The Futility Closet podcast is a weekly show featuring forgotten stories from the pages of history. Join us each Monday for surprising and curious tales from the past and to challenge yourself with our lateral thinking puzzles.
In the 1850s, settlers in western Nevada were cut off from the rest of the world each winter by deep snow. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll learn about their lifeline, Norwegian immigrant John Thompson, who for 20 years carried mail, medicine, and supplies through 90 miles of treacherous snowdrifts on a pair of homemade skis.
We’ll also hear listener contributions regarding prison camp escape aids in World War II and puzzle over how lighting a cigarette results in a lengthy prison sentence.
In 1910, four Alaskan gold miners set out to climb Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America, to win a two-cent bar bet. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the surprising story of the Sourdough Expedition, a mountaineering effort that one modern climber calls “superhuman by today’s standards.”
We’ll also hear about a ghoulish tourist destination and puzzle over why a painter would blame himself for World War II.
During World War II, the British Secret Service found a surprising way to help Allies in Nazi prisoner-of-war camps: They used doctored Monopoly sets to smuggle in maps, files, compasses, and real money. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story behind this clever ploy, which may have helped thousands of prisoners escape from Nazi camps.
We’ll also hear listeners’ thoughts on Jeremy Bentham’s head, Victorian tattoos, and phone-book-destroying German pirates and puzzle over murderous cabbies and moviegoers.
Felix von Luckner was a romantic hero of World War I, a dashing nobleman who commanded one of the last sailing ships to fight in war. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Luckner’s uniquely civilized approach to warfare, which won admiration even from his enemies.
We’ll also puzzle over how a product intended to prevent drug abuse ends up encouraging it.
“One-Eyed Charley” Parkhurst drove a stagecoach throughout California during the height of the Gold Rush, rising to the top of a difficult, dangerous, and highly competitive profession at its historic peak. Only after his death in 1879 at age 67 was it discovered that Charley was a woman. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast, we’ll tell what’s known of Charley Parkhurst’s courageous and enigmatic life story.
We’ll also hear listeners’ input on the legalities of an anti-Christian town and puzzle over a lucky driver and his passenger.
In 1854, English aristocrat Roger Tichborne disappeared at sea. Twelve years later, a butcher from Wagga Wagga, Australia, claimed he was the long-lost heir. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast, we’ll tell the sensational story of the Tichborne claimant, which Mark Twain called “the most intricate and fascinating and marvelous real-life romance that has ever been played upon the world’s stage.”
We’ll also puzzle over why family businesses are often more successful in Japan than in other countries.
What do René Descartes, Joseph Haydn, and Oliver Cromwell have in common? All three lost their heads after death. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast, we’ll run down a list of notable corpses whose parts have gone wandering.
We’ll also hear readers chime in on John Lennon, knitting, diaries and Hitchcock, and puzzle over why a pilot would choose to land in a field of grazing livestock.
In 1880, freethinking attorney George Walser tried a new experiment in the American heartland — a community dedicated against Christianity, “the only town of its size in the world without a priest, preacher, saloon, God or hell.” In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast, we’ll tell the story of Liberal, Missouri — its founding, its confrontations with its Christian neighbors, and its ironic downfall.
We’ll also puzzle over how a woman can suddenly be 120 miles away in just a few minutes.
In 1820, the Nantucket whaleship Essex was attacked and sunk by an 85-foot sperm whale in the South Pacific, a thousand miles from land. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the attack, which left 20 men to undertake an impossible journey to South America in three small whaleboats.
We’ll also learn about an Australian athlete who shipped himself across the world in a box in 1964 and puzzle over an international traveler’s impressive feat of navigation.