Bad Behavior Mysteries & Misadventures

The Museum Display That Was A Little Too Real

“Arab Courier Attacked by Lions” is the unsettling exhibit you’re sure to remember if you’ve ever been to the Carnegie Natural History Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I remember being scared by it as a kid and before me my father remembers it as his favorite exhibit when he was a child. He can even still recite part of the old plaque with its story: “…the only thing that stands between the courier and death is one single blade.”

This taxidermy diorama is 142-years old (those Barbary lions are extinct) and was first shown at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1869. It took home the gold medal for excellence. The American Museum of Natural History snapped it up for their collection but decided it leaned a little too much towards the dramatic and wasn’t scientific enough. They put it in storage for three decades. The Carnegie Museum, having only been open for two years at this point, purchased the piece for a bargain of $50 in 1896.

The North African courier is, I should point out, a mannequin. Which is important because forty years earlier Jules Verreaux, the taxidermist of “Arab Courier,” stuffed his only known human specimen (more on that in a minute). Still, historians aren’t entirely sure if the exhibit always had a mannequin. “Our Arab Courier is not a human mount…though it may have been real prior to 1899 when it was refurbished” Stephen Rogers, who was preparator-in-chief of the Carnegie Museum then said.

Grave Robbed and Stuffed

Pierre-Jacques Verreaux founded Maison Verreaux in 1803, a merchant of natural history specimens that would become the most popular supplier in its time. During the “golden age of natural history collecting” they supplied thousands of specimens to collectors and museums. Everything from birds, eggs, mammals, shells, insects…you name it. The Maison also promoted and financed expeditions to nearly all the continents. Some of their specimens collected were the first to be seen and studied by Western scientists.

In 1834 Pierre-Jacques’ three sons took over. One of them, Jules (the scientific director), was in charge of collecting specimens on trips and creating the displays. He purchased the first known whale shark which had been harpooned on the Cape of Good Hope in 1828 and sent it to Paris. While it’s not on display currently, the Natural History Museum in Paris still have it. And it’s intact all this time later.

Jules liked to observe his specimens in the wild before stuffing them, but that’s not to say his work wasn’t high on drama. His best known pieces are considered “theatrical taxidermy.”

The Verreaux brothers, keen for just a minute on dipping their hands into “ethnological show business” dug up the grave of a Botswanan man…then stuffed him for display. Not to take away from how horrified we are today by this but we can’t forget that the idea to stuff America’s Founding Fathers was floated around or that Ota Benga was exhibited as “The Pygmy at the Zoo” at the Bronx Zoo (he committed suicide in his 30s). Stories of Native Americans put on show, small tribes brought to Paris and put on display and other “human exhibits” as attractions are still being written about and studied.

None of this ethnological show business repulsed the public like it does today, in fact it drew quite the audience. Though it certainly wasn’t completely accepted back in the day either. It was more like the analogy of the train wreck you can’t look away from. Curiosity mixed with many other emotions. Much of it done in the “name of science” (or profit).

The Natural History Museum in Paris was quite the dark place in the 19th century. The skull of Charlotte Corday (Marat’s killer) was on display at the museum, as were the remains of some Algerian rebels murdered by French security forces. The Egyptian murderer of General Kleber’s skull and murder weapon were preserved and exhibited there. Today it is on display at the Musee de l’Homme in Paris with the marker “Criminal.” In 1878, a tremendously large display of 1,400 skulls and skeletons collected in Tasmania, Australia and Asia were put on show there.

Six Uruguayan Indians were purchased by a circus owner who transported them to Paris for display. They died after only a few months, unable to adjust to the climate and succumbing to lung diseases. Angry that his investment was now dead the circus owner had them preserved by a taxidermist and sold them to the Paris museum. They were on display well into the 1990s until local uproar finally pushed them out of display. The list could go on, especially in Paris, a hotbed of scientific study then.

I don't know, this is exactly what my dog looks like while sleeping.... I don’t know, this is exactly what my dog looks like while sleeping….

El Negro

Jules wrote that he visited the grave at night and stole the body himself. He had risked his life digging up the grave for his venture into enthno show business. The tribe that “El Negro” belonged to, as the human specimen from Botswana would become known while on display, was a tribe that feared witches as grave robbers; anxious for body parts to use in evil medicine. And so they guarded their newly buried graves. What they didn’t suspect was that their witch would come in the innocuous form of a French ornithologist.

This was to be the Verreaux brothers only known human specimen though we can’t be sure. It’s certainly the only one that made it famously to display; not really for ethical reasons but because the Verreaux brothers weren’t particularly interested in human anthropology. Rather, they specialized in birds and animals that were more popular for museums to display.

In the 1880s, Spanish veterinarian and taxidermist Francesc Darder bought the stuffed body. At the time some ethnic groups in Africa were considered to hold the key to the “missing link.” What makes it more disturbing is that the body was still on display until 1997 at the Darder Museum.

“El Negro”  was returned home eventually. The body was buried in Gaborone in 2000. The people there held many purifications as they reinterred the body that had been desecrated for so long. (If you want to be further disturbed there are still images of the display here).

An Education

Jules Verreaux had studied anatomy under Georges Cuvier, as had Robert Knox, the famous Edinburgh scientist. After Knox became overwhelmed by the number of students at his school and the lack of available bodies to teach them with, he came to the very poor decision to hire William Burke and William Hare to collect bodies for him. After grave robbing or “body snatching” failed to produce enough corpses for the school, Burke and Hare famously took to killing anyone they thought wouldn’t be missed. Robert Knox was never charged in connection with the crimes but it was believed that he knew how Burke and Hare were supplying him bodies and it largely ruined his career.

After a lifetime of success in the taxidermy field (though Jules had always wanted to be an ornithologist and also he had a bit less success when he tried to find a unicorn…no really, he did) he began to sell off a substantial part of his collection, including the “Arab Courier.” All of these sales spread speculation that he was dying from a lifelong exposure to toxic taxidermy chemicals. Jules died in 1873 at the age of 66.

Lions Reborn

Barbary lions, the ones on display in the “Arab Courier”, are now extinct. There is quite a bit of arguing online and in the academic world about their last sighting. The last recorded kill was in the 1920s but there are unsubstantiated sightings and tales of kills in the 1940s and all the way into the 1960s. In an effort to nail down a more specific date of their extinction scientists have been studying their bones and have several times asked to sample the lions in the “Arab Courier” display. So far they have been turned down; they soon found better specimens so it wasn’t a great disappointment for the research.

Barbary lions were the largest lion subspecies, known for their enormous size (males around 9 feet) and their dark manes. They were kept by the royal families of Morocco, battled gladiators in the Roman Coliseum (unfortunately the Romans killed quite a lot of them) and they were even on display at zoos in Europe not to mention a few lived at the Tower of London during the Middle Ages.

Sultan the lion photo from here, Jules Verreaux portrait photo from here. Sultan the lion photo, Jules Verreaux portrait.

Beginning in the 1200s King John established an animal collection or “menagerie” with lions, bears and other exotic animals at the Tower of London, making it technically one of the world’s oldest zoos. In the 18th century you could pay three half-pence for public admission…or supply a cat or dog to be fed to the lions. 600 years later, disgusted by the small enclosures and terrible conditions for the animals, the Duke of Wellington ordered the Tower Menagerie closed in 1835. Not so long ago excavators looking for the exact spot of the menagerie found the skulls of the lions which allowed them to identify them as Barbary. When an animal from the zoo died they were tossed straight into the moat. But they didn’t sink right away, instead they decayed and bobbed around for awhile. Apparently it was smelled horrendously and of course was incredibly unhygienic.

Sultan, a Barbary lion was held in captivity at the New York Zoo into the 1890s and some other zoos also held Barbary lions in captivity. Now they are all mixed with other lion species now. European hunters likely finished the species off in the wild in the 20th century.

Recently scientists have found descendants of the Barbary and close genetic links in Indian lions. And so five decades after they last roamed the Earth, Barbary lion genes appear to still exist. And now money is starting to roll in for the possible “restoration” of the extinct North African Barbary lion.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12