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Futility Closet

Oct 22, 2018

In 1882, a mysterious man using a false name married and murdered a well-to-do widow in Essex County, New York. While awaiting the gallows he composed poems, an autobiography, and six enigmatic cryptograms that have never been solved. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll examine the strange case of Henry Debosnys, whose true identity remains a mystery.

We'll also consider children's food choices and puzzle over a surprising footrace.


In 1972 two Canadian scientists set out to figure the number of monsters in Loch Ness.

Winston Churchill's country home must always maintain a marmalade cat named Jock.

Sources for our feature on Henry Debosnys:

Cheri L. Farnsworth, Adirondack Enigma, 2010.

Craig P. Bauer, Unsolved!, 2017.

George Levi Brown, Pleasant Valley: A History of Elizabethtown, Essex County, New York, 1905.

Caroline Halstead Barton Royce, Bessboro: A History of Westport, Essex Co., N.Y., 1902.

"Debosnys Ciphers," The Cipher Foundation (accessed Oct. 7, 2018).

Craig P. Bauer, "When Killers Leave Ciphers,", Nov. 14, 2017.

Nick Pelling, "Henry Debosnys and the Cimbria ... ?" Cipher Mysteries, Nov. 16, 2015.

Nick Pelling, "Thoughts on the Debosnys Ciphers ..." Cipher Mysteries, Nov. 7, 2015.

Nick Pelling, "The Person Not on the S.S.Cimbria ..." Cipher Mysteries, Nov. 17, 2015.

"Guilty of Wife Murder," [Washington D.C.] National Republican, March 8, 1883.

"Hangman's Day," [Wilmington, Del.] Daily Republican, April 28, 1883.

"A Murderer's Story," Burlington [Vt.] Weekly Free Press, Nov. 24, 1882.

"A Wife's Fearful Death," New York Times, Aug. 6, 1882.

"A Remarkable Man Hanged," New York Times, April 28, 1883.

The Troy Times of Nov. 23, 1882, had noted, "The prisoner spends his time writing verses, or what he thinks is poetry, and he has over a ream of foolscap paper closely written. Much of this doggerel is written in Latin, French, and an unknown cipher, which Debosnys says is used in Europe quite extensively." These six cryptograms came to light in 1957 -- none has been solved:

Listener mail:

August Skalweit, Die Deutsche Kriegsernährungswirtschaft, 1927.

Emma Beckett, "Food Fraud Affects Many Supermarket Staples, So How Do You Choose the Good Stuff?" ABC, Sept. 3, 2018.

Stephen Strauss, "Clara M. Davis and the Wisdom of Letting Children Choose Their Own Diets," Canadian Medical Association Journal 175:10 (Nov. 7, 2006), 1199–1201.

Benjamin Scheindlin, "'Take One More Bite for Me': Clara Davis and the Feeding of Young Children," Gastronomica 5:1 (Winter 2005), 65-69.

Clara M. Davis, "Results of the Self-Selection of Diets by Young Children," Canadian Medical Association Journal 41:3 (September 1939), 257.

This week's lateral thinking puzzle was inspired by an item on the podcast No Such Thing as a Fish. Here are two corroborating links (warning -- these spoil the puzzle).

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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!