28/06/2010

THE TRAGIC TALE OF THE ELEPHANT MAN...

Joseph Merrick 1862-1890
Joseph Merrick, otherwise known as The Elephant Man, was the physically deformed but intelligent and charming young Victorian who became one of the most famous ‘acts’ in the nineteenth century world of freak shows.

Such a public fate was destined to be when the young boy was thrown onto the streets following the death of his mother. His father went on to remarry, but the newlyweds wanted nothing to do with such an ugly sickly child who had already begun to show signs of the congenital deformity that led to his lips and limbs being swollen, with thick darkened lumps appearing on his skin, and an extending bony mass which began to grow out of his forehead.

Tom Norman - The Silver King

Having left school at the age of twelve, Joseph entered the workhouse at seventeen and was sent out to sell boot polish on the streets, though such an unprotected profession left him vulnerable to taunts and cruelty, and during that time he also became lame as the result of a serious fall. But, undaunted by his ailments, at the age of twenty-one – whether of his own volition or on the advice of some fellow inmates or workhouse staff – Joseph wrote to the music hall comedian Sam Torr while he was performing in Leicester and suggested that he might join Torr's show as a freak show exhibit. Torr put him in touch with Tom Norman, the UK’s answer to PT Barnum who was also known as The Silver King, due to his flashy silver jewellery. 


Joseph had been originally set up as a permanent exhibit in a shop on the Whitechapel Road in East London - a location directly opposite the London Hospital. When one of the surgeons, Frederick Treves,  happened to make a visit there, he invited Joseph to be examined and photographed for his medical records. Treves described his patient as being ‘deformed in body, face, head and limbs. His skin, thick and pendulous hung in folds, and resembled the hide of an elephant – hence his show name.'
But the shows were to come to an end when the exhibition of freaks was criminalised and, with the Whitechapel shop being closed up by the police, Joseph was persuaded to go on a tour of Europe instead. However, while in Brussels he was robbed and abandoned by his road manager and only with a great deal of difficulty – being penniless and hardly able to speak – did he manage to make his way back to London and, by the means of a written note, present himself once again to Treves at the London Hospital – though some say that Treves (left) found him while visiting Liverpool Street Station. 


What is agreed is that Joseph was almost at death’s door, sick with bronchitis and malnutrition, and although Treves knew his patient’s condition was incurable he offered Joseph a permanent home in some basement rooms at the hospital. There the two men were to meet every day, developing a  close friendship, discussing the poetry and prose that Joseph often wrote, of which the following is an example -


Tis true my form is something odd,
But blaming me is blaming God;
Could I create myself anew
I would not fail in pleasing you.
I I could reach from pole to pole
Or grasp the ocean with a span,
I would be measure by the soul;
The mind’s the standard of the man.

Ironically, even in hospital, Joseph remained an exhibit of sorts, receiving gifts and visits from members of the London gentry, including Alexandra, the Princess of Wales.  But, despite making his own trips to the theatre and countryside, he grew more lonely, morose and depressed, and he died at the age of twenty-seven, having suffered asphyxiation as the result of a crushed trachea after sleeping by lying down on his back, rather than in the usual sitting position that supported the enormous weight of his head. There was much debate as to whether he had been murdered or actually committed suicide, perhaps fearing for his future on hearing rumours that he might have been sent away from the hospital where he had become a financial drain. 
In a later pamphlet Treves was to write that his friend - had been plunged into the Slough of Despond, but with manly steps he gained the farther shore. He had been made "a spectacle to all men" in the heartless streets of Vanity Fair. He had been ill-treated and reviled and bespattered with the mud of Disdain. He had escaped the clutches of the Giant Despair, and at last had reached the "Place of Deliverance," where "his burden loosed from off his back, so that he saw it no more."

View of the Joseph Merrick from the rear

Joseph Merrick's Skull

The Elephant Man’s skeleton was preserved and is still held at the London Hospital, but even today with advanced DNA tests his condition has not been conclusively proved. It is thought most probably that he suffered from neurofibromatosis type 1, combined with Proteus syndrome.


In 1980 David Lynch’s film The Elephant Man was released. Based on The Elephant Man and other Reminiscences, a book by Sir Frederick Treves, it received 8 Academy award nominations and won the accolade of being the Best Picture 1981. Shot in black and white, it boasts a wonderful cast including John Hurt as Joseph Merrick and Anthony Hopkins as Treves. There are also fine performances by Anne Bancroft, John Geilgud, Hannah Gordon, Wendy Hiller, Michael Elphick and Freddie Jones.

20/06/2010

THE STORY OF JUMBO THE ELEPHANT...



Jumbo the elephant 1861-1885
Jumbo was an African elephant. His name was taken from ‘Jumbe’, the Swahili word for ‘Chief’. He eventually grew to be more than thirteen feet in height and to weigh at least six tons, achieving such notoriety that his name is now synonymous with anything of enormous size.




Jumbo was born in the French Sudan before being imported to the Parisian Zoo, the Jardin des Plantes and, from there, while still only four years old, he was transferred to London Zoo where he became the star attraction and remained until 1882 when – having become somewhat cantankerous and difficult for his keepers to control – he was purchased for $10,000 by the American, P.T. Barnum, becoming an act in the famous circus, “The Greatest Show on Earth.” 

Jumbo’s sale was not made without a great deal of objection, particularly from children who had visited London Zoo and ridden upon the great beast’s back. Queen Victoria received more than 100,000 letters appealing for her to intervene. But, all in vain.  Jumbo was sold, and was probably less bored and much happier for his temper was said to be greatly improved when touring through America and Canada in a specially constructed railway carriage.
Jumbo's arrival in America
Sadly, within three years ‘The Children’s Friend’ was dead, his fate met on an Ontario railway line when – or so Mr. Barnum said – he had been trying to save Tom Thumb, another  much younger elephant  in danger of being hit by an unscheduled express locomotive. Tom Thumb was scooped up in the cow catcher and flung from the tracks, but Jumbo was trapped when the train derailed and was crushed by the flying wreckage. Sustaining terrible injuries, the elephant was dragged to the sidings and comforted there by his handler until he finally died.
The Tragic Scene of Jumbo's death
But, Jumbo’s fame lived on. His skeleton was donated to the Museum of Natural History in New York. His heart was sold to Cornell University, and his hide was then stuffed, continuing to travel with The Greatest Show until, in 1889, Barnum donated him to Tufts University where he became the official mascot and was displayed until destroyed by a fire in 1975.


The VV has recently read and very much enjoyed The Elephant Keeper, a novel by Christopher Nicholson which tells the remarkable story of  two elephants imported to England at the end of the eighteenth century. Originally kept in a stately home, their lives and subsequent fates are tenderly chronicled by Tom, the boy who becomes their keeper. Tom's relationship with Jenny, the female elephant, is very movingly told, but there are themes that make this a story more suitable for the mature reader than a child. Even so, it is delightful, informative, disturbing, and, at times, quite heartbreaking.

The Elephant Keeper: A Novel


15/06/2010

THE GLORIES OF CHISWICK HOUSE...



Once upon a time, in a previous century, the VV lived in Chiswick, and rarely did a week go by when she did not take herself off for a stroll through the grand vistas and hidden, meandering pathways that made up the grounds of Chiswick House.



The classical villa was originally built by the third Earl of Burlington (1694-1753) in grounds purchased by his grandfather. Influenced by the Italian architect Andrea Palladio, and his follower, Inigo Jones, the house was constructed in the neo Palladian style and, rather than being an actual home, was used as a venue for lavish parties as well as being a showcase for valuable art and furniture collected on the continent.


Together with William Kent, the earl – who was known by Horace Walpole as the ‘Apollo of the Arts' - transformed the gardens with new designs based on romantic Italian landscape paintings and houses that he had visited when travelling on the Grand Tour. Departing to Chiswick in the heat of summer, leaving the stink of London behind, guests could hide in the ha-ha, or wander across the stone bridge and look into the lake, or wander beside the artificial river – then quite a revolutionary affect – and all surrounded by informal planting, the lushness of which was balanced by formal architectural details such as classical statues, Doric columns and an Ionic temple.



Often visited by Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, the house went on to play host to such luminaries as Handel, Sir Walter Scott, and – here’s some Victorian reference! – Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.


The VV particularly likes the fact that during the Victorian era, Georgiana’s son, the ‘Bachelor’ Duke filled the grounds with a menagerie that included an elephant, some elk and emus and kangaroo, and also a sacred Indian bull. Sadly, she can find all too little information regarding this interlude in the house's history.



In later years, the Prince of Wales was a tenant, and one can only begin to imagine the parties he must have held - probably something like that depicted in The London Illustrated News when, in 1844, the Duke of Devonshire held a grand fete, banquet and ball in honour of the Emperor of Russia.


By 1892 the house had been leased out again, and this time much less glamorously, being used as a mental institution for wealthy male and female patients, confined in additional wings built onto the side of the house in the late 1700's. The asylum was run by the Tuke Brothers and closed in 1928. The hospital wings no longer exist having been demolished in the 1950's, but some records do survive in the Wellcome Institute's library, along with letters from the patients which make interesting reading - such as one gentlemen demanding that he should be given some brandy, and a woman who complained that her accompanying nurse snored so loudly that she was unable to sleep. On the whole the asylum appears to have been run well. The fees paid by the inmates' relatives would probably have ensured good care. However, in Elijah's Mermaid, the VV's latest Victorian novel,  those wings have provided the setting for some most disturbing scenes. 


After fallen into some decline at the start of the twentieth century, in recent times the house has been lovingly restored. The gardens have just been re-opened, having been subject to a £12 million face lift, overseen by English Heritage – an amount which is vast but, in real terms, is substantially less than that which was originally spent.

The VV recommends a visit to Chiswick House. Click here for The official site which is excellent. And when you are footsore and weary from strolling around the house and grounds you will find a lovely cafe in which to rest and drink some tea. You won’t be disappointed.

08/06/2010

WHEN THE PAST IS AS REAL AS THE PRESENT...

When the VV saw this picture, she simply had to post it here. The image was captured by J. J Clarke, an Irish medical student who had a passion for photography and excelled at taking snapshots full of life and movement.

This one shows a girl in a seaside town, riding along on a tricycle. It dates from 1900, and yet it could be any child, any time - with her hands gripping tight to the handlebars and her tongue pressed firmly against one cheek, and such a determined expression that speaks of the thrill; of danger and speed. It really is something quite special.


The VV would like to thank The Retronaut for drawing her attention to Mr Clarke's work, and many more of his striking images can be found on Chris Wild's wonderful website: http://www.howtobearetronaut.com/ 
Here the viewer is given a passport and then transported back through time by the means of amazing vintage film and stunning photography. And, what's more, Chris will be one of the speakers for TED Global 2010, July 13th 4.45 - 6.30pm. Details can be found on: http://conferences.ted.com/TEDGlobal2010/program/speakers.php

05/06/2010

TEE-TOTALLERS AND THE TEMPERANCE SOCIETY...


Having a Tee-totaller around the house, as the VV does from time to time, can lead to a sense of moral inadequacy, when a lack of control and rectitude by those of us who do indulge leads to being fixed in the pious stare of HE who remains cold stone sober.
Joseph Livesey - who doesn't look like fun!
But where does that saying – Tee-total – come from? The VV had always assumed that it must have had something to do with drinking vast quantities of tea, in preference to inebriating beverages. But that does not appear to be the case. The term originated around 1832 at a meeting of the Preston Temperance Society, whose leader, Joseph Livesey, was the author of the Temperance Pledge:  
We agree to abstain from all liquors of an intoxication quality whether ale, porter, wine or ardent spirits, except as medicine.”
So, complete and total restraint – and one explanation for the term Tee-total is said to have come about when a stammering Livesey follower said that nothing would do but “tee-tee-total abstinence.”
Others came to think that the ‘Tee’ is simply a way of accentuating the T in Total; a way of stressing the meaning yet more. And, there is also the idea that it stood for the T in Temperance – the letter written after the signature of any who swore to uphold the pledge – although when the movement reached Australia in the mid 1830’s, its followers preferred to advocate moderation, rather than absolute abstinence.

And, in later years, the Quakers and Salvation Army would also march under the Temperance banner and lobby parliament for restrictions on the sale of alcohol, seeing in their charitable work on the streets the terrible harm that addiction caused.
                                            The Boy Gambles His Money - Plate 2 of Cruikshank's The Drunkard's Children
The artist, George Cruikshank who had watched his own father die of alcoholism was an ardent follower of Temperance, producing several books on the subject in an attempt at education. These included titles such as ‘The Bottle’ (1847), ‘The Drunkard’s Children (1848), and The Worship of Bacchus (1862).
From Cruikshank's The Bottle

Religious believers played a great part in the Temperance Movement. The Catholic priest, Theobald Matthew, managed to persuade thousands of people to sign the Pledge in Ireland. The Non-Conformist Movement was against the use of alcohol and, in 1886, of 1,900 Baptist ministers 1,000 claimed to be total abstainers.
George Sims - who looks a little sozzled!
In 1889, George Sims wrote ‘How the Poor Live’ and explained his own reasons for abstinence:
Drink is the curse of these communities; but how is it to be wondered at? The gin-palaces flourish in the slums, and fortunes are made out of men and women who seldom know where tomorrow's meal is coming from.

Can you wonder that the gaudy gin-palaces, with their light and their glitter, are crowded? Drink is sustenance to those people; drink gives them the Dutch courage necessary to go on living; drink dulls their senses and reduces them to the level of the brutes they must be to live in such places.

The gin-palace is heaven to them compared to the hell of their pestilent homes. A copper or two, often obtained by pawning the last rag that covers the shivering children on the bare floor at home, will buy enough alcohol to send a woman so besotted that the wretchedness, the anguish, the degradation that await her there have lost their grip. The drink dulls every sense of shame, takes the sharp edge from sorrow, and leaves the drinker for awhile in a fools' paradise.

It is not only crime and vice and disorder flourish luxuriantly in these colonies, through the dirt and discomfort bred of intemperance of the inhabitants, but the effect upon the children is terrible. The offspring of drunken fathers and mothers inherit not only a tendency to vice, but they come into the world physically and mentally unfit to conquer in life's battle. The wretched, stunted, misshapen child-object one comes upon in these localities is the most painful part of our explorers' experience. The country asylums are crowded with pauper idiots and lunatics, who owe their wretched condition of the sin of the parents, and the rates are heavily burdened with the maintenance of the idiot offspring of drunkenness.
And let that be a warning to us all!

As a final note, the VV would like to share her non-alcoholic version of the lovely summer cocktail ‘Pimms’ – basically chop up your cucumber, strawberries, apples, lemons, oranges and mint etc, and then place it in some iced lemonade, BUT rather than adding Pimms to the brew, simply infuse a few drops of good Balsamic vinegar. It really is an excellent substitute though, as many will ask, I’m sure – what on earth is the point of that?


01/06/2010

THE MURDERERS BURKE AND HARE...


Up the Close and doun the stair;
But and ben wi’ Burke and Hare:
Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief,
And Knox the boy who buys the beef.

It is often and wrongly assumed that the murderers Burke and Hare were Resurrectionists, or grave robbers, for although it is true that they supplied corpses for the use of Dr Knox, a famed anatomist in Edinburgh, they did not rob any graves. Their bodies were cleaner and fresher than that!
A killing spree began in 1827 and lasted just under a year, during which sixteen victims were murdered and then sold on to the medical school. But, the first transaction came about more by chance when an elderly man who lodged with Mr and Mrs Hare died of natural causes, and without having paid his bills. Burke and Hare took his body to Surgeons’ Square and offered it to Dr Knox who in turn paid them £7 10 shillings. A very tidy profit indeed, after which the two Irish immigrants realised there was easy money to make – if only they knew how to find a regular supply of corpses.
The use of the term /Burking' in a contemporary cartoon
Few questions were asked at the college regarding the source of cadavers, of which there were never enough for the purposes of dissection and study. The use of hanged criminals was legally allowed but executions had been in decline – hence the trade with the Resurrectionists who dug fresh corpses up from their graves. And then, there was the arrangement forged with Burke and Hare, who took to preying on the old and infirm, luring them back to Hare’s lodging house where they plied them with whiskey and then used a method of killing that has since become known as ‘Burking’ – a practice involving the compression of a victim’s chest while smothering them to death.
There were undoubted risks. When two prostitutes appeared on the dissection slab, one of them was soon recognised by some of the medical students. Another victim also proved to be a little too familiar. Daft Jamie, a mentally impaired teenage  boy who had suffered with a severe limp was once again recognised by some of the dissection students. However, Knox responded to their alarm, not by giving the body up, but by cutting off its face and feet – obliterating the features and any proof of deformity.
The Execution of William Burke: 28th January 1829
The murders only came to an end when some of Hare’s neighbours became suspicious after hearing the sounds of a violent struggle. And then, two lodgers returned to the house, only to find an old woman's body hidden beneath their bed. The police were rapidly informed and yet, without sufficient evidence, only Burke was found guilty and hanged - but not before swearing that Dr Knox had never known the true source of the bodies that happened to come his way. Ironically, Burke's body was taken to the Edinburgh Medical College and there dissected in public. His skeleton and death mask are now on display at the Royal College of Surgeons' Museum.
                                             Dr Robert Knox                                        
Nevertheless, Knox was deeply tainted by the scandal and when effigies of the doctor were burned he was forced to leave his post, eventually taking a new one in London where he worked at the Cancer Hospital.
 William Hare
And, as to the fate of Hare, in one story he is also said to have travelled to London, after first giving the evidence to incriminate his friend. In London, he was rumoured to have been attacked by violent mobs who threw him into a pit of lime which left him blind, forced to live out his days as a beggar – which, some would say, was a fitting fate, having murdered so many beggars himself.
Although, strictly speaking, the Burke and Hare murders occurred a decade before Victoria even came to the throne, she was alive during their murderous campaign, and the affects of their hideous crimes went on to haunt the century.
Robert Louis Stevenson referred to them in his short story entitled The Body Snatcher, which you can read in an ebook. And, in the twentieth century countless books, comics, films and TV programmes have depicted the murderous pair's gruesome deeds. The VV feels sure that there will be more stories yet to come.