Podcast Episode 267: The Murchison Murders


In 1929, detective novelist Arthur Upfield wanted to devise the perfect murder, so he started a discussion among his friends in Western Australia. He was pleased with their solution — until local workers began disappearing, as if the book were coming true. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the Murchison murders, a disturbing case of life imitating art.

We’ll also incite a revolution and puzzle over a perplexing purchase.

See full show notes …

For Short


Dr. Dobbin, lecturing on physical education in Hull, England, condemned the practice of tight-lacing as injurious to the health and symmetry of the female sex, and jocularly proposed the formation of an ‘Anti-killing-young-women-by-a-lingering-death Society.’

This was gravely reproduced in other parts of England and on the Continent as a sober matter of fact, the Germans giving the hyphenated title thus: Jungefrauenzimmerdurchschwindsuchttodtungsgegenverein.

— Charles Carroll Bombaugh, The Book of Blunders, 1871

The Speech-to-Song Illusion

In 1995 UCSD psychologist Diana Deutsch was fine-tuning the spoken commentary on a CD when she noticed something odd. When the phrase “sometimes behave so strangely” was repeated on a loop, it came to sound as though it were being sung rather than spoken. When the full surrounding passage was then played in its entirety, this phrase still sounded as though it were being sung (you can hear this here).

The phenomenon is not completely understood, but “the present experiments show that for a phrase to be heard as spoken or as sung, it does not need to have a set of physical properties that are unique to speech, or a different set of physical properties that are unique to song,” the researchers write. “Rather, we must conclude that, assuming the neural circuitries underlying speech and song are at some point distinct and separate, they can accept the same input, but process the information in different ways so as to produce different outputs.”

(Via MetaFilter.)

Buzz Off

The first directory of Philadelphia, published in 1785, contains some odd entries:

‘I won’t tell you,’ 3. Maiden’s Lane.
‘I won’t tell it,’ 15. Sugar Alley.
‘I won’t tell you my name,’ 160. New Market Street.
‘I won’t have it numbered,’ 478. Green Street.
‘I won’t tell my name,’ 185. St. John’s Street.
‘I shall not give you my name,’ 43. Stamper’s Alley.
‘What you please,’ 49. Market Street.

Apparently some residents, suspicious of taxation, had refused to identify themselves … so the publishers listed their responses in place of their names in the directory.

(From Notes and Queries.)


In January 1946, the night before he was to scheduled fly to Tokyo, British air marshal Victor Goddard attended a cocktail party in Shanghai where another officer described a dream in which Goddard had been killed in a plane crash. He said the plane had been carrying three English civilian passengers, two men and a woman, and had experienced icing troubles during the flight and crashed on a shingled beach near mountains.

Goddard’s flight had had no scheduled passengers, but that night he was asked successively to take two men and a woman with him to Tokyo, all English civilians. During the flight the plane’s wings iced over and he was forced to make a crash landing on the Japanese island of Sado, on a shingled beach near mountains. Everyone survived, and they were rescued after a search.

“For my next crash I want no prior information,” Goddard wrote in the Saturday Evening Post. “Makes one too ‘nervy,’ as we say. Quite spoils the enjoyment of flying.”

An Early IMAX


In 1827, visitors to London could get a titan’s view of the city by visiting Regent’s Park. There surveyor Thomas Hornor had built a colosseum housing the largest painting in the world, a panorama seven stories tall and 130 feet in diameter. A spiral staircase rose to a large gallery from which visitors could view London as seen from the ball atop St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Estimates of the painting’s size vary from 24,000 to 44,000 square feet; flyers called it “nearly an acre of canvas.” Half a million people visited the Colosseum in 1829, but Hornor’s backer left for Paris and he was quickly broke. New owners reopened the attraction in 1845, though, and it stood as a fixture for 30 years, renowned for the clarity of its vista. “The ascent is easy, the sky is fine and bright, the atmosphere is clear,” wrote one visitor. “We can command constant sunshine.”

More Silent Music

The “In futurum” section of Erwin Schulhoff’s 1919 Fünf Pittoresken (starting here at 8:08) consists entirely of rests.

The direction tutto il canzone con espressione e sentimento ad libitum, sempre, sin al fine means “the whole piece with free expression and feeling, always, until the end.”

Sheet music is here.

A Hidden Treasure

Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1954, workers in Bangkok were moving a plaster Buddha to a new temple when the ropes broke and it fell to the ground. Some of the surface broke away, revealing gold beneath.

They had accidentally rediscovered the Phra Phuttha Maha Suwana Patimakon, a 5.5-tonne gold statue that had remained hidden for nearly 200 years. It had been made in the 13th or 14th century and then covered with stucco sometime in the late 18th century to preserve it from thieves.

The rediscovery occurred near the 2500-year anniversary of Gautama Buddha’s passing and was widely regarded as a miracle. The statue was moved to a new large building in 2010.

(Thanks, David.)