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 33: Death and Robert Todd Lincoln

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Robert_Todd_Lincoln,_Brady-Handy_bw_photo_portrait,_ca1870-1880.jpg

Abraham Lincoln’s eldest son, Robert, is the subject of a grim coincidence in American history: He’s the only person known to have been present or nearby at the assassinations of three American presidents. In the latest Futility Closet podcast we describe the circumstances of each misfortune and explore some further coincidences regarding Robert’s brushes with fatality.

We also consider whether a chimpanzee deserves a day in court and puzzle over why Australia would demolish a perfectly good building.

Sources for our segment on Robert Todd Lincoln:

Jason Emerson, Giant in the Shadows: The Life of Robert T. Lincoln, 2012.

Charles Lachman, The Last Lincolns: The Rise and Fall of a Great American Family, 2008.

Merrill D. Peterson, Lincoln in American Memory, 1994.

Ralph Gary, Following in Lincoln’s Footsteps, 2002.

Sources for the listener mail segment:

“Lyman Dillon and the Military Road,” Tri-County Historical Society (accessed 11/06/2014).

Charles Siebert, “Should a Chimp Be Able to Sue Its Owner?”, New York Times Magazine, April 23, 2014.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle is from Paul Sloane and Des MacHale’s 1994 book Great Lateral Thinking Puzzles. Some corroboration is here (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.

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 32: The Wow! Signal

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wow_signal.jpg

In August 1977, Ohio astronomer Jerry Ehman discovered a radio signal so exciting that he wrote “Wow!” in the margin of its computer printout. Arriving from the direction of the constellation Sagittarius, the signal bore all the characteristics of an alien transmission. But despite decades of eager listening, astronomers have never heard it repeated. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review the story of the “Wow! signal,” which remains an intriguing, unexplained anomaly in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

We’ll also share some more nuggets from Greg’s database of oddities and puzzle over why a man chooses to drive a long distance at only 15 mph.

Sources for our segment on the Wow! signal:

Robert H. Gray, The Elusive Wow, 2012.

Giuseppe Cocconi and Philip Morrison, “Searching for Interstellar Communication,” Nature, Sept. 19, 1959.

Frank White, The SETI Factor, 1990.

David W. Swift, SETI Pioneers, 1990.

David Darling, The Extraterrestrial Encyclopedia, 2000.

Michael Brooks, 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense, 2008.

“Humanity Responds to ‘Alien’ Wow Signal, 35 Years Later,” space.com, Aug. 17, 2012 (accessed Oct. 31, 2014).

Here’s Stephen Colbert’s message to the denizens of Sagittarius:

Notes and sources for our miscellany from Greg’s notes:

Iowa City’s web page explains that Lyman Dillon plowed a furrow from Iowa City to Dubuque in 1839.

The item on oil pit squids is from George Eberhart’s 2002 book Mysterious Creatures. The squids were found in “oil-emulsion pits containing antifreeze, stripper, oil, and chemicals used in manufacturing plastic automobile bumpers.” Eberhart cites Ken de la Bastide, “Creature in Plant 9 Pits,” Anderson (Ind.) Herald Bulletin, March 5, 1997.

Thanks to reader John McKenna for letter from the ancient Greek boy Theon to his father. It’s from the Oxyrhynchus papyri, from the 2nd or 3rd century:

Theon to his father Theon, greeting. It was a fine thing of you not to take me with you to the city! If you won’t take me with you to Alexandria I won’t write you a letter or speak to you or say goodbye to you; and if you go to Alexandria I won’t take your hand nor ever greet you again. That is what will happen if you won’t take me. Mother said to Archelaus, ‘it quite upsets him to be left behind.’ It was good of you to send me presents … on the 12th, the day you sailed. Send me a lyre, I implore you. If you don’t, I won’t eat, I won’t drink; there now!

The item on William and Henry James is from Vincent Barry’s 2007 book Philosophical Thinking About Dying.

According to the Encyclopedia of Fictional and Fantastic Languages (2006), Gaff’s command to Deckard in Blade Runner is Monsieur, azonnal kövessen engem bitte (“Sir, follow me immediately please”).

The anecdote about Alfred Lunt and the green umbrella is from the Methuen Drama Dictionary of the Theatre (2013).

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle comes from Paul Sloane and Des MacHale’s 1998 book Ingenious Lateral Thinking Puzzles.

Many thanks to Harry’s for supporting this week’s episode. Enter coupon code CLOSET with your first purchase and they’ll give you a $5 discount.

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.

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 31: Pigs on Trial

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Trial_of_a_sow_and_pigs_at_Lavegny.png

For 500 years of European history, animals were given criminal trials: Bulls, horses, dogs, and sheep were arrested, jailed, given lawyers, tried, and punished at community expense. In the latest Futility Closet podcast we’ll explore this strange practice and try to understand its significance to the people of the time.

We’ll also rediscover the source of Futility Closet’s name and puzzle over how a ringing bell relates to a man’s death.

Sources for our segment on animal trials:

Anila Srivastava, “‘Mean, Dangerous, and Uncontrollable Beasts’: Mediaeval Animal Trials,” Mosaic, March 2007.

Jen Girgen, “The Historical and Contemporary Prosecution and Punishment of Animals,” Animal Law Review, 2003.

Esther Cohen, “Law, Folklore, and Animal Lore,” Past & Present, February 1986.

“Medieval Animal Trials,” medievalists.net, Sept. 8, 2013 (accessed Oct. 20, 2014).

James E. McWilliams, “Beastly Justice,” Slate, Feb. 21, 2013.

E.P. Evans, The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals, 1906.

The Hour of the Pig (released in the United States as The Advocate), BBC, 1993.

Here’s the original UTILITY sign from American University’s administration building that inspired our name:

AU utility sign

(Thanks, Karl.)

This week’s lateral thinking puzzles come from Paul Sloane and Des MacHale’s 1994 book Great Lateral Thinking Puzzles and from listener Meaghan Gerard Walsh.

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.

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 30: The Oak Island Money Pit


http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Oak_Island,_Nova_Scotia#mediaviewer/File:Digs_and_Buildings,_photo_2,_Oak_Island,_Nova_Scotia,_Canada,_August_1931.jpg

Nova Scotia’s Oak Island hides a famously booby-trapped treasure cache — or so goes the legend. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast, we review the many attempts to recover the treasure and wonder who could have engineered such a site, what might be hidden there — and whether, indeed, it contains anything at all. We also puzzle over what a woman’s errands can tell us about how her husband died.

Sources for our segment on Oak Island:

“The Secrets of Oak Island”, Joe Nickell, Skeptical Inquirer, March/April 2000.

Richard Joltes, “History, Hoax, and Hype: The Oak Island Legend”, Critical Enquiry, accessed Oct. 19, 2014.

Edwin Teale, “Mystery Island Baffles Treasure Hunters,” Popular Science, May 1939.

D’Arcy O’Connor, The Money Pit, 1978.

The image above shows the dig as it existed in August 1931. Below is 27-year-old Franklin Roosevelt (third from right) at the 1909 dig:

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Photograph_of_Franklin_D._Roosevelt_and_Others_at_Oak_Island_in_Nova_Scotia_-_NARA_-_196803.tif

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Nicholas Madrid.

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.

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 29: The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser

C:\Users\Greg\Dropbox\Podcast\029-The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser

In 1828, a 16-year-old boy appeared in Nuremberg, claiming that he’d spent his whole life alone in a dark cell. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the short, sad life of Kaspar Hauser and ponder who he might have been.

We’ll also revisit the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus, encounter some self-landing planes, and puzzle over why a man would bury 15 luxury cars in the desert.

Sources for our segment on Kaspar Hauser:

Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, Lost Prince: The Unsolved Mystery of Kaspar Hauser, 1996.

Martin Kitchen, Kaspar Hauser: Europe’s Child, 2001.

Links from listener mail:

Being in the Shadow, Australian psychologist Kate Russo’s site about the psychology of eclipse chasing.

A 1997 NTSB report regarding a Piper PA-24 that “landed itself” after the pilot passed out due to a carbon monoxide leak.

The “cornfield bomber,” a Convair F-106 Delta Dart that landed in a Montana farmer’s field in 1970 after the pilot ejected. When the local sheriff arrived, the jet’s engine was still idling.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle is from Paul Sloane and Des MacHale’s 1994 book Great Lateral Thinking Puzzles. Corroborating links are here and here (warning — they 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. 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. We’re off next week — Episode 30 will go up on Oct. 20. Thanks for listening!

Podcast Episode 28: The Real-Life Sherlock Holmes

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Sherlock Holmes was based on a real man, a physician who trained Arthur Conan Doyle at the University of Edinburgh. During his medical lectures, Joseph Bell regularly astonished his students with insights into his patients’ lives and characters.

“From close observation and deduction, gentlemen,” he said, “it is possible to make a diagnosis that will be correct in any and every case. However, you must not neglect to ratify your deductions.”

In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll meet Joseph Bell and review the stories of his legendary acuity. We’ll also take a tour through Greg’s database of unpublished oddities and puzzle over how having your car damaged might be a good thing.

Our segment on Joseph Bell, the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes, was based on Northeastern Illinois University literature professor Ely Liebow’s 1982 book Dr. Joe Bell: Model for Sherlock Holmes. Our original post on Joseph Bell ran on April 27, 2014.

Harry How’s 1892 Strand feature “A Day With Dr. Conan Doyle” is reprinted in the Conan Doyle Encyclopedia.

Joseph Bell wrote the introduction to the 1892 edition of A Study in ScarletWikisource has a scan.

Somewhat related: When Arthur Guiterman twitted Doyle for having Holmes denigrate other fictional detectives that had obviously inspired him, Doyle responded in kind.

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. 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 27: The Man Who Volunteered for Auschwitz

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In September 1940 Polish army captain Witold Pilecki volunteered to be imprisoned at Auschwitz. His reports first alerted the Allies to the horrors at the camp and helped to warn the world that a holocaust was taking place.

In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Pilecki into the camp, hear his reports of the atrocities he witnessed, and learn why his name isn’t better known today. We’ll also meet the elusive Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus and puzzle over how hitting a target could save thousands of lives.

Sources for our segment on Polish army captain Witold Pilecki:

The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery. By Witold Pilecki, translated by Jarek Garlinski, 2012.

Timothy Snyder, “Were We All People?”, New York Times, June 22, 2012.

“Meet The Man Who Sneaked Into Auschwitz,” National Public Radio, Sept. 18, 2010.

Listener mail: The hoax site on the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus was created by these researchers at the University of Connecticut. (Thanks to listener David Brooks for telling us about this story.)

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener David White. Related links (warning: these spoil the puzzle) are here, here, and here.

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. 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 26: A Practical Joke on a Grand Scale

berners street hoax

In 1810 someone told hundreds of London merchants that Mrs. Tottenham at 54 Berners Street had requested their services. She hadn’t. For a full day the street was packed with crowds of deliverymen struggling to reach a single door — and the practical joker was never caught.

In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll hear descriptions of the chaos in Berners Street and meet Theodore Hook, the man who probably planned the whole thing. We’ll also revisit the mysterious corpse found on an Australian beach in 1948 and puzzle over an octopus stuck in a tree.

Sources for our segment on the Berners Street hoax:

Judith Flanders, The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London, 2012.

Robert Chambers, The Book of Days, 1832.

Richard Harris Dalton Barham, The Life and Remains of Theodore Edward Hook, 1849.

John Gibson Lockhart, Theodore Hook, A Sketch, 1852.

John Timbs, Lives of Wits and Humourists, 1862.

Satirist, or, Monthly Meteor, “The Hoax: An Epistle From Solomon Sappy, Esquire, in London, to his brother Simon at Liverpool,” Jan. 1, 1811, pp. 59-61.

Listener mail:

The new developments in the mystery of the Somerton man are detailed in this article in The Advertiser.

Here’s “No E,” four minutes of E-less hip-hop by Zach Sherwin and George Watsky (thanks, Jocelyn):

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Nick Madrid.

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. 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 25: An Australian Enigma

On Dec. 1, 1948, a well-dressed corpse appeared on a beach in South Australia. Despite 66 years of investigation, no one has ever been able to establish who the man was, how he came to be there, or even how he died.

In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll delve into the mystery of the Somerton man, a fascinating tale that involves secret codes, a love triangle, and the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. We’ll also hear Franklin Adams praise the thesaurus and puzzle over some surprising consequences of firing a gun.

Sources for our segment on the Somerton man:

Mike Dash, “The Body on Somerton Beach,” Smithsonianmag.com, Aug. 12, 2011 (retrieved Aug. 31, 2014).

Lorena Allam, “The Somerton Man: A Mystery in Four Acts,” Radio Australia, Feb. 23, 2014.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:SomertonMan2.jpg

The corpse of a well-dressed, clean-shaven man, 5’11”, age 40-45 and in peak physical condition, was discovered on Somerton Beach in Adelaide, South Australia, early on the morning of Dec. 1, 1948.

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In a fob pocket of the man’s trousers the pathologist at the city morgue found a tiny slip of rolled-up paper bearing the words “Tamam Shud,” the final words of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:SomertonManCode.jpg

This led investigators to a copy of the book, which had been thrown into a car parked near the beach. In the back of the book were these penciled lines, which have never been deciphered.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:SomertonManStone.jpg

More than 60 years of inquiries around the world have brought us no closer to establishing the dead man’s identity. His tombstone gives only the bare facts of his discovery.

Franklin Pierce Adams’ poem “To a Thesaurus” appears in The Book of Humorous Verse, by Carolyn Wells, 1920.

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. The show notes are on the blog. 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 24: The World’s Worst Poet

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William McGonagall has been called “the only truly memorable bad poet in our language,” responsible for tin-eared verse that could “give you cauliflower ears just from silent reading”:

Alas! Lord and Lady Dalhousie are dead, and buried at last,
Which causes many people to feel a little downcast;
And both lie side by side in one grave,
But I hope God in His goodness their souls will save.

In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll sample McGonagall’s writings, follow the poor poet’s sadly heroic wanderings, and wonder whether he may have been in on the joke after all. We’ll also consider a South Carolina seventh grader’s plea to Ronald Reagan and puzzle over a man’s outrageous public behavior.

Our segment on William McGonagall, the world’s worst poet, is drawn from Norman Watson’s beautifully researched 2010 book Poet McGonagall: A Biography. The best online source on McGonagall is Chris Hunt’s site McGonagall Online, which contains extensive biographical materials, a map of the poet’s travels, and a complete collection of his poems.

South Carolina seventh grader Andy Irmo’s 1984 letter to Ronald Reagan asking that his room be declared a disaster area appears in Dwight Young’s 2007 book Dear Mr. President: Letters to the Oval Office from the Files of the National Archives. Our post about it ran on Aug. 14, 2006.

Thanks to listener Nick Madrid for this week’s lateral thinking 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. The show notes are on the blog. 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!

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