Photos Show One 72-Year-Old Woman’s Hermit Lifestyle in Siberia,” Business Insider, July 1, 2017.

Jennifer Schaffer, “The Snatching of Hannah Twynnoy.”

“Hannah Twynnoy and the Tiger of Malmesbury.”

Steve Winters’ decimal clock.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Dan White, who sent this corroborating photo (warning — this spoils the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website or browse our online store for Futility Closet merchandise.

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

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at Thanks for listening!

Nothing Doing

forest protest

Invited to participate in São Paulo’s biennial art exhibition in 1973, French artist Fred Forest found a unique way to protest the censorship imposed by Brazil’s ruling junto: He organized a group of marchers to carry blank signs through the city. “Instead of calling on dissidents or students who could have been arrested and tortured, Forest hired fifteen men to carry the signs,” writes Karen O’Rourke in Walking and Mapping. “As professional sandwich-board men who work at street corners in the heart of São Paulo, they could not be held responsible for the content of their signs.”

The press published the marchers’ route, and the public understood that the blank signs reflected the government’s repression. Although it was against the law for more than three people to congregate in the street, Forest’s march attracted nearly 2,000 followers, and onlookers showered them with ticker tape from their balconies.

The police arrested Forest for holding up traffic, but he was protected by his status as a foreign artist. After several hours of questioning, they let him go.


In 1922 J.M. Barrie wrote to A.E. Housman:

Dear Professor Houseman,

I am sorry about last night, when I sat next to you and did not say a word. You must have thought I was a very rude man: I am really a very shy man.

Sincerely yours, J.M. Barrie

Housman wrote back:

Dear Sir James Barrie,

I am sorry about last night, when I sat next to you and did not say a word. You must have thought I was a very rude man: I am really a very shy man.

Sincerely yours, A.E. Housman

He added, “P.S. And now you’ve made it worse for you have spelt my name wrong.”

Match Making,_Gibson.jpg

Coleridge is said to have described the happiest possible marriage as “the union of a deaf man to a blind woman.”

The eccentric Lord Berners’ requisites for a happy marriage: “A short memory, a long purse, infinite credulity, no sense of humor, a combative nature, the man should be a man and the woman a woman or vice versa.”

“In the old days I demanded or perhaps pleaded for three things in a wife. She should have enough money to buy her own clothes, she should be able to make incomparable Béarnaise sauce, and she should be double-jointed. In the event I got none of these things.” — Ian Fleming, quoted in Ben MacIntyre’s For Your Eyes Only

Boswell: “Pray, Sir, do you not suppose that there are fifty women in the world, with any one of whom a man may be as happy, as with any one woman in particular?”

Johnson: “Ay, Sir, fifty thousand.”

Boswell: “Then, Sir, you are not of opinion with some who imagine that certain men and certain women are made for each other; and that they cannot be happy if they miss their counterparts.”

Johnson: “To be sure not, Sir. I believe marriages would in general be as happy, and often more so, if they were all made by the Lord Chancellor, upon a due consideration of the characters and circumstances, without the parties having any choice in the matter.”