In 1631, Barbary pirates abducted 107 people from an Irish village and forced them into a life of slavery

One night in 1631, pirates from the Barbary coast stole ashore at the little Irish village of Baltimore and abducted 107 people to a life of slavery in Algiers -- a rare instance of African raiders seizing white slaves from the British Isles. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe the sack of Baltimore and the new life that awaited the captives in North Africa.

We'll also save the Tower of London and puzzle over a controversial number.

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The amazing career of Ferdinand Demara, "The Great Impostor"

Ferdinand Demara earned his reputation as the Great Impostor: For over 22 years he criss-crossed the country, posing as everything from an auditor to a zoologist and stealing a succession of identities to fool his employers. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll review Demara's motivation, morality, and techniques -- and the charismatic spell he seemed to cast over others.

We'll also make Big Ben strike 13 and puzzle over a movie watcher's cat.

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The colonialism behind fantasy's vaguely Irish Elves

Motherfoclóir is a delightful podcast about language and linguistics as they relate to Ireland ("foclóir" being the Irish word for "dictionary," and thus completely unrelated to that homophonic English-language word you're surely thinking of, c'mon). While that might seem like a niche topic outside of the Emerald Isle herself, a recent episode tackled something that's surely on everyone's mind: those fantastical pointy-eared aristocrats known only as elves.

Specifically, it's a conversation with Irish writer Orla Ní Dhúill, whose blog about elves, Irishness, and colonialism gained a lot of traction among fantasy fans across the globe.

Growing up as a nerdy Irish-American kid, I always understood there to be something vaguely Gael-ish about elves. Even though I didn't know why. Even though I knew it didn't make sense. Even though I knew that Tolkien himself was not particularly fond of the Irish (the language, at least, if not the people). Was it because they used an cló gaelach, the insular font so often associated with Irish Gaelic? Even in my later adolescence, as I wasted my measly weekend job wages on Warhammer 40K, I couldn't help but notice the inherent Irishness in the names and terms of the mystical Eldar alien race who are basically space elves anyway (spoiler: it turns out the Eldar language is, in fact, mostly just bastardized lines from Irish Gaelic proverbs).

The podcast episode is full of insightful exchanges on language and colonialism between Ní Dhúill and host Peader Kavanagh. You can listen below, or on your preferred podcasting platform. Read the rest

Detective novelist Arthur Upfield invented the perfect murder, then watched a killer adopt it

In 1929, detective novelist Arthur Upfield wanted to devise the perfect murder, so he started a discussion among his friends in Western Australia. He was pleased with their solution -- until local workers began disappearing, as if the book were coming true. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe the Murchison murders, a disturbing case of life imitating art.

We'll also incite a revolution and puzzle over a perplexing purchase.

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Seven lateral thinking puzzles

Here are seven 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 1800s, Britain grew a thousand-mile hedge across India

In the 19th century, an enormous hedge ran for more than a thousand miles across India, installed by the British to enforce a tax on salt. Though it took a Herculean effort to build, today it's been almost completely forgotten. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe this strange project and reflect on its disappearance from history.

We'll also exonerate a rooster and puzzle over a racing murderer.

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In 1868 a Scottish castaway had to make a new life among the people of the Solomon Islands

In 1868, Scottish sailor Jack Renton found himself the captive of a native people in the Solomon Islands, but through luck and skill he rose to become a respected warrior among them. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of Renton's life among the saltwater people and his return to the Western world.

We'll also catch some more speeders and puzzle over a regrettable book.

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Richard Proenneke lived alone for 30 years in the Alaskan wilderness in a cabin he built himself

In 1968, Richard Proenneke left his career as a heavy equipment operator and took up an entirely new existence. He flew to a remote Alaskan lake, built a log cabin by hand, and began a life of quiet self-reliance. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll hear Proenneke's reflections on a simple life lived in harmony with nature.

We'll also put a rooster on trial and puzzle over a curious purchase.

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Using literature to retain your humanity in a Soviet prison camp

Confined in a Soviet prison camp in 1941, Polish painter Józef Czapski chose a unique way to cope: He lectured to the other prisoners on Marcel Proust's novel In Search of Lost Time. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe Czapski's ambitious project and the surprising importance of literature to the prisoners of oppressive regimes.

We'll also race some lemons and puzzle over a woman's birthdays.

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In 1840 London was scandalized when Lord William Russell was found dead in bed with his throat cut

In May 1840 London was scandalized by the murder of Lord William Russell, who'd been found in his bed with his throat cut. The evidence seemed to point to an intruder, but suspicion soon fell on Russell's valet. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow the investigation and trial, and the late revelation that decided the case.

We'll also marvel at Ireland's greenery and puzzle over a foiled kidnapping.

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In 1934, two women set out to travel the length of Africa by motorcycle

In 1934, two Englishwomen set out to do what no one had ever done before: travel the length of Africa on a motorcycle. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow Theresa Wallach and Florence Blenkiron from Algiers to Cape Town on a 14,000-mile adventure that many had told them was impossible.

We'll also anticipate some earthquakes and puzzle over a daughter's age.

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An 1849 dispute between two actors led to one of the bloodiest riots in New York history

The second-bloodiest riot in the history of New York was touched off by a dispute between two Shakespearean actors. Their supporters started a brawl that killed as many as 30 people and changed the institution of theater in American society. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of the Astor Place riot, "one of the strangest episodes in dramatic history."

We'll also fertilize a forest and puzzle over some left-handed light bulbs.

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In 1855, a band of London thieves pulled off the first great train robbery

In 1855 a band of London thieves set their sights on a new target: the South Eastern Railway, which carried gold bullion to the English coast. The payoff could be enormous, but the heist would require meticulous planning. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of the first great train robbery, one of the most audacious crimes of the 19th century.

We'll also jump into the record books and puzzle over a changing citizen.

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Crowdfunding a picture book about resisting surveillance

Murray Hunter writes, "I'm a digital rights activist in South Africa - I've written and illustrated a silly, subversive kid's book about the Big Data industry, and a squiggly, wiggly robot sent out to track and profile all the babies. It's not an 'eat your vegetables' kind of book: all I wanted to do was tell a story that could delight young kids (ages 3-5) while also inviting them to imagine for the first time a secret and hidden world of data collection. I don't think it's been done yet, and - well, why not? I've just launched a crowdfunding campaign to publish it in hardcover and thought it might pique the interest of a few happy mutants. Read the rest

During World War II, an isolated sledge patrol in Greenland came upon a secret team of Germans

In 1943 an isolated sledge patrol came upon a secret German weather station in northeastern Greenland. The discovery set off a series of dramatic incidents that unfolded across 400 miles of desolate coast. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow this arctic struggle, an often overlooked drama of World War II.

We'll also catch some speeders and puzzle over a disastrous remedy.

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For 90 years, fortune hunters have been seeking a legendary outcrop of gold in the Australian desert

In 1930 Harold Lasseter claimed he'd discovered an enormous deposit of gold in the remote interior of Australia, and a small group of men set off into the punishing desert in search of a fortune estimated at 66 million pounds. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of Lasseter's reef, one of the most enduring legends of the Australian outback.

We'll also reconsider the mortality rates of presidents and puzzle over an unlocked door.

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In 1914, 132 Newfoundland sealers were trapped on the ice during a blizzard

In 1914, 132 sealers found themselves stranded on a North Atlantic icefield as a bitter blizzard approached. Thinly dressed and with little food, they faced a harrowing night on the ice. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of the Newfoundland sealing disaster, one of the most dramatic chapters in Canadian maritime history.

We'll also meet another battlefield dog and puzzle over a rejected necklace.

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