The Memory Palace

Over 3 years ago, I discovered a podcast called The Memory Palace while searching iTunes for free history shows.  I read the description for the show, looked at the short length of the latest episode and figured I’d give it a go.  The show had episodes as far back as 2008, so it had a nice little catalog of archived episodes if I liked what I heard.  It was three minutes long and I was curious about the breadth of diversity in history podcasts available, so this seemed like an easy choice.  The episode was called “Distance.”

Nate DiMeo, writer and narrator of the show, begins the episode by telling us of the early life of a man named Samuel Finley Breese Morse.  Samuel studied to become a painter, studying the masters and learning the technical skills required to make a painting come alive.  Among his studies, he learned how to paint the illusion of three dimensional space on a two dimensional canvas.  And when he was offered the chance to have the US-bound Marquis de Lafayette sit for a portrait for which he would be commissioned, he decided to seize the opportunity and travel to Washington, leaving his pregnant wife back home in New York.  Upon arriving to Washington, a courier delivered him a message that simply read “Your dear wife is convalescent.”  Samuel quickly traveled day and night to get back to his wife, who had tragically died before the courier had even gotten to Samuel.  He was understandably heartbroken.  DiMeo goes on to detail how for the next forty five years, Samuel Finley Breese Morse spent the rest of his days making sure no one else would ever feel this pain by inventing the telegraph and Morse code.  The episode ends in melancholy, but with a tone of sadness that seems necessary for the progression of the world.  Samuel Morse was surely not the only one to suffer such tragedy before, but he did something no one else had done to stop it from happening again. 

The story is only three minutes long, but in that three minutes you experience myriad emotions.  Wonder and excitement when he’s commissioned to paint the French hero of the Revolution, panic and fear when the courier tells him what’s happened, sadness when Samuel discovers his wife passing, and teary courage upon realizing the gift he gave to the world as a result.  It’s a brilliantly written, perfectly crafted story underscored by background music that helps facilitate the emotion of DiMeo’s words.  It gave me goosebumps; I had to sit down and relisten to it as soon as it was finished because I wanted to hear it all over again.  In short, I was hooked from the first episode I’d listened to and I wanted more.

Three months later, I was delighted to see the show join the Maximum Fun network, of which I was already a sustaining member at that time.  DiMeo released episodes pretty regularly for a bit, but the frequency waned as time went on.  Eventually, the show jumped to Radiotopia, my current favorite network, and it received a new season of episodes (which are currently ongoing).  This seems like a lot better fit for the tone of The Memory Palace with shows like 99% Invisible and Love+Radio backing it up because Radiotopia is, let’s be honest, more intellectually engaging than anything on Max Fun (not to say I don’t absolutely adore Stop Podcasting Yourself and Judge John Hodgman every week, though).  DiMeo even went back and remastered some of his older shows for this new era of The Memory Palace and they sound fantastic.

There are currently over seventy episodes of The Memory Palace to enjoy.  I relistened to all of them yesterday while I painted and picked out my twenty favorite episodes (including “Distance” from above).  If you listen to them all back to back, the total listening time equals out to two hours and twelve minutes, roughly the average length of one normal podcast.  I’ll list each of my favorite episodes below, with brief descriptions and embedded links to the episodes so you can listen to them.  If you’d rather just determine which ones you like the best without my list, feel free to subscribe to The Memory Palace on iTunes or any of the other available podcast routes or visit the official website.  You won’t regret it.


A snake oil salesman in the early 1900’s tried to sell people bogus supplements but got chased out of the country.  When he returned years later, he went on a crusade to try to convince people a super race lived inside the core of the Earth who held the key to the planet’s survival.  He tried so hard to convince people of his theory and ultimately died, shrugged off and forgotten, while trying to prove himself.

Edwin Booth, brother of famous actor John Wilkes Booth and son to the greatest Shakespearean actor in England and the US during the time, tries acting and isn’t very good.  His alcoholic father discourages his acting.  After his father dies, Edwin goes off to hone his skills and eventually becomes the most famous actor in America in 1865 and finally starts living his dream.  Then, his brother murders the president and he’s lost to controversy through association.  The story continues and describes his life thereafter.  Spare a thought for poor Edwin Booth. 

Guglielmo Marconi believes if he built a radio powerful enough, he could hear everything that was ever said.  From Jesus to Julius Caesar to the sound of his children as babies to Nate DiMeo’s grandmother introducing herself to his grandfather in a nightclub in Rhode Island so many years ago.  This particular story continues to resonate, much like Marconi’s theory of sound, beyond final words of the episode.  Quite possibly one of my top three picks for best episode of this entire show.

The 1893 World’s Fair saw the debut of the first Ferris Wheel, a modern marvel that captivated the imaginations of onlookers and exhilarated the riders.  The episode poetically details how it was introduced and how it spent it’s final moments; it ends with a powerful message about our inability to feel something unique ever again.

Sam Patch, the Jersey Jumper, was a mill worker at the age of 7 in the 19th century.  He started jumping off tall things into water as entertainment and it gained him a following.  At the height of his jumping career, he made a particularly daring jump that changed lives.  This story runs the gamut of emotion.

The Hoover Dam was built after seeing 96 worker fatalities and was dedicated in 1943 by FDR.  There’s an Art Deco memorial that is placed on the dam which tells the exact placement of “the heavens” at the time FDR dedicated it.  The builders mirrored the concept from Egyptian pyramids because they believed it to be as important to history as those were.

Minik Wallace was a young boy at the turn of the 20th century who was brought to the States by Robert Peary along with Minnic’s father and several others.  Tuberculosis killed everyone but Minik and he was raised by an American from that point on.  He lived a life between worlds until the end of his life in 1918.  This story is especially powerful to those who feel like they don’t belong or are a fish out of water.  You can’t help but pity poor Minik Wallace.

John Paul Jones, Revolutionary War ship captain, fights for America but dies alone and is buried in an unmarked grave without recognition.  Almost a hundred years later, Horace Porter, a Civil War veteran, hears Jones’ tale and goes looking for the dead man’s body to give him a proper burial and to recognize the man who helped free American from British rule.  A powerful story of overcoming the odds of finding a needle in a haystack and remembering those that did so much for so many beyond their time.

In the 1850s, the Fox Sisters developed a hoax in which they convinced people they were communicating with ghosts.  But in 1888, Margaret told everyone how they were scamming the world for forty years due to being upset with her sister.  She didn’t tell the world, however, about how she and her sister’s lives started to unravel after they were introduced to the entertainment world and how she tried to communicate with her dead husband but knew she’d never enjoy the same comfort she gave others with false beliefs in nonexistent ghosts.  The story ends with a chilling post-script.

July 16th, 1945: hours before the Trinity Test, which ultimately brought about the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and decades of Cold War, one man sat atop a steel tower in a thunderstorm with an atom bomb beneath him as scientists observed from a safe distance ten miles away.  This tale gives a human touch to something regularly considered cold and destructive.

The excitement for the passing of Halley’s Comet in 1910 was palpable in New York, but the event was so widely observed across the world that cultures from every corner dealt with it in their own way.  The people of Manhattan, however, took to rooftops everywhere to see the comet fly by, police went door to door to wake people up so they didn’t miss it, and as the tail of Halley’s Comet enveloped the Earth, the people of Manhattan looked out onto the rooftops of their city and knew there was nowhere else on Earth they would rather be.  This story is beautifully written and narrated, garnering the distinction of my absolute favorite episode of The Memory Palace.

Hachaliah Bailey claims to have brought the first elephant, Old Bet, to North America.  He travels from town to town with her, charging money for people to see the exotic animal and making a good living doing so.  But this story is less about Bailey’s exploits and more about how an elephant so far from home may have felt when she realized she was all alone, the closest of her kind being over seven thousand miles away.  It’s a sad tale of an elephant who probably had a pretty poor life in the United States.

W.J. Sidis was a child prodigy and genius.  He was believed to be the next great scientist of the twentieth century by the age of eleven.  But he didn’t want to be placed in that box.  He grew up to be extremely private and sought anonymity instead of living up to his fame.  Sidis wrote a critically panned book about the streetcar transfer ticket system, based on an esoteric hobby he had, and lived a generally stressful life to get away from the media.  He ended up never getting the privacy he sought and suffered a sad fate.

Bradford Gilbert, architect, is commissioned to build the Tower Building for John Noble Sterns, 19th century silk importer.  People thought he was crazy to build a building 10 stories tall, but he was committed to his idea and did it anyway despite the criticisms.  Then, as the Tower Building was still under constructions, hurricane winds blew into Manhattan and through the frame of the Tower Building.  Gilbert climbed the tower and hung a heavy weight from the girders during the storm as onlookers took bets on how he'd die.  His stunt saw shocking results: the construction held the weight still, proving his building would stand despite "impossible" odds.

DiMeo starts the episode with a story about the time he saw a band play back in the early 90's; he bought their tape, but the tape was damaged and he could never hear the song again until years later when he found it on the internet.  This segways into a story about Jenny Lind, an English singer in the 19th century, who was so revered for her talent that P.T. Barnum himself paid her over a hundred thousand dollars to come to North America and perform ninety three shows in two years.  But her voice was never recorded and we will never her talent for ourselves.  He delves into the concept of hearing something once back in the time before recorded sound.  This is an amazing episode.

Louis Keseberg, the villain of the Donner Party story, lived his life as a slandered man after the media labeled him "Keseberg the Cannibal."  Eliza Donner was too young to remember the Donner Party incident even though she was there, and spends her life researching the event to determine what really happened.  She and Keseberg meet up later in life and have a powerful exchange.

A loving recollection of the wonders of an amusement park called Dreamland at Coney Island in the early 1900's.  DiMeo takes us through a vibrant scene of attractions and punctuates the narrative with language that elicits that endless summer feeling while the story is underscored by a beautiful Yo La Tengo track.  The story ends when Dreamland catches fire in 1911, never to be opened again.

This is a hard episode to get through if you have a fear of premature burials.  Yes, this is an episode featuring horrifying stories of people buried alive by accident in the 19th century.  The ending is positively haunting.  That's all I'll say on the matter.  You just have to listen to it.

A powerful love story about a Zulu and an Italian immigrant girl brought together by a stage act.  She would spend every dime she had to go see him at Bunnell's Museum, but her father didn't approve and had her arrested.  Eventually they married, and details of their life became scarce over time.  Newspaper clippings chronicle facts about Zulu Charlie and his life, but their love as a whole, their personalities, are lost to time.  This particular episode has a heavy message in the last line of narration that really sets it apart from other episodes.