Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Horrible Result of Using the "Egyptian Fur-tiliser" - or Punch as proof

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.

PunchPunch???  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.


  1. Your posts on mummies reminds me of a story I once heard about Turkish officials arresting a mummy they feared to be "the sleeping emporer" (Constantine XI Paleologos). This would have happened back when all the ruins were being plundered.

    I've searched this morning and I can find nothing on this ...I wonder if I dreamed it during a lecture...

  2. I wish I'd written my thesis using ONLY Punch cartoons as evidence. Especially as my focus was Renaissance drama.

  3. My thesis was on Byron and Wilde--would have had gobs of material.

  4. This is a bit long, but here's some of the evidence you're after:

    "Mummy Cats. - Another sale of mummy cats took place yesterday at Liverpool, where Messrs. Gordon and Co. offered in their sale room a consignment of nine tons of embalmed cats, mostly in fragments, from the Beni-Hassan pit. The sale attracted a large company of merchants and brokers. The bones were first sold, and were purchased for £5 27s 6d per ton by Messrs. Leventon and Co. who are the holders of the first cargo imported from the same place, for fertilizing purposes. Heads were separately offered, and for those there was some competition, and the prices ranged from 1s 9d to 6s 6d. For one specimen, consisting of the entire body without the head of an embalmed cat 5s 6d was obtained, and, some bones fetched as much as 3s each."

    The Times, Feb. 11, 1890 - page 11; (and, a much clearer version of same) The Newcastle Weekly Courant, Feb 15.

    Some remains preserved:

    "At the ordinary meeting of the Biological Society tomorrow (Friday) night, Professor Herdman (the president) will exhibit, with remarks, specimens of the remarkable cargo of Egyptian mummy cats, of which we have heard so much lately. Mr T J Moore, the curator of the museum, will also speak upon the same subject."

    Liverpool Mercury, Feb 13 1890.

    A longer account of the auction (explaining a few things):

    "Sale of Feline Mummies. Amusing Scene

    At noon yesterday Messrs James Gordon and Co. sold by auction, at Liverpool, eight and a half tons of mummified cats from Egypt. The mummified cats, which came from Beni Hassan, about 100 miles from Cairo, were consigned to Messrs Kleinworth, Sons, and Co., Liverpool. They were brought to Liverpool in 100 bags by the steamer Thebes, from Egypt. The sale attracted a very large number of Liverpool merchants. Mr J C Gordon, who conducted the sale of the cats, said that Professor Conway had written an article about them, and had expressed his belief that they were from 3000 to 4000 years old. The had in the room that day a basket of the mummified bones as a specimen of what the remaining bones were like. The bones would be sold at so much a ton. He would like an offer. The bidding commenced at £3 per ton, and gradually advanced to £5 17s 6d, at which sum they were knocked down to Messrs Leventon and Co. Messrs Leventon and Co. were the purchasers of the other consignment of mummified cats, which were disposed of a short time ago. The price per ton then realised was £3 13s 9d. A large number of single cats' heads were next sold at prices varying from 1s 9d to 4s 6d each. The reason the cats heads were sold singly was because the brokers had been deluged with letters asking if they would sell specimens as samples. The mummies are broken into fragments, few perfect specimens remaining. They were packed very tightly into bags for the purpose of saving freights. The first cat's head which was disposed of brought an offer of 1s 3d. Mr Gordon said the head belonged to a beatiful tom, and was worth more (laughter). The bidding for the head slowly advanced in price, and was knocked down to a Mr Gorst for 3s 3d. [Here lists prices of many cats' heads, and amusing comments of auctioneer] ... The sale from first to last evoked great merriment, and it was quite a study to watch the interest which a few men of science looked upon the affair as compared to the banter indulged in by men of business. Messrs Leveton and Co., who bought the mummified cats by the ton, intend to grind them up into manure. It is stated on good authority that the remains of Egyptian mummified human beings have before now been ground in English mills for manure."

    The Bristol Mercury and Daily Post, Feb 11, 1890.

  5. I am thoroughly enjoying the saga of the mummified cats. Your postings are purrfect.

  6. Obooki, I'm in your debt. Just what I wanted. Note the fine piece of urban legending at the end of the longest article.

    The all-Punch dissertation would be a Surrealist masterpiece. I'm imaging something with no additional text. Just a series of seemingly unrelated cartoons that somehow amount a profound and original piece of scholarship.

    And if we can't have Punch, I'm with RT - unleash the puns!