Tag Archives: Wakefield Museum

You’re Having A Laugh – Part Forty Four

Charles Waterton and the Nondescript (1825)

It is a curious thing that until relatively recently those who were most enthusiastic about the animal kingdom were just as keen to kill and stuff and mount them. Take the eminent traveller, naturalist and taxidermist, Charles Waterton (1782 – 1865), someone we have met before when I was exploring eccentrics.

Waterton revolutionised the stuffy world of taxidermy with a new technique for preserving specimens. Using a mix of mercuric chloride and alcohol to preserve the skin, he would fill the body cavity and other parts with cotton and then stitch it all back to preserve the animal’s natural shape. The legs were kept in place through a series of careful stitches and for birds, bees wax was used to ensure the beak was closed. The carcass was then placed into a box filled at one end “three-fourths up to the top, with cotton, forming a sloping plane”. The advantage of Waterton’s technique was that the whole skin could be manipulated to ensure a natural posture.

The redoubtable Waterton kept most of his prize specimens in his home at Walton Hall, where, during the 1830s, he also created a walled enclosure and what was effectively the world’s first nature reserve. It proved a hit with the public, the most popular attraction being a caiman alligator which Waterton had captured himself by jumping on its back and riding it to exhaustion, or so he said.

In 1821 and again in 1824 Waterton made two trips to Guiana, coming back with hundreds of specimens of exotic South American wildlife, all carefully preserved and stuffed. In 1825 he wrote a book, Wanderings in South America, which became a best-seller and an inspiration to Charles Darwin. Bringing exotica back into the country caused Waterton some trials and tribulations with the customs officers, especially a zealous Mr Lushington who forced him to pay the highest import duty on his specimens. He ran into further difficulties in 1824 when he had in his possession the head and shoulders of what appeared to be a new species, albeit with vaguely human features.

Waterton wrote at the time, “I also procured an animal which has caused not a little speculation and astonishment. In my opinion, his thick coat of hair, and great length of tail, put his species out of all question; … he was a large animal, and as I was pressed for daylight, and moreover, felt no inclination to have the whole weight of his body upon my back, I contented myself with his head and shoulders, which I cut off, and have brought them with me to Europe”. To look at, what he called the Nondescript, resembled a human, albeit with a thick coat of fur around the face.    

When he displayed the exhibit at Walton Hall, it caused a sensation. Rumours, however, soon circulated to the effect that it was the head of a tribesman who Waterton had killed and that the authorities were complicit in a cover up of his crime. Others, though, that there was something fishy about the Nondescript. Waterton’s style was to preserve carefully his exhibits whole and here we only had the bust. Although Waterton had provided an explanation that due to its size and weight, he had trimmed it down, other experts were not convinced and soon realised that it was formed from the rear end of a howler monkey, sculpted to resemble a human. And not just any human. It is thought to have resembled the custom’s official who had given him so much trouble in 1821, Mr Lushington.

A Catholic aristocrat who had refused to swear the Oath of Allegiance, Waterton had form in what was known as anthropomorphic taxidermy. Many of his exhibits were given satirical titles like “Martin Luther after his Fall” and “John Bull and the National Debt”. He was making a monkey out of the custom’s official.

The rather gruesome exhibit still exists and can be seen at the Wakefield Museum.

If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Scams and Hoaxes by Martin Fone