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.

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 218: Lost in the Amazon


In 1769, a Peruvian noblewoman set out with 41 companions to join her husband in French Guiana. But a series of terrible misfortunes left her alone in the Amazon jungle. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Isabel Godin des Odonais on her harrowing adventure in the rain forest.

We’ll also learn where in the world “prices slippery traps” is and puzzle over an airport’s ingenuity.


In 1949 neurophysiologist Grey Walter built electronic “tortoises” with primitive nervous systems.

In 1952 G.V. Carey added an index to his manual of indexing.


Sources for our feature on Isabel Godin des Odonais:

Anthony Smith, The Lost Lady of the Amazon, 2003.

Robert Whitaker, The Mapmaker’s Wife, 2004.

Jean Godin, “Voyage of Madame Godin Along the River of the Amazons, in the Year 1770,” in Charlotte-Adélaïde Dard et al., Perils and Captivity, 1827.

Larrie D. Ferreiro, Measure of the Earth, 2011.

Edward Julius Goodman, The Explorers of South America, 1992.

Londa L. Schiebinger, Plants and Empire, 2009.

J. Donald Fernie, “Marginalia: The Shape of the Earth, Part II,” American Scientist 79:5 (September/October 1991), 393-395.

Donald D. Brand, “A Brief History of Anthropology in Brazil,” New Mexico Anthropologist 5:4 (October-December 1941), 99-150.

David Taylor, “An Adventure of Historic Measures,” Americas 50:6 (November/December 1998), 14-21.

James Grant Wilson and John Fiske, Appletons’ Cyclopaedia of American Biography, 1898.

Edwin McDowell, “The Middle of the World,” New York Times, Nov. 25, 1990.

“First Woman Over Andes,” New York Times, Nov. 5, 1922.

Henri Froidevaux, “Documents Inédits sur Godin des Odonais et sur Son Séjour a la Guyane,” Journal de la Société des Américanistes de Paris I, 1896.

“An Account of the Singular Misfortunes of Madame Godin, in a Voyage Which She Made From the Province of Quito to Cayenne, by the River of the Amazons,” New Wonderful Magazine and Marvellous Chronicle 4:37 (July 1794), 309-313.

Listener mail:

Robert Plummer, “Giving Everyone in the World an Address,” BBC News, April 30, 2015.

“Ivory Coast Post Office Adopts Three-Word System,” BBC News, Dec. 9, 2016.

Plus Codes.

Wikipedia, “Open Location Code” (accessed Sept. 13, 2018).


Wikipedia, “What3words” (accessed Sept. 13, 2018).

Belinda Lanks, “This App Gives Even the Most Remote Spots on the Planet an Address,” Magenta, Oct. 11, 2016.

Joon Ian Wong, “Mongolia Is Changing All Its Addresses to Three-Word Phrases,” Quartz, June 13, 2016.

Jacopo Prisco, “Ivory Coast Street Addresses Are Now Made of Three Words,” CNN, Sept. 4, 2017.





what3[redacted] (warning: many, many expletives).

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Josva Dammann Kvilstad, who sent this corroborating link (warning — this spoils the puzzle).

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 217: The Bone Wars


The end of the Civil War opened a new era of fossil hunting in the American West — and a bitter feud between two rival paleontologists, who spent 20 years sabotaging one another in a constant struggle for supremacy. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Bone Wars, the greatest scientific feud of the 19th century.

We’ll also sympathize with Scunthorpe and puzzle over why a driver can’t drive.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 216: The Tromelin Island Castaways

Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1761 a French schooner was shipwrecked in the Indian Ocean, leaving more than 200 people stranded on a tiny island. The crew departed in a makeshift boat, leaving 60 Malagasy slaves to fend for themselves and wait for rescue. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Tromelin Island castaways, which one observer calls “arguably the most extraordinary story of survival ever documented.”

We’ll also admire some hardworking cats and puzzle over a racer’s death.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 215: The Lieutenant Nun


In 1607, a 15-year-old girl fled her convent in the Basque country, dressed herself as a man, and set out on a series of unlikely adventures across Europe. In time she would distinguish herself fighting as a soldier in Spain’s wars of conquest in the New World. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of Catalina de Erauso, the lieutenant nun of Renaissance Spain.

We’ll also hunt for some wallabies and puzzle over a quiet cat.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 214: The Poison Squad

wiley and the poison squad

In 1902, chemist Harvey Wiley launched a unique experiment to test the safety of food additives. He recruited a group of young men and fed them meals laced with chemicals to see what the effects might be. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Wiley’s “poison squad” and his lifelong crusade for food safety.

We’ll also follow some garden paths and puzzle over some unwelcome weight-loss news.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 213: Grover Cleveland’s Secret Surgery


In 1893, Grover Cleveland discovered a cancerous tumor on the roof of his mouth. It was feared that public knowledge of the president’s illness might set off a financial panic, so Cleveland suggested a daring plan: a secret surgery aboard a moving yacht. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the president’s gamble — and the courageous reporter who threatened to expose it.

We’ll also audit some wallabies and puzzle over some welcome neo-Nazis.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 212: The Lost Treasure of Cocos Island

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Cocos Island, in the eastern Pacific, was rumored to hold buried treasure worth millions of dollars, but centuries of treasure seekers had failed to find it. That didn’t deter August Gissler, who arrived in 1889 with a borrowed map and an iron determination. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Gissler’s obsessive hunt for the Treasure of Lima.

We’ll also marvel at the complexity of names and puzzle over an undead corpse.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 211: Cast Away on an Ice Floe


Germany’s polar expedition of 1869 took a dramatic turn when 14 men were shipwrecked on an ice floe off the eastern coast of Greenland. As the frozen island carried them slowly toward settlements in the south, it began to break apart beneath them. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the crew of the Hansa on their desperate journey toward civilization.

We’ll also honor a slime mold and puzzle over a reversing sunset.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 209: Lost Off Newfoundland


In 1883 fisherman Howard Blackburn was caught in a blizzard off the coast of Newfoundland. Facing bitter cold in an 18-foot boat, he passed through a series of harrowing adventures in a desperate struggle to stay alive and find help. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Blackburn’s dramatic story, which made him famous around the world.

We’ll also admire a runaway chicken and puzzle over a growing circle of dust.

See full show notes …