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 1844 New Orleans was riveted by a dramatic trial: A slave claimed that she was really a free immigrant who had been pressed into bondage as a young girl. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Sally Miller’s fight for freedom, which challenged notions of race and social hierarchy in antebellum Louisiana.
We’ll also try to pronounce some drug names and puzzle over some cheated tram drivers.
In the 1890s, Waldemar Haffkine worked valiantly to develop vaccines against both cholera and bubonic plague. Then an unjust accusation derailed his career. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Haffkine’s momentous work in India, which has been largely overlooked by history.
We’ll also consider some museum cats and puzzle over an endlessly energetic vehicle.
In 1938, Italian physicist Ettore Majorana vanished after taking a sudden sea journey. At first it was feared that he’d ended his life, but the perplexing circumstances left the truth uncertain. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review the facts of Majorana’s disappearance, its meaning for physics, and a surprising modern postscript.
We’ll also dither over pronunciation and puzzle over why it will take three days to catch a murderer.
In 1883, Missouri real estate broker James Reavis announced that he held title to a huge tract of land in the Arizona Territory. If certified, the claim would threaten the livelihoods of thousands of residents. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Baron of Arizona, one of the most audacious frauds in American history.
We’ll also scrutinize British statues and puzzle over some curious floor numbers.
One dark night in 1804, a London excise officer mistook a bricklayer for a ghost and shot him. This raised a difficult question: Was he guilty of murder? In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll consider the case of the Hammersmith ghost, which has been called “one of the greatest curiosities in English criminal law.”
We’ll also worry about British spiders and puzzle over some duplicative dog names.
In 1901, two English academics met a succession of strange characters during a visit to Versailles. They came to believe that they had strayed somehow into the mind of Marie Antoinette in the year before her execution. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the Moberly-Jourdain affair, a historical puzzle wrapped in a dream.
We’ll also revisit Christmas birthdays and puzzle over a presidential term.
In the 19th century, some New England communities grew so desperate to help victims of tuberculosis that they resorted to a macabre practice: digging up dead relatives and ritually burning their organs. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll examine the causes of this bizarre belief and review some unsettling examples.
We’ll also consider some fighting cyclists and puzzle over Freddie Mercury’s stamp.
In the 19th century, France, England, and the United States each set out to bring home an Egyptian obelisk. But each obelisk weighed hundreds of tons, and the techniques of moving them had long been forgotten. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the struggles of each nation to transport these massive monoliths using the technology of the 1800s.
We’ll also go on an Australian quest and puzzle over a cooling fire.
Eugene Bullard ran away from home in 1907 to seek his fortune in a more racially accepting Europe. There he led a life of staggering accomplishment, becoming by turns a prizefighter, a combat pilot, a nightclub impresario, and a spy. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell Bullard’s impressive story, which won him resounding praise in his adopted France.
We’ll also accidentally go to Canada and puzzle over a deadly omission.
Crossing the world in 1932, two German airmen ran out of fuel in a remote region of northwestern Australia. With no food and little water, they struggled to find their way to safety while rescuers fought to locate them. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the airmen’s ordeal, a dramatic story of perseverance and chance.
We’ll also survey some escalators and puzzle over a consequential crash.