- Morbid Souvenirs
Veinity Fair is finally back! I missed you guys and I hope you’re ready for some more Victorian trivia and peculiar comics!
Let’s start just where we left off, with topics chosen by a few lucky winners of previous contests and auctions. Today’s comic was inspired by the winner of a local charity auction who took on the role of our early Victorian investigator.
The famous Scotland Yard was formed in 1829, but the Metropolitan Police was far from organized in its infancy. In the beginning, the MP was merely keeping watch on the streets and investigation procedures were just being formed, relying primarily on the so-called “story model” rather than the meticulous practices we’re used to today. Because of that, even crime scenes were often left unattended, with curious crowds peeking in and collecting ‘souvenirs’, as in the below example:
The Examiner 11.12.1831
THE DISEASED APPETITE FOR HORRORS,
“The landlord upon whose premises a murder is committed, is nowadays a made man. The place becomes a show—the neighbourhood as the scene of a fair, The barn in which Maria Martin was murdered by Corder, was sold in toothpicks: the hedge through which the body of Mr. Weare was dragged, was purchased by the inch. Bishop’s house bids fait to go off in tobacco-stoppers and snuffboxes; and the well will be drained—if one lady has not already finished it at a draught —at the rate of a guinea a quart. (…)”
- New Year’s Eve Inside a Dinosaur
Happy New Year! What did you do for New Year’s Eve? Maybe you spent the night at a fancy dinner party inside a giant concrete Iguanodon, surrounded by prominent scientists? That’s exactly what Richard Owen, a paleontologist famous for coining the word Dinosauria, did on 31 December 1853. The party took place at The Crystal Palace at Sydenham, and the Iguanodon was a part of a larger exhibition of dinosaur models sculpted by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins under Owen’s scientific direction. The lavish dinner consisted of eight courses and the whole event was reportedly quite boisterous.
It is not entirely clear whether the scientists spent the night inside of the model itself or rather the mould in which it was made. What is clear though is the fact that Owen’s Iguanodon was not scientifically correct, even given the research available at the time. His rival and the discoverer of the Iguanodon, Gideon Mantell, came to the conclusion that the animal was a reptile of a slender build, not a heavy mammal-like creature Owen believed it to be. Unfortunately for Mantell, Owen was a fame-driven creationist who did not hesitate to steal specimens and research from other scientists, bend data to fit his own agenda, and publish negative reviews of his colleagues’ work behind their back. Plagued by opium addiction he developed after a carriage accident, Mantell was no match for the cunning rival.
On 10 November 1852, Mantell died of an opium overdose, leaving Owen completely free to prepare the Crystal Palace dinosaur sculptures according to his own vision. The post-mortem showed that Mantell had been suffering from severe scoliosis. A section of his spine was removed from the body stored at the Royal College of Surgeons, where no other but Richard Owen was the conservator at the time.
Check out Professor Joe Cain’s comprehensive article on the legendary dinner party
- Victorian Slang: Resurrection Pie
Resurrection pie; Fake pie (Straitened Soc., 1880).
A towards-the-end-of-the-week effort at pastry, into which go all the ‘orts’, ‘overs’, and ‘ends’ of the week.
(All entries in the series are taken from The Victorian Dictionary of Slang & Phrase by J. Redding Ware)
- Mumpers on St Thomas day
December 21, the winter solstice, is a day on which Victorians would honor St. Thomas by participating in various charitable events, giving food and money to the poor. One of the customs was for poor women to go around the houses asking for alms, which was often referred to as going “a thomasing”, “a gooding”, or “a mumping.” The last term comes from the word mumpers, a name given to toothless beggar women, probably originating from the Dutch mompen = to mumble.
- St. Nicholas Day
Numerous countries observe Saint Nicholas Day, and many children have been gifted small presents from this seemingly jolly saint today. For instance, in Poland St. Nicholas hides gifts inside shoes or under pillows, provided that kids were good during the year. But it turns out that the beloved St. Nicholas’ name was sometimes used in more sinister phrases and imagery.
We find the first clue for that in Ware’s Victorian Dictionary of Slang & Phrase:
“Nathaniel, Below (Old English). Even lower than Hades—Nathaniel (like Samuel, or Zamiel in Germany) and Old Nick, or Nicholas, being familiar synonyms for Satan.”
The familiar euphemism ‘Old Nick’ is not easy to investigate, but it took on around the 17th century and most sources provide two possible origins of the name:
– connection to a water demon, goblin, or sprite (e.g., Old English nicker, nicor, Middle Low German necker);
– humorous reference to Saint Nicholas himself.
And a few St. Nicholas legends do contain some grizzly elements which could have inspired such a connection! Like the one where St. Nicholas resurrects three children, who had previously been killed and pickled in a barrel of brine in order to be sold as ham. He resurrects them by making the Sign of the Cross, but the imagery is of a very necromantic nature. Other stories show St. Nicholas controlling the weather by calming a seastorm and mention him encountering and vanquishing a sea monster (a nihhus), which echos the first possible etymology of Old Nick. We might never know for sure, but hopefully, historical linguists will bring us more answers!
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