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.

You can listen using the streaming players below, or subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Android, or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at https://futilitycloset.libsyn.com/rss.

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

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.


Dutch engineer Theo Jansen builds sculptures that walk.

Helen Fouché Gaines’ 1956 cryptanalysis textbook ends with a cipher that “nobody has ever been able to decrypt.”

Sources for our feature on Grey Owl:

Donald B. Smith, From the Land of Shadows: The Making of Grey Owl, 2000.

Albert Braz, Apostate Englishman: Grey Owl the Writer and the Myths, 2015.

Jane Billinghurst, Grey Owl: The Many Faces of Archie Belaney, 1999.

Allison Mitcham, Grey Owl’s Favorite Wilderness Revisited, 1991.

Lovat Dickson, Wilderness Man: The Strange Story of Grey Owl, 1973.

Anahareo, Devil in Deerskins: My Life With Grey Owl, 1972.

James Polk, Wilderness Writers, 1972.

Brian Bethune, “Truth and Consequences,” Maclean’s 112:40 (Oct. 4, 1999), 58.

Kenneth Brower, “Grey Owl,” Atlantic 265:1 (January 1990), 74-84.

Trent Frayne, “Grey Owl the Magnificent Fraud,” Maclean’s 64 (Aug. 1, 1951), 14-16, 37-39.

Dane Lanken, “The Vision of Grey Owl,” Canadian Geographic 119:2 (March/April 1999), 74-80.

Fenn Stewart, “Grey Owl in the White Settler Wilderness: ‘Imaginary Indians’ in Canadian Culture and Law,” Law, Culture and the Humanities 14:1 (Oct. 8, 2014), 161-181.

Kevin Young, “Cowboys & Aliens,” Kenyon Review 39:6 (November/December 2017), 10-32.

David Chapin, “Gender and Indian Masquerade in the Life of Grey Owl,” American Indian Quarterly 24:1 (Winter 2000), 91-109.

John Hayman, “Grey Owl’s Wild Goose Chase,” History Today 44:1 (January 1994), 42.

Mark Collin Reid, “Grey Owl,” Canada’s History 95:5 (October/November 2015), 14-15.

Donald B. Smith, “Belaney, Archibald Stansfeld [called Grey Owl],” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Sept. 23, 2004.

Donald B. Smith, “Belaney, Archibald Stansfeld, Known as Grey Owl and Wa-sha-quon-asin,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Vol. 16, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003 (accessed Jan. 5, 2020).

Donald B. Smith, “Archibald Belaney, Grey Owl,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, June 17, 2008 (accessed Jan. 5, 2020).

Susan Griffith, “Grey Owl: Champion of the Canadian Wilderness,” Independent, Nov. 12, 2015.

Jane Onyanga-Omara, “Grey Owl: Canada’s Great Conservationist and Imposter,” BBC News, Sept. 19, 2013.

James H. Marsh, “Grey Owl’s Great Deception,” CanWest News, Sept. 17, 2003, 1.

Tony Lofaro, “Why I Kept Grey Owl’s Secret,” Ottawa Citizen, Sept. 21, 1999, D3.

Peter Unwin, “The Fabulations of Grey Owl,” The Beaver 79:2 (April 1999), 13-19.

Henrietta Smyth, “Grey Owl Returns to England,” North Bay [Ontario] Nugget, April 3, 1999, B1.

“Grey Owl,” New York Times, April 17, 1938.

“Service Honors Grey Owl,” New York Times, April 16, 1938.

“Grey Owl, Worker for Conservation,” New York Times, April 14, 1938.

“Doctor and Nurse to Beavers in Canada Is Indian Grey Owl,” New York Times, June 24, 1934.

“Do You Know?”, Roanoke Rapids [N.C.] Herald, Nov. 24, 1932, 2.

Listener mail:

Roger Schlueter, “Getting a Bone Marrow Transplant Could Give You New DNA, Too,” Belleville [Ill.] News-Democrat, Jan. 16, 2018.

“She’s Her Own Twin,” ABC News, Aug. 15, 2006.

Wikipedia, “Lydia Fairchild” (accessed Jan. 8, 2020).

Wikipedia, “Chimera (Genetics)” (accessed Jan. 9, 2020).

Jessica Richardson, “Man Fails Paternity Test Due to Passing on Unborn Twin’s DNA,” BioNews, Nov. 2, 2015.

Alice Park, “How a Man’s Unborn Twin Fathered His Child,” Time, Oct. 28, 2015.

Heather Murphy, “When a DNA Test Says You’re a Younger Man, Who Lives 5,000 Miles Away,” New York Times, Dec. 7, 2019.

Heather Murphy, “The Case of a Man With Two Sets of DNA Raises More Questions,” New York Times, Dec. 12, 2019.

Carl Zimmer, “In the Marmoset Family, Things Really Do Appear to Be All Relative,” New York Times, March 27, 2007.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Paul Kapp.

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 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 …

Podcast Episode 279: The Champawat Tiger


At the turn of the 20th century, a rogue tiger terrorized the villages of Nepal and northern India. By the time British hunter Jim Corbett was called in, it had killed 434 people. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Corbett’s pursuit of the elusive cat, and his enlightened efforts to address the source of the problem.

We’ll also revisit a Confederate spy and puzzle over a bloody ship.

See full show notes …

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 …

Podcast Episode 276: An Unlikely Confederate Spy


As the Civil War fractured Washington D.C., socialite Rose O’Neal Greenhow coordinated a vital spy ring to funnel information to the Confederates. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe one of the war’s most unlikely spies, and her determination to aid the South.

We’ll also fragment the queen’s birthday and puzzle over a paid game of pinball.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 275: A Kidnapped Painting


In 1961, Goya’s famous portrait of the Duke of Wellington went missing from London’s National Gallery. The case went unsolved for four years before someone unexpectedly came forward to confess to the heist. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe one of the greatest art thefts in British history and the surprising twists that followed.

We’ll also discover Seward’s real folly and puzzle over a man’s motherhood.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 274: Death in a Nutshell

Image: Flickr

In the 1940s, Frances Glessner Lee brought new rigor to crime scene analysis with a curiously quaint tool: She designed 20 miniature scenes of puzzling deaths and challenged her students to investigate them analytically. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death and their importance to modern investigations.

We’ll also appreciate an overlooked sled dog and puzzle over a shrunken state.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 273: Alice Ramsey’s Historic Drive


In 1909, 22-year-old Alice Huyler Ramsey set out to become the first woman to drive across the United States. In an era of imperfect cars and atrocious roads, she would have to find her own way and undertake her own repairs across 3,800 miles of rugged, poorly mapped terrain. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Ramsey on her historic journey.

We’ll also ponder the limits of free speech and puzzle over some banned candy.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 272: The Cannibal Convict


In 1822, Irish thief Alexander Pearce joined seven convicts fleeing a penal colony in western Tasmania. As they struggled eastward through some of the most inhospitable terrain on Earth, starvation pressed the party into a series of grim sacrifices. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the prisoners on their nightmarish bid for freedom.

We’ll also unearth another giant and puzzle over an eagle’s itinerary.

See full show notes …