Podcast Episode 347: The Cottingley Fairies


In 1917, two young cousins carried a camera into an English dell and returned with a photo of fairies. When Arthur Conan Doyle took up the story it became a worldwide sensation. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Cottingley Fairies, a curiosity that would remain unexplained for most of the 20th century.

We’ll also remember a ferocious fire and puzzle over a troublesome gnome.

See full show notes …

The Friendship Medals


At the 1936 Olympics, Japanese pole vaulters Sueo Oe and Shuhei Nishida tied for second place, and the Japanese team were told to decide who should claim second place and who third.

After a long discussion, the team chose to favor Nishida, who had cleared 4.25 meters at his first attempt.

When they returned to Japan, Nishida and Oe had a jeweler cut each medal in half and then join the disparate halves, so that each man had a new medal, half silver and half bronze.

“The Horse of Joy”


The September 1918 issue of Popular Science Monthly describes an amusement introduced at Coney Island by Minnesota inventor Otto Fritsche: a horse made of double-walled aluminum. The patron wears a pair of shoulder straps and a gasoline engine drives the thing forward.

Aside from the fact that the contraption is supported in the rear by a pair of large wheels, that the front is supported by a human being, that a periscope protrudes from the head, and that exhaust gases puff from its ears, Otto believes it will be mistaken for a real animal.

“We would like to interview any man who has tried this form of amusement and has survived.”

Round Here


New Zealand’s Egmont National Park is pleasingly circular. Created in 1881, the reserve was specified to cover a 6-mile radius surveyed from the summit of Mount Taranaki, one of the most symmetrical volcanic cones in the world. The result is an almost perfect circle of 33,500 hectares — and it’s surrounded by pasture, which makes the boundary visually distinct.

In a Word


adj. of or relating to seas and oceans

n. a quick deterioration or breakdown, as of a situation or circumstance

adj. leaping upon

adj. hoped for; not hopeless

Shipwreck With a Surviving Dog, by the Danish artist Carl Bille (1815–1898).

“A Quaint Address”


Recently I came across a letter sent to me some years ago by a cousin and addressed in the curious manner here shown. The tune is taken from part of an old round called ‘Big Ben.’ In spite of the quaint address the letter was promptly delivered. — Mrs. Andrew Wall, Edinburgh

Strand, February 1911

“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