The Gentle Art of Political Taxidermy
“Squire” Charles Waterton, 27th Lord of Walton Hall (Yorkshire, England), hated being called an eccentric, but an eccentric he was. He liked to get under the dinner table and bite the legs of his guests like a dog; he walked barefoot in the tropical forests of British Guiana; he climbed the cross of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome and put his gloves on its lightning conductor. He knocked out a boa constrictor with a mighty punch; he tried to fly from the top of an outhouse (“navigate the atmosphere,” he called it), only to land on the ground with a “foul shake.”
No one can say that Waterton was not a talented and interesting man. Instead, they said he was eccentric, which, when translated from 19th-century-aristocratic-British-scientist-speak, meant “so crazy we’re pretty sure that he removed his own brain and jammed it in again backwards.”
In the 19th century, when the rich were insane, they were simply eccentric; when the poor were insane, they were crazy. Luckily for Charles Waterton (1782-1865), he inherited a large estate and could insulate himself from legal scrutiny and indulge his whims and interests. Waterton would make a problematic biography, his life filled with front-line environmentalism, exploration, taxidermy, and natural history interests wrapped around a solid steel stake of bizarre personal behaviour. Money was his greatest curative, an elixir of great depth and more understanding than Dr. Freud could ever muster. But ultimately maybe all of this behaviour masked a terminal boredom.
He fashioned weird monstrosities out of hollow animal skins through his own preserving methods (one, the bearded “Nondescript,” made from the skin of a red howler monkey, was probably a caricature of his enemy, Treasury Secretary J.R. Lushington). He bled himself, against doctors’ advice, at least 136 times in his life (“tapping my claret”), and taking from 16 to 20 oz. of blood each time.
But he was not entirely crazy.