Monday, November 16, 2009

A Wuthering Expectations Investigative Report - Were mummified cats actually shipped to England for use as fertilizer? Yes, probably. I didn't say it was a good investigation.

I've been wasting my time researching the importation of mummified cats to Europe and elsewhere.  For what purpose?  Let's not get into that.  Neil, of the magnificent Adventures in the Print Trade, inspired me way back here.  If I'm lucky, this will be the stupidest thing I ever do here - the very first Wuthering Expectations Special Investigative Report.

Were mummified cats shipped to England to be used for fertilizer?  After months of investigation, the shocking answer is: probably, although I have my doubts, but no more than once.  I thought I might get a week out of this.  Now it's going to be a couple of days, because the conclusion is lame.  I could spend a lot of time whining about the low quality of sourcing in books from respected academic publishers, but I'll keep that to myself.

The problem is that National Geographic forced my hand this month with a typically excellent cover story on the subject.  The article is about how Egyptologists are squeezing all sorts of new information out of mummified animals. 

The article begins with a description of the 1888 discovery of the enormous cat cemetery near Beni Hasan.  Their source is the Liverpool Egyptologist William Martin Conway, writing for the English Illustrated Magazine.  That article can be found on Google Books in Conway's The Dawn of Art in the Ancient World (1891), with pp. 181-3 of special relevance.  The best specimens - intact, even gilded - are valued for the souvenir trade.  The mass, though, "a layer of them, a stratum thicker than most coal seams, ten to twenty cats deep" (Conway, 181) suffer a different fate:

Some contractor came along and offered so much a pound for their bones to make into something - soap, or tooth-powder, I dare say, or even paint. So men went systematically to work, peeled cat after cat of its wrappings, stripped off the brittle fur, and piled the bones in black heaps, a yard or more high, looking from the distance like a kind of rotting haycocks scattered on the sandy plain.  The rags and other refuse, it appears, make excellent manure, and donkey loads of them were carried off to the fields to serve that useful, if unromantic, purpose. (Conway, 182-3)

Conway appears to be an eyewitness.  Here is where we must get the cats for the next step in the journey.  Now I'm quoting the National Geographic article: "One ship hauled about 180,000, weighing some 38,000 pounds, to Liverpool to be spread on the fields of England."  The consignment of this shipment was announced in the February 4, 1890 London Times, and its auction in the February 11 paper.*  The first article title mentions 19 tons of embalmed cats, the second 9 tons of mummy cats, which turns out to cause great confusion in later references.  The number of cats, 180,000, seems to be the result of assuming that each cat weighted 1/10 of a pound (9 tons times 10 cats per pound). 

See also this March 2, 1890 New York Times paragraph describing the auction.  You might see what caught my attention.  Weird piece, written at third hand.  Note the appearance of "two gentlemen described as 'evidently scientists'".  A critical reader of historical evidence may begin to wonder what's going on here.

I still wonder.  Two years after the discovery of the cat cemetery in Egypt, described in a well-known article by a Liverpool professor, a shipment of an "undistinguishable mass of fragments", along with some intact mummified cats, arrives in Liverpool and is auctioned off.  Some sort of link between Conway's piles of bones and this shipment would be nice.  An actual eyewitness account of the auction would be nice.

Note, please, that I have not come across a single reference, reliable or otherwise, to any other shipment of mummified animals to England, or anywhere.  This one is apparently it.  More on this one tomorrow, including a cartoon.

*  Source: Palmer’s Index to the Times, January 1st to March 31st 1890.  I haven't seen the articles.  Anyone who wants to pursue this will need better access to old English newspapers than I have.


  1. Most randomly interesting thing I've seen all day. Thank you. I look forward to the cartoon tommorow.

  2. Hmm. I wonder if the Mummy's Curse extends to cats?

  3. Yes, the mummy's curse extends to cats. At least if one part of the curse is wasting a lot of time researching a trivial topic.

    "Randomly interesting" seems so generous. But the cartoon is good. And after that, pre-Raphaelites getting squeamish about their paint.

  4. Wow. And traditionally, the English are supposed to like animals more than they like people. Makes you wonder what they did with their deceased relatives...

  5. I don't remember where I read/heard/saw this, but I'm sure that recently I ran across the information that mummified human remains were used as fertilizer too. Does anyone else remember a recent article, TV show (in the States), or something on the internet that contained that information?

  6. litlove, would this be a good place to insert various Dickens passages about making cats into meat pies? It's all in the seasoning. No, I'll save that for some other time.

    Deb - I'm sure you heard that. It's a story that's repeated a lot. The sourcing is much worse that for the mummifed cat story. See this short piece from the 1870 issue of The Manufacturer and Builder. Note the secondhand nature of the story, the specific but easily imagined details, and all of the other characteristics of the so-called "urban legend," subset, non-urban.

  7. Oh! Ah! Um! Was it all me? Sorry! But it's very interesting to see how an accepted piece of historical evidence is based on such flimsy references, true or not.
    A young friend of mine has just started a university degree and has been annoyed and dismayed to be asked to write an essay on the subject of "Dust". But I think this a brilliant topic, certainly for a lecturer trying to find out which of their students knows how to think. And imagines they might have read Dickens or Mayhew or even Arnold Bennett...

  8. Neil, no apologies. This was great fun.

    What Arnold Bennett book are you thinking of? I've never read him, and should. And what Henry Mayhew (or do you mean someone else)? I've wondered about London Labour and the London Poor.

  9. How could you do an entire Special Investigative Report without mentioning John Crowley's short story on the topic?!? Not that he's a reliable source, but come on. (I came back three and a half years in time to this thread because I just read the story and remembered seeing "mummified cats" in your list of tag lines somewhere.)

  10. I don't remember the Crowley story. If it is in Novelties & Souvenirs I read it, but that ain't no guarantee uh nothin. What happens in it?