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 1924 a curious network of catacombs was discovered in Washington D.C. They were traced to Harrison Dyar, a Smithsonian entomologist who had been industriously digging tunnels in the city for almost two decades. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Dyar’s strange hobby — and the equally bizarre affairs in his personal life.
We’ll also revisit balloons in World War II and puzzle over a thief’s change of heart.
During World War II a Polish transport company picked up an unusual mascot: a Syrian brown bear that grew to 500 pounds and traveled with his human friends through the Middle East and Europe. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll meet Wojtek, the “happy warrior,” and follow his adventures during and after the war.
We’ll also catch up with a Russian recluse and puzzle over a murderous daughter.
During the siege of Leningrad in World War II, a heroic group of Russian botanists fought cold, hunger, and German attacks to keep alive a storehouse of crops that held the future of Soviet agriculture. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Vavilov Institute, whose scientists literally starved to death protecting tons of treasured food.
We’ll also follow a wayward sailor and puzzle over how to improve the safety of tanks.
In 1879 a ghastly crime gripped England: A London maid had dismembered her employer and then assumed her identity for two weeks, wearing her clothes and jewelry and selling her belongings. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the murder of Julia Thomas and its surprising modern postscript.
We’ll also discover the unlikely origins of a Mary Poppins character and puzzle over a penguin in a canoe.
In 1978 a team of geologists discovered a family of five living deep in the Siberian forest, 150 miles from the nearest village. Fearing persecution, they had lived entirely on their own since 1936, praying, tending a meager garden, and suffering through winter temperatures of 40 below zero. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll meet the Lykov family, whose religious beliefs committed them to “the greatest solitude on the earth.”
We’ll also learn about Esperanto’s role in a Spanish prison break and puzzle over a self-incriminating murderer.
In 1976 a television crew discovered a mummified corpse in a California funhouse. Unbelievably, an investigation revealed that it belonged to an Oklahoma outlaw who had been shot by sheriff’s deputies in 1911 and whose remains had been traveling the country ever since. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll trace the postmortem odyssey of Elmer McCurdy, “the bandit who wouldn’t give up.”
We’ll also reflect on a Dutch artist’s disappearance and puzzle over some mysterious hospital deaths.
In 1917 a pair of Allied officers combined a homemade Ouija board, audacity, and imagination to hoax their way out of a remote prison camp in the mountains of Turkey. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the remarkable escape of Harry Jones and Cedric Hill, which one observer called “the most colossal fake of modern times.”
We’ll also consider a cactus’ role in World War II and puzzle over a cigar-smoking butler.
In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll explore some curiosities and unanswered questions from Greg’s research, including the love affair that inspired the Rolls Royce hood ornament, a long-distance dancer, Otto von Bismarck’s dogs, and a craftily plotted Spanish prison break.
We’ll also run after James Earl Ray and puzzle over an unsociable jockey.
After the Battle of Gettysburg, a dead Union soldier was found near the center of town. He bore no identification, but in his hands he held a photograph of three children. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the efforts of one Philadelphia physician to track down the lost man’s family using only the image of his children.
We’ll also sample a 9-year-old’s comedy of manners and puzzle over a letter that copies itself.
In 1968 British engineer Donald Crowhurst entered a round-the-world yacht race, hoping to use the prize money to save his failing electronics business. Woefully unprepared and falling behind, he resorted to falsifying a journey around the world. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the desperate measures that Crowhurst turned to as events spiraled out of his control.
We’ll also get some updates on Japanese fire balloons and puzzle over a computer that turns on the radio.