Podcast Episode 276: A Confederate Rose


As the Civil War fractured Washington D.C., socialite Rose O’Neal Greenhow coordinated a vital spy ring to funnel information to her beloved Confederates. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Greenhow’s courage and resourcefulness, which won praise from Jefferson Davis and notoriety in the North.

We’ll also fragment the queen’s birthday and puzzle over a paid game of pinball.


German officer Ernst Jünger likened the sounds of World War I shelling to “being menaced by a man swinging a heavy hammer.”

Bowdoin College compiled a list of odd how-to titles.

Sources for our feature on Rose O’Neal Greenhow:

Ann Blackman, Wild Rose: Rose O’Neale Greenhow, Civil War Spy, 2006.

Ishbel Ross, Rebel Rose: Life of Rose O’Neal Greenhow, Confederate Spy, 1954.

Karen Abbott, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War, 2014.

Rose O’Neal Greenhow, My Imprisonment and the First Year of Abolition Rule at Washington, 1863.

H. Donald Winkler, Stealing Secrets: How a Few Daring Women Deceived Generals, Impacted Battles, and Altered the Course of the Civil War, 2010.

Michael J. Sulick, Spying in America: Espionage from the Revolutionary War to the Dawn of the Cold War, 2014.

Allan Pinkerton, The Spy of the Rebellion, 1886.

John Bakeless, Spies of the Confederacy, 2011.

Ernest B. Furgurson, “The End of Illusions,” Smithsonian 42:4 (July/August 2011), 56-64.

Jack Finnegan, “Professional Results for an Amateur,” Military History, suppl. “Spies and Secret Missions: A History of American Espionage” (2002), 34-35.

Nancy B. Samuelson, “Employment of Female Spies in the American Civil War,” Minerva 7:3 (Dec. 31, 1989), 57.

“Seized Correspondence of Rose O’Neal Greenhow,” U.S. National Archives (accessed Nov. 24, 2019).

Rose O’Neal Greenhow Papers, Special Collections Library, Duke University.

“The Wild Rose of Washington,” New York Times, Aug. 22, 2011.

“Spy Loved, Died in Line of Duty,” [Wilmington, N.C] Morning Star, Dec. 31, 1999, 23.

“Civil War Day by Day,” Washington [D.C.] Herald, Sept. 30, 1914, 4.

“Fair Southern Spies,” [Savannah, Ga.] Morning News, Sept. 29, 1896, 5.

“Blockade Running,” [Winston, N.C.] Western Sentinel, Jan. 14, 1886.

“A Rich New Year’s Gift,” Yorkville [S.C.] Enquirer, Feb. 6, 1862, 1.

“The Female Traitors in Washington,” New York Herald, Jan. 22, 1862, 2.

“Mrs. Greenhow’s Indignant Letter to Mr. Seward,” New York Herald, Dec. 16, 1861, 4.

Phyllis F. Field, “Greenhow, Rose O’Neal,” American National Biography, February 2000.

Listener mail:

“Public Holidays in Western Australia,” Government of Western Australia Department of Mines, Industry Regulation and Safety (accessed Nov. 27, 2019).

Wikipedia, “Oscar Wilde” (accessed Nov. 27, 2019).

Howard Markel, “No, Oscar Wilde Probably Didn’t Die of Syphilis,” PBS NewsHour, Nov. 30, 2015.

Jon Henley, “Wilde Gets Revenge on Wallpaper,” Guardian, Dec. 1, 2000.

“What Are the Best Last Words Ever?”, Atlantic 317:4 (April 2016), 13.

“Grand Lakes St. Marys Educational Series: History of GLSM What You Don’t Know,” Lake Improvement Association (accessed Nov. 30, 2019).

“Grand Lake St. Marys State Park: History,” Ohio State Parks and Watercraft (accessed Nov. 30, 2019).

Lew Powell, “Behind the Lines, Fighting Malaria With Whiskey,” North Carolina Miscellany, July 10, 2011.

Wikipedia, “Gin and Tonic” (accessed Nov. 30, 2019).

Wikipedia, “Tonic Water” (accessed Nov. 30, 2019).

“‘The Book of Gin’ Distills a Spirited History,” Morning Edition, National Public Radio, Dec. 28, 2012.

Kal Raustiala, “The Imperial Cocktail,” Slate, Aug. 28, 2013.

“The Largest Human-Made Lakes in the World,” WorldAtlas (accessed Nov. 30, 2019).

Wikipedia, “Lake Kariba” (accessed Nov. 30, 2019).

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was inspired by an item heard on the podcast No Such Thing as a Fish. Here are two corroborating links (warning — these spoil the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on Google Podcasts, on Apple Podcasts, or via the RSS feed at https://futilitycloset.libsyn.com/rss.

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

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

First Friends

In 1978, archaeologists excavating a late Paleolithic tomb in northern Israel uncovered the skeletons of an elderly human and a 5-month-old puppy. They had lain there together for 12,000 years.

“The most striking thing about these remains was the fact that whoever presided over the original burial had carefully arranged the dead person’s left hand so that it rested, in a timeless and eloquent gesture of attachment, on the puppy’s shoulder,” writes James Serpell in In the Company of Animals (1996).

“The contents of this tomb not only provide us with some of the earliest solid evidence of animal domestication, they also strongly imply that man’s primordial relationship with this particular species was an affectionate one. In other words, prehistoric man may have loved his dogs and his other domestic animals as pets long before he made use of them for any other purpose.”

(Simon J.M. Davis and François R. Valla, “Evidence for Domestication of the Dog 12,000 Years Ago in the Natufian of Israel,” Nature 276:5688 [1978], 608.)

The Friendly Floatees

Image: Wikimedia Commons

During a storm in January 1992, a container was swept overboard from a ship in the North Pacific. As it happened, it contained 28,800 children’s bath toys, and oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer realized they offered the basis for a serendipitous study of surface currents. Working with his colleague James Ingraham, Ebbesmeyer began to track the toys as they drifted around the globe, accumulating reports from beachcombers, coastal workers, and local residents as they began to wash up on beaches. Using computer models, they were able to predict correctly that toys would make landfall in Washington state, Japan, and Alaska, and even become trapped in pack ice and spend years creeping across the top of the world before making an eventual reappearance in the North Atlantic. “Ultimately,” Ebbesmeyer wrote, “the toys will turn to dust, joining the scum of plastic powder which rides the global ocean.”

For some reason, media accounts of the story always carried the image of a solitary rubber duck, though the toys had also included beavers, turtles, and frogs. “Maybe it’s a kind of racism,” Ebbesmeyer speculated to journalist Donovan Hohn in 2007. “Speciesism.”

A Double Disaster

Image: Wikimedia Commons

The high-altitude glacial lake Roopkund, in the Indian state of Uttarakhand, contains a large number of human skeletons. Local legend tells of a royal party who were killed by a large hailstorm near here, and many of the skeletons show signs of blows by large round objects falling from above. Radiocarbon dating estimates that these people died around 850 CE.

But another set of victims seem to have succumbed much more recently, a group from the eastern Mediterranean who died only 200 years ago. So the casualties can’t all be attributed to a single catastrophic event, but the full truth is still emerging.

An Urgent Question

Based on a James Blish short story, The Beast Must Die (1974) is a curious twist on the Clue genre: A millionaire invites a group of people to a remote island and reveals that one of them is a werewolf, and they must work out who it is.

The movie includes a 30-second “werewolf break” near the end, in which the audience are asked to guess the werewolf’s identity based on the clues.


In 1924 British journalist William Norman Ewer published an antisemitic couplet:

How odd of God
To choose the Jews.

It’s been met with at least six responses. From Leo Rosten:

Not odd of God.
Goyim annoy ‘im.

From Cecil Brown:

But not so odd
As those who choose
A Jewish God
Yet spurn the Jews.

Three anonymous replies:

Not odd of God
His son was one.

Not odd, you sod
The Jews chose God.

How strange of man
To change the plan.

And Yale political scientist Jim Sleeper wrote:

Moses, Jesus, Marx, Einstein, and Freud;
No wonder the goyim are annoyed.