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.


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, 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.

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 and the beheaded man

On the 12th of May, 1543, Jakob Karrer von Getweiler was executed in Basel, Switzerland.  Reports say he was beheaded, although hanging was a more usual mode of execution.  Karrer was a bigamist who attacked his legal wife with a knife after she discovered his second wife.   According to a contemporary account, Karrer was a habitual criminal, and he left his wife grievously injured.  Although she did not die, he was sentenced to death.

The renowned Flemish anatomist Andreas Vesalius had been in Basel for several months to supervise the publication of his magnum opus, De humani corpus fabrica libri septem (Seven books on the structure of the human body), published in Basel later that year. eu040001 Perhaps it was inevitable that Vesalius was granted Karrer’s body to dissect.  Only executed criminals could be publicly dissected, with the blessing of the Basel Senate.  We do not know if the Senate offered Vesalius the beheaded body or if he requested it.  But Vesalius dissected Karrer, in front of an audience.

He then took Karrer’s dissected remains with the intention of making an articulated skeleton.  In chapter 39 of Book 1 of De fabrica, Vesalius had detailed for the first time the lengthy and gruesome process of constructing a skeleton.  Vesalius ch 39 2He included this illustration of someone handing down a decapitated head from a scaffold. Some of the techniques had existed for quite a while; the 14th century physician Guy de Chauliac noted “Nous faisons aussi l’Anatomie [d]es corps desseichez au Soleil, ou consommez en terre, ou fondus en eau courante ou bouillante » (we make an anatomy of bodies dried in the sun, or consumed by the earth, or dissolved in running or boiling water – “an anatomy” here indicates a skeleton).   Macerating in water and then drying in the sun were long-known methods of preparing bones for transport.

In his chapter, Vesalius first described the conventional method of preparing a skeleton, and illustrated it in one of the initial letters in his book.vesalius ch 39 1  As much flesh as possible was cut off of the body – without severing the joints or the ligaments – before it was put in a long perforated box, covered with quicklime, and sprinkled with water.   After a week the box was placed in a stream of running water and the flesh would presumably fall off of the bones and be washed away over a period of several more days.  Then the body was removed from the box, further cleaned with a knife, and posed in the sun to dry in a particular position, held together by its ligaments.

Vesalius described this method only to denigrate it as time consuming, dirty, and difficult; moreover, the blackened ligaments would cover the joints and other parts of interest.   He proceeded to describe in excruciating detail the proper way to separate human bones from flesh.  “Get any kind of cadaver somewhere,” he began.  The corpse was dissected and then boiled “in a large and capacious cauldron … of the kind women use for the preparation of lye over the fire.” He saved the cartilaginous parts such as the ears and stuck them to a piece of paper, and placed the organs and blood (squeezed out of a sponge) in another vessel.

The bones were boiled, carefully covered by water at all times, for several hours, with regular skimming off of froth and fat.  The bones of children, he said, take less time than adults.  “The object of the cooking is to clean the bones as thoroughly as is done with the knife while eating.”



Therefore one should pull out individual bones from the “broth” with tongs from time to time and clean them further with the hands or a knife, but this job should not be entrusted to a mere amateur.  The knives he used were similar, if not identical, to the knives wielded by such master meat-carvers as Vincenzo Cervio later in the sixteenth century, and the language of cooking is explicit.  One then placed the cleaned bones in more boiling water, and finally removed them, carefully drying them with a rough cloth to remove remaining bits.

The bones should not be allowed to dry too much.  If they are not too hardened, a shoemaker’s awl may be used to punch holes for the copper wire used to string the bones together, although in the 1555 second edition of De fabrica Vesalius also described a bone drill he had constructed.Picture1  He recommended starting with the feet and working upward, the reverse of the common head-to-toe order of dissection.  An iron rod, made to order, supported the vertebrae; the arms were then assembled and wired to the trunk.

With characteristic macabre whimsy Vesalius recommended posing the skeleton with a scythe, or a pike, or a javelin, and suggested stringing the ear bones and ears onto a nerve to make a necklace (when I read this I could only think of Tim O’Brien’s surreal story “The Sweetheart of Song Tra Bong,” in The Things They Carried (1990), and its heroine Mary Anne who wears, at the end, a necklace made up of severed Viet Cong ears).

The skeleton of Jacob Karrer, unlike most others from this era, still survives, and is on display at the anatomy museum in Basel, where I saw it a few months ago.IMG_20160429_141643912

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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The King’s Elephant

Last month, someone broke into the Paleontology wing of the Paris Museum of Natural History, and used a chain saw to cut off one of the tusks of the elephant skeleton there.  The skeleton dates from 1681 and is the oldest specimen at the museum.  Here is a little on the skeleton’s origins, from my just-finished book, The Courtiers’ Anatomists, and a picture I took of the skeleton last summer, with both tusks.Museum Paris June 2011 005

The anatomists from the Paris Academy of Sciences set out for Versailles with many tools and crates in the dark early morning of Wednesday, 22 January 1681.   When they reached the château, the dead elephant had already been hauled up onto a platform, “a kind of theatre,” as Fontenelle described it, ready for dissection.

The African elephant had been a gift from the King of Portugal thirteen years before, and had survived many Parisian winters before finally succumbing the previous day.  Four years old when she travelled from the Congo to Paris, she was therefore 17 at her death.  She was not the only elephant in Paris; a young Asian elephant had been on show when she arrived at Versailles.  But by the time of her death she was certainly the best known.  In the summer, her many visitors could see her in an open pen; in winter, they could view her through the glass of her heated chamber.  Artists came to draw her.  She ate 24 pounds of bread and twelve pints of wine each day, supplemented by two buckets of “potage” or sometimes cooked rice.  During her summer promenades through Versailles she pulled up grass with her trunk and ate it.  Generally very gentle, she knocked to the ground an artist who teased her; another she soaked with water from her trunk.  Her trunk was a marvel: she could untie knots with it, and one night opened the door of her enclosure without waking her keeper and wandered around the menagerie.

Elephants had a properly royal history in France: the Caliph Harun al-Rashid had sent Charlemagne an elephant named Abul-Abbas, and Henri IV sent an elephant he owned as a gift to Queen Elizabeth in 1591.  During the reign of Louis XIII, an elephant made a progress through France.  An elephant figured prominently in the fourth of five paintings in Charles LeBrun’s series The Triumphs of Alexander.  The painting, Triumphal Entry into Babylon, completed around 1670, depicts an African elephant like the one at Versailles rather than, as the subject might have demanded, an Asian one.  The series was much copied in tapestries and engravings. Charles_Le_Brun_-_Entry_of_Alexander_into_Babylon

Such a wondrous and enormous beast as the Versailles animal (eight and a half feet long, seven and a half high) held great interest for Claude Perrault and the Academy.  Few previous dissections of elephants had been made, and much about the anatomy and even the external morphology of the elephant was unknown.  Perrault and the Compagnie carefully examined and measured the elephant’s exterior, even scrutinizing her skin through a microscope.  It took over twenty pages in the printed description (only published in 1733) before the anatomist Duverney made the first cut.   He proceeded slowly and methodically, removing individual organs and parts, including the trunk, to be transported to the Academy for further examination.  Perrault took detailed notes and Philippe de La Hire sketched.  They discovered that the elephant, which had been thought to be male, was in fact female.  At some point in the proceedings, when Duverney was literally immersed in the beast, King Louis made an appearance and demanded to know where the anatomist was; presumably he knew Duverney as one of the tutors of the Dauphin.  In Fontenelle’s words, Duverney “rose from the flank of the animal, where he had been, so to speak, engulfed” and greeted his king.

Even with winter weather, the parts of the elephant would soon have begun to deteriorate, and the Compagnie met the following Sunday and Monday as well as on their regular Wednesday meeting to witness Duverney’s dissection of the head and other parts, accompanied by Perrault’s explanation.  Dissection of the trunk extended into the middle of February.  The reading of Duverney’s memoire of the dissection and Perrault’s account of the exterior occupied several more weeks.  The Compagnie was still talking about the elephant the following summer, and she featured prominently in the Academy’s annual report to Colbert.  A year later, the Compagnie met at the King’s Garden to look at the elephant’s skeleton, which had been assembled there.  The skeleton’s interest lay mainly in its enormous size and the fortuitous structure of the elephant’s defenses that made her such a deadly foe, and that made her gentleness at Versailles all the more remarkable.