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Futility Closet

Jul 3, 2017

Birmingham, England, faced a surprising crisis in 1889: A lion escaped a traveling menagerie and took up residence in the city's sewers, terrifying the local population. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll descend into the tunnels with Frank Bostock, the 21-year-old manager who set out to capture the desperate beast.

We'll also revisit a cosmic mystery and puzzle over an incomprehensible language.


Historian Bell Wiley collected the misspellings of Confederate soldiers.

The minuet in Haydn's Piano Sonata in A Major is a palindrome.

Sources for our feature on the Birmingham lion escape:

"The Escape of Lions From the Menagerie at Birmingham," Graphic, Oct. 5, 1889, 412.

"A Lion Hunt in Birmingham," Graphic 40:1036 (Oct. 5, 1889), 407.

"Hunting a Lion in a Sewer," New York Times, Oct. 20, 1889, 9.

"Lion Hunting in Birmingham," Scientific American Supplement, No. 724 (Nov. 16, 1889), 11568.

"Lion-Hunting in Birmingham," Poverty Bay (New Zealand) Herald, 16:5625 (Nov. 21, 1889), 3.

Frank Charles Bostock, The Training of Wild Animals, 1903.

Frank C. Bostock and H.J. Shepstone, "A Lion-Hunt in a Sewer," Wide World Magazine 21:126 (October 1908), 523-529.

Frank C. Bostock, "The Tightest Corner I Was Ever In," Boys' Life 1:4 (June 1911), 44-46.

Will Oliphant, "The Lion Tamer of Birmingham," Birmingham Evening Mail, July 31, 2010, 3.

Helen Cowie, "Philadelphia Zebras: Six Great Animal Escapes of the Victorian Era," Independent, Nov. 17, 2015.

Ben Hurst, "Panic on Streets as Circus Lion Runs Free," Birmingham Evening Mail, Nov. 27, 2015.

Bethan Bell, "When a Lion Prowled the Streets of Birmingham," BBC News, May 14, 2017.

"A terrific fight took place between the two animals." From Wide World Magazine.

Listener mail:

Jesse Emspak, "Has Mysterious Signal From Space Finally Been Explained?" NBC News, June 14, 2017.

"The 'Wow!' Signal," Center for Planetary Science (accessed June 30, 2017).

Rachel Premack, "Why Korean Companies Are Forcing Their Workers to Go by English Names," Washington Post, May 12, 2007.

This week's lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Steven Jones.

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Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at Thanks for listening!