This is the only known photograph of Connecticut’s Charter Oak, a famous symbol of American independence before a storm blew it down in 1856.

Curiously, the father of the country seems to appear among its branches.


In 1984, a British homemaker was reading at home when a voice told her, “Please don’t be afraid. I know it must be shocking for you to hear me speaking to you like this, but this is the easiest way I could think of. My friend and I used to work at the Children’s Hospital, Great Ormond Street, and we would like to help you.” She tried to ignore it, but the voice said, “To help you see that we are sincere, we would like you to check out the following,” and gave her three pieces of information that she had not known. When these proved to be true, she consulted her doctor, who referred her to Ikechukwu Obialo Azuonye, a consulting psychiatrist at the Lambeth Healthcare NHS trust.

An examination found nothing, so he diagnosed her with a functional hallucinatory psychosis, and after two weeks of counseling and thioridazine the voices ceased and she went on holiday. But they soon returned, telling her that she needed immediate treatment and giving an address, which turned out to be the computerized tomography department of a large London hospital. The voices told her that she needed a brain scan because she had a tumor and her brain stem was inflamed.

Azuonye found no evidence of this, but she was so distressed at this point that he ordered the scan anyway, and it showed evidence of a meningioma with a left posterior frontal parafalcine mass extending through the falx to the right side. She elected immediate surgery (the voices agreed), and the operation was carried out in May 1984. When she regained consciousness, she heard the voices for the last time. They said, “We are pleased to have helped you. Goodbye.”

When Azuonye presented this case at a conference in 1996, three opinions seemed to prevail. Some thought that the voices had been telepathic communications from people who had learned about the tumor psychically and were trying to warn the patient. Others thought that the patient had known about the tumor before coming to the U.K. and had invented the story in order to get free medical care under the National Health Service (this seems unlikely, as she’d been living in the U.K. for 15 years before hearing the voices).

The third explanation, which Azuonye shared, was that the presence of the meningioma had triggered enough residual sensations to alert her that something was wrong, and that her fear had led her unconsciously to take in information about London hospitals, which was expressed by the voices. The fact that the voices stopped when the tumor was removed showed that the symptoms had been related to the presence of the lesion.

(Ikechukwu Obialo Azuonye, “A Difficult Case: Diagnosis Made by Hallucinatory Voices,” BMJ 315:7123 [December 20, 1997], 1685-1686.)

Last Call

The last confirmed sighting of New Zealand’s huia wattlebird occurred in 1907. Sound recording was then in its infancy, so no recording of the bird’s call is known to exist. But in 1949 local historian Robert Batley arranged this recording of Hēnare Hāmana, a skilled caller who as a young man had participated in an expedition to seek the huia in the Ruahine Ranges north of Wellington. That effort was unsuccessful, but Hāmana, now in his 60s, remembered the call and performed it in the studios of radio station 2YA. So, to that extent, the call has been “rescued.”

Birds have occasionally returned the favor: See The Parrot of Atures and Ghosts of Scotland.

(Thanks, Charles.)

Fair Enough

Lincoln used a particular logical sleight of hand, long familiar to humorists, as a means of addressing the tariff question. He told of a fellow who had come into the grocery store in New Salem and asked for a few cents’ worth of crackers. The clerk laid them out on the counter, but after just sitting for a while the fellow said, ‘I don’t want these crackers, take them, and give me a glass of cider.’ So the clerk put the crackers away and gave him the cider, which he drank and headed for the door. ‘Here, Bill!’ called out the clerk, ‘pay me for your cider.’ ‘Why,’ said Bill, ‘I gave you the crackers for it.’ ‘Well, then, pay me for the crackers.’ ‘But I hain’t had any,’ responded Bill. ‘That’s so,’ said the clerk. ‘Well, clear out! It seems to me that I’ve lost a [few cents] somehow, but I can’t make it out exactly.’

— Richard Cawardine, Lincoln’s Sense of Humor, 2017

Podcast Episode 214: The Poison Squad

wiley and the poison squad

In 1902, chemist Harvey Wiley launched a unique experiment to test the safety of food additives. He recruited a group of young men and fed them meals laced with chemicals to see what the effects might be. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Wiley’s “poison squad” and his lifelong crusade for food safety.

We’ll also follow some garden paths and puzzle over some unwelcome weight-loss news.

See full show notes …

Feet Foremost

“Beheaded limericks” by Arthur Shaw:

A nice pot of gold that was mari,
Belonged to a dan that was harri,
When some cals who were ras
Filled their kets which were bas
She put up a cade which was barri.

A certain young pate who was addle
Rode a horse he alleged to be saddle,
But his gust which was dis,
For his haps, which were mis,
Sent him back to his lac which was Cadil.

In gonia once which was Pata,
A clysm occurred which was cata.
A gineer that was en
Lost his ture that was den,
In a torium there that was nata.

A chap was so pose that was adi
And the butt of such nage that was badi,
He solved that was re
Not to lay that was de
In taking steps cal that were radi.


In 1659, when Louis XIV of France and Philip IV of Spain met to sign the Treaty of the Pyrenees following the Thirty Years’ War, they did so on Pheasant Island, an uninhabited island in the Bidasoa river between their two nations.

Ever since, the island has remained under joint sovereignty — it’s governed alternately by Spain and France, changing hands every six months.

A Wrong Turn

In February 1978, five young men disappeared after attending a college basketball game in Chico, California. Several days later their car was discovered high on a mountain road in Plumas National Forest, far from their route home to Yuba City. It was stuck in a snowdrift but could easily have been pushed free by five men; the gas tank was a quarter full.

In June, the bones of three of the men were found 20 miles deep in the forest. Inside a nearby trailer were the remains of a fourth, Ted Weiher, wrapped in eight sheets. He had died of starvation and hypothermia. His feet were badly frostbitten, his face bore 13 weeks’ beard, he’d lost half his 200 pounds. The trailer was stocked with food and fuel, but he’d used none of it. Still missing was the fifth man, Gary Mathias (right), whose shoes were found in the trailer.

As it happened, a Sacramento man had been lying in his car on the same mountain road that night, suffering a mild heart attack. He told police he saw a car parked behind him during the night, surrounded by a group of people, but when he called for help they went silent and turned off their headlights. Later he saw flashlights, but these too went out when he called for aid.

Gary Mathias remains missing to this day. “We don’t know what happened to them — we’ve a real mystery on our hands,” Yuba County Undersheriff Jack Beecham said that March. “The prevalent theory is it could be anything.”


Doctor [John] Gillies, the historian of Greece, and Mr. [Richard] Porson used now and then to meet. The consequence was certain to be a literary contest. Porson was much the deeper scholar of the two. Dr. Gillies was one day speaking to him of the Greek tragedies, and of Pindar’s odes. ‘We know nothing,’ said Dr. Gillies, emphatically, ‘of the Greek metres.’ Porson answered, ‘If, Doctor, you will put your observation in the singular number, I believe it will be very accurate.’

The Flowers of Anecdote, Wit, Humour, Gaiety and Genius, 1829