Friday, December 26, 2008

Frank Buckland

Frank Buckland (1826-1880) is one of my favorite eccentric Englishmen of the 19th c. He made his living as Inspector of Salmon Fisheries, but it is his incredible curiosity about the natural world that, let us say, sets him apart. The man had many skills, including preparing animal skulls and skins and treating sick porpoises at the zoo, and numerous interests, including touring English ossuaries and examining ancient Egyptian mummies. He conducted many of his own experiments, including evaluating the defleshing work of dermestid beetles, and sealing toads in limestone for one year to assess credibility of stories of live toads being released from newly quarried blocks. I once began an outline for a biography and here are the things Frank did that tickled and/or appalled me most:

  • Stole Ben Jonson’s heelbone from his tomb
  • Determined the relics of St. Rosalia at Palermo to be goat bones
  • Located the remains of John Hunter in a crowded church crypt so they could be reinterred in Westminster Abbey
  • Kept a skull found during the digging of a foundation after finding it to be an asylum patient
  • Kept a skull thought to be a murder victim after determining it to be a Crimean war trophy
  • Led the London Acclimatisation Society in introducing exotic species into England for their meat
  • Tasted buffalo, earwig, field mice, giraffe, kangaroo, leopard, mole, ostrich, porpoise, sea slug, snake, whale, zebra
  • Owned a pet rat that he allowed on the dining room table
  • Raised a bear, buzzard, fish, jaguar, magpie, mice, monkeys, owl, parrots, raccoon, snakes, woodchucks
  • Discredited the Fee Jee mermaids exhibited by P.T. Barnum and other showmen
  • Observed the mummified body of performer Julia Pastrana (photo below), whom he had seen on stage
  • Questioned the safety of corsets
  • Put eels in public fountain as a prank

To his discredit, Buckland chain-smoked cigars. To his great credit, he wrote the multi-volume Curiosities of Natural History. Among his acquaintainces he counted Chang and Eng Bunker (1811-1874), the “Original Siamese Twins”; Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz (1807-1873); Austrian anatomist Joseph Hyrtl (1810-1894); and married giants Martin van Buren Bates (1837-1919) and Anna Swan (1846-1888).

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