Podcast

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 69: Lateral Thinking Puzzles

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Here are four new lateral thinking puzzles to test your wits! Solve along with us as we explore some strange situations using only yes-or-no questions.

Puzzles 1 and 2 are from Kyle Hendrickson’s 1998 book Mental Fitness Puzzles and Jed’s List of Situation Puzzles.

Thanks to listeners Saber and Tommy Honton for puzzles 3 and 4. Here are two corroborating links — these spoil the puzzles, so don’t click until you’ve listened to the episode:

Puzzle #3

Puzzle #4

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

Use this link to get video and audio lectures at up to 80 percent off the original price from The Great Courses.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation via the Donate button in the sidebar of the Futility Closet website.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Podcast Episode 68: The Niihau Incident

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Images: Wikimedia Commons

After taking part in the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese fighter pilot Shigenori Nishikaichi crash-landed on the isolated Hawaiian island of Niihau. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll recount the six days of escalating drama that unfolded between the desperate pilot and the terrified islanders.

We’ll also hear a list of open questions from Greg’s research and puzzle over why a man can’t sell a solid gold letter opener.

Sources for our feature on the Niihau incident:

William Hallstead and Raymond Denkhaus, “The Niihau Incident,” World War II 14:5 (January 2000), 38.

Andrew Carroll, “A Japanese Pilot Brings World War II to Hawaii’s Farthest Shore,” American History 48:5 (December 2013): 29-30.

Richard B. Frank, “Zero Hour on Niihau,” World War II 24:2 (July 2009): 54-61.

“U.S. Won First WWII Victory Just Days After Pearl Harbor,” Associated Press, Dec. 27, 1991.

One particularly gruesome account of the whipping of Emmanuel Dannan appeared in The Living Age in 1855:

Accordingly, the man procured six whips — the toughest kind of swamp willow — which, by his own confession, were four feet in length, and as large at the butt as one’s little finger and about 9 o’clock at night took Emanuel — who still persisted in telling the truth — to the loft of the cabin, and having stripped him to his shirt, wound that around his neck, and tied him up, by a cord, by both wrists, to a rafter, so that his feet but barely touched the ground.

Here he whipped him for two hours, only resting at intervals to procure a fresh whip, or to demand of his victim that he should own that he told a lie. The boy’s only answer was, ‘Pa, I told the truth. Pa, I did not lie.’ The girl [his sister, the only witness] said that Emanuel did not cry much; and it is probable that he fainted during a portion of the time, as the injuries upon his body, testified that there was not a spot, from the armpits to the ankles, large enough to place your finger upon, but was covered with livid welts; and that in very many places the skin was broken!

In this account, which is explicitly directed “to the Sabbath school children of the United States,” the foster father tries to “whip the lie out of” Emmanuel — that is, persuade him to agree that he had imagined his mother’s crime. In other tellings the lie is whipped into him — he’s urged to tell a cover story to protect his mother, and he cries, “Pa, I will not lie!”

Sources for this week’s lateral thinking puzzles:

Kyle Hendrickson, Mental Fitness Puzzles, 1998.

Erwin Brecher, Lateral Thinking Puzzles, 2010.

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

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation via the Donate button in the sidebar 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. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for listening!

Podcast Episode 67: Composing Beyond the Grave

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In 1933, violinist Jelly d’Aranyi declared that the spirit of Robert Schumann was urging her to find a concerto that he’d written shortly before his death in 1856. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the discovery of Schumann’s lost violin concerto, as well as a similar case in which a London widow claimed to receive new compositions from 12 dead composers.

We’ll also puzzle over how a man earns $250,000 for going on two cruises.

Sources for our feature on Jelly d’Aranyi and Rosemary Brown:

Joseph Macleod, The Sisters d’Aranyi, 1969.

Erik Palmstierna and Adila Fachiri, Horizons of Immortality, 1938.

Rosemary Brown, Unfinished Symphonies, 1971.

Douglas Martin, “Rosemary Brown, a Friend of Dead Composers, Dies at 85,” New York Times, Dec. 2, 2001.

Michael Steinberg, The Concerto: A Listener’s Guide, 1998.

Nicolas Slonimsky, Slonimsky’s Book of Musical Anecdotes, 1948.

Here’s the Schumann violin concerto played by Frank Peter Zimmermann, and here’s a rather blurry interview with Rosemary Brown, in which she transcribes a composition for Beethoven.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle is from Jed’s List of Situation Puzzles.

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

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation via the Donate button in the sidebar 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. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for listening!

Podcast Episode 66: Eighteen Holes in Vietnam

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In 1972, Air Force navigator Gene Hambleton was shot down over enemy territory in Vietnam, and a ferocious offensive beat back every attempt to rescue him. In today’s show we’ll learn how his lifelong passion for golf became the key to his escape.

We’ll also learn about a videogame based on the Dyatlov Pass incident and puzzle over why a military force drops bombs on its friends.

Sources for our feature on Gene Hambleton:

William C. Anderson, BAT-21, 1980.

Darrell D. Whitcomb, The Rescue of BAT 21, 1998.

George Esper, “Commando Team Snatches Downed Airmen From Midst of Enemy’s Invasion Force,” Associated Press, April 25, 1972.

Dennis McLellan, “‘Gene’ Hambleton, 85; His Rescue Depicted in ‘Bat-21’ Books, Film,” Los Angeles Times, Sept. 27, 2004.

In 1981 TriStar released a dramatization of Hambleton’s experience, Bat*21, starring Gene Hackman and Danny Glover.

Listener mail:

The full text of Arthur Conan Doyle’s story “The Problem of Thor Bridge” is on Wikisource.

The videogame about the Dyatlov Pass incident is called Kholat. (It’s named after Kholat Syakhyl, the mountain on which the Dyatlov hikers pitched their tent.)

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Mike Martin. Here are two corroborating links (warning — these spoil the puzzle).

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

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation via the Donate button in the sidebar 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. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for listening!

Podcast Episode 65: The Merchant Prince of Cornville

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Edmond Rostand’s hit play Cyrano de Bergerac met an unexpected obstacle in 1898 — a Chicago real estate developer who claimed that it plagiarized his own play. In this week’s podcast we’ll review the strange controversy and the surprising outcome of the lawsuit that followed.

We’ll also hear an update on the German author who popularized an American West that he had never seen and puzzle over a Civil War private who refuses to fight.

Sources for our feature on Cyrano de Bergerac and The Merchant Prince of Cornville:

“Gross-Rostand Controversy,” in George Childs Kohn, New Encyclopedia of American Scandal, 2001.

Edmond Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac, 1897.

Samuel Eberly Gross, The Merchant Prince of Cornville, 1896.

Jay Pridmore, “Recalling ‘Merchant Prince’ of the 1880s,” Chicago Tribune, Feb. 28, 1992.

“Chronicle and Comment,” The Bookman, November 1910.

The Critic, February 1899, p. 116.

“Samuel Gross’s Cyrano,” New York Times, June 1, 1902.

“Rostand Indignant,” The Pittsburgh Press, June 1, 1902.

“Rostand’s Champion,” The Carroll Herald, June 4, 1902.

“‘Cyrano de Bergerac’ a Plagiarism,” Boston Evening Transcript, May 21, 1902.

“The Law and the Nose,” Pittsburgh Press, Sept. 10, 1902.

“Dollar Is Spent,” The Milwaukee Journal, Sept. 17, 1902.

Listener mail:

Wikipedia, Hadschi Halef Omar (retrieved July 8, 2015).

Dschinghis Khan’s disco song “Hadschi Halef Omar” is here. Translated lyrics are here.

Listener Krisztián Vida sent links to some pages and a video on “American Indians” in Central Europe.

Wikipedia, Emilio Salgari (retrieved July 8, 2015).

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Jackie Speir.

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

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation via the Donate button in the sidebar 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. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for listening!

Podcast Episode 64: Murder at the Priory

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In 1876 London was riveted by the dramatic poisoning of a young barrister and the sordid revelations that emerged about his household. In today’s show we’ll review the baffling case of Charles Bravo’s murder, which Agatha Christie called “one of the most mysterious poisoning cases ever recorded.”

We’ll also get an update on career possibilities for garden hermits and puzzle over how the police know that a shooting death is not a homicide.

Many thanks to Ronald Hackston for his evocative photo of The Priory, Balham, the site of Charles Bravo’s unsolved 1876 poisoning.

Sources for that feature:

James Ruddick, Death at the Priory: Sex, Love, and Murder in Victorian England, 2001.

Chirag Trivedi, “Victorian Whodunnit Solved,” BBC, Jan. 13, 2003 (accessed June 28, 2015).

“The Bravo Inquiry” and “The Theory of Suicide in the Bravo Case,” Medical Times and Gazette, Aug. 19, 1876.

Joyce Emmerson Muddock, Pages From an Adventurous Life, 1907.

Listener mail:

Amanda Williams, “Wanted: ‘Outgoing’ Hermit,” Daily Mail, May 5, 2014 (retrieved July 3, 2015).

Greater Manchester News, “Hermit Wanted for Historic Gardens,” July 3, 2009 (retrieved July 3, 2015).

“Hermit Wanted for ‘Ivory Tower’,” BBC, July 1, 2009 (retrieved July 3, 2015).

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Sam B., who sent this corroborating link (warning: this spoils the puzzle).

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

Enter coupon code CLOSET to get $5 off your first purchase at Harry’s.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation via the Donate button in the sidebar 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. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for listening!

Podcast Episode 63: The Rainmaker

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In 1915 San Diego hired “rainmaker” Charles Hatfield to relieve a four-year drought. After he set to work with his 23 secret chemicals, the skies opened and torrential rains caused some of the most extreme flooding in the city’s history. In this week’s podcast we’ll discuss the effects of “Hatfield’s flood” and ponder how to assign the credit or blame.

We’ll also puzzle over why a flagrant housebreaker doesn’t get prosecuted.

Sources for our feature on “moisture accelerator” Charles Hatfield:

Garry Jenkins, The Wizard of Sun City, 2005.

Cynthia Barnett, Rain: A Natural and Cultural History, 2015.

“Hatfield Made the Sky Fall (and Fall),” Kingman [Ariz.] Daily Miner, Nov. 14, 1978.

“Hatfield Again Gambling Upon Making of Rain,” Berkeley [Calif.] Daily Gazette, Jan. 29, 1926.

“Rainmaker Wins Bet With Farmers,” Ellensburg [Wash.] Daily Record, July 28, 1921.

“With the Rainmaker,” Dawson [Yukon] Daily News, July 4, 1905.

“Rainstorms at $50 Each,” St. John [New Brunswick] Daily Sun, March 8, 1904.

This week’s first lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Hanno Zulla, who sent these corroborating links (warning: these spoil the puzzle).

The second puzzle is from Edward J. Harshman’s 1996 book Fantastic Lateral Thinking Puzzles.

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

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation via the Donate button in the sidebar 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. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for listening!

Podcast Episode 62: Marconi Catches a Murderer

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The discovery of the gruesome remains of a human body buried in a doctor’s cellar shocked London in 1910. In this week’s podcast we’ll recount the dramatic use of the recently invented wireless telegraph in capturing the main suspect in the crime.

We’ll also hear a letter that Winston Churchill wrote to Winston Churchill and puzzle over why a sober man is denied a second beer.

Sources for our feature on the telegraphic nabbing of Edwardian uxoricide Hawley Harvey Crippen:

Erik Larson, Thunderstruck, 2006.

Associated Press, “Wireless Flashes Crippen and Girl Aboard Montrose,” Los Angeles Herald, July 29, 1910.

“Captain Sure Suspects are Pair Police Seek,” Los Angeles Herald, July 29, 1910.

“Crippen Mystery Remains Despite DNA Claim,” BBC News, Oct. 18, 2007 (accessed June 16, 2015).

Mark Townsend, “Appeal Judges Asked to Clear Notorious Murderer Dr. Crippen,” Guardian, June 6, 2009 (accessed June 16, 2015).

Proceedings of Crippen’s 1910 trial at Old Bailey Online.

08/02/2015 Listener Iain Cadman notes that BBC Radio 4 recently offered this dramatization of the Crippen story.

Here’s Winston Churchill’s June 1899 letter to American author Winston Churchill:

Mr. Winston Churchill presents his compliments to Mr. Winston Churchill, and begs to draw his attention to a matter which concerns them both. He has learnt from the Press notices that Mr. Winston Churchill proposes to bring out another novel, entitled Richard Carvel, which is certain to have a considerable sale both in England and America. Mr. Winston Churchill is also the author of a novel now being published in serial form in Macmillan’s Magazine, and for which he anticipates some sale both in England and America. He also proposes to publish on the 1st of October another military chronicle on the Soudan War. He has no doubt that Mr. Winston Churchill will recognise from this letter — if indeed by no other means — that there is grave danger of his works being mistaken for those of Mr. Winston Churchill. He feels sure that Mr. Winston Churchill desires this as little as he does himself. In future to avoid mistakes as far as possible, Mr. Winston Churchill has decided to sign all published articles, stories, or other works, ‘Winston Spencer Churchill,’ and not ‘Winston Churchill’ as formerly. He trusts that this arrangement will commend itself to Mr. Winston Churchill, and he ventures to suggest, with a view to preventing further confusion which may arise out of this extraordinary coincidence, that both Mr. Winston Churchill and Mr. Winston Churchill should insert a short note in their respective publications explaining to the public which are the works of Mr. Winston Churchill and which those of Mr. Winston Churchill. The text of this note might form a subject for future discussion if Mr. Winston Churchill agrees with Mr. Winston Churchill’s proposition. He takes this occasion of complimenting Mr. Winston Churchill upon the style and success of his works, which are always brought to his notice whether in magazine or book form, and he trusts that Mr. Winston Churchill has derived equal pleasure from any work of his that may have attracted his attention.

From Richard M. Langworth, The Definitive Wit of Winston Churchill, 2009.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle appeared originally on NPR’s Car Talk, contributed there by listener George Parks.

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

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation via the Donate button in the sidebar of the Futility Closet website.

Please take our five-minute survey to help us find advertisers to support the show.

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. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for listening!

Podcast Episode 61: The Strange Custom of Garden Hermits

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In 18th-century England, wealthy landowners would sometimes hire people to live as hermits in secluded corners of their estates. In today’s show we’ll explore this odd custom and review the job requirements for life as a poetic recluse.

We’ll also meet a German novelist who popularized an American West he had never seen and puzzle over some very generous bank robbers.

Sources for our feature on ornamental hermits:

Gordon Campbell, The Hermit in the Garden, 2013.

Alice Gregory, “Garden Hermit Needed. Apply Within,” Boston Globe, May 19, 2013.

Robert Conger Pell, Milledulcia: A Thousand Pleasant Things, 1857.

Edith Sitwell, The English Eccentrics, 1933.

John Timbs, English Eccentrics and Eccentricities, 1875.

Allison Meier, “Before the Garden Gnome, The Ornamental Hermit: A Real Person Paid to Dress Like a Druid,” Atlas Obscura, March 18, 2014 (accessed June 9, 2015).

Graeme Wood’s article “The Lost Man,” describing the latest efforts to identify the Somerton Man, appeared in the California Sunday Magazine on June 7, 2015. The case concerns an unidentified corpse discovered on a South Australian beach in December 1948; for the full story see our Episode 25.

University of Adelaide physicist Derek Abbott’s Indiegogo campaign to identify the man runs through June 28. There’s also a petition to urge the attorney general of South Australia to exhume the body so that autosomal DNA can be extracted.

Sources for Sharon’s discussion of German author Karl May’s fictional Apache chief Winnetou:

Michael Kimmelman, “Fetishizing Native Americans: In Germany, Wild for Winnetou,” Spiegel Online, Sept. 13, 2007 (accessed June 11, 2015).

Rivka Galchen, “Wild West Germany: Why Do Cowboys and Indians So Captivate the Country?”, New Yorker, April 9, 2012 (accessed June 11, 2015).

winnetou headline

Winnetou is so popular in Germany that the death this month of French actor Pierre Brice, who played him in the movies, was front-page news. (Thanks, Hanno.)

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle is from Edward J. Harshman’s 1996 book Fantastic Lateral Thinking Puzzles.

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

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation via the Donate button in the sidebar of the Futility Closet website.

Please take a five-minute survey to help us find advertisers to support the show.

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. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for listening!

Podcast Episode 60: The Day They Hanged an Elephant


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In 1916 an American circus elephant named Mary was hanged before a crowd of 3,000 onlookers. In this week’s podcast we’ll review the sad series of events that led Mary to a Tennessee railroad crane.

We’ll also get an update on a very inventive bank robbery and puzzle over the escalators in London’s Tube stations.

Our feature on Mary, the circus elephant who was hanged in Tennessee in 1916, was based chiefly on Charles Edwin Price’s 1992 book The Day They Hung the Elephant.

Our first lateral thinking puzzle this week was contributed by listener Paul Sophocleous. The second is from Kyle Hendrickson’s 1998 book Mental Fitness Puzzles.

Here are two links with more information about the bank robbery described in Episode 58’s puzzle. (Warning — these will spoil the puzzle!)

Enter coupon code CLOSET at Harry’s to get $5 off a special Father’s Day razor set.

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

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation via the Donate button in the sidebar of the 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. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for listening!

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