Dubious Victorian Advice for Keeping 6 Unusual Pets

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The Victorians loved to keep pets—but they were often not content to make do with an ordinary cat or dog, and preferred something a little more exotic. The artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti kept a wombat; collector Walter Rothschild had a tamed zebra; and Charles Dickens famously featured a fictionalized version of his pet raven, Grip, in his novel Barnaby Rudge. This love for unusual pets is reflected in the many 19th and early 20th century manuals on pet ownership, which offer plenty of helpful (and not-so-helpful) advice on the favored pets of the day. The manuals make for amusing reading—although we don't recommend trying any of this at home.

1. SQUIRRELS

A selection of Victorian pets from the book "Domestic pets: their habits and management" by Jane Loudon
Jane Loudon, Domestic Pets: Their Habits and Management, Google Books // Public Domain

Wild squirrels were frequently caught and kept as pets in Victorian times. As C. Pridham remarked in Domestic Pets: Their Habits and Treatments (1893), “It does seem strange that such a shy, wild-wood creature should ever submit to be made a pet; still more that it should quickly become so very much at home as one generally finds pet squirrels are, with such fond, winning, playful ways of their own that we cannot choose but to give them the petting in which they take such delight.”

Pet squirrels didn't come from pet shops; the manuals suggested that you catch them yourself, preferably as babies, since the young were easier to tame. If climbing up the nearest tree and extracting a wriggling, biting baby squirrel seemed a little too challenging, it was suggested you turn to an obliging gamekeeper. If they had to turn to outside help, buyers were warned not to accept a “dopey” squirrel, as it was likely hopped up on laudanum and would probably soon expire.

Jane Loudon, writing in Domestic Pets: Their Habits and Management (1851) noted that squirrels were best kept "in little ornamental kennels, with a platform for the squirrel to sit on, and a little chain to fasten to a collar round the squirrel’s neck.” But pet squirrels were also sometimes allowed to roam free in the house, making use of the furnishings: “[The squirrel] will run up a window curtain, and along the cornice at the top with wonderful grace and agility; it will also run round the cornice of a room, and if it is richly carved, it will peep out between the leaves and flowers in a very amusing manner.”

G. P. Fermor, in Home Pets Furred and Feathered (1902), chided squirrel owners who did not adequately house their pet: “The harmless, festive little squirrel has, in its wild state, about as joyous a life as any other creature in the world, and it is a matter of wonder that any one who really cared for such a pet could have evolved the painfully cramped cages, with that miserable attempt at a playground, the maddening little wheel.” Instead, he advised that squirrels are happiest with a mate and a large cage with bare branches for them to scamper around. A box filled with moss, dry leaves or hay was recommended to serve as a nest, while bread, milk, nuts, and sugar were said to be the best diet.

2. BADGERS

The quaint Eurasian badger of Wind in the Willows fame does not have the vicious reputation of the North American badger, so it is perhaps unsurprising that the Victorians attempted to tame them (the two are actually different species). In Pets and How to Keep Them (1907), Frank Finn says of the badger, “[It] is a very interesting pet with many quaint and curious habits, remarkably like those of a bear on a small scale.”

The problem, Finn noted, comes with finding a secure place to keep the badger, as they are such good diggers they can burrow out of almost any enclosure. To prevent this, the author recommends installing a cement floor and high wire fences. The author also advocates feeding badgers on dog food, but supplementing this with dried fruit and the odd treat of a “wasp’s nest full of larvae."

3. OWLS

A Victorian illustration of an owl
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Although they're not an obvious choice for a furry companion, the Reverend J. G. Wood claimed in his book Our Domestic Pets (1871) that “There are worse pets to be found than owls … by proper management they can be made into very companionable birds, quaint, grotesque, and affectionate withal.”

But then comes the rub: “The chief drawback to the owl as a pet is its nocturnal habits.” That said, the reverend provides a tactic to get around this wrinkle: “Now, although at first to wake the owl will be found rather a tedious business, and to keep it awake still more difficult, a present of a mouse, or a small bird, or a large beetle, will generally rouse it, and cause it to remain awake for some little time.”

4. RAVENS

A selection of Victorian bird pets from the book "Domestic pets: their habits and management" by Jane Loudon
Jane Loudon, Domestic Pets: Their Habits and Management, Google Books // Public Domain

By the Victorian era, ravens were becoming rare in the wild in Britain, in part because so many of these intelligent birds had been captured as pets. Pridham revealed that if found in the wild, ravens could be taken from the nest as fledglings, but that due to their scarcity they were more easily bought at market. He advised raven-keepers to select the largest cage they could find, or else tame them sufficiently that the bird chooses to stay in one's garden, where they “make themselves very useful by clearing the plants of slugs.”

Taming ravens, however, was no simple matter: Reverend Wood wrote that his own family had "been for some months undecided whether we shall have a raven or not. We should greatly like to possess one of these birds, but then we know he would pull up all our newly-sown seeds, get into the milk-pail, tear our papers to pieces, and, in short, spoil everything within his reach.”

5. JACKDAWS

Jackdaws, a smaller and more readily available member of the crow family, became a popular alternative to ravens. “To procure a raven, an order to a dealer is almost necessary; but every boy should be ashamed if he cannot catch a young Jackdaw for himself,” Reverend Wood wrote.

Like ravens, jackdaws could be taught to do tricks and learn words, but as the reverend points out, this did have its limits: “Jackdaws are very easily tamed, and become very talkative after their fashion. Their vocabulary is, however, limited, and is mostly restricted to the word 'Jack,' which is uttered on every imaginable occasion.” The 1883 tome Every Day Home Advice Relating Chiefly to Household Management noted that jackdaws, like other talking birds, were subject to various diseases, but that "a rusty nail in their water ... stick-licorice, chalk, or scraped root of white hellebore" could be helpful.

6. MONKEYS

Victorian men giving a monkey a bath
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Monkeys were considered fashionable pets during Victorian times. Notes on Pet Monkeys and How to Manage Them by Arthur Patterson (1888) includes tips on choosing a suitably simian name, recommending “Bully, Peggy, Mike, Peter, Jacko, Jimmy, Demon, Barney, Tommy, Dulcimer, Uncle or Knips.” However, prospective monkey owners were advised to understand that the creatures weren't exactly easy to manage: “Any one who undertakes to keep one of this family as a pet must be prepared for somewhat unlooked-for developments. Their capacity for mischief and insatiable curiosity are things that have to be reckoned with,” warned M. G. P. Fermor in Home Pets Furred and Feathered.

Fermor recommended that a whole room be set aside for the use of the monkeys: “The furniture of such an apartment need not be expensive—poles, ropes, bars and swings are what the occupants will appreciate more than chairs or sofas.” If just one monkey was to be kept, it could be attached to a light, strong chain, which should be affixed to something it couldn't drag around. But Fermor cautions: “The Larger monkeys cannot be given as much freedom as their smaller brethren, for should one of them embark upon a tour of destruction, or give free rein to his impish wickedness, it would be a serious matter to restore order.”

If all else fails, Patterson recommended the following ploy for gaining your monkey's trust: Let a friend go up to the animal's cage brandishing and swinging a stick in order to frighten the animal. “In the midst of this nonsense, rush forward, and pretend to take the part of your pet, thrash your friend to within an inch of his life with the very stick he has been using, and put him out. Next take the monkey some savory morsel, such as a date, or an apple, and sympathize with it. You are sworn friends from that time.”

How to Baffle a Bull Moose: The Time Harry Houdini Tricked Theodore Roosevelt

Harry Houdini and Theodore Roosevelt aboard the SS Imperator.
Harry Houdini and Theodore Roosevelt aboard the SS Imperator.
Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

When the SS Imperator set sail for New York City in June 1914, it had on board bigwigs of both politics and entertainment—namely, former president Theodore Roosevelt and acclaimed illusionist Harry Houdini. Houdini was returning from a performance tour across the UK, and Roosevelt had been busy with a tour of his own: visiting European museums, meeting ambassadors, and then attending the wedding of his son, Kermit, in Madrid. Though the two men hadn’t crossed paths before, they soon became fast friends, often exercising together in the morning (at least, whenever Houdini wasn’t seasick).

The ocean liner hadn’t booked Houdini to perform, but when an officer asked Houdini if he’d give an impromptu performance at a benefit concert on the ship, he agreed, partially at the insistence of his new companion.

Little did Roosevelt know, Houdini had spent weeks plotting an elaborate ruse especially for him.

Houdini Hatches a Plan

ss imperator in 1912
The SS Imperator circa 1913.
George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Earlier in June, when Houdini was picking up his tickets for the trip, the teller divulged that he wouldn’t be the only celebrity on the SS Imperator.

“Teddy Roosevelt is on the boat,” the teller whispered, “but don’t tell anyone.”

Houdini, knowing there was a good chance he’d end up hosting a spur-of-the-moment show, started scheming immediately. The story was recounted in full in a 1929 newspaper article by Harold Kellock, which allegedly used Houdini’s own words from unreleased autobiographical excerpts.

Having heard that The Telegraph would soon publish details about Roosevelt’s recent rip-roaring expedition through South America, Houdini paid his editorial friends a surprise visit.

"I jumped into a taxi and went to The Telegraph office to see what I could pick up," he said. They readily obliged his request for information, and even handed over a map of Roosevelt’s journey along the Amazon.

What followed was a combination of spectacular cunning and good old-fashioned luck.

Houdini hatched a plan to hold a séance, during which he would employ a particular slate trick common among mediums at the time. In it, a participant jots down a question on a piece of paper and slips it between two blank slates, where spirits then “write” the answer and the performer reveals it.

He prepared the slates so that one bore the map of Roosevelt’s entire trail down Brazil’s River of Doubt, along with an arrow and the words “Near the Andes.” In London, Houdini had also acquired old letters from W.T. Stead, a British editor (and spiritualist) who had perished on the RMS Titanic in 1912. Houdini forged Stead’s signature on the slate to suggest that the spirit of Stead knew all about Roosevelt’s unpublicized escapades.

Upon boarding the ship, Houdini faced only two obstacles. First, he had to finagle his way into performing a public séance with Roosevelt in attendance. Second, he would have to ensure that the question his “spirit” answered was “Where was I last Christmas?” or something very similar.

Houdini cleared the first hurdle with flying colors, saying he “found it easy to work the Colonel into a state of mind so that the suggestion of séance would come from him.” Though the master manipulator doesn’t elaborate on what exactly he said about spiritualism during their conversation—later in his career, Houdini would actually make a name for himself as an anti-spiritualist by debunking popular mediums—it sufficiently piqued Roosevelt’s interest. When the ship’s officer requested that Houdini perform, Roosevelt apparently goaded, “Go ahead, Houdini, give us a little séance.”

Just like that, Houdini had scheduled a séance that Roosevelt wouldn’t likely miss—and the illusionist wasn’t going to leave a single detail up to chance.

A Back-Up Plan (Or Two)

theodore roosevelt on the ss imperator
Roosevelt relaxes aboard the SS Imperator.
George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Rather than bank on the shaky possibility that Roosevelt himself would pen the perfect question, Houdini prepared to stuff the ballot, so to speak. He had copied the question "Where was I last Christmas?" onto several sheets of paper, sealed them in envelopes, and planned to make sure that only his own envelopes ended up in the hat from which he’d choose a question. (It seems like a problematic plan, considering the possibility that Roosevelt would speak up to say something like "Wait, that wasn't my question," but Houdini doesn't clarify how he hoped this would play out.)

The morning of the séance, Houdini devised yet another back-up plan. With a razor blade, he sliced open the binding of two books, slipped a sheet of carbon paper and white paper beneath each cover, and resealed them.

As long as Roosevelt used one of the books as a flat surface to write on, the carbon paper would transfer his question to the white sheet below it—meaning that even after Roosevelt had sealed his question in an envelope, Houdini could sneak a glance and alter his performance accordingly.

A Little Hocus Pocus

Theodore Roosevelt poses with a map of the roosevelt-rondon expedition
Sometime after his voyage on the SS Imperator, Roosevelt posed with a map of his expedition through the Amazon.
Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

That night, Houdini kicked off the show with a series of card tricks, where he let Roosevelt choose the cards. “I was amazed at the way he watched every one of the misdirection moves as I manipulated the cards,” he said, according to Kellock’s article. “It was difficult to baffle him.”

Then, it was time for the séance.

"La-dies and gen-tle-men," Houdini proclaimed. "I am sure that many among you have had experiences with mediums who have been able to facilitate the answering of your personal questions by departed spirits, these answers being mysteriously produced on slates. As we all know, mediums do their work in the darkened séance room, but tonight, for the first time anywhere, I propose to conduct a spiritualistic slate test in the full glare of the light."

Houdini distributed the slips of paper, gave instructions, and then solicitously passed Roosevelt one of the books when he saw him start to use his hand as a surface. As Roosevelt began to write, composer Victor Herbert, also in attendance, offered a few shrewd words of caution.

"Turn around. Don't let him see it," Houdini heard him warn Roosevelt. "He will read the question by the movements of the top of the pencil."

"The Colonel then faced abruptly away from me and scribbled his question in such a position that I could not see him do it," Houdini said, adding, "Of course that made no difference to me."

After Roosevelt finished, Houdini took the book and slyly extracted the paper from the inside cover while returning it to the table.

In an almost unbelievable stroke of luck, Roosevelt’s question read “Where was I last Christmas?” Houdini wouldn’t need to slip one of his own envelopes between the slates after all.

"Knowing what was in the Colonel's envelope, I did not have to resort to sleight of hand, but boldly asked him to place his question between the slates himself," Houdini said. "While I pretended to show all four faces of the two slates, by manipulation I showed only three."

Then, after Roosevelt stated his question aloud to the audience, Houdini revealed the marked-up map, bearing the answer to Roosevelt’s question signed by the ghost of W.T. Stead.

In a 1926 article from The New York Times, Houdini describes Roosevelt as “dumbfounded” by the act.

“Is it really spirit writing?” he asked.

“Yes,” Houdini responded with a wink.

In Kellock’s account, however, Houdini confessed that “it was just hocus-pocus.”

Either way, it seems that Houdini never explained to Roosevelt exactly how he had duped him, and Roosevelt died in 1919, a decade before Kellock’s detailed exposition hit newsstands.

To fully appreciate the success of Houdini’s charade, you have to understand just how difficult it would’ve been to pull one over on a sharp-witted guy like Theodore Roosevelt. Dive into his life and legacy in the first season of our new podcast, History Vs. podcast, hosted by Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy.

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