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The Extraordinary Life of Charles Waterton. A generation of British schoolchildren grew up fascinated by his account in Wanderings of riding a large and violently unimpressed cayman for several minutes, and awed by his description of his failure to be bitten by vampire bats in Guiana, though he left his toe deliberately exposed from his hammock for just this purpose night after night.

The Extraordinary Life of Charles Waterton. A generation of British schoolchildren grew up fascinated by his account in Wanderings of riding a large and violently unimpressed cayman for several minutes, and awed by his description of his failure to be bitten by vampire bats in Guiana, though he left his toe deliberately exposed from his hammock for just this purpose night after night.

The Gentle Art of Political Taxidermy

Charles Waterton

“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.

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Jemmy Hirst

Jemmy Hirst

?Animal-lover and Inventor Jemmy Hirst

James “Jemmy” Hirst?was born to a farmer family of?Rawcliffe,?Yorkshire. Even at school he kept a pet?jackdaw?and trained a?hedgehog?to follow him around. His parents’ hope that he would become a priest never materialised when he was thrown out of school for his pranks. Hirst was apprenticed to a?tanner, fell in love with his daughter and became engaged to her.

Reputedly Hirst’s eccentricity began when his betrothed died of?smallpox?after he rescued her from a flooding river. At first Hirst retired to his bed and reputedly contracted “brain fever”. When he recovered he continued his habits of animal training.

He made a remarkable comeback and he earned a small fortune speculating on farm produce. This allowed him to spend the rest of his long life back in Rawcliffe as a gentleman farmer, and to be generous in the most eccentric way possible. He supposedly would blow a hunting horn to invite the poor and elderly to his house for refreshments…which were served in his favorite coffin, because where else would you serve them?

In any event, the real boon of his newfound wealth was the ability to take his love of animals to the next level. His two most frequent companions were apparently a fox and an otter, and he even kept a bear named Nicholas. This creature, unfortunately, resisted Hirst’s efforts to tame it, resulting at least once in injury to the eccentric farmer. Equally unsuccessful but significantly less painful was Hirst’s attempt to train a litter of pigs to be foxhounds, but he could never get the piglets to stop grunting, which made them spectacularly ineffective when it came time to sneak up on foxes.

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