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 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.


In 1856 Samuel Hoshour wrote an imaginary correspondence full of polysyllabic words.

In 1974 Dennis Upper published a study of his intractable writer’s block.

Sources for our feature on Jeanne Baret:

Glynis Ridley, The Discovery of Jeanne Baret, 2010.

Sandra Knapp, “History: The Plantswoman Who Dressed as a Boy,” Nature 470 (Feb. 3, 2011), 36–37.

Eric J. Tepe, Glynis Ridley, and Lynn Bohs, “A New Species of Solanum Named for Jeanne Baret, an Overlooked Contributor to the History of Botany,” PhytoKeys 8 (2012), 37.

H. Walter Lack, “The Discovery, Naming and Typification of Bougainvillea spectabilis (Nyctaginaceae),” Willdenowia 42:1 (2012), 117-127.

Genevieve K. Walden and Robert Patterson, “Nomenclature of Subdivisions Within Phacelia (Boraginaceae: Hydrophylloideae),” Madroño 59:4 (2012), 211-223.

Beth N. Orcutt and Ivona Cetinic, “Women in Oceanography: Continuing Challenges,” Oceanography 27:4 (2014), 5-13.

Londa Schiebinger, “Exotic Abortifacients and Lost Knowledge,” Lancet 371:9614 (2008), 718-719.

Frank N. Egerton, “History of Ecological Sciences, Part 61C: Marine Biogeography, 1690s–1940s,” Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America 100:1 (January 2019), 1-55.

Vivienne Baillie Gerritsen, “Moody Wallpaper,” Protein Spotlight 33 (2003).

Richard H. Grove, “Origins of Western Environmentalism,” Scientific American 267:1 (July 1992), 42-47.

Allison Bohac and Susan Milius, “Science Notebook,” Science News 181:5 (March 10, 2012), 4.

Londa Schiebinger, “Jeanne Baret: The First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe,” Endeavour 27:1 (2003), 22-25.

Raquel González Rivas, “Gulf ‘Alter-Latinas’: Cross-Dressing Women Travel Beyond the Gulfs of Transnationality and Transexuality,” Southern Literary Journal 46:2 (Spring 2014), 128-139.

Andy Martin, “The Enlightenment in Paradise: Bougainville, Tahiti, and the Duty of Desire,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 41:2 (Winter 2008), 203-216.

Françoise Lionnet, “Shipwrecks, Slavery, and the Challenge of Global Comparison: From Fiction to Archive in the Colonial Indian Ocean,” Comparative Literature 64:4 (2012), 446-461.

Marie-Hélène Ghabut, “Female as Other: The Subversion of the Canon Through Female Figures in Diderot’s Work,” Diderot Studies 27 (1998), 57-66.

Londa Schiebinger, “Feminist History of Colonial Science,” Hypatia 19:1 (Winter 2004), 233-254.

Kai Mikkonen, “Narrative Interruptions and the Civilized Woman: The Figures of Veiling and Unveiling in Diderot’s Supplément au Voyage de Bougainville,” Diderot Studies 27 (1998), 129-147.

Londa Schiebinger, “Agnotology and Exotic Abortifacients: The Cultural Production of Ignorance in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 149:3 (2005), 316-343.

“5 Underrated Pioneers in Circumnavigation,” New York Times, Oct. 14, 2016.

Brian Maffly, “Botanical Explorer Jeanne Baret Finally Gets Her Due,” Salt Lake Tribune, Jan. 18, 2012.

“Incredible Voyage,” Wall Street Journal, Jan. 24, 2011.

“A Female Explorer Discovered on the High Seas,” All Things Considered, National Public Radio, Dec. 26, 2010.

“Briefing: Jeanne Baret,” [Glasgow] Herald, March 8, 2005, 13.

Christine Hamelin, “An Ace Adventurer, a Brilliant Botanist,” Kingston Whig, March 5, 2005, 2.

Elizabeth Kiernan, “The Amazing Feat of Jeanne Baret,” New York Botanical Garden, March 12, 2014.

Listener mail:

“This Is Your Story,” The Ernie Kovacs Show, 1957:

David Margolick, “Sid Caesar’s Finest Sketch,” New Yorker, Feb. 14, 2014.

Wikipedia, “Sid Caesar” (accessed March 15, 2019).

Wikipedia, “Following the Equator” (accessed April 13, 2019).

Wikipedia, “Cecil Rhodes” (accessed April 13, 2019).

“Following the Equator, 1895-1896,” UC Berkeley Library (accessed April 13, 2019).

Mark Twain, Following the Equator, 1897.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener David White.

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 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 …

Podcast Episode 242: The Cardiff Giant


In 1869, two well diggers in Cardiff, N.Y., unearthed an enormous figure made of stone. More than 600,000 people flocked to see the mysterious giant, but even as its fame grew, its real origins were coming to light. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Cardiff giant, one of the greatest hoaxes of the 19th century.

We’ll also ponder the effects of pink and puzzle over a potentially painful treatment.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 241: A Case of Scientific Self-Deception


In 1903, French physicist Prosper-René Blondlot decided he had discovered a new form of radiation. But the mysterious rays had some exceedingly odd properties, and scientists in other countries had trouble seeing them at all. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of N-rays, a cautionary tale of self-deception.

We’ll also recount another appalling marathon and puzzle over a worthless package.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 240: The Shark Papers


In 1799 two Royal Navy ships met on the Caribbean Sea, and their captains discovered they were parties to a mind-boggling coincidence that would expose a crime and make headlines around the world. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the shark papers, one of the strangest coincidences in maritime history.

We’ll also meet some Victorian kangaroos and puzzle over an expedient fire.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 239: The Man-Eaters of Tsavo


In 1898, two lions descended on a company of railway workers in British East Africa. For nine months they terrorized the camp, carrying off a new victim every few days, as engineer John Patterson struggled to stop them. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll track the “man-eaters of Tsavo” and learn what modern science has discovered about their motivations.

We’ll also consider more uses for two cars and puzzle over some prolific penguins.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 238: The Plight of Mary Ellen Wilson


In 1873 a Methodist missionary in New York City heard rumors of a little girl who was kept locked in a tenement and regularly whipped. She uncovered a shocking case of neglect and abuse that made headlines around the world. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell how one girl’s ordeal led to a new era in child welfare.

We’ll also outsource Harry Potter and puzzle over Wayne Gretzky’s accomplishments.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 237: The Baseball Spy


Moe Berg earned his reputation as the brainiest man in baseball — he had two Ivy League degrees and studied at the Sorbonne. But when World War II broke out he found an unlikely second career, as a spy trying to prevent the Nazis from getting an atomic bomb. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Berg’s enigmatic life and its strange conclusion.

We’ll also consider the value of stripes and puzzle over a fateful accident.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 236: The Last Lap


In 1908 a 22-year-old Italian baker’s assistant arrived in London to take part in the Olympic marathon. He had no coach, he spoke no English, and he was not expected to challenge the elite runners at the top of the field. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Dorando Pietri on the most celebrated race in Olympic history.

We’ll also ponder the Great Mull Air Mystery and puzzle over a welcome murder.

See full show notes …