The Futility Closet podcast is a weekly show featuring forgotten stories from the pages of history. Join us each Monday for surprising and curious tales from the past and to challenge yourself with our lateral thinking puzzles.
In 1889, a dam failed in southwestern Pennsylvania, sending 20 million tons of water down an industrialized valley toward the unsuspecting city of Johnstown. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe some of the dramatic and harrowing personal stories that unfolded on that historic day.
We’ll also celebrate Christmas with Snoopy and puzzle over a deadly traffic light.
Emily Godbey, “Disaster Tourism and the Melodrama of Authenticity: Revisiting the 1889 Johnstown Flood,” Pennsylvania History 73:3 (2006), 273-315.
Mary P. Lavine, “The Johnstown Floods: Causes and Consequences,” in S.K. Majumdar et al., eds., Natural and Technological Disasters: Causes, Effects and Preventative Measures, Pennsylvania Academy of Science, 1992.
Robert D. Christie, “The Johnstown Flood,” Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine 54:2 (April 1971), 198-210.
John Bach McMaster, “The Johnstown Flood,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 57:3 (1933), 209-243.
John Bach McMaster, “The Johnstown Flood: II,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 57:4 (1933), 316-354.
“The Johnstown Disaster,” Scientific American 60:26 (June 29, 1889), 406-407.
Jason Zweig, “National News, 1889: Club Is Found Culpable in Johnstown Flood,” Wall Street Journal, July 7, 2014.
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Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.
On New Year’s Day 1963, two bodies were discovered on an Australian riverbank. Though their identities were quickly determined, weeks of intensive investigation failed to uncover a cause or motive for their deaths. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Bogle-Chandler case, which riveted Australia for years.
We’ll also revisit the Rosenhan study and puzzle over a revealing lighthouse.
After a severe fever in 1776, Rhode Island farmer’s daughter Jemima Wilkinson was reborn as a genderless celestial being who had been sent to warn of the coming Apocalypse. But the general public was too scandalized by the messenger to pay heed to the message. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Public Universal Friend and the prejudiced reaction of a newly formed nation.
We’ll also bid on an immortal piano and puzzle over some Icelandic conceptions.
In 1942, Manitoba chose a startling way to promote the sale of war bonds — it staged a Nazi invasion of Winnipeg. For one gripping day, soldiers captured the city, arrested its leaders, and oppressed its citizens. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe If Day, which one observer called “the biggest and most important publicity stunt” in Winnipeg’s history.
We’ll also consider some forged wine and puzzle over some unnoticed car options.
In the 1870s, new farmsteads on the American plains were beset by enormous swarms of grasshoppers sweeping eastward from the Rocky Mountains. The insects were a disaster for vulnerable farmers, attacking in enormous numbers and devouring everything before them. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the grasshopper plagues and the settlers’ struggles against them.
We’ll also delve into urban legends and puzzle over some vanishing children.
When Maria Marten disappeared from the English village of Polstead in 1827, her lover said that they had married and were living on the Isle of Wight. But Maria’s stepmother began having disturbing dreams that hinted at a much grimmer fate. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Red Barn, which transfixed Britain in the early 19th century.
We’ll also encounter an unfortunate copycat and puzzle over some curious births.
In 1952, New Zealander Tom Neale set out to establish a solitary life for himself on a remote island in the South Pacific. In all he would spend 17 years there, building a fulfilling life fending entirely for himself. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Neale’s adventures on the island and his impressions of an isolated existence.
We’ll also revisit Scunthorpe and puzzle over a boat’s odd behavior.
In 1896, Norwegian immigrant Helga Estby faced the foreclosure of her family’s Washington farm. To pay the debt she accepted a wager to walk across the United States within seven months. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow her daring bid to win the prize, and its surprising consequence.
We’ll also toast Edgar Allan Poe and puzzle over a perplexing train.
In the 1930s the world’s best-known conservationist was an ex-trapper named Grey Owl who wrote and lectured ardently for the preservation of the Canadian wilderness. At his death, though, it was discovered that he wasn’t who he’d claimed to be. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of his curious history and complicated legacy.
We’ll also learn how your father can be your uncle and puzzle over a duplicate record.
1930 saw the quiet conclusion of a remarkable era. The tiny population of St. Kilda, an isolated Scottish archipelago, decided to end their thousand-year tenure as the most remote community in Britain and move to the mainland. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the remarkable life they’d shared on the island and the reasons they chose to leave.
We’ll also track a stork to Sudan and puzzle over the uses of tea trays.