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 1898 a Belgian ship on a scientific expedition was frozen into the sea off the coast of Antarctica. During the long polar night, its 18 men would confront fear, death, illness, and despair. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe life aboard the Belgica during its long, dark southern winter.
We’ll also consider a devaluing signature and puzzle over some missing music.
In 1838, Frenchwoman Henriette d’Angeville set out to climb Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps, against the advice of nearly everyone she knew. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow d’Angeville up the mountain to fulfill what she called “a monomania of the heart.”
We’ll also escape Australia in a box and puzzle over a fixed game.
For more than 40 years in the early 20th century, Martin Couney ran a sideshow in which premature babies were displayed in incubators. With this odd practice he offered a valuable service in an era when many hospitals couldn’t. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Couney’s unusual enterprise, which earned both criticism and praise.
We’ll also marvel over an Amazonian survival and puzzle over a pleasing refusal.
In April 1945, a group of American soldiers learned that hundreds of Lipizzaner horses were being held on a farm in western Czechoslovakia — and set out to rescue them before the Red Army could reach them. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of Operation Cowboy, one of the strangest episodes of World War II.
We’ll also learn about an NBA brawl and puzzle over a technology’s link to cancer deaths.
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.