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.
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.
On New Year’s Day 1886, London grocer Edwin Bartlett was discovered dead in his bed with a lethal quantity of liquid chloroform in his stomach. Strangely, his throat showed none of the burns that chloroform should have caused. His wife, who admitted to having the poison, was tried for murder, but the jury acquitted her because “we do not think there is sufficient evidence to show how or by whom the chloroform was administered.”
In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll learn about Edwin and Adelaide Bartlett’s strange marriage and consider the various theories that have been advanced to explain Edwin’s death. We’ll also sample a 50,000-word novel written without the letter E and puzzle over a sure-footed American’s visit to a Japanese office building.
On Feb. 9, 1855, the residents of Devon in southern England awoke to find a bewildering set of footprints in the newfallen snow. “These are to be found in fields, gardens, roads, house-tops, & other likely and unlikely places, deeply embedded in snow,” ran one contemporary account. “The shape was a hoof.”
In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll examine the surviving descriptions of the odd marks and consider the various explanations that have been offered. We’ll also revisit the compassionate Nazi fighter pilot Franz Stigler and puzzle over how to sneak into Switzerland across a guarded footbridge.
In December 1943, American bomber pilot Charlie Brown was flying a severely damaged B-17 out of Germany when he looked out the cockpit window and saw “the world’s worst nightmare” off his right wing — a fully armed German fighter whose pilot was staring back at him.
In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the strange drama that ensued, in which German fighter ace Franz Stigler weighed the human impulse to spare the wounded bomber against his patriotic duty to shoot him down. We’ll also consider whether animals follow the 10 commandments and wonder why a man might tell his nephew that his dog will be shot.
In 1944, fully a year before the first successful nuclear test, Astounding Science Fiction magazine published a remarkably detailed description of an atomic bomb. The story, by the otherwise undistinguished author Cleve Cartmill, sent military intelligence racing to discover the source of his information — and his motives for publishing it.
In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the investigation that ensued, which involved legendary editor John W. Campbell and illuminated the imaginative power of science fiction and the role of censorship in times of war. We’ll also hear Mark Twain’s advice against being too clever and puzzle over the failure of a seemingly perfect art theft.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.