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Futility Closet

Dec 17, 2018


In 1950, four patriotic Scots broke in to Westminster Abbey to steal the Stone of Scone, a symbol of Scottish independence that had lain there for 600 years. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow the memorable events of that evening and their meaning for the participants, their nation, and the United Kingdom.

We'll also evade a death ray and puzzle over Santa's correspondence.


In the 1920s Massachusetts mechanical engineer Elis Stenman fashioned a house out of pressed newspaper.

Julijonas Urbonas' Euthanasia Coaster is designed to kill its riders.

Sources for our story on the Stone of Scone:

Ian Hamilton, The Taking of the Stone of Destiny, 1991.

Warwick Rodwell, The Coronation Chair and Stone of Scone, 2013.

Ian Hamilton, "How We Stole the Stone of Scone," Life, May 14, 1951, 141-153.

Antonia Kearton, "Imagining the 'Mongrel Nation': Political Uses of History in the Recent Scottish Nationalist Movement," National Identities 7:1 (March 2005), 23-50.

H.J. Hanham, "The Scottish Nation Faces the Post-Imperial World," International Journal 23:4 (December 1, 1968).

"Stone of Scone Thief Questions," Times, Dec. 21, 2015, 8.

Victoria Ward, "Stone of Scone 'Should Not Automatically Be Loaned to England for Next Coronation,'" Telegraph, Dec. 20, 2015.

"Kay Matheson: Obituaries Teacher and Ardent Nationalist Who Helped 'Reclaim' the Stone of Scone From Westminster Abbey," Daily Telegraph, July 15, 2013, 25.

"Woman Who Took Stone of Destiny Back to Scotland Dies," BBC News, July 8, 2013.

Olga Craig, "Ian Hamilton on Stone of Destiny: I Felt I Was Holding Scotland's Soul," Telegraph, Dec. 14, 2008.

Auslan Cramb, "Stone of Destiny Is Fake, Claims Alex Salmond," Telegraph, June 16, 2008.

Gillian Bowditch, "Stone Reunion in Hamilton's Destiny," Sunday Times, Nov. 4, 2007, 5.

"Obituary of Gavin Vernon," Daily Telegraph, March 26, 2004, 29.

"Took Part in Stone of Scone Theft," Montreal Gazette, March 26, 2004, E8.

Joanne Laucius, "Repatriation of Stone of Scone Is a Story Prankster Scotsman Gavin Vernon Brought to Canada and Leaves Behind Upon His Death," CanWest News, March 25, 2004, 1.

Jim Gilchrist, "Stone That Stole Nation's Heart," Scotsman, Dec. 9, 2000, 11.

Michael Fry, "A Dark Date With Destiny," [Glasgow] Herald, Sept. 2, 1999, 19.

Jack O'Sullivan, "Where Does the Real Stone of Scone Lie?", Independent, July 9, 1999.

Michael White, "Stone of Scone Going Home After 700 Years," Guardian, July 4, 1996.

Gillian Bowditch, "Unsolved Riddle of the Real Relic," Times, July 4, 1996, 1.

Archibald Rollo, "The Christmas They Stole the Stone of Destiny," Vancouver Sun, Dec. 24, 1993, E1.

"London Police Foil Effort to Take Stone of Scone," New York Times, Sept. 5, 1974.

"Stone of Scone Put Back in Royal Chair in Abbey," New York Times, June 2, 1953.

"Stone of Scone Guarded; Scotland Yard Takes Precaution at Westminster Abbey," New York Times, Dec. 26, 1952.

"Scots Call for Stone of Scone," New York Times, April 28, 1952.

"Medieval Tourney Urged," New York Times, March 29, 1952.

"Stone of Scone Restored Quietly," New York Times, Feb. 27, 1952.

"Stone of Scone Case Off," Associated Press, April 20, 1951.

"Coronation Stone Back in London," New York Times, April 14, 1951.

"Scots Press Drive to Keep Stone of Scone," New York Times, April 13, 1951.

Clifton Daniel, "Scots Surrender Stone of Scone," New York Times, April 12, 1951.

Clifton Daniel, "Stone of Scone Thieves Traced, But Scotland Yard Delays Arrests," New York Times, April 3, 1951.

"Clue to Stone of Scone," New York Times, Feb. 1, 1951.

"Stone Clue Stirs Scots," New York Times, Dec. 31, 1950.

"Scotch on the Rock," New York Times, Dec. 31, 1950.

"New 'Confession' in Stone of Scone Theft," New York Times, Dec. 30, 1950.

"London Lake Is Dragged," New York Times, Dec. 29, 1950.

"Wristwatch Held Abbey Theft Clue," New York Times, Dec. 28, 1950.

"The Stone of Scone," New York Times, Dec. 27, 1950.

"Theft of Stone of Scone Still Puzzle as Police Uncover Only 3 Initials," New York Times, Dec. 27, 1950.

"Coronation Stone Is Stolen From Westminster Abbey," New York Times, Dec. 26, 1950.

P.J. Philip, "Coronation Stone Is Back in Westminster," New York Times, April 9, 1946.

Listener mail:

Wikipedia, "Sarah T. Hughes" (accessed Dec. 8, 2018).

Wikipedia, "First Inauguration of Lyndon B. Johnson" (accessed Dec. 8, 2018).

Wikipedia, "Calvin Coolidge: Presidency" (accessed Dec. 10, 2018).

Harry Rosehill, "The Walkie Talkie Death Ray Could Actually Have Killed Someone," Londonist, Nov. 23, 2018.

Jiajie Zhu, Wolfram Jahn, and Guillermo Rein, "Computer Simulation of Sunlight Concentration Due to Fa├žade Shape: Application to the 2013 Death Ray at Fenchurch Street, London," Journal of Building Performance Simulation, Nov. 22, 2018.

Sixty Symbols, "How to Melt Cars and BBQ Pigeons," Sept. 4, 2013.

Rose Palazzolo, "British Sculpture Could Fry Birds," ABC News, March 7, 2018.

Davidson Institute, "Solar Furnace," Dec. 25, 2014 (turn on "CC" to see English captions).

This week's lateral thinking puzzle was devised by Sharon based on an item in Dan Lewis' Now I Know newsletter. Here are three corroborating links (warning -- these spoil the puzzle).

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