The mistaken identity of Adolf Beck, "one of the strangest true stories in British legal history"

In 1896, Adolf Beck found himself caught up in a senseless legal nightmare: Twelve women from around London insisted that he'd deceived them and stolen their cash and jewelry. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow Beck's incredible ordeal, which ignited a scandal and inspired historic reforms in the English justice system.

We'll also covet some noble socks and puzzle over a numerical sacking.

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

In 1930, British explorer Augustine Courtauld volunteered to spend the winter alone on the Greenland ice cap, manning a remote weather station. As the snow gradually buried his hut and his supplies steadily dwindled, his relief party failed to arrive. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow Courtauld's increasingly desperate vigil on the ice.

We'll also retreat toward George III and puzzle over some unexpected evidence.

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Twelve Americans were enslaved in Africa after an 1815 shipwreck

In 1815 an American ship ran aground in northwestern Africa, and its crew were enslaved by merciless nomads. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow the desperate efforts of Captain James Riley to find a way to cross the Sahara and beg for help from Western officials in Morocco.

We'll also wade through more molasses and puzzle over a prospective guitar thief.

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John Muir's 'adventure with a dog and a glacier'

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 harrowing predicament that the two faced on the ice, which became the basis of one of Muir's most beloved stories.

We'll also marvel at some phonetic actors and puzzle over a season for vasectomies.

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High school student Juliane Koepcke survived a two-mile fall into the Peruvian rain forest

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 Closet podcast we'll describe Juliane's arduous trek through the jungle in search of civilization and help.

We'll also consider whether goats are unlucky and puzzle over the shape of doorknobs.

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In 1889 an African lion escaped into the sewers of Birmingham, England

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 tunnels with Frank Bostock, the 21-year-old manager who set out to capture the desperate beast.

We'll also revisit a cosmic mystery and puzzle over an incomprehensible language.

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The rootless, fruitful life of mathematician Paul Erdős

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 Closet podcast we'll meet the "Mozart of mathematics," whose restless brilliance made him the most prolific mathematician of the 20th century.

We'll also ponder Japanese cannibalism in World War II and puzzle over a senseless stabbing.

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Belle Gunness lured lonely men to her Indiana farm to rob and kill them

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 LaPorte Black Widow and learn about some of her unfortunate victims.

We'll also break back into Buckingham Palace and puzzle over a bet with the devil.

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In 1629, Dutch castaways on a tiny island faced a desperately murderous leader

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 castaways. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll document the brutal history of Batavia's graveyard, the site of Australia's most infamous shipwreck.

We'll also lose money in India and puzzle over some invisible Frenchmen.

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In the Philippines, one Japanese holdout fought World War II until 1974

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 podcast we'll meet the dedicated soldier who fought World War II until 1974.

We'll also dig up a murderer and puzzle over an offensive compliment.

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In 1826 a giraffe traveled 4,000 miles to be presented to the king of France

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 Zarafa, the royal giraffe, from her African homeland to the king's menagerie in Paris.

We'll also visit Queen Victoria's coronation and puzzle over a child's surprising recovery.

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A prisoner in solitary confinement was the only survivor of the worst volcanic disaster of the 20th century

Mount Pelée, on the Caribbean island of Martinique, erupted 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 Futility Closet podcast we'll meet Ludger Sylbaris, who P.T. Barnum called "The Only Living Object That Survived in the Silent City of Death."

We'll also address some Indian uncles and puzzle over a gruesome hike.

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English teenager Edward Jones broke repeatedly into Buckingham Palace in the 1830s.

Between 1838 and 1841, an enterprising London teenager repeatedly broke into Buckingham Palace, sitting on the throne, eating from the kitchen, and generally causing headaches for Queen Victoria's attendants, who couldn't seem to keep him out. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe the exploits of Edward Jones -- who some have called the first celebrity stalker.

We'll also salute some confusing flags and puzzle over an extraterrestrial musician.

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Five lateral thinking puzzles

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.

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How a Spanish chicken farmer became the greatest double agent of World War II

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 week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe Pujol's astonishing talent for deceiving the Nazis, which led one colleague to call him "the best actor in the world."

We'll also contemplate a floating Chicago and puzzle over a winding walkway.

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Con man Gregor MacGregor sent shiploads of emigrants to a place that didn't exist

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 to set sail for this imagined utopia with dreams of starting a new life. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe the disastrous results of MacGregor's deceit.

We'll also illuminate a hermit's behavior and puzzle over Liechtenstein's flag.

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Meet the North Pond hermit, who lived alone in the Maine woods for 27 years

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 Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of the North Pond hermit, one man's attempt to divorce himself completely from civilization.

We'll also look for coded messages in crosswords and puzzle over an ineffective snake.

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