Denis Vrain-Lucas was an undistinguished forger until he met gullible collector Michel Chasles. Through the 1860s Lucas sold Chasles thousands of phony letters by everyone from Plato to Louis the 14th, earning thousands of francs and touching off a firestorm among confused scholars. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll trace the career of the world’s most prolific forger.
We’ll also count Queen Elizabeth’s eggs and puzzle over a destroyed car.
In the famous “Milgram experiment” at Yale in 1961, an experimenter directed each subject (the “teacher”) to give what she believed were increasingly painful electric shocks to an unseen “learner” (really an actor). Psychologist Stanley Milgram found that a surprisingly high proportion of the subjects would obey the experimenter’s instructions, even over the learner’s shouts and protests, to the point where the learner fell silent.
Milgram wrote, “For the teacher, the situation quickly becomes one of gripping tension. It is not a game for him: conflict is intense. The manifest suffering of the learner presses him to quit: but each time he hesitates to administer a shock, the experimenter orders him to continue. To extricate himself from this plight, the subject must make a clear break with authority.”
As it happened, one participant, Gretchen Brandt, had been a young girl coming of age in Germany during Hitler’s rise to power and repeatedly exposed to Nazi propaganda during her childhood. During Milgram’s experiment, when the learner began to complain about a “heart condition,” she asked the experimenter, “Shall I continue?” After administering what she thought was 210 volts, she said, “Well, I’m sorry, I don’t think we should continue.”
Experimenter: The experiment requires that you go on until he has learned all the word pairs correctly.
Brandt: He has a heart condition, I’m sorry. He told you that before.
Experimenter: The shocks may be painful but they’re not dangerous.
Brandt: Well, I’m sorry. I think when shocks continue like this they are dangerous. You ask him if he wants to get out. It’s his free will.
Experimenter: It is absolutely essential that we continue.
Brandt: I’d like you to ask him. We came here of our free will. If he wants to continue I’ll go ahead. He told you he had a heart condition. I’m sorry. I don’t want to be responsible for anything happening to him. I wouldn’t like it for me either.
Experimenter: You have no other choice.
Brandt: I think we are here on our own free will. I don’t want to be responsible if anything happens to him. Please understand that.
She refused to continue, and the experiment ended. Milgram wrote, “The woman’s straightforward, courteous behavior in the experiment, lack of tension, and total control of her own action seem to make disobedience a simple and rational deed. Her behavior is the very embodiment of what I envisioned would be true for almost all subjects.”
Asked afterward how her experience as a youth might have influenced her, Brandt said slowly, “Perhaps we have seen too much pain.”
(From Thomas Heinzen and Wind Goodfriend, Case Studies in Social Psychology, 2019.)
In 1882, a mysterious man using a false name married and murdered a well-to-do widow in Essex County, New York. While awaiting the gallows he composed poems, an autobiography, and six enigmatic cryptograms that have never been solved. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll examine the strange case of Henry Debosnys, whose true identity remains a mystery.
We’ll also consider children’s food choices and puzzle over a surprising footrace.
In 1897, shortly after Zona Shue was found dead in her West Virginia home, her mother went to the county prosecutor with a bizarre story. She said that her daughter had been murdered — and that her ghost had revealed the killer’s identity. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Greenbrier Ghost, one of the strangest courtroom dramas of the 19th century.
We’ll also consider whether cats are controlling us and puzzle over a delightful oblivion.
It was at the place afterwards called Solenhofen. The weather was miserable, as Jurassic weather usually was. The rain beat steadily down, and carbon dioxide was still upon the earth.
The Archaeopteryx was feeling pretty gloomy, for at that morning’s meeting of the Amalgamated Association of Enaliosaurians he had been blackballed. He was looked down upon by the Pterodactyl and the Ichthyosaurus deigned not to notice him. Cast out by the Reptilia, and Aves not being thought of, he became a wanderer upon the face of the earth. ‘Alas!’ sighed the poor Archaeopteryx, ‘this world is no place for me.’ And he laid him down and died; and became imbedded in the rock.
And ages afterward a featherless biped, called man, dug him up, and marvelled at him, crying, ‘Lo, the original Avis and fountain-head of all our feathered flocks!’ And they placed him with great reverence in a case, and his name became a by-word in the land. But the Archaeopteryx knew it not. And the descendant for whom he had suffered and died strutted proudly about the barn-yard, crowing lustily cock-a-doodle-do!
In 1769, a Peruvian noblewoman set out with 41 companions to join her husband in French Guiana. But a series of terrible misfortunes left her alone in the Amazon jungle. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Isabel Godin des Odonais on her harrowing adventure in the rain forest.
We’ll also learn where in the world “prices slippery traps” is and puzzle over an airport’s ingenuity.
Ellen Terry played Juliet at London’s Lyceum Theatre in 1882. The following was later found on the flyleaf of her copy of the text:
Get the words into your remembrance first of all. Then, (as you have to convey the meaning of the words to some who have ears, but don’t hear, and eyes, but don’t see) put the words into the simplest vernacular. Then exercise your judgment about their sound.
So many different ways of speaking words! Beware of sound and fury signifying nothing. Voice unaccompanied by imagination, dreadful. Pomposity, rotundity.
Imagination and intelligence absolutely necessary to realize and portray high and low imaginings. Voice, yes, but not mere voice production. You must have a sensitive ear, and a sensitive judgment of the effect on your audience. But all the time you must be trying to please yourself.
Get yourself into tune. Then you can let fly your imagination, and the words will seem to be supplied by yourself. Shakespeare supplied by oneself! Oh!
Realism? Yes, if we mean by that real feeling, real sympathy. But people seem to mean by it only the realism of low-down things.
To act, you must make the thing written your own. You must steal the words, steal the thought, and convey the stolen treasure to others with great art.
(From Donald Sinden, ed., The Everyman Book of Theatrical Anecdotes, 1987.)
The end of the Civil War opened a new era of fossil hunting in the American West — and a bitter feud between two rival paleontologists, who spent 20 years sabotaging one another in a constant struggle for supremacy. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Bone Wars, the greatest scientific feud of the 19th century.
We’ll also sympathize with Scunthorpe and puzzle over why a driver can’t drive.