Tuesday, 31 July 2012

On this Harvest Moon

            August 1st, in the old pagan days, was Lughnasadh (pronounced Loo-nă-să) or Lammas. It was the celebration day for the first fruits of the harvest, especially the grain harvest, and after the introduction of the Christian faith into Britain the tradition was continued with loaves of bread being offered in churches. 

The hlæf-mass – the loaf-mass – became Lammas, just as hlæfdí – loaf-kneader – became ‘lady’ (is cognate with ‘dough’), and hlæfweard – loaf-ward – became ‘lord’ (weard became ‘ward’ – a guardian, as in warden); mass meant festival or feastday, as in Michaelmas, Candlemas or Christmas – it has nothing to do with the Catholic Rite of the Mass, which takes its name from the final Latin words of the liturgy Ite, missa est – ‘Go, it is the dismissal’ (i.e. Go, the Mass is ended). 

In a back-formation, it became the custom at York to bring a lamb to the Minster on Lammas Day, but this is because the original meaning had been forgotten, and the homophone inspired the deed, (and lambs born in Spring aren’t really lambs by the time August comes around). 

Another name of the day is the ‘Gule of August’ – Gule comes from Old English gwyl, meaning a festival, but the ultimate etymology of the term is lost, although Yule is still used as a synonym for Christmas. Cormac, Archbishop of Cashel in the tenth century, in his Irish Glossary, tells that, "… in his time, four great fires were lighted up on the four great festivals of the Druids; viz. in February, May, August, and November." The last of these lingers on in the guise of the Bonfire, shifted on a few days but still celebrated. Lammas Day was traditionally when farm labourers were hired at country fairs – a man looking for work could be identified by his having a straw or green stem in his mouth. 

A popular custom in the past was the presentation of Glove Silver, when gifts of money were given to servants to buy gloves. In Exeter, an enormous stuffed glove was mounted on a long pole, decorated with flowers and ribbons, and paraded through the town, before being displayed at the fair. 

In the Catholic Church, a penny ‘for the Pope’ was donated by every family, called ‘Peter’s Pence’, and was said to come from a legend regarding the Roman Tribune Quirinus, who had a daughter suffering from a throat disorder. The Pope told him to take the girl to kiss the chains in which St Peter had been shackled, whereby she was cured. The feastday of St Peter ad Vincula (St Peter in Chains) was celebrated on the day but the link between vincula and Latin gula (‘throat’) and Gule of August, made by some, is far too contrived. (By the bye, my infant and junior school was attached to the Church of St Peter in Chains, Blackburn). 

My Old School

Monday, 30 July 2012

Rat poison, runners and rides

                     I’m not really a sport’s fan but I am a big fan of the bizarre, and few sporting events were as bizarre as the 1904 Olympic Marathon. The 1904 Olympics were held in St Louis, Missouri, USA, but in effect they were no more than a circus tacked onto the centenary celebrations of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition and World’s Fair. The ‘Olympic’ events took place alongside other sporting events but none were particularly well publicised amongst the other World’s Fair Cultural presentations and exhibits. 

1904 Olympic Poster

The International Olympic Committee recognised 94 of the sporting events to be of bona fide Olympic standing – athletes representing twelve countries other than the USA competed in only 42 of these events. The dreadful mis-organization of the games and the controversies surrounding them almost caused the demise of the modern Olympics. And of all the blunders, clangers and shenanigans they engendered, none eclipsed those associated with the Marathon race. 

1904 Marathon Field

It was held on August 30th 1904, starting and ending at Francis Field, Washington University, St Louis, to be held over 40 kilometres (24.85 miles) and commencing at 3 pm. 36 runners were registered to run, but on the day there were only 32 starters. The temperature in the afternoon had reached 90 F (32 C), and in this stifling heat the runners completed five laps of Francis Field track before heading out on to open roads of Missouri. But these roads were not roads in our definition of the word – they were either sun-baked dirt trails or rock-strewn, rutted byways. The automobile was a novelty back then, and tarmac roads were a thing of the future. The support staff, race officials, doctors and journalists were divided into those in new-fangled automobiles and those riding on horseback and bicycles. But regardless of how they travelled, they threw up choking clouds of dust and spread a suffocating haze of petrol fumes in their wake. The runners would have been comforted to know that the only watering spot was a well at the halfway point, only twelve miles away. In the dirt, dust and blistering heat, the runners ran on, whilst back at Francis Field the ten thousand spectators sat in the sweltering sunshine and waited. And waited. And waited. 

Fred Lorz

After three hours and thirteen minutes, an American Fred Lorz loped into stadium; barely blowing and hardly sweating, Lorz was the first man over the finish line. As the President’s daughter, Alice Roosevelt, was about to crown him with the victor’s laurel wreath, Lorz confessed all was not as it seemed. At about the halfway stage, he had collapsed with cramps and heat exhaustion. After waving his fellow competitors past, Lorz had scrounged a lift back to the stadium in one of the supporting automobiles. Unfortunately, the car broke down about five miles from its destination, so the by-now refreshed Lorz decided to jog back to collect his clothes. On entering Francis Field, and carried away by the roar of the welcoming crowd, Lorz hammed it up and pretended to be the first man home. For this little joke, an unappreciative AAU banned him for life, although this decision was later rescinded and Lorz went on to win the 1905 Boston Marathon. 

Thomas Hicks

At 3 hours 28 minutes and fifty-three seconds, Thomas Hicks, English born but representing USA, was next over the winning line. The gold-medallist Hicks had started to struggle at about 10 miles out. His trainers gave him a water-soaked sponge to suck, but after three more miles Hicks faltered again, so his team gave him 1/60 grain of strychnine sulphate (a rat poison and dangerous but effective stimulant in small doses) whisked into an egg white, washed down with a brandy chaser, and sponged him down with hot water taken from the boiler of a steam engine. At twenty miles, the shattered Hicks had slowed to barely a walk, but his handlers urged him on, and two miles later more strychnine was given to him. In sight of the stadium, the by-now delirious and dehydrated Hicks was dosed with more eggs and brandy, and was eventually carried down the home strait by the trainers and, babbling about something or other, over the finish line. 

Hicks hobbles hoome

After several doctors had revived him, he was given his winner’s medal – he had lost ten pounds in weight, and the following day he hung up his running shoes and never competed again. His time is the longest in Olympic marathon history. Six minutes later, the silver medallist made it home – Albert Corey was a strike-breaking French butcher who hadn’t had the correct paperwork with him, so although being French, he was registered as an American. Another American, Arthur Newton, ran in at 3:47:33 to claim the bronze medal. 

Carvajal - Athlete extraordinaire

Next home was Félix Carvajal, a five foot tall Cuban postman, who had run the length of Cuba to raise enough money for a boat ticket to the USA, then hitchhiked to St Louis, where he lost what little money he had left in a dice game. He arrived at the race in heavy street clothes, so was helped to cut down his trousers into an approximation of shorts, and ran without support staff, strategy or training. He began jauntily, raising his beret to the spectators as he passed, and running backwards to enable himself to hold conversations with the crowd and practice his English. Carvajal, however, hadn’t eaten for almost two days, so when he spotted an orchard he popped in and helped himself to some green apples, which gave him such a bad stomach ache he had to stop and have a nap, to sleep off the pains. Even so, he managed to finish fourth. 

Len Tauyane (on the left)

The ninth man in was Len Taunyane, a Tswana tribesman who had been brought to the World’s Fair as an exhibit, with the intention of proving the superiority of the White Race over The Black Man (the eugenics movement was all the fashion in the US at the time – nice to see they’ve grown out of that one). He might have done rather better if he hadn’t had to make a detour of over a mile to avoid a ferocious dog, which had chased him off the course. William Garcia, winner of the 1903 Boston marathon, was found by a local couple, who were following the race in their car, lying unconscious by the side of the road, his oesophagus, lungs and stomach lined with thrown-up dust. They drove him back to the stadium, from where he was hospitalised. A support vehicle swerved to avoid a cyclist and crashed into a trench, severely injuring two officials, who were also hospitalised. Of the 32 starters, an astonishing eighteen failed to finish. 

'Fine Figure of a Fellow' Frank Kuglet

In other events, the American George Eyser won two golds, three silvers and a bronze in gymnastics – not bad for an athlete with a wooden leg. Frank Kugler, another American, was the only man in Olympic history to win three medals in three different sports – wrestling, weight-lifting and tug-of-war (he took a bronze in weight-lifting, even though he was one of only three competitors participating in the event). 

I could get an Olympic bronze under those circumstances.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

The King visits Lancashire and makes a Joke

                   When William I conquered England in 1066, he brought his own noblemen over from France. One of these was called Herverus, who was granted lands in Norfolk, Suffolk and Lancashire. His grandson, Hamo, married Maud Bussel, daughter of the second Baron of Penwortham, who granted the manor of Hocton to his new son-in-law. More favourable marriages brought more land to the family, which over time began to spell their name as Hoghton and de Hoghton. 
Hoghton Tower prior to the new building
The family seat was rebuilt in Tudor times, and was completed by 1565, but Thomas Hoghton, a Catholic, only spent four years in the finished house, before moving in exile to France. His nephew, Richard, inherited Hoghton Tower and, being more politically astute than his uncle, became a favourite of James I (who made him a baronet). In 1617, James had returned to Scotland for the first time in fourteen years, and on his return to England he visited Hoghton Tower, arriving on August 15th and leaving on the 18th. The driveway approaching the Tower is half-a-mile long, and Richard almost bankrupted the estate in buying a red carpet for it, in a bid to impress the King. 
King James's Arrival at Hoghton Tower

We know from the Journal of Nicholas Assheton, who was present, that the ploy worked, as the King spent his time hunting deer and generally enjoying himself. On August 16th, the King killed two deer in the morning, before, the day being ‘verie hotte’, he went in to dinner. At about 4 in the afternoon, he inspected ‘precisely’, for about an hour, the alum mines to the north of the Tower, (still called Alum Scar today), which he bought from Richard (to his relief), before killing another stag and going in late to supper. The following day, Sunday August 17th 1617, the Bishop of Chester preached to the King, after which there was a rush-bearing, music, a feast, revels and a masque. The bill of fare for the feast survives, and gives an idea of the luxury: -

SUNDAY'S DINNER, the 17th of August, 1617, for the Lords Table. —

First course— Pullets, boiled capon, boiled mutton, boiled chickens, roast shoulder of mutton, boiled ducks, roast loin of veal, pullets, roast haunch of venison, burred capon, hot pasty of venison, roast turkey, burred veal, I roast swan and 1 for to-morrow, hot chicken pye, roasted goose, cold rabbits, boiled jiggits of mutton, snipe pye, boiled breast of veal, roast capons, pullets, roast beef, cold tongue pye, boiled sprod, cold roast herons, cold curlew pye, hot mince pye, custards, roast pigs.Second course— One hot pheasant, and one for the King, six quails for the King, partridge, poults, artichoke pye, chickens, roast curlews, buttered pease, rabbits, duck, plovers, red deer pye, burred pig, roast hot herons, roast lamb, gammon of Bacon, roast pigeons, made dish, burred chicken, pear tart, pullets and grease, dryed tongues, turkey pye, pheasant pye, pheasant tart, dryed hogs cheeks cold turkey chicks.

Sunday Night's SUPPER, the 17th of August, 1617.— First course—Pullet, boiled capon, cold mutton, roast shoulder of mutton, boiled chicken, cold capon, roast ml toiled rabbits, pullet, roast turkey, hot pasty of venison, roast shoulder of venison, cold herons, sliced beef, umble pye, boiled ducks, baked chickens, pullet, cold neat's tongue pye, roast neat's tongue, boiled sprod, cold baked curlews, cold baked turkeys, neat's fest, boilded rabbits, fried rabbits. Second course-Quails, poults, herons, plovers, chickens, pear tart, rabbits, buttered pease, made dish, ducks, gammon of bacon, red deer pye, pigeons, wild boar pye, curlew, dry neat's tongue, - tart, dried hog's cheek, red deer pye.

Monday Morning's Breakfast
, the 18th of August, 1617. —Pullets, boiled capon, shoulder of mutton, roast veal, boiled chickens, roast rabbits, roast shoulder of mutton, roast chine of beef, pasty of venison, roast turkey, roast pig, roast venison, boiled ducks, pullet, cold red deer pye, four roast capons, roast poults, pheasant, herons, boiled mutton, wild boar pye, boiled jiggits of mutton, burred ditto, gammon of bacon, chicken pye, burred capon, dried hog's cheek, umble pye, tart, made dish.

So, at least there was plenty to eat. How about that for a breakfast?
Knighting the Sir Loin

It seems likely that it was at this merriment that King James proclaimed the loin of Lancashire beef to be the best he had ever tasted, and taking his sword, he knighted the beef, dubbing it Sir Loin.
Exerpt from William Harrison Ainsworth - The Lancashire Witches 1849

If this happened at all, and there is no reason to doubt that it didn’t, this was just the King having a joke, as he was reputed to be fond of wordplay, punning on the word ‘surloin’, French sur longe – ‘over loin’ or ‘top of the loin’, but the name has stuck and we use sirloin as the normal spelling of the word today.
Knighting the Sir Loin

The same story is also told of several other monarchs, including Henry VIII and Charles II, so maybe the royals like to recycle their gags. Just across the road, in Hoghton village, the pub cum restaurant is called The Sirloin, and does a cracking pint of cask ale (and a welcoming log fire on a winter’s evening).

Knighting the Sir Loin

In the afternoon of August 17th 1617, King James received a petition from the Lancashire people complaining about the restrictions placed on them by the Queen’s Commission of 1579, which prohibited the people from indulging in any kind of out-door games or sports on the Sunday, after evening prayer, or upon holidays. The King was graciously sympathetic, and agreed that this was an injustice to the " good people" of Lancashire. This event probably led to the publication, in 1618, of The Book of Sports, published by royal authority, in which dancing, archery, May-games, Whitsun-ales, and May-poles were permitted to be indulged in on a Sunday evening.
King James Page One - The Book of Sports 1618

This undoubtedly pleased the common people, but it upset the Puritan divines, as did its republication by James’s son, Charles I, and is said to be one of the causes of the revolution against the crown, resulting in the English Civil War. During that war, the Hoghtons were loyal to the king, as Richard’s son Gilbert fought against the Parliamentarians, until the Royalists were defeated at Preston in February 1643. Gilbert barely escaped with his life – his wife was captured – and Hoghton Tower was taken, during which the gunpowder magazine in the pele tower exploded, killing 200 men. Amongst these was one Nicholas Starkie – the son of John Starkie, the same John who was possessed at Cleworth, leading to the execution of Edmund Hartley, and who was falsely exorcised by John Darrel in the 7 from Lancashire case. It’s a small world.

Hoghton Tower inner court

Hoghton Tower fell into disrepair in the next centuries – Charles Dickens visited it in 1854 and lamented the damage, setting a short story George Silverman's Explanation there. Eventually, from the 1870s, repairs were made, and the Tower is now fully restored and welcomes visitors. There are regular summer concerts in the grounds, and open-air theatrical events too. It is well worth a visit.

Hoghton Hill, seen from Long Lane, Pleasington

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Blood Sweat and Tears

                                  When mankind isn’t busy wiping out his fellow species, his fellow species are busy wiping out mankind. One of the strangest epidemics was the English Sweating Sickness, which may be responsible for causing one of the greatest sea changes in English social history. The first outbreak of the Sweating Sickness was in August 1485, and followed the invasion by the forces of Henry Tudor at Milford Haven. Henry sailed from France with a small army of retainers and French mercenaries, landed in Wales and quickly marched inland, gathering an estimated 5,000 more followers. 

Battle of Bosworth Field 1485

His forces met those of the Yorkist King Richard III at Bosworth Field on August 22nd 1485, and defeated and killed the King (the last English King to die in battle), and Henry was crowned as King Henry VII, the first Tudor monarch. This was effectively the end of the Wars of the Roses, with the Lancastrians triumphant, (although there was a final battle between Lancastrian and Yorkist forces at Stoke Field in 1487). The new King Henry moved quickly to London to establish his claim to the throne. 

Henry VII

His army remained behind, and moved slower towards the capital. As they did, they were struck down by a strange new illness, which followed in their wake. A person would be fit and well, but was then taken by stomach cramps, headaches and lethargy, followed by a very great fever, with profuse sweating and internal heat. Subjects were usually dead within hours, and the mortality rate was said to be ninety-nine out of one hundred of those stricken. In September, the disease reached London, where it raged for a month, killing – in the words of the chroniclers – ‘infinite persons’, ‘a wonderful number’, ‘many thousands’

Death comes calling

People knew this was not the Plague or Black Death, nor was it a Pox, and those who recovered from it were not immune to a second or third attack, as an immunity did not occur in those who managed to recover. The physicians could do nothing; there was no cure or remedy. Some citizens fled to the country, hoping to escape, but the disease went with them, spreading it further afield. And then, at the end of September, it stopped, just as quickly as it had started. It continued in the provinces for a little while longer – The Chronicles of Croyland for November 1485 reports the death of the Abbot from the Sweating Sickness in less than eighteen hours, (and that Lord Stanley had used the Sweating Sickness as an excuse not to join Richard III at Bosworth). 

The Chronicles of Croyland 1485

What caused it was a mystery, some blame the French mercenaries who sailed with Henry, some blame the bad series of extremely rainy summers in the early 1480s, some thought ticks or lice to blame (although there was no evidence of bites or rashes on victims). Outbreaks of Plague pushed the Sweating Sickness out of popular memory – Plague killed over 30,000 in London alone in 1499. 

In 1501, King Henry’s eldest son and heir, Prince Arthur, was married (at 15 years old), to the infanta Catherine, daughter of the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castille. 

Prince Arthur Tudor

In 1502, the teenaged newly-weds went to Ludlow Castle, where, on April 2nd Arthur died in mysterious circumstances, said to be of Sweating Sickness which had broken out again in the area. His younger brother, Henry, at ten years of age, became the new heir – it had been thought he would become a cleric, and maybe a future Archbishop of Canterbury – as it was, when his father died in 1509, he was crowned King Henry VIII. To maintain the alliance with Spain, arrangements were made for him to marry his brother’s widow, Catherine of Aragon, at, Henry claimed, the dying wish of his father. 

Catherine of Aragon

They were married, in 1509, but Catherine did not produce Henry’s expected heir – she bore two stillborn babies and four more who died as babies. Henry believed the marriage was cursed by God – he had violated the Law in Leviticus 20:21 “And if a man take his brother's wife, it is an unclean thing: he hath uncovered his brother's nakedness: they shall be childless,” – and sought to have the marriage annulled. Pope Clement VII, who at the time just happened to be the prisoner of Emperor Charles V, (who, as it just happened, was Catherine’s nephew), refused Henry permission to annul the marriage without a decree from Rome. 

Henry VIII c. 1520

Henry grew tired of waiting for this decree to arrive, so had one issued anyway, declared a split with Rome, placed himself at the Head of the Church of England, and married Anne Boleyn. If young Prince Arthur had not died from Sweating Sickness, it is unlikely any of this would have happened, and English history would have been entirely different. 

In 1507, a second outbreak occurred in London but was far less virulent, and the lack of widespread mortality was put down to advancements in medical treatments. 

Death and the King - Holbein 1538

The third outbreak of 1517 was incredibly violent – in some areas up to half the population died from Sweating Sickness, usually in between two or three hours of infection. The initial shivering was taken to be a symptom of the inevitable death to follow. The pestilence raged for six months, killing high and low born with indifference. The scholars at Oxford and Cambridge died in numbers enough that the English renaissance is said to have faltered. The King and his inner court moved around the country in a bid to avoid the disease. Outbreaks also occurred in Calais (then under English control), where only the fair skinned people succumbed to the ‘Englishe Sickness’. And again, as before, it vanished as quickly as it began. 

Fleeing the Sickness

For over a decade, it was not seen again, until the fourth outbreak in 1528. This visitation was even more terrible than that of eleven years earlier. In began in London in May, once more appearing from nowhere and without warning. Strong, healthy people were dead five hours later. This time it spread like wildfire, annihilating the populace. All public business was suspended, to no avail. And this time it did not limit itself only to the English – it ravaged Europe with an intensity that defies description. 

Death and the Mariner  - Holbein 1538

An English ship was struck at sea - it docked at Hamburg and twenty-two hours later a thousand people lay dead. Sweating Sickness sped through the Baltic shores and by 1530 in some areas it had killed two-thirds of the population. Norway, Denmark and Sweden were struck – 400 people a day died in Copenhagen. Strangely, it seems not to have remained for longer than about a fortnight in any area, before spreading onward. Then it stopped altogether, and was not seen in mainland Europe again. 

The fifth, and final, outbreak followed in England in 1551. Of all the instances, this was by far the worst. It began in Shrewsbury, on April 15th, and in days 960 people had died, some in less than an hour. Panic broke out and social order broke down. Clouds of poisonous mists were seen flowing along the banks of the Severn, and where they blew, the Sweating Sickness followed. Slowly it crossed the country, bring death and terror everywhere – one writer described it as a ‘depopulation’. People fled to Scotland, Ireland and France, where they died, although the disease did not affect their Scots, Irish or French hosts. 

John Caius

There is an invaluable eye-witness account made by John Caius, an eminent Elizabethan physician, called, “A Boke or Counseill Against the Disease Commonly Called the Sweate, or Sweatyng Sicknesse,” which tells us the disease: - 
But that immediately killed some in opening theire windowes, some in plaieng with children in their strete dores, some in one hour, many in two it destroyed, & at the longest, to the that merilye dined, it gaue a sorrowful Supper. As it founde them so it toke them, some in sleape some in wake, some in mirthe some in care, some fasting & some ful, some busy and some idle, and in one house sometyme three sometime fiue, sometyme seuen sometyme eyght, sometyme more some tyme all, of the whyche, if the haulfe in euerye Towne escaped, it was thoughte great fauour.”

John Caius - excerpt from The Boke or Counseill 1552

Caius describes in detail the course of the illness – from an initial feeling of apprehension and a cold, often violent, shivering, followed by giddiness, nausea, aching in the limbs and great tiredness. This might last anything from half an hour to three hours and was followed by great sweating and internal heat, after which came palpitations, more pains, delirium, intense thirst and an irresistible desire to sleep. There were no eruptions of the skin or rashes, and if the patient survived twenty-four hours, they could be regarded as having survived. Most didn’t, and died within a matter of hours. Caius, (a latinised form of Keys), gave practical advice on treating the afflicted, including using sweet herbs to sweeten the air, a varied diet of fruits, and  that two persones lye not in one bed.’ 

John Caius - The Boke or Counseill 1552

He contributed to the extension of his former college at Cambridge, where Gonville and Caius College is named for him, and went on to become Court Physician to Edward VI, Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary, although he was stripped of this honour for being, incongruously, both a Catholic and an atheist at the same time. Caius was one of the early scientific pioneers who advocated empirical investigation rather a reliance on the authority of classical authors. 

The Sweating Sickness subsided again as rapidly as it had arrived, and apart from odd, isolated incidents has never been seen again. Something that was feared more than the Black Death deserves to be more widely known. There has never been a full explanation of its causes, Caius’s description gives us our best guess at diagnosis, and the general opinion is that is was a strain of a pulmonary hantavirus, transmitted from human to human (rather than by rodent carriers). Maybe we will never know.

Friday, 27 July 2012

The Passing of the Passenger Pigeon

                             The extinction of any species, either by accident or design, is never a Good Thing (except, maybe, Smallpox, but technically that isn’t extinct anyway), but the reasons for some extinctions just boggle the mind. Take the current threat to tigers, rhinos and sea-horses for instance, species in danger of extinction because they are being poached for the ingredients of traditional oriental ‘medicine’ – no more than hokum practiced by quacks on the gullible. Indefensible. But of all the sorry stories in the whole sorry history of man’s extirpation of other species, the very sorriest has to be that of the Passenger Pigeon. 

The Passenger Pigeon

Imagine, if you can, the immense size of the population of Passenger Pigeon. One estimate puts it at between three and five billion individuals. 

Hunting the Flocks of Passenger Pigeons

Now a billion is currently held to be a thousand million, (although I was taught that a billion was a million million, but that’s by the bye). Taking the short form, the thousand million version, a billion 1,000,000,000 - or 10 to the power 9 – that is 109. A billion seconds is just short of 32 years, so the average Western lifespan in between two and three billion seconds. A billion minutes is just short of two thousand years - that means a billion minutes ago, Christianity was a new religion. A billion hours ago, mankind was living in the Stone Age. A billion days ago, mankind’s early ancestors were wandering the African savannah, and mankind didn’t yet exist. A billion months ago, the dinosaurs of the late Cretaceous period ruled the earth. A billion years ago, the very earliest multicellular eukaryotes were beginning to emerge from (in the mandatory phrase to be used in explanations of this kind) the primeval slime. And 13.7 billion years ago, the universe began. A billion is a big number. Really big. 

Passenger Pigeon

Between three and five billion Passenger Pigeons was a lot of Passenger pigeons. Flocks of them a mile wide and three hundred miles long were said to take fourteen hours to fly past an observer. Audobon says that as they flew by, the sun was blotted out. They were, simply, innumerable. With the possible exception of the swarms of locusts, they were most populous creatures in North America. 

Passenger Pigeon on its nest

So what harm, you might say, in using them as a food source? There are so many of them, a few thousand – hell, even a few million – wouldn’t even scratch the surface of something so plentiful. Plentiful – these things are inexhaustible! Take as many as you want. Have you seen the size of the flocks – they’re like the stars in the night sky? So, take them they did, for food and for feathers. 

$1 a dozen

A dozen birds for a dollar was dear, a dozen for twenty-five cents was more like it. Passenger Pigeons were cheap food for slaves; they were so ubiquitous people got sick of eating them.  

Pigeon Net

“Unlimited netting, even during the entire nesting season, has resulted in sending over one million pigeons to market from a single roost in one year, leaving perhaps as many more wounded birds and starving, helpless, naked squabs behind, until the poultry stalls became so glutted with pigeons that the low price per barrel scarcely paid for their transportation, and they were fed to the hogs.” 
Neltje Blanchan Birds That Hunt and Are Hunted 1904. 

Report on the shipments of Passenger Pigeons

At one time 50,000 birds a day, for a period of five months, were shipped by boxcar to New York. “In 1848 Massachusetts gravely passed a law protecting the netters of wild pigeons from foreign interference! There was a fine of $10 for damaging nets, or frightening pigeons away from them” (Hornaday, p.13).   

Advert for Pigeon Shooting Match

‘Sporting’ competitions were staged, the winner was the one who shot the most birds with the least shots; birds were even caught and released before the guns to provide sufficient targets. 

Advert for Pigeon Trap

But there was something about Passenger Pigeons that people didn’t understand. Passenger Pigeons were essentially gregarious. The reason they gathered in flocks was a defence mechanism – if a few members of the flock were lost to predators, the whole flock survived. A wheeling flock would confuse the predator, and the weakest would be weeded out, whilst the fittest survived. 

Passenger Pigeons

And the flocks were necessary for the social conditions needed for the birds to breed. But as the flocks diminished, this balance was disturbed. By disrupting the pattern of successive generations, and by upsetting the optimum conditions for survival, the population went into decline. It was unable to sustain itself. A few perceptive individuals saw this disruption and warning bells were sounded, although, in the beginning, these went unheeded. When the early conservationists tried to get legislation passed to control the harvesting of the pigeons, they were given short shrift.   

Frontispiece - Our Vanishing Wild Life W T Hornaday 1913

“The passenger pigeon needs no protection. Wonderfully prolific, having the vast forests of the North as its breeding grounds, travelling hundreds of miles in search of food, it is here to-day and elsewhere to-morrow, and no ordinary destruction can lessen them, or be missed from the myriads that are yearly produced”  
Report of a Select Committee of the Senate of Ohio 1857 

For goodness sake, that ‘ no ordinary destruction’. This was no ordinary destruction. It was extraordinary. But the powers that be weren’t convinced. They knew best, as they continue to do, and so the slaughter continued. The ornithological experts were dismissed as mere what-do-they-know ‘experts’ or cranks. And trade was trade. There was money to be made. (Does this sound faintly familiar? It damn well should). 

“As soon as it is ascertained in a town that the pigeons are flying numerously in the neighbourhood, the gunners rise en masse; the clap-nets are spread out on suitable situations, commonly on an open height in an old buckwheat field, four or five live pigeons, with their eyelids sewed up are fastened on a movable stick, a small hut of branches is fitted up for the fowler at the distance of forty or fifty yards. By the pulling of a string, the stick on which the pigeons rest is alternately elevated and depressed, which produces a flittering of their wings, similar to that of birds alighting. This being perceived by the passing flocks, they descend with great rapidity, and finding corn, buck-wheat, etc, strewed about, begin to feed, and are instantly, by the pulling of a cord, covered by the net. In this manner ten, twenty, and even thirty dozen have been caught at one sweep.” 
Our Vanishing Wildlife W T Hornaday 1913 

The evidence continued to accrue, but when the penny finally dropped, it was far too late. The expected annual flocks failed to appear. In 1878, a flock of about fifty million birds began nesting in Wisconsin, but hunters moved in and the flock was scattered. The shattered population continued to be reported as individual specimens, but there was no return to the great gatherings of the past. 


Rewards were offered in return for locating nesting pigeons, but these were birds that were gregarious roosters, and wouldn’t build an individual nest, as that was against their innate instincts. In addition, the strength-in-numbers survival strategy of the flocks was lost, and lone birds became easy prey for predators. The population fell like a house of cards, and nothing could stop the collapse. Birds continued to be seen, as they had a life span of about twenty years, but new birds were not being hatched to replace the older generations. Sightings became rarer and rarer, and eventually stopped altogether.  

Heroic Hunters (... and is that chap on the extreme left on his mobile?)

“The last wild specimen (so we believe) that ever will reach the hands of man, was taken near Detroit, Michigan, on Sept. 14, 1908” (Hornaday, p.14), although sightings were reported until the 1930s, which were probably mistakenly identified Mourning Doves, a closely related species. 

Passenger Pigeon

There were some captive birds still alive, but these all eventually died of old age. In 1908, there were just two males and a female, Martha, remaining, in Cincinnati Zoo. One of the males died in 1909, the other the following year. 

Obituary for Martha - Bird Lore Vol 16 1914

Martha died at 1 pm on September 1st 1914, the last of her species.

I have nothing to add.