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The Bizarre 19th Century Art of Making Furniture Out of Animals

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Anyone who knows a hunter is probably also familiar with the things he’s shot—because they’re affixed to the walls of his house. But, as William G. Fitzgerald points out in the August 1896 issue of The Strand, these “mournful-looking heads” are “mounted in a monotonous fashion.” Instead, wealthy hunters in the 1860s opted to do something with their trophies that was very much in vogue—and decidedly bizarre: Turn the animals they'd killed into pieces of furniture.

The idea for animal furniture sprung from another trend, according to Fitzgerald: “Its origin [dates to] a time when ladies adopted the hideous fashion of wearing whole grouse and pheasants. In the ‘Sixties,’ when this craze was at its height, the naturalists couldn’t supply the birds fast enough—at four guineas each.” George F. Butt, a naturalist and taxidermist who lived on Wigmore Street in London and created animal furniture, told Fitzgerald that “More grouse were worn than were eaten, and not merely the wings, mark you, but the whole bird from head to tail.”

After that, inspired by fashions from India, women commissioned jewelry made of bear and tiger claws. “Then followed various articles made from whole animals and parts of animals,” Fitzgerald writes. “One of the earliest designs was a horse’s hoof … made into a silver-mounted ink stand. Chairs were also made which were supported by the four legs of a rhinoceros or zebra, or a favourite horse.”

It wasn't long before whole animals were being turned into furniture and other statement pieces for the home. “To merely catalogue the various items of ‘animal’ furniture I have seen would fill whole pages of The Strand Magazine,” Fitzgerald writes. Here are a few examples.

CHAIRS

Fitzgerald calls this chair “without doubt the most original ‘animal’ chair I ever beheld ... [it] belongs to that mighty Nimrod, Mr. J. Gardiner Muir, of ‘Hillcrest,’ Market Harborough. This chair ... is made from a baby giraffe, which, with its mother, was shot by Mr. Gardiner Muir, near the Kiboko River in East British Africa.” The unusual piece of furniture was designed by Rowland Ward of Picadilly; the dog in the photo is a Scotch terrier named Punch, who belonged to the hunter. No word on what happened to the mother giraffe.

The tiger that Butt used to make this chair was “a dreaded man-eater, which had devastated and appalled several villages in Travancore.” The very day that the tiger was shot, it made off with a 10 year old girl, who later died of her injuries. Destined for a man in the Indian Civil Service, Fitzgerald calls this chair “a capital example of ‘animal’ furniture. The seat is covered with the beautifully-marked skin, and the head and paws are so arranged as to give the impression that the terrible animal is about to spring. Observe the ingenious way in which the tail is disposed, as though the tiger were coiled right round the chair.”

There's no accounting for taste, as you can clearly see in the design of this “otter chair,” which was designed by artist Sir Edwin Landseer and created by Butt. “Surrounding the chair are some heads—those of a favourite dog, a Scotch stage, a wild Chillingham bull, and an American bison—the last three shot by the painter himself,” Fitzgerald writes. “Landseer always admired otter skins, so a friend one day presented him with several very fine ones. These were subsequently spread on the chair by Mr. Butt, the head of the largest otter handing down over the back in accordance with Landseer’s own design.”

“This accommodating animal is a young Ceylon elephant, modelled by Rowland Ward in a perfectly natural position, but adapted for the use of the hall porter,” Fitzgerald writes. “The hall porter sleep in this singular chair, by the way, should make an interesting picture.”

LIGHTING APPLIANCES

“It is quite astonishing to learn how many defunct animals are called upon to throw light upon things,” Fitzgerald writes. This emu lamp was “made to the order of a wealthy Australian gentleman,” Fitzgerald writes. “The effect … in the drawing room is curiously striking.”

“The moment the door is opened at Baronness Eckhardstein’s beautiful house in Grosvenor Square, this gigantic and truly formidable bear is seen flooding the hall with a soft red light,” Fitzgerald writes. “It was shot during one of its fishing excursions in Alaska.” Rowland Ward created the lamp and presented it to the Baroness when she got married. Fitzgerald notes that the bear’s electric light “can be switched on from behind.”

This particular monkey was once a lady’s beloved pet and “although her grief was great, she resolved to have her dead darling turned into something useful as well as ornamental.” She chose to have the animal serve as a candleholder “with quite an eager, officious air.”

FOR ENTERTAINING

Butt created this fruit and flower stand for the Princess of Wales. “The centre is a movable screen composed of a favourite parrot belonging to Her Royal Highness,” Fitzgerald notes.

“We next behold the foot of a big elephant fashioned into a liqueur stand, so that it may be placed on the table in the midst of a group in a reminiscent mood, Nimrods who may, perchance, be fighting their battles over again,” Fitzgerald writes. Rowland Ward created the stand using the foot of an Indian elephant shot by the Duke of Edinburgh.

This bear “was shot in Russia by no less a personage than the Prince of Wales,” Fitzgerald writes. “For years it has ‘waited’ meekly in the smoking-room at Marlborough House.” The bear was taxidermied by Butt.

This “extremely interesting and even beautiful table ornament” was made by Butt from the tusks of Indian wild boars. “In this case,” Fitzgerald writes, “the tusks were forwarded by the adjutant of a crack regiment station in the North-West Provinces. The officers of that regiment had indulged extensively in the noble pastime of pig-sticking, and had carefully preserved the boars’ tusks with the view of having them fashioned into some useful and handsome ornament which might adorn the mess table, and serve (almost literally) as a peg on which to hang many an exciting story.”

This bear, created by Butt, serves as both "dumb waiter" and lamp. “Notice the excited appearance of the bear,” Fitzgerald writes, “who seems to be perpetually roaring at somebody, and doing his duty only under very forcible protest.”

FOR THE OFFICE

“Record skulls of lions, tigers, and leopards are very frequently seen mounted as useful objects in country houses of wealthy hunters,” Fitzgerald writes. “Here, for instance, is a hall-clock firmly grasped between the jaws of a tiger which killed at least five unlucky Hindu gun-bearers, whose cowardice cost them their lives.”

Fitzgerald calls this letter clip “very quaint and ingenious.” Made from the beak of an albatross, it is “a relic with a history,” Fitzgerald says. “A year or two ago a certain foolhardy individual set out (as so many have done) to cross the Atlantic in a craft, little larger than an open boat. The adventurous voyager did eventually make New York Harbour, but he was in a pitiable state of exhaustion. It transpired that before he had been many days at sea, he was attacked by an enormous albatross … The bird was shot, however, and its head ultimately brought to Mr. Butt to make up the beak as we see it here. Doubtless that mariner is still reminded of his lonely fight in mid-ocean every time he files a letter.”

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Watch Plastic Skeletons Being Made in a 1960s Factory
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The making of human teaching skeletons used to be a grisly affair, involving the manipulation of fresh—or not-so-fresh—corpses. But as this video from British Pathé shows, by the 1960s it was a relatively benign craft involving molded plastic and high temperatures, not meat cleavers and maggots.

The video, accented by groan-worthy puns and jaunty music, goes inside a factory in Surrey that produces plastic skeletons, brains, and other organs for use in hospitals and medical schools. The sterile surroundings marked a shift in skeleton production; as the video notes, teaching skeletons had long come from the Middle East, until countries started clamping down on exporting human remains. Before that, human skeletons in Britain and the United States were often produced with a little help from grave-robbers, known as the Resurrection Men. After being dissected in anatomical classes at medical schools, the stolen corpses were often de-fleshed and transformed into objects for study. The theft of these purloined bodies, by the way, started several of America's first riots. Far better they be made out of plastic.

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History
Assault, Robbery, and Murder: The Dark History of "Bedsheet Ghosts"
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Wearing his finest black outfit, Francis Smith stared nervously at the three judges in London’s main criminal courthouse. A mild-mannered excise tax collector, Smith had no known criminal history and certainly no intention to become the centerpiece of one of 19th century England’s most unusual murder trials. But a week earlier, Smith had made a criminally foolish mistake: He had shot and killed what he believed to be a ghost.

The spectators inside the courthouse sat hushed as the prosecutor and a cross-examiner questioned about half a dozen eyewitnesses. Each person had seen Smith in the village of Hammersmith (now a part of London) the night of the crime, or they had previously seen the ghost that Smith was zealously hunting. One such eyewitness, William Girdler, the village night-watchman and Smith’s ghost-hunting partner, had not only seen the white-sheeted specter lurking across the street—he had chased it.

“When you pursued it,” the cross-examiner asked, “how did it escape?”

“Slipped the sheet or table-cloth off, and then got it over his head,” Girdler responded. “It was just as if his head was in a bag.”

“How long had the neighborhood been alarmed with its appearance?”

“About six weeks or two months.”

“Was the alarm great and general?”

“Yes, very great.”

“Had considerable mischief happened from it?”

“Many people were very much frightened.”

Girdler was telling the truth. The people of Hammersmith had reported seeing a ghost for weeks now, and they were terrified: The specter was verifiably violent. It assaulted men and women, and during its two month campaign of harassment and intimidation, it had successfully evaded capture. Rumors swirled that it could manifest from graves in an instant, and sink back into the mud just as quickly. At the time, the magazine Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum reported that the ghost was “so clever and nimble in its retreats, that they could never be traced.”

When Ann Millwood took the stand, the cross-examiner asked if she was familiar with these reports.

The Hammersmith Ghost.
The Hammersmith ghost

“Yes, I heard great talk of it,” Millwood explained, “that sometimes it appeared in a white sheet, and sometimes in a calf-skin dress, with horns on its head, and glass eyes.” That wasn’t all. The ghost also reportedly took the shape of Napoleon Bonaparte; other accounts said that its eyes radiated like glow-worms and that it breathed fire.

It must have been incredibly difficult for Millwood to describe the ghost’s appearance, especially in front of a public audience. The ghoul she characterized looked nothing like her late brother Thomas, the young man whom Francis Smith had mistakenly murdered.

 
 

In 19th century Britain, seeing a ghost—at least, a person dressed up as one—was not uncommon. Ghost impersonating was something of a fad, with churchyards and cobblestoned alleyways regularly plagued by pranksters, louts, and other sheet-wearing hoaxsters who were up to no good.

Historian Owen Davies tracks the origin of ghost impersonators in his wide-ranging book, The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts, tracing the first reports of fake ghosts to the Reformation, when critics of Catholicism accused the Church of impersonating the dead to convert doubters. (According to one account by the reformer Erasmus, a priest once fastened candles to a cast of crabs and released them in a dark graveyard in hopes of imitating the lost, wandering souls of purgatory.)

But for most ghost impersonators, candle-strapped crustaceans were unnecessary; all you needed was a white sheet. Up until the 19th century, the bodies of the poor weren’t buried in coffins but simply wrapped in fabric—sometimes the sheet of the deathbed—which would be knotted at the head and feet. Ghost impersonators adopted the white sheet as their de facto wardrobe as early as 1584, when Reginald Scott, a member of parliament and witchcraft aficionado, wrote that, “one knave in a white sheet hath cozened [that is, deceived] and abused many thousands that way.” It’s from this practice that the trope of a white-sheeted ghost originated.

Seventeenth and 18th century Britain are sprinkled with accounts of phony phantoms. Take Thomas Wilmot, a famed crook and highwayman who once disguised himself as a spirit to steal money. (His appearance—chalked-up skin and a sheet-bound head—sent a table of gamblers scrambling for an exit. Wilmot pocketed the cash they left on the table.) And by the 1760s, so many white-sheeted pranksters were prowling in cemeteries that annoyed citizens were paying bounties to get rid of them. According to the Annual Register, one ghost in southern Westminster “struck such terror into the credulous inhabitants thereabouts, that those who could not be brought to believe it a ghost, entered into a subscription, to give five guineas to the person, who would seize him.”

These pranks had consequences. In 1792, a ghost impersonator in Essex spooked a farm-worker steering a wagon; the horses jumped, the driver tumbled, and his leg was crushed by one of the wagon’s wheels. He died from his injuries. Twelve years later, soldiers in London’s St. James’s Park spotted the specter of a headless woman, an event that authorities took very seriously, if only because it was distracting—and reportedly harming—its security guards. In the 1830s, a ghost impersonator was tried for manslaughter because he literally frightened an 81-year-old woman to death.

It was dangerous for the so-called ghosts, too. In 1844, six men chased a ghost impersonator and beat him so badly that he had to visit the hospital. In 1888, a mob of 50 villagers—all armed with sticks—surrounded a “ghost” and only released him after he agreed to donate money to a local infirmary. (Some ghost-busts startled investigators for other reasons: Davies writes that, in 1834, an investigation of an unoccupied haunted house revealed “nothing more than some boisterous love-makers.”)

Like many other pastimes in 19th century Britain, ghost impersonating was a gendered activity: Women, especially young female servants, were often restricted to mimicking poltergeist activity indoors—rapping on doors, moving furniture, throwing rocks at windows—while the sheet-wearing hijinks were reserved for young men who, far too often, had scuzzy intentions.

Most accounts of ghost impersonating, both modern and historical, gloss over the fact that men often used their ghostly cover to intimidate, harass, sexually assault, and even rape women. In his precise and critical account of ghost impersonators, Spirits of an Industrial Age, the historian Jacob Middleton argues that ghost impersonating was not only the domain of juvenile pranksters, but also that of sexual predators. This was made most painfully clear during the 1830s, the height of hauntings by “Spring-Heeled Jack.”

Spring-Heeled Jack.
Spring-Heeled Jack
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Every day, London’s women had to contend not only with the persistent threat of cads and street harassers, but also with men the press dubbed “Monsters,” menaces who stalked, grabbed, groped, slashed, and stabbed women in the breasts and buttocks. These criminals were piquerists, people who took sexual pleasure in piercing the skin of women, and a spate of attacks in the 1780s put all of London at unease. In the early 1800s, these boors started to take cover by dressing as ghosts. Spring-Heeled Jack, called a “monster in human form,” was among them: Hiding in alleyways after sunset, he would seek lone women, knock on their doors, and attempt to tear away their clothes with hooks. Thanks to London’s sensationalist press, tales of Spring-Heeled Jack would bloat into urban legend.

But even before Spring-Heeled Jack, on a normal evening, the women of Hammersmith were justified in feeling worried about stepping outside after dark. Organized police forces were a relatively new idea in Great Britain, and solitary neighborhoods such as Hammersmith were protected by little more than a roving constable or watchman. Reports of the Hammersmith ghost intensified that anxiety. (The community's men weren’t much help. As the Morning Post reported, “[The ghost] was seen on Monday evening last pursuing a woman, who shrieked dreadfully. Although there were four male passengers in the stage coach, which passed at the time, not one durst venture to the rescue of the distressed female.”) It wasn’t until weeks of attacks that bands of locals, their bellies sloshing with ale supplied by the nearest public house, began taking to the streets to stop the menace.

It was at the intersection of these two sad facts that the tragedy at Hammersmith unfolded: Francis Smith went out on January 3, 1804 to catch a ghost, while Thomas Millwood went out to ensure that his wife, who was walking home alone in the dark, did not meet one.

 
 

Thomas Millwood was told he resembled the Hammersmith ghost. A bricklayer, Millwood wore a white jacket, white trousers, and a white apron, an ensemble that scared a carriage-riding couple one dark Saturday night. When the passerby exclaimed to his wife, “There goes the ghost!” Millwood turned and uncorked a few colorful and unprintable words, asking if the man wanted “a punch in the head.”

After the incident, a family member named Phoebe Fullbrooke implored Millwood to change his wardrobe at night. “Your clothes look white,” she said. “Pray do put on your great coat, that you may not run any danger.” Millwood mumbled something about how he hoped the town’s vigilantes would catch the ghost, but he neglected the advice and continued walking home in his white work clothes.

A few nights later, Francis Smith and William Girdler went ghost hunting.

Compelled by reports of the ghost’s violence, the men carried firearms. Hammersmith’s spirit had choked a man and the village swirled with rumors that it had even attacked a pregnant woman who later died of shock. According to one report, the apparition caused “so much alarm, that every superstitious person in that neighborhood had been filled with the most powerful apprehensions.” But superstitions mattered little. Ghost or not, there was undoubtedly a public menace in Hammersmith, and people wanted it gone. A bounty of 10 pounds would be awarded to anybody who caught it.

A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in 'The Newgate Calendar.'
A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in The Newgate Calendar.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

That same night, Thomas Millwood stopped at his father’s house and began chatting with his sister Ann. Sometime between 10 and 11 p.m., she suggested he leave and escort his wife, who was still in town, back home. “You had better go,” Ann said. “It is dangerous for your wife to come home by herself.” Millwood agreed and stepped outside, wearing his white bricklayer’s clothes. He didn’t know that he was walking down the same unlit lane as Francis Smith, shotgun in tow.

When Smith spotted the white figure gliding in his direction, he lifted his fowling piece to his shoulder and yelled, “Damn you, who are you? Stand, else I’ll shoot you.” The air stood silent. He yelled a second time and stared down the barrel. Not hearing any response, Smith fired.

Millwood’s sister heard the gunshot and screamed for Thomas, but, like Smith, she heard no response. She later found her brother lying face up on the dirt lane, his face stained black with gunpowder, his white clothes stained red.

 
 

The Caledonian Mercury reported the sad news later that week: “We have to announce to the public an event, in some of its circumstances so ludicrous, but in its result so dreadful, that we fear if the reader should even laugh with one side of his mouth, he must of necessity cry with the other.”

The moment the smell of spent gunpowder hit his nose, Smith knew he’d made a mistake. Millwood had been killed instantly; the shot entered his lower left jaw and exited through the back of his neck. Smith barged into the White Hart pub in visible distress, possibly in shock, and waited to be arrested. One week later, he stood trial at London’s Old Bailey courthouse. The jury deliberated for 45 minutes before returning with a conviction of manslaughter.

The three judges rejected the sentence.

“The Court have no hesitation whatever with regard to the law,” Justice Rooke exclaimed, “and therefore the verdict must be—‘Guilty of Murder’ or ‘a total acquittal from want to evidence.’” In other words, the jury could not be wishy-washy. Smith was either guilty of murder, or not guilty of murder—the jury needed to decide.

Within minutes, Smith was convicted of murder. He was sentenced to hang the next Monday; his body would be dissected in the name of science.

Reports of Smith’s trial were lurid. As the Newgate Calendar tells it, “When the dreadful word ‘Guilty!’ was pronounced [Smith] sank into a state of stupefaction exceeding despair.” His feelings were likely intensified by the admission of John Graham, a Hammersmith shoemaker who days earlier admitted to starting the Hammersmith ghost hoax. (Graham began impersonating the specter to scare his apprentices, who he complained were filling his children’s heads with nonsense about ghosts. Unfortunately, his prank appears to have inspired violent copycats to engage in what the Caledonian Mercury called “weak, perhaps wicked frolic.”)

In the end, Smith would be lucky. His sentence was sent to His Majesty King George III, who not only delayed the execution but eventually granted Smith a full pardon.

The Hammersmith ghost trial, however, would haunt England’s legal system for almost another two centuries. Smith’s case would remain a philosophical head-scratcher: If somebody commits an act of violence in an effort to stop a crime from occurring—only to realize later that they were mistaken and that no crime was being committed—is that person still justified in using violence? Or are they the criminal? British law would not be make room for this gray area until the 1980s.

Meanwhile, the tragedy in Hammersmith failed to deter England’s many ghost impersonators. Pranksters and creeps alike continued wearing bedsheets in dark cemeteries and alleyways for almost another century. In fact, the ghost of 1803 and 1804 would not be the last specter to haunt the village of Hammersmith. Two decades later, a ghost would return. But this time, villagers whispered rumors that this haunting was real, caused by the angry soul of a white-clad bricklayer named Thomas Millwood.

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