In the 1870s, enormous swarms of grasshoppers beset pioneers on the American plains

In the 1870s, new farmsteads on the American plains were beset by enormous swarms of grasshoppers sweeping eastward from the Rocky Mountains. The insects were a disaster for vulnerable farmers, attacking in enormous numbers and devouring everything before them. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe the grasshopper plagues and the settlers' struggles against them.

We'll also delve into urban legends and puzzle over some vanishing children.

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In 1828, Ann Marten began to have disturbing dreams about her missing stepdaughter's whereabouts

When Maria Marten disappeared from the English village of Polstead in 1827, her lover said that they had married and were living on the Isle of Wight. But Maria's stepmother began having disturbing dreams that hinted at a much grimmer fate. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of the Red Barn, which transfixed Britain in the early 19th century.

We'll also encounter an unfortunate copycat and puzzle over some curious births.

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In 1952, New Zealander Tom Neale set out to live alone on a desert island

In 1952, New Zealander Tom Neale set out to establish a solitary life for himself on a remote island in the South Pacific. In all he would spend 17 years there, building a fulfilling life fending entirely for himself. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe Neale's adventures on the island and his impressions of an isolated existence.

We'll also revisit Scunthorpe and puzzle over a boat's odd behavior.

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In 1896, Helga Estby set out to win $10,000 by walking across the United States

In 1896, Norwegian immigrant Helga Estby faced the foreclosure of her family's Washington farm. To pay the debt she accepted a wager to walk across the United States within seven months. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow her daring bid to win the prize, and its surprising consequence.

We'll also toast Edgar Allan Poe and puzzle over a perplexing train.

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Grey Owl, the world's best-known conservationist in the 1930s, turned out not to be who he'd claimed

In the 1930s the world's best-known conservationist was an ex-trapper named Grey Owl who wrote and lectured ardently for the preservation of the Canadian wilderness. At his death, though, it was discovered that he wasn't who he'd claimed to be. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of his curious history and complicated legacy.

We'll also learn how your father can be your uncle and puzzle over a duplicate record.

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Britain's most remote community gave up their unique way of life in 1930

1930 saw the quiet conclusion of a remarkable era. The tiny population of St. Kilda, an isolated Scottish archipelago, decided to end their thousand-year tenure as the most remote community in Britain and move to the mainland. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe the remarkable life they'd shared on the island and the reasons they chose to leave.

We'll also track a stork to Sudan and puzzle over the uses of tea trays.

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In 1907, hunter Jim Corbett stalked a Nepalese tiger that had killed 434 people

At the turn of the 20th century, a rogue tiger terrorized the villages of Nepal and northern India. By the time British hunter Jim Corbett was called in, it had killed 434 people. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe Corbett's pursuit of the elusive cat, and his enlightened efforts to address the source of the problem.

We'll also revisit a Confederate spy and puzzle over a bloody ship.

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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.

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In the winter of 1931, a mysterious fugitive led police on a 300-kilometer chase through northern Canada

In the winter of 1931, a dramatic manhunt unfolded in northern Canada when a reclusive trapper shot a constable and fled across the frigid landscape. In the chase that followed the mysterious fugitive amazed his pursuers with his almost superhuman abilities. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe the hunt for the "Mad Trapper of Rat River."

We'll also visit a forgotten windbreak and puzzle over a father's age.

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Socialite Rose O'Neal Greenhow was a surprising spy for the Confederacy

As the Civil War fractured Washington D.C., socialite Rose O'Neal Greenhow coordinated a vital spy ring to funnel information to her beloved Confederates. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe Greenhow's courage and resourcefulness, which won praise from Jefferson Davis and notoriety in the North.

We'll also fragment the queen's birthday and puzzle over a paid game of pinball.

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In 1965, a retired truck driver was convicted of one of the greatest art heists in British history

In 1961, Goya's famous portrait of the Duke of Wellington went missing from London's National Gallery. The case went unsolved for four years before someone unexpectedly came forward to confess to the heist. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe one of the greatest art thefts in British history and the surprising twists that followed.

We'll also discover Seward's real folly and puzzle over a man's motherhood.

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Frances Glessner Lee created miniature death scenes to train investigators in the 1940s

In the 1940s, Frances Glessner Lee brought new rigor to crime scene analysis with a curiously quaint tool: She designed 20 miniature scenes of puzzling deaths and challenged her students to investigate them analytically. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death and their importance to modern investigations.

We'll also appreciate an overlooked sled dog and puzzle over a shrunken state.

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In 1909, Alice Ramsey set out to cross the United States by car

In 1909, 22-year-old Alice Huyler Ramsey set out to become the first woman to drive across the United States. In an era of imperfect cars and atrocious roads, she would have to find her own way and undertake her own repairs across 3,800 miles of rugged, poorly mapped terrain. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow Ramsey on her historic journey.

We'll also ponder the limits of free speech and puzzle over some banned candy.

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In 1822, a desperate band of convicts fleeing a Tasmanian penal colony ended up resorting to cannibalism

In 1822, Irish thief Alexander Pearce joined seven convicts fleeing a penal colony in western Tasmania. As they struggled eastward through some of the most inhospitable terrain on Earth, starvation pressed the party into a series of grim sacrifices. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow the prisoners on their nightmarish bid for freedom.

We'll also unearth another giant and puzzle over an eagle's itinerary.

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In 1902, scam artist Cassie Chadwick claimed to be the illegitimate daughter of Andrew Carnegie

In 1902, scam artist Cassie Chadwick convinced an Ohio lawyer that she was the illegitimate daughter of steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. She parlayed this reputation into a life of unthinkable extravagance -- until her debts came due. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe Chadwick's efforts to maintain the ruse -- and how she hoped to get away with it.

We'll also encounter a haunted tomb and puzzle over an exonerated merchant.

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In 1978, Kim Jong-Il abducted two South Korean cinema stars to make films in North Korea

In 1978, two luminaries of South Korean cinema were abducted by Kim Jong-Il and forced to make films in North Korea in an outlandish plan to improve his country's fortunes. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of Choi Eun-Hee and Shin Sang-Ok and their dramatic efforts to escape their captors.

We'll also examine Napoleon's wallpaper and puzzle over an abandoned construction.

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Examining the generational loss of ancient Halloween traditions

Halloween, like many modern American holidays, is a kind of mashup of different cultural traditional traditions rooted in the autumnal harvest, and some kind of celebration or connection with the spirit world. You see it in Mexico with Dia de los Muertos; and in pre-Christian Ireland, it was Oíche Shamhna ("Shamna" being the genitive form of "Samhain," which is pronounced kind of like "SOW-un," and actually just means "November").

An episode of The Irish Passport podcast takes a close look at the roots of those Gaelic traditions, and the kind of generation loss that happened when it was exported to the United States, and then re-imported back to Ireland. The result is kind of fun-house-mirror reflection of itself—modern Irish imitating a mutated American imitation of older Irish traditions. You'll also get to learn a bit about how the faeryfolk in Ireland, the Aos Sídhe, still play an active role in modern real estate development in the Republic (yes really).

Just below the surface of modern Ireland, a parallel world exists with its roots in pre-Christian belief. Irish fairies aren’t like Tinkerbell—they’re more like a supernatural mafia. So be careful what you say, because as the story goes, they’re probably listening. Tim talks to one of Ireland’s last seanchaí or story-teller historians, who once managed to get a highway diverted to prevent the felling of a fairy bush. We also hear about modern traditions from the streets of Galway as the Celtic New Year Samhain festival is underway.

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