Taxidermy is a skill and art form that many think is plenty weird all on its own, even though it was practiced by luminaries like Charles Darwin and Theodore Roosevelt. It stretches from the lows of PT Barnum's Feejee Mermaid to the highs of the myriad museums of natural history to the macabre artistry of rogue taxidermists who transform animal furs with gems and mechanical parts and phenomenal works of chemistry. But beyond Walter Potter's anthropomorphic weirdness and Damien Hirst's suspended sharks, there are taxidermic works with some truly odd backstories.
Top photo by Ed Schipul.
The Platypus: The Hoax That Wasn't
In 1798, when Captain John Hunter sent a platypus pelt along with a sketch of the animal to England, British scientists thought they knew a hoax when they saw it. George Shaw, who was Keeper of the Department of Natural History at the British Museum, wrote up a description of the creature based on the pelt and Hunter's notes in Naturalist's Miscellany, but said he could not be certain that such a peculiar beast existed in nature. Others shared Shaw's skepticism; surgeon Robert Knox (the beneficiary of the infamous Burke and Hare murders) suggested that since the platypus had come by way of the Indian Ocean that the platypus was likely the invention of some Chinese taxidermist who had sewn a duck's bill onto a furry mammal's body. Shaw even went so far as to take a pair of scissors to the pelt, hunting in vain for stitches. It wasn't until more platypus pelts appeared on the scene (and no stitches were found) that British scientists accepted the perplexing reality that is the platypus.
That first platypus specimen described by Shaw still exists—and it's in good shape. It lives at the Natural History Museum in London, but is considered too valuable to be on public display. Instead, it inhabits a locked cabinet in the museum's Mammal Tower, far from the sideshow treatment genuine taxidermic hoaxes have received.
The Lion of Gripsholm Castle
Modern taxidermy is serious business, with careful attention paid to making the dead animal look much like it did in life. Especially skilled taxidermists will examining living animals in the field, studying the craning of a neck, the extension of a wing, the movement of muscles between fur and skin. But in the 18th century, a taxidermist might be confronted with the challenge of mounting the pelt of an animal he had never seen before. Such is the case with the cartoonish Lion of Gripsholm Castle.
In 1731, the Bey of Algiers gifted King Frederik I of Sweden a real, live lion—along with another big cat, three hyenas, and a freed slave to serve as their keeper. The lion lived out its days in Djurgården, the royal game park, and when it died, the hope was that the Bey's gift could live on as a stuffed monument to the lion's power. Sadly, the taxidermist had never seen a lion with his own eyes and had, it seems, only a loose idea of how a lion was meant to look. The result, with its lolling tongue and goggly eyes, was something that looked better prepared for a nightmarish cartoon than the royal halls. Still, as its name suggests, the stuffed lion continues to adorn the interior of Sweden's Gripsholm Castle in its sad mid-stalk.
Jeremy Bentham and His Hard-Partying Head
Not all taxidermy has been performed on non-human animals; every now and then a human body would join in on the post-mortem fun. Long before the plastinated anatomical wonders of Body World and its many imitators, British philosopher Jeremy Bentham sought to see his own body preserved beyond his demise. Bentham's "Auto-Icon," which sits in a wooden cabinet in the main building of University College London, isn't truly taxidermy; the consists of a skeleton wearing clothes filled out with hay. Bentham's head was mummified, which is probably why it makes for the best part of this story.
Something went awry during the mummification process, rendering Bentham's head grotesque and expressionless. A smiling wax head sits atop the Auto-Icon's body and Bentham's real head was, at first, placed between his feet. But what happens when you mix mischievous undergrads with a mummified head? Hijinks. In 1975, students from King's College London stole the head and demanded a £100 ransom. (It was returned in exchange for a £10 ransom.) The second time it was stolen, it was allegedly found in a luggage locker in a Scottish train station. According to legend, the head was finally put in storage after it was discovered being used for football practice. (A more likely reason is that the university didn't feel it was appropriate to have a human head lying around.) Now Bentham's head comes out only on special occasions, such as the meetings of the College Council, of which Bentham is a non-voting member.
El Negro of Banyoles
There is true human taxidermy, but unfortunately much of it doesn't come with Bentham's merry history. El Negro of Banyoles was made from the remains of a Khoisan man likely stolen from his grave in Botswana and mounted by the French taxidermists Jules and Edouard Verreaux in the early 1830s. It was acquired by the Darder Museum of Banyoles, Spain, in 1916. Although many were aware that the remains of a modern African man were on display in Banyoles, no one objected to the presence of El Negro until 1991. When they became aware of the exhibit, the United Nations and the Organization of African Unity decried it as racist and demanded its removal. There was talk of some African nations boycotting the Barcelona Olympics. Many in Banyoles, however, were loath to see the display go, making t-shirts and balloons expressing their affection for El Negro and, bizarrely, eating chocolate effigies of the taxidermic human as an Easter treat. However, El Negro was finally repatriated to Botswana in 1997 and his remains were laid to rest more than a century and a half after his demise.
Other Verreaux mounts that are still in existence may have contained human remains at some point in their history. For example, Jules Verreaux's famous "Arab Courier Attacked by Lions," which resides at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, now features a plaster human mannikin. But Stephen P. Rogers, who was preparator-in-chief at the Carnegie Museum between 1897 and 1908, has cryptically said that the display may have contained real human remains prior to its refurbishment in 1899. You can purchase a snow globe of the diorama from the museum's online store.
Nobody Ever Suspects the Butterfly
In the early 20th century, natural history museums frequently sent naturalists and taxidermists to far-flung corners of the world to "collect" specimens—which was a polite way to say killing them. As some of these naturalists learned, however, sometimes you're the collector and sometimes you're the specimen. Carl von Hagen was one such naturalist; he went to Papua New Guinea to collect butterflies and vanished while on the hunt. According to Melissa Milgrom's Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy, von Hagen was captured and eaten by cannibals. His sacrifice was not in vain however; the butterflies he collected earlier on the trip made it back home. His mounted bright green Onithoptera paradisea still lives (edit: so to speak) at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology. Like his specimens, he gave his life to see animals scientifically preserved.
Taxidermy with a Taste for Human Flesh
Not all taxidermy ends up in the Hall of Mammals by chance; some animals got there because they had a nasty habit of eating people. The infamous Tsavo Man-Eaters were a pair of maneless male lions who haunted the Tsavo River in Kenya where, in 1898, construction crews were building a railroad bridge. According Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson, who eventually killed the lions, they killed and ate ten people—though other reports put the number at 24. There are a variety of theories as to why these two turned to human flesh: they may have previously scavenged dead humans from passing slave caravans; they may have been attracted by cremations of deceased rail workers; they may have poor hunters unable to catch tougher prey. After Patterson killed them, the lions were immortalized twice: once by the Field Museum in Chicago, which paid $5,000 for the specimens, and once in the 1996 film The Ghost and the Darkness, in which Val Kilmer played Patterson. The Smithsonian is in possession of an 11-foot-long Royal Bengal tiger that noshed on a few human parts before falling to big-game hunter David Hasinger in 1967. And it's likely that at least some of the 33 documented man-eating tigers and leopards killed by hunter-turned-conservationist Jim Corbett still remain in mounted form. (Corbett would eventually trade in his gun for a camera and advocate for the preservation of tiger habitats to help prevent the sort of encroachment that leads to man-eating.)
The occasional mounted cat has a tragic, domesticated backstory. Thomas McCarte was a lion tamer who was killed by his feline performing partner in 1872. The lion was summarily put down and mounted by the famed British taxidermist Rowland Ward. But you can't help but wonder if McCarte was to blame for his own demise; at the time of his death, the so-called lion tamer had already lost one arm to an earlier lion attack.
Photo by Jeffrey Jung via Wikimedia Commons.
The Panda Who Would Not be Mounted
Could a work of taxidermy create an international incident? That's the question the Smithsonian has considered with Hsing-Hsing, one of the Giant Pandas gifted to the US government by China. Hsing-Hsing died in 1999, but according to Milgrom's book, his carcass, cape (pelt), and head have been kept frozen at the Smithsonian for years. Ken Walker, a champion taxidermist, told Milgrom that the Smithsonian is hesitant to mount it for fear that the mount will insult China. So instead, Hsing-Hsing hangs in the cold. Milgrom described it as resembling "a bloody snowman." During the course of her research, however, Hsing-Hsing's pelt was sent to the tanner's, so the panda may be mounted still.
Even if the real Hsing-Hsing doesn't live on in taxidermy, a close copy of him does. Walker made a recreation panda, using Hsing-Hsing as his model. The recreation, cheekily named "Thing Thing," was made from two bear bear skins—one of them bleached. Walker took home the Best in World Recreation prize at the World Taxidermy Championship.
The Nickel Buffalo's Celebrity Steaks
Black Diamond was a bit of a celebrity in New York City. He was born in the Central Park Menagerie (now the Central Park Zoo), and at the time of his death in 1915, he was the largest buffalo (North American bison) in captivity. His likeness appeared on the $10 dollar bill, and according to some stories, he was the model for the buffalo nickel (although that's in great doubt). What's especially odd about Black Diamond, though, is what became of him in death—the least of which is the taxidermy. His head was mounted by taxidermist Fred Santer and his pelt was turned into an automobile robe (a blanket for the car). At the age of 22, though, he was sold to a butcher for slaughter, and Black Diamond steaks were sold at a premium. Granted, it's not odd to eat buffalo in general, but the symbolism of this end was enough for the New York Times to describe it in sorrowful tones, reporting that, "this finest specimen of Western plains wild life was going to be disposed of in a slaughter house."
The Taxidermist Who Strangled a Leopard
Carl Akeley is often called the father of modern taxidermy, and it's not for nothing that one of the halls at New York's American Museum of Natural History is called the Akeley Hall of African Mammals; after all, he killed plenty of the animals inside. Akeley, who got his start doing hatchet jobs like stuffing PT Barnum's elephant Jumbo (and making Jumbo even larger than he was in life), became a highly sought after taxidermist, and, during the era in the West when hunting and conservationism overlapped (after all, you had to kill and mount the animals before they were all gone), Akeley joined the likes of Theodore Roosevelt on African collecting trips. (Incidentally, a very young Alice Bradley, who would grow up to become the acclaimed science fiction writer James Tiptree, Jr., was a guest on one of these expeditions with her parents.)
Akeley studied and collected numerous species during his African treks, and was nearly crushed by an elephant in the process. But his most unusual specimen was the
jaguar leopard he fought to the death with his bare hands. If Akeley's own reports are to be believed, he was startled by the leopard and didn't have time to reload his gun. He and leopard wrestled until he shoved his right hand in the leopard's mouth and managed to hold down the leopard's throat with his left until it finally gave up the kitty ghost.
Africa did eventually get the best of Akeley. His marriage to his first wife (and fellow hunter), Delia, dissolved with the help of J.T. Jr., a wild monkey Delia brought home to New York. And Akeley died in 1926 of a fever in the Congo, but not before he enacted some conservation efforts directed at living animals. He lobbied King Albert I of Belgium to create Albert National Park, now Virunga National Park, in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It was the continent's first national park.
Photo of Akeley via The Field Museum.
Skeleton's Best Friend
This one isn't truly a taxidermy story (since it involves no "derm" to "tax"), but it's strange and sweet and it did require the talents of a talented taxidermist to pull off. Grover Krantz was a professor of physical anthropology at Washington State University, and a bit of an oddball. He was an earnest Bigfoot researcher, one who courted the ridicule of other academics by suggesting that evidence of the cryptid warranted serious study. Before he died, Krantz told the Smithsonian's anthropology collections manager David Hunt that he wanted to continue to teach in death as he had in life. He decided to donate his bones to the Smithsonian, just as he had donated the skeletons of his three beloved Irish Wolfhounds.
Krantz hoped that his bones would be placed on display, and in 2009, that hope became a reality. Krantz's skeleton was included in the National Museum of Natural History's "Written in Bone" exhibit. Sculptor and Smithsonian taxidermist Paul Rhymer didn't just reassemble Krantz's skeleton; he posed it with the skeleton of Clyde, one of Krantz's Irish Wolfhound, arranging the pair in an affectionate embrace they had shared in life.
Photos from the Smithsonian.
Kirk, Jay, Kingdom Under Glass: A Tale of Obsession, Adventure, and One Man's Quest to Preserve the World's Great Animals.
Madden, Dave, The Authentic Animal: Inside the Odd and Obsessive World of Taxidermy.
Milgrom, Melissa, Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy.