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 19: Testing the Post Office


In 1898, 19-year-old W. Reginald Bray made a thorough study of British postal regulations, which laid out rules for mailing everything from bees to elephants and promised that “all letters must be delivered as addressed.” He resolved to give the service “a severe test without infringing its regulations.”

In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review the antics that followed, in which Bray sent turnips, bicycle pumps, shoes, and even himself through the British post. We’ll also sympathize with Lucius Chittenden, a U.S. Treasury official who had to sign 12,500 bonds in one harried weekend in 1862, and puzzle over the worrying train journey of a Wall Street banker.

Our segment on W.R. Bray, the Edwardian postal experimentalist, is based chiefly on John Tingey’s 2010 book The Englishman Who Posted Himself and Other Curious Objects.

Tingey maintains a website with an extensive catalog of the curios that Bray sent through the post.

Also David Leafe, “The Man Who Posted Himself,” Daily Mail, March 19, 2012.

In an article in the Royal Magazine in 1904, Bray noted the usefulness of the Post Office’s offer to conduct a person “to any address on payment of the mileage charge”:

What mothers know that, if they like, they can send their little ones to school as letters? Possibly, as soon as the ‘mother-readers’ see this, the Post Offices will be crowded with toddling infants, both in and out of ‘prams,’ all waiting to be taken to schools, or out for a day in the country. ‘But I should not like my child to be carried with postage stamps, and arrive at the school black with postmarks!’ That is what I expect some mothers will say.

Oh, don’t be alarmed, nothing like this will happen! All that you need to do is to take the child to the Post Office across the road, pay a small fee, and a messenger boy will escort the little one to the very door of the school. However Post Office officials do not appear anxious to gain fame as nurse providers to infants.

Past postal mischief on Futility Closet:

Torturing the Post Office

Post Haste

Riddling Letters

Sources for our segment on L.E. Chittenden, the iron-wristed Register of the Treasury under Lincoln:

Lucius Eugene Chittenden, Recollections of President Lincoln and His Administration, 1891.

Joseph F. Tuttle, “Abraham Lincoln, ‘The Perfect Ruler of Men,'” Historical Register of the Colorado Society of the Sons of the American Revolution, Nov. 1, 1906.

William Juengst, “In Ruffles and Starch Cuffs: The American Jews’ Part in Our International Relations,” The American Hebrew & Jewish Messenger, Sept. 30, 1921.

Arthur Laurents wrote a piece for the New York Herald Tribune in 1957 that discusses the development of West Side Story.

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 18: The Mystery of the Disappearing Airmen


In 1942 Navy lieutenant Ernest Cody and ensign Charles Adams piloted a blimp out of San Francisco into the Pacific, looking for Japanese subs. A few hours later the blimp drifted back to land, empty. The parachutes and life raft were in their proper places and the radio was in working order, but there was no trace of Cody or Adams.

In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the events of that strange day and delve into the inquest that followed. We’ll also sample some unpublished items from Greg’s trove of Futility Closet research and puzzle over a drink of water that kills hundreds of people.

Sources for our segment on the L-8 blimp mystery:

Mark J. Price, “60 Years Later, Pilots’ Fate Still a Mystery — 2 Men Aboard Navy Blimp Vanished,” Seattle Times, Aug. 18, 2002.

Darold Fredricks, “Airships and Moffett Field,” San Mateo Daily Journal, July 22, 2013.

United Press International, “Goodyear Blimp Retires,” July 9, 1982.

Some inquest records are available online here.

Links mentioned in listener mail:

Thad Gillespie explains how George Washington came to have two different birth dates in this blog post.

This Gizmodo page, sent by Brian Drake, includes artists’ renditions of Pyke’s envisioned aircraft carrier and the Sagrada Familia made of pykrete; photos of students and professors from Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands using pykrete to make the world’s largest ice dome, with a 98-foot span; and a link to a video of the making of the dome.

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 17: An Aircraft Carrier Made of Ice


In 1943 German submarines were devastating the merchant convoys carrying supplies to Britain. Unable to protect them with aircraft or conventional ships, the resource-strapped Royal Navy considered an outlandish solution: a 2-million-ton aircraft carrier made of ice.

In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the strange history of the project, which Winston Churchill initially praised as dazzling but which ended in ignominy at the bottom of a Canadian lake. We’ll also discover a love pledge hidden for 200 years in the heart of a Yorkshire tree and puzzle over the deaths of two men in a remote cabin.

Our segment on Project Habbakuk is based chiefly on L.D. Cross’ 2012 book Code Name Habbakuk. In the photo above, research workers cut ice and form it into beams on Lake Louise near the Chateau Lake Louise resort hotel in 1943.

Our post on the Yorkshire inscription appeared on Dec. 18, 2009. Sources for the podcast segment:

John Lindley, The Theory and Practice of Horticulture, 1855, citing the Gardener’s Chronicle of 1841.

“Redcarre, a Poor Fysher Towne,” in the Journal of Horticulture and Practical Gardening, Aug. 4, 1870.

“Local Writers and Local Worthies: William and Cholmley Turner,” in William Hall Burnett, Old Cleveland: Being a Collection of Papers, 1886.

Kazlitt Arvine, Cyclopaedia of Anecdotes of Literature and the Fine Arts, 1856.

Here’s the illustration from Lindley:

tree inscription

The inscription reads:


Thomas Browne’s poem “The Lovers to Their Favourite Tree” appears in his Poems on Several Occasions, from 1800:

Long the wintry tempests braving,
Still this short inscription keep;
Still preserve this rude engraving,
On thy bark imprinted deep:
This tree long time witness bear,
Two true-lovers did walk here.

By the softest ties united,
Love has bound our souls in one;
And by mutual promise plighted,
Waits the nuptial rite alone–
Thou, a faithful witness bear,
Of our plighted promise here.

Tho’ our sires would gladly sever
Those firm ties they disallow,
Yet they cannot part us ever —
We will keep our faithful vow,
And in spite of threats severe,
Still will meet each other here.

While the dusky shade concealing,
Veils the faultless fraud of love,
We from sleepless pillows stealing,
Nightly seek the silent grove;
And escaped from eyes severe,
Dare to meet each other here.

Wealth and titles disregarding
(Idols of the sordid mind),
Calm content true love rewarding,
In the bliss we wish to find.—
Thou tree, long time witness bear,
Two such Lovers did walk here.

To our faithful love consenting
(Love unchang’d by time or tide),
Should our haughty sires relenting,
Give the sanction yet deny’d;
‘Midst the scenes to mem’ry dear,
Still we oft will wander here.

Then our ev’ry wish compleated,
Crown’d by kinder fates at last,
All beneath thy shadow seated,
We will talk of seasons past;
When, by night, in silent fear,
We did meet each other here.

On thy yielding bark, engraving
Now in short our tender tale,
Long, time’s roughest tempest braving,
Spread thy branches to the gale;
And, for ages, witness bear,
Two True-lovers did walk here.

Browne writes, “There are likewise other letters, which seem to be the initial of the Lover’s names, who appear to have frequented the solitary spot where the tree has grown, to vent the effusions of their mutual passion, and to enjoy the pleasure of each other’s conversation sequestered and unobserved.” The other writers don’t mention this.

Frances Cornford’s triolet “To a Fat Lady Seen From the Train” appeared in her volume Poems in 1910:

O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
Missing so much and so much?
O fat white woman whom nobody loves,
Why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
When the grass is soft as the breast of doves
And shivering-sweet to the touch?
O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
Missing so much and so much?

G.K. Chesterton’s response, “The Fat Lady Answers,” appeared in his Collected Poems of 1927:

Why do you rush through the field in trains,
Guessing so much and so much?
Why do you flash through the flowery meads,
Fat-head poet that nobody reads;
And why do you know such a frightful lot
About people in gloves and such?

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 16: A Very Popular Sack of Flour


In 1864 Nevada mining merchant Reuel Gridley found a unique way to raise money for wounded Union soldiers: He repeatedly auctioned the same 50-pound sack of flour, raising $250,000 from sympathetic donors across the country.

In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll discover the origins of Gridley’s floury odyssey. We’ll also hear H.L. Mencken’s translation of the Declaration of Independence into American English and try to figure out where tourism increases the price of electricity.

Sources for our story on Reuel Gridley and the flour auction:

Ralph Lea and Christi Kennedy, “Reuel Gridley and a Sack of Flour,” Lodi, Calif., News-Sentinel, Sept. 30, 2005.

Mark Twain, Roughing It, 1872.

Here’s his monument, in the Stockton Rural Cemetery in California:

Image: Wikimedia Commons

The empty flour sack is in the collection of the Nevada Historical Society.

“The Declaration of Independence in American,” by H.L. Mencken, from The American Language, 1921:

When things get so balled up that the people of a country have to cut loose from some other country, and go it on their own hook, without asking no permission from nobody, excepting maybe God Almighty, then they ought to let everybody know why they done it, so that everybody can see they are on the level, and not trying to put nothing over on nobody.

All we got to say on this proposition is this: first, you and me is as good as anybody else, and maybe a damn sight better; second, nobody ain’t got no right to take away none of our rights; third, every man has got a right to live, to come and go as he pleases, and to have a good time however he likes, so long as he don’t interfere with nobody else. That any government that don’t give a man these rights ain’t worth a damn; also, people ought to choose the kind of goverment they want themselves, and nobody else ought to have no say in the matter. That whenever any goverment don’t do this, then the people have got a right to can it and put in one that will take care of their interests. Of course, that don’t mean having a revolution every day like them South American coons and yellow-bellies and Bolsheviki, or every time some job-holder does something he ain’t got no business to do. It is better to stand a little graft, etc., than to have revolutions all the time, like them coons and Bolsheviki, and any man that wasn’t a anarchist or one of them I. W. W.’s would say the same. But when things get so bad that a man ain’t hardly got no rights at all no more, but you might almost call him a slave, then everybody ought to get together and throw the grafters out, and put in new ones who won’t carry on so high and steal so much, and then watch them. This is the proposition the people of these Colonies is up against, and they have got tired of it, and won’t stand it no more. The administration of the present King, George III, has been rotten from the start, and when anybody kicked about it he always tried to get away with it by strong-arm work. Here is some of the rough stuff he has pulled:

He vetoed bills in the Legislature that everybody was in favor of, and hardly nobody was against.

He wouldn’t allow no law to be passed without it was first put up to him, and then he stuck it in his pocket and let on he forgot about it, and didn’t pay no attention to no kicks.

When people went to work and gone to him and asked him to put through a law about this or that, he give them their choice: either they had to shut down the Legislature and let him pass it all by him-self, or they couldn’t have it at all.

He made the Legislature meet at one-horse thank-towns out in the alfalfa belt, so that hardly nobody could get there and most of the leaders would stay home and let him go to work and do things as he pleased.

He give the Legislature the air, and sent the members home every time they stood up to him and give him a call-down.

When a Legislature was busted up he wouldn’t allow no new one to be elected, so that there wasn’t nobody left to run things, but anybody could walk in and do whatever they pleased.

He tried to scare people outen moving into these States, and made it so hard for a wop or one of them poor kikes to get his papers that he would rather stay home and not try it, and then, when he come in, he wouldn’t let him have no land, and so he either went home again or never come.

He monkeyed with the courts, and didn’t hire enough judges to do the work, and so a person had to wait so long for his case to come up that he got sick of waiting, and went home, and so never got what was coming to him.

He got the judges under his thumb by turning them out when they done anything he didn’t like, or holding up their salaries, so that they had to cough up or not get no money.

He made a lot of new jobs, and give them to loafers that nobody knowed nothing about, and the poor people had to pay the bill, whether they wanted to or not.

Without no war going on, he kept an army loafing around the country, no matter how much people kicked about it.

He let the army run things to suit theirself and never paid no attention whatsoever to nobody which didn’t wear no uniform.

He let grafters run loose, from God knows where, and give them the say in everything, and let them put over such things as the following:

Making poor people board and lodge a lot of soldiers they ain’t got no use for, and don’t want to see loafing around.

When the soldiers kill a man, framing it up so that they would get off.

Interfering with business.

Making us pay taxes without asking us whether we thought the things we had to pay taxes for was something that was worth paying taxes for or not.

When a man was arrested and asked for a jury trial, not letting him have no jury trial.

Chasing men out of the country, without being guilty of nothing, and trying them somewheres else for what they done here.

In countries that border on us, he put in bum goverments, and then tried to spread them out, so that by and by they would take in this country too, or make our own goverment as bum as they was. He never paid no attention whatever to the Constitution, but he went to work and repealed laws that everybody was satisfied with and hardly nobody was against, and tried to fix the goverment so that he could do whatever he pleased.

He busted up the Legislatures and let on he could do all the work better by himself.

Now he washes his hands of us and even declares war on us, so we don’t owe him nothing, and whatever authority he ever had he ain’t got no more.

He has burned down towns, shot down people like dogs, and raised hell against us out on the ocean.

He hired whole regiments of Dutch, etc., to fight us, and told them they could have anything they wanted if they could take it away from us, and sicked these Dutch, etc., on us without paying no attention whatever to international law.

He grabbed our own people when he found them in ships on the ocean, and shoved guns into their hands, and made them fight against us, no matter how much they didn’t want to.

He stirred up the Indians, and give them arms ammunition, and told them to go to it, and they have killed men, women and children, and don’t care which.

Every time he has went to work and pulled any of these things, we have went to work and put in a kick, but every time we have went to work and put in a kick he has went to work and did it again. When a man keeps on handing out such rough stuff all the time, all you can say is that he ain’t got no class and ain’t fitten to have no authority over people who have got any rights, and he ought to be kicked out.

When we complained to the English we didn’t get no more satisfaction. Almost every day we warned them that the politicians over there was doing things to us that they didn’t have no right to do. We kept on reminding them who we were, and what we was doing here, and how we come to come here. We asked them to get us a square deal, and told them that if this thing kept on we’d have to do something about it and maybe they wouldn’t like it. But the more we talked, the more they didn’t pay no attention to us. Therefore, if they ain’t for us they must be agin us, and we are ready to give them the fight of their lives, or to shake hands when it is over.

Therefore be it resolved, That we, the representatives of the people of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, hereby declare as follows: That the United States, which was the United Colonies in former times, is now free and independent, and ought to be; that we have throwed out the English Kings and don’t want to have nothing to do with him no more, and are not in England no more; and that,being as we are now free and independent, we can do anything that free and independent parties can do, especially declare war, make peace, sign treaties, go into business, etc. And we swear on the Bible on this proposition, one and all, and agree to stick to it no matter what happens, whether we win or we lose, and whether we get away with it or get the worst of it, no matter whether we lose all our property by it or even get hung for it.

Sources for the gruesome story of the Smalls lighthouse:

Douglas Bland Hague, Lighthouses of Wales: Their Architecture and Archaeology, 1994.

Christopher Nicholson, Rock Lighthouses of Britain, 1983.

Nicholson writes that Howell’s “ordeal had affected him so greatly it was said that some of his friends did not recognize him on his return.”

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 15: The Flannan Isles Mystery

Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1900 three lighthouse keepers vanished from a remote, featureless island in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. The lighthouse was in good order and the log showed no sign of trouble, but no trace of the keepers has ever been found. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll explore the conundrum of the men’s disappearance — a classic mystery of sea lore.

We’ll also ponder the whereabouts of Robert Louis Stevenson’s birthday, admire Esaw Wood’s quest for a wood saw that would saw wood, and wonder why drinking a glass of water might necessitate a call to the auto club.

Sources for our segment on the Flannan Isles lighthouse:

Christopher Nicholson, Rock Lighthouses of Britain, 1983.

“The Mystery of Flannan Isle,” Northern Lighthouse Board, retrieved June 18, 2014.

Mike Dash, “The Vanishing Lighthousemen of Eilean Mór,” Fortean Studies 4 (1998).

Sources for the story about Robert Louis Stevenson’s bequest of his birthday:

Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Graham Balfour, Works, Volume 24, 1905.

Elmo Scott Watson, “Famous Writer Gave Most Unusual ‘Christmas Gift’ in All History,” Ironwood [Mich.] Times, Dec. 23, 1938.

“Inherits Birthday,” Sherbrooke [Quebec] Telegram, Jan. 11, 1934.

Here’s the deed:

Vailima, June 19, 1891.

I, Robert Louis Stevenson, Advocate of the Scots Bar, author of The Master of Ballantrae and Moral Emblems, stuck civil engineer, sole owner and patentee of the Palace and Plantation known as Vailima in the island of Upolu, Samoa, a British Subject, being in sound mind, and pretty well, I thank you, in body:

In consideration that Miss Annie H. Ide, daughter of H.C. Ide, in the town of Saint Johnsbury, in the county of Caledonia, in the state of Vermont, United States of America, was born, out of all reason, upon Christmas Day, and is therefore out of all justice denied the consolation and profit of a proper birthday;

And considering that I, the said Robert Louis Stevenson, have attained an age when O, we never mention it, and that I have now no further use for a birthday of any description; …

And in consideration that I have met H.C. Ide, the father of the said Annie H. Ide, and found him about as white a land commissioner as I require:

Have transferred, and do hereby transfer, to the said Annie H. Ide, all and whole my rights and privileges in the thirteenth day of November, formerly my birthday, now, hereby, and henceforth, the birthday of the said Annie H. Ide, to have, hold, exercise, and enjoy the same in the customary manner, by the sporting of fine raiment, eating of rich meats, and receipt of gifts, compliments, and copies of verse, according to the manner of our ancestors;

And I direct the said Annie H. Ide to add to the said name of Annie H. Ide the name Louisa — at least in private; and I charge her to use my said birthday with moderation and humanity, et tamquam bona filia familia, the said birthday not being so young as it once was, and having carried me in a very satisfactory manner since I can remember;

And in case the said Annie H. Ide shall neglect or contravene either of the above conditions, I hereby revoke the donation and transfer my rights in the said birthday to the President of the United States of America for the time being:

In witness whereof I have hereto set my hand and seal this nineteenth day of June in the year of grace eighteen hundred and ninety-one.

Robert Louis Stevenson.
Witness, Lloyd Osbourne,
Witness, Harold Watts.

To Ide Stevenson wrote, “Herewith please find the Document, which I trust will prove sufficient in law. It seems to me very attractive in its eclecticism; Scots, English, and Roman law phrases are all indifferently introduced, and a quotation from the works of Haynes Bailey can hardly fail to attract the indulgence of the Bench.”

A bizarre coincidence: Just before we recorded this episode I discovered that Robert Louis Stevenson’s cousin, David Alan Stevenson, designed the Flannan Isles lighthouse! I’d had no inkling of this in planning or writing the episode; the two stories are set literally a world apart.

“The Story of Esaw Wood,” by W.E. Southwick, from Carolyn Wells’ 1918 anthology Such Nonsense!:

Esaw Wood sawed wood.

Esaw Wood would saw wood!

All the wood Esaw Wood saw Esaw Wood would saw. In other words, all the wood Esaw saw to saw Esaw sought to saw.

Oh, the wood Wood would saw! And oh, the wood-saw with which Wood would saw wood.

But one day Wood’s wood-saw would saw no wood, and thus the wood Wood sawed was not the wood Wood would saw if Wood’s wood-saw would saw wood.

Now, Wood would saw wood with a wood-saw that would saw wood, so Esaw sought a saw that would saw wood.

One day Esaw saw a saw saw wood as no other wood-saw Wood saw would saw wood.

In fact, of all the wood-saws Wood ever saw saw wood Wood never saw a wood-saw that would saw wood as the wood-saw Wood saw saw wood would saw wood, and I never saw a wood-saw that would saw as the wood-saw Wood saw would saw until I saw Esaw Wood saw wood with the wood-saw Wood saw saw wood.

Now Wood saws wood with the wood-saw Wood saw saw wood.

Oh, the wood the wood-saw Wood saw would saw!

Oh, the wood Wood’s woodshed would shed when Wood would saw wood with the wood-saw Wood saw saw wood!

Finally, no man may ever know how much wood the wood-saw Wood saw would saw, if the wood-saw Wood saw would saw all the wood the wood-saw Wood saw would saw.

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 14: The Unsinkable Violet Jessop


Stewardess Violet Jessop was both cursed and blessed — during the 1910s she met disaster on all three of the White Star Line’s Olympic class of gigantic ocean liners, but she managed to escape each time.

In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll accompany Violet on her three ill-fated voyages, including the famous sinkings of the Titanic and the Britannic, and learn the importance of toothbrushes in ocean disasters.

We’ll also play with the International Date Line and puzzle over the identity of Salvador Dalí’s brother.

University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt discusses his coin-flipping experiment about halfway through this BBC podcast. The associated website is here.

We first wrote about Violet Jessop on March 11, 2009. Maritime historian John Maxtone-Graham interviewed her in 1970 for The Only Way to Cross, his 1978 book about the era of ocean liners. When Violet died in 1971 she left a manuscript to her daughters, which, edited by Maxtone-Graham, came to light in 1997 as Titanic Survivor: The Newly Discovered Memoirs of Violet Jessop, Who Survived Both the Titanic and Britannic Disasters. A poetic note from Maxtone-Graham in that book:

“One particular service commemorates the 1500 lost on the Titanic: Every 14th of April, a United States Coast Guard cutter comes to pay the homage of the Ice Patrol, which owes its inception to the disaster. With engines stilled and church pennant at the masthead, officers and men line the deck in full dress, while the commander reads the burial service. Three volleys of rifle fire can be heard, then the cutter passes on, leaving a lone wreath on the waves above the broken hull.”

Lewis Carroll underscored the need for an international date line with this conundrum, which he presented among the mathematical puzzle stories he wrote for the Monthly Packet in the 1880s:

The day changes only at midnight. Suppose it’s midnight in Chelsea; Wednesday has concluded and Thursday is about to begin. It’s still Wednesday in Ireland and America, and it’s already Thursday in Germany and Russia.

That’s fine. But continue in both directions. If it’s Wednesday in America, is it Wednesday in Hawaii? If it’s Thursday in Russia, is it Thursday in Japan? Mustn’t the two days “meet” on the farther side of the globe?

“It isn’t midnight anywhere else; so it can’t be changing from one day to another anywhere else. And yet, if Ireland and America and so on call it Wednesday, and Germany and Russia and so on call it Thursday, there must be some place, not Chelsea, that has different days on the two sides of it. And the worst of it is, the people there get their days in the wrong order: they’ve got Wednesday east of them, and Thursday west — just as if their day had changed from Thursday to Wednesday!”

Carroll normally presented the solution to each problem in the following month’s number. In this case he postponed the solution, “partly because I am myself so entirely puzzled by it,” and then discontinued the column without resolving the problem.

Further curiosities regarding the International Date Line:

Paul Sloane and Des MacHale have written a whole series of books of lateral thinking puzzles. This week’s puzzle on Salvador Dalí’s brother comes from their Ingenious Lateral Thinking Puzzles (1998).

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 13: An Ingenious Escape From Slavery


Georgia slaves Ellen and William Craft made a daring bid for freedom in 1848: Ellen dressed as a white man and, attended by William as her servant, undertook a perilous 1,000-mile journey by carriage, train, and steamship to the free state of Pennsylvania in the North. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the couple’s harrowing five-day adventure through the slave-owning South.

We’ll also discover the best place in the United States to commit a crime and sample the aphoristic poetry of Danish mathematician Piet Hein.

Our post on Ellen and William Craft appeared on July 19, 2012. Here are the two as they normally appeared:


And here’s Ellen dressed as a rheumatism-ridden white man:


In order to show her likeness clearly, this image omits the poultice that she wore on her chin.

Their book Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom appeared in 1860. Here’s an excerpt explaining what awaited them if they were confronted at any point on their 1,000-mile journey:

If [a] coloured person refuses to answer questions put to him, he may be beaten, and his defending himself against this attack makes him an outlaw, and if he be killed on the spot, the murderer will be exempted from all blame; but after the coloured person has answered the questions put to him, in a most humble and pointed manner, he may then be taken to prison; and should it turn out, after further examination, that he was caught where he had no permission or legal right to be, and that he has not given what they term a satisfactory account of himself, the master will have to pay a fine. On his refusing to do this, the poor slave may be legally and severely flogged by public officers. Should the prisoner prove to be a free man, he is most likely to be both whipped and fined.

At several points whites upbraided Ellen for treating William decently. On the steamer to Charleston, a Southern military officer told her:

You will excuse me, Sir, for saying I think you are very likely to spoil your boy by saying ‘thank you’ to him. I assure you, sir, nothing spoils a slave so soon as saying ‘thank you’ and ‘if you please’ to him. The only way to make a nigger toe the mark, and to keep him in his place, is to storm at him like thunder, and keep him trembling like a leaf. Don’t you see, when I speak to my Ned, he darts like lightning; and if he didn’t I’d skin him.

Our post about the Woodrow Wilson Bridge appeared on June 4, 2014, and we wrote originally about the Yellowstone loophole on Feb. 3, 2012. Michigan State law professor Brian Kalt’s paper about the loophole is titled “The Perfect Crime.” He points out that civil actions and lesser criminal charges await anyone who commits a felony in Yellowstone; nonetheless he calls the current state of affairs “a constitutional rusty nail.”

We’ve published Piet Hein’s poetry previously on Futility Closet, in 2012 and 2013. Wikiquote has the fullest online collection I know of.

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 12: The Great Race, Grace Kelly’s Tomahawk, and Dreadful Penmanship


The New York Times proposed an outrageous undertaking in 1908: An automobile race westward from New York to Paris, a journey of 22,000 miles across all of North America and Asia in an era when the motorcar was “the most fragile and capricious thing on earth.” In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the six teams who took up the challenge and attempted “the most perilous trip ever undertaken by man.”

We’ll also see how a tomahawk linked Alec Guinness and Grace Kelly for 25 years and hear poet Louis Phillips lament his wife’s handwriting.

Sources for our segment on the Great Race:

Julie M. Fenster, Race of the Century: The Heroic True Story of the 1908 New York to Paris Auto Race, 2005.

George Schuster, The Longest Auto Race, 1966. (Schuster was the mechanic for the American team and drove much of the way.)

Dermot Cole, Hard Driving: The 1908 Auto Race from New York to Paris, 1991.

The New York Times, which co-sponsored the race, has a lot of archived coverage.


The race ran from New York City west to Seattle, then from Vladivostok to Paris, 22,000 miles of almost continuous misery. “No effort so arduous, so heroic in the Homeric sense of the word, was ever so easy to quit,” Fenster writes. “All that an entrant had to do to drop out was order breakfast in bed at the hotel — and stay there. Unlike mountain climbers or polar explorers, who are long beyond the pull of comfort, the New York-to-Paris racers had to fight the constant temptation to opt for sense and civilization, both of which beckoned from very close range.”

Of the 13 teams that entered, six showed up on race day, Feb. 12, 1908. A Times writer said the European entries each carried enough gear to “build another car or start an iron foundry.”

One particular bit of craziness amid all the other craziness: An enormous explosion took place over Siberia as the racers were crossing it. The so-called Tunguska event, probably caused by a spaceborne object striking the earth, released 1,000 times the energy of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The Americans were just leaving Omsk, having already passed south of that location, and heard nothing about it, but still — if you’re going to visit Siberia once in your life, summer 1908 is not the time to do it.

Sources for the Grace Kelly/Alec Guinness tomahawk story:

James Spada, Grace: Secret Lives of a Princess, 1987.

Donald Spoto, High Society, 2009.

Piers Paul Read, Alec Guinness: The Authorised Biography, 2005.

I don’t know where the tomahawk came from: Spada says that their co-star Jessie Royce Landis had picked it up from a local Indian reservation; Spoto that Landis had got it from a local souvenir shop; and Read that it had been presented to Guinness by “a visiting troupe of Indians.”

Louis Phillips is a poet, playwright and short story writer who teaches at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. We ran his poem “On Not Being Able to Read My Wife’s Handwriting” in July 2013 and have presented his humorous verses occasionally since then.

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 11: A Woolf in Sheikh’s Clothing


Irish practical joker Horace de Vere Cole orchestrated his masterpiece in 1910: He dressed four friends as Abyssinian princes and inveigled a tour of a British battleship. One of the friends, improbably, was Virginia Woolf (far left) disguised in a false beard and turban. We’ll describe how the prank was inspired and follow the six through their tension-filled visit to the HMS Dreadnought.

We’ll also examine the value of whistles to Benjamin Franklin and present the next Futility Closet Challenge.

Here’s Doug Ross playing “Fallen Star” without us yakking over it:

Sources for our segment on the Dreadnought hoax:

Martyn Downer, The Sultan of Zanzibar: The Bizarre World and Spectacular Hoaxes of Horace de Vere Cole, 2010.

Adrian Stephen, The Dreadnought Hoax, 1936.

Georgia Johnston, “Virginia Woolf’s Talk on the Dreadnought Hoax,” Woolf Studies Annual, vol. 15 (2009), 1.

Joseph M. Hone, “Grand Deception — Princes Who Outwitted British,” Spokane Daily Chronicle, April 19, 1956.

For Horace de Vere Cole, this hoax formed the capstone in a long career of practical jokes. My earlier posts on Cole:

The Dreadnought Hoax

Tied Up

Road Work

The Dreadnought “gave Cole what he had always wanted — fame, or at least notoriety, and, because some of the participants were later to achieve celebrity, a lasting place in the chronicles of the time,” wrote Quentin Bell in his introduction to Adrian Stephen’s 1936 memoir of the escapade. “He did little else during his lifetime but he did once contribute to the gaiety of nations.”

The photo above depicts the whole hoaxing party, made up and ready to depart for Weymouth. Left to right: Virginia Stephen, Duncan Grant, Adrian Stephen, Anthony Buxton, Guy Ridley, Horace Cole.

Costumier Willy Clarkson remembered, “[Virginia’s] first make-up was a failure, the project was almost abandoned; but I felt piqued at being thwarted from an effect which I knew could be obtained and made a fresh start. This time the result was astounding in its realism. The beautiful girl had vanished, and in her place was a slim, dignified, dusky nobleman with a sombre countenance and a flowing regal beard.”

After departing the Dreadnought, the party returned to London by train. “Mr. Cholmondeley [Cole] gravely told the railway officials that the princes could not have any meals served with the naked hand,” Virginia told a newspaper. “There were no spare gloves on the train, and the officials consequently had to buy a few pairs, and the attendants who waited on us at dinner appeared wearing grey kid gloves. We gave them princely tips.”

Here’s the full text of Ben Franklin’s letter to Madame Brillon, Nov. 10, 1779:

I received my dear friend’s two letters, one for Wednesday and one for Saturday. This is again Wednesday. I do not deserve one for to-day, because I have not answered the former. But, indolent as I am, and averse to writing, the fear of having no more of your pleasing epistles, if I do not contribute to the correspondence, obliges me to take up my pen; and as Mr. B. has kindly sent me word that he sets out to-morrow to see you, instead of spending this Wednesday evening, as I have done its namesakes, in your delightful company, I sit down to spend it in thinking of you, in writing to you, and in reading over and over again your letters.

I am charmed with your description of Paradise, and with your plan of living there; and I approve much of your conclusion, that, in the meantime, we should draw all the good we can from this world. In my opinion we might all draw more good from it than we do, and suffer less evil, if we would take care not to give too much for whistles. For to me it seems that most of the unhappy people we meet with are become so by neglect of that caution.

You ask what I mean? You love stories, and will excuse my telling one of myself.

When I was a child of seven years old, my friends, on a holiday, filled my pocket with coppers. I went directly to a shop where they sold toys for children; and being charmed with the sound of a whistle, that I met by the way in the hands of another boy, I voluntarily offered and gave all my money for one. I then came home, and went whistling all over the house, much pleased with my whistle, but disturbing all the family. My brothers, and sisters, and cousins, understanding the bargain I had made, told me I had given four times as much for it as it was worth; put me in mind what good things I might have bought with the rest of the money; and laughed at me so much for my folly, that I cried with vexation; and the reflection gave me more chagrin than the whistle gave me pleasure.

This, however, was afterwards of use to me, the impression continuing on my mind; so that often, when I was tempted to buy some unnecessary thing, I said to myself, Don’t give too much for the whistle; and I saved my money.

As I grew up, came into the world, and observed the actions of men, I thought I met with many, very many, who gave too much for the whistle.

When I saw one too ambitious of court favor, sacrificing his time in attendance on levees, his repose, his liberty, his virtue, and perhaps his friends, to attain it, I have said to myself, This man gives too much for his whistle.

When I saw another fond of popularity, constantly employing himself in political bustles, neglecting his own affairs, and ruining them by that neglect, He pays, indeed, said I, too much for his whistle.

If I knew a miser, who gave up every kind of comfortable living, all the pleasure of doing good to others, all the esteem of his fellow-citizens, and the joys of benevolent friendship, for the sake of accumulating wealth, Poor man, said I, you pay too much for your whistle.

When I met with a man of pleasure, sacrificing every laudable improvement of the mind, or of his fortune, to mere corporeal sensations, and ruining his health in their pursuit, Mistaken man, said I, you are providing pain for yourself, instead of pleasure; you give too much for your whistle.

If I see one fond of appearance, or fine clothes, fine houses, fine furniture, fine equipages, all above his fortune, for which he contracts debts, and ends his career in a prison, Alas! say I, he has paid dear, very dear, for his whistle.

When I see a beautiful sweet-tempered girl married to an ill-natured brute of a husband, What a pity, say I, that she should pay so much for a whistle!

In short, I conceive that great part of the miseries of mankind are brought upon them by the false estimates they have made of the value of things, and by their giving too much for their whistles.

Yet I ought to have charity for these unhappy people, when I consider that, with all this wisdom of which I am boasting, there are certain things in the world so tempting, for example, the apples of King John, which happily are not to be bought; for if they were put to sale by auction, I might very easily be led to ruin myself in the purchase, and find that I had once more given too much for the whistle.

Adieu, my dear friend, and believe me ever yours very sincerely and with unalterable affection.

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, where you can also enter your submissions in this week’s Challenge. 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 10: A Baboon Soldier, Lighthouse Rescues, and a Parliament of Owls


When Albert Marr joined the South African army in 1915, he received permission to bring along his pet baboon, Jackie. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Jackie’s adventures in England, Egypt, and Belgium, his work for the Red Cross after the war, and his triumphant return to Pretoria in 1919.

We’ll also meet a Rhode Island lighthouse keeper’s daughter who saved the lives of 18 people over a period of 48 years, and present the next Futility Closet Challenge.

Above is Jackie in Johannesburg in 1919, on his way home. Note the knife and fork. More photos, including one of Jackie saluting, can be found at the website of the South African Military Veterans Organisation of Australasia (see the gallery at the bottom of the page).

Our main source for the segment about Ida Lewis is Lenore Skomal’s 2002 biography The Keeper of Lime Rock. Some images:



One of the soldiers she saved during her fifth rescue, on March 29, 1869, remembered, “When I saw the boat approaching and a woman rowing, I thought, She’s only a woman and she will never reach us. But I soon changed my mind.” Her brother Thomas said, “Ida knows how to handle a boat. She can hold one to wind’ard in a gale better than any man I ever saw, wet an oar, and yes, do it too, when the sea is breaking over her.”

Here’s the lighthouse in 1869, the first year of her fame:


At 14 Ida was accounted the best swimmer in Newport, and at 15 she had finished her formal schooling but rowed her siblings to Newport and back each day. Her father said: “Again and again, have I seen the children from the window as they were returning from school in some heavy blow, when Ida alone was with them, and old sailor that I am, I felt that I would not give a penny for their lives, so furious was the storm — yes sir. I have watched them ’til I could not bear to look any longer, expecting every moment to see them swamped and the crew at the mercy of the waves, and then I have turned away and said to my wife — let me know if they get safe in, for I could not endure to see them perish and realize that we were powerless to save them. And oh you cannot tell the relief when she cried out: they have got safe to the rock, Father. It was a mighty weight off my mind, I can assure you. I have seen Ida in the bitter winter weather obliged to cut off her frozen stockings at the knee.”

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, where you can also enter your submissions in this week’s Challenge. 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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