So last March we were genially discussing a misapplied Mark Twain quotation when the Curse of the Mummy Cats was somehow triggered and I got sucked into their dusty world, which smells vaguely of fish. Nile perch, I think.
Mark Twain had put me in a skeptical mood, so I decided to look around. My first attempt to
debunk investigate the story that cats were imported into England for fertilizer led me right to:
Wake, Jehanne. Kleinwort, Benson: the History of Two Families in Banking. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Specifically page 118, visible at Google Books right here:
Kleinworts also financed the import of cotton from Egypt for Stucken and Co. of Liverpool. And in February 1890 gained notoriety over another of their Egyptian imports. When their client refused to accept a shipment of fertilizer, Kleinworts were left with the cargo. This consisted not of fertilizer but the raw material for it, namely 180,000 mummified cats excavated from their ancient burial ground in Egypt. Kleinworts consigned the 19 ½ tons of embalmed cats to auction where they fetched £3 13s. 9d. per ton; the auctioneer knocked the lots down using one of the cats’ heads as a hammer.18
So it seems that I had already found the cats. I just needed to inspect footnote 18, which would tell me how we knew all of this. The footnotes were not available through Google Books, so I needed the actual book. Here's what I found (note that KBA means "Kleinwort Benson Archives, Fenchurch Street") on p. 453, footnote 18 in its entirety:
Punch and Daily Graphic, 15 Feb 1890, Press Clippings file, KBA.
Punch? Punch??? That's a comedy magazine! I don't have access to the Daily Graphic, but Punch is easy to find. Let's see, 15 Feb, 1890. Here it is, p. 81:
Horrible Result of Using the "Egyptian Fur-tiliser." Click to enlarge, so you can really appreciate the foreshortening of the hind leg of the fleeing farmer, and the ghostly mummy cat eyebeams. Now, once I saw this magnificent creation, I knew I had to write about mummified cats, sometime, somehow.
But please note what's going on here. A historian supports a complicated and unlikely story about the importation of mummified cats for use as fertilizer not with a newspaper account, or an internal memo, or a letter, but with a file folder that contains the above Punch cartoon and, if I understand what the London Daily Graphic is, yet another illustration. Isn't the footnote supposed to tell me where to find the information being footnoted? Oxford University Press! And then there's this Routledge book I found - no, that's enough whining about footnoting.
Perhaps if I can see the Daily Graphic article, or the Daily Paper article mentioned in the caption of the Punch cartoon, or the London Times articles I mentioned yesterday, this will all be straightened out, although I doubt it. It's just that, see, if a historian writes a book about the history of a Liverpool merchant firm and all he can find in their own archives about one of the oddest events in their history is a pair of clipped cartoons, maybe something else is going on.
Tomorrow: Peruvian bat guano, mummies as medicine, mummies as paint, and guest appearances by Rudyard Kipling and Edward Burne-Jones.