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 228: The Children’s Champion

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Polish educator Janusz Korczak set out to remake the world just as it was falling apart. In the 1930s his Warsaw orphanage was an enlightened society run by the children themselves, but he struggled to keep that ideal alive as Europe descended into darkness. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the children’s champion and his sacrifices for the orphans he loved.

We’ll also visit an incoherent space station and puzzle over why one woman needs two cars.


Elbert Hubbard and his wife decided on a final gesture aboard the sinking Lusitania.

E.E. Cummings dedicated his 1935 collection of poetry to the 14 publishing houses that rejected it.


Sources for our story on Janusz Korczak:

Betty Jean Lifton, The King of Children, 1988.

Adir Cohen, The Gate of Light, 1994.

E.P. Kulawiec, ed., The Warsaw Ghetto Memoirs of Janusz Korczak, 1979.

Marc Silverman, A Pedagogy of Humanist Moral Education: The Educational Thought of Janusz Korczak, 2017.

Susan J. Berger, “The Children’s Advocate: Janusz Korczak,” American Educational History Journal 33:2 (2006), 137-142.

Robert Leiter, “For the Sake of Children,” Jewish Exponent, April 6, 2000, 59.

Liba H. Engel, “Does School Reform Have Legs? The Flourishing of Janusz Korczak’s Pedagogy in Modern Israel,” Educational Forum 68:2 (Winter 2004), 170-179.

Reinhold Boschki, “Re-Reading Martin Buber and Janusz Korczak: Fresh Impulses Toward a Relational Approach to Religious Education,” Religious Education 100:2 (Spring 2005), 114-126.

Liba H. Engel, “Experiments in Democratic Education: Dewey’s Lab School and Korczak’s Children’s Republic,” Social Studies 99:3 (May/June 2008), 117-121.

Robert Leiter, “‘Who Is That Man?’ In the End, He Was the Comforter of Lost Children,” Jewish Exponent, June 10, 2004, 32.

Daniel Feldman, “Honoring the Child’s Right to Respect: Janusz Korczak as Holocaust Educator,” The Lion and the Unicorn 40:2 (April 2016), 129-143.

Martha J. Ignaszewski, Kevin Lichtenstein, and Maya Ignaszewski, “Dr. Janusz Korczak and His Legacy,” British Columbia Medical Journal 55:2 (March 2013), 108-110.

Gabriel Eichsteller, “Janusz Korczak — His Legacy and Its Relevance for Children’s Rights Today,” International Journal of Children’s Rights 17:3 (July 2009), 377-391.

Sara Efrat Efron, “Moral Education Between Hope and Hopelessness: The Legacy of Janusz Korczak,” Curriculum Inquiry 38:1 (January 2008), 39-62.

Aleksander Lewin and Agnieszka Bolczynska, “Janusz Korczak Is Greater Than His Legend: The Saint of All Creeds,” Dialogue & Universalism 11:9/10 (2001), 75.

Marie Syrkin, “The Saint in the Ghetto,” New Republic 198:23 (June 6, 1988), 44.

Yerachmiel Weingarten, “Janusz Korczak — Living Legend of Warsaw,” Canadian Jewish Chronicle, Dec. 8, 1944.

Vivian Eden, “Korczak Controversy,” Jerusalem Post, April 14, 1989, 7.

Amy O’Brian, “Exhibit Honours Hero of the Holocaust,” Vancouver Sun, Oct. 21, 2002, B2.

Eva Hoffman, “My Hero: Janusz Korczak,” Guardian, April 8, 2011.

James MacDonald, “Himmler Program Kills Polish Jews,” New York Times, Nov. 25, 1942.

Gabrielle Glaser, “Warsaw Journal; Where Children Are Taught Survival,” New York Times, May 30, 1992.

Vincent Canby, “Of a Saintly Jewish Doctor in Poland Who Died at Treblinka,” New York Times, April 12, 1991.

Betty Jean Lifton, “Wajda’s ‘Korczak’; Human Values, Inhuman Time,” New York Times, May 5, 1991.

Stephen Engelberg, “Wajda’s ‘Korczak’ Sets Loose the Furies,” New York Times, April 14, 1991.

Carolyn A. Murphy, “The King of Children,” New York Times, Aug. 21, 1988.

Geoffrey Wolff, “A Saint’s Life in Warsaw,” New York Times, July 31, 1988.

Betty Jean Lifton, “Shepherd of the Ghetto Orphans,” New York Times, April 20, 1980.

James Feron, “Awarding of a West German Peace Prize Stirs Memories of a Wartime Martyr of the Warsaw Ghetto,” New York Times, Oct. 1, 1972.

“Parenting Advice From a Polish Holocaust Hero,” Weekend All Things Considered, NPR, March 3, 2007.

Listener mail:

Annalee Newitz, “Movie Written by Algorithm Turns Out to Be Hilarious and Intense,” Ars Technica, June 9, 2016.

Dyllan Furness, “‘Sunspring’ Is an Absurd Sci-Fi Short Film Written By AI, Starring Thomas Middleditch,” Digital Trends, June 10, 2016.

Jacob Brogan, “An Artificial Intelligence Scripted This Short Film, But Humans Are Still the Real Stars,” Slate, June 9, 2016.

Amanda Kooser, “AI-Written Film ‘Sunspring’ a Surreal Delight, Upchucked Eyeball Included,” CNET, June 13, 2016.

“HAL 90210,” “This Is What Happens When an AI-Written Screenplay Is Made Into a Film,” Guardian, June 10, 2016.

Max Woolf, “I trained an (actual) AI on the titles of BuzzFeed YouTube videos and it generated some *interesting* results,” Twitter, Nov. 19, 2018.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener B Vann.

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 227: The Christmas Tree Ship

herman schuenemann

In the late 1800s Chicago families bought their Christmas trees from the decks of schooners that had ferried them across Lake Michigan. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll meet Herman Schuenemann, known as “Captain Santa,” who brought Christmas to the city for 30 years until a fateful storm overtook him.

We’ll also peruse some possums and puzzle over a darkening phone.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 226: The Great Match Race


America’s first national sports spectacle took place in 1823, when the North and South sent their best horses for a single dramatic race that came to symbolize the regional tensions of a changing nation. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Great Match Race, which laid the foundations of modern American thoroughbred racing.

We’ll also ponder a parasite’s contribution to culture and puzzle over a misinformed criminal.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 225: The Great Stork Derby


When Toronto attorney Charles Vance Millar died in 1926, he left behind a mischievous will that promised a fortune to the woman who gave birth to the most children in the next 10 years. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the Great Stork Derby and the hope and controversy it brought to Toronto’s largest families during the Great Depression.

We’ll also visit some Portuguese bats and puzzle over a suspicious work crew.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 224: Lady Death


Lyudmila Pavlichenko was training for a career as a history teacher when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. She suspended her studies to enlist as a sniper in the Red Army, where she discovered a remarkable talent for shooting enemy soldiers. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll trace the career of “Lady Death,” the deadliest female sniper in history.

We’ll also learn where in the world futility.closet.podcast is and puzzle over Air Force One.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 223: The Prince of Forgers


Denis Vrain-Lucas was an undistinguished forger until he met gullible collector Michel Chasles. Through the 1860s Lucas sold Chasles thousands of phony letters by everyone from Plato to Louis the 14th, earning thousands of francs and touching off a firestorm among confused scholars. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll trace the career of the world’s most prolific forger.

We’ll also count Queen Elizabeth’s eggs and puzzle over a destroyed car.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 222: The Year Without a Summer

Image: Wikimedia Commons

The eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815 was a disaster for the Dutch East Indies, but its astonishing consequences were felt around the world, blocking the sun and bringing cold, famine, and disease to millions of people from China to the United States. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review the volcano’s devastating effects and surprising legacy.

We’ll also appreciate an inverted aircraft and puzzle over a resourceful barber.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 221: The Mystery Man of Essex County


In 1882, a mysterious man using a false name married and murdered a well-to-do widow in Essex County, New York. While awaiting the gallows he composed poems, an autobiography, and six enigmatic cryptograms that have never been solved. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll examine the strange case of Henry Debosnys, whose true identity remains a mystery.

We’ll also consider children’s food choices and puzzle over a surprising footrace.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 220: The Old Hero of Gettysburg

Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1863, on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, a 69-year-old shoemaker took down his ancient musket and set out to shoot some rebels. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow John Burns’ adventures in that historic battle, which made him famous across the nation and won the praise of Abraham Lincoln.

We’ll also survey some wallabies and puzzle over some underlined 7s.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 219: The Greenbrier Ghost


In 1897, shortly after Zona Shue was found dead in her West Virginia home, her mother went to the county prosecutor with a bizarre story. She said that her daughter had been murdered — and that her ghost had revealed the killer’s identity. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Greenbrier Ghost, one of the strangest courtroom dramas of the 19th century.

We’ll also consider whether cats are controlling us and puzzle over a delightful oblivion.

See full show notes …