In 1913, Joe Knowles set out to spend two months naked and alone in the Maine woods

In 1913 outdoorsman Joseph Knowles pledged to spend two months in the woods of northern Maine, naked and alone, using only what he was able to find in the forest. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe Knowles' adventures in the woods and the controversy that followed his return to civilization.

We'll also consider the roots of nostalgia and puzzle over some busy brothers.

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A young Marine in WWII set out to capture Japanese soldiers by convincing them to surrender

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 voluntarily. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow Gabaldon's dangerous crusade and learn its surprising results.

We'll also examine Wonder Woman's erotic origins and puzzle over an elusive murderer.

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America's first serial killer built a murder castle in Chicago

When detectives arrested H.H. Holmes in 1894, they thought he was a simple con man. But they were shocked to discover that he'd been operating a bizarre Chicago hotel full of blind passageways, trapdoors, hidden chutes, and asphyxiation chambers in which he'd sadistically murdered dozens of victims. In today's show we'll follow the career of America's first documented serial killer, who headlines called "a fiend in human shape."

We'll also gape at some fireworks explosions and puzzle over an intransigent insurance company.

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The U.S. government has a "conscience fund" for repayments from those who have defrauded it

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 some of the more memorable and puzzling contributions it's received over the years.

We'll also ponder Audrey Hepburn's role in World War II and puzzle over an illness cured by climbing poles.

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The first crime solved by a lie detector

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 these innovations were first used. Read the rest

Cynthia Ann Parker was abducted by Comanches, then abducted back by whites 24 years later

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The story of Indian mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan

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 follow the unlikely friendship that sprang up between Hardy and Srinivasa Ramanujan, whom Hardy called "the most romantic figure in the recent history of mathematics."

We'll also probe Carson McCullers' heart and puzzle over a well-proportioned amputee.

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Dismissed by critics, Dutch painter Han van Meegeren set out to avenge himself by creating "the ultimate forgery"

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 podcast, we'll recount the career of a master forger and the surprising mistake that eventually brought him down.

We'll also drop in on D.B. Cooper and puzzle over an eyeless fruit burglar.

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An Irish cavalryman spent most of World War I living in this cupboard

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, evading her abusive owner, and Irishman Patrick Fowler spent most of World War I hiding in the cabinet of a sympathetic family in German-occupied France.

We'll also subdivide Scotland and puzzle over a ballerina's silent reception.

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Novelist William Sharp had a feminine alter ego with her own literary career

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 different styles. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll explore Sharp's curious relationship with his feminine alter ego, whose sporadic appearances perplexed even him.

We'll also hunt tigers in Singapore and puzzle over a surprisingly unsuccessful bank robber.

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2 million gallons of molasses wreaked havoc in Boston in 1919

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 we'll tell the story of the Boston Molasses Disaster, which claimed 21 lives and inscribed a sticky page into the city's history books.

We'll also admire some Scandinavian statistics and puzzle over a provocative Facebook photo.

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Six lateral thinking puzzles

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. Read the rest

The story behind the Christmas truce of 1914

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 this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of the Christmas truce, which one participant called "one of the highlights of my life."

We'll also remember James Thurber's Aunt Sarah and puzzle over an anachronistic twin.

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What Mark Twain learned from a palm reader

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 from a palm reader, and a bedeviling superfluity of Norwegians.

We'll also discover a language used only by women and puzzle over a gift that's best given sparingly.

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In 1944 hysteria swept Mattoon, Illinois, as residents reported a paralyzing gas being sprayed into their bedrooms

In 1944, a bizarre criminal assaulted the small town of Mattoon, Illinois. Victims reported smelling a strange odor in their bedrooms before being overcome with nausea and paralysis. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll pursue the mad gasser of Mattoon, who vanished after ten days, leaving residents to wonder whether he had ever existed at all.

We'll also ponder the concept of identical cousins and puzzle over a midnight stabbing.

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A Union soldier's determined efforts to break out of an "escape-proof" Confederate prison

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-proof, and in this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll show how a determined group of prisoners set out to prove them wrong.

We'll also duel with a barrel and puzzle over why an admitted forger would be found innocent.

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This 61-year-old potato farmer won an ultramarathon in 1983

Australia's Westfield ultramarathon had a surprising entrant in 1983: a 61-year-old potato farmer named Cliff Young who defied all expectations to win the 500-mile race against a field of professional runners. In today's show we'll learn about Cliff's unorthodox style and the remarkable strategy that carried him to victory.

We'll also learn the difference between no and nay and puzzle over a Japanese baby shortage.

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