Futility Closet

Futility Closet is a collection of entertaining curiosities in history, literature, language, art, philosophy, and mathematics, designed to help you waste time as enjoyably as possible.

Futility Closet: mystery of the well-dressed corpse

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 podcast we'll delve into the mystery of the Somerton man, a fascinating tale that involves secret codes, a love triangle, and the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. We'll also hear Franklin Adams praise the thesaurus and puzzle over some surprising consequences of firing a gun.

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A Victorian poisoning mystery

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.

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The Devil's Hoofmarks - the great Devon mystery of 1855

On Feb. 9, 1855, the residents of Devon in southern England awoke to find a bewildering set of footprints in the newfallen snow. “These are to be found in fields, gardens, roads, house-tops, & other likely and unlikely places, deeply embedded in snow,” ran one contemporary account. “The shape was a hoof.”

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The story of Franz Stigler, gallant German fighter ace

Futility Closet on a dramatic encounter in the skies over Germany in 1943, whether animals follow the 10 commandments, and why a man would falsely tell his nephew that his dog was shot.

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The 1944 science fiction story that predicted the atomic bomb

In 1944, fully a year before the first successful nuclear test, Astounding Science Fiction magazine published a remarkably detailed description of an atomic bomb in a story called Deadline. The story, by the otherwise undistinguished author Cleve Cartmill, sent military intelligence racing to discover the source of his information — and his motives for publishing it.

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The Man Who Mailed Frying Pans

In the latest episode of the Futility Closet podcast, we follow postal enthusiast W. Reginald Bray as he sends bowler hats, seaweed, his dog and even himself through the British mail.

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The Mystery of the Disappearing Airmen

Futility Closet on the curious cases of Ernest Cody and Charles Adams, two naval officers who vanished from a World War II surveillance blimp over the Pacific.

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A 2-million-ton aircraft carrier made of ice

In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the strange history of the WWII project to construct a 2-million-ton aircraft carrier made of ice.

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H.L. Mencken translates the Declaration of Independence into American English

In episode 16 of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll hear H.L. Mencken’s translation of the Declaration of Independence into American English, and learn why a merchant repeatedly auctioned the same 50-pound sack of flour, raising $250,000.

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The lighthouse keepers who vanished forever [Futility Closet 015]

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.

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The importance of toothbrushes in ocean disasters [Futility Closet 014]

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.

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An ingenious escape from slavery [Futility Closet 013]

Georgia slaves Ellen and William Craft made a daring bid for freedom in 1848: Ellen dressed as a white man and, attended by William as her servant, undertook a perilous 1,000-mile journey by carriage, train, and steamship to the free state of Pennsylvania in the North. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the couple’s harrowing five-day adventure through the slave-owning South.

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The Great Race, Grace Kelly's Tomahawk, and Dreadful Penmanship [Futility Closet #012]

The New York Times proposed an outrageous undertaking in 1908: An automobile race westward from New York to Paris, a journey of 22,000 miles across all of North America and Asia in an era when the motorcar was “the most fragile and capricious thing on earth.”

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The Abyssinian Princes Hoax of 1910 [Futility Closet #011]

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 and turban (far left in above photo).

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A Baboon Soldier & Lighthouse Rescues (Futility Closet Podcast #010)

When Albert Marr joined the South African army in 1915, he received permission to bring along his pet baboon, Jackie.

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