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.
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.
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!
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.”
The Illustrated Police News is one those sources that provides fantastic Victorian stories, like that one from 1871:
“A Quebec Woman Creates a Sensation, Riding Through St. John Street in a Hearse, Reclining on the Coffin-Bed, and Smoking a Pipe. What will women do next to distinguish themselves, we wonder! A female in Quebec, the other day, perpetrated a ghastly joke, mocking death in his own domain, by lying down in a hearse and smoking a pipe in a funeral chariot was driven through the street.
If this exhibition had been made in the United States, our neighbours at the North would have made it the subject of very strong animadversions.” Did it ever actually happen? As IPN was one of the earliest British tabloids, we may never be sure and it’s better to take this story with a pinch of salt.
Starting today, I’m going to share with you some interesting and/or amusing phrases taken from The Victorian Dictionary of Slang & Phrase by J. Redding Ware. That is additionally to the regular comics of course! Let’s start with those three and let me know what you think of that format
Pumpkin-face (American) A round face with no expression in it.
Air-hole (Soc., 1885-95) A small public garden, generally a dismally converted graveyard, with the ancient gravestones set up at ‘attention’ against the boundary walls.
Got the morbs (Soc., 1880) Temporary melancholia. Abstract noun coined from adjective morbid. This fantastic phrase starts our biweekly Patreon series illustrating Victorian slang.
If you happen to be near PEI in Canada, make sure to check out the “Cabinet of Killer Curios” exhibit in the Eptek Art & Culture Centre! The exhibit features deadly & creepy Victorian objects from the collections of the Prince Edward Island Museum & Heritage Foundation, and a little bird told me a few Veinity Fair prints make their appearance as well!
This week we’re coming back to the infamous war of the currents, which took over scientific and public debate in the 1880s and 90s. One of the things that happened during that time was “the wire panic” spread by the New York press with such headlines as “Death by Wire” and peculiar cartoons. The articles were aimed at George Westinghouse’s company, the use of high-voltage alternating current (AC), and the electrical wires taking over the city like a giant spider’s web. As we know, the war against Westinghouse and AC was mainly fueled by his rival, Thomas Edison, whose official aim was to protect the people’s lives, but in reality also to promote his electrical system and ruin competition.
Edison wasn’t completely wrong in his efforts though; the AC system at the time lacked appropriate regulations and led to several deadly incidents. The most known involved John Feeks, a Western Union lineman working in Manhattan. On October 11, 1889, Feeks died seconds after he touched a telegraph line that had been shorted with a high-voltage AC line. And even though the 19th century was an extremely dangerous time for industry workers (e.g., 1 out of 100 railroad brakemen died annually in the US), that accident was witnessed by hundreds of mortified people, who watched Fleek’s body smoldering for almost an hour. The incident was highly reported by the press, intensifying the public’s fear of the mysterious, inherently dangerous nature of electricity and electrical wires. A heated debate over the regulation of the electric industry ensued, along with several weeks of complete darkness in New York as the overhead AC lines were cut down.
Shout-out to Andrzej, who reprises his role as a Victorian hatter in our anti-wire poster inspired by a 1889 cartoon entitled “The Unrestrained Demon.”