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.

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If you have any questions or comments, please write to us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Podcast Episode 265: The Great Hedge of India

Image: Wikimedia Commons

In the 19th century, an enormous hedge ran for more than a thousand miles across India, installed by the British to enforce a tax on salt. Though it took a Herculean effort to build, today it’s been almost completely forgotten. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe this strange project and reflect on its disappearance from history.

We’ll also exonerate a rooster and puzzle over a racing murderer.


A group of plasterers working in London’s Tate Britain art gallery in 1897 left a message for future generations.

Four chemical elements were discovered in the same Swedish mine.

Sources for our feature on the Great Hedge of India:

Roy Moxham, The Great Hedge of India: The Search for the Living Barrier that Divided a People, 2001.

Mark Kurlansky, Salt: A World History, 2011.

Sir William Henry Sleeman, Rambles and Recollections of an Indian Official, 1844.

Shugan Chand Aggarwal, The Salt Industry in India, 1976.

Sir John Strachey, India, 1888.

Ajit K. Neogy, The Paramount Power and the Princely States of India, 1858-1881, 1979.

Henry Francis Pelham, Essays, 1911.

G.S. Chhabra, Advanced Study in the History of Modern India: 1813-1919, 1971.

D.A. Barker, “The Taxation of Salt in India,” The Economic Review 20 (1910), 165-172.

Nicholas Blomley, “Making Private Property: Enclosure, Common Right and the Work of Hedges,” Rural History 18:1 (2007), 1-21.

Barry Lewis, “Village Defenses of the Karnataka Maidan, AD 1600–1800,” South Asian Studies 25:1 (2009), 91-111.

Roy Moxham, “Salt Starvation in British India: Consequences of High Salt Taxation in Bengal Presidency, 1765 to 1878,” Economic and Political Weekly 36:25 (June 23-29, 2001), 2270-2274.

Roy Moxham, “The Great Hedge of India,” in Jantine Schroeder, Radu Botez, and Marine Formentini, Radioactive Waste Management and Constructing Memory for Future Generations: Proceedings of the International Conference and Debate, September 15-17, 2014, Verdun, France, Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, 2015.

“The Great Hedge of India: A Lost Wonder of the World,” The Long View, BBC Radio 4, March 14, 2017.

Adrian Higgins, “The Odd Tale of Britain’s Wall — a Hedge — Across a Swath of India,” Washington Post, Feb. 13, 2019.

David G.W. Birch, “When Britain Built Its Own Wall: The Great Hedge of India,” iNews, Feb. 9, 2017.

Stephen Pritchard, “Privets on Parade …” Guardian, Jan. 14, 2001.

Nilanjana S. Roy, “Of Indian Elections, Onions and Salt,” New York Times, Nov. 20, 2013.

Maurice Chittenden, “Great Hedge of India Defended the Empire,” Sunday Times, Dec. 10, 2000, 7.

Aneesh Gokhale, “Why British Built the Great Hedge of India,” DNA, Aug. 12 2018.

Roy Moxham, “The Great Hedge of India,” Sunday Telegraph, Jan. 7, 2001, 4.

Annabelle Quince, “Border Walls Around the World,” Rear Vision, ABC Premium News, May 17, 2017.

“Have You Heard of the Salt Hedge?” New Indian Express, March 16, 2015.

Roy Moxham, “Magnificent Obsession,” Weekend Australian, Oct. 5, 2002, B.26.

Matthew Wilson, “In the Thicket of It,” Financial Times, Nov. 12, 2016, 20.

Moxham writes, “My GPS reading at Pali Ghar was 26° 32.2’ N, 79° 09.2’ E. If this reading is put into Google Earth, the embankment of the Hedge is clearly visible – but only if you already know it is there.”

Listener mail:

Jonathan M. Gitlin, “Geeky License Plate Earns Hacker $12,000 in Parking Tickets,” Ars Technica, Aug. 13, 2019.

Brian Barrett, “How a ‘NULL’ License Plate Landed One Hacker in Ticket Hell,” Wired, Aug. 13, 2019.

Kim Willsher, “Maurice the Noisy Rooster Can Keep Crowing, Court Rules,” Guardian, Sept. 5, 2019.

“French Rooster Maurice Wins Battle Over Noise With Neighbours,” BBC News, Sept. 5, 2019.

“If It Quacks Like a Duck: Boisterous Poultry Land French Owner in Court,” Agence France-Presse, Sept. 2, 2019.

Tom Whipple, “Larry the Cat Faces Rival as Jack Russell Puppy Arrives in Downing Street,” Times, Sept. 2 2019.

Amy Walker, “Downing Street Gets New Resident — a Dog Named Dilyn,” Guardian, Sept. 2, 2019.

Hayley Dixon, “Boris Johnson and Carrie Symonds to Move Rescued Jack Russell Puppy Into Downing Street,” Telegraph, Sept. 1, 2019.

“Boris Johnson’s New Rescue Puppy Moves Into Downing Street,” BBC News, Sept. 2, 2019.

“Dogs That Keep Mice Away,” Animal & Pest Control Specialist, Dec. 5, 2013.

“Working History of the Jack Russell Terrier,” Jack Russell Terrier Club of America.

Tom Ough, “Sepsis, Incontinence, and Murder Mysteries: A History of Downing Street Pets,” Telegraph, Sept. 2, 2019.

Meagan Flynn, “A Lawsuit Against Maurice the Rooster Divided France. Now a Judge Says He Can Crow in Peace,” Washington Post, Sept 6, 2019.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Dafydd Viney, who sent this corroborating link (warning — this spoils the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on Google Podcasts, on Apple Podcasts, or via the RSS feed at https://futilitycloset.libsyn.com/rss.

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Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Podcast Episode 264: Jack Renton and the Saltwater People


In 1868, Scottish sailor Jack Renton found himself the captive of a native people in the Solomon Islands, but through luck and skill he rose to become a respected warrior among them. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of Renton’s life among the saltwater people and his return to the Western world.

We’ll also catch some more speeders and puzzle over a regrettable book.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 263: Memories of Proust


Confined in a Soviet prison camp in 1941, Polish painter Józef Czapski chose a unique way to cope: He lectured to the other prisoners on Marcel Proust’s novel In Search of Lost Time. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Czapski’s ambitious project and the surprising importance of literature to the prisoners of oppressive regimes.

We’ll also race some lemons and puzzle over a woman’s birthdays.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 262: A Modern-Day Thoreau


In 1968, Richard Proenneke left his career as a heavy equipment operator and took up an entirely new existence. He flew to a remote Alaskan lake, built a log cabin by hand, and began a life of quiet self-reliance. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll hear Proenneke’s reflections on a simple life lived in harmony with nature.

We’ll also put a rooster on trial and puzzle over a curious purchase.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 261: The Murder of Lord William Russell

Image: Harvard Digital Collections

In May 1840 London was scandalized by the murder of Lord William Russell, who’d been found in his bed with his throat cut. The evidence seemed to point to an intruder, but suspicion soon fell on Russell’s valet. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the investigation and trial, and the late revelation that decided the case.

We’ll also marvel at Ireland’s greenery and puzzle over a foiled kidnapping.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 260: The Rugged Road

florence blenkiron and theresa wallach

In 1934, two Englishwomen set out to do what no one had ever done before: travel the length of Africa on a motorcycle. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Theresa Wallach and Florence Blenkiron from Algiers to Cape Town on a 14,000-mile adventure that many had told them was impossible.

We’ll also anticipate some earthquakes and puzzle over a daughter’s age.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 259: The Astor Place Riot


The second-bloodiest riot in the history of New York was touched off by a dispute between two Shakespearean actors. Their supporters started a brawl that killed as many as 30 people and changed the institution of theater in American society. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Astor Place riot, “one of the strangest episodes in dramatic history.”

We’ll also fertilize a forest and puzzle over some left-handed light bulbs.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 258: The First Great Train Robbery


In 1855 a band of London thieves set their sights on a new target: the South Eastern Railway, which carried gold bullion to the English coast. The payoff could be enormous, but the heist would require meticulous planning. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the first great train robbery, one of the most audacious crimes of the 19th century.

We’ll also jump into the record books and puzzle over a changing citizen.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 257: The Sledge Patrol

Image: NASA Earth Observatory

In 1943 an isolated sledge patrol came upon a secret German weather station in northeastern Greenland. The discovery set off a series of dramatic incidents that unfolded across 400 miles of desolate coast. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow this arctic struggle, an often overlooked drama of World War II.

We’ll also catch some speeders and puzzle over a disastrous remedy.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 256: Lasseter’s Reef


In 1930 Harold Lasseter claimed he’d discovered an enormous deposit of gold in the remote interior of Australia, and a small group of men set off into the punishing desert in search of a fortune estimated at 66 million pounds. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of Lasseter’s reef, one of the most enduring legends of the Australian outback.

We’ll also reconsider the mortality rates of presidents and puzzle over an unlocked door.

See full show notes …