“Secret for Thirty-Two Years”

A discovery made yesterday near the towns of Colliers, W. Va., clears up a mystery of thirty-two years’ standing.

The skeletons of four human beings were found in an abandoned coal mine a mile east of the place. The men were supposed to have been killed many years ago.

David Snyder was exploring the old mine, which had not been worked since the early ’60s, when he discovered the human bones. One of the skeletons was sitting upright against a ledge.

Beside the skeleton was found a flask containing notes that explained the mysterious disappearance of John Ewing, Ben Ayers, Tom Ackelson and Joe Obney, who were known here thirty-two years ago. The notes were written with a pencil, but were well preserved. It read as follows:

Nov. 2, 1863. — Should this ever reach the outside world, let it be known that we are prisoners here, owing to the caving-in of the mine. We are deserters, and were in hiding here when the mine caved in. Food and water are all gone. We are doomed, as no one outside is aware of our whereabouts. This is the eighth day of our imprisonment.

Nov. 4. — John Ewing and Tom Ackelson have just killed Ben Ayres, and are eating him. I have already eaten my bootlegs. The water in the mine is terrible. Our oil is getting scarce, and the air is becoming foul. I only know the day of the month by my watch.

Nov. 6. — Ewing has just killed Ackelson, cut off one of his feet and is eating it, and dancing around and flourishing his dirk-knife like a maniac.

Nov. 7. — I am now alone with the dead. I had to kill Ewing in self-defense. I have just eaten my other bootleg. Am sleepy. Good-bye. I inclose this note in this flask to preserve it, if possible, so that if ever found our sad fate will be known.

Joseph Obney

Several of the old residents hereabouts remember these men. It is believed that they had been killed in battle. As no relatives of the dead men could be found their bodies were buried by the town poormaster.

Eagle River [Wis.] Review, March 12, 1896

(The story is doubtful — Obney seems to have had three legs — but it was widely retailed: I find 103 instances in American papers in February and March 1896.) (Thanks, Deryck.)

The Great Picture

Image: Wikimedia Commons

After California’s Marine Corps Air Station El Toro was decommissioned in 1999, a group of six photographers set out to convert one of its F-18 hangars into the world’s largest pinhole camera. They made the building light-tight, coated a 34-meter expanse of muslin cloth with gelatin silver halide emulsion, and suspended it 80 feet from the hangar door, in which they opened a 6mm pinhole. After 35 minutes they had an inverted image of former air station, with the San Joaquin Hills in the background.

Eighty volunteers developed the print in a tray the size of an Olympic swimming pool and washed it with firehoses. The finished print fills 325 square meters; it and the hangar hold records as the world’s largest print photograph and largest camera.

State House


A quickie from Peter Winkler’s Mathematical Puzzles, 2021: Can West Virginia be inscribed in a square? That is, is it possible to draw some square each of whose four sides is tangent to this shape?

Click for Answer



Until 1934, Peñón de Vélez de la Gomera was a Spanish island off the coast of North Africa.

But then a thunderstorm washed enough sand into the channel to create an isthmus to the Moroccan shore.

So now the island is a Spanish exclave on a peninsula, and the two nations share the world’s shortest border.

Podcast Episode 346: A Desperate Winter in Antarctica

Image: Yasmina

In 1898 a Belgian ship on a scientific expedition was frozen into the sea off the coast of Antarctica. During the long polar night, its 18 men would confront fear, death, illness, and despair. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe life aboard the Belgica during its long, dark southern winter.

We’ll also consider a devaluing signature and puzzle over some missing music.

See full show notes …

Other Means

The last duel in France took place in 1967. During an argument in the National Assembly, Gaston Defferre shouted “Taisez-vous, abruti!” (“Shut up, stupid!”) at René Ribière. Ribière demanded an apology and, receiving none, insisted on satisfaction by duel. He lost the contest, with two minor wounds.

Hooper’s Paradox

Image: Wikimedia Commons

William Hooper published the oddity in 1774. The rectangle at the top measures 10 units by 3, giving an area of 30. But its dissected pieces seem to produce two other rectangles, with areas 12 and 20. Where did the two extra units come from?

Click for Answer

Best Intentions

A variation on the grandfather paradox … is the Hitler paradox. In this one you travel back in time to murder Hitler before he starts the Second World War, thus saving millions of lives. But if you murder Hitler in, say, 1938, then the Second World War will never come about and you will have no reason to travel back in time to murder Hitler!

— J.H. Brennan, Time Travel: A New Perspective, 1997



Norman Rockwell’s image of “Rosie the Riveter,” published on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post in 1943, is based on Michelangelo’s 1509 painting Prophet Isaiah, from the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

Michelangelo’s contemporary Giorgio Vasari had written, “Anyone who studies this figure, copied so faithfully from nature, the true mother of the art of painting, will find a beautifully composed work capable of teaching in full measure all the precepts to be followed by a good painter.”

Also, Rosie is using Mein Kampf as a footrest.