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.