The Moving Skeleton

Here’s the full version of the Slate blog post:

British Library
British Library

I’ve been reading Charles Burney’s collection of newspapers for close to two decades:  first turning fragile pages in the Rare Books and Music Reading Room at the British Library, then dipping periodically into the many boxes of microfilm there, and now online, unfortunately behind the Gale paywall.   Charles Burney (1757-1817) was an English clergyman (his sister was the novelist Fanny Burney) who systematically collected old English newspapers, that most ephemeral and perishable variety of print.  His collection dates from the early seventeenth century, but its real strength is in the period after 1695, when the expiration of the Licensing Act allowed a sudden rank growth of newspapers, especially in London — dailies, weeklies, biweeklies, fortnightlies.  Some historians look at the news stories, since each newspaper had its own political slant. I go for the classified ads.  There are ads for lost servants, houses to let, dozens of patent medicines, books, plays, and evening auctions (“For SALE  by the CANDLE”)  as well as dog fights and bear-baiting.  The lady who lost her purse one Friday night in 1720 may apply to a certain Jonathan Wild for its return. Wild, the notorious “thief-taker general,” ran a ring of pickpockets and then demanded a ransom for the return of the goods.  He was hanged in 1725, his career documented by Henry Fielding and his body dissected by the London surgeons.  His skeleton still hangs in Surgeons’ Hall  (more soon on that skeleton).

southwark-fair-1733-1
Hogarth, Southwark Fair, 1733

Another set of bones occupied the ads in the Daily Courant for about 15 months in 1716-17.  The “Moving Skeleton” announced its first appearance “To all Gentlemen, Ladies, and others, who are Lovers of Curiosities” in September 1716, during the Southwark Fair, “at the Perfumer’s next to the Half-Moon Inn.”  The fair was suppressed in 1762 for attracting the wrong kind of crowd.  By a “Mechanical Projection,” the skeleton emerged from an upright case with a spring-loaded door.  A curtain then slowly rose to reveal a full human skeleton, holding an hourglass in one hand and a dart in the other.  When the hourglass ran out, the hand with the dart plunged through the air three times.  The skeleton then emitted a groan “like a Dying Person.”  Its jaw bone struck a bell to tell the time.  When the hands lowered, the operator stuck a pipe into the jaw, and the skeleton lit it and smoked the pipe “as naturally as if Alive.”  It also blew out a candle. To end the performance, the operator poked the skeleton with a stick, and the jaw dropped open, allowing the pipe to be removed.  Then “the Curtain falls down in its Place, and all is over.”

OldHungerfordMarket1805
Old Hungerford Market, 1805

This mechanical marvel made the rounds of London for the following year.  In December 1716 it turned up “at the First House on the Left-Hand in Charles-Court in the Strand, near Hungerford Market.”  Hungerford Market stood at the site of the present Charing Cross Station.  But “the Moving Skeleton, or the Skeleton of a Man” played second fiddle to “the wonderful Machine,” “Pinchbeck’s most surprising Astronomical and Musical Clock.”   Visitors to the Clock paid from 2 shillings down to sixpence for the sight; no price is listed for the Moving Skeleton, which was shown  separately.  However, by the next week the skeleton had earned its own description, and the two sights alternated ads for the next several weeks.  Both were on display from 10 in the morning until 9 or 10 at night.  While the skeleton attracted lovers of curiosities, the clock addressed “all Lovers of Art.”

Shortly  after Christmas 1716, the Moving Skeleton retreated into its case once more, only to re-emerge several months later in a new location, without the Clock.  At the end of April 1717, Lovers of Curiosities could once more see this sight “At the next House to Sir John Old-Castle’s, in the Field between Gray’s-Inn lane and New River-Road.” (Sir John Oldcastle, a leader of the Lollards, had been executed for heresy in 1417).  No price is mentioned, and the skeleton could be seen “without hinderance of Time.”   It is advertised again two weeks later and then vanishes once more.

The Moving Skeleton made a final appearance at the end of November 1717, in another newspaper, the Original Weekly Journal.  It is for sale.

Bishopsgate, ca. 1650
Bishopsgate, ca. 1650

The ad describes its performance in detail, which “of late had given so Universal a Satisfaction to those that have seen it.”  If it was the “Artificial Skeleton” described in the Weekly Journal  or British Gazetteer the previous October as having been “shew’d up and down the Country Fairs in England,” it may have lost  some of its novelty at this point, and the 10 shillings a year  it cost in maintenance may have become onerous.  The owner, who remained anonymous, offered to meet prospective buyers at Poole’s Coffee House outside of Bishopsgate.

But we hear no more of the Moving Skeleton.