Tuesday, 31 December 2013

A Gift of Purses, Porpoises, and Pebbles

Christmas is finally over (for most of us).  I don’t know about you, but I’ve both given and received some pretty weird presents for both Christmas and birthdays.  To those trying to figure out what to do with that purple crystal elephant figurine received from Aunt Joan – just remember, it could be worse. 

No really, it could. 

To make you feel better I’ve compiled a list of a few of the weirdest presents given to Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753).

Why Sir Hans?  Well Dr. Sloane was a famous London physician, he had a great interest in the natural world, catalogued hundreds of new plant species in Jamaica, treated many a famous person, was a fellow of and secretary to the Royal Society, and most importantly, really liked to collect what he termed “curiosities.”  Oh, and he invented the milk chocolate beverage.  The drink was sold by both apothecaries and Cadbury.

Upon his death, Sir Hans bequeathed his amazing collection to the “nation” and it became the foundation of the British Museum.  As a physician and gentleman, Sir Hans was part of a larger network of natural philosophers who sought to explore and understand the world in which they lived.  Sir Hans’s books, manuscripts, and other curiosities can also be found in the British Library and the Natural History Museum.

Bust of Sir Hans from the British Museum.

 1) A Really Gross Story

Titled “An Account of Maggots Taken Out of A Mans Ear” and dated 2 August, 1702, this odd story was gifted to Sloane from one J. Hare Vic. De Cardington.

 “A younge man my house where lodged complained two or three days of a pain in right ear whch had been subject to a running humor, in which time was applyd to it some wool clean pickd and a little clarified honey which gave him but little ease. at length a maid servant of the house perceived his ear something bloudy and upon her searching saw something working in his ear like maggots upon which a neighbouring woman was sent for who applyd to it ye steam of warm milk and a little after I was desird to see him and searching his ear could plainly perceive a great number of Insects working in ye Conduit of his ear and by degrees I pickd out 24 large maggots in shape and colour like those that commonly breed in putrefied flesh.  I could still perceive more remaining behind but being distrubed they workd so farr into the cavity of ye ear that I could not easily then them out, upon which I left him for about an hour (in which time he was very uneasy and ful of paines and then returning to him I could at furst perceive nothing but a thin bloody matter but by degees they workd outward and I pickd out nine more, after this he found himself more at ease upon whch we concluded that there were no more; the next day he found himself better and complains no more of ye pain.  The nicer consideration of this I leave to ye curious but ye matter of fact I affirm and in Testimony have subscribed my name.
J. Hare Vic. De Cardington, Bedford Th.”

Yes, those kinds of maggots.  Just in case that wasn't clear.
 2) Bones

Gifted to Sloane by a poor country surgeon named Bezaleel Sherman.  Sherman, a complete stranger, sent Sloane “a curiosity which I thought might not be unacceptable to you, tis the bones of a calf that perished in the uterus of its Damme.”  About 12ish years later, Sherman wrote Sloane again, reminding him of the gift, and requesting that Sloane “procure me by yt interest a subscription for 500 in the South Sea the next time ye books are open’d for that purpose.”

Not only did Sherman give Sloane random foetal bones, but he followed that up with a request for a favour.  Decidedly not a good gift giver was he? 

Well, Sherman knew his audience well.  His letter describing the bones was published, by Sir Hans, in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1708 and can be read here: http://rstl.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/26/313-324/450.full.pdf

3) A Rock

Dated July 13, 1730.  This particular gift from John Beaumont, a surgeon and geologist, was particularly amusing in its description. 

“Sir I have send you a smal prsent for yr great facours & wish I could tell where ye stone was found but came to my hand accidentally so yt I know it not.”

Yes, Beaumont sent Sloane a rock without provenance.

Not the first or only time Sloane was gifted with rocks.  His dear friend, the physician Archibald Pitcairne sent Sloane a single stone from the Elb River in September, 1701.
Photo from Natural History Museum.  One of Sir Hans's specimen trays used to organize various curiosities.  This particular tray includes several rock varieties.
4) (A Story About) A Horned Woman

“Finding you to be a Gentleman that is a great Lover of Curiosities make bold to Acquaint you that I think I may boldly say I have y'e greatest Rarity that perhaps was ever seen it is a Woman who hath a natural Horn of Ten Inches long growing out of y'e Back part of he Head it is curled & twisted exactly like a Sheeps Horn & of a yellowish Colour growing out of a Bunch like a Wen of which there are several more on her Head bu what they may produce we cannot as yet Determine. If your Worship is pleas'd to view her I will do my self the Honour to wait on you when & where you shall please to appoint she having not yet been Publickly seen.
I am S'r
with all Respect
your most Obedient serv't Isaack Fawks” 

5) A Collection of Really Odd Things

Dated 6 August, 1724, Mr. John Bell’s letter details a list of items he had gifted Sloane. 

These include:
1) a large fly
2) a flower certificate
3) pebbles
4) a picture painted with the urine of a tortoise
5) a root that grows in Shamansky, Siberia and causes drunkeness when powdered and ingested

BONUS "gift": A Purse (from Ben Franklin, no less)

The asbestos purse remained part of the British Museum collection (Minerology Dept) and now belongs to the Natural History Museum in London.

In 1725 Benjamin Franklin found himself a bit short on funds.  Knowing that he possessed a number of North American curiosities and a market in Sloane, Franklin wrote the following:
Having lately been in the Northern Parts of America, I have brought from thence a Purse
made of the stone Asbestos, a Piece of the Stone, and a Piece of Wood, the Pithy Part of which is of the same Nature, and called by the Inhabitants salamander Cotton. As you are noted to be a Lover of Curiosities I have inform'd you of these, and if you have any  Inclination to purchase them, or see them, let me know your Pleasure by a Line directed for me at the Golden Fan in Little Britain, and I will wait upon you with them.
I am, Sir your most humble servant
Benjamin Franklin
P.S. I expect to be out of Town in 2 or 3 Days, and therefore beg an immediate Answer”

Franklin was being a bit gauche.  Here he hinted clumsily that he wanted Sloane to buy, rather than just look at, the items and was definitely posturing with his request for an immediate answer.  

We don't have any record of how Sloane remembered their meeting, but in a bit of creative memory modification Franklin later recast the episode to involve Sloane eagerly approaching him!  He later wrote:

I had brought over a few Curiosities among which the principal was a purse made of the Asbestos, which purifies by fire. Sir Hans Sloane heard of it, came to see me, and invited me to his House in Bloomsbury Square; where he show'd me all his Curiosities, and persuaded me to let him add that to the Number, for which he paid me handsomely.

How did your Christmas presents measure up?  Let me know here or on twitter - I'm @medhistorian.


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