Animal Cruelty, Conspiracies and Control - A History of Hysteria

The Past in the Present
The History Inquiry
11 min readJul 25, 2021

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The corpse of a chimp, dressed in navy uniform swings from a gibbet. A crowd cheers. They have foiled the beginnings of a French invasion. In Switzerland, a chicken is tied to the stake, ready to be burnt to death. The onlookers give thanks to God and pray for his support in the fight against witchcraft. Joining it in its fate, almost 600 years later, a telecommunications tower in Liverpool blazes. The arsonists flee, euphoric. They have stopped the the spread of a virulent new virus, released by a shadowy cabal of global elites. What follows are three stories, different in detail, yet alike in all other aspects. They are split by centuries, but linked by populist panic, fear of indefinable threats and a deep need to impose control upon an invisible threat.

What Came First — The Rooster or the Egg?

The farmer collected the egg and placed it with care into his basket. He turned to proceed to the next perch in the nesting box, but suddenly, held fast by horror, he stopped. He looked back. His fear was confirmed. A rooster was squatting on that perch. To a devout, 15th Century Christian, an egg-laying cockerel required immediate attention.

There are several, documented scientific explanations for this phenomenon. These range from female birds developing male plumage, due to the sudden loss of oestrogen associated with ageing or damaged ovaries, to hermaphroditism. The shocked residents of Basel in 1474, however, were not to know this. Instead, they had a chimeric combination of Greek Myth and Biblical references to explain the phenomenon. The tidings were not auspicious.

According to Alexander Neckam’s De Naturis Rerum (ca 1180), this egg, if incubated by either a toad or a snake, would birth a basilisk. Later, a similar mythical beast, the Cockatrice, became seen as synonymous with basilisk when the basiliscus in Bartholomeus Anglicus’ De Proprietatibus Rerum (1260) was translated by John Trevisa as cockatrice (1397).

The cockatrice being bested by its only weakness — a weasel (1633)
A cockatrice being bested by its only deadly enemy — a weasel (1633)

Pliny the Elder had written in 79 CE, “It kills bushes not only by its touch but also by its breath, scorches up grass and bursts rocks. Its effect on other animals is disastrous.” The beast took on even greater levels of lethality in the Old Testament. According to Isaiah (14:28), the venomous cockatrice, half cockerel half serpent, was to be sent as punishment to the Philistines, bringing along with it famine. The cockatrice/basilisk was also famed for its ability to kill people with just a look. Most famously, Shakespeare played with this belief in Romeo and Juliet, when Juliet declares after Tybalt’s death at Romeo’s hands,

‘Hath Romeo slain himself? say thou but ‘Aye,’ and that bare vowel ‘Aye’ shall poison more than the death-darting eye of a cockatrice.’

It was believed that the cockatrice’s eyes could fire an invisible poison out of them, an ability, coincidentally, shared by witches. In a time before germ theory, this was a common explanation for yet another Biblical judgement: plague. Serpents, famine, plague: clearly, this cockerel was trouble. It was not just laying an egg, but the foundations for the desolation of the city. Famine and plague, real, present and heartbreakingly deadly events were not just stories. They were memories for many of inhabitants of the town. They were memories of relatives, neighbours and, most commonly, children who had died in painful and inexplicable ways. They could not afford to allow anything, even something as small as an egg, to bring these traumas around again.

Eventually due process was followed and the rooster was, quite fairly given the circumstances, put on trial. He (she?) was even provided with their own defence lawyer who, one assumes, was working pro bono. Despite the lawyer’s defence that the rooster was an involuntary participant in these events, the prosecutor marshalled his knowledge of the Bible to prove that the Devil could inhabit the body of animals, and that these animals, despite being involuntary vessels, should still face punishment. The jury voted. The chicken and its egg were burnt.

Stories such as this seem to affirm the common quote, ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ One will normally hear this quote and draw the common conclusion. There is no way to understand the past. I, however, draw a different conclusion. Are foreign customs really so inscrutable? I may not initially understand why the Spanish take siesta, the Japanese celebrate hanami under the blossom tree, or why Norwegians eat fermented fish, but with a bit of thought, their motives not only become clear but relatable. Understandable, even. If I lived in Spain, I would not want to work in blazing mid-day Sun. I too understand the importance of reflecting on the transience of life and if the Japanese do so by picnicking under a blossoming cherry tree, then this not only seems sensible, but admirable. I’ll admit, I may never understand Norwegian fish, but that’s due to my feeble English palate, I suppose. People may do things differently in the past, but what moves them to do these things are still clearly human.

As the inhabitants of Bern watched the rooster burn, they will have looked into the eyes of their fellows and felt blessed. Unholy disaster had been averted. They had saved their loved ones.

The King of the Swingers

A ship has run aground. The cry stampedes around the town of Hartlepool in the North-East of England. With its submerged scaurs and rocks, strewn along the foreshore and inter-tidal areas, as well as the shoals, sandbanks and tempestuous North Sea squalls, shipwrecks were not uncommon in the area. Indeed, 3,000 have been found in the area, dating from the 18th century, a testament both to the area’s many hazards and its position, on one of the major historic shipping routes in Europe.

A ship has run aground, its crew almost certainly doomed — but to the people of Hartlepool, it is they who are the threat. The ship is French, and we are at the height of the Napoleonic Wars. Since the Revolution, fear of the French had stalked the English mind. Tales spread by refugees of the guillotine’s unquenchable thirst for necks, deep suspicion of Catholicism and repeated conflicts. All had helped plant the seeds of terror into the deep, fertile soil of Anglo-French prejudice and rivalry. To the people of Hartlepool, the sailors on-board the failing vessel were not be pitied.

As they ran down to the shore, the mob were spurred on by thoughts of Napoleon’s million strong, ‘Army of England’. Many would have been recruited to their local volunteer forces, which had been mustered to face the threat of this invasion. Imagine their surprise, however, when on the beach they found what appeared to be a particularly hairy, squat man in French military outfit, dragging himself onto the shore. As they called to him, he shrieked back in a gibbering, foreign tongue that non could understand. French, presumably. An impromptu trial was held and the ‘Frenchman’ was found guilty of espionage and hung that same day.

It was only later, that the the shocking truth had been discovered — this was no French sailor. The people of Hartlepool had executed a chimp.

A 19th Century Image of the Scene

At least, this is how the story goes. It is one of those stories of the past that raises more questions than answers, questions I asked of my Dad, a man of the North-East himself, when he first told me the story. Questions like, “How stupid do you think I am? How could they not tell the difference between the French language and Chimp? You really expect me to believe this?’ One cry of, “Google it!” later, and there I was, learning that to this day, the people of Hartlepool refer to themselves, with tongue no doubt buried in their cheeks, as Monkey Hangers. There is even a statue there commemorating the event.

We must, however, never let a good story get in the way of the facts. The explanation most frequently given for their actions, was that they had never seen a Frenchman before and assumed they must all look like monkeys. Common sense, however, denies us this option. Hartlepool, whilst not the major port of today, was, as we have previously seen, sat in the middle of one of the most busy trading seas in Europe — the North Sea. Whilst they may never have seen a French soldier, it is fair to assume that they had encountered foreign sailors, who must have looked, at the very least, recognisably human. There is a more plausible version of events, but is far more sinister. More sinister even than extreme animal cruelty. The young boys who lived on warships and primed the cannon with gun-powder were referred to as ‘Powder-Monkeys.’ It was not a monkey that had been hung that day, but a young, French ‘Powder-Monkey’- a boy. Patriotic, yet parochial animal cruelty; or a town willing to commit infanticide. Which reputation would you prefer?

Whether a monkey or a child was hung that day, the conclusions must remain the same. A people, living in fear of a distant, foreign and demonised threat, had finally come face to face with the enemy. The French threat was real, proven and hung over the nation like a fog. Napoleon’s position as a great conqueror had clearly been borne out by the facts of his military successes and his reputation as a barbarous, foreign tyrant was being spread through the nation by a scared, propagandising media.

To the people of Hartlepool, the chance to protect their families, indeed their nation, against a foreign spy, was justification enough for their actions. The monkey had to swing.

‘Plandemic’ — Sheriff Woody

It was 2nd April 2020. Hollywood actor, Woody Harrelson was suddenly just like every other human on Earth. Confused, scared and on social media. It had been just over a week since the the governor of his home state, California, had issued stay at home orders, due to the then little understand, novel coronavirus that was sweeping the globe.

Woody’s friend, Camilla, had just sent him an article. He scanned it, heartbeat increasing, eyes widening by the second. He hadn’t had a chance to fully vet the information yet, but it seemed interesting. At the very least, it seemed to explain the inexplicable events that had just rocked his world. This coronavirus was not just a random mutation, or a mistaken lab release, or just one of the many pandemics that have happened with great regularity throughout human history. It was caused by the installation of 5G towers. Maybe they weakened the immune system. Some said they even caused mutations which developed into anew disease — COVID 19. Surely the people installing these things new this?

It was a plot. There was someone to blame. If there was someone to blame then, as in his magician-cum-heist thriller, ‘Now You See Me 2’, maybe, just maybe, he could stop the shadowy conspiracy and save the world. He had to let the people know. He took a screenshot and posted the article to Instagram. He also posted a video, purportedly showing residents of Wuhan tearing their newly installed, 5G towers down. Only now he was being called a fantasist, a conspiracy theorist. Some pointed out the video was actually from riots in Hong Kong, and that the 5G towers were in fact CCTV cameras. His agent was on the phone, demanding he delete the posts. This hadn’t happened in ‘Now You See Me 2.’ What had gone wrong?

Woody was not alone. Between 27th March and 4th April, 10,140 tweets, composed of 1,938 mentions, 4,003 retweets, 759 mentions in retweets, 1,110 replies, and 2,328 individual tweets were sent. And these were just the tweets which contained the hashtag ‘5GCoronavirus.’

These conspiracies had deep historical roots, stretching back to the ‘radiophobia’ of 1903. These same scares had been seen through the introduction of cell-phones, wifi and 4G. They had not, however made the jump to real world action. Bands of scared conspiracy theorists had not charged through homes, burning people’s wifi routers.

That had changed however, by early April. Across the UK, upwards of 70 cell towers were attacked, with many set alight, as if they were roosters found guilty of witchcraft. In many instances, these phone masts were not even 5G enabled. In one case, an engineer was stabbed, simply for carrying out routine repairs.

Why? What made the 5G threat different to the previous technophobic conspiracies? It is clear — the previous technologies had not been released during the onset of a new and barely understood pandemic. Pseudo-science, unjustifiable leaps of logic and terror inspired rationalisation spread, this time not through a 15th Century Swiss farming community, or the small town of Hartlepool, but across the entire globe on the internet. In their desire to take back control from an indefinable, yet clearly existential threat, the mobs of vigilantes had taken action in an attempt to save themselves, their children and their nations.

In the End…

These stories contain acts which in isolation would look ridiculous. Whether putting a chicken on trial for witchcraft, hanging a monkey to death for espionage or burning a telecommunications tower to stop the spread of a respiratory disease. None seem rational. If any of the people involved had been told that they would have been doing these things just a few years before they happened, how many would have believed you? Yet when we are scared for our lives, it seems we will do anything to place the threat under our control. Since these threats are often, and indeed, increasingly, international or global, they are inherently outside of our sphere of influence. This leads us to seize upon what is inside our control, whether a hermaphroditic chicken, a shipwrecked chimp or a phone tower and use it subconsciously as our scapegoat, however tangentially linked it may be to the real danger.

It is ironic that, in their desire to control events, the people in these stories lost control of their senses. It is something we are all guilty of. I religiously read the news, even though it unfolds like a soap opera in the palm of my hands. Reading yet another article, even though I will have no influence on the events.

Maybe it is restarting a failed diet to master our cravings, or labouring our way to a promotion, in the hope we will finally exert control over our own small fiefdoms. What is the washed-up monkey in your life? Do you need to hang it? Or by showing mercy, could you start to take back control of yourself and your senses?

Further Reading

http://www.thisishartlepool.co.uk/history/thehartlepoolmonkey.asp

https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/the-impact-of-the-napoleonic-wars-in-britain#

https://www.historyextra.com/period/georgian/the-year-when-fear-of-napoleon-stalked-the-land/

https://historyofyesterday.com/rooster-found-guilty-of-witchcraft-75751f037fe9

https://theconversation.com/four-experts-investigate-how-the-5g-coronavirus-conspiracy-theory-began-139137

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The Past in the Present
The History Inquiry

Using the past to illuminate the present. Written by a UK based educator with a Masters in Ancient History and History and too little spare time.