The Interesting (and eccentrically-bizarre) Life of Charles Waterton

The eccentric Charles Waterton,
("The man who improved on nature")

Pope Pius VII was extremely annoyed. Some young mischievous Englishman had climbed St. Peter's in Rome and left his gloves on top of the lightning conductor. They must be removed at once. But who would dare to carry out His Holiness' wishes? Sadly, only that same young man had the courage. So Charles Waterton, a good Roman Catholic, penitently reclimbed St. Peter's and brought down his own gloves.

That, ladies and gents, was in 1817 when Mr. Waterton was 25 years of age, and this was the first time he caught the public eye. He then went traveling in the West Indies and North and South America, observing wildlife, collecting birds, and eventually writing a bestselling book on his travels in Latin America and the natural history of the region, on which he became the acknowledged expert. Again, he showed his physical courage. In South America, Mr. Waterton caught an alligator by riding on its back and seizing its front legs. Helpless in this judo-hold, the animal was dragged ashore. Later he cut its throat and skinned it.

On one of his expeditions, as an experiment he tried to get a vampire bat to bite his big toe by sleeping with his foot dangling out of his hammock. However, the bat then ignored him, choosing instead to bit his native servant. When he returned home to Yorkshire, he built a 9-foot-high wall encircling 3 miles of his estate, making it one of the world's first wildlife sanctuaries.

His interests as a naturalist had made him an accomplished taxidermist, and he built up a whole museum of stuffed birds and animals. But, of course, he was not content with animals as nature had created them. He took different parts of birds and animals and amalgamated them into his own monsters. In the case of his celebrated Nondescript, he contorted the face of a red howler monkey, convincing many people that he had stuffed a human head (see image below). To many of these homemade monsters he gave the names of some well-known Protestant personalities. But, this was not his only eccentricity: -- One of his favorite pranks was to hide under a hall table until a guest had put down his coat, in which he then leaped out to bite the astonished visitor.

After the death of his wife, he slept on the bare floor with a block of wood for a pillow. He rose at 3am on each day and spent the time before breakfast at 8am reading and praying. Then he would spent the rest of the day studying wildlife. When he was over 80 (he lived to the age of 83) he would shin up trees to examine birds' nests. He scrambled up "like an adolescent gorilla," according to a contemporary.

One of the eccentric squire's projects was the construction of a flying machine. It took a great deal of persuasion by his friends and servants before gave up the idea of testing the machine by leaping from an outhouse roof. It was this kind of unusual activity that brought about his death in 1865 when he fell while carrying a huge log, dying of his injuries 10 days later. He was buried with great ceremony, and a fleet of funeral boats escorted his body across the lake on his estate.

Thanks to Charles Waterton, wildlife preservation societies are going strong today. I've also come to the realization that I would love to someday make Charles Waterton's life-story into a film.

Charles Waterton's famous Nondescript.

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