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.

 

Climate, Sedans, and Bottled Water

17 December 2015

I spent a few days in Beijing last week, the first time since 2005.  I expected to find changes, but I was nonetheless surprised.  Instead of vendors hawking fake Prada bags on the street (they would follow me chanting “Gucci-Prada”), there are now lavish malls selling the real thing.  Christmas trees and Santa Claus are everywhere, and “Jingle Bells” blares along  2015-12-11 23.47.44Wangfujing Street, a pedestrian mall that could be in any American or European city.

To me, the biggest change had to do with cars. From being a city dominated by the bicycle, Beijing has become a city of cars.  I saw very few bicycles, and those were mainly being ridden by older people who were also, judging by their dress and the loads they were carrying, quite poor.

Many have commented on the explosion in the number of cars in Beijing;

traffic_2320681b
telegraph.co.uk

in 2012 it passed the 5 million mark, vs. 2.6 million in 2005.  Massive traffic jams are a daily occurrence; it’s as if every freeway is the 405 at rush hour, all the time (Angelenos will get that reference).  But what really struck me were the kinds of cars.  I got off the plane last Wednesday night at the tail end of the latest killer smog, and the acrid air caught at my throat as I walked out of the terminal.

control tower smog
Beijing Airport in the smog

The parking lots were full of Volkswagens and other German cars.  And these were not the Golfs and Polos I saw in Berlin last year, but Jettas and Passats, BMWs and Audis.  We were picked up at the airport by a very nice Audi, and driven back on Sunday in an even nicer Mercedes.  In between I got driven around in a late-model Passat.

This was not a fluke occasioned by our extremely generous hosts from the Chinese Academy of Sciences.  Most of the cars I saw during my four days in Beijing were German, and they were not small.  China must be one of Volkswagen’s biggest markets (and indeed it sold over 3.5 million cars there last year).  I saw few diesels, but I also saw no hybrids.  Although China is said to be making major efforts in developing electric cars in order to deal with the smog problem, I did not see any.  I did see several Buicks and an extremely large and elaborate Cadillac. I saw one Honda Fit.  The ubiquitous yellow and green cabs are all Hyundai Elantras.

Admittedly this is a far from scientific survey, but my impression is that the new wealth in China is being spent on mid-size sedans and bottled water.  At the conference I attended, everyone was provided with evian-bottle4unlimited 500 ml bottles of Evian.  Several of us sneaked some back to our hotel rooms, where, of course, the water coming out of the tap is not drinkable.  Bemused, we pondered a world where bottles of French water were flown thousands of miles for visiting Europeans and Americans to drink.  I don’t think the bottles were recycled.

The smog came back on Saturday afternoon.  Unlike on Wednesday, it smelled strongly of coal, a smell that brought me back to my first trips to Britain in the 1970s.  Christine Corton’s recent book on London’s fogs reminds us that its last “killer fog” took place in 1962 – several years after the enactment of a Clean Air Act.  Owing to the number of cars, London’s air is again unhealthful, mainly owing to diesel combustion.  Despite a certain optimism after the successful conclusion of the Paris Climate Summit, we still have a long way to go.

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.

The Skeleton Trade: Life, Death, and Commerce in Early Modern Europe

Objects in Motion: Material Culture in Transition

Anita Guerrini, Horning Professor of the Humanities and Professor of History at Oregon State University, discusses the fascinating research which she presented atObjects in Motion: Material Culture in Transition.

Although the human skeleton was well known as a symbol 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 Vesalius were plagiarized over and over for two centuries after their publication in 1543.

Vesalius, "De humani corporis fabrica", 1543. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Vesalius, “De humani corporis fabrica”, 1543. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Vesalius was the first 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…

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