History

Futility Closet

Greg Ross

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Forgotten stories from the pages of history. Join us for surprising and curious tales from the past and challenge yourself with our lateral thinking puzzles.

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152-Lateral Thinking Puzzles

30:10 | May 1st, 2017

Here are five new lateral thinking puzzles to test your wits and stump your friends -- play along with us as we try to untangle some perplexing situations using yes-or-no questions. Here are the sources for this week's puzzles. In a couple of places ...Show More

151-Double-Crossing the Nazis

31:13 | Apr 24th, 2017

In 1941, Catalonian chicken farmer Juan Pujol made an unlikely leap into the world of international espionage, becoming a spy first for the Germans, then for the British, and rising to become one of the greatest double agents of World War II. In this...Show More

237-The Baseball Spy

33:00 | Feb 18th

Baseball catcher Moe Berg became a spy during World War II.

236-The Last Lap

33:55 | Feb 11th

The 1908 Olympic marathon in London came to a thrilling finish.

235-Leon Festinger and the Alien Apocalypse

32:18 | Feb 4th

In 1955 psychologists secretly studied a UFO religion as it prepared for the end of the world.

234-The Dig Tree

33:52 | Jan 28th

An 1860 attempt to cross Australia devolved into tragedy on a Queensland creek.

233-Flight to Freedom

34:39 | Jan 21st

In 1979 two families sought to escape East Germany in a hot-air balloon.

232-The Indomitable Spirit of Douglas Bader

31:26 | Jan 14th

Legless fighter pilot Douglas Bader became Britain's top flying ace.

231-The Halifax Explosion

32:19 | Jan 7th

In 1917 Halifax, Nova Scotia, was devastated by an exploding munitions ship.

230-Lateral Thinking Puzzles

29:54 | Dec 24th, 2018

Play along as we untangle six strange-sounding situations using yes-or-no questions.

229-The Stone of Destiny

30:46 | Dec 17th, 2018

In 1950, four patriotic Scots stole a historic national relic from Westminster Abbey.

228-The Children's Champion

33:29 | Dec 10th, 2018

Janusz Korczak tried to build an ideal society of children inside the Warsaw ghetto in 1942.

227-The Christmas Tree Ship

32:27 | Dec 3rd, 2018

Herman Schuenemann sailed Christmas trees to Chicago until he disappeared in 1912.

226-The Great Match Race

35:56 | Nov 26th, 2018

The modern American sports spectacle began with an 1823 horse race between North and South.

225-The Great Stork Derby

31:55 | Nov 19th, 2018

In 1926, Charles Vance Millar left a fortune for the most prolific mother in Toronto.

224-Lady Death

34:09 | Nov 12th, 2018

Soviet sniper Lyudmila Pavlichenko amassed 309 kills in World War II.

223-The Prince of Forgers

33:20 | Nov 5th, 2018

Denis Vrain-Lucas sold 27,000 false letters, by everyone from Plato to Louis XIV.

222-The Year Without a Summer

31:43 | Oct 29th, 2018

The 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora induced a climate crisis around the world.

221-The Mystery Man of Essex County

33:09 | Oct 22nd, 2018

Hanged in 1883 for killing his wife, an enigmatic stranger left behind six mysterious cryptograms.

220-The Old Hero of Gettysburg

31:45 | Oct 8th, 2018

At the Battle of Gettysburg, a 69-year-old veteran of the War of 1812 turned up to support the Union troops.

219-The Greenbrier Ghost

35:04 | Oct 1st, 2018

When Zona Shue died in 1897, her mother announced that the ghost had identified her killer.

218-Lost in the Amazon

32:59 | Sep 24th, 2018

In 1769, Isabel Godin des Odonais set out to cross a continent to rejoin her husband.

217-The Bone Wars

34:30 | Sep 17th, 2018

In the 1870s a bitter feud arose between two paleontologists in the American West.

216-The Tromelin Island Castaways

32:50 | Sep 10th, 2018

In 1761 60 Malagasy slaves were shipwrecked on a tiny island in the Indian Ocean.

215-The Lieutenant Nun

31:58 | Sep 3rd, 2018

In the 17th century, Catalina de Erauso fled a convent and became a soldier in the New World.

214-The Poison Squad

32:33 | Aug 27th, 2018

In 1902, chemist Harvey Wiley tested food additives by feeding them to a group of young volunteers.

213-Grover Cleveland's Secret Surgery

32:00 | Aug 20th, 2018

In 1893 doctors secretly operated on the president aboard a moving yacht.

212-The Lost Treasure of Cocos Island

32:11 | Aug 13th, 2018

August Gissler spent 17 years searching Cocos Island for buried treasure.

211-Cast Away on an Ice Floe

33:16 | Aug 6th, 2018

In 1869 14 German polar explorers were stranded on an ice floe for six months.

210-Lateral Thinking Puzzles

34:29 | Jul 23rd, 2018

Play along as we untangle six strange-sounding situations using yes-or-no questions.

209-Lost Off Newfoundland

33:56 | Jul 16th, 2018

In 1883, fisherman Howard Blackburn was caught in a blizzard off the Newfoundland coast.

208-Giving Birth to Rabbits

32:14 | Jul 9th, 2018

In 1726, Mary Toft gave birth to 17 rabbits.

207-The Bluebelle's Last Voyage

34:03 | Jul 2nd, 2018

In November 1961, the two-masted ketch Bluebelle sailed out of the Bahamas and toward a dramatic fate.

206-The Sky and the Sea

30:19 | Jun 25th, 2018

Explorer Auguste Piccard conquered both the stratosphere and the deep ocean.

205-The White Mouse

33:23 | Jun 18th, 2018

Journalist Nancy Wake became an intrepid secret agent in wartime France.

204-Mary Anning's Fossils

30:16 | Jun 11th, 2018

In the 1810s Mary Anning begin to unearth strange creatures near her English seaside town.

203-Notes and Queries

30:21 | Jun 4th, 2018

A selection of curiosities and questions from Greg's research database.

202-The Rosenhan Experiment

31:50 | May 28th, 2018

In the 1970s, David Rosenhan showed that healthy people could be diagnosed as mentally ill.

201-The Gardner Heist

32:22 | May 21st, 2018

The world's largest art heist remains unsolved.

200-Lateral Thinking Puzzles

31:08 | May 14th, 2018

Play along as we untangle five strange-sounding situations using yes-or-no questions.

199-The Mystery of the Carroll A. Deering

33:42 | May 7th, 2018

In 1921 a schooner was discovered aground off Cape Hatteras. There was no one aboard.

198-The Man Who Wouldn't Die

33:03 | Apr 30th, 2018

In 1932 four gangsters set out to kill their friend and failed five times in a row.

197-Alone Across the Outback

32:33 | Apr 23rd, 2018

In 1975 a woman set out alone to lead four camels across the deserts of western Australia.

196-The Long Way Home

30:05 | Apr 16th, 2018

After Pearl Harbor was attacked, one American seaplane had to circle the world to get home.

195-A Case of Musical Plagiarism

32:41 | Apr 9th, 2018

A surprising case of classical music plagiarism.

194-The Double Life of Clarence King

32:51 | Mar 26th, 2018

For 13 years white geologist Clarence King maintained a second identity as a black man in New York.

193-The Collyer Brothers

31:35 | Mar 19th, 2018

Brothers Homer and Langley Collyer filled their Harlem townhouse with 140 tons of junk.

192-The Winchester Diver

31:56 | Mar 12th, 2018

Diver William Walker spent five years in flooded pits under Winchester Cathedral to restore the building's foundations.

191-The Longest Flight

31:58 | Mar 5th, 2018

In 1958, two pilots managed to stay aloft in a small plane for two months continuously.

190-Mary Patten and the Neptune's Car

31:34 | Feb 26th, 2018

In 1856, 19-year-old Mary Patten commanded a clipper ship around Cape Horn.

189-The "Wild White Man"

32:00 | Feb 19th, 2018

In the early 1800s, an escaped convict spent 32 years living among the aborigines of southeastern Australia.

188-The Bat Bomb

33:25 | Feb 12th, 2018

In World War II, the U.S. Army experimented with firebombs carried by live bats.

187-A Human Being in the Bronx Zoo

33:56 | Jan 29th, 2018

In 1906, the Bronx Zoo displayed a Congolese man in its primate house.

186-The Children's Blizzard

32:24 | Jan 22nd, 2018

In 1888 a harrowing blizzard trapped children in schoolhouses across the American Midwest.

185-The Man From Formosa

32:20 | Jan 15th, 2018

In 1703, a blond young man arrived in London who ate raw meat and claimed to be a native of Taiwan.

184-Lateral Thinking Puzzles

29:38 | Jan 1st, 2018

Play along as we untangle six strange-sounding situations using yes-or-no questions.

183-An Everest Mystery

32:21 | Dec 25th, 2017

In 1924, two British mountaineers disappeared climbing the world's highest peak.

182-The Compulsive Wanderer

32:31 | Dec 18th, 2017

In the 1870s, French gas fitter Albert Dadas started making strange, compulsive trips to distant towns, with no planning or awareness of what he was doing. His bizarre affliction set off a 20-year epidemic of "mad travelers" in Europe, which evaporat...Show More

181-Operation Gunnerside

33:07 | Dec 11th, 2017

A daring 1943 commando raid to stop Germany from getting an atomic bomb.

180-An Academic Impostor

33:19 | Dec 4th, 2017

Bogus professor Marvin Hewitt taught at seven different schools and universities.

179-Two Vanished Young Writers

31:31 | Nov 27th, 2017

In the 1930s, two promising young American writers disappeared without a trace.

178-Lateral Thinking Puzzles

33:51 | Nov 20th, 2017

Play along as we untangle six strange-sounding situations using yes-or-no questions.

177-Averting a Catastrophe in Manhattan

31:22 | Nov 13th, 2017

In 1977, architects realized that Manhattan's Citicorp Tower could be toppled by a high wind.

176-The Bear That Inspired Winnie-the-Pooh

32:44 | Nov 6th, 2017

A.A. Milne and his son met an inspiring bear in the London Zoo in 1924.

175-The Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island

30:36 | Oct 30th, 2017

In the 19th century, a Native American woman lived alone on a California island for 18 years.

174-Cracking the Nazi Code

33:47 | Oct 23rd, 2017

In 1940 Swedish mathematician Arne Beurling confronted a sophisticated German cipher.

173-The Worst Journey in the World

30:19 | Oct 16th, 2017

In 1911, three men traveled 70 miles through the Antarctic winter to collect penguin eggs.

172-An American in Feudal Japan

33:35 | Oct 2nd, 2017

Ranald MacDonald ventured into Japan's closed society for "the mere gratification of a love of adventure."

171-The Emperor of the United States

32:55 | Sep 25th, 2017

Joshua Norton "reigned" over San Francisco for 21 years.

170-The Mechanical Turk

32:21 | Sep 18th, 2017

Did an 18th-century engineer manage to build a chess-playing automaton?

169-John Harrison and the Problem of Longitude

33:02 | Sep 11th, 2017

For centuries, navigators sought a way to reckon their precise position at sea.

168-The Destruction of the Doves Type

33:31 | Sep 4th, 2017

T.J. Cobden-Sanderson deliberately threw a ton of beautiful type into the river Thames.

167-A Manhattan Murder Mystery

32:10 | Aug 28th, 2017

A classic locked-room murder from 1920.

166-A Dangerous Voyage

33:20 | Aug 21st, 2017

During World War II, two Americans set out to sail 3,000 miles from the Philippines to Australia.

165-A Case of Mistaken Identity

31:17 | Aug 14th, 2017

The conviction of Adolph Beck, "one of the strangest true stories in British legal history."

164-Vigil on the Ice

33:01 | Aug 7th, 2017

Augustine Courtauld was marooned at a remote weather station in Greenland in 1930.

163-Enslaved in the Sahara

31:56 | Jul 31st, 2017

Twelve Americans were enslaved in Africa after an 1815 shipwreck.

162-John Muir and Stickeen

32:30 | Jul 17th, 2017

One stormy morning in 1880, naturalist John Muir set out to explore a glacier in Alaska's Taylor Bay, accompanied by an adventurous little dog that had joined his expedition. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe the ha...Show More

161-The Girl Who Fell From the Sky

30:27 | Jul 10th, 2017

In 1971 high school student Juliane Koepcke fell two miles into the Peruvian rain forest when her airliner broke up in a thunderstorm. Miraculously, she survived the fall, but her ordeal was just beginning. In this week's episode of the Futility Clos...Show More

160-The Birmingham Sewer Lion

32:56 | Jul 3rd, 2017

Birmingham, England, faced a surprising crisis in 1889: A lion escaped a traveling menagerie and took up residence in the city's sewers, terrifying the local population. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll descend into the tun...Show More

159-The Mozart of Mathematics

32:29 | Jun 26th, 2017

Mathematician Paul Erdős had no home, no job, and no hobbies. Instead, for 60 years he wandered the world, staying with each of hundreds of collaborators just long enough to finish a project, and then moving on. In this week's episode of the Futility...Show More

158-The Mistress of Murder Farm

33:38 | Jun 19th, 2017

Belle Gunness was one of America's most prolific female serial killers, luring lonely men to her Indiana farm with promises of marriage, only to rob and kill them. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of The LaPo...Show More

157-The Brutal History of Batavia's Graveyard

33:15 | Jun 12th, 2017

In 1629, a Dutch trading vessel struck a reef off the coast of Australia, marooning 180 people on a tiny island. As they struggled to stay alive, their leader descended into barbarity, gathering a band of cutthroats and killing scores of terrified ca...Show More

156-The Most Dedicated Soldier

34:28 | Jun 5th, 2017

When American forces overran the Philippine island of Lubang in 1945, Japanese intelligence officer Hiroo Onoda withdrew into the mountains to wait for reinforcements. He was still waiting 29 years later. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet...Show More

155-The Giraffe Who Walked to Paris

33:14 | May 29th, 2017

In 1824 the viceroy of Egypt sent a unique gift to the new king of France: a two-month-old giraffe that had just been captured in the highlands of Sudan. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow the 4,000-mile journey of Zar...Show More

154-Spared by a Volcano

29:38 | May 22nd, 2017

The worst volcanic disaster of the 20th century struck Martinique in 1902, killing 30,000 people in the scenic town of Saint-Pierre. But rescuers found one man alive -- a 27-year-old laborer in a dungeon-like jail cell. In this week's episode of the ...Show More

153-A Victorian Stalker

32:21 | May 15th, 2017

Between 1838 and 1841, an enterprising London teenager broke repeatedly into Buckingham Palace, sitting on the throne, eating from the kitchen, and posing a bewildering nuisance to Queen Victoria's courtiers, who couldn't seem to keep him out. In thi...Show More

150-The Prince of Nowhere

30:21 | Apr 17th, 2017

In 1821, Scottish adventurer Gregor MacGregor undertook one of the most brazen scams in history: He invented a fictional Central American republic and convinced hundreds of his countrymen to invest in its development. Worse, he persuaded 250 people t...Show More

149-The North Pond Hermit

29:30 | Apr 10th, 2017

Without any forethought or preparation, Christopher Knight walked into the Maine woods in 1986 and lived there in complete solitude for the next 27 years, subsisting on what he was able to steal from local cabins. In this week's episode of the Futili...Show More

148-The Perfect Murder

30:03 | Apr 3rd, 2017

Insurance agent William Herbert Wallace had a terrible night in January 1931 -- summoned to a nonexistent address in Liverpool, he returned home to find that his wife had been murdered in his absence. An investigation seemed to show a senseless crime...Show More

147-The Call of Mount Kenya

30:01 | Mar 27th, 2017

Stuck in an East African prison camp in 1943, Italian POW Felice Benuzzi needed a challenge to regain his sense of purpose. He made a plan that seemed crazy -- to break out of the camp, climb Mount Kenya, and break back in. In this week's episode of ...Show More

146-Alone in the Wilderness

30:06 | Mar 20th, 2017

In 1913 outdoorsman Joseph Knowles pledged to spend two months in the woods of northern Maine, naked and alone, fending for himself "without the slightest communication or aid from the outside world." In this week's episode of the Futility Closet pod...Show More

145-The Pied Piper of Saipan

31:32 | Mar 13th, 2017

Guy Gabaldon was an untested Marine when he landed on the Pacific island of Saipan during World War II. But he decided to fight the war on his own terms, venturing alone into enemy territory and trying to convince Japanese soldiers to surrender volun...Show More

144-The Murder Castle

32:08 | Mar 6th, 2017

When detectives explored the Chicago hotel owned by insurance fraudster H.H. Holmes in 1894, they found a nightmarish warren of blind passageways, trapdoors, hidden chutes, and asphyxiation chambers in which Holmes had killed dozens or perhaps even h...Show More

143-The Conscience Fund

32:26 | Feb 27th, 2017

For 200 years the U.S. Treasury has maintained a "conscience fund" that accepts repayments from people who have defrauded or stolen from the government. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe the history of the fund and ...Show More

142-Fingerprints and Polygraphs

30:32 | Feb 20th, 2017

Fingerprint identification and lie detectors are well-known tools of law enforcement today, but both were quite revolutionary when they were introduced. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe the memorable cases where th...Show More

141-Abducted by Indians, a Captive of Whites

32:48 | Feb 13th, 2017

In 1836, Indians abducted a 9-year-old girl from her home in East Texas. She made a new life among the Comanche, with a husband and three children. Then, after 24 years, the whites abducted her back again. In this week's episode of the Futility Close...Show More

140-Ramanujan

30:27 | Feb 6th, 2017

In 1913, English mathematician G.H. Hardy received a package from an unknown accounting clerk in India, with nine pages of mathematical results that he found "scarcely possible to believe." In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast, we'll...Show More

139-The Painter's Revenge

31:16 | Jan 30th, 2017

When critics dismissed his paintings, Dutch artist Han van Meegeren decided to seek his revenge on the art world: He devoted himself to forgery and spent six years fabricating a Vermeer masterpiece. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podca...Show More

138-Life in a Cupboard

33:53 | Jan 23rd, 2017

In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell two stories about people who spent years confined in miserably small spaces. North Carolina slave Harriet Jacobs spent seven years hiding in a narrow space under her grandmother's roof,...Show More

137-The Mystery of Fiona Macleod

33:46 | Jan 16th, 2017

When the Scottish writer William Sharp died in 1905, his wife revealed a surprising secret: For 10 years he had kept up a second career as a reclusive novelist named Fiona Macleod, carrying on correspondences and writing works in two distinctly diffe...Show More

136-The Boston Molasses Disaster

31:34 | Jan 9th, 2017

In 1919 a bizarre catastrophe struck Boston's North End: A giant storage tank failed, releasing 2 million gallons of molasses into a crowded business district at the height of a January workday. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast w...Show More

135-Lateral Thinking Puzzles

35:06 | Dec 26th, 2016

Here are six new lateral thinking puzzles to test your wits and stump your friends -- play along with us as we try to untangle some perplexing situations using yes-or-no questions. Below are the sources for this week's puzzles. In a few places we've ...Show More

134-The Christmas Truce

30:42 | Dec 19th, 2016

In December 1914 a remarkable thing happened on the Western Front: British and German soldiers stopped fighting and left their trenches to greet one another, exchange souvenirs, bury their dead, and sing carols in the spirit of the holiday season. In...Show More

133-Notes and Queries

33:01 | Dec 12th, 2016

In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll explore some more curiosities and unanswered questions from Greg's research, including a pilot who saved Buckingham Palace, a ghost who confronted Arthur Conan Doyle, what Mark Twain learned...Show More

132-The Mad Gasser of Mattoon

31:44 | Dec 5th, 2016

In 1944, a bizarre criminal assaulted the small town of Mattoon, Illinois. Victims reported smelling a sickly sweet odor in their bedrooms before being overcome with nausea and a feeling of paralysis. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet pod...Show More

131-Escape From Libby Prison

30:27 | Nov 28th, 2016

Libby Prison was one of the most infamous prison camps of the Civil War -- thousands of Union prisoners were packed together in a converted warehouse, facing months or years of starvation and abuse. The Confederates thought the prison was escape-proo...Show More

130-The Unlikely Ultramarathoner

34:25 | Nov 21st, 2016

Australia's Westfield ultramarathon had a surprise entrant in 1983: A 61-year-old potato farmer named Cliff Young joined a field of elite professional runners for the 500-mile race from Sydney to Melbourne. In this week's episode of the Futility Clos...Show More

129-The Voynich Manuscript

32:52 | Nov 14th, 2016

In 1912, bookseller Wilfrid Voynich discovered an illustrated manuscript that was written in a mysterious alphabet that had never been seen before. The text bears the hallmarks of natural language, but no one has ever been able to determine its meani...Show More

128-The Battle for Castle Itter

30:29 | Nov 7th, 2016

The closing days of World War II witnessed a bizarre battle with some unlikely allies: American and German soldiers joined forces to rescue a group of French prisoners from a medieval castle in the Austrian Alps. In this week's episode of the Futilit...Show More

127-Rowing Across the Atlantic

35:29 | Oct 24th, 2016

In 1896 two New Jersey clam diggers made a bold bid for fame: They set out to cross the North Atlantic in a rowboat, a feat that had never been accomplished before. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow the adventure of G...Show More

126-The Great Australian Poetry Hoax

31:45 | Oct 17th, 2016

In 1943, fed up with modernist poetry, two Australian servicemen invented a fake poet and submitted a collection of deliberately senseless verses to a Melbourne arts magazine. To their delight, they were accepted and their author hailed as "one of th...Show More

125-The Campden Wonder

34:01 | Oct 10th, 2016

When William Harrison disappeared from Campden, England, in 1660, his servant offered an incredible explanation: that he and his family had murdered him. The events that followed only proved the situation to be even more bizarre. In this week's episo...Show More

124-D.B. Cooper

33:20 | Oct 3rd, 2016

In 1971 a mysterious man hijacked an airliner in Portland, Oregon, demanding $200,000 and four parachutes. He bailed out somewhere over southwestern Washington and has never been seen again. In today's show we'll tell the story of D.B. Cooper, the on...Show More

123-Washington D.C.'s Hidden Tunnels

31:57 | Sep 26th, 2016

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 Futili...Show More

122-The Bear Who Went to War

30:40 | Sep 19th, 2016

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'l...Show More

121-Starving for Science

31:13 | Sep 12th, 2016

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 p...Show More

120-The Barnes Mystery

30:19 | Sep 5th, 2016

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 d...Show More

119-Lost in the Taiga

33:49 | Aug 29th, 2016

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 thr...Show More

118-The Restless Corpse of Elmer McCurdy

30:12 | Aug 22nd, 2016

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 ...Show More

117-The Road to En-dor

33:04 | Aug 15th, 2016

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...Show More

116-Notes and Queries

31:10 | Aug 8th, 2016

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 dog...Show More

115-Gettysburg's Unknown Soldier

30:58 | Jul 25th, 2016

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...Show More

114-The Desperation of Donald Crowhurst

36:32 | Jul 18th, 2016

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 t...Show More

113-The Battle Over Mother's Day

31:08 | Jul 11th, 2016

Anna Jarvis organized the first observance of Mother's Day in 1908 and campaigned to have the holiday adopted throughout the country. But her next four decades were filled with bitterness and acrimony as she watched her "holy day" devolve into a "bur...Show More

112-The Disappearance of Michael Rockefeller

34:22 | Jul 4th, 2016

In 1961, Michael Rockefeller disappeared after a boating accident off the coast of Dutch New Guinea. Ever since, rumors have circulated that the youngest son of the powerful Rockefeller family had been killed by the headhunting cannibals who lived in...Show More

111-Japanese Fire Balloons

32:22 | Jun 27th, 2016

Toward the end of World War II, Japan launched a strange new attack on the United States: thousands of paper balloons that would sail 5,000 miles to drop bombs on the American mainland. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast, we'll tel...Show More

110-The Brooklyn Chameleon

31:51 | Jun 20th, 2016

Over the span of half a century, Brooklyn impostor Stanley Clifford Weyman impersonated everyone from a Navy admiral to a sanitation expert. When caught, he would admit his deception, serve his jail time, and then take up a new identity. In this week...Show More

109-Trapped in a Cave

31:13 | Jun 12th, 2016

In 1925, Kentucky caver Floyd Collins was exploring a new tunnel when a falling rock caught his foot, trapping him 55 feet underground. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow the desperate efforts to free Collins, whose pl...Show More

108-The Greenwich Time Lady

33:44 | Jun 6th, 2016

As recently as 1939, a London woman made her living by setting her watch precisely at the Greenwich observatory and "carrying the time" to her customers in the city. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll meet Ruth Belville, Lond...Show More

107-Arthur Nash and the Golden Rule

29:38 | May 29th, 2016

In 1919, Ohio businessman Arthur Nash decided to run his clothing factory according to the Golden Rule and treat his workers the way he'd want to be treated himself. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll visit Nash's “Golden Rul...Show More

106-The Popgun War

31:49 | May 23rd, 2016

During wargames in Louisiana in September 1941, the U.S. Army found itself drawn into a tense firefight with an unseen enemy across the Cane River. The attacker turned out to be three boys with a toy cannon. In this week's episode of the Futility Clo...Show More

105-Surviving on Seawater

34:05 | May 8th, 2016

In 1952, French physician Alain Bombard set out to cross the Atlantic on an inflatable raft to prove his theory that a shipwreck victim can stay alive on a diet of seawater, fish, and plankton. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we...Show More

104-The Harvey's Casino Bombing

32:34 | May 2nd, 2016

In August 1980, an extortionist planted a thousand-pound bomb in Harvey’s Wagon Wheel Casino in western Nevada. Unless the owners paid him $3 million within 24 hours, he said, the bomb would go off and destroy the casino. In this week's episode of th...Show More

103-Legislating Pi

33:31 | Apr 24th, 2016

In 1897, confused physician Edward J. Goodwin submitted a bill to the Indiana General Assembly declaring that he'd squared the circle -- a mathematical feat that was known to be impossible. In today's show we'll examine the Indiana pi bill, its color...Show More

102-The Bunion Derby

34:12 | Apr 18th, 2016

In 1928, 199 runners set out on a perilous 3,400-mile footrace across America, from Los Angeles to Chicago and on to New York. The winner would receive $25,000 -- if anyone finished at all. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll ...Show More

101-Jerome

30:35 | Apr 11th, 2016

In 1863 the residents of Sandy Cove, Nova Scotia, discovered a legless man on the shore of St. Mary's Bay. He spoke no English and could not tell them who he was or where he had come from. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll t...Show More

100-Lateral Thinking Puzzles

36:47 | Apr 4th, 2016

Here are five new lateral thinking puzzles to test your wits and stump your friends -- play along with us as we try to untangle some perplexing situations using yes-or-no questions. Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet -- on our Patre...Show More

099-Notes and Queries

33:51 | Mar 28th, 2016

In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll take a tour through some oddities and unanswered questions from our research, including whether a spider saved Frederick the Great's life, a statue with the wrong face, and a spectacularly d...Show More

098-The St. Albans Raid

32:18 | Mar 21st, 2016

Seemingly safe in northern New England, the residents of St. Albans, Vermont, were astonished in October 1864 when a group of Confederate soldiers appeared in their midst, terrorizing residents, robbing banks, and stealing horses. In this week's epis...Show More

097-The Villisca Ax Murders

31:07 | Mar 14th, 2016

Early one morning in 1912, the residents of Villisca, Iowa, discovered a horrible scene: An entire family had been brutally murdered in their sleep. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe the gruesome crime, which has ba...Show More

096-The Abduction of Edgardo Mortara

32:11 | Mar 7th, 2016

On June 23, 1858, the Catholic Church removed 6-year-old Edgardo Mortara from his family in Bologna. The reason they gave was surprising: The Mortaras were Jewish, and Edgardo had been secretly baptized. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet ...Show More

095-A New Day at Charleston

30:20 | Feb 29th, 2016

In 1862, slave Robert Smalls was working as a pilot aboard a Confederate transport ship in Charleston, S.C., when he seized a unique chance to escape. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow his daring predawn journey, whic...Show More

094-The Living Unknown Soldier

33:34 | Feb 22nd, 2016

A quarter million Frenchmen vanished in World War I, leaving their families no clue whether they were still alive. During these anxious years, a lone man appeared on a Lyon railway platform without memory, possessions, or identification. In this week...Show More

093-The Old Flying Days

33:02 | Feb 8th, 2016

In the early days of English aviation, journalist C.C. Turner seemed to be everywhere, witnessing bold new feats and going on some harrowing adventures of his own. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll sample Turner's record of ...Show More

092-The Forgotten Amendment

29:42 | Feb 1st, 2016

In 1982, college sophomore Gregory Watson got a C on a term paper arguing that a long-forgotten constitutional amendment could still be ratified. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow his 10-year mission to prove his prof...Show More

091-The Voyage of the Damned

34:52 | Jan 25th, 2016

In 1939, an ocean liner carrying 900 Jewish refugees left Nazi Germany seeking sanctuary in North America, but it was turned away by every nation it appealed to. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow the so-called "voyage...Show More

090-The Candy Bar War

31:30 | Jan 18th, 2016

In 1947, the price of a candy bar in British Columbia rose from 5 to 8 cents, and the local teenagers organized a surprisingly effective "strike" that soon spread across the country. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow ...Show More

089-An African From Baltimore

31:32 | Jan 11th, 2016

In the 1920s Bata Kindai Amgoza ibn LoBagola toured the United States and Europe to share the culture of his African homeland with fascinated audiences. The reality was actually much more mundane: His name was Joseph Lee and he was from Baltimore. In...Show More

088-Mrs. Wilkinson and the Lyrebird

32:26 | Jan 4th, 2016

Almost nothing was known about Australia's elusive lyrebird until 1930, when an elderly widow named Edith Wilkinson encountered one on her garden path one February morning. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow the curiou...Show More

087-A Sleuthing Cabbie, Edward VI's Homework, and a Self-Aware Crow

31:59 | Dec 28th, 2015

In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll share seven oddities from Greg's research, from Arthur Conan Doyle's encounter with a perceptive Boston cabbie to a computer's failed attempts to rewrite Aesop's fables. We'll also hear boxe...Show More

086-Lateral Thinking Puzzles

30:00 | Dec 21st, 2015

Here are six new lateral thinking puzzles to test your wits and stump your friends -- play along with us as we try to untangle some strange situations using only yes-or-no questions. Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet -- on our Patr...Show More

085-Raising Chicago

34:18 | Dec 14th, 2015

In 1868, visiting Scotsman David Macrae was astonished to see Chicago transforming itself -- dozens of buildings were transplanted to the suburbs, and hotels weighing hundreds of tons were raised on jackscrews. In this week's episode of the Futility ...Show More

084-The Man Who Never Was

34:08 | Dec 7th, 2015

In 1942, Germany discovered a dead British officer floating off the coast of Spain, carrying important secret documents about the upcoming invasion of Europe. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe Operation Mincemeat, w...Show More

083-Nuclear Close Calls

36:39 | Nov 30th, 2015

In 1983, Soviet satellites reported that the United States had launched a nuclear missile toward Moscow, and one officer had only minutes to decide whether to initiate a counterstrike. In today's show we'll learn about some nuclear near misses from t...Show More

082-Stealing Abe Lincoln

34:00 | Nov 23rd, 2015

In 1876, a gang of inept Chicago counterfeiters launched an absurd plot to steal the body of Abraham Lincoln and hold it for ransom. In today's episode of the Futility Closet podcast, we'll follow their comical attempts to carry out the bizarre schem...Show More

081-The Typhus Hoax

32:33 | Nov 15th, 2015

In 1939, as Germany was sending the people of Poland to labor and death camps, two doctors found a unique way to save their countrymen -- by faking an epidemic. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll learn about their clever plan...Show More

080-'Black Like Me': Race Realities Under Jim Crow

34:26 | Nov 2nd, 2015

In 1959, Texas journalist John Howard Griffin darkened his skin and lived for six weeks as a black man in the segregated South. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe his harrowing experience and what it taught him about...Show More

079-One Square Inch of the Yukon

34:49 | Oct 25th, 2015

If you opened a box of Quaker Oats in 1955, you'd find a deed to one square inch of land in northwestern Canada. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story behind the Klondike Big Inch land giveaway, whose bizarre cons...Show More

078-Snowshoe Thompson

37:57 | Oct 19th, 2015

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 car...Show More

077-The Sourdough Expedition

33:24 | Oct 12th, 2015

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 moun...Show More

076-Get Out of Jail Free

30:44 | Oct 5th, 2015

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 ...Show More

075-The Sea Devil

35:52 | Sep 28th, 2015

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 warfar...Show More

074-Charley Parkhurst's Secret

34:01 | Sep 21st, 2015

"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 ...Show More

073-The Tichborne Claimant

34:52 | Sep 14th, 2015

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 t...Show More

072-The Strange Misadventures of Famous Corpses

35:12 | Sep 7th, 2015

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 a...Show More

071-Godless in Missouri

33:36 | Aug 31st, 2015

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 epis...Show More

070-Sunk by a Whale

33:56 | Aug 24th, 2015

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...Show More

069-Lateral Thinking Puzzles

32:53 | Aug 10th, 2015

Here are four new lateral thinking puzzles to test your wits! Solve along with us as we explore some strange situations using only yes-or-no questions. Puzzles 1 and 2 are from Kyle Hendrickson's 1998 book Mental Fitness Puzzles and Jed's List of Sit...Show More

068-The Niihau Incident

38:49 | Aug 2nd, 2015

After taking part in the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese fighter pilot Shigenori Nishikaichi crash-landed on the isolated Hawaiian island of Niihau. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll recount the six days of escalating drama that u...Show More

067-Composing Beyond the Grave

30:57 | Jul 27th, 2015

In 1933, violinist Jelly d'Aranyi declared that the spirit of Robert Schumann was urging her to find a concerto that he'd written shortly before his death in 1856. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe the discovery of Schuman...Show More

066-Eighteen Holes in Vietnam

31:58 | Jul 20th, 2015

In 1972, Air Force navigator Gene Hambleton was shot down over enemy territory in Vietnam, and a ferocious offensive beat back every attempt to rescue him. In today's show we'll learn how his lifelong passion for golf became the key to his escape. We...Show More

065-The Merchant Prince of Cornville

33:20 | Jul 13th, 2015

Edmond Rostand's hit play Cyrano de Bergerac met an unexpected obstacle in 1898 -- a Chicago real estate developer who claimed that it plagiarized his own play. In this week's podcast we'll review the strange controversy and the surprising outcome of...Show More

064-Murder at the Priory

32:36 | Jul 6th, 2015

In 1876 London was riveted by the dramatic poisoning of a young barrister and the sordid revelations that emerged about his household. In today's show we'll review the baffling case of Charles Bravo's murder, which Agatha Christie called "one of the ...Show More

063-The Rainmaker

32:57 | Jun 28th, 2015

In 1915 San Diego hired "rainmaker" Charles Hatfield to relieve a four-year drought. After he set to work with his 23 secret chemicals, the skies opened and torrential rains caused some of the most extreme flooding in the city's history. In this week...Show More

062-Marconi Catches a Murderer

29:48 | Jun 21st, 2015

The discovery of the gruesome remains of a human body buried in a doctor's cellar shocked London in 1910. In this week's podcast we'll recount the dramatic use of the recently invented wireless telegraph in capturing the main suspect in the crime. We...Show More

061-The Strange Custom of Garden Hermits

34:14 | Jun 14th, 2015

In 18th-century England, wealthy landowners would sometimes hire people to live as hermits in secluded corners of their estates. In today's show we'll explore this odd custom and review the job requirements for life as a poetic recluse. We'll also me...Show More

060-The Day They Hanged an Elephant

33:31 | Jun 1st, 2015

In 1916 an American circus elephant named Mary was hanged before a crowd of 3,000 onlookers. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll review the sad series of events that led Mary to a Tennessee railroad crane. We'll also get an up...Show More

059-The Wizard of Mauritius

33:51 | May 24th, 2015

In 1764 a French engineer on a tiny African island claimed that he could see ships beyond the horizon. In today's show we'll review the strange story of Étienne Bottineau and consider the evidence for his claims to have invented a new art. We'll also...Show More

058-English as She Is Spoke

30:52 | May 18th, 2015

In 1855 Pedro Carolino decided to write a Portuguese-English phrasebook despite the fact that he didn't actually speak English. The result is one of the all-time masterpieces of unintentional comedy, a language guide full of phrases like "The ears ar...Show More

057-Jules Verne's Lost Novel

35:36 | May 11th, 2015

Eight decades after Jules Verne's death, his great-grandson opened a family safe and discovered an unpublished manuscript. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll review some of Verne's remarkable predictions for the 20th century and con...Show More

056-Lateral Thinking Puzzles

38:16 | May 4th, 2015

Here are six new lateral thinking puzzles to test your wits! Solve along with us as we explore some strange scenarios using only yes-or-no questions. Many were submitted by listeners, and most are based on real events. A few associated links -- these...Show More

055-The Dyatlov Pass Incident

31:46 | Apr 26th, 2015

On February 1, 1959, something terrifying overtook nine student ski-hikers in the northern Ural Mountains. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll recount what is known about the incident at Dyatlov Pass and try to make sense of the hike...Show More

054-Escape From Stalag Luft III

36:04 | Apr 20th, 2015

In 1943 three men came up with an ingenious plan to escape from the seemingly escape-proof Stalag Luft III prison camp in Germany. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll learn about their clever deception, which made them briefly famous...Show More

053-The Lost Colony

31:44 | Apr 13th, 2015

It's been called America's oldest mystery: A group of 100 English colonists vanished from North Carolina's Roanoke Island shortly after settling there in 1587. But was their disappearance really so mysterious? In this episode of the Futility Closet p...Show More

052-Moving Day in New York

29:15 | Apr 6th, 2015

For centuries, May 1 brought chaos to New York, as most tenants had to move on the same day, clogging the streets with harried people and all their belongings. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll review the colorful history of "Movin...Show More

051-Poet Doppelgängers

32:46 | Mar 29th, 2015

In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll look at the strange phenomenon of poet doppelgängers -- at least five notable poets have been seen by witnesses when their physical bodies were elsewhere. We'll also share our readers' resea...Show More

050-The Great Tea Race

34:38 | Mar 23rd, 2015

In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow the dramatic 14,000-mile clipper ship race of 1866, in which five ships competed fiercely to be the first to London with the season's tea. We'll also track the importance of mulch to ...Show More

049-Can a Kitten Climb the Matterhorn?

34:06 | Mar 16th, 2015

In 1950 newspapers around the world reported that a 10-month-old kitten had climbed the Matterhorn, one of the highest peaks in Europe. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll wonder whether even a very determined kitty could acco...Show More

048-The Shark Arm Affair

33:22 | Mar 9th, 2015

In 1935 a shark in an Australian aquarium vomited up a human forearm, a bizarre turn of events that sparked a confused murder investigation. This week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast presents two cases in which a shark supplied key evidence ...Show More

047-The Scariest Travel Books Ever Written

35:01 | Feb 22nd, 2015

Victorian children's author Favell Lee Mortimer published three bizarre travel books that described a world full of death, vice, and peril. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll sample her terrifying descriptions of the lands be...Show More

046-The 1925 Serum Run to Nome

34:06 | Feb 16th, 2015

In 1925, Nome, Alaska, was struck by an outbreak of diphtheria, and only a relay of dogsleds could deliver the life-saving serum in time. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow the dogs' desperate race through arctic blizz...Show More

045-Crossing Africa for Love

30:48 | Feb 8th, 2015

When Ewart Grogan was denied permission to marry his sweetheart, he set out to walk the length of Africa to prove himself worthy of her. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll find out whether Ewart's romantic quest succeeded. We...Show More

044-Ballooning to the North Pole

32:03 | Feb 1st, 2015

In 1897, Swedish patent engineer S.A. Andrée set out in a quixotic bid to reach the North Pole in a hydrogen balloon, departing from Norway with two companions and hoping to drift over the top of the world and come down somewhere in the Bering Strait...Show More

043-Ben Franklin's Guide to Living

34:46 | Jan 25th, 2015

As a young man, Benjamin Franklin drew up a "plan for attaining moral perfection" based on a list of 13 virtues. Half a century later he credited the plan for much of his success in life. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll explore F...Show More

042-The Balmis Expedition: Using Orphans to Combat Smallpox

33:24 | Jan 19th, 2015

(Image: Wikimedia Commons) In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell how Spanish authorities found an ingenious way to use orphans to bring the smallpox vaccine to the American colonies in 1803. The Balmis Expedition overcame the prob...Show More

041-The Tragic Tale of the Lady Be Good

31:33 | Jan 12th, 2015

The American bomber Lady Be Good left North Africa for a bombing run over Italy in 1943. It wasn't seen again until 15 years later, when explorers discovered its broken remains deep in the Libyan desert. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast...Show More

040-The Mary Celeste: A Great Sea Mystery

38:21 | Jan 5th, 2015

In 1872 the British merchant ship Mary Celeste was discovered drifting and apparently abandoned 600 miles off the coast of Portugal. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll review this classic mystery of the sea: Why would 10 people flee...Show More

039-Lateral Thinking Puzzles

30:35 | Dec 22nd, 2014

Here are eight new lateral thinking puzzles that you can try on your friends and family over the holidays -- see who can make sense of these odd scenarios using only yes-or-no questions. Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet -- on our ...Show More

038-The Thunder Stone

30:23 | Dec 14th, 2014

In 1768, Catherine the Great ordered her subjects to move a 3-million-pound granite boulder intact into Saint Petersburg to serve as the pedestal for a statue of Peter the Great. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll learn how some ins...Show More

037-Edgar Allan Poe's Graveyard Visitor

32:44 | Dec 8th, 2014

For most of the 20th century, a man in black appeared each year at the grave of Edgar Allan Poe. In the predawn hours of January 19, he would drink a toast with French cognac and leave behind three roses in a distinctive arrangement. No one knows who...Show More

036-The Great Moon Hoax

34:15 | Dec 1st, 2014

In 1835 the New York Sun announced that astronomers had discovered bat-winged humanoids on the moon, as well as reindeer, unicorns, bipedal beavers and temples made of sapphire. The fake news was reprinted around the world, impressing even P.T. Barnu...Show More

035-Lateral Thinking Puzzles

25:53 | Nov 24th, 2014

For this Thanksgiving episode of the Futility Closet podcast, enjoy seven lateral thinking puzzles that didn't make it onto our regular shows. Solve along with us as we explore some strange scenarios using only yes-or-no questions. Happy Thanksgiving...Show More

034-Spring-Heeled Jack -- A Victorian Supervillain

37:20 | Nov 17th, 2014

Between 1837 and 1904, rumors spread of a strange bounding devil who haunted southern England, breathing blue flames and menacing his victims with steel talons. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we review the career of Spring-Heeled Jack...Show More

033-Death and Robert Todd Lincoln

35:55 | Nov 10th, 2014

Abraham Lincoln's eldest son, Robert, is the subject of a grim coincidence in American history: He's the only person known to have been present or nearby at the assassinations of three American presidents. In this episode of the Futility Closet podca...Show More

032-The Wow! Signal

33:03 | Nov 3rd, 2014

In August 1977, Ohio astronomer Jerry Ehman discovered a radio signal so exciting that he wrote "Wow!" in the margin of its computer printout. Arriving from the direction of the constellation Sagittarius, the signal bore all the characteristics of an...Show More

031-Pigs on Trial

30:35 | Oct 27th, 2014

For 500 years of European history, animals were given criminal trials: Bulls, horses, dogs, and sheep were arrested, jailed, given lawyers, tried, and punished at community expense. In the latest Futility Closet podcast we'll explore this strange pra...Show More

030-The Oak Island Money Pit

33:24 | Oct 20th, 2014

Nova Scotia's Oak Island hides a famously booby-trapped treasure cache -- or so goes the legend. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast, we review the many attempts to recover the treasure and wonder who could have engineered such a site, wha...Show More

029-The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser

37:06 | Oct 6th, 2014

In 1828, a 16-year-old boy appeared in Nuremberg, claiming that he'd spent his whole life alone in a dark cell. In the latest Futility Closet podcast we'll follow the short, sad life of Kaspar Hauser and ponder who he might have been. We'll also revi...Show More

028-The Real-Life Sherlock Holmes

32:17 | Sep 29th, 2014

Sherlock Holmes was based on a real man, a physician who trained Arthur Conan Doyle at the University of Edinburgh. During his medical lectures, Joseph Bell regularly astonished his students with insights into his patients' lives and characters. "Fro...Show More

027-The Man Who Volunteered for Auschwitz

33:32 | Sep 22nd, 2014

In September 1940 Polish army captain Witold Pilecki volunteered to be imprisoned at Auschwitz. His reports first alerted the Allies to the horrors at the camp and helped to warn the world that a holocaust was taking place. In this episode of the Fut...Show More

026-A Practical Joke on a Grand Scale

32:44 | Sep 15th, 2014

In 1810 someone told hundreds of London merchants that Mrs. Tottenham at 54 Berners Street had requested their services. She hadn't. For a full day the street was packed with crowds of deliverymen struggling to reach a single door -- and the practica...Show More

025-An Australian Enigma

29:31 | Sep 8th, 2014

On Dec. 1, 1948, a well-dressed corpse appeared on a beach in South Australia. Despite 66 years of investigation, no one has ever been able to establish who he was, how he came to be there, or even how he died. In this episode of the Futility Closet ...Show More

024-The World's Worst Poet

30:01 | Sep 1st, 2014

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...Show More

023-A Victorian Poisoning Mystery

33:41 | Aug 25th, 2014

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 ...Show More

022-The Devil's Hoofmarks

35:45 | Aug 18th, 2014

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...Show More

021-A Gallant German Fighter Ace

32:48 | Aug 4th, 2014

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 sta...Show More

020-Life Imitates Science Fiction

37:41 | Jul 28th, 2014

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 intell...Show More

019-Testing the Post Office

34:30 | Jul 21st, 2014

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 serv...Show More

018-The Mystery of the Disappearing Airmen

31:58 | Jul 14th, 2014

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 ...Show More

017-An Aircraft Carrier Made of Ice

30:34 | Jul 7th, 2014

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 car...Show More

016-A Very Popular Sack of Flour

29:15 | Jun 30th, 2014

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 Fu...Show More

015-The The Flannan Isles Mystery

32:01 | Jun 23rd, 2014

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 ...Show More

014-The Unsinkable Violet Jessop

31:59 | Jun 16th, 2014

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 podcas...Show More

013-An Ingenious Escape From Slavery

35:50 | Jun 9th, 2014

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 Pennsyl...Show More

012-The Great Race, Grace Kelly's Tomahawk, and Dreadful Penmanship

29:10 | Jun 2nd, 2014

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 o...Show More

011-A Woolf in Sheikh's Clothing

33:14 | May 26th, 2014

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 disguised in a false beard ...Show More

010-A Baboon Soldier, Lighthouse Rescues, and a Parliament of Owls

34:23 | May 19th, 2014

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 ...Show More

009-The Monkey Signalman, Racetrack ESP, and Toxic Dumps

34:08 | May 12th, 2014

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 ...Show More

008-Owney the Mail Dog, Candy Bombers, and Bertrand Russell

33:00 | May 5th, 2014

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...Show More

007-Louisiana Hippos, Imaginary Epidemics, and Charles Lindbergh

29:33 | Apr 28th, 2014

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 follo...Show More

006-Texas Camels, Zebra Stripes, and an Immortal Piano

33:06 | Apr 21st, 2014

The 1850s saw a strange experiment in the American West: The U.S. Army imported 70 camels for help in managing the country's suddenly enormous hinterland. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll see how the animals acquitted thems...Show More

005-Mailing People, Alien Shorthand, and Benjamin Franklin

32:00 | Apr 14th, 2014

Henry Brown found a unique way to escape slavery: He mailed himself to Pennsylvania. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll accompany Brown on his perilous 1849 journey from Richmond to Philadelphia, follow a 5-year-old Idaho gir...Show More

004-Mystery Airships, Marauding Lions, and Nancy Drew

35:05 | Apr 7th, 2014

In 1896 a strange wave of airship sightings swept Northern California; the reports of strange lights in the sky created a sensation that would briefly engulf the rest of the country. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll examine...Show More

003-Extreme Pedestrians, Kangaroo Stew, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge

34:46 | Mar 31st, 2014

In 1926, a woman named Lillian Alling grew disenchanted with her life as a maid in New York City and resolved to return to her native Russia. She lacked the funds to sail east, so instead she walked west -- trekking 6,000 miles alone across the bread...Show More

002-Mass Hysteria, Airborne Sheepdogs and Mark Twain's Brother

28:42 | Mar 24th, 2014

As skywatchers prepared for the return of Halley's comet in 1910, they heard some alarming scientific predictions: Poisonous gases in the comet's tail might "snuff out all life on the planet," "leaving the burnt and drenched Earth no other atmosphere...Show More

001-Calendar Reform, Doll Mansions, and Hitchcock's Vertigo

30:49 | Mar 14th, 2014

Will New Year's Day fall on a weekend in the year 2063? If calendar reformer Moses Cotsworth had succeeded, anyone in the world could have answered that question instantly -- any of us could name the day of the week on which any future date would fal...Show More