“… And here at last, was a real naturalist — the man who had been the first to explore Lake Okeechobee, who had been bitten by centipedes, who had written a book, who had collected turtle eggs for Agassiz [Louis Agassiz was the director of the Harvard University Museum of Comparative Zoology at the time], and who had been so nearly paralyzed by arsenic, absorbed in his mounting of skins, that he walked with a sort of quick scuff and shuffle!” ~Dallas Lore Sharp
The early 20th century was marked by an obsession with the act of preserving- whether plant, animal or human.
Folks have always been obsessed with living forever, but taxidermy took it to another level! Early on, arsenic was even used as a preserving agent, hence Jenks resulting paralysis.
Could this obsession with living forever be connected with fears related to expanding urbanism, the failings of European colonies, and increasing industrialization? I see it as all connected and all waiting for a juicy horror story featuring some gory taxidermy details! Yum!
“Had Bicocur lived in ages past, hc would havc heen accused of witchcraft and enchantment. What wonders has this excellent naturalist been able to unite in his cabinet. These are truly immortal.”
In 1894, the curator of the Jenks Museum of Natural History at Brown University was returning to the museum from lunch when he dropped dead on the very granite steps that led to the institution he loved and tended for 23 years.
Annie Johnson, a Brown alumna, chronicles in the spring of 1962 how an attic filled with spears, pottery and other artifacts was discovered as a wrecking ball was set to demolish Van Wickle Hall on campus. The items ended up at Brown’s Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, says Dwight B. Heath, emeritus professor of anthropology at Brown.
How could I not be inspired to create some sort of short story on this Jenks dude and the resulting “artifacts” that were dumped?!
Here are some notes I’ve gathered to help me with the writing process:
taxidermy (from the Greek for arrangement of skin) is the art of preparing, stuffing, and mounting the skins of animals (especially vertebrates) for display (e.g., as hunting trophies or museum display) or for other sources of study (like species identification) or simply the preservation of a beloved pet.
– In the 19th century, hunters began bringing their trophies to upholstery shops, where the upholsterer would actually sew up the animal skins and stuff them with rags and cotton.
-In France, Louis Dufresne, taxidermist at the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle from 1793, popularized arsenical soap in an article in “Nouveau dictionnaire d’histoire naturelle'” (1803–1804). This technique enabled the museum to build the greatest collection of birds in the world.
The ornithological cabinet of Jean-Baptiste Becoeur and the secret of the arsenical soap: http://www.rhinoresourcecenter.com/pdf_files/119/1193254263.pdf
This is just the tip of the taxidermy iceberg folks! Ima keep digging!