Welcome to the first post of Grave Tales, a weekly blog featuring fantastic tales and dubious biographies from cemeteries and museums around the world, with a bonus deathly book club feature once every month.
When I’m not running Death Cafe Taunton, I love to visit old cemeteries and churches–I’m always seeking out memorials, tombs, and headstones that catch my fancy! The best part is always digging (not literally) to find out more about the dearly departed. People have such interesting, strange, and sometimes scandalous lives–this hasn’t changed through the ages.
I’m also am a voracious reader! My favourite subjects revolve around death and dying, from the past to the modern day. How did we used to die, and how were our bodies treated after death? What issues face us today as we die, and how can we currently lay our dead to rest and honour their memories?
I hope you enjoy reading this blog as much as I enjoy writing it!
Without further ado, our first GRAVE TALE is about George Wombwell (24 December 1777 – 16 November 1850), famous travelling menagerie owner!
George is buried in Highgate Cemetery in London, on the west side. You can only access the west side with a guided tour, which I highly recommend. Not only is the tour completely fascinating, but it’s so worth it to see the architectural splendour of the Victorian necropolis — or city of the dead. While the east side has a lot of famous folk buried in it’s hallowed grounds, there are stories a-plenty to be told about the Victorian characters and charlatans buried in the west side.
Character and charlatan — George Wombwell was a lot of the first and perhaps a bit of the second. He was, as his epitaph describes, a “menagerist,” exhibiting and exploiting exotic wild animals to the delight of his Victorian public. George got started in this unusual venture by purchasing two boa constrictors for 70 guineas at the docks, and charging locals in pubs a penny to take a peek. He made back the large money he paid for the snakes – and more.
Eventually George decided that this would be a good way to earn a living, and began to purchase any poor beast he could get his hands on that showed up at the docks. This became Wombwell’s Menageries — the largest travelling menagerie in England. George became so famous that he was mentioned in a Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger. A lion tamer in the story is described as “the rival of Wombwell.”
Wombwell’s Menageries expanded into three shows to tour the breadth of the country with a dizzying array of animals: lions, giraffes, tigers, elephants, a gorilla, monkeys, a hyena, kangaroo, panthers, ostriches, zebras, a rhino, and more. Unfortunately, these animals were rarely if ever fed well or taken care of as they should have. The climate and poor care spelled the end of most of Wombwell’s creatures — like the pair of giraffes he bought for £1800 that died within three weeks — but no matter. He would simply sell the body of a deceased beast to a taxidermist, or exhibit the dead creature himself as a curiosity.
George became incredibly wealthy — this much is obvious when you see his hulking tomb amongst other Victorian elite in Highgate. The stone lion on top who mourns for George is Nero, the menagerist’s favourite lion. Nero was apparently so tame that he slept in the same room as George and allowed children to ride on his back. Being George’s favourite lion wasn’t enough to keep the beast from being exploited — George set him against bulldogs in a highly publicised “Great Lion Fight.” However Nero was so docile he lay down and refused to fight. No worries though, George bought a new lion named Wallace who soundly beat the dogs and later killed a man (though it was found to be the fault of the spectator who put his arm inside Wallace’s cage).
When George died, he was buried in a coffin made of salvaged oak timbers from a royal vessel. This was given to him by Prince Albert after George helped him figure out why his dogs were dying (poisoned water apparently). Ever the showman, George had the coffin made before his death and exhibited it for a fee.
In their obituary for the menagerist, the Times said of George: “No one probably has done so much to forward practically the study of natural history amongst the masses.” While this is questionable, there is no doubt that Wombwell’s Menageries exposed a lot of people to animals that they would normally never have the opportunity to see. Sadly, this was at the expense of a lot of animal’s lives. The tour guide at Highgate doesn’t gloss over this fact, and as you stand there in front of this tomb you can’t help but feel sorry for the poor beasts, captured from their native lands, enduring a probably very frightening voyage in a ship, and dying miserably in captivity in a very foreign land.
Maybe the pitiful lion on top of George Wombwell’s tomb doesn’t mourn for him, but for the many animals who died so the showman could live comfortably.