Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Wilds of London, by James Greenwood, 1874 - The Mysterious "Pell's Owl"

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THE MYSTERIOUS "PELL'S OWL."

LATELY there died on the premises of the Royal Zoological Society, in the Regent's Park, the great Pell's owl, deeply regretted by all who knew him and enjoyed the advantages of his amiable and beneficent society. Requiescat in pace.
  
Hush laugh not - smile not, dear reader ; this is no joke, but a grave fact, and one that should be recognized as such.
    What the death of an owl a grave fact! a common, stupid owl! preposterous. Once more, gentle reader, hush, for goodness sake. Tis true that the Pell's owl is defunct - that his carcass has passed into the hands of the stuffer, and passed out of them again ; that eyes of glass supplant those living orbs so dreadful to contemplate; that the skull wherein once throbbed that mysteriously brooding brain is now empty ; that innocent tow fills out the feathery shape from head to tail; still who knows? Ah ! who knows? Even as I write the ghost of the Pell's owl may be fluttering on the top rail of my chair, and peeping over my shoulder to read what it is that I dare to say about him.
    First of all, I must say this much, that there never is a greater mistake made than when the great Pell's owl is styled a mere owl - a common owl. Did he look like a common owl? I appeal to any lady or gentleman who ever saw him while alive, did he? No, he did not. He looked exactly what he was, and [-232-]what he proved himself to be, to the society's cost and confusion, a Fetish bird.
    I am not a superstitious man, and what I just now said as to the probability of the ghost of Pell's owl peeping over my shoulder was all nonsense, of course still as a mere matter of delicacy and politeness towards a creature against whose character nothing has been positively and absolutely proved. I hesitate to render into English what is our equivalent for the word Fetish. Let it suffice that our equivalent for the word is not "heavenly." He is dead and gone now, poor fellow, but it must be admitted that he never was regarded as an angel - of the upper regions, that is to say.
    It was very wrong from the first to meddle with him ; a foolhardly, daredev-  I should say, daring business, and if mischief came of it, as unquestionably it did, the meddlers had no one but themselves to blame. They should have listened to what the natives of the owl's country had to say on the subject. Who should know so much concerning Fetish as the Fetish worshipper ?
    It was not as though the peculiarities of this particular owl were not sufficiently understood. Everybody, even to the lisping savage of half a dozen summers, could have enlightened the inquirer as to the terrible mystery that attached to the strange bird. Throughout the length and breadth of its native land it is looked on as the epitome of bad luck - in all respects save one - and, under ordinary circumstances, it is regarded as a dire misfortune to catch sight of one of these owls roosting or flying, and if a native found one perched on the thatch of his but, he would promptly turn out, though he and his family slept on the grass. As for housing one of the mystic things, a native would as soon thing of harbouring a lioness. There is blight in its breath, and death and destruction lurks in the glances of its eyes. It is good for nothing as a captive - but one thing, as above hinted.
  
[-233-] This is what it is good for it confers on its possessor the power of subduing womankind. No matter how proud and haughty the damsel, or how low and insignificant the suitor, she is lost, provided he has the courage to trap and cage a Fetish owl. If he be ugly as sin, and she the pearl of her tribe, that will not save her ; with his owl captive he has but to beckon with his finger, and she will instantly respond, or find some cunning means of doing so presently, should the males of her kin for the time hold her back. Of course this is very terrible. As, for instance, the reader has possibly observed in his walks about London a lantern-jawed, ragged, squint-eyed wretch, who exhibits three owls nestled in a basket, and on the strength of the interesting spectacle, solicits halfpence. Well, just suppose for a moment that these owls were not of the common sort, but Fetish, and gave to that young man power to win the heart of any lady on whom he preferred to squint. Just imagine the consternation there would be, if, one day in Regent Street or Pall Mall, was presented the strange sight of a young Mayfair beauty drawn out of her brougham by the fascination of the young fellow with the three owls, and following him, despite all that could be urged to the contrary, towards St. Martin's church, and down Long Acre, to his home in Seven Dials!
    This being the nature of the Fetish, and as revealed by the natives to certain African explorers, nothing would do but that a specimen of this most curious of the Strigidoe family must be trapped and carried to England alive. "Why not? Fetish was nothing but heathen bosh. How could it affect men, white, civilized, and educated? Ha! ha! The idea was absurd!" And so they secured a Fetish owl and brought it home with them. I fancy I see that sage and mysterious bird wagging its head, and winking one of its round eyes, as, confident of their impregnability to Fetish. the knowing ones packed him in a basket and sent him aboard ship!
    It is not recorded that anything very serious occurred on [-234-] board the vessel that brought the Fetish owl over still, it does not follow that nothing uncommon did occur at that time the owl's dire influence was not even suspected. It was not until the Fetish owl reached this country that he commenced the exercise of his peculiar talent, and to make for himself a reputation. He was presented to A, who speedily discovered his true character, and kindly transferred him to B, who shortly afterwards made him over to C, who, with difficulty disguising his fright, blandly presented the rare bird to the Royal Zoological Society.
    Alas, woful was the day when the great Pell's owl entered in at that menagerie gate! Could the creatures there assembled have known who and what it was that was approaching to settle amongst them, such a chorus of roars and howls and shrieks would have greeted him as might have warned the custodians of the Pell's owl of the rash thing they were doing. But, to be sure, it was too much to expect from dumb brutes a display of sense superior to that exhibited by their biped keepers; and in the Fetish owl was carried and duly installed.
    Then began the mischief. Within a month it was observed that animals attached to the society's collection, and previously hale and hearty, began to pine and sicken. Those even of most frolicsome disposition were not exempt from the mysterious blight, and it was remarked amongst the visitors that all the curl had gone from the opossum's tail, and that the countenance of the azure-faced baboon was bluer and longer than ever. Then a few deaths occurred, of minor importance, certainly, but under such extraordinary circumstances as should have alarmed the directors as to the future. But they would pay no attention to the mild warning. The animals had died from natural causes, there could be no doubt of that. The great owl was in no way responsible for the strange mortality. Pshaw! could anything be more ridiculous? "Hoo! Hoo-o! hooted the African Fetish that same night; " Hoo ! Hoo-o! here's [-235-]  sport! my masters these fellows call themselves! I have but one master, and he doesn't live here, but I'll do my duty by him " And next morning it was discovered that the big polar bear was ill, and was not likely to live five hours longer.
    The bear died, and a post-mortem examination revealed the existence of several little iron hooks attached to a piece of cloth bedded in its maw, and the authorities gravely gave out that this was the cause of the creature's death. Doubtless it was so, but who caused the hooks to be administered to the sea-bear ? Was it the work of Fetish ? Go, if you dare, and look the great owl in the face, and ask him the question.
    After the sea-bear's demise the creatures one and all, furred as well as feathered, and even those that were scaled and lived in thin glass tanks in the serpent-rooms, grew ailing, and drooped day by day. The hyena moped and loathed his meat, and could not be wrought beyond a sardonic grin, poke him up as the keeper might. The wolves shed their coat and became lamb-like, the brown bears of the pit did nothing but whimper and wring their paws dolefully, the lions and tigers languished and shuddered visibly if the least bit of fat was offered them at dinner-time, and the elephant seemed to be attacked by a sort of mildew that caused the hair to rub off easily from his skin, leaving him bald and mangy-looking. At the end of each month quite a large sum had to be handed to the man who at dusk of evening came with his cart to remove the dead. Meanwhile one creature remained bright as a daisy, and grew daily sleeker and brighter-eyed and jolly-looking. It was the Fetish owl.
    It was very extraordinary, everybody said - of course there was nothing in it, how was it possible ? Still it was a strange coincidence that heathen superstitions should be so heavily backed by downright fact. So strange was it that a certain artist suggested to the manager of a certain highly popular illustrated journal that it might be interesting to the public if [-236-] a portrait and a brief sketch of the career and peculiar attributes of the Fetish owl were published but the proprietor sensibly declined, shrewdly remarking that it was impossible to say how superstitious the bulk of his patrons were, and he did not think that it would be worth while. And this is quite true, and pleased indeed am I to be able thus publicly to compliment the gentleman in question on the soundness and breadth of his views on such a subject.
    If matters had continued so, there can be but little doubt that in twelve months the Pell's owl would have polished off every bird and beast in the place, but somehow (I say somehow, as undoubtedly it must have been-I make no insinuation) somehow the Fetish owl himself took ill and died. A day or so previous the dromedary, under the bird's evil influence, gave tip the ghost ; and it may have happened that grief for that worthy animal's death overwhelmed the attendants, and they were betrayed into neglecting the prime prize and pet of the gardens-the Pell's owl. Perhaps, blinded by his tears, some faithful feeder could not for the moment discriminate between substances pernicious and those that were wholesome, and the great owl's death was the result of accident.
    Anyway, die it did, and "strangely enough," as say the wilfully blind and unbelieving; but as a matter of course, as must be plainly apparent to folks of common sense, as soon as the breath had left the Fetish owl's body, the whole collection of birds, beasts, and fish began instantly to revive, and by this time their health is completely restored.
    I have an idea that the next Pell's owl offered to the Royal Zoological society will be declined.

    P.S. Now, is it not strange that what I hinted at the beginning of this paper as to the Possibility of "Fetish" still lingering about die owls carcass, should have become verified? I mentioned that the creature was entrusted for preservation to [-237-] the gentleman who usually undertakes the bird-stuffing of the establishment I am credibly informed that from the time of the dead Pell's owl's reception to that of its completion and packing off, other business was absolutely at a standstill on his premises - not a single customer presenting himself, but that immediately on the creature's departure the old and satisfactory condition of affairs was at once restored.

source: James Greenwood, The Wilds of London, 1874