Category Archives: Animals

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

Cat-burning was less common in Britain, though 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 2019-23. 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.

After the bite, 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.

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 2019-23. 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 2019-23. 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 2019-23. 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 in an 18th-century medical text, the second contains some 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 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1825: Toughen your nipples with puppies

William Dewees

William Dewees (1768-1841) was an American physician, academic and medical author. Dewees was born to a farming family in Pottsgrove, just south of Philadelphia. Despite a lack of medical training and a rudimentary education, at age 21 Dewees set up shop as the local physician in nearby Abington. He worked to improve his knowledge, however, reading voraciously and studying under the French obstetrician Baudeloegue.

In the 1820s, Dewees authored a series of books on maternal health, midwifery and childcare. His theories were unpopular in Europe, where they were met with scorn and criticism, but Dewees became one of the United States’ most prominent experts on obstetrics.

Like others of his era, Dewees was prone to the occasional wacky theory. He was an advocate of maternal impression – the idea that a woman’s fantasies and experiences could shape or deform her unborn child – and he advised expectant mothers to eat less, not more. Writing in 1825, Dewees also urged pregnant women to avoid sore nipples by toughening them in the last trimester:

“We must rigorously enforce the rules we have laid down for the conduct of the woman immediately after delivery. Besides this, the patient should begin to prepare these parts previously to labour, by the application of a young but sufficiently strong puppy to the breast. This should be immediately after the seventh month of pregnancy. By this plan the nipples become familiar to the drawing of the breasts. The skin of them becomes hardened and confirmed, the milk is more easily and regularly formed, and a destructive accumulation and inflammation is prevented.”

After childbirth, the puppy should be replaced by the infant (in case it wasn’t obvious). The mother should then wash the nipples daily with warm water and soap. She should also avoid compressing the breasts with clothing, Dewees’ advice being to protect them by creating:

“…an opening in the jacket, corset or stays, so as to leave them at liberty.”

In 1834 Dewees was appointed as professor of obstetrics at University of Pennsylvania. He remained in this post until his death in 1841.

Source: William P. Dewees, A Treatise on the Physical and Medical Treatment of Children, 1825. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1725: Cure dysentery with turds from a bone-eating dog

Noel Chomel’s suggested cure for a toothache – stick a red-hot knitting needle in your ear

Noel Chomel (1633-1712) was an estate manager and parish priest from central France. In 1709, three years before his death, Chomel published his lifelong collection of handy hints, recipes and medical receipts. The Dictionnaire Oeconomique, as it was titled, became one of the most popular household almanacs of the 18th century. Over the next 70 years it was reprinted numerous times in several languages, including French, German and Dutch.

The first English edition was translated and updated by Cambridge botany professor Richard Bradley and published in London in 1725. This edition contained advice on everything from cooking to card games, from making soap to managing livestock. Many of its medical remedies called for the use of dead animals and excrement. For example, for “those who piss a bed”:

“Take some rat or mouse turd, reduce it into powder and putting about an ounce of it in some broth, take it for three days together. It is an excellent remedy for this imperfection. There’s [also] nothing better for persons who piss in their sleep… than to eat the lungs of a roasted kid [or] to drink in some wine a powder made of the brain or testicles of a hair…”

For an anal fistula, a “hollowy oozy ulcer in the posteriors”:

“Take a live toad, put it into an earthen pot that can bear the fire, cover it so that it cannot get out, surround it with a wheel fire and reduce it into powder… Lay this powder upon the fistula, after you have first washed it with warm wine or the urine of a male child.”

Lastly, for severe or bloody dysentery:

“Take the powder of a hare, dried and reduced into powder, or the powder of a human bone, and drink it in some red wine. Gather the turd of a dog that for the space of three days has gnawed nothing else but bones, dry it and reduce it into powder, and let the patient drink it twice a day with milk.”

Source: Noel Chomel & Richard Bradley, Dictionnaire Oeconomique, 1725 ed. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1661: Ease swollen testes with butter-fried horse dung

Johann Jacob Wecker was a Swiss physician, naturalist and alchemist of the mid-16th century. Wecker authored several popular tracts on alchemy and medicine. He is perhaps best known for his account of genital malformations, including the first documented case of a double penis, discovered on a corpse in Bologna.

In the mid 1600s, an English physician named Read collated Wecker’s medical and surgical receipts into an eighteen-book collection, Secrets of Art and Nature. The 1661 edition contained hundreds of suggested medical treatments for all manner of complaints – including several cures for “pains of the belly”:

“The heart of a lark bound to the thigh… and some have eaten it raw with very good success.”

“I know one who drank dry ox dung in broth and it presently cured him of the colic… Some do not drink the dung but the juice pressed from it, which is far better.”

“Any bone of a man hanged, so that it may touch the flesh [may] cure pains of the belly.”

“Apply a living duck to your belly, the disease will pass into the duck.”

For excessive bleeding, Wecker suggests a trip to the pigpen:

“To staunch blood… Blood running immoderately out of any part of the body will be presently stopped if hog’s dung [still] hot be wrapped up in fine thin cotton linen and put into the nostrils, women’s privities or any other place that runs with blood. I write this for country people rather than for courtiers, being a remedy fit for their turn…”

Wecker also provides handy beauty tips. He offers recipes for dying the hair numerous colours, including silver, yellow, red, green and several shades of black. There are also remedies for encouraging hair growth and removing unwanted hair, both of which involve rodent excreta:

“To diminish the hair… cat’s dung dried and powdered and mingled to a pap with strong vinegar will do it. With this you must rub the hairy place often in a day, and in a short time it will grow bald… The piss of mice or rats will [also] make a hairy part bald.”

“That hair may grow again quickly, the ashes of burnt bees [mixed] with mice dung, if you anoint this with oil of roses, will make hair grow in the palm of your hand.”

Lastly, for “swollen codds [testicles], Wecker suggests breaking out the frypan:

“Take new horse dung, mix the same with vinegar and fresh butter, fry it in a pan and, as hot as the patient may endure, lay it to the grieved place.”

Source: Johann Wecker and Dr R. Read, Secrets of Art and Nature, 1661 ed. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1763: Bengali tax defaulters forced to wear cat pants

Mir Jafar, India’s own Benedict Arnold, sells out to the British in 1757.

Mir Jafar (1691-1765) was the nawab of Bengal from 1757 until his death in 1765. Mir Jafar was a long-serving and effective Bengali military leader, rising to become commander in chief under the popular nawab Siraj ul-Daulah. But by the 1750s, Jafar had become paranoid, inconsistent and power hungry, possibly a by-product of his worsening opium addiction.

In 1757, Siraj ul-Daulah was threatened and besieged by British East India Company troops. Mir Jafar double-crossed the nawab by holding back his own army and signing a secret agreement with Robert Clive. Siraj ul-Daulah was defeated, captured and executed and Mir Jafar was installed as nawab. But Mir Jafar soon learned that Clive’s backing came with a heavy price.

Faced with constant demands of money from the British, Mir Jafar sought to extract it from the local population. By 1760, tax collection in Bengal could be a brutal affair, both for officials and civilians. Non-payers were starved, denied water, stripped naked and flogged. Tax collectors who failed to fill quotas were strung up by the ankles, to have the soles of their feet rubbed raw with a brick.

One of Mir Jafar’s advisors developed his own particularly nasty methods, described in a 1763 Persian account:

“The dewan [bureaucrat] Syed Rezee Khan, whom Jafar appointed to collect government revenues, exceeded his master in cruelty. He ordered a pit to be dug about the height of a man, which was filled with human excrement, in such a state of putrefaction as to be full of worms. The stench was so offensive that it almost suffocated whoever came near it… Syed Rezee Khan, in contempt of the Hindus, called this infernal pit Bickoont [Hindu for ‘paradise’]… Those who failed in their payments, after undergoing the severities before described, were ducked in this pit.

And if that wasn’t bad enough…

“He also obliged them to wear long leather drawers filled with live cats. He would force them to drink buffalo’s milk mixed with salt, till it brought them to death’s door by a diarrhoea. By these means he used to collect the revenues…”

Unsurprisingly, Mir Jafar is still a despised figure on the subcontinent. Most consider him the man who sold out Bengal and opened up the rest of India for British colonisation. The word “mirjafar” is a Bengali insult meaning ‘traitor’. The fate of Mir Jafar’s inventive tax collector, Syed Rezee Khan, is unrecorded.

Source: Francis Gladwin (transl.), A Narrative of the Transactions in Bengal &c., London, 1788. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1799: Polish glutton dines on dogs, cats, candles

An engraving of early modern gluttons at work

In 1799 Doctor Thomas Cochrane, a prison surgeon in Liverpool, reported on the unusual eating habits of a man in his care.

Charles Domery was a Polish-born prisoner-of-war, captured off the coast of Ireland while serving with French republican forces. According to Cochrane’s description, Domery was in good health and physically unremarkable aside from his above average height (six foot three inches). He had pale skin, long brown hair and a “pleasant and good-tempered” demeanour.

Domery’s appetite, however, was something else. His preferred diet was several pounds of meat, cooked or raw, followed by several large tallow candles:

“The eagerness with which he attacks his beef when his stomach is not gorged resembles the voracity of a hungry wolf tearing off and swallowing pieces with canine greediness. When his throat is dry from continued exercise he lubricates it by stripping the grease off candles between his teeth, which he generally finishes in three mouthfuls. [He then] wraps the wick like a ball, string and all, and sends it after in a swallow.”

According to testimony from Domery, corroborated by his fellow prisoners-of-war, he had previously supplemented his meagre military rations by eating whatever else he could find:

“When in the camp, if bread and meat were scarce, he made up the deficiency by eating four or five pounds of grass daily. In one year he devoured 174 cats (but not their skins), dead or alive. He says he had several conflicts in the act of destroying them, by feeling the effects of their torments on his face and hands. Sometimes he killed them before eating but when very hungry he did not wait to perform this humane office.”

Domery also reported eating several dead dogs and live rats, as well as discarded offal from cattle and sheep. He claimed to have once nibbled on the amputated leg of a fellow sailor.

While detained in Liverpool his daily ration included raw meat, liver and candles. On a single day Dr Cochrane watched Domery consume ten pounds of raw beef, four pounds of raw cow’s udder and two pounds of candles. Domery was released from detention in 1800 but his fate is not known.

Source: Letter from Thomas Cochrane, September 9th 1799; published in The New England Quarterly, vol. 2, 1802. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.