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.
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In 1941, Catalonian chicken farmer Juan Pujol made an unlikely leap into the world of international espionage, becoming a spy first for the Germans, then for the British, and rising to become one of the greatest double agents of World War II. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Pujol’s astonishing talent for deceiving the Nazis, which led one colleague to call him “the best actor in the world.”
We’ll also contemplate a floating Chicago and puzzle over a winding walkway.
In 1821, Scottish adventurer Gregor MacGregor undertook one of the most brazen scams in history: He invented a fictional Central American republic and convinced hundreds of his countrymen to invest in its development. Worse, he persuaded 250 people to set sail for this imagined utopia with dreams of starting a new life. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the disastrous results of MacGregor’s deceit.
We’ll also illuminate a hermit’s behavior and puzzle over Liechtenstein’s flag.
Without any forethought or preparation, Christopher Knight walked into the Maine woods in 1986 and lived there in complete solitude for the next 27 years, subsisting on what he was able to steal from local cabins. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the North Pond hermit, one man’s attempt to divorce himself completely from civilization.
We’ll also look for coded messages in crosswords and puzzle over an ineffective snake.
Insurance agent William Herbert Wallace had a terrible night in January 1931 — summoned to a nonexistent address in Liverpool, he returned home to find that his wife had been murdered in his absence. An investigation seemed to show a senseless crime with no weapon, no motive, and no likely suspects. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll revisit the slaying of Julia Wallace, which Raymond Chandler called “the impossible murder.”
We’ll also recount some wobbly oaths and puzzle over an eccentric golfer.
Stuck in an East African prison camp in 1943, Italian POW Felice Benuzzi needed a challenge to regain his sense of purpose. He made a plan that seemed crazy — to break out of the camp, climb Mount Kenya, and break back in. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Benuzzi and two companions as they try to climb the second-highest mountain in Africa using homemade equipment.
We’ll also consider whether mirages may have doomed the Titanic and puzzle over an ineffective oath.
In 1913 outdoorsman Joseph Knowles pledged to spend two months in the woods of northern Maine, naked and alone, fending for himself “without the slightest communication or aid from the outside world.” In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Knowles’ adventures in the woods and the controversy that followed his return to civilization.
We’ll also consider the roots of nostalgia and puzzle over some busy brothers.
“Joe Knowles, Lived in Wilds Unarmed!”, New York Times, Oct. 23, 1942.
Joseph B. Frazier, “An Early Nature Buff: By Going Into the Woods Alone, Did Joe Knowles Remind America of Its Potential?”, Orlando Sentinel, March 2, 2008.
Joseph B. Frazier, “‘Natural Man’ Inspired, Despite Fraud Claims,” Augusta Chronicle, March 16, 2008.
“The 100th Anniversary of Joe Knowles’ Famous Odyssey into the Wilds,” Lewiston [Maine] Sun Journal, April 14, 2013.
“Joe Knowles and the Legacy of Wilderness Adventures,” Lewiston [Maine] Sun Journal, May 12, 2013.
“Nature Man Badly Injured,” Los Angeles Times, May 18, 1915.
“The Nature Man,” The Billboard, Nov. 6, 1915.
Grace Kingley, “Joe Knowles, Nature Man, at Republic,” Los Angeles Times, Sept. 23, 1914.
Still dressed in his bearskin and cedar-bark shoes, Knowles was examined by Harvard physician Dudley Sargent on Oct. 9, 1913. “He surpassed every test he took before starting on the trip,” Sargent declared. “His scientific experiment shows what a man can do when he is deprived of the luxuries which many people have come to regard as necessities.”
Guy Gabaldon was an untested Marine when he landed on the Pacific island of Saipan during World War II. But he decided to fight the war on his own terms, venturing alone into enemy territory and trying to convince Japanese soldiers to surrender voluntarily. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Gabaldon’s dangerous crusade and learn its surprising results.
We’ll also examine Wonder Woman’s erotic origins and puzzle over an elusive murderer.
When detectives explored the Chicago hotel owned by insurance fraudster H.H. Holmes in 1894, they found a nightmarish warren of blind passageways, trapdoors, hidden chutes, and asphyxiation chambers in which Holmes had killed dozens or perhaps even hundreds of victims. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the career of America’s first documented serial killer, who headlines called “a fiend in human shape.”
We’ll also gape at some fireworks explosions and puzzle over an intransigent insurance company.
For 200 years the U.S. Treasury has maintained a “conscience fund” that accepts repayments from people who have defrauded or stolen from the government. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the history of the fund and some of the more memorable and puzzling contributions it’s received over the years.
We’ll also ponder Audrey Hepburn’s role in World War II and puzzle over an illness cured by climbing poles.
Wisconsin banker John Krubsack grafted 32 box elders into a living chair.
Fingerprint identification and lie detectors are well-known tools of law enforcement today, but both were quite revolutionary when they were introduced. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the memorable cases where these innovations were first used.
We’ll also see some phantom ships and puzzle over a beer company’s second thoughts.