Podcast Episode 277: The Mad Trapper of Rat River


In the winter of 1931, a dramatic manhunt unfolded in northern Canada when a reclusive trapper shot a constable and fled across the frigid landscape. In the chase that followed the mysterious fugitive amazed his pursuers with his almost superhuman abilities. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the hunt for the “Mad Trapper of Rat River.”

We’ll also visit a forgotten windbreak and puzzle over a father’s age.

See full show notes …

“A Rebus-Letter”


Mark Twain sent this letter to his wife and daughters from Montreal on Nov. 27, 1881. What does it mean?

Click for Answer

False Features


Just before his death in 1702, butterfly collector William Charlton delivered an unusual specimen to London entomologist James Petiver. Petiver wrote, “It exactly resembles our English Brimstone Butterfly (R. Rhamni), were it not for those black spots and apparent blue moons on the lower wings. This is the only one I have seen.” Carl Linnaeus named it Papilio ecclipsis and included it in the 12th edition of his Systema Naturae in 1767.

It wasn’t until 1793 that Danish zoologist Johan Christian Fabricius discovered that the dark patches had been painted on — it was only an ordinary brimstone butterfly after all. The curator at the British Museum “indignantly stamped the specimen to pieces” at this news, but entomologist William Jones created two new replicas to commemorate the “Charlton Brimstones.”

Never Mind

On April 8, 1885, the St. Louis Evening Chronicle published an astonishing story — coal miner Tim Collins had broken into a forgotten cavern hewn by subterranean giants:

A large room, probably 65 by 100 feet in extent, showed itself dimly by the light of our tapers. It was about 20 or 25 feet from floor to ceiling, and had evidently been lighted from the top, though there were openings in the walls where, from appearances, great oaken blinds or doors had once been. These doors had rotted, and only small portions of them remained, small bits of which we chipped off with our knives as souvenirs of our visit. Further examination showed that this room had been used as a workshop but mechanics who had been at work long before Huram’s artificers hewed the architecture for Solomon’s temple. On each side near the walls, and also in the center, were found tables or benches where they had fashioned the work of their hands. These benches were of stone, and there were but few evidences of the character of work done. The wood that had been employed was damp, rotten and so covered with mold as to be almost indistinguishable in shape, and when touched, crumbled to dust. Tools were found on the benches, the handles of which had long since rotted away. But the tools themselves were in a good state of preservation and show that they were fashioned by master mechanics. A number of them were brought to the surface and are now exposed to the gaze of the curious.

The story drew worldwide attention for three days before it was revealed to be false — reporter J.W. Estes of the Moberly Daily Monitor had concocted it as a late April Fools’ Day hoax.

Collins was real enough — to keep off curiosity seekers he was forced to mount a sign at his mine’s entrance: NO BURRYIED SITY LUNATICKS ALOUD ON THESE PREMISES.

(From Kenneth L. Feder, Archaeological Oddities, 2019.)

Breaking the News

A letter from William Cullen Bryant to his mother, Jan. 16, 1821:

Dear Mother:

I hasten to communicate to you the melancholy intelligence of what has lately happened to me.

Early in the evening of the eleventh day of the present month, I was at a neighbouring house in this village. Several people of both sexes assembled in one of the apartments — three or four others, together with myself were in another. At last came a little elderly gentleman, pale, thin, with a solemn countenance, a pleuritic voice, hooked nose, and hollow eyes. Presently we were summoned to attend in the room where he and the rest of the company were assembled. We went in, and took our seats; the little elderly gentleman with the hooked nose then prayed, and we all stood up. When he had finished, most of us sat down. The little elderly gentleman with the hooked nose then asked those who remained standing for something which he called a certificate … A paper was accordingly produced, inscribed with certain significant characters, upon which having mused a little while, he turned to us and pronounced several cabalistical expressions, which I was too much frightened to remember — but I recollect very well, that, at the conclusion, I was given to understand that I was married to a young lady of the name of Frances Fairchild, whom I perceived standing by my side, and whom I hope, in the course of the next few months, to have the pleasure of introducing to you as your daughter-in-law; which is a matter of some interest to the poor girl who has neither father nor mother in the world. …

I looked only for goodness of heart, an ingenuous and affectionate disposition, a good understanding &c. &c., and the character of my wife is too frank and single-hearted to suffer me to suppose the possibility of my being disappointed. — I misstate the matter — I did not look for these, nor any qualities — but they trapped me before I was aware, and now I am married in spite of myself. When we shall begin to keep house will depend, as everything else does, altogether upon circumstances.

Thus the current of destiny carries us all along. None but a madman would swim against the stream, and none but a fool would exert himself to swim with it. The best way is to float idly with the tide. …

Your affectionate son

W.C. Bryant

Pain and Possession

A stunning finding regarding the efficacy of placebos:

In 2017 Victoria Wai-lanYeung, a psychologist at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, and her colleagues gave a placebo painkilling cream at random to half their subjects, as a gift, and then put all the subjects to a moderately painful task (immersing a hand in ice water).

Participants who’d received the cream but hadn’t used it reported lower pain levels than those who hadn’t received it — merely owning a fake painkiller had reduced their pain.

More at the link below.

(Victoria Wai-lanYeung, Andrew Geers, and Simon Man-chun Kam, “Merely Possessing a Placebo Analgesic Reduced Pain Intensity: Preliminary Findings From a Randomized Design,” Current Psychology 38:1 [2019], 194-203.)

Wagah-Attari Border Ceremony

Every evening since 1959, the security forces of India and Pakistan have performed a joint military ceremony at the Attari-Wagah border. Soldiers from both sides perform elaborate and highly choreographed maneuvers, including high leg raises, before the border gates are opened and the two flags are lowered simultaneously as the sun sets. The flags are folded, two soldiers shake hands, and the gates close again. For the spectators, the ceremony is a symbol of both the cooperation and the rivalry that exist between the two nations.

A Hat Puzzle

Each of three people is wearing either a red hat or a blue hat. Each can see the color of the others’ hats but not her own. Each is told to raise her hand if she sees a red hat on another player. The first to guess the color of her own hat correctly wins.

All three raise their hands. A few minutes pass in which no guesses are made, and then one player says “Red” and wins. How did she know the color of her hat?

Click for Answer


Mercyhurst College mathematician Charles Redmond used to get frantic phone calls at the end of each term from colleagues in other departments who’d written syllabi saying “Quiz 1 is 10% of your final grade” and now couldn’t figure out how to do the necessary calculation.

“There’s a good reason,” Redmond wrote. “They said something they didn’t mean to say, and they had only a vague notion of what they meant to say in the first place.”

He suggested that students might turn this confusion to their advantage. Suppose Quiz 1 is worth 10 or more points and your score is 9. If x is your final grade and “Quiz 1 is 10% of your final grade,” then 0.10x = 9 and suddenly your final grade is 90, an A.

“Not bad for about a week’s worth of work. Take the rest of the semester off.”

(Ed Barbeau, “Fallacies, Flaws, and Flimflam,” College Mathematics Journal 33:2 [March 2002], 137-139.)