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.

Support us on Patreon to get post-show discussions, outtakes, extra lateral thinking puzzles, and more.

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

Podcast Episode 276: A Confederate Rose


As the Civil War fractured Washington D.C., socialite Rose O’Neal Greenhow coordinated a vital spy ring to funnel information to her beloved Confederates. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Greenhow’s courage and resourcefulness, which won praise from Jefferson Davis and notoriety in the North.

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


German officer Ernst Jünger likened the sounds of World War I shelling to “being menaced by a man swinging a heavy hammer.”

Bowdoin College compiled a list of odd how-to titles.

Sources for our feature on Rose O’Neal Greenhow:

Ann Blackman, Wild Rose: Rose O’Neale Greenhow, Civil War Spy, 2006.

Ishbel Ross, Rebel Rose: Life of Rose O’Neal Greenhow, Confederate Spy, 1954.

Karen Abbott, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War, 2014.

Rose O’Neal Greenhow, My Imprisonment and the First Year of Abolition Rule at Washington, 1863.

H. Donald Winkler, Stealing Secrets: How a Few Daring Women Deceived Generals, Impacted Battles, and Altered the Course of the Civil War, 2010.

Michael J. Sulick, Spying in America: Espionage from the Revolutionary War to the Dawn of the Cold War, 2014.

Allan Pinkerton, The Spy of the Rebellion, 1886.

John Bakeless, Spies of the Confederacy, 2011.

Ernest B. Furgurson, “The End of Illusions,” Smithsonian 42:4 (July/August 2011), 56-64.

Jack Finnegan, “Professional Results for an Amateur,” Military History, suppl. “Spies and Secret Missions: A History of American Espionage” (2002), 34-35.

Nancy B. Samuelson, “Employment of Female Spies in the American Civil War,” Minerva 7:3 (Dec. 31, 1989), 57.

“Seized Correspondence of Rose O’Neal Greenhow,” U.S. National Archives (accessed Nov. 24, 2019).

Rose O’Neal Greenhow Papers, Special Collections Library, Duke University.

“The Wild Rose of Washington,” New York Times, Aug. 22, 2011.

“Spy Loved, Died in Line of Duty,” [Wilmington, N.C] Morning Star, Dec. 31, 1999, 23.

“Civil War Day by Day,” Washington [D.C.] Herald, Sept. 30, 1914, 4.

“Fair Southern Spies,” [Savannah, Ga.] Morning News, Sept. 29, 1896, 5.

“Blockade Running,” [Winston, N.C.] Western Sentinel, Jan. 14, 1886.

“A Rich New Year’s Gift,” Yorkville [S.C.] Enquirer, Feb. 6, 1862, 1.

“The Female Traitors in Washington,” New York Herald, Jan. 22, 1862, 2.

“Mrs. Greenhow’s Indignant Letter to Mr. Seward,” New York Herald, Dec. 16, 1861, 4.

Phyllis F. Field, “Greenhow, Rose O’Neal,” American National Biography, February 2000.

Listener mail:

“Public Holidays in Western Australia,” Government of Western Australia Department of Mines, Industry Regulation and Safety (accessed Nov. 27, 2019).

Wikipedia, “Oscar Wilde” (accessed Nov. 27, 2019).

Howard Markel, “No, Oscar Wilde Probably Didn’t Die of Syphilis,” PBS NewsHour, Nov. 30, 2015.

Jon Henley, “Wilde Gets Revenge on Wallpaper,” Guardian, Dec. 1, 2000.

“What Are the Best Last Words Ever?”, Atlantic 317:4 (April 2016), 13.

“Grand Lakes St. Marys Educational Series: History of GLSM What You Don’t Know,” Lake Improvement Association (accessed Nov. 30, 2019).

“Grand Lake St. Marys State Park: History,” Ohio State Parks and Watercraft (accessed Nov. 30, 2019).

Lew Powell, “Behind the Lines, Fighting Malaria With Whiskey,” North Carolina Miscellany, July 10, 2011.

Wikipedia, “Gin and Tonic” (accessed Nov. 30, 2019).

Wikipedia, “Tonic Water” (accessed Nov. 30, 2019).

“‘The Book of Gin’ Distills a Spirited History,” Morning Edition, National Public Radio, Dec. 28, 2012.

Kal Raustiala, “The Imperial Cocktail,” Slate, Aug. 28, 2013.

“The Largest Human-Made Lakes in the World,” WorldAtlas (accessed Nov. 30, 2019).

Wikipedia, “Lake Kariba” (accessed Nov. 30, 2019).

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was inspired by an item heard on the podcast No Such Thing as a Fish. 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 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 …

Podcast Episode 271: The Fraudulent Life of Cassie Chadwick


In 1902, scam artist Cassie Chadwick convinced an Ohio lawyer that she was the illegitimate daughter of steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. She parlayed this reputation into a life of unthinkable extravagance — until her debts came due. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Chadwick’s efforts to maintain the ruse — and how she hoped to get away with it.

We’ll also encounter a haunted tomb and puzzle over an exonerated merchant.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 270: Kidnapped by North Korea

Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1978, two luminaries of South Korean cinema were abducted by Kim Jong-Il and forced to make films in North Korea in an outlandish plan to improve his country’s fortunes. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of Choi Eun-Hee and Shin Sang-Ok and their dramatic efforts to escape their captors.

We’ll also examine Napoleon’s wallpaper and puzzle over an abandoned construction.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 269: The Sack of Baltimore


One night in 1631, pirates from the Barbary coast stole ashore at the little Irish village of Baltimore and abducted 107 people to a life of slavery in Algiers — a rare instance of African raiders seizing white slaves from the British Isles. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the sack of Baltimore and the new life that awaited the captives in North Africa.

We’ll also save the Tower of London and puzzle over a controversial number.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 268: The Great Impostor


Ferdinand Demara earned his reputation as the Great Impostor: For over 22 years he criss-crossed the country, posing as everything from an auditor to a zoologist and stealing a succession of identities to fool his employers. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review Demara’s motivation, morality, and techniques — and the charismatic spell he seemed to cast over others.

We’ll also make Big Ben strike 13 and puzzle over a movie watcher’s cat.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 267: The Murchison Murders


In 1929, detective novelist Arthur Upfield wanted to devise the perfect murder, so he started a discussion among his friends in Western Australia. He was pleased with their solution — until local workers began disappearing, as if the book were coming true. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the Murchison murders, a disturbing case of life imitating art.

We’ll also incite a revolution and puzzle over a perplexing purchase.

See full show notes …