- 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!
- J. A. Williams’ Patent Animal Trap
On December 26, 1882, certain James A. Williams was granted a patent for a rather peculiar invention: an animal trap with a spring-loaded firearm. In his patent application, Williams described how the contraption worked:
“[I]t consists in the combination of a suitable frame upon which a revolver or pistol is secured, a treadle which is secured to the front end of this frame, and a suitable spring and levers, by which the firearm is discharged when the animal steps upon the treadle (…) The object of my invention is to provide a means by which animals which burrow in the ground can be destroyed, and which trap will give an alarm each time that it goes off, so that it can be reset.”
Of all the 19th-century ideas on how to deal with pests, this must be one of the most dramatic and over-the-top! The Texan inventor went even further and noted that “[t]his invention may also be used in connection with a door or window, so as to kill any person or thing opening the door or window to which it is attached.”
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