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

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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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The Voynich manuscript has been bewildering scholars for more than a century

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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 meaning. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll learn about the Voynich manuscript, which has been bewildering scholars for more than a century.

We'll also ponder some parliamentary hostages and puzzle over a tormenting acquisition.

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The strangest battle of World War II took place at this medieval Austrian castle

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In 1896 two New Jersey clam diggers set out to cross the North Atlantic in a rowboat

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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 George Harbo and Frank Samuelsen, which one newspaper called “the most remarkable event in the way of ocean navigation that ever transpired.”

We'll also meet some military mammals and puzzle over a thwarted burglar.

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The great Australian poetry hoax, in which deliberate nonsense was hailed as great art

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In 1943, fed up with modernist poetry, two Australian army officers invented a fake poet and submitted a collection of deliberately senseless verses to a Melbourne arts magazine. To their delight, the poems were published and their author was hailed as "one of the most remarkable and important poetic figures of this country." In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of the Ern Malley hoax, its perpetrators, and its surprising legacy in Australian literature.

We'll also hear a mechanized Radiohead and puzzle over a railroad standstill.

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A bizarre murder mystery gripped Campden, England, in 1660

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When William Harrison disappeared from Campden, England, in 1660, his servant offered an incredible explanation: that he and his family had murdered him. After the family was executed for the crime Harrison reappeared with a bizarre story of his own. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe "the Campden wonder," which one historian has called "perhaps the most baffling of all historical mysteries."

We'll also consider Vladimir Putin's dog and puzzle over a little girl's benefactor.

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The story of D.B. Cooper, the only unsolved hijacking in American history

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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 this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of D.B. Cooper, the only unsolved hijacking in American history.

We'll also hear some musical disk drives and puzzle over a bicyclist's narrow escape.

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Smithsonian scientist Harrison Dyar spent 20 years digging hidden tunnels under Washington D.C.

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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 Futility Closet podcast we'll describe Dyar's strange hobby -- and the equally bizarre affairs in his personal life.

We'll also revisit balloons in World War II and puzzle over a thief's change of heart.

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The bear who fought in World War II

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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'll meet Wojtek, the "happy warrior," and follow his adventures during and after the war.

We'll also catch up with a Russian recluse and puzzle over a murderous daughter.

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During the siege of Leningrad, nine botanists starved to death protecting a storehouse of edible crops

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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 podcast we'll tell the story of the Vavilov Institute, whose scientists literally starved to death protecting tons of treasured food.

We'll also follow a wayward sailor and puzzle over how to improve the safety of tanks.

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In 1879 a London maid dismembered her employer and then assumed her identity

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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 describe the murder of Julia Thomas and its surprising modern postscript.

We'll also discover the unlikely origins of a Mary Poppins character and puzzle over a penguin in a canoe.

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In 1936 a Russian family retreated into the Siberian forest, where they lived in complete isolation for 42 years.

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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 through winter temperatures of 40 below zero. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll meet the Lykov family, whose religious beliefs committed them to "the greatest solitude on the earth."

We'll also learn about Esperanto's role in a Spanish prison break and puzzle over a self-incriminating murderer.

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How Allied prisoners used a Ouija board to escape a Turkish prison camp in World War I

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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 escape of Harry Jones and Cedric Hill, which one observer called “the most colossal fake of modern times.”

We'll also consider a cactus' role in World War II and puzzle over a cigar-smoking butler.

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Oklahoma outlaw Elmer McCurdy had a career that lasted 100 years -- two-thirds of it as a corpse.

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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 country ever since. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll trace the postmortem odyssey of Elmer McCurdy, "the bandit who wouldn't give up."

We'll also reflect on a Dutch artist's disappearance and puzzle over some mysterious hospital deaths.

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The love affair that inspired the Rolls Royce hood ornament

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Could a dead Gettysburg soldier be identified by the photograph he held?

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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 of one Philadelphia physician to track down the lost man's family using only the image of his children.

We'll also sample a 9-year-old's comedy of manners and puzzle over a letter that copies itself.

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The story of Donald Crowhurst, who tried to fake sailing around the world in 1968.

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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 this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe the desperate measures that Crowhurst turned to as events spiraled out of his control.

We'll also get some updates on Japanese fire balloons and puzzle over a computer that turns on the radio.

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