The Skeleton Trade

Although the human skeleton was well known as a symbol of mortality before 1500, the articulated skeleton does not seem to have come into its own as an object –scientific and artistic as well as symbolic – until the time of Vesalius.  Curiously ubiquitous, since everyone has one, but yet largely invisible, anatomists revealed the skeleton to view.  The well-known illustrations of VesaliusVesalius 1543 Wellcome were plagiarized over and over for two centuries after their publication in 1543.

Vesalius was the first, but not the last, anatomist to give detailed instructions on how to make a skeleton, for although it was a natural object, it was also a crafted object whose construction entailed a lot of work. The human body became an object in motion as it traveled from the scaffold to the dissection table to the grisly cauldron where the bones were boiled to remove their flesh.  While artists and anatomists employed skeletons for instruction, little evidence of their collection appears before the mid-seventeenth century, when they begin to appear in cabinets and collections.  Both the Royal Society and the Paris Academy of Sciences owned several.  At the Paris Academy, André Colson, described as an “ébeniste” or furniture maker, was charged with the making and maintenance of the skeleton room, while the physician Nehemiah Grew, who catalogued the Royal Society’s collections in 1681, may also have made its skeletons.  By the end of the seventeenth century, a vigorous skeleton trade flourished across Europe, and they often appear in auction catalogues and newspaper advertisements alongside books, works of art, and scientific instruments.  At the same time, relics, both old and new, retained their potency in both Catholic and Protestant countries.

After Vesalius, detailed instructions for making a skeleton appeared in many anatomical texts and manuals as part of the education of a physician or surgeons; in the eighteenth century, William Hunter took it for granted that each of his students would need to construct a skeleton for his own use and in addition procure “several skulls.”  While such a process would seem to confer anonymity to the finished skeleton, provenance and even identity often clung to the bones along with religious resonances.  Most skeletons were of executed criminals, some of them widely known.  The skeleton of the “Thief-taker General” Jonathan Wild, executed in 1725, hung until recently in the gallery of the College of Surgeons in London, and Hogarth’s famous 1751 “Fourth Stage of Cruelty”william_hogarth_-_the_fourth_stage_of_cruelty-_the_reward_of_cruelty_-_google_art_project shows the skeletons of other malefactors on display in niches at Surgeons’ Hall while a cauldron awaits the bones of Tom Nero, who is being dissected by the surgeons after his conviction for murder.

Widespread demand and changing scientific contexts expanded the market for skeletons (as well as skulls) beyond Europe to encompass much of the known world by the mid-eighteenth century.  The prodigious collector Hans Sloane received skulls and bones from contacts throughout the world, including native bones that his Jamaican contacts apparently stumbled across in caves.  Sloane’s meticulous catalogues of his collections allow one to trace the provenance of many of his human specimens though other collectors and agents.  Such catalogues, along with account books, advertisements, and illustrations,  reveal this worldwide commerce in skeletons alongside a continued trade in skeletal relics.  Traveling across time and place, skeletons embodied beauty and deformity, crime and punishment, sin and sanctity, science and colonial power, often simultaneously.

A Dwarf and his Skeleton

Last month I spent some time in Special Collections at the University of Glasgow Library, looking at the catalogues of the anatomical preparations of London anatomist and man-midwife William Hunter (1718-1783).  Hunter, a Scot, left his collections to the University of Glasgow, where they still reside.   Among the anatomical preparations listed in 1784 was “A Skeleton of a Dwarf called Leathercoat Jack, where the cartilages are most of them ossified.”  It was not unusual that Hunter had the skeleton of a dwarf in his collection.  Other entries in the catalogue included “4 natural skeletons of children” and “a skeleton with incurvated spine.”  What struck me was that this skeleton, alone of all the ones in his collection, had a name.

The dwarf known on the streets of London in the 1720s and 30s as “Leathercoat Jack” was an Irishman named Owen Farrel, who wore a battered leather jacket.  What little is known of his life is told on the bottom of a very popular engraving made in 1742:

Owen Farrel 1742
(c) Trustees of the British Museum

He was born in the County of Caven; & in ye year 1716 was footman to a Colonel at Dublin: afterwards was carried about for a Show, being but 3ft—9in high, yet so surprizingly strong that he could carry 4 men, 2 sitting astride on each Arm, and perform several other feats of Strength; at last he came to London, where he begged about the streets: some time before his death he sold his Body to Mr Omrod a Surgeon for a weekly allowance, who after his Death made a Skeleton of his Bones, which is now in the Museum of his Grace the Duke of Richmond.

It was not unusual for desperate men to sell their bodies to surgeons. But these men usually were about to be executed, and the money was for their families.  Anatomists especially prized the bodies of giants and dwarfs, who could reveal the secrets of conception and development.  The story of the Irish giant Charles Byrne, who took extreme measures to prevent his dead body from being dissected by William Hunter’s brother John, was well told in Hilary Mantel’s 1998 novel The Giant, O’Brien. John Hunter got Byrne’s body anyway, and his bones are still at the London College of Physicians (although they may not be there much longer).  But Farrel had no such fears of mutilation after his death.

Owen Farrel’s portrait shows a ragged man with his toes protruding from his shoes.  We don’t know when he died.  At the bottom of the engraving is printed : “Gravelot del / Hulett Sculp” and at the bottom of the text,  “Publish’d May ye 27th 1742 According to Act of Parliament.”  Hubert-François Bourguignon, known as Gravelot (1699-1773), painted the portrait from which James Hulett (d. 1771) made this engraving.  Gravelot came to London in 1732, so he painted the portrait sometime between that date and 1742, when the engraving was produced. Hulett dedicated the engraving to Cromwell Mortimer (1693-1752), secretary of the Royal Society.

I have not found a surgeon named “Omrod” – a very odd name – but I have found three named “Ormorod” who lived at about the right time and one of them may have been Owen Farrel’s benefactor and ultimate beneficiary.  Omrod or Ormorod sold Farrel’s skeleton to Charles Lennox, second Duke of Richmond (1701-1750), who was a fellow of the Royal Society and a well-known collector of natural history and antiquities.  Richmond’s collections were sold at auction in 1751, and the catalogue lists “The curious Skeleton of a famous Dwarf, called Leathercoat Jack, in a hexagon mahogany case, glazed,” accompanied by “A painting in oil of the same Dwarf, by Highmore.”  The painter was probably society portrait painter Joseph Highmore (1692-1780).  So Farrel had his portrait painted at least twice, an odd kind of fame for a penniless beggar.

William Hunter bought the skeleton and possibly the portrait as well.  In the description of the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow written by Captain John Laskey in 1813, the painting of a “DWARF” occupies a prominent place in the museum’s anteroom along with a stuffed armadillo and several scarab beetles.  The skeleton of the dwarf, Laskey wrote, was elsewhere in the museum.  By 1900, however, when John Teacher published his catalogue of Hunter’s anatomical collections, only a foot and a leg remained of Owen Farrel’s skeleton, along with his portrait.

But Farrel was not the only dwarf, or even the only Irish dwarf, to be exhibited in London.  In 1791,  an Irish dwarf named Peter Davies, possibly modeling himself on Leathercoat Jack,  displayed similar superhuman strength.

Irish dwarf 1791
Morning Chronicle, March 23 1791

But he left no trace of his ultimate fate.

 

Anita’s famous tomato chutney

By popular demand, here is the recipe for my famous tomato chutney.  It is somewhat modified from Madhur Jaffrey, An Invitation to Indian Cooking:

Sweet and spicy tomato chutney

1 head of garlic, peeled and roughly chopped (yes, a whole head)

a piece of fresh ginger, 2 in long, 1 in thick, 1 in wide, peeled and roughly chopped

1 1/2 cups white vinegar

2 lbs tomatoes, peeled and roughly chopped

1 1/2 cups sugar

1 1/2 tsp salt

1/8-1/2 tsp cayenne pepper (to taste)

Put garlic, ginger and 1/2 cup vinegar in blender and puree.  In a heavy-bottomed pan place tomatoes, the rest of the vinegar, sugar, salt. Bring to a boil, then add contents of blender.  Lower heat and cook very slowly for 1 1/2 hours or more, uncovered, until thick.  Add cayenne after about a hour, tasting to see how hot you want it.  I use 1/8 teaspoon of the hot cayenne I get at the co-op.  You can also use hot red pepper flakes. Stir frequently especially toward the end or it WILL stick and burn because of the sugar.  It should be as thick as honey with some chunks (this depends on how much you chop the tomatoes)– it should coat the back of a spoon when it is done.  It will be dark, dark red.  You can put it in canning jars and process or just put it in jars and keep it in the fridge — it keeps a while and it is good on anything.  Try it on a cheese sandwich.  It is amazingly good.  Makes about 2 cups, depending on how juicy the tomatoes are (if they’re really juicy it will make less).  The recipe can be doubled.

 

 

The Cats of Praia Vermelha

For the past week, I’ve been at the International Congress for the History of Science and Technology, held at the Praia Vermelha (“red beach”) campus of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  There are a lot of cats on the campus.  I don’t know their background; they seem to be strays, but are well fed and cared for.  I’ve been taking pictures of them for days; here’s a selection.

sleeping under cars

The cats liked to sleep around parked cars.  They followed the sun.

They seemed completely uninterested in people. more cats with cars

clean catsBut people were interested in them.

shelterThere was a shelter set up, with food and water.

boxesAnd newspaper-lined boxes because cats like boxes.  They were under the care of an organization for stray animals.

 

 

 

another sign
Attention! Cats in the Road!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The university did not seem particularly happy about their presence.

sign
“Federal Area.  Prohibited to abandon animals on campus.”

But this one-eyed ginger boy seemed supremely unconcerned.

sleeping pirate

Discovering Brazil

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, July 2017

I am sitting in the sun on the roof of my hotel in Rio, looking at the heavily forested hills to the east, the high rise hotels lining the Copacabana to the south, the elaborate rooftop garden across the Avenida de Princesa Isabel, and beyond, the rickety tin shacks of a favela creeping up a hill. It is winter in the tropics, and the temperature is 22 C (about 72 F) at 10 AM.

About 400 years ago, in 1637 or so (the sources differ on the dates), a young Dutch artist named Frans Post (1612-1680) travelled to South America at the invitation of the new Dutch governor of what was then a Dutch colony at Pernambuco in northeastern Brazil, which the Dutch held from 1630 until 1654.

Frans_Post_-_Paisagem_de_Pernambuco
Frans Post, Landscape of Pernambuco, 1637-44, Museu nacional de Belas Artes, Rio. Wikimedia

The Dutch governor, Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen (1604-1679), ruled over the sugar-rich territory between 1636 and 1644.

Map of Brazil from 17th century
Map of Dutch Brazil, ca 1639

According to art historians, Post completed eighteen landscapes while in Brazil, documenting Dutch possessions, including the port of Recife.  Post painted many more Brazilian landscapes from memory after his return to the Netherlands.  Another artist accompanying the governor, Albert Eckhout (1610-1666), painted people, including the slaves who worked on the sugar plantations, as well as plants and animals.

I saw a couple of Post’s later paintings last week at the art museum in São Paulo.  I had never heard of Frans Post, and knew only vaguely of the Dutch presence in Brazil.  I was intrigued by these large, lush landscapes laden with tropical plants, Dutch planters, and slaves.

Post View of Olinda 1662
Frans Post, View of Olinda, Brazil, 1662. Rijksmuseum

Some of his earlier works are at the Museu Nacional de Belas Artes in Rio; oddly, most of them are in Paris at the Louvre, presented as a gift to Louis XIV in 1679.  Some of Eckhout’s paintings, part of the same gift, became the basis of Gobelins tapestries. In 1645, Post made several engravings of his earlier paintings to illustrate a book by Caspar Barlaeus (1584-1648) on Johan Maurits’s tenure as governor, Rerum per octennium in Brasilia et alibi nuper gestarum (Recent achievements in Brazil over the past eight years), published in 1647.

Recently, a curator in the Netherlands discovered thirty-four previously unknown drawings of Brazilian animals made by Post during his stay.  Here is one, of a jaguar.   The caption calls it a “tiger,” and notes that some he has seen are black.

Post cat
Frans Post, Jaguar, ca. 1637-1644. Noord-Hollands Archief, Haarlem

The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam exhibited these drawings last winter, accompanied by taxidermied animals from the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden.  Sorry I missed it!

Johan Maurits appointed not only artists but also naturalists, to document the incredible richness and strangeness of Brazil. Among them was the German naturalist, astronomer, and explorer Georg Marcgraf (1610-1644), who arrived in Brazil early in 1638 and stayed until Johan Maurits’s departure; Marcgraf died shortly thereafter in Angola.  With Marcgraf was a Dutch physician, Willem Piso (1611-1678).  Together Marcgraf and Piso documented Brazilian flora and fauna.  Piso held a particular interest in indigenous remedies, following in the footsteps of Spanish physician Francisco Hernández (1514-1587), who had recorded Mexican plants and animals and the Aztec pharmacopoeia in the 1570s.  Hernández’s work finally appeared, much truncated, as Rerum medicarum Novae Hispaniae thesaurus (1651).

L0001205 F. Hernandez, 1517-1587, Rerum Medicarum..., 1649
Hernandez, Thesaurus, 1651

Johannes de Laet (1581-1649) edited the work of Piso and Marcgraf into the beautiful volume Historiae naturalis Brasiliae, published in 1648, a landmark in the natural history of the new world.

Historia-Naturalis-Brasiliae
Marcgraf and Piso, Historia naturalis Brasiliae, 1648

Many of the illustrations came from the work of Post and Eckhout.

Several historians, including Hal Cook, Britt Dams, and Neil Safier, have written about Marcgraf and Piso.  I have seen less about their relationship with Post and Eckhout (which does not mean that that work does not exist).  I like to think of these young men, all still in their twenties in the late 1630s, walking through the magical landscape of Brazil and recording its treasures, far from home in northern Europe.

 

Vesalius in Wonderland

eu040001Last month, artist Lisa Temple-Cox had a residency at Oregon State for two weeks as part of the Horning Series on “The Material Body” that I organized this academic year. Among the numerous talks and demonstrations she gave was this collaborative talk with art historian Glenn Harcourt on a joint project they are calling “Vesalius in Wonderland.” During the talk, Glenn describes the project while Lisa does a life-size copy of one of Vesalius’s illustrations. A video of the talk is here.

Accompanying the talk was a copy of the new English translation of Flemish anatomist Andreas Vesalius’s landmark 1543 work De humani corporis fabrica libri septem, The Fabric of the Human Body in Seven Books.  The translation is full, folio size, beautifully printed with detailed reproductions of the original illustrations.  You can see some samples here.  The Horning Endowment funded the purchase of this volume by the Special Collections and Archives Research Center at OSU, where the talk took place.