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 253: The Dame of Sark

Image: Flickr

In June 1940, German forces took the Channel Islands, a small British dependency off the coast of France. They expected the occupation to go easily, but they hadn’t reckoned on the island of Sark, ruled by an iron-willed noblewoman with a disdain for Nazis. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of Sibyl Hathaway and her indomitable stand against the Germans.

We’ll also overtake an earthquake and puzzle over an inscrutable water pipe.


Raymond Chandler gave 10 rules for writing a detective novel.

In 1495 Leonardo da Vinci designed a mechanical knight.


Sources for our feature on Sybil Hathaway:

Sybil Hathaway, Dame of Sark: An Autobiography, 1961.

Alan and Mary Wood, Islands in Danger: The Story of the German Occupation of the Channel Islands, 1940-1945, 1955.

Gilly Carr, Paul Sanders, and Louise Willmot, Protest, Defiance and Resistance in the Channel Islands, 2014.

Madeleine Bunting, The Model Occupation: The Channel Islands Under German Rule, 1940-1945, 2014.

Roy MacLoughlin, Living With the Enemy: An Outline of the German Occupation of the Channel Islands With First Hand Accounts by People Who Remember the Years 1940 to 1945, 2002.

Cheryl R. Jorgensen-Earp, Discourse and Defiance Under Nazi Occupation: Guernsey, Channel Islands, 1940-1945, 2013.

Hazel Knowles Smith, The Changing Face of the Channel Islands Occupation: Record, Memory and Myth, 2014.

George Forty, German Occupation of the Channel Islands, 2002.

Paul Sanders, The British Channel Islands Under German Occupation, 1940-1945, 2005.

George Forty, Channel Islands at War: A German Perspective, 2005.

Gilly Carr, “Shining a Light on Dark Tourism: German Bunkers in the British Channel Islands,” Public Archaeology 9:2 (2010), 64-84.

Gillian Carr, “The Archaeology of Occupation and the V-Sign Campaign in the Occupied British Channel Islands,” International Journal of Historical Archaeology 14:4 (2010), 575-592.

Gilly Carr, “Occupation Heritage, Commemoration and Memory in Guernsey and Jersey,” History and Memory 24:1 (Spring 2012), 87-117, 178.

Gilly Carr, “Concrete’s Memory: Positioning Ghosts of War in the Channel Islands,” Terrain 69 (April 2018).

Peter Tabb, “‘You and I Will Eat Grass …,'” History Today 55:5 (May 2005), 2-3.

Paul Sanders, “Managing Under Duress: Ethical Leadership, Social Capital and the Civilian Administration of the British Channel Islands During the Nazi Occupation, 1940-1945,” Journal of Business Ethics 93, Supplement 1 (2010), 113-129.

Lucas Reilly, “How the World’s Only Feudal Lord Outclassed the Nazis to Save Her People,” Mental Floss, Nov. 6, 2018.

“Dame of Sark, 90, Ruler of Channel Island, Dead,” New York Times, July 15, 1974.

John Darnton, “St. Helier Journal; Facing Nazis, Upper Lips Were Not Always Stiff,” New York Times, May 6, 1995.

Robert Philpot, “New Film on Nazi Occupation of Channel Islands Prompts Disquieting Questions for Brits,” Times of Israel, April 13, 2017.

Francesca Street, “Radio Tower: Jersey’s Former German WWII Gun Tower Now for Rent,” CNN, Aug. 28, 2018.

Liza Foreman, “The Crazy Medieval Island of Sark,” Daily Beast, Oct. 4, 2014.

Julie Carpenter, “John Nettles: ‘Telling the Truth About Channel Islands Cost Me My Friends,'” Express, Nov. 5, 2012.

Ben Johnson, “Sark, Channel Islands,” Historic UK (accessed June 2, 2019).

William D. Montalbano, “Nazi Occupation in WWII Haunts Islands Off Britain,” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 29, 1996.

Graham Heathcote, “Quiet Occupation by German Troops on Britain’s Channel Islands,” Associated Press, May 9, 1995.

William Tuohy, “Britain Files Reveal a Dark Chapter of War Years Nazis Occupied the Channel Islands Until Mid-1945, and Many Residents Collaborated,” Los Angeles Times, Dec. 5, 1992, 3.

Marcus Binney, “Release of War Files Reopens the Wounds of Nazi Occupation,” Times, Dec. 2, 1992.

Julia Pascal, “Comment & Analysis: Our Hidden History: Sixty Years After the Deportation of Britons from the Channel Islands, the Suffering Is Neither Acknowledged Nor Compensated,” Guardian, Sept. 5, 2002, 1.23.

Ray Clancy, “War Files Show How Alderney Was Left Alone Against Nazis,” Times, Dec. 2, 1992.

William Montalbano, “Nazi Reports Raise Islands’ Painful Past: Channel Islands’ Invasion Created Moral Dilemmas,” Toronto Star, Dec. 1, 1996, A.8.

Andrew Phillips, “The Ghosts of War,” Maclean’s 106:1 (Jan. 4, 1993), 50-51.

“Taylor: Remembering the Channel Islands Occupation,” Toronto Sun, Nov. 3, 2018.

Rosemary F. Head et al., “Cardiovascular Disease in a Cohort Exposed to the 1940–45 Channel Islands Occupation,” BMC Public Health 8:303 (2008).

Madeleine Bunting, “Living With the Enemy,” The World Today 71:3 (June/July 2015), 10.

Listener mail:

“‘Not on Your Life!’ Says Actress, Flees Spotlight,” Chicago Tribune, Nov. 12, 1993.

“Seismic Waves,” xkcd, April 5, 2010.

Sune Lehmann, “TweetQuake,” Aug. 25, 2011.

Rhett Allain, “Tweet Waves vs. Seismic Waves,” Wired, Aug. 26, 2011.

Javed Anwer, “Delhi Earthquake Proves Twitter Is Faster Than Seismic Waves. Again,” India Today, April 13, 2016.

Brad Plumer, “Tweets Move Faster Than Earthquakes,” Washington Post, Aug. 25, 2011.

Lauren Indvik, “East Coasters Turn to Twitter During Virginia Earthquake,” Mashable, Aug. 23, 2011.

Catharine Smith, “Twitter’s New Ad Claims It’s Faster Than An Earthquake (VIDEO),” Huffington Post, Sept. 1, 2011.

Alex Ward, “Larry the Cat, UK’s ‘Chief Mouser,’ Caused a Brief Headache for Trump’s Security Team,” Vox, June 4, 2019.

Jennifer Ouellette, “No, Someone Hasn’t Cracked the Code of the Mysterious Voynich Manuscript,” Ars Technica, May 15, 2019.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was offered by M. Lobak in the old Soviet popular science magazine Kvant (collected with other such puzzles by Timothy Weber in the excellent 1996 book Quantum Quandaries).

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 252: The Wild Boy of Aveyron


In 1800 a 12-year-old boy emerged from a forest in southern France, where he had apparently lived alone for seven years. His case was taken up by a young Paris doctor who set out to see if the boy could be civilized. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll explore the strange, sad story of Victor of Aveyron and the mysteries of child development.

We’ll also consider the nature of art and puzzle over the relationship between salmon and trees.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 251: Joseph Palmer’s Beard


In 1830 Joseph Palmer created an odd controversy in Fitchburg, Massachusetts: He wore a beard when beards were out of fashion. For this social sin he was shunned, attacked, and ultimately jailed. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of a bizarre battle against irrational prejudice.

We’ll also see whether a computer can understand knitting and puzzle over an unrewarded long jump.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 250: The General Slocum


In 1904 a Manhattan church outing descended into horror when a passenger steamboat caught fire on the East River. More than a thousand people struggled to survive as the captain raced to reach land. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the burning of the General Slocum, the worst maritime disaster in the history of New York City.

We’ll also chase some marathon cheaters and puzzle over a confusing speeding ticket.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 249: The Robbers Cave Experiment

robbers cave

In 1954 a social psychologist started a war between two teams of fifth graders at an Oklahoma summer camp. He wanted to investigate the sources of human conflict and how people might overcome them. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review the Robbers Cave Experiment and examine its evolving reputation.

We’ll also dredge up a Dalek and puzzle over a hazardous job.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 248: Smoky the War Dog


In 1944, an American soldier discovered a Yorkshire terrier in an abandoned foxhole in New Guinea. Adopted by an Army photographer, she embarked on a series of colorful adventures that won the hearts of the humans around her. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of Smoky the dog, one of the most endearing characters of World War II.

We’ll also contemplate chicken spectacles and puzzle over a gratified diner.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 246: Gene Tierney’s Secret Heartbreak


At the height of her fame in 1943, movie star Gene Tierney contracted German measles during pregnancy and bore a daughter with severe birth defects. The strain ended her marriage to Oleg Cassini and sent her into a breakdown that lasted years. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Tierney’s years of heartbreak and the revelation that compounded them.

We’ll also visit some Japanese cats and puzzle over a disarranged corpse.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 245: Jeanne Baret


The first woman to circumnavigate the world did so dressed as a man. In 1766, 26-year-old Jeanne Baret joined a French expedition hoping to conceal her identity for three years. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of her historic journey around the globe.

We’ll also hear Mark Twain’s shark story and puzzle over a foiled con artist.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 244: The Women’s Protest

Image: Wikimedia Commons

In February 1943, hundreds of German women joined in a spontaneous protest in central Berlin. They were objecting to the roundup of some of the city’s last Jews — their husbands. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the Rosenstrasse protest, a remarkable example of civil disobedience.

We’ll also ponder whether a computer can make art and puzzle over some unusual phone calls.

See full show notes …