1677: Londoners burn live cats in wicker pope


Our European ancestors really had it in for cats, chiefly because of their association with the devil or witchcraft. Many cats have paid the ultimate price for this superstition. Documents from medieval and early modern Europe describe dozens of cases of cats being burned alive, either for entertainment or religious point scoring. Cat burning was particularly common in France, where a dozen live cats were routinely torched in Paris every Midsummer’s Day (late June). English courtier Philip Sidney attended one of these feline infernos in 1572. In his chronicle Sidney noted that King Charles IX also threw a live fox onto the fire, for added interest. In 1648 France’s King Louis XIV, then aged just 10, lit the tinder on a large bonfire in central Paris, then watched and danced with glee as a basket of stray cats was lowered into the flames. Live cats were frequently burned alive elsewhere in Europe, particularly at Easter or the period around Halloween.

medieval cat burning
Like witches, heretics, sodomites and Jews, many cats were burned alive in medieval Europe

Cat burning was less common in Britain, however a few examples are recorded. One comes from the letters of Englishman Charles Hatton. In November 1677 Hatton wrote to his brother, chiefly about who might be appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. He closed his letter by describing a recent celebration to mark the 119th anniversary of Elizabeth I taking the throne. At the centre of this pageantry, Hatton wrote, was a large wickerwork figure of Pope Innocent XI, an effigy that reportedly cost £40 to make. The wicker pope was paraded through London, then erected in Smithfield and set alight. Inside its baskety innards was a number of live cats:

“Last Saturday the coronation of Queen Elizabeth was solemnised in the city with mighty bonfires and the burning of a most costly pope, carried by four persons in diverse clothing, and the effigies of devils whispering in his ears, his belly filled full of live cats, who squawled most hideously as soon as they felt the fire. The common saying all the while was [the cats’ screeching] was the language of the Pope and the Devil in a dialogue between them.”

According to Charles Hatton, these perverse celebrations were concluded with the opening and distribution of a free barrel of claret.


Source: Letter from Charles Hatton to Christopher Hatton, November 22nd 1677. From Correspondence of the Family of Hatton, vol. 1, 1878. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1852: Drunk zookeeper dies from cobra bite to the nose


In October 1852 Edward Horatio Girling, an employee at London Zoo, died after being bitten by a five-foot cobra. A post mortem on Girling’s corpse showed the cobra had bitten him five times on the nose. One of these bites had penetrated to the nasal bone and bled profusely. Girling was rushed to hospital by cab, a journey that took 20 minutes. While in the cab his head swelled to “an enormous size” and his face turned black. Once at hospital Girling was given artificial respiration and electrical shocks. Neither was successful and he died 35 minutes after arrival.

cobra
A report on the inquest into Barling’s slithery demise

After ascertaining how Girling died, an inquest investigated how he had come to be bitten in the first place. Early press reports put it down to a homicidal serpent. One suggested the cobra had bitten its victim him with “murderous intent”, another had it lunging from the shadows while Girling was delivering food to the enclosure. It did not take long for the inquest to discover that Girling was responsible for his own demise. One of Girling’s work colleagues, Edward Stewart the hummingbird keeper, testified at the inquest. He claimed to be passing by the snake enclosure with a basket of larks when he saw Girling inside. Apparently showing off, Girling picked up the ‘Bocco’, a mildly venomous colubrid snake, by its neck. According to Stewart:

“…Girling then said ‘Now for the cobra!’ Deceased took the cobra out of the case and put it inside his waistcoat, it crawled round from the right side and came out at the left side… Girling drew it out and was holding the cobra between the head and middle of the body when it made a dart at his face.”

Stewart and other witnesses also testified that Girling was drinking ample quantities of gin at breakfast time. A zookeeper named Baker told the inquest “he believed that the deceased was intoxicated”. It was also noted that Girling had little if any experience with venomous snakes; he had only recently started working at the zoo after employment with the railways. Unsurprisingly the coroner found that Girling had died as a “result of his own rashness whilst in a state of intoxication”.


Source: The Daily News, London, October 23rd 1852. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. This content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1120: Gold from cocks, toads and redhead blood


Theophilus Presbyter was the pen name of a Germanic polymath, active during the early 12th century. Sometime around 1120 Presbyter published a Latin volume entitled De Diversis Artibus (‘The Diverse Arts’), in which he shared his knowledge of science, metalworking and alchemy. In this extract, contemporarised but otherwise unchanged, Theophilus takes us through some comprehensive instructions for making gold:

1. Locate or prepare an underground house, with “all sides of stone” and “two openings so small that scarcely any [sunlight] is visible”.

2. Into this house place “two cocks of 12 to 15 years old and give them sufficient food”. When the cocks have “become fatted”, allow them to mate with hens until the hens lay eggs.

3. Expel the chickens and replace them with large toads, which are to “keep the eggs warm”.

4. “From the hatched eggs there [shall hatch] male chickens, like hen’s chickens, which after seven days [will] grow serpents’ tails.” These must be kept in a room or cellar lined with stone or they will burrow into the earth.

5. After six months, burn these creatures alive until they are “completely consumed” and burnt to ashes.

6. Gather up the ashes and “pulverise them, adding a third part of the blood of a red-haired man”, mixed with some “sharp vinegar”.

7. Spread this mixture over “the thinnest plates of purest red copper… and place them in the fire”. When they become red hot, take from the fire and cool, then repeat this step until “the preparation penetrates through the copper and takes on the weight and colour of gold.”


Source: Theophilus Presbyter, De Diversis Artibus, c.1120. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1748: Bear babies by broiling buzzard balls


More handy hints from the Zoologia Medicinalis Hibernica, published in 1748 by Irish priest and naturalist John K’eogh. The Zoologia is essentially an encyclopedia of the animal kingdom, focusing on the medical applications of each particular creature:

“Trout fat is useful to cure chapped lips and the fundament, the grieved parts being anointed therewith…”

“Butterflies reduced into powder and mixed with honey cure the alopecia or baldness, being externally applied. Pulverised and taken in any fit vehicle, they provide urine…”

“Otter liver, pulverised and taken in the quantity of two drams in any popular vehicle, stops haemorrhages and all manner of fluxes. The testicles, made into powder and drank, help to cure the epilepsy… Shoes made of the skin cure pains of the feet and sinews… A cap made thereof helps to cure vertigo and headache…”

“Rat’s dung reduced to powder cures the bloody flux… The ashes of the whole rat… being blown into the eyes, clears the sight… The dung made into powder and mixed with bear’s grease cures the alopecia…”

“The testicles of a buzzard, broiled or roasted [and] eaten with salt… or two scruples of powder of [buzzard testicles] mixed with half a scruple of ant’s eggs, are spermatogenetic, making men and women fruitful.”


Source: John K’eogh, Zoologia Medicinalis Hibernica, 1748. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1748: Cure baldness with cat dung and onion juice


John K’eogh (1680s-1754) was an Irish priest, theologian and naturalist. Born in Strokestown, County Roscommon, K’eogh was the son of a prominent clergyman from Limerick. He was educated at Trinity College in Dublin then undertook study in Europe, before returning to Ireland and serving as chaplain to Baron Kingston in his native Roscommon. Toward the end of his life K’eogh authored two significant volumes of medical receipts. The first (Botanologia Universalis Hibernicaor, 1735) focused on herbal potions and treatments, while the second (Zoologia Medicinalis Hibernica, 1748) contained an extensive collection of animal-based remedies. As might be expected, the second text contains unusual advice, such as the diverse medical uses of house cats. Their grease, when applied as an ointment, is effective at “dissolving tumours” and “prevails against nodes in the skin”, while pulverised cat liver is “good against the gravel [kidney and bladder stones]” and prevents stoppage of urine.”

Other cat-based receipts mentioned by K’eogh include remedies for eyesight problems:

“The ashes of a cat’s head, blown into the eyes, or mixed with honey for a balsam… is good against pearls [cataracts], blindness and dimness of the sight.”

Several uses for cat’s blood:

“[Cat] blood kills worms in the nose and in other parts of the skin… Ten drops of blood taken out of the tail of a bore cat, drank, cures the epilepsy… A few drops of the blood given in any proper vehicle are good to cure convulsion fits.”

For something to soothe those aching piles:

“The flesh, being salted and bruised, draws splinters and thorns out of the flesh and helps to cure the haemorrhoids.”

And finally, an interesting cure for hair loss:

“The dung, pulverised one ounce and mixed with mustard seed in powder [and] juice of onions… cures the alopecia or baldness.”


Source: John K’eogh, Zoologia Medicinalis Hibernica, 1748. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.