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Futility Closet

Jun 3, 2019

In 1830 Joseph Palmer created an odd controversy in Fitchburg, Massachusetts: He wore a beard when beards were out of fashion. For this social sin he was shunned, attacked, and ultimately jailed. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of a bizarre battle against irrational prejudice.

We'll also see whether a computer can understand knitting and puzzle over an unrewarded long jump.


Prospector William Schmidt dug through California's Copper Mountain.

The bees of Bradfield, South Yorkshire, are customarily informed of funerals.

Sources for our feature on Joseph Palmer:

Stewart Holbrook, "The Beard of Joseph Palmer," American Scholar 13:4 (Autumn 1944), 451-458.

Paul Della Valle, Massachusetts Troublemakers: Rebels, Reformers, and Radicals From the Bay State, 2009.

John Matteson, Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father, 2010.

Richard Corson, Fashions in Hair: The First Five Thousand Years, 2001.

Stewart H. Holbrook, Lost Men of American History, 1947.

Zechariah Chafee, Freedom of Speech, 1920.

Clara Endicott Sears and Louisa May Alcott, Bronson Alcott's Fruitlands, 1915.

George Willis Cooke, Ralph Waldo Emerson: His Life, Writings, and Philosophy, 1881.

Octavius Brooks Frothingham, Theodore Parker: A Biography, 1874.

Louisa May Alcott, Transcendental Wild Oats, 1873.

Joseph J. Thorndike Jr., "Fruitlands," American Heritage 37:2 (February/March 1986).

David Demaree, "Growing the Natural Man: The Hirsute Face in the Antebellum North," American Nineteenth Century History 18:2 (June 2017), 159–176.

Richard E. Meyer, "'Pardon Me for Not Standing': Modern American Graveyard Humor," in Peter Narváez, ed., Of Corpse: Death and Humor in Folkore and Popular Culture, 2003.

J. Joseph Edgette, "The Epitaph and Personality Revelation," in Richard E. Meyer, ed., Cemeteries and Gravemarkers: Voices of American Culture, 1989.

Herbert Moller, "The Accelerated Development of Youth: Beard Growth as a Biological Marker," Comparative Studies in Society and History 29:4 (October 1987), 748-762.

Carl Watner, "Those 'Impossible Citizens': Civil Resistants in 19th Century New England," Journal of Libertarian Studies 3:2 (1980), 170-193.

Ari Hoogenboom, "What Really Caused the Civil War?", Wisconsin Magazine of History 44:1 (Autumn 1960), 3-5.

Richard Gehman, "Beards Stage a Comeback," Saturday Evening Post 231:20 (Nov. 15, 1958), 40-108.

Stewart H. Holbrook, "Lost Men of American History," Life 22:2 (Jan. 13, 1947), 81-92.

George Hodges, "The Liberty of Difference," Atlantic Monthly 117:6 (June 1916), 784-793.

James Anderson, "'Fruitlands,' Historic Alcott Home Restored," Table Talk 30:12 (December 1915), 664-670.

Marion Sothern, "'Fruitlands': The New England Homestead of the Alcotts," Book News Monthly 33:2 (October 1914), 65-68.

Rick Gamble, "Speaking From the Grave Through Monuments," [Brantford, Ont.] Expositor, Feb. 23, 2019, D.2.

James Sullivan, "Beard Brains: A Historian Uncovers the Roots of Men's Facial Hair," Boston Globe, Jan. 1, 2016, G.8.

Kimberly Winston, "When Is Facial Hair a Sign of Faith?", Washington Post, Oct. 11, 2014, B.2.

Christopher Klein, "Pulling for the Beards," Boston Globe, Nov. 2, 2013, V.30.

"Shared History: Whisker Rebellion Whets Writer's Curiosity," [Worcester, Mass.] Telegram & Gazette, Jan. 27, 2009, E.1.

William Loeffler, "Facial Hair Has Said a Lot About a Man," McClatchy-Tribune Business News, Oct. 26, 2008.

Paul Galloway, "A Shave With History: Tracking Civilization Through Facial Hair," Chicago Tribune, July 28, 1999, 1.

Billy Porterfield, "Bearded Abolitionist Set Fad on Both Sides of Mason-Dixon," Austin American Statesman, Jan. 19, 1990, B1.

"Very Set in His Ways," Bridgeport [Conn.] Evening Farmer, Oct. 26, 1916, 9.

"Man's Beard Cause of Jeers," [Mountain Home, Idaho] Republican, Jan. 9, 1906.

"'Persecuted for Wearing the Beard': The Hirsute Life and Death of Joseph Palmer," Slate, April 16, 2015.

"Joseph Palmer, Fashion Criminal, Persecuted for Wearing a Beard," New England Historical Society (accessed May 19, 2019).

Listener mail:

Wikipedia, "TX-0" (accessed May 24, 2019).

Wendy Lee, "Can a Computer Write a Script? Machine Learning Goes Hollywood," Los Angeles Times, April 11, 2019.

Sean Keane, "First AI-Scripted Commercial Tugs Hard at Our Heart Strings -- for a Lexus," CNET, Nov. 19, 2018

Reece Medway, "Lexus Europe Creates World's Most Intuitive Car Ad With IBM Watson," IBM, Nov. 19, 2018.

Janelle Shane, "Skyknit: When Knitters Teamed Up With a Neural Network," AI Weirdness, 2018.

Alexis C. Madrigal, "SkyKnit: How an AI Took Over an Adult Knitting Community," Atlantic, March 6, 2018.

This week's lateral thinking puzzle was suggested by one that appeared in 2005 on the National Public Radio program Car Talk, contributed by their listener David Johnson.

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

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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!