Episode 21

Tangents – Supernatural Bovine Edition

Welcome to the Poison Room. This week’s episode is the second instalment of tangents – the episodes where I share with you some of the weird and interesting things I came across whilst researching various topics. They don’t fit the theme of this podcast, but I liked them enough, for one reason or another, to want to share them with people.

This first one is from a book by John Henry Ingram written in 1897, called The haunted homes and family traditions of Great Britain, concerning an estate known as Chartley Park:

One of the most bizarre superstitions of any time or clime is connected with Chartley, near Lichfield, a seat of the Ferrers family. When the immense possessions of the Ferrers were forfeited by the attainder of the Earl after his defeat at Burton Bridge, where he led the rebellious barons against Henry the Third, the Chartley estate, being settled in dower, was alone reserved for the family.

In the Park of Chartley, still described as a wild and romantic spot, untouched by the hand of the agriculturist, and left in its primitive state, is preserved a singular species of wild cattle, declared to be indigenous, and of a race nearly extinct. In Bewick’s Quadrupeds, the principal external appearances which distinguish this breed of cattle from all others are thus described: “their colour is invariably white, muzzles black; the whole of the inside of the ear, and about one third of the outside, from the tip downwards, red; horns white with black tips very fine, and bent upwards.”

In the year the battle of Burton Bridge was fought and lost, a black calf was born in this unique race; and the downfall of the grand house of Ferrers happening about the same time, gave rise to the tradition, still current, that the birth of a dark-hued, or parti-coloured calf from the wild breed in Chartley Park, is a sure omen of death within the same year to a member of the Ferrers family. It is a noticeable coincidence, says the Staffordshire Chronicle of July 1835, that a calf of this description has been born whenever a death has happened in the family of late years. The decease of the seventh Earl Ferrers, and of his countess, and of his son, Viscount Tamworth, and of his daughter, Mrs. William Jolliffe, as well as the deaths of the son and heir of the eighth Earl, and of his daughter, Lady Francis Shirley, were each preceded by the ominous birth of the fatal-hued calf. In the spring of 1835 an animal perfectly black was calved by one of this mysterious tribe, in the Park of Chartley, and the portentous event was speedily followed by the death of the Countess, the second wife of the eighth Earl Ferrers.

The outré family tradition has served for the groundwork of a romantic, once popular novel, entitled Chartley, the Fatalist (Ingram 1897: 401-2).

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Okay, so part of the point of these stories is that I don’t have to do any research, but I did poke around a bit about what breed of cow this is. It’s unique to Chartley, so it’s they’re known as Chartley cattle. There are other herds of ancient cows in the UK that look… exactly the same, or very very similar and I’m not going to pretend I know anywhere near enough to understand what the differences are, but the Chartley herd have black ears, not red. Another herd of ancient cattle – the Chillingham herd – are the ones with the red ears. The Chartley herd still exists, though it was moved from Chartley Park to Ditchingham Park by the 13th Earl Ferrers in 1970. And y’know what? They still occasionally birth all-black calves (Ditchingham Estate Website).

And yes, of course I checked into the book. It’s actually a three-volume work, the author is James Dalton, and you can find it for free on Google Books. Link in the bibliography.

Anyway. On to the next story. This one is longer, but kind of unintentionally hilarious and also kinda’ terrible. It’s funny in the ‘disbelief’ way, not the ‘what a good joke!’ kind of way. The title is pretty explanatory. It’s ‘A Relation of an Extraordinary Sleepy Person, at Tinsbury, Near Bath. By Dr William Oliver, F. R. S.’ and it was published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1753:

May the 13th, Anno 1694, one Samuel Chilton, of Tinsbury near Bath, a Labourer, about 25 years of age, of a robust habit of Body, not fat, but fleshy, and a dark brown Hair, happen’d, without any visible cause, or evident sign, to fall into a very profound Sleep, out of which no Art used by those that were near him, cou’d rouze him, till after a months time; then rose of himself, put on his Cloaths, and went about his business of Husbandry as usual; slept, cou’d eat and drink as before, but spake not one word till about a month later. All the time he slept Victuals stood by him; his Mother fearing he wou’d be starv’d, in that sullen humour, as she thought it, put Bread and Cheese and Small Beer before him, which was spent every day, and supposed by him, tho no one ever saw him eat or drink all that time.

From this time he remain’d free of any drowsiness or sleepiness till about the 9th of April 1696, and then fell into his Sleeping fit again just as he did before. After some days they were prevai’d with to try what effect Medicines might have on him, and accordingly one Mr Gibs, a very able Apothecary of Bath, went to him, Bled, Blister’d, Capp’d and Scarrified him, and used all the external irritating Medicines he could think on, but all to no purpose, nothing of all these making any manner of impression on him; and after the first fortnight he was never observ’d to open his Eyes. Victuals stood by him as before, which he eat of now and then, but no body ever saw him Eat or Evacuate, tho he did both very regularly, as he had occasion; and sometimes they have found him fast asleep with the Pot in his Hand in Bed, and sometimes with his Mouth full of Meat. In this manner he lay for about ten weeks, and then could eat nothing at all, for his Jaws seem’d to be set, and his Teeth clincht so close, that with all the Art they had with their Instruments they cou’d not open his Mouth, to put any thing into it to support him. At last, observing a hole made in his Teeth, by holding his Pipe in his Mouth, as most great Smoakers usually have, they through a Quill pou’d some Tent into his Throat now and then: And this was all he took for six weeks and four days, and of that not above three pints or two quarts, some of which was spilt, too; he had made water but once, and never had a stool all that time.

August the 7th, which is seventeen weeks from the 9th of April, (when he began to sleep,) he awaked, put on his Cloaths, and walkt about the Room, not knowing he had slept above a night, nor cou’d he be perswaded he had lain so long, till going out into the Fields he found every body busy in getting in their Harvest, and he remember’d very well, when he fell asleep they were sowing of Barley and Oats, which he then saw ripe and fit to be cut down.

There was one thing observable, That tho his Flesh was somewhat wasted with so long lying in Bed, and fasting for above six weeks, yet a worthy Gentleman his Neighbour assured me, when he saw him, which was the first day of his coming abroad, he lookt brisker than ever he saw him in his life before; and asking him whether the Bed had not made him sore, he assured him and every body, that he neither found that, nor any other inconveniency at all; and that he had not the least remembrance of any thing that past or was done to him all that while. So he fell again to his Husbandry as he used to do, and remain’d well from that time till August the 17th, Anno 1697, when in the morning he complain’d of a shivering and coldness in his Back, vomited once or twice, and that same day fell into his Sleeping fit again.

Being then at the Bath, and hearing of it, I took Horse on the 23rd, to inform my self of a matter of fact I thought so strange. When I came to the House, I was by the Neighbours (for there was no body at home at that time besides this sick man,) brought to his Bed-side, where I found him asleep, as I had been told before, with a Cup of Beer and a piece of Bread and Cheese upon a Stool by his Bed within his reach: I took him by the Hand, felt his Pulse, which was at that time very regular; I put my Hand on his Breast, and found his Heart beat very regular too, and his breathing was easie and free; and all the fault I found was, that I thought his Pulse beat a little too strong: He was in a breathing Sweat, and had an agreeable warmth all over his Body. I then put my Mouth to his Ear, and as loud as I cou’d called him by his Name several times, pull’d him by the Shoulders, pincht his Nose, stopt his Mouth and Nose together, as long as I durts, for fear of Choaking him, but all to no purpose, for in all that time he gave me not the least signal of his being sensible. I lifted up his Eye-lids, and found his Eye-balls drawn up under his Eye-brows, and fixt without any motion at all. Being baffled with all these tryals, I was resolv’d to see what effects Spirit of Sal Armonic would have, which I had brought with me, to discover the Cheat, if it had been one; so I held my Viol under one Nostril a considerable time, which being drawn from Quick-lime, was a very piercing Spirit, and so strong I could not bear it under my own Nose a moment without making my Eyes water; but he felt it not at all. Then I threw it at several times up that same Nostril, it made his Nose run and gleet, and his Eye-lids shiver and tremble a very little, and this was all the effect I found, tho I pour’d up into one Nostril about a half ounce Bottle of this fiery Spirit, which was so strong, almost as Fire itself. Finding no success with this neither, I cramm’d that Nostril with Powder of White Hellebore, which I had by me, in order to make my farther trials, and I can hardly think any Impostor cou’d ever be sensible of what I did. I tarried some time afterwards in the Room to see what effects all together might have upon him; but he never gave any token that he felt what I had done, nor discover’d any manner of uneasiness, by moving or stirring any one part of his Body, that I could observe. Having made these my Experiments I left him, being pretty well satisfied that he was really asleep, and no sullen Counterfeit, as some people thought him.

Upon my return to Bath, and relating what I had observ’d, and what proofs this Fellow had given me of his Sleeping, a great many Gentlemen went out to see him, as I had done, to satisfy their Curiosity in a Rarity of that Nature, who found him in the same condition I had left him in the day before; only his Nose was inflamed and swelled very much, and his Lips and the inside of his Right Nostril blister’d and scabby, with my Spirit and Hellebore, which I had plentifully dos’d him with the day before: His Mother upon this for some time after wou’d suffer no body to come near him, for fear of more Experiments upon her Son. About ten days after I had been with him, Mr Woolmer, an Experienc’d Apothecary at Bath, called at the House, being near Tinsbury, went up into the Room, finding his Pulse pretty high, as I had done, takes out his Launcet, lets him Blood about fourteen ounces in the Arm, tyes his Arm up again, no body being in the House, and leaves him as he found him; and he assured me he never made the least motion in the world when he prickt him, nor all the while his arm was bleeding.

Several other Experiments were made by those that went to see him every day from the Bath, but all to no purpose, as they told me on their return: I saw him my self again the latter end of September, and found him just in the same posture, lying in his Bed, but remov’d from the House where he was before about a furlong or more; and they told me, when they remov’d him, by accident, carrying him down Stairs which were somewhat narrow, they struck his Head against a Stone, and gave him a severe knock, which broke his Head, but he never mov’d any more at it than a dead man wou’d. I found now his Pulse was not quite so strong, nor had he any Sweats as when I saw him before. I try’d him again the Second time, by stopping his Nose and Mouth, but to no purpose; and a Gentleman with me then ran a large Pin into his Arm to the very Bone, but he gave us no manner of tokens of his being sensible of any thing we did to him. In all this time they assured me no body had seen him either eat or drink, tho they endeavour’d it all they could, but it always stood by him, and they observed sometimes once a day, sometimes one in two days all was gone. ’Tis farther observable, he never foul’d his Bed, but did his necessary occasions always in the Pot.

In this manner he lay till the 19th of November, when his Mother, hearing him make a noise, ran immediately up to him, and found him Eating; she askt him how he did? He said, Very well, thank God: She askt him again, Which he lik’d best, Bread and Butter, or Bread and Cheese? He answer’d, Bread and Cheese: Upon this, the poor Woman overjoy’d left him to acquaint his Brother with it, and they came strait up into the Chamber to discourse him, but found him fast asleep again as ever, and all the Art they had cou’d not wake him. From this time to the end of January or the beginning of February, (for I cou’d not learn from any body the very day) he slept not so profoundly as before, for when they call’d him by his name he seemed to hear them, and be somewhat sensible, tho he could not make them any answer. His Eyes were not now shut so close, and he had frequently great tremblings of his Eyelids, upon which they expected every day when he would wake, which happened not till about the time just now mention’d, and then he wak’d perfectly well, not remembering any thing that happened all this while. ’Twas observ’d he was very little altered in his Flesh, only complained the Cold pincht him more than usually, and so presently fell to Husbandry as at other times.

I have no reason to suspect this to be any Cheat, because I never heard of any gain to the Family by it, tho so near the Bath, and so many People went thither out of Curiosity to see the Sleeper, who when awake was a support to his old Mother by his Labour, but now a certain charge to her. Besides there was seldom any body in the House to attend any profit might be made by it, he being left alone in the House, and every body at liberty to go up to his Bed-side (Oliver 1753: 2177-2182).

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I’m so glad these doctors managed to establish that he wasn’t faking. That’s certainly what I would want a doctor to do. Shove something up my nose so strong that it gave me blisters, and then just be like ‘yeah, this is probably legit. Ta-ta then! Job done!’

Next up, is not a story, but a discussion of… the motif of cows in apocalyptic situations by Florian Werner. Because let’s be real, if you see that there’s a book on cows with a chapter titled ‘Apocalypse Cow’, you gotta’ read it.

Cows have always been harbingers of the apocalypse. Not when they graze peacefully on the pastures but when they show unnatural or even perverse behaviour— and most of all, when they leave their ancestral place on God’s green earth and abruptly take flight, be it with the help of a crane that lifts them onto the pyre or by other means.

“This is what things have become in this world. The cows sit on the telegraph poles and play chess.” These are the first lines of Dadaist poet Richard Huelsenbeck’s poem “The End of the World,” published in 1919 in the magazine Der Dada. The doomsday mood of World War I was the historical background for this work — and for the emergence of the Dada movement in general, which had begun three years earlier in the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich. Huelsenbeck describes the mood as a “feeling of terror,” “an existential despair” to which the Dadaists reacted with “creative irrationalism.”

The image of the cows sitting on telegraph poles playing chess expresses this irrationalism in a concise yet desperately funny way. A touch of irony is added by the indignant bourgeois exclamation “This is what things have come to in this world,” as if chess-playing cows were just more proof of general moral decline. At the same time the image lends itself to a political interpretation. After all, chess is nothing but a war game in the course of which kings must be protected, knights positioned, and pawns sacrificed. The fact that this power game is played by cows of all species, cows that sit on long-distance communication lines with their broad behinds, speaks volumes about the catastrophic state of the world.

At the same time, castling cows at airy heights can look back to a long ancestral line of strange metaphors that predate Dadaism by centuries. For example, the German expression “the cows walks on stilts,” an allegory for a world turned upside down, dates back to the late seventeenth century. “The cow will dance on a rope, the ox will understand Latin” had a similar meaning. In the English nursery rhyme “Hey Diddle Diddle,” which dates back to the eighteenth century, a cow is even said to jump “over the moon”—one of several images of inexplicable but endearing oddness. All these expressions share the idea of cows suddenly taking to giddy heights where they perform high-wire (or high-jumping or stilt-walking) acts that proclaim an out-of-whack or even upside-down world order. If a very heavy animal like the cow, which is not exactly known for its artistic subtleness, acts counter to all known patterns of behaviour and maybe even defies the basic laws of physics, we may well say that strange things are happening on earth.

Although most of these expressions are no longer in common usage, the absurd and even disturbing image of cows balancing at great heights or flying through the air still lingers in today’s cultural memory. It’s interesting that the image recurs in connection with collapses or catastrophes of civilization. At the beginning of Apocalypse Now, for example, a brutal assault of American soldiers on a Vietnamese village is followed by a scene in which a cow is taken away in a helicopter. She seems to be part of the American war booty; stealing her is clearly an offense against the rules of martial law. While an army chaplain celebrates mass in the foreground, the cow — hanging helplessly from a rope under the helicopter — disappears into the air in the background. Her mooing blends with the voices of the Chaplain and a handful of his flock as they recite the Lord’s Prayer. In this instance, Christian ritual, in the form of a desperate evocation of moral norms, is foiled by a violation of rules and the aerial animal sacrifice.

A similar haul takes place in Steven Spielberg’s movie Jurassic Park, set on an island-turned-supposedly safe dinosaur park, where a cow is lifted into a cage full of velociraptors with the help of a giant cable winch. What happens afterwards remains invisible to the spectators (those in the movie as well as those in the movie theatre). But the cow’s death roar leaves no doubt that an uncontrollable and bestial elemental force reigns at the lower end of the rope, within the shadows of the dense, tropical canopy. And lo and behold: shortly afterwards, nature, genetically mutated and abused my humankind, strikes back. Together with a few specimens of Tyrannosaurus rex and other maladjusted pets, the predatory dinosaurs break out of their high-security cages and give the humans who get in their way the same treatment they gave the cow.

And finally, in a key scene of the disaster movie Twister, a cow is yanked up into the air by an approaching tornado, presumably an allusion to the children’s classic The Wizard of Oz. Twister is actually about a couple of meteorologists and their daring research into super-tornados. But many spectators view this sequence as the climax of the entire movie and the cow as its real star. The apocalyptic force of the tornado manifests itself in a grotesque way that is both convincing and aesthetically captivating. In its clutches even a cow—and an especially large-framed and heavy Holstein at that—can effortlessly be wrenched from the powers of gravity.

All these scenes have one thing in common: the catastrophic destiny of the cows foreshadows that of the humans. Captain Willard, the protagonist of Apocalypse Now, will very shortly also have the rug pulled from under his feet. Most of those watching the feeding of the velociraptors will not survive their visit to Jurassic Park. The super-tornado not only sucks up the cow but also the small town of Wakita, Oklahoma, which is now home to a Twister museum, replete with flying-cow memorabilia. You could say that when cows go to heaven, humans will usually follow without delay. Another feature these films share is that the events they describe are “apocalyptic” only in a larger, colloquial sense. Although they portray catastrophes that may seems like end-of-days events to the people and cows involved, history and the world at large continue to run their course.

British author Douglas Adams took a much more radical approach to this idea. In his comical science-fiction epic The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a four-volume “trilogy in five parts,” he actually describes the end of the world, the absolute end of time. And there again, of course, at the end of time, a cow is waiting.

According to Douglas Adams the end of the world happens every evening. It’s the main attraction and unique selling point of the restaurant Milliways, also known as “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe,” which gave the second volume of the Hitchhiker’s trilogy its title. The restaurant is built on the fragmented remains of a destroyed planet “which is enclosed in a vast time bubble and projected forward in time to the precise moment of the End of the Universe.” Again and again enormous “Time Turbines” slowly rock it over the edge of time and, lucky for the restaurant patrons, quickly back again. The establishment is thus constantly perched at the end of the world. Protected by the cupola’s energy shield, visitors can enjoy their dinner while watching the demise of the universe. However, the most astonishing thing about this restaurant—or at least the one that shakes the trilogy’s protagonist to the core—is not the breathtaking spectacle of “livid, swollen stars” that will go out any minute but the sight of the main course.

The main course of the Last Day is a cow: “a large fat meaty quadruped of the bovine type with large watery eyes, small horns and what might almost have been an ingratiating smile on its lips.” We can assume that the animal is the result of billions of years of efforts to create a low-maintenance beef cattle breed. The actual breeding success, though, lies hidden behind the water eyes and winning smile. The cow hasn’t just been bred to be eaten—she wants to be eaten, and she can clearly express this wish:

”Good evening,” it lowed and sat back heavily on its haunches. “I am the main Dish of the Day. May I interest you in parts of my body?” … “or the rump is very good,” murmured the animal. “I’ve been exercising it and eating plenty of grain, so there’s a lot of good meat there.” It gave a mellow grunt, gurgled again and started to chew the cud. It swallowed the cud again.

The polite Brit Arthur Dent is appalled when he hears the dinner invitation from the victim’s mouth. The argument that it’s better to eat an animal that wants to be eaten than, say, a head of lettuce that does not want to be eaten doesn’t sway him. This is where Zaphod Beeblebrox, the galaxy’s president, takes command:

“Four rare steaks, please, and hurry. We haven’t eaten in five hundred and seventy-six thousand million years.” The animal staggered to its feet. It gave a mellow gurgle. “A very wise choice, sir, if I may say so. Very good!” it said, “I’ll just nip out and shoot myself.” He turned away and gave a friendly wink to Arthur. “Don’t worry, sir,” he said, “I’ll be very humane.”

And indeed, shortly afterwards a waiter appears bearing four juicy, steaming steaks.

The cow in this example in the caricature of a docile, meek sacrificial animal. The creation of a breed that wants to be eaten is of course a deliberately outrageous fantasy and so is clearly excessively satirized. But Adams addresses a moral problem that has accompanied humans from the very beginning and will probably stay with them until the end of time: the dilemma that in order to stay alive, we have to constantly incur guilt. We can’t eat without killing an animal or at least wrenching a poor head of lettuce from the vegetable patch. The optimistic vision of the end of the world that Adams projects in this story finally removes the sting of this ethical problem. The Restaurant at the End of the Universe is a truly “heavenly” place where humans and animals live together in harmony and the former can eat the latter without scruples.

But in order to do so they must first swap roles. The cow’s last words are, “I’ll be very humane.” In the context of the book, this is obviously supposed to mean, “I will kill myself in a humane way.” At the same time, a second meaning is clearly audible: I will be very human. By committing an act that is normally the prerogative of humans—that is, by taking my own life—I become human. In this version of the end of the world, the cow adopts surprisingly human traits. The humans, in contrast, who simply accept her death and eat her without thinking, look like animals (or, in the case of Zaphod Beeblebrox, like a two-headed extraterrestrial). As soon as the cow moves into higher spheres, the world order is once again turned upside down (Werner 2009: 188-195).

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Now, personally, I would have preferred a more in-depth analysis of this motif, especially a more continued focus on the absurdity and comedic elements, but this is only a few pages from an entire book, and it is a book that seems to be targeted at the general public rather than a specifically academic audience. But I feel, like…. If you’re nerd enough to pick up a book called Cow: A Bovine Biography, you’re probably nerdy enough to appreciate that kind of depth of analysis, too, and I expect y’all to keep an eye out for cows in whatever apocalyptic media you enjoy.

Thinking about it, you could probably expand it to the post-apocalyptic world, too. Like… in Mad Max: Fury Road, Immortan Joe’s wives have essentially been turned into cattle, whose roles are to breed, and produce milk. We literally see a shot of women sitting there, hooked up to machines, constantly being milked, whilst clutching dolls – representations of the babies the milk should be nourishing. Calves, if you will.

Ironically, when I was googling for some screen grabs of that scene, I stumbled across the Mad Max fandom wiki, and discovered that only one of the Milk Wives is given a credit on the film – Elizabeth Cunico. The comments on the wiki were a discussion about why such an unimportant character deserved their own entry on the wiki and whether we should care whether any of them get credit at all. After all, they’re not interested in who these women are – as characters or actors – no one will be. As one user put it, ‘I just think that we run the risk of over saturating the wiki with names people aren't familiar with, and, never will want to be familiar with.’

Can you tell that this kind of analysis is my jam? Anyway. This is not a Mad Max podcast, so on to the next story. This one is from volume 4 of the The Military and Naval Magazine of the United States, published in 1835. It’s entitled ‘Revolutionary Reminiscences’:

Capt. William Cunningham was a native of Hampton, Virginia, and in the early part of our revolutionary struggle, he took a decided stand in the cause of his country. He first shouldered his firelock in one of the minute companies, raised for the defence of his native town and county; he continued in that service until the state of Virginia purchased and armed a few fast-sailing, pilot-boat schooners. Thus was the navy of that State commenced; it, however, varied materially, sometimes amounting to fifty vessels, and occasionally to only one. Among them was the schooner Liberty, which was never captured, although several times sunk in the rivers, to be concealed from the enemy.

Captain Cunningham embarked in the Liberty as her first lieutenant, and continued in her for some time, until the war assumed a more regular form. The enemy varied his attacks from one State to another, sometimes leaving our waters in a measure free from his men-of-war.

An opportunity having presented itself, Captain Cunningham purchased a small schooner, which he loaded with tobacco, and sailed in her for St. Thomas. He arrived out safe, sold his cargo, and returned to Newbern, N. C., in twenty-one days, having realized an immense profit on his investment. He continued in this kind of traffic, at intervals, during the whole war, when his services were not immediately required by the State government. Sea officers were encouraged to engage in commerce, as the only means of procuring munitions of war.

On one of these occasions, Captain Cunningham was in command of a schooner called the Polly. During a thick fog, in the month of June, distant about ten leagues from Cape Henry, he heard a ship’s bell strike seven! — in the direction of the wind, which was light, from the south-east. As may be supposed, this produced an immediate alarm; every preparation having been previously made for such an event, the crew were at their respective quarters in a moment; but as the sequel proved, they were not a second too soon; for at the same instant a frigate was seen, close aboard and directly astern. Both vessels were steering to the north-west. When the schooner was descried from the frigate, an imperious order was heard through a trumpet in the hands of an officer on the forecastle — “strike your colors — haul down your light sails, and heave to, or I’ll sink you.”

This was a situation that required the greatest skill and presence of mind, and Captain Cunningham proved to be fully competent to the discharge of his duty; he exhibited that coolness and intrepidity which ever distinguish a brave man. The wind was light from the south-east, the fog very dense, and the direct course of the two vessels W. N. W. — the frigate being a little on the weather quarter of the schooner. Captain C. therefore determined to haul by the wind, on the larboard tack, and ordered the helm to starboard for that purpose; and, as if in conformity with the order from the frigate, he directed aloud all the small sail halyards to be let go. This deceived the commander of the frigate, (Who was the Hon. Captain Elphinstone, afterwards Lord Keith,) for a minute or two, and suspended the threatened firing; during this short time, the schooner sprang to, nearly at right angles with the course of the frigate, and it was discovered that an escape, (if possible,) was determined on. At this moment the jib-boom of the frigate caught in the topping lift of the schooner’s main boom; Captain C. sprang up to the stern, with a knife in his hand, to cut the rope outboard the block to which it was attached, so that it might unreave through the end of the boom, which it did, and thus freed the schooner from the grasp of the frigate. While in the very act, a marine on the forecastle shot Captain C. through the arm; but this severe injury did not deprive him of that steady, cool determination which governed all his actions, and never was there an instance when deliberation was more conspicuous. In ten minutes the schooner was out of sight of the frigate! and arrived safely in Hampton Roads the next day. Although the escape was made under a shower of shot, the wound received by the Captain was the only damage sustained.

Some time after this affair the State of Virginia was invaded, and the Atlantic portion of it invested by the enemy, so that commercial operations were suspended. Captain Cunningham took his land tacks aboard, and joined the army on the south side of James river; but he was not quite so much at home in this service as on his professional element, and he had the misfortune to be taken prisoner, while on some foraging expedition. He was carried to Portsmouth, where he was safely moored in the provost prison in that town, and remained there until his patience was completely exhausted; but how long that was is not recollected.

Captain C. had not been very long married to an excellent and amiable lady, of his own choice; and it was evident to his friends in the prison, (for there were many of them,) that he was meditating his escape, but not one person among them thought it possible. One day, he said to an uncle of his, (also a prisoner,) that he would see his wife the next evening, or perish in the attempt. “My dear Will, are you mad?’ was the reply.

But to the act. This prison was a large house, well known by the appellation of the “Sugar House,” and was built for that purpose; it stood at the extreme south end of the town, and was strongly enclosed by a stockade fence around it, with the principal gate opening to the south-west. At sunset, every evening, the guard, composed of from forty to fifty men, were relieved by fresh troops; and on their arrival the two guards, with their officers, were paraded in front of the prison, on each side of the pathway to the gate. At this hour, the ceremony observed on the occasion was in progress— the relieved guard had stacked their arms and were looking up their baggage; the fresh guard were relieving sentinels, and in a degree at their ease. This was the time selected by Captain C. to make good his promise, or die in the attempt. The sentinel had just begun to pace his sacred ground, and awful indeed was the moment. Captain C. was justly a great favourite with all the prisoners, and they, as well as his uncle, stood in silent terror, expecting soon to see their beloved compatriot pinned to the earth by many bayonets, for expostulation had been exhausted. “My wife, or death!” was the watch word.

The sentinel’s motions had been carefully observed, and the advantage of his movements sagaciously calculated on; therefore, as he turned from the prison and marched towards the gate, Captain C. darted from the door of the house, overtook him before he turned, and knocked him down at his full length, by a butt of the head, for which he was famous.

It was now nearly dark. It would be useless to attempt a description of the astonishment, and instantaneous uproar and confusion, which the conduct of this dauntless man caused to the senses and feelings of all present. The soldiers, with their officers, as soon as they came sufficiently to their reason, to act, ran out in the direction that the prisoner had taken, but he was gone! he had reached a marsh at the south end of the house, and was nowhere to be found. Volley after volley was fired, and some of the balls whistled about his head; but he escaped safely, and made good his promise. Before the dawn of the next day, he was fondly pressed to the bosom of that dear being, for the pleasure of whose society he had jeoparded life, and every other consideration.

On reaching the southern branch of Elizabethan river, he swam over, a little below the Navy Yard, at Gosport, and keeping along its margin until he came to the deserted residence of his father-in-law, about three-quarters of a mile above. He ventured to approach the house, and there found two faithful old servants, who assisted him to equip the only animal, (and old horse,) then remaining on the plantation; they gave him a direction to the north-west woods, where he would find his family and his wife.

There is yet a tragical part of this story to be told, and I would willingly omit it; but as it bears honorable testimony to the noblest feelings of our nature, I am persuaded there are many among us who are not indifferent to the characters of those men who composed our defenders in those days of dark despair.

Lieutenant Church had served as Captain Cunningham’s first, on board several armed vessels, and particularly in a fine brig of fourteen guns, called the Wilkes, after our English advocate of that name. Their intercourse had endeared them to each other, and Lieutenant Church determined that his commander should not encounter alone the danger of an escape; he therefore followed him, and, strange as it may appear, he has never been heard of, or accounted for, since (Homans 1835: 373-76).

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Way to ruin a happy ending there, bud. Let’s all just assume that Lieutenant Church escaped off on his own and lived out a quiet life on a farm somewhere, tending cattle. And those two ‘faithful old servants’ managed to find somewhere away from the plantation to live quietly and peacefully, too.

The final story is from the 1873, December 13th issue of the Notes and Queries. It involves an animal. It may be a four-legged animal. It is possible a ruminant. And there’s an off-chance that it says ‘moo’. And also tells the future. The title of this short entry is ‘A Christmas Custom of Herefordshire’, and is a transcript of a report from a newspaper from 1830 – so 43 years prior. Here it is:

The Derby and Chesterfield Reporter, of Jan. 7, 1830, notices the following ceremonial, as one of the few remnants of ancient times, still observed pretty generally in Herefordshire. I do not recollect having met with a description of this strange medley of ceremonies elsewhere, and think, therefore, that it is worth preserving:--

“On the eve of old Christmas-day there are thirteen fires lighted in the corn fields of many of the farms, twelve of them in a circle and one round a pole, much longer and higher than the rest, in the centre. These fires are dignified with the names of the Virgin Mary and twelve Apostles, the lady being in the middle, and while they are burning the labourers retire into some shed or out house, where they can behold the brightness of the Apostolic flame. Into this shed they lead a cow, on whose horn a large plum-cake has been stuck, and having assembled round the animal, the oldest labourer takes a pail of cider, and addresses the following lines to the cow with great solemnity; after which, the verse is chaunted in chorus by all present:--

’Here’s to thy pretty face and thy white horn, God send thy master a good crop of corn, Both wheat, rye, and barley, and all sorts of grain, And next year, if we live, we’ll drink to thee again’

He then dashes the cider in the cow’s face, when, by a violent toss of her head, she throws the plum-cake on the ground; and, if it falls forward, it is an omen that the next harvest will be good; if backward, that it will be unfavourable. This is the ceremony at the commencement of the rural feast, which is generally prolonged to the following morning.” (Cox 1873: 466)

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And that’s it for this edition of Tangents. Hope you enjoyed it, and thanks for listening.

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The voice in your ears… has been to the secret cow level.


Cox, J. C. (1873) ‘A Christmas Custom of Herefordshire’, Notes and Queries Vol. s4-XII, Issue 311, 13 December 13, p. 466.

Dalton, J. (1831) Chartley, The Fatalist Vol. 1, Edward Bull.

Homans, B. (Ed.) (1835) ‘Revolutionary Reminiscences’ The Military and Naval Magazine of the United States Vol. 4. No. 3: pp. 373-76

Ingram, J. H. (1897) The haunted homes and family traditions of Great Britain, London, Gibbings & Co. Ltd.

Oliver, W. (1753) ‘A Relation of an Extraordinary Sleepy Person, at Tinsbury, Near Bath. By Dr William Oliver, F. R. S.’, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

Werner, F. (2009) Cow: A Bovine Biography (Trans. Eckher, D.), Greystone Books