The tenth of October, 2012: a dreadful butcher’s business, and a serious and fascinating man

A belated follow-up to Friday’s post on Edmund Gosse. First, the gruesome part.

Recalling the time he spent as a young child in his widowed father’s company, Gosse (in Father And Son) gives a strangely touching account of how the pair whiled away dark evenings discussing “our favourite subject” – murders.

“I wonder whether little boys of eight, soon to go upstairs alone at night, often discuss violent crime with a widower-papa?” Gosse wonders. “The practice, I cannot help thinking, is unusual.”

The boy Gosse was thrilled by stories of Burke and Hare and of Mrs Manning, who “killed a gentleman on the stairs and buried him in quick-lime in the back-kitchen” (Mrs Manning, Gosse adds in a “useful historical fact”, was hanged in black satin, which thereupon “went wholly out of fashion in England”).

Most compelling of all was a macabre tale that was subsequently to mystify Gosse: the “Carpet-bag Mystery”.

This case, of human remains found bundled in a carpet-bag and suspended from Waterloo Bridge, was not, it seems, well-remembered in 1907, when Gosse published his memoir.

Who will tell me what the ‘Carpet-bag Mystery’ was, which my Father and I discussed evening after evening? I have never come across a whisper of it since, and I suspect it of having been a hoax.

It was no hoax. If Gosse had ever thought to google “carpet-bag mystery”, he would have known that.

On October 10, 1857 – Gosse would indeed have been eight – some boys boating on the Thames found a carpet-bag on a bridge abutment. Inside were twenty-three human bones (what Gosse called “a dreadful butcher’s business of joints and fragments”) and a suit of blood-soaked clothing.

Inevitably, public speculation focussed on two groups of highly suspect individuals: surgeons, and foreigners. But no body-snatching sawbones or swarthy French spy was ever hauled in to Bow Street Station to answer for the crime – in spite of a £300 reward. So no hoax, then – but certainly, and still, a mystery.

You can read much more about it at the excellent Victorian Calendar.

The third part of my Gosse exploration (wild Gosse chase? No?) is not about young Edmund but about the widower-papa, poor old Philip Henry.

PH Gosse was active as a natural historian at a traumatic time for natural historians who insisted on adhering to that old-time religion – and none insisted more vehemently than Gosse. But, confronted by the geological gradualism of Sir Charles Lyell – with its implications of an earth far older than any Biblical interpretation  would permit – Gosse, to his credit, did not hide behind scripture; instead, he answered science with science.

Or, at least, a sort of science.

Gosse’s theory, the great work of his life, his magnificent octopus, went by a single word: Omphalos. His son summed up the theory thus:

  [T]here had been no gradual modification of the surface of the earth, or slow development of organic forms, but… when the catastrophic act of creation took place, the world presented, instantly, the structural appearance of a planet on which life had long existed.

For instance, Adam would certainly possess hair and teeth and bones in a condition which it must have taken many years to accomplish, yet he was created full-grown yesterday. He would certainly… display and ‘omphalos’ [a belly-button], yet no umbilical cord had ever attached him to a mother.

This was the theory with which Gosse, fervently and heartbreakingly, hoped to “justify geology to godly readers of Genesis”. No book was ever published, Edmund Gosse wrote, “with greater anticipations of success than was this curious, this obstinate, this fanatical volume”.

And yet:

Atheists and Christians alike looked at it and laughed, and threw it away.

Two years later, Darwin published On The Origin Of Species, and the matter was pretty comprehensively put to bed.

The late scientific essayist Stephen Jay Gould wrote a beautiful and empathetic piece about Omphalos: An Attempt To Untie The Geological Knot and its author; Gould read all of Omphalos, so we don’t have to.

The essay, Adam’s Navel, is collected in the anthology Hen’s Teeth And Horse Toes (1990) and in The Faber Book of Science (1995). I strongly recommend tracking it down and reading the hell out of it.

Omphalos itself – complete with its assertion that (in Gould’s paraphrase) as God would create adults with faeces in their intestines, so too would he place petrified turds into his created geological strata – can be read in full here.

Serio-comic postscript, which probably says an awful lot about something or other, from the reliably odious Conservapedia:

Modern creationists generally reject “omphalos” as a means of proving a young Earth. The two major creationist organizations, Creation Ministries International and Answers in Genesis, along with the rest of the modern creation science movement, reject “omphalos”, instead relying on genuine scientific evidence.

Gosse, Gould tells us, was “a serious and fascinating man, not a hopeless crank or malcontent”. The same can’t be said of those who persist in peddling ‘creation science’.

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