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Podcast Show Notes — Episode 5 (April 14, 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 girl who was mailed to her grandparents in 1914, and delve deeper into a mysterious lion sighting in Illinois in 1917.

We’ll also decode a 200-year-old message enciphered by Benjamin Franklin, examine an engraved ball reputed to have fallen out of the Georgia sky in 1887, and present the next Futility Closet Challenge.

The story about Dr. Seyers’ alien ball appeared in the Chicago Tribune in 1887 — here’s a reprint from the American Stationer.

Our posts on Henry Box Brown and May Pierstorff appeared on Feb. 2, 2006, and Dec. 31, 2008.

Here’s Samuel Rowse’s 1850 lithograph The Resurrection of Henry Box Brown at Philadelphia, depicting Brown’s climactic emergence from his box on March 24, 1849:


And our post about Benjamin Franklin’s cipher appeared originally on July 23, 2008. Satoshi Tomokiyo’s description of the solution is here.

Thanks again to Doug Ross for the music in this episode. You can subscribe to the Futility Closet podcast now on iTunes; the direct feed is here:


Next week we plan to recount the story of the U.S. Camel Corps, an attempt to use camels as pack animals in the American West in the 1850s. If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!


Here’s the full text of F. Child’s terrible poem about the Salisbury lion, from her 1844 collection The Spinster at Home in the Close at Salisbury:

Nearly twenty-eight years for ever have flown,
Since grand consternation prevail’d in this town
The morn of a fair day,– when ‘t was currently said,
(And folks fled to their homes with good reason afraid,)
That a lioness, ravenous, ramping, and wild,
Was ranging the streets and devouring a child.
But rumour, as usual, had enlarged upon truth,
Though doubtless, a scene of great terror and ruth
On the eve, had been acted, six miles from this place,
Which had thrown all concern’d into so strange a case
As the lapse of no time from their mem’ries might chase.
The Exeter mail had abated its speed,
With water to cool and refresh each good steed,
At Winterslow Hut,– a small inn by the road,
And give out certain packages, carefully stow’d –
When, on Britain’s fair Isle,– what a marvellous sight!!
Men could hardly believe that their eyes saw aright,
On perceiving a lioness, making approach
With her uttermost speed, right towards the mail coach;
One powerful spring,– and her terrible fangs
(Bringing all their acute, insupportable pangs,)
In the throat of a leader, are instantly sheathed,
And (though not without effort the animal breathed)
He utter’d a scream, so discordant and shrill,
As sent back to each heart, the life’s blood with a thrill;
His pains seeming equall’d by the terror of those
Who beheld the dread beast and her victim’s keen throes.
The other three horses, all plunging and fearing,
In desperate fashion were kicking and rearing:
The guard raised his pistol,– at the brute took right aim,
When Wombwell, her owner, at the guard did the same,
And swore if he fired, a good bullet of lead,
Should pass with all swiftness through that mail guard’s own head.
That he’d answer for hazard, for mischief, and loss,
But no human being his resolve should dare cross:
And a dog of fierce kind, hardy, active, and bold,
He straight urged on the creature, to make her quit hold.
Wombwell’s travelling vans had but lately arrived
On their way to the fair,– and this beast had contrived
To escape from her thraldom,– and, lacking a meal,
Seem’d resolved of live horse-flesh some mouthfuls to steal;–
All the trav’llers meanwhile, in most dire affright,
Threw themselves from the coach, in the best way they might,
To make speedy escape from their hideous plight,
When pistols were aim’d, and a ravenous beast
Show’d strong inclination for a relishing feast.–
To the door of the inn, with one impulse they rush’d,
Crowded through,– on its hinges, then back it was push’d,
Before one luckless man could accomplish his way,
Who, alas! on the outside was destined to stay,
At the moment the lioness quitted her prey.
Disappointed and furious, the dog at her heels,
She brush’d by the trav’ller, who in wild terror reels:
The weight of her body, as growling she flies,
Press’d hard ‘gainst his legs,– while vainly he tries
The fastening to wrench of the rigorous screen
Which he fain would have placed, him and danger between.
On gaining an entrance, few words could he speak,
But, shiv’ring with horror, look’d pallid and weak:
Liqueur was provided in a plentiful draught,
Which, well-nigh unconscious, he instantly quaff’d.
On the morrow he wrote,– also sent to the press,
A detail of the matter with no small address.
But in him appear’d dulness,– dejection profound,–
In the lapse of few days, a wild maniac he’s found:
And although the asylum to which he was brought,
Has high fame for the cures so frequently wrought,
His case proved quite hopeless,– nigh twenty-eight years,
He lived the sad victim of overcharged fears;
And at Laverstock died, in the year forty-three,
Where accounts may be gather’d which with mine will agree.
– The beast who unconsciously caused so much ill,
(Though nature’s own laws she but sought to fulfil,)
With ease was retaken by means of a noose,
And restored to the carriage from which she broke loose:
While the poor wounded horse in the same show they place,
To enhance the effect of this singular case;
And curious visitants in numbers were brought,
To behold the sad mischief the wild beast had wrought.

Podcast Show Notes — Episode 4 (April 7, 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 some of the highlights of this early “UFO” craze, including the mysterious role of a San Francisco attorney who claimed to have the answer to it all.

We’ll also examine the surprising role played by modern art in disguising World War I merchant ships and modern cars, discover unexpected lions in central Illinois and southern England, and present the next Futility Closet Challenge.


Our post about the California airships ran on March 27. Note the similarity between the newspaper illustration of the “great airship” (above) and Scientific American‘s illustration of Moses Cole’s “aerial vessel” (below), which was patented on Nov. 9, 1886.


On Nov. 23, 1896, the Call published an interview (3.74 MB PDF) with San Francisco attorney George D. Collins, in which he described his wealthy client as “a resident of Oroville and a man of wealth, about 47 years of age, and a fine looking fellow. He does not talk for five minutes without convincing his hearer that he is a man of more than ordinary intelligence.”

The promised revelation never occurred, and Collins faded from the spotlight. The airship sensation spread east, sowing hoaxes as it went — here’s a photo of the 36-foot ship that “landed” in Waterloo, Iowa, in April 1897:


Thanks to Susan Smith-Josephy for her update on disaffected pedestrian Lillian Alling, whose story we told on Feb. 25. If we learn anything more about Lillian’s fate we’ll share it on a future show.

As we mentioned, Dalhart, Texas, is closer to six other state capitals than to Texas’ own capital, Austin. That’s true, but according to Wolfram Alpha, Mountain City, Tenn., is closer to seven other state capitals than to its own state capital, Nashville. All are also shorter drives, except for Columbus:

Mountain City, TN to Nashville: 278.6 miles, 332.1 driving
Mountain City, TN to Charleston, WV: 130 miles, 198.4 driving
Mountain City, TN to Columbia, SC: 174.9 miles, 207.5 driving
Mountain City, TN to Raleigh, NC: 182.3 miles, 212.1 driving
Mountain City, TN to Frankfort, KY: 206.2 miles, 280 driving
Mountain City, TN to Atlanta, GA: 238.3 miles, 302 driving
Mountain City, TN to Richmond, VA: 250.4 miles, 321.9 driving
Mountain City, TN to Columbus, OH: 250.8 miles, 358.6 driving

And Ewing, Va., is closer to eight:

Ewing, VA to Richmond, VA: 334.6 miles, 406.1 driving
Ewing, VA to Frankfort, KY: 133.2 miles, 172.7 driving
Ewing, VA to Charleston, WV: 153.9 miles, 219.6 driving
Ewing, VA to Nashville, TN: 189.8 miles, 248.6 driving
Ewing, VA to Atlanta, GA: 206 miles, 282.5 driving
Ewing, VA to Columbia, SC: 226.5 miles, 299.5 driving
Ewing, VA to Columbus, OH: 232.1 miles, 331.8 driving
Ewing, VA to Indianapolis, IN: 262.2 miles, 331.7 driving
Ewing, VA to Raleigh, NC: 273.2 miles, 345 driving

The Cumberland Gap region of Virginia is also closer to Montgomery, Ala., raising its total to nine.


Our post on the “dazzle camouflage” applied to merchant ships during World War I ran on April 1. Ron Hughes sent the following image of a car prototype bearing a vinyl “wrap” bearing a similar pattern:

car camouflage

And here are two more links describing the use of camouflage in attempts to thwart auto journalists from photographing prototype cars during road testing.

Our post regarding the lion that attacked the Salisbury mail coach in 1816 ran on Sept. 30, 2012. I’ve published F. Childs’ full poem about the episode in a separate post on this blog. If we learn anything more about “Nellie,” the Illinois lion rumored to be abroad on Robert Allerton’s estate in 1917, I’ll share it in a future podcast.

Futility Closet Challenge: For those looking for more examples of Tom Swifties, the canonical collection is here. Post your original entry below or mail it to podcast@futilitycloset.com by Friday, April 11. Our favorite entry will win a copy of our book, Futility Closet: An Idler’s Miscellany of Compendious Amusements.

Our post about Edward Stratemeyer and his novel-writing syndicate ran on Sept. 16, 2011. If you’d like to know more, the best source I know is Diedre Johnson’s Edward Stratemeyer and the Stratemeyer Syndicate (1993). An interesting side note from that book: In the early years librarians regarded Stratemeyer’s series with dismay and worried about their effect on children. In 1914 Franklin K. Mathiews, chief librarian for the Boy Scouts of America, began a campaign against them, writing:

One of the most valuable assets a boy has is his imagination. In proportion as this is nurtured a boy develops initiative and resourcefulness. … Story books … of the viler and cheaper sort, by over stimulation, debauch and vitiate. … As some boys read such books, their imaginations are literally ‘blown out,’ and they go into life as terribly crippled as though by some material explosion they had lost a hand or foot.

Stratemeyer kept right on going. When his books were banned from the Newark Public Library, he wrote, “Personally it does not matter much to me. … Taking them out of the Library has more than tripled the sales in Newark.”

Thanks again to Doug Ross for the music in this episode. You can subscribe to the Futility Closet podcast now on iTunes; the direct feed is here:


Next week we plan to recount the story of Henry “Box” Brown, a Virginia slave who mailed himself to freedom in 1849. If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Podcast Show Notes — Episode 3 (March 31, 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 breadth of Canada and into Alaska on her way to Siberia. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast, we consider Alling’s lonely, determined journey, compare it to the efforts of other long-distance pedestrians, and suggest a tool to plot your own virtual journey across the United States.

We also learn the truth about the balloon-borne messenger dogs of 1870 Paris, ponder the significance of October 4 to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and offer a chance to win a book in the next Futility Closet Challenge.

Our main feature this week concerns “mystery woman” Lillian Alling, who left New York City in 1926 in a single-minded quest to walk to Siberia. Our original post about Lillian ran on Feb. 25; the single best resource about her life (what little is known of it) is Susan Smith-Josephy’s Lillian Alling: The Journey Home. We also discuss the backing, fiddling, crawling, and wheelbarrow-pushing exploits of Plennie Wingo, Otto Funk, Hans Mullikin, and Jack Krohn.

TransAmerica, the free online tool to plot your own virtual course across the United States, includes a feature that lets you connect with friends. If enough of us are interested, perhaps a pack of us could swarm virtually across the U.S. this spring.

Here’s the menu of one Paris restaurant from Christmas 1870, about 99 days into the Prussian siege:


Daily News correspondent Henry Labouchère’s Diary of the Besieged Resident in Paris lists his culinary impressions of horse, cat, donkey, kitten, rat, and spaniel.

If you’d like to learn more about the pigeon post and the use of balloons during the Siege of Paris, the best resource I’ve been able to find is John Fisher’s 1965 book Airlift 1870; Frederic Luther’s 1959 book Microfilm: A History contains detailed records of all 65 manned balloons that left Paris during the siege. They were strikingly helpless to the whims of the winds: Number 31 went up at 11:40 p.m. Nov. 24 and came down at 2:25 p.m. the following day in Oslo, of all places, having covered a thousand miles in 15 hours. By contrast, “one drifted for an entire night, first north, then west, then south, to land within the Prussian lines almost at the gates of Paris.”

I have no resources (yet) to suggest regarding Coleridge and October 4; on a trip to UNC this week I hope to consult Stephen Weissman’s promisingly titled His Brother’s Keeper: A Psycho-Biography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, which at least speculates about the date’s significance to the poet.

This week’s Futility Closet Challenge is inspired by another reader competition from New York magazine in the 1970s. These are collected in two books with the magnificent titles Thank You for the Giant Sea Tortoise and Maybe He’s Dead, both by Mary Ann Madden. A few further “near misses” from those collections:

  • Tarzan of the Larger Primates
  • One if by land, and two if not
  • The Sun Comes Up, Too
  • Mrs. Butterfly
  • Here Comes the Iceman
  • Nebraska!
  • “In the Foyer of the Mountain King”

Post your own entry below or mail it to podcast@futilitycloset.com by Friday, April 4. Our favorite entry will win a copy of our book, Futility Closet: An Idler’s Miscellany of Compendious Amusements.

Thanks again to Doug Ross for the music in this episode. You can subscribe to the Futility Closet podcast now on iTunes; the direct feed is here:


Next week we plan to examine the strange rash of airship sightings in the American west in 1896. If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Podcast Show Notes — Episode 2 (March 24, 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 than the nitrogen now present in the air.” How should a responsible citizen evaluate a dire prediction by a minority of experts? In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast, we explore the Halley’s hysteria, remember the alarming predictions made for Y2K, and recall a forgotten novella in which Arthur Conan Doyle imagined a dead Earth fumigated by cosmic ether.

We also consider the odd legacy of an Australian prime minister who disappeared in 1967, investigate the role of balloon-borne sheepdogs during the Siege of Paris, learn why Mark Twain’s brother telegraphed the entire Nevada constitution to Washington D.C. in 1864, and offer a chance to win a book in the next Futility Closet Challenge.

Our main feature this week concerns the hysteria that greeted the return of Halley’s comet in 1910, based on ill-founded fears that compounds in the comet’s tail would poison the atmosphere.

This seems to have inspired to Arthur Conan Doyle to write The Poison Belt, a 1913 novella in which “our planet has swum into the poison belt of ether, and is now flying deeper into it at the rate of some millions of miles a minute.” (Thanks to Jason Holt for this tip.)

We mentioned also that Australian prime minister Harold Holt disappeared while in office in 1967 — he’d gone swimming near Portsea in an area known for its strong rip tides and was never seen again.

The Harold Holt Memorial Swimming Centre, in Melbourne, was under construction at the time and was named in his memory — a swimming pool named for a man who probably drowned:

On March 17 we’d noted that the Nevada Territory had sent its entire constitution to Washington D.C. by telegraph in 1864, in order to join the Union before Election Day. The last leaf of the 175-page transcription, below, shows the word count and cost; Jim Russell, Michael Kindell, and Bruce Barnfield all wrote in to note that it also bears the signature of Orion Clemens, who was secretary of the territory — and Mark Twain’s brother.


Here are three references that mention that balloon-borne sheepdogs were used to carry dispatches during the Siege of Paris:

  • Robert Lowry Sibbet’s The Siege of Paris (1892) notes that “the Général Faidherbe sailed on the 13th inst. [1870] and landed a few miles from Bordeaux. M. Hurel took out five bulldogs which, he believes, will return to Paris with dispatches in their collars. The owners of the dogs are to receive two hundred francs for every dispatch they bring back.”
  • Alistair Horne’s The Fall of Paris: The Siege and the Commune 1870-71 (2007) notes that altogether some 65 manned balloons left Paris during the siege, carrying “164 passengers, 381 pigeons, 5 dogs, and nearly 11 tons of official dispatches.”
  • Michael Howard’s The Franco-Prussian War, published last year, confirms that five dogs were sent, but gives no further details.

I’ve just acquired John Fisher’s 1965 book Airlift 1870, a thorough account of the balloon and pigeon post during the siege, which seems to confirm the dog story — I’ll discuss that in an upcoming episode.

This week’s Futility Closet Challenge is inspired by Douglas Adams and John Lloyd’s 1983 book The Meaning of Liff, which they describe as a “dictionary of things that there aren’t any words for yet.” Take any place name and invent a useful new definition for it. Examples from their book:

  • clun: “A leg which has gone to sleep and has to be hauled around after you.”
  • hoggeston: “The action of overshaking a pair of dice in a cup in the mistaken belief that this will affect the eventual outcome in your favour and not irritate everyone else.”
  • moffat: “That part of your coat which is designed to be sat on by the person next to you on the bus.”

We propose that sheboygan should mean “to recognize an actor in a movie but not be able to place him.” A secondary definition is “to mistake the downbeat of a song during an instrumental introduction, leaving you helpless to reorient yourself until the melody starts” (I’m always confused by “All Along the Watchtower”).

Post your own entry below or mail it to podcast@futilitycloset.com by Friday, March 28. Our favorite entry will win a copy of our book, Futility Closet: An Idler’s Miscellany of Compendious Amusements.

Thanks again to Doug Ross for the music in this episode. You can subscribe to the Futility Closet podcast now on iTunes; the direct feed is here:


Next week we plan to discuss the sad, enigmatic tale of Lillian Alling, an immigrant who grew disenchanted with New York and decided to walk home to Siberia; explore the curious significance of October 4 to Samuel Taylor Coleridge; and offer a new Futility Closet Challenge.

Podcast Show Notes — Episode 1 (March 17, 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 fall, no matter how distant. In Episode 1 of the Futility Closet podcast, we examine Cotsworth’s plan and discover how it found a home inside one well-known American company.

Futility Closet podcast logo

We also look at how an antique dollhouse offers a surprising window into 17th-century Dutch history, explore a curious puzzle in an Alfred Hitchcock film, and invite you to participate in the first Futility Closet Challenge.

In discussing where I find story ideas, I describe the origins of The Skeleton in the Bale, a March 9, 2014, post recounting the gruesome doings at an Alabama plantation during the Civil War.

Our main feature this week relates to Moses Cotsworth’s campaign to reform the calendar — see our February 2014 post for a look at the pleasingly uniform monthly calendar we’d all be using if he’d succeeded.

And here’s the World Calendar Association, which is still championing the reforms proposed by Elisabeth Achelis.

Our March 4 post on Elaine Diehl’s 600-pound dollhouse brought this comment from Daniël Hoek:

During their Golden Age, the Dutch were very fond of this stuff, expending enormous sums of money on elaborate doll houses:


In the one linked to, every effort was made to make every trinket out of the same materials as its macroscopic equivalent. The plates are real porcelain imported from China, the paintings were commissioned from famous artists, the bookcase (the closed cupboard in the lower right) was filled with miniature books containing miniature stories, etc., etc. The cost of producing the thing vastly outstripped the cost of buying a real mansion in central Amsterdam.

He’s right — Jacob Appel painted Petronella Oortman’s elaborate dollhouse in 1710:


And here’s a recent photograph:


Image: Flickr

A similarly elaborate dollhouse, completed in 1924 for Queen Mary, wife of George V, contains a tiny volume written by Arthur Conan Doyle, with the shortest Sherlock Holmes story ever written.

This week’s Futility Closet Challenge invites you to take a well-known phrase and change or remove one letter to make a memorable new phrase. Here are some more entries from the New York magazine competition that inspired it:

  • Love’s Labours Cost
  • Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet, eating her curds — and why?
  • What is so rare as a May in June?
  • Black as the pit from pole to pole / I thank whatever God may be / For my unconquerable soup.

Post your own entry below and we’re read our favorites on next week’s show.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode. You can subscribe to the Futility Closet podcast now on iTunes; the direct feed is here:


Next week we plan to discuss the hysteria that greeted the return of Halley’s comet in 1910; explore the fate of balloon-borne sheepdogs during the siege of Paris; and offer a new Futility Closet Challenge.

Social media accounts?

I haven’t set up Facebook or Twitter accounts for Futility Closet, but I see that others have done so, and sometimes people try to communicate with me there and get no response. What can I do about this? I don’t mind having a presence on social media, but I’m a bit uneasy about not controlling it directly, and I’m stretched too thin at the moment to take over and do it properly. What should I do?

Specialty book?

I’m hoping the new Futility Closet book can be the first in a regular series of general miscellanies. But the site also has some running features that might make good dedicated books: quotations, odd inventions, obscure words, and puzzles (chess or otherwise). Or maybe a book on math, language, or hoaxes. What would you like to see?

Paradise Lost?

In the May 2002 issue of Word Ways, Dave Morice wrote, “Out of curiosity, I counted the vowels and consonants in Milton’s Paradise Lost one night, and there were 189,412 of each. If you don’t believe me, count them yourself!”

I have always wondered if he was kidding, but last night I made a rough count of the letters in the Project Gutenberg text and got 360,860, reasonably close to the total Morice was claiming. Does anyone have a simple way to distinguish vowels from consonants?

A Doomed Lemming

In the afterword to his 1996 book A Mathematical Mosaic, Ravi Vakil gives this problem by Kevin Purbhoo of Northern Secondary School in Toronto:

On a remote Norwegian mountain top, there is a huge checkerboard, 1000 squares wide and 1000 squares long, surrounded by steep cliffs to the north, south, east, and west. Each square is marked with an arrow pointing in one of the eight compass directions, so (with the possible exception of some squares on the edges), each square has an arrow pointing to one of its eight nearest neighbors. The arrows on squares sharing an edge differ by at most 45 degrees. A lemming is placed randomly on one of the squares, and it jumps from square to square following the arrows.

Prove that the poor creature will eventually plunge from a cliff to its death.

He omits the answer. Any ideas?

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