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 http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Support us on Patreon to get post-show discussions, outtakes, extra lateral thinking puzzles, and more.

If you have any questions or comments, please write to us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Podcast Episode 201: The Gardner Heist


In 1990, two thieves dressed as policemen walked into Boston’s Gardner museum and walked out with 13 artworks worth half a billion dollars. After 28 years the lost masterpieces have never been recovered. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the largest art theft in history and the ongoing search for its solution.

We’ll also discover the benefits of mustard gas and puzzle over a surprisingly effective fighter pilot.


In 1938, Italian physicist Ettore Majorana vanished without a trace.

Many of the foremost intellectuals of the early 20th century frequented the same café in Vienna.

Sources for our feature on the Gardner heist:

Ulrich Boser, The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World’s Largest Unsolved Art Theft, 2008.

Stephen Kurkjian, Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World’s Greatest Art Heist, 2015.

Michael Brenson, “Robbers Seem to Know Just What They Want,” New York Times, March 19, 1990.

Peter S. Canellos, Andy Dabilis, and Kevin Cullen, “Art Stolen From Gardner Museum Was Uninsured, Cost of Theft Coverage Described as Prohibitive,” Boston Globe, March 20, 1990, 1.

Robert Hughes, “A Boston Theft Reflects the Art World’s Turmoil,” Time 135:14 (April 2, 1990), 54.

Peter Plagens, Mark Starr, and Kate Robins, “To Catch an Art Thief,” Newsweek 115:14 (April 2, 1990), 52.

Scott Baldauf, “Museum Asks: Does It Take a Thief to Catch a Degas?,” Christian Science Monitor 89:193 (Aug. 29, 1997), 3.

Steve Lopez and Charlotte Faltermayer, “The Great Art Caper,” Time 150:21 (Nov. 17, 1997), 74.

“Missing Masterpieces,” Security 37:6 (June 2000), 14-18.

Robert M. Poole, “Ripped From the Walls (And the Headlines),” Smithsonian 36:4 (July 2005), 92-103.

Paige Williams, “The Art of the Story,” Boston Magazine, March 2010.

Randy Kennedy, “20th Anniversary of a Boston Art Heist,” New York Times, March 17, 2010.

Mark Durney and Blythe Proulx, “Art Crime: A Brief Introduction,” Crime, Law and Social Change 56:115 (September 2011).

Katharine Q. Seelye and Tom Mashberg, “A New Effort in Boston to Catch 1990 Art Thieves,” New York Times, March 18, 2013.

Tom Mashberg, “Isabella Stewart Gardner: 25 Years of Theories,” New York Times, Feb. 26, 2015.

Shelley Murphy, “Search for Artworks From Gardner Heist Continues 25 Years Later,” Boston Globe, March 17, 2015.

Tom Mashberg, “Arrest by F.B.I. Is Tied to $500 Million Art Theft From Boston Museum, Lawyer Says,” New York Times, April 17, 2015.

Serge F. Kovaleski and Tom Mashberg, “Reputed Mobster May Be Last Link to Gardner Museum Art Heist,” New York Times, April 24, 2015.

“New Video in 25-Year-Old Art Heist at Boston’s Isabella Gardner Museum,” New York Daily News, Aug. 6, 2015.

Tom Mashberg, “25 Years After Gardner Museum Heist, Video Raises Questions,” New York Times, Aug. 6, 2015.

Rodrigue Ngowi and William J. Kole, “2 Suspects in Boston Art Theft Worth $500 Million Are Dead, FBI Says,” Washington Post, Aug. 7, 2015.

Sarah Kaplan, “Surveillance Video Raises Questions — and Possible Clues — in 25-Year-Old Museum Mystery,” Washington Post, Aug. 7, 2015.

Justin Peters, “Why Is Stolen Art So Hard to Find?,” Slate, Aug. 14, 2015.

Erick Trickey, “The Gardner Museum Heist: Who’s Got the Art?,” Boston Magazine, March 13, 2016.

Shelley Murphy and Stephen Kurkjian, “Six Theories Behind The Stolen Gardner Museum Paintings,” Boston Globe, March 18, 2017.

Graham Bowley, “Gardner Museum Doubles Reward for Recovery of Stolen Masterpieces,” New York Times, May 23, 2017.

Edmund H. Mahony, “Stubborn Stand-Off Over Stolen Gardner Museum Art Could End With Sentencing of Hartford Gangster,” Hartford Courant, Sept. 5, 2017.

Katharine Q. Seelye, “Clock Is Ticking on $10 Million Reward in Gardner Art Heist,” New York Times, Dec. 26, 2017.

Camila Domonoske, “Got the Scoop on the Gardner Museum Art Heist? You Have 4 Days to Earn $10 Million,” The Two-Way, National Public Radio, Dec. 27, 2017.

Edmund H. Mahony, “Museum Extends $10 Million Reward in Notorious Boston Gardner Museum Art Heist,” Hartford Courant, Jan. 11, 2018.

Colin Moynihan, “Gardner Museum Extends $10 Million Reward for Information in Art Heist,” New York Times, Jan. 11, 2018.

Nadja Sayej, “Will Boston’s $500m Art Heist Ever Be Solved?,” Guardian, Jan. 19, 2018.

Leah Silverman, “Suspect in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Heist Sentenced to Four Years in Prison,” Town & Country, Feb. 28, 2018.

Sarah Cascone, “Paintings Stolen in America’s Biggest Art Heist Have Returned to Their Frames — Thanks to Augmented Reality,” Artnet, March 26, 2018.

“Learn About the Theft,” Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (accessed April 29, 2018).

Listener mail:

Derek Lowe, “Understanding Antidepressants — or Not,” Science Translational Medicine, Feb. 12, 2018.

Johnathan Frunzi, “From Weapon to Wonder Drug,” Hospitalist, February 2007.

“Evolution of Cancer Treatments: Chemotherapy,” American Cancer Society (accessed May 17, 2018).

Augustus De Morgan, A Budget of Paradoxes Reprinted, With the Author’s Additions, From the Athenaeum, 1872.

Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein, “Medicinal Notes: Honey Works Better Than Cow-Dung,” Independent, May 4, 1999.

Ole Peter Grell, Paracelsus, 1998.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Steven Jones.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

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 199: The Mystery of the Carroll A. Deering


In 1921 a schooner ran aground on the treacherous shoals off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. When rescuers climbed aboard, they found signs of a strange drama in the ship’s last moments — and no trace of the 11-man crew. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll examine the curious case of the Carroll A. Deering, which has been called “one of the enduring mysteries of maritime history.”

We’ll also experiment with yellow fever and puzzle over a disputed time of death.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 198: The Man Who Wouldn’t Die


In 1932 a quartet of Bronx gangsters set out to murder a friend of theirs in order to collect his life insurance. But Michael Malloy proved to be almost comically difficult to kill. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review what one observer called “the most clumsily executed insurance scam in New York City history.”

We’ll also burrow into hoarding and puzzle over the value of silence.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 197: Alone Across the Outback


In 1977, a young woman named Robyn Davidson set out to pursue what she called a “lunatic idea” — to lead a group of camels 1,700 miles across western Australia, from the center of the continent to the Indian Ocean. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Davidson’s remarkable journey alone through the Outback and learn what it taught her.

We’ll also dive into the La Brea Tar Pits and puzzle over some striking workers.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 196: The Long Way Home


When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the crew of an American seaplane were caught off guard near New Zealand. Unable to return across the Pacific, they were forced to fly home “the long way” — all the way around the world. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the adventures of the Pacific Clipper on its 30,000-mile journey through a world engulfed in war.

We’ll also delve into the drug industry and puzzle over a curious case of skin lesions.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 195: A Case of Musical Plagiarism

joyce hatto

When the English concert pianist Joyce Hatto died in 2006, she was remembered as a national treasure for the brilliant playing on her later recordings. But then doubts arose as to whether the performances were really hers. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review a surprising case of musical plagiarism, which touched off a scandal in the polite world of classical music.

We’ll also spot foxes in London and puzzle over a welcome illness.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 194: The Double Life of Clarence King


American geologist Clarence King led a strange double life in the late 1800s: He invented a second identity as a black railroad porter so he could marry the woman he loved, and then spent 13 years living separate lives in both white and black America. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll consider the extraordinary lengths that King went to in order to be with the woman he loved.

We’ll also contemplate the dangers of water and puzzle over a policeman’s strange behavior.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 193: The Collyer Brothers

the collyer brothers' harlem townhouse

In the 1930s, brothers Homer and Langley Collyer withdrew from society and began to fill their Manhattan brownstone with newspapers, furniture, musical instruments, and assorted junk. By 1947, when Homer died, the house was crammed with 140 tons of rubbish, and Langley had gone missing. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the strange, sad story of the Hermits of Harlem.

We’ll also buy a bit of Finland and puzzle over a banker’s misfortune.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 192: The Winchester Diver


Image: Flickr

In 1905 Winchester Cathedral was in danger of collapsing as its eastern end sank into marshy ground. The surprising solution was to hire a diver, who worked underwater for five years to build a firmer foundation for the medieval structure. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of William Walker and his curious contribution to saving a British landmark.

We’ll also contemplate a misplaced fire captain and puzzle over a shackled woman.

See full show notes …

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