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The Fabulously Eccentric Life of James Gordon Bennett, Jr.

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Gilded Age New York had more than its fair share of outlandish rich people. Take Evander Berry Wall, whose crazy fashion choices (including thigh-high patent leather boots for him and bespoke collars and ties for his dogs) earned him the nickname "King of the Dudes." Then there’s C.K.G. Billings, the industrialist who hosted a dinner party on horseback in a Fifth Avenue ballroom, during which guests drank champagne through rubber tubes. And let’s not forget Alva Vanderbilt, who went ahead and founded the Metropolitan Opera when she couldn’t secure a private box at the Academy of Music. But there is perhaps no high-society New Yorker who was as consistently and astoundingly eccentric—or as influential—as James Gordon Bennett, Jr.

The son of a fabulously wealthy newspaper magnate, Bennett makes the trust fund kids of today look positively tame by comparison. From epic yacht races and colorful journalism to naked carriage rides and public urination, the man did it all. It’s no wonder that “Gordon Bennett!” became a British slang exclamation of shock and awe.

THE BEGINNINGS OF THE HERALD

James Gordon Bennett, Sr., a Scottish immigrant, founded the New York Herald in 1835, building the paper from the ground up. Within 10 years, the Herald had become the most widely read daily in America, thanks to its cheap cover price, up-to-the-minute news, and blatant sensationalism; Bennett Sr. once told a young staffer that “the object of the modern newspaper is not to instruct, but to startle and amuse.”

The elder Bennett’s fellow New Yorkers didn’t take too kindly to all the gossip-mongering; angry crowds regularly gathered outside the Herald's headquarters to the point that Papa Bennett kept a cache of weapons secreted behind the walls of his office—so it’s no surprise that he sent his son away to be educated in Paris.

‪Bennett Sr. continued to run the paper throughout the first half of the 19th century, sensationalizing the news while also pioneering the way it was reported. In 1836, he published what many historians believe was the first newspaper interview ever (the subject, naturally, was the madam of a brothel). So by 1886, when Bennett ceded editorial control of the paper to his then-25-year-old son, the Herald was well established.

THE LUCKY OWL

Bennett the younger first arrived on the New York scene as a teenager. Commanding a luxury yacht (courtesy of dad), he distinguished himself in the boating world at an early age and, at 16, became the youngest ever member of the New York Yachting Club. He took his ship to battle during the Civil War, spending a year at sea in the service of the Union. Legend has it that one night on the water, the warning hoot of an owl woke a sleeping Bennett and prevented his ship from running aground.

Whether the story is true or not, it was the catalyst for a lifelong obsession with owls. Bennett could not get enough of the predatory birds: he ran editorials on species preservation in the Herald and collected owls (both live and statuary) throughout his life. When he commissioned renowned architect Stanford White to design a new Herald building in the 1890s, it included plans to have the roof lined with bronze owl effigies—26 of them—whose eyes flashed at regular intervals with electric light.

Though the building was demolished in 1921, two of the owls now flank the Minerva statue (which also began life on the building’s roof) that stands in modern-day Herald Square—and their eyes still glow a ghostly shade of green.

YACHT ROCK

There’s a reason why Bennett’s nickname around the NYYC was “The Mad Commodore.” Though he engaged in every rich-boy pastime under the sun—polo, ballooning, tennis—his lifelong passion was yachting. He won the first-ever transatlantic yacht race in 1866, guiding the Henrietta on a two-week voyage from the New Jersey coast to the Isle of Wight. Aboard his next vessel, a steam yacht called the Namouna, he entertained artists, painters, bon vivants, and even a very young Winston Churchill.

But they were all outdone by the Lysistrata, a 300-foot monster with such onboard amenities as a Turkish bath, a milk cow in a fan-cooled stall, a theater troupe, and a luxury automobile—which he drove across Bermuda in 1906, marking the first car ever to touch the island’s soil. His joy ride earned him the enmity of two prominent vacationers: Mark Twain and a pre-presidential Woodrow Wilson, who campaigned to have cars banned from Bermuda after they saw Bennett roaring around in his De Dion-Bouton.

It wasn’t all fun and boat cows, however. Bennett kept up his publishing duties throughout his life, rising at the crack of dawn to run the Herald via letters and articles cabled to him by his editors.

WHIZZER ABOUT TOWN

To say that Bennett lived it up would be an understatement. His partying ways were infamous, fueled by a seemingly infinite store of funds and a flair for the dramatic. One of his hobbies included driving a coach-and-four at breakneck speed through the streets—often in the wee hours of the night, and often in the buff. (He once ended up in the hospital after driving under a low archway in Paris and clocking himself on the head.)

Bennett was also a cocktail enthusiast, and his boozing landed him in a heap of trouble one notorious evening in 1877. The story goes that on New Year’s Day, the publisher got rip-roaring drunk, stumbled into a fete being thrown by the family of his then-fiancée Caroline May, and proceeded to urinate into the fireplace in front of everybody. The engagement was called off, but that wasn’t the end of it: Caroline’s brother, Frederick, attacked Bennett with a horsewhip the next day, and later challenged him to a duel. Pistols at dawn were considered archaic by the 1870s, but that didn’t stop Bennett and May. As luck would have it, both of them were such bad shots that they completely missed each other, and that was the end of that.

Which isn’t to say that Bennett wasn’t mortified by the whole incident. Shortly afterwards, he left New York in shame and spent most of the rest of his life in France and traveling the world aboard his many, many yachts, and eventually founding the Paris Herald. He also maintained lavish houses in New York, Newport, Paris, the French Riviera, and Versailles—in one of Louis XIV’s chateaus, naturally, where he played host to kings and dukes.

PAY DIRT, I PRESUME

Though Bennett lived in the lap of luxury himself, he funded the exploits of adventurers willing to get their boots dirty. Most prominent among them was Henry Morton Stanley, a regular correspondent for the Herald and legendary explorer. In 1871, Bennett bankrolled Stanley’s expedition to track down a beloved Scottish missionary, David Livingstone, in the jungles of Tanzania. And naturally, he traveled in style: an armed guard, 150 porters, and 27 pack animals, while a man in front carried the flag of—what else?—the New York Yacht Club.

Stanley tracked down his target after a six-month trek, at which point he allegedly uttered the famous line: “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” Livingstone wasn’t actually missing, per se, but it sure made for a good story—and one that sold a lot of newspapers.

So did the next epic journey that Bennett funded, though it proved to be far less successful for the explorers themselves. Bennett backed an 1879 expedition to the as-yet-undiscovered North Pole, led by U.S. Navy vet George Washington De Long. But the trip ended in disaster when De Long’s ship was crushed by ice in the Bering Strait, and the surviving crew was forced to trek overland. Only 13 made it back to civilization in Siberia, while 20—De Long included—perished.

THE MAUSOLEUM THAT WASN’T

As Bennett aged, his affinity for the insanely opulent never waned. He went back to Stanford White (who, besides being a prominent architect, was also Bennett’s drinking buddy) with an idea for his final resting place: a 200-foot-tall mausoleum built in the shape of an owl, to stand on a promontory in Washington Heights. Inside the owl, a spiral staircase would lead visitors to the bird’s eyes, which would be windows offering sweeping views of the city. When Bennett died, his body would be placed in a sarcophagus and suspended from the ceiling on chains, to dangle in the middle of the monument.

But Bennett’s ridiculous tomb never came to be. In 1906, White was murdered by his lover Evelyn Nesbit’s millionaire husband, resulting in a lengthy court case that the media (the Herald included) dubbed “The Trial of the Century.” Bennett scrapped his plans for the giant owl, depriving New York City of what could have been its weirdest landmark.

LAST COMES MARRIAGE

Though Bennett was a notorious playboy, he eventually did settle down—at the ripe old age of 73. His wife was Maud Potter, the widow of George de Reuter (of Reuters news agency). They were married until Bennett’s death five years later, when he passed away at his villa in the Riviera in 1918.

Sadly, Bennett's paper followed him to the grave; the Herald was sold off in 1920 and was absorbed into an amalgam that became the now-folded New York Herald-Tribune.

But perhaps Bennett always knew his baby was doomed to die with him. When he moved the Herald building uptown, he only signed a 30-year lease. When an underling questioned this decision, he was quickly told by the mercurial publisher that, “Thirty years from now, the Herald will be in Harlem, and I’ll be in Hell!”

Here’s hoping Bennett’s having an entertaining eternity down there in the inferno; otherwise, after a life like that, he’d get terribly bored.

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Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
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science
Head Case: What the Only Soft Tissue Dodo Head in Existence Is Teaching Scientists About These Extinct Birds
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock

Of all the recently extinct animals, none seems to excite the imagination quite like the dodo—a fact Mark Carnall has experienced firsthand. As one of two Life Collections Managers at the UK's Oxford University Museum of Natural History, he’s responsible for nearly 150,000 specimens, “basically all the dead animals excluding insects and fossils,” he tells Mental Floss via email. And that includes the only known soft tissue dodo head in existence.

“In the two and a bit years that I’ve been here, there’s been a steady flow of queries about the dodo from researchers, artists, the public, and the media,” he says. “This is the third interview about the dodo this week! It’s definitely one of the most popular specimens I look after.”

The dodo, or Raphus cucullatus, lived only on the island of Mauritius (and surrounding islets) in the Indian Ocean. First described by Vice Admiral Wybrand van Warwijck in 1598, it was extinct less than 100 years later (sailors' tales of the bird, coupled with its rapid extinction, made many doubt that the dodo was a real creature). Historians still debate the extent that humans ate them, but the flightless birds were easy prey for the predators, including rats and pigs, that sailors introduced to the isolated island of Mauritius. Because the dodo went extinct in the 1600s (the actual date is still widely debated), museum specimens are very, very rare. In fact, with the exception of subfossils—the dark skeletons on display at many museums—there are only three other known specimens, according to Carnall, “and one of those is missing.” (The fully feathered dodos you might have seen in museums? They're models, not actual zoological specimens.)

A man standing with a Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird
A subfossil (bone that has not been fully fossilized) Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird in a museum in Wales circa 1938.
Becker, Fox Photos/Getty Images

Since its extinction was confirmed in the 1800s, Raphus cucullatus has been an object of fascination: It’s been painted and drawn, written about and scientifically studied, and unfairly become synonymous with stupidity. Even now, more than 300 years since the last dodo walked the Earth, there’s still so much we don’t know about the bird—and Oxford’s specimen might be our greatest opportunity to unlock the mysteries surrounding how it behaved, how it lived, how it evolved, and how it died.

 
 

To put into context how old the dodo head is, consider this: From the rule of Oliver Cromwell to the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, it has been around—and it’s likely even older than that. Initially an entire bird (how exactly it was preserved is unclear), the specimen belonged to Elias Ashmole, who used his collections to found Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum in 1677. Before that, it belonged to John Tradescant the Elder and his son; a description of the collection from 1656 notes the specimen as “Dodar, from the Island Mauritius; it is not able to flie being so big.”

And that’s where the dodo’s provenance ends—beyond that, no one knows where or when the specimen came from. “Where the Tradescants got the dodo from has been the subject of some speculation,” Carnall says. “A number of live animals were brought back from Mauritius, but it’s not clear if this is one of [those animals].”

Initially, the specimen was just another one of many in the museum’s collections, and in 1755, most of the body was disposed of because of rot. But in the 19th century, when the extinction of the dodo was confirmed, there was suddenly renewed interest in what remained. Carnall writes on the museum’s blog that John Duncan, then the Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, had a number of casts of the head made, which were sent to scientists and institutions like the British Museum and Royal College of Surgeons. Today, those casts—and casts of those casts—can be found around the world. (Carnall is actively trying to track them all down.)

The Oxford University Dodo head with scoleric bone and the skin on one side removed.
The Oxford University Dodo head with skin and sclerotic ring.
© Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History // Used with permission

In the 1840s, Sir Henry Acland, a doctor and teacher, dissected one side of the head to expose its skeleton, leaving the skin attached on the other side, for a book about the bird by Alexander Gordon Melville and H.E. Strickland called The dodo and its kindred; or, The history, affinities, and osteology of the dodo, solitaire, and other extinct birds of the islands Mauritius, Rodriguez and Bourbon. Published in 1848, “[It] brought together all the known accounts and depictions of the dodo,” Carnall says. The Dodo and its kindred further raised the dodo’s profile, and may have been what spurred schoolteacher George Clark to take a team to Mauritius, where they found the subfossil dodo remains that can be seen in many museums today.

Melville and Strickland described Oxford’s specimen—which they believed to be female—as being “in tolerable preservation ... The eyes still remain dried within the sockets, but the corneous extremity of the beak has perished, so that it scarcely exhibits that strongly hooked termination so conspicuous in all the original portraits. The deep transverse grooves are also visible, though less developed than in the paintings.”

Today, the specimen includes the head as well as the sclerotic ring (a bony feature found in the eyes of birds and lizards), a feather (which is mounted on a microscope slide), tissue samples, the foot skeleton, and scales from the foot. “Considering it’s been on display in collections and museums, pest eaten, dissected, sampled and handled by scientists for over 350 years,” Carnall says, “it’s in surprisingly good condition.”

 
 

There’s still much we don’t know about the dodo, and therefore a lot to learn. As the only soft tissue of a dodo known to exist, the head has been studied for centuries, and not always in ways that we would approve of today. “There was quite some consideration about dissecting the skin off of the head by Sir Henry Acland,” Carnall says. “Sadly there have also been some questionable permissions given, such as when [Melville] soaked the head in water to manipulate the skin and feel the bony structure. Excessive handling over the years has no doubt added to the wear of the specimen.”

Today, scientists who want to examine the head have to follow a standard protocol. “The first step is to get in touch with the museum with details about access requirements ... We deal with enquiries about our collections every single day,” Carnall says. “Depending on the study required, we try to mitigate damage and risk to specimens. For destructive sampling—where a tissue sample or bone sample is needed to be removed from the specimen and then destroyed for analysis—we weigh up the potential importance of the research and how it will be shared with the wider community.”

In other words: Do the potential scientific gains outweigh the risk to the specimen? “This,” Carnall says, “can be a tough decision to make.”

The head, which has been examined by evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro and extinction expert Samuel Turvey as well as dodo experts Julian Hume and Jolyon Parish, has been key in many recent discoveries about the bird. “[It] has been used to understand what the dodo would have looked like, what it may have eaten, where it fits in with the bird evolutionary tree, island biogeography and of course, extinction,” Carnall says. In 2011, scientists took measurements from dodo remains—including the Oxford specimen—and revised the size of the bird from the iconic 50 pounder seen in paintings to an animal “similar to that of a large wild turkey.” DNA taken from specimen’s leg bone has shed light on how the dodo came to Mauritius and how it was related to other dodo-like birds on neighboring islands [PDF]. That DNA also revealed that the dodo’s closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon [PDF].

A nicobar pigeon perched on a bowl of food.
A nicobar pigeon.
iStock

Even with those questions answered, there are a million more that scientists would like to answer about the dodo. “Were there other species—plants, parasites—that depended on the dodo?” Carnall asks. “What was the soft tissue like? ... How and when did the dodo and the related and also extinct Rodrigues solitaire colonize the Mascarene Islands? What were their brains like?”

 
 

Though it’s a rare specimen, and priceless by scientific standards, the dodo head is, in many ways, just like all the rest of the specimens in the museum’s collections. It’s stored in a standard archival quality box with acid-free tissue paper that’s changed regularly. (The box is getting upgraded to something that Carnall says is “slightly schmancier” because “it gets quite a bit of use, more so than the rest of the collection.”) “As for the specific storage, we store it in vault 249 and obviously turn the lasers off during the day,” Carnall jokes. “The passcode for the vault safe is 1234ABCD …”

According to Carnall, even though there are many scientific and cultural reasons why the dodo head is considered important, to him, it isn’t necessarily more important than any of the other 149,999 specimens he’s responsible for.

“Full disclosure: All museum specimens are equally important to collections managers,” he says. “It is a huge honor and a privilege to be responsible for this one particular specimen, but each and every specimen in the collection also has the power to contribute towards our knowledge of the natural world ... This week I was teaching about a species of Greek woodlouse and the molluscs of Oxfordshire. We know next to nothing about these animals—where they live, what they eat, the threats to them, and the predators that rely on them. The same is true of most living species, sadly. But on the upside, there’s so much work to be done!”

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Health
How Promoting Handwashing Got One 19th Century Doctor Institutionalized
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iStock

Regardless of how often we actually do it, it's common knowledge that washing our hands before eating, after coughing, and after using the bathroom is good for us. But the connection between handwashing and health wasn't always accepted as fact. As Danielle Bainbridge explains in the PBS web series Origin of Everything, the first doctor to campaign for cleanliness in hospitals was not only shunned by other medical professionals, but ended up in an insane asylum.

Prior to the 19th century, handwashing primarily existed in the context of religious ceremonies and practices. It plays a role in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, and Buddhism in some form or another. But washing up to stop the spread of disease wasn't really a thing for most of history. People weren't aware of germs, so instead of microbes, they blamed illness on everything from demons to bad air.

Then, in 1846, a Hungarian doctor named Ignaz Semmelweis made a breakthrough observation. He noticed that women giving birth with the help of midwives were less likely to die than those treated by doctors. He determined that because doctors were also performing autopsies on victims of puerperal fever (a bacterial infection also known as childbed fever), they were somehow spreading the disease to their other patients. Semmelweis started promoting handwashing and instrument sterilization in his clinic, and the spread of puerperal fever dropped as a result.

Despite the evidence to support his theory, his peers in the medical community weren't keen on the idea of blaming patient deaths on doctors. Partly due to his commitment to the controversial theory, Semmelweis was shunned from his field. He suffered a mental breakdown and ended up in a mental hospital, where he died a few weeks later.

Germ theory did eventually become more mainstream as the century progressed, and washing hands as a way to kill unseen pathogens started gaining popularity. Even so, it wasn't until the 1980s that the CDC released the first official guidelines instructing people on best handwashing practices.

If this story suddenly has you in the mood to practice good hygiene, here's the best way to wash your hands, according to experts.

[h/t Origin of Everything]

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