Preview Mode Links will not work in preview mode

Futility Closet

Jan 7, 2019

In 1917, a munitions ship exploded in Halifax, Nova Scotia, devastating the city and shattering the lives of its citizens. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow the events of the disaster, the largest man-made explosion before Hiroshima, and the grim and heroic stories of its victims.

We'll also consider the dangers of cactus plugging and puzzle over why a man would agree to be assassinated.


In 1989 an unmanned Soviet MiG-23 flew all the way from Poland to Belgium.

In 1793 architect Sir James Hall fashioned a model of Westminster Abbey from rods of willow.

Sources for our story on the Halifax explosion:

John U. Bacon, The Great Halifax Explosion, 2017.

Laura M. Mac Donald, Curse of the Narrows, 2005.

Ken Cuthbertson, "The Horrors of the Halifax Explosion," Queen's Quarterly 125:4 (Winter 2018), 510-529.

Joseph Scanlon, "Dealing With Mass Death After a Community Catastrophe: Handling Bodies After the 1917 Halifax Explosion," Disaster Prevention and Management 7:4 (1998), 288-304.

Jesse N. Bradley, "The December 6, 1917, Halifax Explosion Was the Largest Man-Made Non-Nuclear Blast in History," Military History 19:5 (December 2002), 16.

Chryssa N. McAlister et al., "The Halifax Disaster (1917): Eye Injuries and Their Care," British Journal of Ophthalmology, 91:6 (June 2007), 832-835.

Meagan Campbell, "The Luckiest Man in Canada," Maclean's 130:2 (March 2017), 14-15.

Marc Wortman, "A Newly Discovered Diary Tells the Harrowing Story of the Deadly Halifax Explosion,", July 14, 2017.

Canadian Encyclopedia, "Halifax Explosion" (accessed 12/24/2018).

"Halifax Explosion," Nova Scotia Legislature (accessed 12/24/2018).

Bertram Chambers, "Halifax Explosion," Naval Review 8 [1920], 445-457.

"The Work of Rehabilitating Halifax," Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen's Magazine 64:2 (Jan. 15, 1918), 18.

"The Halifax Disaster Brings the Hazards of War Close to American Citizens," Current Opinion 64:1 (January 1918), 4-6.

"The Halifax Disaster of December 6, 1917, in Its Relation to Blindness," Proceedings, American Association of Instructors of the Blind 24th Biennial Convention, 55-58.

Will Ashton, "Tales of a Forgotten Disaster: Before Hiroshima, There Was Halifax," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 3, 2018, D-6.

Ian Austen, "The Halifax Explosion and Au Revoir to Hi: The Canada Letter," New York Times, Dec. 8, 2017.

Steve Hendrix, "Two Ships Collided in Halifax Harbor. One of Them Was a Floating, 3,000-Ton Bomb," Washington Post, Dec. 6, 2017.

Ian Austen, "Century After Halifax’s Great Explosion, City Marks Anniversary," New York Times, Dec. 6, 2017.

Dean Jobb, "The Halifax Explosion Still Reverberates," Globe and Mail, Dec. 2, 2017, 27.

Brett Bundale, "The Silence After the Blast: How the Halifax Explosion Was Nearly Forgotten," Canadian Press, Nov. 30, 2017.

"Survivors Mark Halifax Explosion," North Bay [Ontario] Nugget, Dec. 7, 2005, A8.

"Halifax Bomb Likely Relic of 1917 Explosion Bomb Found in Harbour Probably Came From Munitions Ship That Triggered Massive Halifax Explosion," [Moncton, N.B.] Times & Transcript, April 27, 1999.

Graeme Hamilton, "Lost in a Flash: The 1917 Halifax Explosion," [St. Catharines, Ontario] Standard, Dec. 6, 1997, D12.

"The Halifax Explosion," New York Times, May 23, 1995.

"'Unholy Horror' of the Halifax Explosion," Ottawa Citizen, Dec. 6, 1992, E12.

"Capt. Francis Mackey; Pilot of Vessel in the 1917 Halifax Explosion Dies," New York Times, Jan. 1, 1962.

"Halifax Blast Recalled," New York Times, Dec. 7, 1955.

"Joseph Quirk; Halifax Explosion Survivor Had Many Escapes From Death," New York Times, Jan. 15, 1940.

"Prince of Wales Sees Halifax Ruins," New York Times, Aug. 19, 1919.

"Commander Wyatt Held," New York Times, March 21, 1918.

"Appeal for Halifax Blind," New York Times, Jan. 27, 1918.

"Halifax Buries 200 Dead," New York Times, Dec. 18, 1917.

"Fund for Halifax Blind," New York Times, Dec. 16, 1917.

"Halifax Death Roll Is Fixed at 1,266," New York Times, Dec. 13, 1917.

"Halifax Appeals for $25,000,000 to Aid Victims," New York Times, Dec. 10, 1917.

"Americans Escape Death at Halifax," New York Times, Dec. 10, 1917.

"Prevented Second Halifax Explosion," New York Times, Dec. 10, 1917.

"German Citizens of Halifax Are Being Arrested," Berkeley (Calif.) Daily Gazette, Dec. 10, 1917.

"Halifax Now Counts Its Dead at 4,000," New York Times, Dec. 9, 1917.

"Richmond an Appalling Waste After Explosion and Fires," New York Times, Dec. 9, 1917.

"Fragments Hurled 5 Miles," New York Times, Dec. 9, 1917.

"The Halifax Horror," New York Times, Dec. 8, 1917.

"Blizzard Adds to the Halifax Horror," New York Times, Dec. 8, 1917.

"Carried 2,800 Tons of Explosives," New York Times, Dec. 8, 1917.

"Call Scene Worse Than Battlefield," New York Times, Dec. 8, 1917.

"Halifax Thought of German Shelling as Shock Came," New York Times, Dec. 7, 1917.

"Disaster in Halifax Kills Thousand People," Daily Alaskan, Dec. 6, 1917.

"Dead and Dying Line Streets of Halifax After an Explosion," Alaska Daily Empire, Dec. 6, 1917.

"100 Years After the Great Halifax Explosion," Morning Edition, National Public Radio, Dec. 6, 2017.

Listener mail:

Stacey Leasca, "So Many Cacti Are Getting Stolen From Arizona's National Park, They're Being Microchipped," Travel + Leisure, March 24, 2018.

Wikipedia, "Saguaro" (accessed Dec. 23, 2018).

Snopes, "Death by Saguaro," Feb. 8, 2015.

"Plant of the Week: Saguaro Cactus," University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service, Dec. 12, 2008.

"Ariz. Man in Intensive Care After Being Pinned by 16-Foot Cactus," CBS News, June 22, 2012.

Matthew Hendley, "Yuma Man Crushed by 16-Foot Cactus Lands in 'Ripley's Believe It or Not,'" Phoenix New Times, Sept. 13, 2013.

Wikipedia, "Liquid-Crystal Display" (accessed Dec. 24, 2018).

Mentour Pilot, "Which Pilot Sunglasses to Buy," Oct. 5, 2017.

Captain Joe, "Why Pilots Can't Wear Polarized Sunglasses," Sept. 7, 2017.

Kyle Wiens, "iPhones are Allergic to Helium,", Oct. 30, 2018.

"Does Helium Break iPhones," iFixit Video, Nov. 2, 2018.

"MEMs Oscillator Sensitivity to Helium (Helium Kills iPhones)," Applied Science, Nov. 18, 2018.

Listener Callie Bunker, her Christmas tree ship sweatshirt, and Chicago's commemorative plaque.

This week's lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Peter Bartholomew. Here are two corroborating links (warning -- these spoil the puzzle). 

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on Google Podcasts, on Apple Podcasts, or via the RSS feed at

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet -- you can choose the amount you want to pledge, and we've set up some rewards to help thank you for your support. You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website. 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!