My chosen two objects are John Dee’s mirror from the British Museum and the Two Headed Skull from the Hunterian Museum. I was attracted to both because they were just unusual and I wanted to understand their histories more.
I therefore did more in-depth research on the facts about the two objects.
Skull of the Two Headed Boy of Bengal
In 1790 the astute surgeon Everard Home wrote of ‘a species of lusus naturae so unaccountable, that, I believe, no similar instance is to be found upon record’. He was writing of the Boy of Bengal after observing drawings and collecting and reviewing the accounts of several of his peers. While the boy was remarkable for both his medical condition and perseverance, Home was actually incorrect in his initial assumptions.
The Two-Headed Boy of Bengal was born in the village of Mundul Gait in Bengal in May of 1783 into a poor farming family. His remarkable life was very nearly extinguished immediately after his delivery as a terrified midwife tried to destroy the infant by throwing him into a fire. Miraculously, while he was rather badly burned about the eye, ear and upper head, he managed to survive. His parents began to exhibit him in Calcutta, where he attracted a great deal of attention and earned the family a fair amount of money. While the large crowds gathered to see the Two-Headed Boy his parents took to covering the lad with a sheet and often kept him hidden – sometimes for hours at a time and often in darkness. As his fame spread across India, so did the calibre of his observers. Several noblemen, civil servants and city officials arranged to showcase the boy in their own homes for both private gatherings and grand galas – treating their guests to up close examinations. One of these observers was a Colonel Pierce who described the encounter to the President of the Royal Society, Sir Joseph Banks and it was Sir Banks who later forwarded the account to the surgeon Everard Home.
The term ‘Two-Headed’ may be a bit misleading as rather that two heads side by side, the Boy actually had head atop the other. When compared to the average child, both heads were of an appropriate size and development. The second head sat atop the main head inverted and simply ended in a neck-like stump. The second head seemed to, at times, function independently from the main head. When the boy cried or smiled the features of the second head did not always match. Yet, when the main head was fed, the second head would produce saliva. Furthermore, if the second head was presented with a breast to suckle – it would attempt to do so. While the main head was well formed the secondary head did possess some irregularities. The eyes and ears were underdeveloped. The tongue was small and the jaw malformed but both were capable of motion. When the Boy slept, the secondary head would often be observed alert and awake – eyes darting about.
Despite the attention the Boy of Bengal received, none of it was medical in nature. There were no intensive first hand medical examinations of the Boy on record and the vast majority of the press attention given to the Boy focused no on his condition, but rather his ‘freakish’ appearance. The Boy, who seemed to suffer no serious ill effects in relation to his condition, died at the age of four from a cobra bite. It was only then, after much unseemly business, that medicine was able to examine the case.
The Boy was buried near the Boopnorain River, outside the city of Tumloch but the grave was soon robbed by Mr. Dent, a salt agent for the East India Company. He dissected the putrefied body himself and gave the skull to a Captain Buchanan of the East Indian Company. Buchanan brought the skull to England, where it ended up in the hands of his close friend- Everard Home.
When Mr. Dent had dissected the heads he discovered that the brains were separate and distinct. Each brain was also enveloped in its proper coverings and it appeared as though both brains received the nutrition required to sustain life and thought. The classification of this condition is today known as Craniopagus parasiticus and technically falls under the category of parasitic twins however many of the early naturalists have attempted to classify the Bengal case as a case of conjoined twins due to the signs of independent life given by the second head.
Words from http://www.thehumanmarvels.com/the-two-headed-boy-of-bengal/ which was adapted from Jan Bondeson’s book – The Two Headed Boy.
Apart from this narrative of the boy and skull’s life nothing else seemed to be written about it.
Dr. John Dee’s Magical Mirror
This black spirit mirror and other magical objects are thought to have been owned by John Dee (1527–1608/9), the Elizabethan magician, astrologer and mathematician. The mirror was used as a ‘shew-stone’ – one of many polished and lustrous things used by Dee to carry out his occult research into the world of spirits. Dee worked with the medium and convicted criminal, Edward Kelley, to summon visions of angels into the mirror’s reflective surface. The two men held séances in England and on the Continent between 1583 and 1589.
The mirror, made of obsidian (volcanic glass), was brought from Mexico to Europe between 1527 and 1530 after Hernando Cortés’s conquest of the region. Mirrors were used by Aztec priests to conjure visions and make prophesies. They were connected with Tezcatlipoca, god of obsidian and sorcery, whose name can be translated from the Nahuatl language as ‘Smoking Mirror’.
The other magical objects connected with John Dee are:
a rock crystal ball
two wax discs engraved with magical figures and names, used by Dee when consulting his spirit mirror
a gold engraved disc, engraved with a complex diagram of one of Edward Kelley’s visions (Cracow, Poland, 1584)
an 18th-century wooden case covered in tooled leather and labelled in the handwriting of Horace Walpole
Information from British Museum catalogue:
Description – Magic Mirror of Doctor Dee; obsidian; wood case covered in tooled leather with label in handwriting of Horace Walpole, quotation from a Samuel Butler poem.
Culture/period – Aztec (obsidian)
Date – 14thC-16thC (?)
Production place – Made in: Mexico
Materials – wood, obsidian, leather
Labels on leather case:
The Black Stone into which Dr Dee used to call his Spirits
V. his book
This Stone was mentioned in the Catalogue of the Collection of the Earls of
Peterborough from whom it came to Lady Elizabeth Germaine.
H.W. – Thought to have been written by Horace Walpole
Kelly was Dr Dee’s Associate and is mentioned with this very Stone in Hudibras, Part 2. Canto 3 v.631. Kelly did all his feats upon The Devil’s Looking-glass, a Stone. – Thought to have been written by Horace Walpole.
[Quote from Samuel Butler’s ‘Hudibras’ (1663)]
Kelly did all his feats upon
The Devil’s Looking Glass, a stone;
Where playing with him at Bo-peep, He solv’d all problems ne’er so deep. – Written by a different hand
What interest me the most is John Dee’s connection with alchemy so shall continue my research done that line to see if I can common ground or a similarity with the two headed skull.