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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
After losing his feet in an accident in the 1880s, South Africa railway worker James “Jumper” Wide found an unlikely friend in a baboon named Jack. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll learn how Jumper taught Jack to work as a signalman on the railway line, where he won the trust of both authorities and passengers.
We’ll also meet an Englishman who dreamed the winners of horse races, ponder the strange case of the Stringfellow Acid Pits, and present the next Futility Closet Challenge.
In 1888 a mixed-breed terrier appointed himself mascot of America’s railway postal service, accompanying mailbags throughout the U.S. and eventually traveling around the world. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll recount Owney’s postal adventures and the wave of human affection that followed him.
We’ll also look at an Air Force pilot who dropped candy on parachutes to besieged German children in 1948, learn the link between drug lord Pablo Escobar and feral hippos in Colombia, and present the next Futility Closet Challenge.
Two weeks before Charles Lindbergh’s famous flight, a pair of French aviators attempted a similar feat. Their brave journey might have changed history — but they disappeared en route. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the flight of the “White Bird” — and ponder what became of it.
We’ll also examine a proposal to build hippo ranches in the Louisiana bayou in 1910, investigate historical outbreaks of dancing, laughing, and other strange behavior, and present the next Futility Closet challenge.