Below the Japanese village of Aneyoshi, a 4-foot stone has stood since 1933. “Do not build your homes below this point!” it reads. “High dwellings ensure the peace and happiness of our descendants.” The village had already been devastated by a tsunami in 1896, and after a second blow the residents erected a permanent warning to those who would follow them.
It worked. A record-setting tsunami in 2011 destroyed hundreds of miles of the coast but stopped 300 feet below the Aneyoshi stone. “They knew the horrors of tsunamis,” village leader Tamishige Kimura told the New York Times, “so they erected that stone to warn us.”
In 1909, 22-year-old Alice Huyler Ramsey set out to become the first woman to drive across the United States. In an era of imperfect cars and atrocious roads, she would have to find her own way and undertake her own repairs across 3,800 miles of rugged, poorly mapped terrain. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Ramsey on her historic journey.
We’ll also ponder the limits of free speech and puzzle over some banned candy.
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Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.
For his 1933 novel A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks, Dano-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose devised the Law of Jante, a list of 10 rules that summarize common attitudes in Nordic countries:
You’re not to think you are anything special.
You’re not to think you are as good as we are.
You’re not to think you are smarter than we are.
You’re not to imagine yourself better than we are.
You’re not to think you know more than we do.
You’re not to think you are more important than we are.
You’re not to think you are good at anything.
You’re not to laugh at us.
You’re not to think anyone cares about you.
You’re not to think you can teach us anything.
Sandemose intended this as satire, but it’s entered colloquial speech (Janteloven) to describe a general disapproval of individualism and unseemly ambition in Denmark and Norway. An 11th rule, “the penal code of Jante,” says, “Perhaps you don’t think we know a few things about you?”
In Postman’s Park in the City of London, an array of ceramic tiles honor ordinary people who died saving the lives of others:
Aged 17 of Bethnal Green
Who died of injuries received in trying to save a child from a runaway horse
June 20, 1888
David Selves aged 12
Off Woolwich supported his drowning playfellow and sank with him clasped in his arms.
September 12, 1886
On Sept 24 1878
Was killed by a train at Richmond in the endeavour to save another man
The Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice was conceived by painter and sculptor George Frederic Watts in 1887, but only four tiles were in place at his death in 1904, and even today two of the five planned rows remain empty. The most recent tile, the 54th, was added in 2009. The full list is here.
In 1902, scam artist Cassie Chadwick convinced an Ohio lawyer that she was the illegitimate daughter of steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. She parlayed this reputation into a life of unthinkable extravagance — until her debts came due. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Chadwick’s efforts to maintain the ruse — and how she hoped to get away with it.
We’ll also encounter a haunted tomb and puzzle over an exonerated merchant.
In 1807, three years after the Haitian Revolution, someone decided to edit the Bible that was provided to Caribbean slaves to omit any inducements to rebel. The result was Select Parts of the Holy Bible, for the Use of the Negro Slaves in the British West-India Islands, a heavily redacted version that includes Joseph’s enslavement in Egypt but omits Moses leading the Israelites to freedom.
The anonymous editors were “really highlighting portions that would instill obedience,” Museum of the Bible curator Anthony Schmidt told History.com. Also cut were Galatians 3:28 (“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus”) and the Book of Revelation, which tells of a new world in which evil will be punished.
But they retained Ephesians 6:5: “Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ.”
Ferdinand Demara earned his reputation as the Great Impostor: For over 22 years he criss-crossed the country, posing as everything from an auditor to a zoologist and stealing a succession of identities to fool his employers. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review Demara’s motivation, morality, and techniques — and the charismatic spell he seemed to cast over others.
We’ll also make Big Ben strike 13 and puzzle over a movie watcher’s cat.
Antebellum social theorist George Fitzhugh argued that slavery should be extended to whites. “It is a libel on white men to say they are unfit for slavery,” he wrote. “Catch them young, train, domesticate, and civilize them, and they would make as faithful and valuable servants as those indentured servants which our colonial ancestors bought in such large numbers from England.”
He thought that capitalism inevitably creates social inequality, and that those whom it oppresses can best be helped by subjugating them. “The whole war against slavery, has grown out of the hatred of the white to the black,” he wrote. “Nobody ever proposed to abolish white slavery, or the white slave trade. … Nobody ever proposed to abolish any other than negro slavery, and if we could buy Yankees for house-servants, and confine the negroes to field work, all this abolition strife would cease.”