Monday, 23 June 2008

Freak Show

Freak Show

One of several conjoined lamb skulls from the NHM collection. Photo: copyright Isabelle Merminod, all rights reserved.

A rare glimpse at the freaks collection London's Natural History Museum
This article first appeared in Fortean Times magazine, October 2007

They look like gone-wrong GM experiments, or the products of chemical contamination or the fallout from Chernobyl, but many of the specimens in the Natural History Museum’s ‘anomalies collection’ are well over a hundred years old.
This isn’t a collection as such, and is spread over the mammals collection, as ‘abnormalities fall outside taxonomy.’ The curators are careful to avoid tasteless sensationalism, but that’s how the museum started, as a ‘cabinet of curiosities’ assembled by the likes of Hans Sloan, founder of the British Museum, from which London’s Natural History Museum (NHM) grew. The mid-seventeenth century collection mania of the aristocratic “grand tour” set included collecting ‘oddities and abnormalities,’ and there were even Mediterranean cottage industries turning out fake prodigies in the form of altered skulls or tampered-with stuffed animals.
Gradually, the cabinet of curiosities came to be arranged in a more orderly fashion, in a way supposed to reflect the organisation of the natural world. The freaks became an embarrassment and were relegated to the cupboards, eventually ending up in storage in the eleven-storey Mammal Tower at the Museum’s site in Kensington. Some of these prodigies were brought out for a rare public viewing at a well-attended one-off ‘Freaks of Nature’ lunchtime lecture event last December. The curators who presented them were clearly enjoying themselves. NHM Mammals Curator Richard Sabin told how he had been inspired to go into zoology by a childhood of Bank Holidays spent in the back of the car being driven by his dad, looking for a suburban museum where he was promised a two-headed pig. (They always got lost and never made it to see the two-headed pig before closing time.) “Now I get to work with a pig with two bottoms,” said Sabin, with some pride.

NHM mammals curator Richard Sabin proudly displays a two-headed lamb skull.. Photo: copyright Isabelle Merminod, all rights reserved

Specimen 79522, as the pig with two bottoms is officially known, was acquired from Barry Knight in Edwardian times. It has two bodies and a single head; the ‘extra’ two front legs protrude out of the creature’s back. It almost certainly died as a newborn piglet. Sabin says that, while we are uneasy about the current high-speed genetic modifications science is throwing up; selective breeding has been going on for thousands of years with domestic animals. Sabin notes that, with ‘their genes tampered with by humans for so long,’ most freaks that turn up are pets or farm animals. ‘Egypt and Ancient Rome documented deformed domestic animals as portents of the gods.’ (See FT 224;21 for a survey of domestic prodigies from Greek and Roman sources, and FT 223: 57 for a seventh century Korean ‘pig with two bottoms,’ interpreted as a favourable omen.)
While Sabin’s predecessors locked the freaks away, dispersed among the Museum’s three quarters of a million mammal specimens gathered over 250 years, the freaks have long been in constant demand for study by vets, looking for clues to ‘developmental defects’ in pets and cattle.
‘It’s a difficult thing to admit you have a passion for two-headed sheep,’ says Sabin. The Museum’s ‘very small collection of abnormalities’ includes two examples of conjoined sheep, both of them newborn lambs. One conjoined sheep skull came from a hospital medical collection and has a large skull joined to a smaller skull, ‘one skull hasn’t developed to the same degree.’
Another two-headed lamb specimen has two skulls that haven’t separated. In the centre of the face, the left and right eye socket of the two skulls have fused into a single third socket – there are two rows of teeth of the first and second skull side by side. It’s ‘fantastically symmetrical, (this is) not that uncommon in domestic animals… We’ve tampered with their [domestic animals’] genes through breeding.”
The Museum’s collection of ‘polydactyl cat leg bones’ is a section of wooden board with the bones of the front limbs of several cats stuck to it. They have extra toes, some up to seven on each foot, ‘quite damaging to your sofa,’ comments Curator Daphne Hill.
Frank Buckland, the nineteenth century naturalist, passed to the Museum a box of delicate rabbit skulls where the top and bottom jaws didn’t ‘fit’ with each other, so that the teeth weren’t wearing down. Ms Hill showed the ‘huge corkscrew teeth’ in these skulls, but added that many corkscrew-teeth afflicted rabbits grew to a ripe old age, apparently not too bothered by their bizarre deformity. Ms Hill also showed us two skulls of hippos, each with one endlessly growing corkscrew canine – but the animal had survived this. And the Museum’s aircraft hangar-sized depot in Wandsworth, South London, has ‘twenty-one and a half skeletons of large whales,’ including sperm whales with lower jaws that grew into outlandish corkscrewing curling shapes, but their ‘teeth wear shows they lived to their early teens.’
The most surprising aspect of the NHM’s hard science freak show was how often deformed animals in the wild made it to a ripe old age. This suggests that we may be wrong in our received ideas about ‘nature red in tooth and claw,’ with the stronger animals eliminating the ‘weak’ of their own kind. Ms Hill showed a the skull of a North Canada wolf with a short muzzle, the upper jaw’s teeth didn’t fit the lower jaw, so it couldn’t bite its prey. It was an adult and ‘had very worn teeth as if eating scraps which shows that as a pack member there was some kind of social organisation that allowed it to survive.’
‘Evidence for social interaction’ that accommodates deformed members of mammal communities could also be a force at work among North Sea white beaked dolphins. In the course of a century, the Museum has acquired sections of vertebral column from three different individuals of this two-meter long species of dolphin. The vertebral columns are ‘bent like the U-bend of a sink,’ giving the dolphins floppy spines. This was ‘something that developed in the womb’, but the dolphins that had this deformity were adults with full stomachs when they were found washed up on the beach. Either a floppy spine doesn’t matter so much when you’re buoyed up by water, or the pod of dolphins were organised to feed their floppy-spined members by driving shoals of fish at them.

Sabin with floppy porpoise vertebrae. Photo: Copyright Isabelle Merminod, all rights reserved.
Sabin also cast light on a possible explanation for some sea monster carcasses. He said that when whales decompose, their skin detaches as the outer layer of blubber rots away. The skin floats away, the skeleton in some cases come out of their mouths, leaving an indistinguishable “globster” mass.
The Mammal Tower’s cabinets also house a stuffed cheetah from Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) that, unlike normal spotted cheetahs, was striped along its back. It was found in 1927 and named as a new species of “King Cheetah.” Recently, an orphaned cub with the same markings was found, and it bred at South Africa’s Kruger National Park. It had one or two striped young; the others were normal spotted cheetahs. The collection also has stuffed Indian civets with anomalous white paws, and specimens of the Bull Island mouse. Bull Island is just off the coast near Dublin, and is a sand bank, which formed just over 200 years ago. Since then, mice that colonized the island developed a freakish sandy colouration, and it was such an ‘advantage to be yellow on a sandy island’ that the whole population is now sand-coloured.
Some animal deformities aren’t the result of gone-wrong embryology, but of animals coping with disease or even accidents. Roe deer usually shed their antlers once a year. Antlers that – for whatever reason – don’t shed take on a weird form, like a shapeless mass of fuzzy, velvety coral. We were also shown a roe deer’s lower leg illegally snared on the Sussex coast. Wire had cut into the bone, but bone has grown over and around the site of the wire snare, the snare had been round the deer’s leg for at least two years when the deer died, of natural causes. It had lived a long time, it had a mature skull. The bone could have grown around the snare in under a year, ‘bone incredibly reactive material,’ Sabin explained.
The NHM is now proud of its centuries-old freaks, recognizing that they ‘underpins the modern museum,’ and
acknowledging the role they played its foundation. But there are no plans to put them on regular display to the public, and the NHM still does draw the line somewhere. There are no cyclopean freaks in its collection. Ms Hill says they were offered a stuffed rearing cyclopean foal from a private collection that was up for auction, ‘but it was on offer at quite a high price and we don’t normally pay large sums for specimens.’
The newly-opened Wellcome Collection, also in London, has anomalous animal specimens including a two-tailed lizard, while the city’s Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons has a truly stomach-churning collection of human foetal anomalies.

© Matt Salusbury 2007

Two bones from legs of an adult red deer in the Museum's collection. It had caught one leg in an illegal wire snare, and the bone had grown round the cut over several years. Photo: copyright Matt Salusbury

Thanks to freelance photographer Isabelle Merminod for kindly agreeing to licence the use of her copyrighted photos for this site only. You can see more of her documentary photos on her website.

Update (October 2012): I visited the Museum Nationale d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris, which is itself a museum piece dating from the days of Baron Georges Cuvier, the turn of the 19th century founder of comparative anatomy. In its truly stomach-churning hall of skeletons and pickled bits of baboon and so on, it has a little corner of conjoined twin births of calves and cyclopean kittens, among others. Mercifully, they're not the actual pickled freaks themselves, but painted plaster-casts of them, and they are at least 200 years old.

The Museum being a temple to immediately post-Revolution enlightenment and the Age of Reason, there had to be a scientific point to its gruesome freaks display, and a didactic purpose to it for the edification of the masses. They found one - the freak plaster casts are divided into freaks "with an axis of symmetry" and "without an axis of symmetry".

Sunday, 1 June 2008

Weird Weekend 2006

This Fortean Bureau of Investigation report from the December 2006 issue of Fortean Times (FT 217) appears as part of a general update of the site.

All pictures copyright Matt Salusbury

Woolfardishworthy, North Devon, so good they named it twice. Also known as Woolsery

Just getting to the village of Woolfardishworthy, Devon, home of the Centre for Fortean Zoology (CFZ) and its Weird Weekend 2006 convention, was already beginning to look like one of the CFZ’s own expeditions to the ends of the Earth in search of unknown animals. Here’s a travel tip: be wary of any railway branch line that’s named after an otter. My journey along the “Tarka Line,” which (eventually) takes passengers from Exeter to Barnstable, became a two-hour nightmare wait, followed by standing room only in a packed carriage. The stress and tedium was relieved only by the tall man in the orange ponytail, with his loud and clear recitations from a battered copy of A Textbook of Marxist Philosophy.

The “Tarka Line” experience was followed by a cross-country bike ride featuring a series of terrifying 1 in 5 gradients that dropped down sharp to disappear into dark, misty woods. Washed out at the campsite, I had my own cryptozoological encounter the next morning, picking strange yellow snails off my sodden bike.

Down at the barn-like Woolfardishworthy Sports and Community Hall, posters for the young farmers tractor pull event shared noticeboard space with an exhibition of Bigfoot images. Fiancées, girlfriends and neighbours’ kids had been roped into helping out, including “Little Ross” the microphone runner, and 14-year-old David Philips who ran the Weird Weekend sound and lights.

Highlights of the 12-hour endurance marathon that was ‘Weird Saturday’ included Chris Moiser from the Big Cats in Britain Group. The group made a Freedom of Information Act request for data on Big Cat sightings from all the UK’s 600-odd councils and 36 police forces. Devon and Cornwall Constabulary’s three-inch thick file of police logs revealed that the police force keeps a tranquiliser gun in its stores, and that many more sightings are reported to the police than to the press. Paul Crowther uncovered a local cottage industry in faked Big Cat photos.

Richard Ingram’s talk on the fall of civilizations listed the usual catastrophes, and some unexpected threats – the financial markets leaving ‘The City’ would pretty much finish off Britain’s economy overnight, while a sudden epidemic could take out the very small pool of people who keep nuclear power stations ticking over.

Ufologist Lionel Beer looked at several dozen potential locations for that “elusive historical butterfly,” King Arthur’s court at Camelot, and concluded that it may all be (literally) a load of rubbish, or a camelotte in French.

UFO researcher Nick Redfern – one of very few people who makes a full-time living out of what he calls “the subject”, had flown in from the States to talk about “saucer spies” – Special Branch, M15 and RAF Provost and Security Service’s surveillance of ufologists in general, and his colleague Matthew Williams in particular. Redfern’s thesis is that the security services wrongly believe that ufologists are being used as cover by other “subversive” groups.

In the CFZ quiz, “one of the greatest events of the Fortean year,” the punters team beat the experts’ team to walk away with Alien Big Cat models as prizes. By then, events were running a little late, on “Devon time.”

Paul Cropper arrived after a 37-hour journey from Australia at his own expense to give two talks in an afternoon, pretty much straight off the plane. He showed rare footage of a purported Australian black panther, and footage of a mainland thylacine, (Tasmania tiger) which we all agreed looked very much like a fox – an animal introduced to Australia to keep down rabbit numbers, and which quickly went feral.

Mr Cropper also treated us to a history of the Yowie, the Australian Bigfoot. Reports go back to Aboriginal traditions of the Dulgar (“hairy man”) from rock paintings and from stories collected and written down by Alexander Harris in the 1840s. (He thought he was being hoaxed at the time.) Many newspaper reports in the 1870s and 1880s refer to “many hairy men”, but then the Yowie disappears between 1910, reappearing only in 1975. Before 1975 they were known as Yahoos or “hairy men.”

Guardian columnist and fellow NUJ London Freelance Branch member Jon Ronson on owl-worshipping frat boy summer camp Bohemian Grove

“By the way, Ronson, you’re not going to say the Queen Mother was a reptile, are you?” asked CFZ Director Jonathan Downes as he introduced Guardian columnist and Channel 4 investigator Jon Ronson. After hanging out with subsequently banned fundamentalist Omar Bakri Mohamed, and a politically correct Ku Klux Klan faction that banned robes, cross burnings and racism, Ronson sneaked into gatherings of the Bilderberg group and then disguised himself in “preppy clothes” to gatecrash and film Bohemian Grove. This is a frat-boy “white flight” resort set up in the redwoods outside San Francisco in the 1920s, and is the venue of a bizarre two-week world leaders’ summer camp where the immensely powerful dress up in robes and do a mock human sacrifice of a wicker figure which they burn in the belly of a giant stone owl. Part pantomime, part Rocky Horror Show, part burlesque drag show and all tacky sub-Shakespearian pageant, the greatest mystery of Bohemian Grove is why the likes of (allegedly) George Bush Snr, Conrad Black, John Major and Clint Eastwood would want to spend their scarce holidays in a juvenile all-male environment where “80-year old men piss against trees.”

Although this Weird Weekend saw 140 people coming through the door from nine countries, it is also becoming a family-orientated event “for ordinary people, not just Fortean insiders.” A terribly nice Norway-based Satanist couple complete with upturned pentangle necklaces rubbed shoulders with the “very God-fearing” people of Woolfardisworthy. There was a kid’s treasure hunt and mad hatter’s tea party (Richard Freeman in his usual top hat,) while punky local schoolboy band C.A.S entertained us with their “Hunting the Yeti” song as one of their mates cavorted in a borrowed yeti costume. Mr Downes laments that “kids don’t keep caterpillars anymore” and has been working to reinvigorate the enthusiasm of the village children for natural history. “I believe in community,” says Downes. When Weird Weekend started seven years ago, he found the “Fortean scene was a bloody shambles – ‘official’ investigation teams, 40 or 50 groups with five members, everybody at each others’ throats.”

Goth zoologist and former head zookeeper for reptiles Richard Freeman reported back on the CFZ’s Gambia expedition in search of two elusive beasts – “Gambo”, a finned, crocodile-like carcass found washed up on Bungalow Beach and buried in the dry sand by holidaying missionary Owen Burnham in 1983, and “Ninka Nanka” a huge, swimming crested serpentine dragon that makes you drop dead within five years of seeing it.

Bungalow Beach is now heavily developed, and the team quickly found that after more than 20 years the sand had become too wet to preserve any Gambo bones. Witnesses they interviewed describe something very like a large dolphin.

The expedition found only one living witness to the Ninka Nanka, who claimed a witch doctor saved his life after his sighting, but even then he still lost his hair. Others told how relatives had seen it and then died. Some reports described a “fantastic, Godzilla-sized” animal. A story about a lorry crashing after running into a huge furrow left by a slithering Ninka Nanka in 2000 didn’t match the wreckage of a much older-looking, rusty wreck with trees growing through it. Alleged Ninka Nanka scales were passed around the audience. We agreed they were probably mica chips.

Mr Freeman concluded that if there is a Ninka Nanka – maybe a large, crested or combed swimming snake – it has died out in Gambia, and we will have to look for it over the river in more remote Guinea.

Footprint casts and photos of tracks on Paul Vella's Bigfoot stall

Paul Vella, of the Alliance of Independent Bigfoot Researchers, set out a stall laden with Bigfoot footprint casts and photos of more Bigfoot prints. Mr Vella is a UK-based crime scene investigator specializing in computers and mobiles, but his interest in Bigfoot was kicked off by the Patterson-Gimlin Bigfoot film – 40 years old next year – “it really bugged me.” Mr Vella asserts that, Patterson aside, “nobody makes any money out of Bigfoot… a lot of people spend a lot of money on Bigfoot research” and he knows of “five Bigfoot-related divorces. It consumes you.” He has promised his wife he will give up his research in 2010 and put all his Bigfoot books on E-bay. He presented convincing evidence for Bigfoot being real – prints, casts, and spine-tingling recordings of Bigfoot screams, which he played to us. He has heard rumours that logging interests were behind some obvious Bigfoot hoaxes in a conspiracy to stop their patch becoming a logging-free Bigfoot reserve.

Weird Weekend speakers, from left: Rendlesham witness Larry Warren, Ufologist Nick Redfern, Creaturama's Mussosaurus, cryptozoology's First Lady Corinna James, CFZ Directory Jonathan Downes, Danish lake monster investigator Lars Thomas
“It wasn’t a lighthouse,” insists Larry Warren, former USAF Security Police patrolman and witness to the UFO encounter at Rendelsham Forest around Christmas 1980, events so famous they have become known as the “British Roswell.” Warren, who now lives in Liverpool, recalls seeing a “craft under intelligent control” which fired “pencil-thin beams” into the sheds containing “the ordinance.” By “the ordinance” he meant a vast store of tactical nuclear weapons. As someone who grew up holidaying with my grandparents in the area, I found this the scariest Rendelsham revelation. It was Europe’s most important nuclear arms dump and nuclear target, and “Greenham Common was a diversion, we were guarding the nukes.” Warren went public in 1982 after the suicide of a colleague and fellow witness, “who should not have been allowed to carry arms” and alleges “brutal interrogation… violation of human rights in the 48 hours after the incident” by the Base authorities. The Rendlesham investigation is unusual in that “the witnesses push forward the investigation rather than the UFO community at large.”

The fallout from the alleged terrorist plot in the week before Weird Weekend grounded many flights to and from the UK, but in the event there was only one speaker who cancelled. The ever-hilarious Ronan Coghlan began his talk on the legendary “goatman” by apologizing in advance in case his dentures flew out during his talk – his denture fixative had been confiscated as he boarded his plane at Belfast as a suspected possible “liquid explosive.”

Coghlan’s goatman turns out throughout Europe – Pan and the Satyrs of Greece and Rome, the Danish geetman, the Scottish urish, and the nastier German bokschit. Pan is far older than the gods of Olympus, and was originally part of a whole race of Pans. Modern American legends – like the axe-wielding, murderous goatman of Prince’s County, Virginia – superimpose gone-wrong genetic experimentation nonsense onto older spooky campfire stories.

If you missed the Weird Weekend talks, you can still see highlights on CFZ TV, accessible via the CFZ website.

Jackalope, a fake monster made from deer antlers and a stuffed hare, on show in the CFZ museum
Weird Weekend was also a chance to visit the CFZ’s new headquarters at Myrtle Cottage, Back Street, Woolfardishworthy. The new office was as busy and crowded as my carriage on the “Tarka Line” when I visited, and the conservatory featured a jackalope, a pilot whale skull connected to the Mogwar sea serpent legend, and live snapper turtles and soft-shelled turtles, some of which came the CFZ’s way following Customs seizures. Cuthbert, one of their soft-shelled turtles, is the only known example of a newly discovered species.

Mr Downes rounded off by promising more CFZ expeditions soon – to Orange Country, Texas, in search of a mystery “double-bed sized” snapping turtle, a trip to look for mystery lizards on uninhabited islands in the Canaries, a second Mongolian Death Worm trip, and an expedition to find “the world’s largest earwig” in the South Atlantic on St Helena – the island of the giant insects.

Veteran Fortean John Michell is among the speakers already booked for Weird Weekend 2007, back in the Sports and Community Hall on 17th-19th August. Over dinner in the Farmer’s Arms pub afterwards, eating from a cryptozoology-themed menu that included Beast of Bodmin Steaks, Mr Downes promised the next Weird Weekend would also include Morris dancing and a parade by the local village kids dressed as monsters. “A bit like in The Wicker Man, or like one of those strange villages coming out of the mists in Hammer House of Horror?” I asked.
“Yeah! That’s right!”

© Copyright Matt Salusbury 2006

UPDATE: The local Morris team were unavailable for Weird Weekend 2007, and the proposed children's fancy dress monster parade turned into a Chinese-inspired dragon dance at the opening ceremony and a youth cavorting in a gorilla suit during a rendition of "Hunting The Bigfoot" by a local teenage band.