The Memory Palace (Radio Lab)

Nate DiMeo was preoccupied with the past, and how we relate to it, from a very young age. For the last decade or so he’s been scratching this itch with The Memory Palace, a podcast he created. He does things very differently than we do, but his show has captured the hearts of Radiolab staffers, past and present, time and time again.

So we decided to get Nate into the studio to share a few of his episodes with us and talk to us about how and why he does what he does. He brought us stories about the Morse Code, the draft lottery, and then he hit us with a brand new episode about a bull on trial, that bounces off a story we did pretty recently.

More history on scrub bulls.



SOREN WHEELER: That means among all the male Holsteins in the country, more than 99 percent of them can be traced back to one of two bulls.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Wow. That’s amazing!

SOREN: All born in the 1960s.

JAD ABUMRAD: Hey, I’m Jad Abumrad.

ROBERT: I’m Robert Krulwich.

JAD: This is Radiolab.

SOREN: The females haven’t fared much better. There’s so much genetic similarity among them, the effective population size is less than 50. So despite there being nine million of them, there’s really only 50 cows out there.

ROBERT: Like, that’s true of bananas too, right? It’s like all bananas belong to one banana or …

ROBERT: A little while ago, we got into the studio with Soren Wheeler, who is our — what is he, he’s Executive …?

JAD: He’s the Managing Editor.

ROBERT: Managing Editor. And we were — well as you heard, we were in a kind of conversation about cow genetics.

JAD: For reasons that will become clear later.

SOREN: And I was gonna see if I could do something about the milk production. Where was the milk? Because …

JAD: Because actually the real reason that we were in the studio with Soren was to talk to …

ROBERT: Is Nate here?

NATE DIMEO: I am here. I — yeah.

ROBERT: Oh, hi!

JAD: This guy.

ROBERT: Nate DiMeo.

NATE DIMEO: No, I’m here.

JAD: He does a podcast called The Memory Palace. He’s been doing it for about a decade now.

NATE DIMEO: And I’m here at Marketplace where I used to work for many years. It’s a little bit like coming back to high school.

JAD: [laughs]

NATE DIMEO: I feel like I’m roaming down the halls being like, “Hey, man. Hey, there used to be a water fountain there.”

ROBERT: Every episode he tells a history story, but it’s done so personally and so carefully …

JAD: And so differently …

ROBERT: … than we do it.

JAD: Than we do it, yeah.

ROBERT: That we just thought well, we want you to hear what he does.

JAD: And from time to time, it’s something we do. We want to present the people that inspire us, and so …

ROBERT: So what we — what we plan to do here is just give you a taste. So we’re gonna play a few Nate DiMeo pieces. We’re gonna talk about them right after.

JAD: And in the end, he’s gonna debut a new one that he made kind of with us in mind.

ROBERT: That’s where there will be cows again.

JAD: But before we get to that, for me personally the one that really sort of just, like, made me have to sit down and just, like — just think for a while is when Robert sent me the Morse code thing you did.

NATE DIMEO: Oh, sure.

JAD: I was like, “Goddamn, that was good!” There’s not — there’s not a wasted decision in that entire piece. And like, as an editor I pretty much can say that about oh, nothing else.

SOREN: Oh, maybe nothing, ever?

JAD: Ever? And so it’s just — it’s just kind of perfect. So …

NATE DIMEO: Do you want to play it?

ROBERT: Yeah, play it.

NATE DIMEO: Robert might not remember it that well.

JAD: It’s — which one is it?

NATE DIMEO: It’s called Distance.

JAD: Oh, here it is. I think it’s episode 44.

NATE DIMEO: So I’m gonna hit play. Hopefully we’ll hear something.

NATE DIMEO: This is the Memory Palace. I’m Nate DiMeo. Samuel Finley Breese Morse spent the first 35 years of his life learning to paint, at Andover, at Yale, in London at the Royal Academy. He studied the works of the Masters, to learn how Michelangelo built bodies that seemed to pulse and shudder out of mere oil and shadow and crosshatch. To learn how Raphael summoned the spark of inner life with a single stroke of pure white in the dusky ocher of a noblewoman’s eye. To learn how to create illusions of space and distance. To learn how to conjure the ineffable through the mere aggregation of lines and dots and stretch canvas. He learned how to paint. And in 1825, Morse was living in New Haven, Connecticut, with his wife Lucretia and two young sons, and a third child was on the way, due any day. One night, a courier delivered a message. The city of New York wanted to pay Morse a thousand dollars to paint a portrait of the Marquis De Lafayette. The hero of the Revolution was coming to Washington to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the start of the war, and he would sit for Morse if the painter could leave right away. So he packed his easel and his brushes and his paints and clothes that we’re good enough to wear when meeting a man like Lafayette. And he kissed his pregnant wife and he left that night.

NATE DIMEO: On another night a week later, Morse was in his rented studio in Washington preparing for the arrival the next morning of his distinguished subject. He heard a knock on the door and there was a courier, breathless and dirty from a hard ride on a hard road, handing him a note that was five words long: your dear wife is convalescent. He left that night. He rode for six days straight on horseback and in the backs of juttering wagons, wrapped in blankets against the cold wind of October nights. And when he made it to New Haven and ran through fallen leaves up to the house on Whitney Avenue, he learned that his wife was dead. In fact, she had died before the courier had knocked on his door in Washington. In fact, she had already been buried some morning while he was on the road, while he was racing home to be by her side and sit with her while she got better.

NATE DIMEO: Samuel Finley Breese Morse spent the next 45 years of his life trying to make sure no one would have to feel the way he felt that night ever again. Samuel Finley Breese Morse spent the next 45 years inventing the telegraph. To turn real space and real distance into illusion in developing Morse code. Dots and lines that could transmit the stuff of real lives and of dying wives.

JAD: That is such a great last line.

ROBERT: Lost lives and dying wives.

JAD: You asshole!

NATE DIMEO: Well, thank you fellas.

ROBERT: Well, just think about the lushness of the writing. Like, you’re not just galloping down a road. Like, you — you’re in a blanket and it’s nighttime and you’re out of breath and you can — you can see so clearly. Those are very few sentences conjuring up so — such a — such a lot of paint.

SOREN: You know the one that got me in that was the running through the fallen leaves when he’s gotten back almost to his house, and the running through the fallen leaves to get to the door. That one just — a movie …

JAD: Yeah, totally.

SOREN: … took place in my mind in about — yeah.

JAD: Yeah.

NATE DIMEO: Well, I mean I’m kind of glad that you guys chose to play this one. I sort of forget about it sometimes, but it sort of does seem to be a favorite of some folks. I think in some ways just because I think that it’s fun that it’s so short, but at the end of it folks wind up moved. And I mean, some of that I think I just chalk up to the fact that you play the dying wives’ card, and you can — you can — I think that gets you a long way. But it’s what I’m sort of trying to do, to have you walking away feeling like, “Oh, I see where this guy’s coming from. I’ve felt this way before.”

JAD: Nate, why — have you always gravitated to history? Why …

ROBERT: How did this happen?

JAD: Yeah, how did you get going with this?

NATE DIMEO: Yeah, I really — I think that I’m not much of a history buff. You know, I really did not — I like fiction a lot more, I like movies a lot more. But I have been fascinated with the past and how it works since I was very, very young. Like, it’s been a preoccupation of mine. Like, I — you know, I just very distinctly remember going on vacation to Colorado when I was four or five and hearing a Kenny Rogers song that was on the radio during one particular drive, and then being, like, seven or eight and being really struck, you know, back home in Providence, you know, two or three years later, how — how just powerful it was to just hear, you know, Lucille or whatever on the radio, you know, or Coward Of The County or whatever it might have been, and — and really be brought back to that moment. That something could feel so real, you know, right there in a different context. And, you know, similarly I spent, you know, a lot of my youth sitting around my grandparents’ kitchen table listening to family stories. And, you know, both sides of my family are big storytellers and so, you know, I would hear the family lore sort of over and over again. And I would hear the debate about, you know, the best way to tell the story. That, “No, no, no, no. So what you need to say first is that, you know, so dad was eight and get this straight. He wasn’t 10. It’s important that he was eight. And that that’s the day that he decided to steal the car and drive it around the block.”

NATE DIMEO: And one of these stories that was told over and over again referred back to a time that my mom’s dad was this kind of — particularly during the Depression was this kind of jack-of-all-trades. You know, he — he fixed car batteries, and did a number of things to kind of feed the family. And one of the things that he did was drive a cab. Which from what I understand, it was essentially just sort of Depression Uber. It was some borrowed car that he would give people a ride in. And he was driving up the hill up the east side of Providence on the way to Brown University, up I believe Waterman Street, which is the steepest street. And he’s, like, struggling with his clutch and he’s trying to just keep this car going up this hill. And while he was doing that, the passenger in the back seat put his feet on the floor boards and went through the bottom of the car, and then was suddenly had to run along with the car like Fred Flintstone until they could get to safety.

JAD: Wait. He fell — he slipped through the bottom completely out of the car?

NATE DIMEO: His — yes, his feet went right through to the ground.

JAD: Oh, my God.

NATE DIMEO: And so this is a story that was worth telling at Christmas or what not. But I very distinctly remember being in high school in my first car, in my Volkswagen Rabbit, driving stick on that same hill with, like, friends in the car being so sort of elated to be, you know, a teenager behind the wheel and — and, you know, driving over to go to the record store, and just feeling, like, young and alive. And then realizing, like, “Oh shoot. I don’t know if I can get up this hill.” Because I don’t know if I can handle the clutch in this thing. And I’m already smelling the — you know, the burning clutch. And it was just like, oh yeah, this is that hill. You know, here I am in my own youth having a moment on this same hill.

JAD: So you have, like, the — you have whispers from the past.

NATE DIMEO: Exactly.

ROBERT: It’s a rhyme, sort of like …

JAD: Because you’ve been there so long and your family’s been there, that every step you take is a step already taken in some way.

NATE DIMEO: Yeah, in a way. Yeah.

SOREN: Is there any way we can get ourselves kind of into another?

JAD: Yeah, which one?

SOREN: So why don’t — just like, I don’t even — I think Numbers might actually have the words Numbers next to the file. The other ones are all …

JAD: I should go 94? Numbers?

ROBERT: Let’s do Numbers.

NATE DIMEO: Yeah, just do it.

JAD: It’s 936. Does that …

SOREN: Just go ahead.

JAD: All right. Here we go.

NATE DIMEO: This is the Memory Palace. I’m Nate DiMeo. Maybe you remember, I don’t.

[NEWS CLIP: Because of the CBS News Special Report which follows, Mayberry RFD will not be presented tonight, but will return next week at it regularly scheduled time over most of these stations. The draft lottery.]

NATE DIMEO: The news came on. Maybe you were just going to watch Mayberry RFD and were surprised. Maybe you had scheduled your whole week or more. Canceled plans. Got off work to be there in front of the set on December 1st, 1969. Or you listened on the radio in the living room with your folks like it was 1940. Your father pacing like his father might have done in 1940. Your mom there with her brave face on, ash on her cigarette growing long. Or you were listening on the little transistor radio propped up on the shelf above the sink at your dishwashing job with all the guys in the kitchen, each of you hanging on every number. The one older dude north of 30 keeping his mouth shut for once. Maybe you got in the car to listen because the reception was better, you said. But really, you just wanted to be out of the house away from your roommates or your girl or everyone. Just wanted to be driving. Maybe you remember. I don’t.

NATE DIMEO: The news broke in and there was a reporter, Roger Mudd from CBS. He’s young and handsome in the video on YouTube. I didn’t realize he’d ever been young and handsome.

[NEWS CLIP: Tonight for the first time in 27 years, the United States has again started a draft lottery. And the famous first pick tonight is September 14th. The first birthday that now is designated 001. Which means for 19 year olds born on September 14th, beginning in January local draft boards will induct those men born on September 14th barring deferments. The next birthday in order, April 24th. And so on down the line this evening.]

NATE DIMEO: And so on down the line. It was the first draft lottery since the fall of 1940, a little over a year before the U.S. entered World War II, but Washington knew where the whole thing was heading by then. 20 million men ages 21 to 36 had to register, had to have their birthday attached to a number. 1 through 366. There was an extra number for leap day babies. So those numbers could be written on slips of paper. So those 366 slips of paper could be put into 366 capsules and put into a bowl. There was a big ceremony. The Secretary of War was blindfolded with a swatch of fabric cut from a chair used during the signing of the Declaration of Independence. He drew a capsule from the bowl that had been stirred with a paddle made from a beam from the ceiling of Liberty Hall and handed it to the President. And thousands of people united only by their citizenship, and by the various outcomes of cascading games of chance, of timing and biological processes and happenstance that it meant each was born male on that particular day in the calendar during this narrow window of years would be sent off to war.

NATE DIMEO: There was less ceremony in 1969. There was no blindfold, no relics to wrap that night in the spirit of the founding. Just carpet and curtain in the beiges and browns of Vietnam-era bureaucracy. No President or Cabinet member to do the honors. Nixon left the number polling to Selective Service officials and their secretaries.

[NEWS CLIP: September 14th. September 14. 001.]

NATE DIMEO: And at least one young man from the President’s Youth Advisory Council.

[NEWS CLIP: Paul M. Murray. Rhode Island.]

NATE DIMEO: There was supposed to be others, but others refused. Said they didn’t want to be used as props by the Nixon Administration. But the numbers were pulled anyway, drawn from blue capsules drawn from a clear bowl in full view of the camera so no one could call foul. On the process, of least. And slips of paper were read out and stuck on bulletin boards. The printed date posted beside numbers listed in order. 0012366. And you just waited. Waited to hear your birthday called. That date you know better than any other. Waited to hear it called out and posted beside what would be your draft number, that would determine when you had to report for induction. You even waited through commercials.

[COMMERCIAL CLIP: And here’s the Norelco Santa with some new ways to say Merry Christmas. Give the Norelco triple-header with a cord or in a rechargeable model. Give the inexpensive Flip Top 20 or the new battery cordless, and say Merry Christmas to the ladies with a Lady Norelco shaver or beauty salon. Norelco. Even our name says Merry Christmas.]

[NEWS CLIP: February 29th.]

NATE DIMEO: And another night later, there would be another lottery. Drawing letters this time. It would determine the precise order in which men who shared the same birthday would have to report to be inducted. Those with the initials JSM before JJS or JRS or whatever. Later there would be a study, a statistical analysis that suggested the drawing of dates wasn’t truly random, that the bowl wasn’t stirred well enough, that December birthdays weren’t picked often enough, early enough. But the numbers called on that Friday night in the winter of ’69 would stand. So 850,000 men would wait. Hearts in throats, knee bouncing, fingers drumming on steering wheels, whatever that thing they would do when they were nervous was. When they were waiting for something, some game of chance to set the course of their life. That might up end every plan they’d laid, dash whatever hopes they’d harbored for their life. Might end their life. That would go on to separate their generation into draftees and deferments and dodgers. And was doing it already that night as they watched and heard their friends birthdays get called, and were glad it wasn’t theirs.

NATE DIMEO: As they’d stand around in the kitchen comforting a co-worker that the war would be over before his 37 meant he ever had to go to Vietnam, hoping that was true. Or they knew already that the guy who pulled 224 was never going to have to make good on his promise to run to Canada. Or they had to look their brother in the eye when he had 16 and you had 172. They were sitting on the warm hood of a car in a field on a cold night with their best friend. His birthday they always remembered because it was Valentine’s Day, which meant he was number four. And they got him good and drunk. And so on down the line.

[NEWS CLIP: October 5th, February 19th, December 14th, July 21st, June 5th, March 2nd, October 31st, May 24th, April 1st, March 17th, November 2nd, August 24th, May 11th, October 30th, December 11th, May 13th, December 10th, July 13th, December 9th, August 16th, August 2nd, November 11th, November 27th, August 8th, September 3rd, July 7th, November 7th, December 22nd.]

ROBERT: It’s one of those times where — I mean, I wasn’t around for Samuel Morse’s decision about — but this is when I was just sitting — I was parked right in the middle of, as was pretty much everybody my age. And I remember how it felt like being at the edge of a whirlpool. You know, you’re standing there and just hearing this — these numbers, and I don’t think there was anything, any other time in my life where the social compact that I had made to be a citizen of this country in argument with a war. In my case, sort of no argument with the draft. I thought the draft was sensible. But the — the strange, strange serendipity. Like, that you’re — you can do nothing but get sucked in or spit out.

JAD: Were you watching TV when …

ROBERT: No, I couldn’t. I was listening to the radio. I was one of those people. I couldn’t listen to anyone else, and I came up fairly early.

JAD: Oh, you were by yourself when you listening?

ROBERT: Yeah. Uh-huh, yeah. So I knew I was going to — and I had — yeah. I was called and everything.

SOREN: What was your number?

ROBERT: 54th.


ROBERT: Yeah. So …

JAD: Wow.

ROBERT: Yeah, I was alone at that — yeah, at that moment, I think. More alone than maybe I was prepared for. But putting that aside, it’s just sort of amazing that you could not be old enough to know that and somehow deliver a version of it that feels so gorgeously true.

JAD: Yeah.

ROBERT: It’s kind of interesting form of translation here. Like, you could translate yourself into a moment, just based on details. Like Roger Mudd’s voice and his appearance.

JAD: Yeah. How did you — did you — did you come across a clip and think, “Hmm,” and it captured you? Or was this sitting around the kitchen table, your family telling stories?

NATE DIMEO: Yeah. I mean, it was a little bit — it was a little bit of that. I remember talking to my dad about it once. I remember talking to — you know, being a teenager during the start of the Gulf War and wondering if — if, you know, I happened to — you know, our generation happened to, you know, have caught that, you know, fastball to the chin. And wondering where that would lead and whether, you know, it was gonna be the kind of defining thing for my generation that Vietnam had been for my dad’s. And so I do remember talking to him about it and remember his specific story. And he had actually mentioned feeling like it hadn’t been publicized that it was going to be on TV. And so he woke up at the crack of dawn to get the — you know, get the newspaper. You know, and ran down to the — to the newsstand or the coffee shop or whatever, and then flipped through and was, you know, thrilled to find out he was, you know, 211 or something like that.

NATE DIMEO: But then, you know, had a similar thing, which actually I didn’t — he didn’t tell me about until after this story, which is he had — he had sort of a similar situation where he met up with his buddies and they all like, you know, met, like — I’m not sure if this is true, but whether he told me this or this is just my imagination running wild, but I think that they went to the place where they played basketball, and like, you know, hung out on the court and waited for everyone to assemble and then kind of said, “Oh, you’re 73. Oh, you’re 85. Oh, you’re 30 — 302, you lucky so-and-so.” “Oh, I’m 9, and I probably am gonna have to be there in March.” And this story in a lot of ways is just wrestling with this thread that kind of shoots through the whole project of the Memory Palace, of thinking about the ways that you know, history constrains or frees us.

NATE DIMEO: So my interest in telling the story is not only like, “Oh, here’s a thing that is really fascinating, that is worth putting into the Memory Palace, is a thing worth remembering.” But the story is sort of explicitly about — and this is one of the only stories where I bring myself into it, that like, you might remember, I don’t. That there’s gonna be a separation among listeners about what this story means. But it is about that separation. This is ultimately a story about — about life’s lottery in a way.

JAD: Because that phrase you repeat twice: “you might remember, I don’t.” In some sense you’re saying you were chose — one — one group of people were chosen by fate and another weren’t.


JAD: And somehow it’s that …

ROBERT: Well, I thought the accomplishment …

SOREN: I was gonna say because, like, you could have numbers from 1 to 366 and Nate’s almost saying my number is, a million. You know, like …

NATE DIMEO: Yeah, exactly.

JAD: That’s really interesting.

ROBERT: I thought the accomplishment of it was though, to collapse that distance.

JAD: Yeah. Yeah.

ROBERT: You may remember it, but I don’t. But then you deliver it in such a way that you just can get the same sort of sense of terror and random, deep randomness. And then also the collateral damage. Like the looking into a friend’s eye. That’s very …

SOREN: That hood of the car.

NATE DIMEO: Well, I think that some — I mean, some of it is — some of it is kind of those sorts of details evoke very specific things to me, but that I know existed in 1969. Like, I can picture the inner workings of — of a kitchen, you know, at a restaurant and who the employees are and, you know, the way they trash talk or the way they jibe or whatever it might be. But, you know, in often cases like, you know, I don’t know. It’s the past. The past there is this — you know, I really …

SOREN: Have you ever run across the — so we have on our staff, Latif.


SOREN: You know him.

NATE DIMEO: Know him well.

SOREN: And one of his phrases, and he was a history of science man.


SOREN: And he always — he throws around the phrase that the past is a foreign country.

NATE DIMEO: I don’t think it’s — I mean, that is true.

ROBERT: Not for Nate it ain’t.

NATE DIMEO: No. I think that …

SOREN: You’re describing it and walking around it like it’s your hometown.

NATE DIMEO: No, to me it might as well be Middle-Earth. Like, I think that there’s an inherent kind of magical unreality to the past. Like, when it — you know, I’m fascinated by the idea that — that there are a million books about Abraham Lincoln, and I’m barely exaggerating. But all you’ve got is this sort of kaleidoscopic understanding of this person that sort of once walked the Earth. So I can know that Abraham Lincoln was a real guy. I mean, I understand that. And of course there are material — like, he’s incredibly consequential historical figure, and there are, you know, people walking around today who are walking around because of the actions that he took. But that said, he lives in this sort of world of, like, dreams and imagination. There’s this magic to the past. There’s this — there’s this — you know the past like, you know, there’s a sort of like literal haunting, you know, that these are just sort of specters. And I find that alone really fascinating.

ROBERT: We’re gonna take a brief break, but when we come back Nate’s got one more piece to play us.

NATE DIMEO: Do you guys want to hear a new one? I have a new one.

ROBERT: Let’s hear a new one.

JAD: This is something that had been bouncing around in his head for a while, until it bounced off of something that we did recently.

ROBERT: Yeah, so stick around we’ll be right back.

[PATRICK: My name is Patrick Benkitch, and I’m calling from the beautiful kingdom of Eswatini. Radiolab is supported in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at Ngiyabonga kakhulu.]

JAD: Jad.

ROBERT: Robert.

JAD: Radiolab. So we are talking to Nate DiMeo from The Memory Palace.

ROBERT: And he has one more piece to play which we will hear now.

NATE DIMEO: Yeah, I — I was realizing you know, as often happens with these stories, I have this giant list of stuff that I will write down, you know like, “Oh, there’s this Italian immigrant woman once married a Zulu man who was on display in a dime-store museum. Oh, maybe there’s a thing that I can do with that at some point. “And I was realizing recently that on this list of stories was something that I had been wanting to do for a while. Like, I had stumbled upon the — the research of a guy out of Duke named Gabriel Rosenberg, that was just like, “Oh, man. There’s clearly a story in there.” And it took me a while as it always does to kind of find the meaning. And I won’t spoil any of this, but it has — I was excited to play it for you guys in particular because I had just spent a fair amount of time listening to a long series that you guys did recently, and I think that they kind of bump up against each other in a nice way.

JAD: Cool. Should we play it?


NATE DIMEO: The defendant was led into the courtroom on a rope. He was met with laughter. Even from the jury. He was charged with vagrancy and larceny, highway robbery and disturbing the peace. And the judge informed the jurors that though the death penalty was typically reserved for murder and treason, the various crimes of which the defendant was accused were so serious, their harm was so dreadful, if he was guilty he would be executed.

NATE DIMEO: The defendant didn’t follow any of this. He didn’t speak the language. He had no understanding of the fate that awaited. Also he was a bull, he was a male cow. So that’s why. And I could have teased it out some more and played with your expectations a bit longer, but at some point that would get kind of hacky. Not to mention confusing when I told you, as I will now, that the judge informed the jury that after being executed the defendant would be eaten. And at that point it would be kind of disrespectful both to you the listener and to the bull.

NATE DIMEO: Because his life was indeed at stake, there in a makeshift courtroom in a ballpark in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania in September of 1924. At one of likely hundreds of trials conducted during the 1920s and ’30s in so-called courts of bovine justice. Officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture wanted to encourage dairy farmers and cattle ranchers to purchase purebred, pedigreed bulls with the goal of eventually eradicating all so-called scrub bulls. Basically the mutts of the bovine world. The belief was that purebred bulls produced heirs that produce more milk or had bigger, more delicious bodies. And so they came up with the idea of holding literal show trials in farming and ranching communities around the country in which a single scrub bull would be charged with grievous crimes, namely that being a less than maximally-profitable food product or breeding machine was tantamount to theft. And then over the course of the proceedings, the jury and the gathered audience would become convinced that their own scrub bulls had to go. It was a show. An evening’s entertainment. All fun and games, unless you were the bull. And unless you peered behind the curtain.

NATE DIMEO: The Department of Agriculture was far from the only scientific or governmental body promoting what it saw as the benefits of selective breeding. Eugenicists were also out to improve the human race by guiding evolution. In part by ridding the human population over time of people with undesirable genetic traits, or at least traits they believed to be genetic: disabilities, mental illness, criminality, alcoholism, even poverty. American scientists were at the forefront of this movement as were American state legislatures, 29 of which passed laws allowing the forced sterilization of people they deemed unfit to breed. A fate that befell at least 64,000 Americans. And when eugenic principles were embraced by the Third Reich, well anyway …

NATE DIMEO: The Ag Department thought the latest in scientific thinking should be shared in the heartland. So a staff writer named Dallas Stockwell Birch of the USDA’s Bureau of Animal Industry typed up a pamphlet titled Outline for Conducting Scrub Sire Trials. It was written with a wit and imaginative flare one would assume Mr. Birch rarely got to deploy as a staff writer for the USDA’s Bureau of Animal Industry. 23 pages that contain the entirety of scrub bull jurisprudence, such as it was. And lay out in easy-to-follow steps how you too could hold your own scrub bull trial, such as the one convened in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania in 1924 during the first weekend of fall.

NATE DIMEO: Held at seven p.m., so farmers and breeders and boy scouts and merchants in all of Franklin County it seemed could come out to see it. Hundreds seated in bleachers under electric lights on a purpose-built platform aglow in the center of the field. There was music, as per the pamphlet. It was good to have a band on hand both to entertain the attendees and, assuming all went according to plan, to play a funeral dirge after the verdict. There was a judge. A real one. The booklet said this was better. And real clerks and a real bailiff, people who knew their way around a courtroom. Who knew how to hit their marks when they led the defendant through the gap in the bleachers to the place where he would stand in front of the bench and the jury box as the judge laid out the charges against him. There was a script the judge would follow, though he could improvise as he saw fit. Jokes and banter and local color were all strongly encouraged. But when it got down to the bull, he should stick to the script and lay it on thick.

NATE DIMEO: “That the defendant is one of a gang of robbers which operates in Franklin County, that during the whole of its worthless career has been an ungrateful consumer of valuable provender, that the defendant is an unworthy father of progeny.” And so on. Some things were optional. A hearse with black bunting, a funeral oration, a clergyman to deliver it. But there should be lawyers. Real ones. And so there were in Waynesboro. And witnesses, local breeders, farmers there to lend their expertise and backup the prosecution’s claims that the defendant, the bull right there, rope looped around its neck, its soft ears forward, its tail flicking, the electric lights reflected in its wide round eyes. That bull had cost his owner countless thousands in lost wages. Was, in fact, a rank impostor, a danger to the herd, and by virtue of his nature a menace not only to the prosperity of his owner, but also the community at large.

NATE DIMEO: The defense attorneys would argue this wasn’t the bull’s fault. That it was merely an accident of birth that had led him to sire offspring that would likely produce less milk on average than those sired by a purebred bull. To yield fewer pounds of dress weight according to the testimony of the butcher to an audience to whom dress weight was familiar terminology. There were objections and sidebars, gavels were gaveled, oyez were oyed. There were examinations and cross-examinations, opening arguments and closing arguments, all the things required for a trial under the American judicial system. Except a jury of peers. Because who there could truly judge that one scrub bull, there to stand in for all scrub bulls, born to unpedigreed parents? Who there could truly determined that bull’s worth? Even the prosecution would concede he was merely being a bull, doing bull things. But he was afforded no jury of peers to judge whether he did them well. Who might understand what bull-ness is to a bull? What is the field and the feed? The buzzing fly? The breeze, the flicking tail? What is a life well-lived? And that notion might seem absurd, sure. But more absurd than a bull on trial in a ballpark in a September evening in Pennsylvania because eugenics was all the rage? I am less sure.

NATE DIMEO: This trial ended in a conviction, as they all did. It’s one of the steps laid out in the pamphlet. It ended in a barbecue, which wasn’t always the case. Sometimes it was a weenie roast. One bull in Minnesota was dragged along to trial after trial. Once in Indiana, the executed bull was placed in a black coffin and buried. One time in July of 1930, one bull was convicted in a trial in front of 800 people in Neillsville, Wisconsin, but before he could be killed he somehow slipped away and ran off into the trees. And I propose we let this one scrub bull stand in for all scrub bulls, though so few of them exist now. Well into the 2000s, they have indeed been bred and engineered and eaten out of the population. But let’s let this one go to run off into the trees and let him keep on running to find a pasture, some tall grass, and a life worth living. Whatever that might mean.

JAD: That’s nice.

SOREN: Yeah. So I guess when you said that you were listening to something we did, it was the intelligence series with …


SOREN: Yeah, like Lulu Miller’s piece about — that has all the eugenics stuff in it.

JAD: Yeah, it’s interestingly reminiscent of where she ends on the idea of variation, and it somehow justifies itself.


JAD: Yeah.

NATE DIMEO: But also, you know, I think — I think that, you know, if you think about, you know, Lulu’s piece, you know — you know, I think that the cruelty of eugenics besides, you know, the obvious, that it hinges upon the sense of, you know, science or scientists or — or the wealthy or the elite or whatever, know what’s best for the populace. They would know what’s best for, you know, specific people. And that there is this unknowability that gets denied, you know, as — as in Lulu’s piece when you hear — when you hear the activists and historian, you know, talking about, you know, her experience with childbirth and the unknowability what that experience is going to be like, the fears that she had that she brought to that over and over and over again. You know, in the case of eugenics you have both, like, well-meaning parents, assuming that they, you know, have a comprehension of the subjectivity of their child. And this is — this is the way that, you know, partially out of necessity, both economic and just practicality, you know, this is the way that we, you know, as a species deal with other species. That there are these unknowable subjectivities. There’s unknowable other creatures. Yet we constantly decide, you know, what’s best for each — you know, each of them on an individual basis. Even ones that you know really well like your dog.

NATE DIMEO: You know, I puzzle about my dog’s happiness all the time, having very little understanding of what his — what his or her happiness is. You know, I don’t know what bull-ness to a bull. I don’t need you — I don’t need you to draw a certain conclusion. I’m not — you know, in this — in this particular story, not making a particular political statement about — you know, about eating them or not eating them or breeding them in certain ways or not. But I think that there’s real power in merely floating the idea. Merely, you know, like setting — you know, I almost sometimes think of them as balloons. Like, if you take — you know, the — in this story we just heard, if you take the idea of Nazism to merely, you know, announce the specter of Nazism and then have it be a thing that hangs over this story and that floats — you know, floats above it, it doesn’t take much. It just takes — it just takes an invocation. It just takes, you know, like a half a sentence. It really does kind of allow you to make, you know, a story of depth, hopefully, out of a few kind of dots and lines.

JAD: Huge thanks to Nate DiMeo for joining us, letting us play some of his stuff, and to Radiotopia crew of which Nate is a part. If you want to hear more Memory Palace go to, or of course look for the Memory Palace on iTunes or Google Play or all the things.

ROBERT: Yeah, because all in all there’s more than 130, there’s a lot — there’s a lot of them.

JAD: Yeah. And also, if you go to, we’ll list a couple that we really like that we didn’t get to play in this podcast.

ROBERT: Just yeah, you can listen to those there or you can go to his. So either way, well either way, go.

JAD: Yeah. All right, and we should go too.


JAD: I’m Jad Abumrad.

ROBERT: I’m Robert Krulwich.

JAD: Thanks for listening.

[BEN: Hello, this is Ben calling from a vessel transiting north in the Puget Sound waters of Washington State. Radiolab was created by Jad Abumrad and is produced by Soren Wheeler. Dylan Keefe is our Director of Sound Design. Suzie Lechtenberg is our Executive Producer. Our staff includes Simon Adler, Becca Bressler, Rachael Cusick, David Gebel, Bethel Habte, Tracie Hunte, Nora Keller, Matt Kielty, Robert Krulwich, Annie McEwen, Latif Nasser, Sara Qari, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters and Molly Webster. With help from Shima Oliaee, W. Harry Fortuna, Malissa O’Donnell, Sarah Sandbach, and Neel Dhanesha. Our fact-checker is Michelle Harris. Okay. Bye.]