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 289: The Johnstown Flood

Image: Ron Shawley

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.


For an 1866 California lecture tour, Mark Twain wrote his own handbills.

Raymond Chandler’s unused titles include The Diary of a Loud Check Suit.

Sources for our feature on the Johnstown flood:

David McCullough, Johnstown Flood, 1968.

Richard O’Connor, Johnstown the Day the Dam Broke, 1957.

Neil M. Coleman, Johnstown’s Flood of 1889: Power Over Truth and the Science Behind the Disaster, 2018.

Frank Connelly and George C. Jenks, Official History of the Johnstown Flood, 1889.

John Stuart Ogilvie, History of the Great Flood in Johnstown, Pa., May 31, 1889, 1889.

Willis Fletcher Johnson, History of the Johnstown Flood, 1889.

Neil M. Coleman, Uldis Kaktins, and Stephanie Wojno, “Dam-Breach Hydrology of the Johnstown Flood of 1889 — Challenging the Findings of the 1891 Investigation Report,” Heliyon 2:6 (2016), e00120.

Christine M. Kreiser, “Wave of Destruction,” American History 50:4 (October 2015), 38-41.

Uldis Kaktins et al., “Revisiting the Timing and Events Leading to and Causing the Johnstown Flood of 1889,” Pennsylvania History 80:3 (2013), 335-363.

Sid Perkins, “Johnstown Flood Matched Volume of Mississippi River,” Science News, Oct. 20, 2009.

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.

David Hurst, “‘It’s Still Controversial’: Debate Rages Over Culpability of Wealthy Club Members,” [Johnstown, Pa.] Tribune-Democrat, May 25, 2014.

Peter Smith, “Johnstown Flood of 1889: Greatest Disaster in the State Continues to Resonate,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 24, 2014.

Henry Fountain, “Research at the Source of a Pennsylvania Flood,” New York Times, Oct. 26, 2009.

“Town’s Ads Say Its Catastrophic Flood ‘Is Over,'” [Prescott, Ariz.] Daily Courier, March 31, 2002.

“Bones May Be From 1889 Flood,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 8, 1998, B-4.

Eric Pace, “Frank Shomo, Infant Survivor of Johnstown Flood, Dies at 108,” New York Times, March 24, 1997.

D. Byron Yake, “In Johnstown, They Still Talk About the Flood 85 Years Ago,” [Washington, Pa.] Observer-Reporter, May 31, 1974, B-6.

“Black Day in 1889; Johnstown, Pa., Marks Flood Anniversary,” New York Times, May 24, 1964.

“Flood Just Part of Little Known Tale Behind Johnstown Woes,” [Washington D.C.] Evening Star, May 30, 1939.

“A Valley of Death,” Three Rivers [Mich.] Tribune, June 7, 1889, 6.

Johnstown Area Heritage Association, “Johnstown Flood Museum: Pennsylvania Railroad Interview Transcripts,” 2013.

Listener mail:

Kelly Servick, “Brain Parasite May Strip Away Rodents’ Fear of Predators — Not Just of Cats,” Science, Jan. 14, 2020.

Madlaina Boillat et al., “Neuroinflammation-Associated Aspecific Manipulation of Mouse Predator Fear by Toxoplasma gondii,” Cell Reports 30:2 (2020), 320-334.

“Toxoplasma Infection in Mice Reduces Generalized Anxiety, Not Just Feline Fear,” Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News, Jan. 15, 2020.

The Royal Guardsmen, “Snoopy’s Christmas,” 1967:

The Royal Guardsmen, “Snoopy vs. The Red Baron,” 1966:

Wikipedia, “Snoopy’s Christmas” (accessed March 15, 2020).

Alistair Hughes, “Snoopy Still Flying at Christmas,” Stuff, Dec. 8, 2014.

“Snoopy’s Christmas ‘Worst Christmas Song of All Time,'” New Zealand Herald, Dec. 18, 2007.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was suggested by listeners David and Becky Pruessner. Here are two corroborating links (warning — these spoil 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.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — you can choose the amount you want to pledge, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support. You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.

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 288: Death at the Lane Cove River

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 287: The Public Universal Friend


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.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 286: If Day


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.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 285: The Grasshopper Plagues


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.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 284: The Red Barn


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.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 283: The Hermit of Suwarrow

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 282: Helga Estby’s Walk


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.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 281: Grey Owl

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 280: Leaving St. Kilda

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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.

See full show notes …