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 this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell two stories about people who spent years confined in miserably small spaces. North Carolina slave Harriet Jacobs spent seven years hiding in a narrow space under her grandmother’s roof, evading her abusive owner, and Irishman Patrick Fowler spent most of World War I hiding in the cabinet of a sympathetic family in German-occupied France.
We’ll also subdivide Scotland and puzzle over a ballerina’s silent reception.
When the Scottish writer William Sharp died in 1905, his wife revealed a surprising secret: For 10 years he had kept up a second career as a reclusive novelist named Fiona Macleod, carrying on correspondences and writing works in two distinctly different styles. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll explore Sharp’s curious relationship with his feminine alter ego, whose sporadic appearances perplexed even him.
We’ll also hunt tigers in Singapore and puzzle over a surprisingly unsuccessful bank robber.
In 1919 a bizarre catastrophe struck Boston’s North End: A giant storage tank failed, releasing 2 million gallons of molasses into a crowded business district at the height of a January workday. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Boston Molasses Disaster, which claimed 21 lives and inscribed a sticky page into the city’s history books.
We’ll also admire some Scandinavian statistics and puzzle over a provocative Facebook photo.
In December 1914 a remarkable thing happened on the Western Front: British and German soldiers stopped fighting and left their trenches to greet one another, exchange souvenirs, bury their dead, and sing carols in the spirit of the holiday season. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Christmas truce, which one participant called “one of the highlights of my life.”
We’ll also remember James Thurber’s Aunt Sarah and puzzle over an anachronistic twin.
In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll explore some more curiosities and unanswered questions from Greg’s research, including a pilot who saved Buckingham Palace, a ghost who confronted Arthur Conan Doyle, what Mark Twain learned from a palm reader, and a bedeviling superfluity of Norwegians.
We’ll also discover a language used only by women and puzzle over a gift that’s best given sparingly.
In 1944, a bizarre criminal assaulted the small town of Mattoon, Illinois. Victims reported smelling a sickly sweet odor in their bedrooms before being overcome with nausea and a feeling of paralysis. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll pursue the mad gasser of Mattoon, who vanished as quickly as he had struck, leaving residents to wonder whether he had ever existed at all.
We’ll also ponder the concept of identical cousins and puzzle over a midnight stabbing.
Libby Prison was one of the most infamous prison camps of the Civil War — thousands of Union prisoners were packed together in a converted warehouse, facing months or years of starvation and abuse. The Confederates thought the prison was escape-proof, and in this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll show how a determined group of prisoners set out to prove them wrong.
We’ll also duel with a barrel and puzzle over why an admitted forger would be found innocent.
Australia’s Westfield ultramarathon had a surprise entrant in 1983: A 61-year-old potato farmer named Cliff Young joined a field of elite professional runners for the 500-mile race from Sydney to Melbourne. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Young’s fortunes in the race and the heart, tenacity, and humor that endeared him to a nation.
We’ll also learn the difference between no and nay and puzzle over a Japanese baby shortage.
In 1912, bookseller Wilfrid Voynich discovered an illustrated manuscript that was written in a mysterious alphabet that had never been seen before. The text bears the hallmarks of natural language, but no one has ever been able to determine its meaning. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll learn about the Voynich manuscript, which has been bewildering scholars for more than a century.
We’ll also ponder some parliamentary hostages and puzzle over a tormenting acquisition.