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 1896, Adolf Beck found himself caught up in a senseless legal nightmare: Twelve women from around London insisted that he’d deceived them and stolen their cash and jewelry. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Beck’s incredible ordeal, which ignited a scandal and inspired historic reforms in the English justice system.
We’ll also covet some noble socks and puzzle over a numerical sacking.
In the photo above, Adolph Beck is on the left, John Smith on the right. In July 1904, Smith was actually brought to Brixton Prison while Beck was being held there. Beck wrote, “I saw him at chapel two or three times. There is no resemblance between us.”
In 1930, British explorer Augustine Courtauld volunteered to spend the winter alone on the Greenland ice cap, manning a remote weather station. As the snow gradually buried his hut and his supplies steadily dwindled, his relief party failed to arrive. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Courtauld’s increasingly desperate vigil on the ice.
We’ll also retreat toward George III and puzzle over some unexpected evidence.
“Courtauld to Sail Home on First Ship,” New York Times, May 17, 1931, 2.
T.J.C. Martyn, “Greenland Is Still a Scientific Puzzle,” New York Times, May 24, 1931, 4.
Augustine Courtauld, “Courtauld’s Story of the Five Months He Spent on Ice Cap,” New York Times, May 29, 1931, 1.
“The Ice-Cap Hero,” New York Times, May 30, 1931, 8.
“The British Arctic Air Route Expedition,” Geographical Journal 77:6 (June 1931), 551-554.
“From the Four Winds: Mr. Courtauld’s Arctic Vigil,” China Herald, June 30, 1931, 459.
“The British Arctic Air Route Expedition,” Geographical Journal 78:3 (September 1931), 291.
F.S. Chapman, “Watkins and Aides Held in No Danger,” New York Times, Sept. 19, 1931, 17.
“Explorers Return From Greenland,” New York Times, Nov. 14, 1931, 8.
William Goodenough, Augustine Courtauld, Lauge Koch, J.M. Wordie, and H.R. Mill, “The British Arctic Air Route Expedition: Discussion,” Geographical Journal 79:6 (June 1932), 497-501.
Percy Cox, Helge Larsen, Augustine Courtauld, M.A. Spender and J.M. Wordie, “A Journey in Rasmussen Land: Discussion,” Geographical Journal 88:3 (September 1936), 208-215.
Henry Balfour, E.C. Fountaine, W.A. Deer, Augustine Courtauld, L.R. Wager, and Ebbe Munck, “The Kangerdlugssuak Region of East Greenland: Discussion,” Geographical Journal 90:5 (November 1937), 422-425.
“Augustine Courtauld Dies at 54: Explored Greenland in Thirties,” New York Times, March 4, 1959, 31.
In 1815 an American ship ran aground in northwestern Africa, and its crew were enslaved by merciless nomads. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the desperate efforts of Captain James Riley to find a way to cross the Sahara and beg for help from Western officials in Morocco.
We’ll also wade through more molasses and puzzle over a prospective guitar thief.
One stormy morning in 1880, naturalist John Muir set out to explore a glacier in Alaska’s Taylor Bay, accompanied by an adventurous little dog that had joined his expedition. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the harrowing predicament that the two faced on the ice, which became the basis of one of Muir’s most beloved stories.
We’ll also marvel at some phonetic actors and puzzle over a season for vasectomies.
In 1971 high school student Juliane Koepcke fell two miles into the Peruvian rain forest when her airliner broke up in a thunderstorm. Miraculously, she survived the fall, but her ordeal was just beginning. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Juliane’s arduous trek through the jungle in search of civilization and help.
We’ll also consider whether goats are unlucky and puzzle over the shape of doorknobs.
Birmingham, England, faced a surprising crisis in 1889: A lion escaped a traveling menagerie and took up residence in the city’s sewers, terrifying the local population. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll descend into the tunnels with Frank Bostock, the 21-year-old manager who set out to capture the desperate beast.
We’ll also revisit a cosmic mystery and puzzle over an incomprehensible language.
Mathematician Paul Erdős had no home, no job, and no hobbies. Instead, for 60 years he wandered the world, staying with each of hundreds of collaborators just long enough to finish a project, and then moving on. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll meet the “magician of Budapest,” whose restless brilliance made him the most prolific mathematician of the 20th century.
We’ll also ponder Japanese cannibalism in World War II and puzzle over a senseless stabbing.
Belle Gunness was one of America’s most prolific female serial killers, luring lonely men to her Indiana farm with promises of marriage, only to rob and kill them. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of The LaPorte Black Widow and learn about some of her unfortunate victims.
We’ll also break back into Buckingham Palace and puzzle over a bet with the devil.
Richard C. Lindberg, Heartland Serial Killers, 2011.
Ted Hartzell, “Belle Gunness’ Poisonous Pen,” American History 3:2 (June 2008), 46-51.
Amanda L. Farrell, Robert D. Keppel, and Victoria B. Titterington, “Testing Existing Classifications of Serial Murder Considering Gender: An Exploratory Analysis of Solo Female Serial Murderers,” Journal of Investigative Psychology and Offender Profiling 10:3 (October 2013), 268-288.
In 1629, a Dutch trading vessel struck a reef off the coast of Australia, marooning 180 people on a tiny island. As they struggled to stay alive, their leader descended into barbarity, gathering a band of cutthroats and killing scores of terrified castaways. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll document the brutal history of Batavia’s graveyard, the site of Australia’s most infamous shipwreck.
We’ll also lose money in India and puzzle over some invisible Frenchmen.
Interest in the Batavia was reawakened in the 1960s, when archaeologists began to examine the site of the mutiny. This victim, excavated in 1963, had received a cutting wound to the head; the right shoulder blade was broken, and the right foot was missing.
When American forces overran the Philippine island of Lubang in 1945, Japanese intelligence officer Hiroo Onoda withdrew into the mountains to wait for reinforcements. He was still waiting 29 years later. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll meet the dedicated soldier who fought World War II until 1974.
We’ll also dig up a murderer and puzzle over an offensive compliment.