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The Victorian Father-Son Duo Who Ate Their Way Through the Animal Kingdom

A few hours before Frank Buckland was due to give a lecture at the Brighton Aquarium in May 1874, his nephews came to call. They would not have been surprised to find their uncle cooking—in fact, as they passed the small menagerie of monkeys, parrots, and other caged animals that lived in Frank’s home, they might well have spotted his dish's main ingredient: an old rhinoceros, which had been a resident at the local zoo before its recent death. Frank had spent the day slicing up the animal to make a giant meat pie for his audience.

Though the dish was intended for Frank’s admiring public, he’d made enough to offer the boys a small sample. Despite its exoticism, the meat tasted familiar, they said—like tough beef.

Frank’s dietary habits were adventurous—a tendency he inherited from his father, William. Both men were accomplished (if not always respected) naturalists who left a huge mark on early zoology. But they also sampled some rather unusual meats, including giraffe, panther, and boiled elephant trunk.

Today, eating such meats isn’t just frowned upon; in many places, it's illegal due to conservation laws. But the attitude of the Victorian age was much different. Animals were, as Frank put it, “destined to multiply and to serve ... the behests of man.” No matter how scarce it was, any creature could serve as food. As William Buckland himself once declared, “The stomach, sir, rules the world. The great ones eat the less, and the less the lesser still.”

LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON

Frank grew up in a household dominated by the scholarly fascinations of his father, an Anglican minister with a deep love for earth science. William Buckland’s passion had begun at a very young age: Born in 1784, he grew up near the quarries of Axminster, which were teeming with fossils. With a little help from his father, Charles Buckland, young William would gleefully gather prehistoric shells and other treasures like wild bird’s eggs.

William became an ordained Anglican priest and, in 1808, earned an M.A. from Oxford. Afterward, he spent a few years exploring the English countryside, gathering bags of fossils. He landed a dream job in 1813 when his alma mater named him professor of mineralogy. Thus began Buckland’s impressive climb up the academic ladder; in 1845, he was appointed the Dean of Westminster Abbey, a post he held for 11 years. 

Throughout his career, Buckland Senior had a real knack for making huge discoveries. In 1823, the geologist dug up Britain’s oldest known human remains; one year later, he became the first person to scientifically describe a dinosaur. He also coined the word coprolite, which means “fossilized dung,” and owned a coprolite-covered table top.

Today, William Buckland’s personal quirks are remembered in greater detail than many of his accomplishments. He and his son owned a pet bear, for example, which they dressed in a cap and gown and took to wine parties around Oxford. And every class was a performance: Lively and theatrical, the man would keep his pupils wide awake with the aid of grandiose props like a large hyena skull.

The Buckland dinner table was no less entertaining. William popularized an offbeat diet he dubbed zoophagy, which basically meant that the minister ate any creature he could get his hands on. Bear, crocodile, and hedgehog were all regular parts of the family diet. Unsuspecting guests learned the hard way that their host didn’t always bother to identify the main course by name before everyone started digging in. Still, at least one of William’s friends appreciated these bizarre meals. “I have always regretted [the] day,” wrote critic John Ruskin, “… on which I missed a delicate toast of mice.”

Apparently, though, there were still a few creatures that even William’s adventurous palate found repulsive: common mole was awful, he said, but blue bottle fly may have been even worse.

FROM THE AUTOPSY TABLE TO THE DINNER TABLE

Born in 1826, Frank was the eldest of William and Mary Buckland's nine children (only five of whom survived to adulthood), and he was very much his father's son. By 4, he could already identify fossils with ease: When a friend of his father's brought a few bones to the Buckland home, Frank correctly recognized them as the “vertebrae of an Ichthyosaurus,” a type of Mesozoic reptile that resembled a dolphin. His love of bones continued into adulthood; he loved collecting body parts from an assortment of species, and once, when a boy with an unusually shaped head walked past, Frank muttered, “What I wouldn’t give for that fellow’s skull!”

Frank’s career followed an odd path. In 1851, he put his interest in anatomy to good use by becoming a surgeon—but his love of nature far outweighed his esteem for the medical field. In 1852, the 25-year-old Buckland published “Rats” in the literary magazine Bentley’s Miscellany; readers were captivated by Frank’s lively writing style. Accessible and entertaining in almost equal measure, “Rats” was so warmly received that the publication asked Frank to pen a regular column, which would be collected into a volume called Curiosities of Natural History.

Soon, Frank had established himself as the United Kingdom’s most popular science communicator—the Bill Nye of his time, if you will. Like his father, he was a masterful lecturer. According to one journalist, “Few have excelled him in the power of conveying at once information and amusement. He inherited from his father the faculty of investing a subject, dry in other hands (and how dry lectures often are!), with a vivid, picturesque interest.” Before the year 1852 wrapped up, Frank retired from surgery to concentrate on writing, lecturing, and natural history full-time.

Of course, William’s adventurous appetite rubbed off on Frank. Nowhere was this fact more apparent than at the Royal Zoological Garden (today’s London Zoo). When a display animal died, Frank was usually on call to perform an autopsy. As he was dissecting, he gave the staff explicit instructions to save any and all remains that seemed appetizing. There was just one rule of thumb: “If they look good to eat, they are cooked; if they stink, they are buried.”

This system worked well. Over time, Frank checked off such entrées as viper, roast giraffe, bison, and a “whole roast ostrich.”

Frank preached what he practiced and proudly evangelized zoophagy. In 1860, he helped found the Acclimatisation Society of Great Britain , serving as its first secretary. The primary purpose of Acclimatisation Societies—which had also turned up in France, New Zealand, and the U.S., among other countries—was to introduce foreign plants and animals to new ecosystems. This is how starlings made the leap from Britain to America, where they are now considered invasive, and how rabbits ended up wreaking havoc in Queensland, Australia. Zoophagy was a big part of the acclimatisation platform; Frank’s group hoped to transform odd or foreign meats into familiar household staples.

To that end, on July 12, 1862, the British Society’s inaugural dinner was held in London. Attendees were served sea slug and deer sinew soup (both of which Frank called “glue-like”), kangaroo stew (“not bad, but a little gone off”), Syrian pig, Algerian sweet potatoes, and various ducks. Delighted by this exotic spread, Frank approvingly called the event “one of the most agreeable dinners … I ever was present at.”

AN ECCENTRIC LEGACY

By the standards of their day, William and Frank Buckland were considered eccentric—a reputation that has only grown with time. In The Secret History of Oxford, Paul Sullivan says that the pair "were two of the most colorful characters ever produced by the university," and the book Marylebone Lives: Rogues, romantics and rebels. Character studies of locals since the eighteenth century, edited by Mark Riddaway and Carl Upsall, called Frank "one of those true Victorian oddballs" who today "would most likely be starring in some animal-based reality show on Channel 4."

But then again, Marylebone Lives notes that Frank was "England's foremost naturalist," an opinion shared by science historian Allen Debus, who called Frank "one of Great Britain's foremost promoters of natural history" in his time. And Shelley Emling writes in her biography of early paleontologist Mary Anning that the elder Buckland was "the kind of man people were instinctively drawn to ... Graced with an agile mind, he was a great debater and a born experimenter who couldn't have cared less about what others thought of him."

Great minds often belong to unusual people, and no pair makes that clearer than the Bucklands—a father and son who, between their odd gastronomic escapades, advanced and popularized the study of our world and the life forms we share it with.

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iStock / Collage by Jen Pinkowski
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The Elements
9 Diamond-Like Facts About Carbon
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iStock / Collage by Jen Pinkowski

How well do you know the periodic table? Our series The Elements explores the fundamental building blocks of the observable universe—and their relevance to your life—one by one.
 
 
It can be glittering and hard. It can be soft and flaky. It can look like a soccer ball. Carbon is the backbone of every living thing—and yet it just might cause the end of life on Earth as we know it. How can a lump of coal and a shining diamond be composed of the same material? Here are eight things you probably didn't know about carbon.

1. IT'S THE "DUCT TAPE OF LIFE."

It's in every living thing, and in quite a few dead ones. "Water may be the solvent of the universe," writes Natalie Angier in her classic introduction to science, The Canon, "but carbon is the duct tape of life." Not only is carbon duct tape, it's one hell of a duct tape. It binds atoms to one another, forming humans, animals, plants and rocks. If we play around with it, we can coax it into plastics, paints, and all kinds of chemicals.

2. IT'S ONE OF THE MOST ABUNDANT ELEMENTS IN THE UNIVERSE.

It sits right at the top of the periodic table, wedged in between boron and nitrogen. Atomic number 6, chemical sign C. Six protons, six neutrons, six electrons. It is the fourth most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen, helium, and oxygen, and 15th in the Earth's crust. While its older cousins hydrogen and helium are believed to have been formed during the tumult of the Big Bang, carbon is thought to stem from a buildup of alpha particles in supernova explosions, a process called supernova nucleosynthesis.

3. IT'S NAMED AFTER COAL.

While humans have known carbon as coal and—after burning—soot for thousands of years, it was Antoine Lavoisier who, in 1772, showed that it was in fact a unique chemical entity. Lavoisier used an instrument that focused the Sun's rays using lenses which had a diameter of about four feet. He used the apparatus, called a solar furnace, to burn a diamond in a glass jar. By analyzing the residue found in the jar, he was able to show that diamond was comprised solely of carbon. Lavoisier first listed it as an element in his textbook Traité Élémentaire de Chimie, published in 1789. The name carbon derives from the French charbon, or coal.

4. IT LOVES TO BOND.

It can form four bonds, which it does with many other elements, creating hundreds of thousands of compounds, some of which we use daily. (Plastics! Drugs! Gasoline!) More importantly, those bonds are both strong and flexible.

5. NEARLY 20 PERCENT OF YOUR BODY IS CARBON.

May Nyman, a professor of inorganic chemistry at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon tells Mental Floss that carbon has an almost unbelievable range. "It makes up all life forms, and in the number of substances it makes, the fats, the sugars, there is a huge diversity," she says. It forms chains and rings, in a process chemists call catenation. Every living thing is built on a backbone of carbon (with nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, and other elements). So animals, plants, every living cell, and of course humans are a product of catenation. Our bodies are 18.5 percent carbon, by weight.

And yet it can be inorganic as well, Nyman says. It teams up with oxygen and other substances to form large parts of the inanimate world, like rocks and minerals.

6. WE DISCOVERED TWO NEW FORMS OF IT ONLY RECENTLY.

Carbon is found in four major forms: graphite, diamonds, fullerenes, and graphene. "Structure controls carbon's properties," says Nyman.  Graphite ("the writing stone") is made up of loosely connected sheets of carbon formed like chicken wire. Penciling something in actually is just scratching layers of graphite onto paper. Diamonds, in contrast, are linked three-dimensionally. These exceptionally strong bonds can only be broken by a huge amount of energy. Because diamonds have many of these bonds, it makes them the hardest substance on Earth.

Fullerenes were discovered in 1985 when a group of scientists blasted graphite with a laser and the resulting carbon gas condensed to previously unknown spherical molecules with 60 and 70 atoms. They were named in honor of Buckminster Fuller, the eccentric inventor who famously created geodesic domes with this soccer ball–like composition. Robert Curl, Harold Kroto, and Richard Smalley won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering this new form of carbon.

The youngest member of the carbon family is graphene, found by chance in 2004 by Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov in an impromptu research jam. The scientists used scotch tape—yes, really—to lift carbon sheets one atom thick from a lump of graphite. The new material is extremely thin and strong. The result: the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010.

7. DIAMONDS AREN'T CALLED "ICE" BECAUSE OF THEIR APPEARANCE.

Diamonds are called "ice" because their ability to transport heat makes them cool to the touch—not because of their look. This makes them ideal for use as heat sinks in microchips. (Synthethic diamonds are mostly used.) Again, diamonds' three-dimensional lattice structure comes into play. Heat is turned into lattice vibrations, which are responsible for diamonds' very high thermal conductivity.

8. IT HELPS US DETERMINE THE AGE OF ARTIFACTS—AND PROVE SOME OF THEM FAKE.

American scientist Willard F. Libby won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1960 for developing a method for dating relics by analyzing the amount of a radioactive subspecies of carbon contained in them. Radiocarbon or C14 dating measures the decay of a radioactive form of carbon, C14, that accumulates in living things. It can be used for objects that are as much as 50,000 years old. Carbon dating help determine the age of Ötzi the Iceman, a 5300-year-old corpse found frozen in the Alps. It also established that Lancelot's Round Table in Winchester Cathedral was made hundreds of years after the supposed Arthurian Age.

9. TOO MUCH OF IT IS CHANGING OUR WORLD.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is an important part of a gaseous blanket that is wrapped around our planet, making it warm enough to sustain life. But burning fossil fuels—which are built on a carbon backbone—releases more carbon dioxide, which is directly linked to global warming. A number of ways to remove and store carbon dioxide have been proposed, including bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, which involves planting large stands of trees, harvesting and burning them to create electricity, and capturing the CO2 created in the process and storing it underground. Yet another approach that is being discussed is to artificially make oceans more alkaline in order to let them to bind more CO2. Forests are natural carbon sinks, because trees capture CO2 during photosynthesis, but human activity in these forests counteracts and surpasses whatever CO2 capture gains we might get. In short, we don't have a solution yet to the overabundance of C02 we've created in the atmosphere.

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Nicole Garner
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History
How One Widow's Grief Turned a Small Town Into a Roadside Attraction
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Nicole Garner

Like many small towns, the southwest Missouri town of Nevada (pronounced not as the state, but as Nev-AY-duh) loves to tell tales. Incorporated in 1855, the 8000-person city was once a railroad hub and a former home to the outlaw Frank James, the elder brother of the more infamous Jesse James. But the one story Nevada residents love to tell above all others isn't about anyone famous. It's about an atypical above-ground grave in the town's oldest cemetery, the man who's interred there, and how he can't get any rest.

Scan of the Nevada Daily Mail from March 4, 1897.
Nevada Daily Mail; March 4, 1897.
Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri.

On March 4, 1897, the body of a young man was found near Nevada, Missouri, apparently struck by lightning. The local newspaper, the Nevada Daily Mail, printed the story of his death that evening right next to the news that William McKinley had been sworn in as president that day; a bold-faced headline declared "Death Came Without Warning," and noted “His Clothing Torn From His Body." A reporter at the scene described how the body, which was found around 11 a.m., was unrecognizable at first. Eventually the young man's father identified him as Frederick Alonzo "Lon" Dorsa, and the coroner determined that an umbrella was the cause of Lon's electrocution.

Lon left behind a widow whose name was never mentioned in newspapers; to this day, other printed versions of the Dorsas' story omit her identity. But she had a name—Neva Dorsa—and her grief led her to commission a singularly peculiar grave for her husband—one that would open her up to years worth of ridicule and also make their small town a roadside attraction.

A funeral announcement in the Daily Mail noted that undertakers had prepared Lon's body in a "neat casket" before a funeral service set for March 7. A follow-up article the next day read that Lon's funeral was widely attended, with a large procession to the cemetery and burial with military honors. His widow—whose name was determined from a marriage license filed at the Vernon County courthouse showing that Lon married a Neva Gibson on February 12, 1895—had gone from a newlywed to a single mother in just two years.

But, Lon's first interment was temporary. Neva had arranged a grand resting place for her husband, which wasn't ready in the short time between his death and the funeral. Modern newspaper retellings of Lon and Neva's tale say she ordered a large, above-ground enclosure from the Brophy Monument Company in Nevada. A large piece of stone—some accounts say marble while others suggest limestone or granite—was shipped in via railroad car. When it arrived, the stone was too heavy to move, so a local stonecutter spent more than a month chiseling away before the piece was light enough to be pulled away by horses. A wire story described the stone tomb as being "12 feet long, 4 feet wide and 5 feet high. Its weight at completion was 11,000 pounds."

Before Lon’s body was placed inside, Neva made a few key additions—specifically a hidden pane of glass that let her view her husband:

"A piece of stone, covered to represent a bible [sic], is the covering of the aperture. It can be lifted easily by the widow's hand and when Mrs. Dorsa's grief becomes unusually poignant, she goes to the cemetery and gazes for hours at a time upon the face of her dead husband."

The Daily Mail covered the second tomb's installation with morbid attention to detail on May 6, 1897, precisely two months after Lon was initially buried:

"When the grave was opened this morning the coffin looked as bright and new as when buried but it had water in it which had at one time nearly submerged the body. The remains looked perfectly natural and there were no evidences of decomposition having sat in—no odor whatover [sic]. A little mould [sic] had gathered about the roots of his hair and on the neck, otherwise the body looked as fresh as when buried."

The newspaper called the tomb a "stone sarcophagus" and noted that Neva was there to examine her husband's corpse and watch the reburial of his remains. There was likely no inkling from those present, or the community who read about it in that evening's paper, that Neva had designed the tomb with unexpected and usual features, like the pivoting stone Bible that would reveal Lon's face below when unlocked and moved.

Instead, the newspaper suggested that the "costly mousoleum [sic] provided for the reception of his remains is the tribute of her affection."

Lon Dorsa's grave.
Lon Dorsa's grave at Deepwood Cemetery in Nevada, Missouri.
Nicole Garner

Following Lon's re-interment, Neva managed her grief by visiting her deceased husband regularly. Her home was near his grave—the 1900 U.S. Census listed her as a 25-year-old widow living on south Washington Street in Nevada, the same street as the cemetery—and three years after her husband's death, she was employed as a dressmaker, working year-round to provide for their young children, Beatrice and Fred.

By 1905, a new wave of public scrutiny hit the Dorsa (sometimes spelled Dorsey) family when the details of Neva's specially designed, above-ground grave began circulating. It's not clear who reported the story first, but the Topeka Daily Capital, published across the Kansas border 150 miles from Nevada, published a piece, which eventually spread to The St. Louis Republic. Early that spring, the same story was printed in the Pittsburgh Press, a Chicago church publication called The Advance, and in the summer of 1906, a description of Lon Dorsa's crypt had made it nearly 1000 miles to the front page of the Staunton Spectator and Vindicator in Staunton, Virginia:

"The strangest tomb in America, if not in the world, is that which rest the remains of Lon Dorsa in Deepwood cemetery, Nevada, Mo. It is so constructed that the widow can look upon her deceased husband at will, by the turning of a key in a lock which holds a stone Bible just above the remains."

Articles at the time noted that Lon's remains were in an airtight tomb and that scientists supposedly told Mrs. Dorsa that her husband's body would be well-preserved in those conditions, but decomposition had already taken place: "It [the body] has turned almost black, but the general outline of the features remains unchanged."

According to a 1997 walking tour pamphlet of Deepwood Cemetery, it wasn't long before community members caught on that Neva visited the cemetery all too often: "Fascinated children hung about to watch the lady arrive in her buggy. If she saw them, she'd go after them with a whip, shrieking like a madwoman …" the guide stated. Eventually, "her family had the pivot removed and the Bible cemented down."

Local lore suggests that the publicity and Lon's deterioration drove Neva to insanity. Some say she ended up in an asylum and died soon after—a fairly believable tale, considering Nevada was home to one of the state's hospitals for mental illness. However, a list of Deepwood Cemetery lot owners, found at the Vernon County Historical Society, doesn't have a burial space for Neva.

A more likely explanation—based on a listing on Find a Grave, a website that indexes cemeteries and headstones, and which matches Neva's personal information—suggests she simply remarried and moved to California. The California Death Index, 1945-1997, shows that a Neva (Gibson) Simpson died Dec. 30, 1945 in Los Angeles. The birth date and place match those of Neva (Gibson) Dorsa.

Newspaper clipping featuring a picture of a skull.
Nevada Daily Mail, Nov. 30, 1987. Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri.
State Historical Society of Missouri

Wherever Neva ended up, Lon's body didn't exactly rest in peace. In July 1986, vandals broke into the town's most famous tomb and stole his head. It was recovered the following year in a Nevada home, but law enforcement and cemetery caretakers noted that the stone Bible, which had been cemented down for some time, was periodically ripped off the tomb.

Talbot Wight, the Deepwood Cemetery Board’s president at the time, told the Daily Mail in 1987 that Lon's hair, skin, and clothing were well preserved until vandals broke the encasing glass. "Evidently, he was still in pretty good shape until July," Wight said.

But when Lon's skull was photographed for the newspaper's front page, it featured no hair or skin, both of which likely decomposed quickly after being stolen if not before. The skull was buried in an undisclosed location away from the body so as to not tempt new grave robbers, and the tomb was re-sealed with marble in an attempt to prevent further damage.

Still, the story of Neva Dorsa and her husband’s remains hasn't died away. It circulates through southwestern Missouri, drawing visitors to Deepwood Cemetery to gaze at the stone plot—just not in the same way Neva had intended.

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