“Random encounters with the unusual” is a repository for the oddities that me and Mrs J have encountered on our travels, which we find interesting or amusing in some way. Have a look, maybe you will find something interesting or amusing herein.

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Napoleon’s Penis and the most (Un) Haunted House in London

During a recent visit to London I happened across Berkeley Square in Mayfair, which during the Victorian era was believed to be home to the most haunted house in London. The property with this spooky reputation is 50 Berkeley Square. 50 Berkeley Square is a four storey town house that was built in the mid 1700s and over the years was home to a number of occupants, including one British Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister in question was The Right Honourable George Canning, who took up office on the 10th April 1827 but popped his clogs after only 4 months in office on the 8th August 1827. This untimely death means that Canning currently holds the record as Britain's shortest ever serving Prime Minister. Canning was the first person to apparently report any ghostly happenings at 50 Berkeley Square. It is said that during his time in residence that he experienced strange noises and psychic phenomena.

The most commonly told form of the ghostly legend associated with the house revolves around its attic room. Different versions of the legend state that a person (sometimes a young woman, sometimes a young man) met a tragic end (sometimes suicide, sometimes abuse) in the attic room and that they now haunt the property in the form of a brown mist or sometimes a white figure. In the legend, the ghost of 50 Berkeley Square is reported to be so terrifying that it resulted in the death of at least two people during the late 1800s, people who were brazen and foolish enough to try to spend a night in the property. One of the victims apparently died of fright, the other apparently died from a fall when trying to escape the property after seeing the terrifying ghost.

In 1937 the antiquarian book dealers Maggs Bros became the owners and residents of this notorious London address. Maggs Bros (established in 1853) is one of the longest-established antiquarian booksellers in the world, and they have made some interesting transactions over the years. The firm's record purchase occurred in 1998 when they bought a copy of the first book printed in England, William Caxton’s The Canterbury Tales, for a whooping £4,200,000. Their most notorious purchase probably occurred in 1916, when Maggs Bros bought the penis of Napoleon Bonaparte! The penis was apparently purchased from the descendants of a person who had performed Napoleon’s last rites, and had taken the opportunity to pilfer his penis. Maggs Bros sold the penis on in 1924, undoubtedly for a tidy profit.

Maggs Bros continued to operate from 50 Berkeley Square until last year (2015), when they decided to relocate their business to 46 Curzon Street. As you can see in the pictures below, when I passed the building the removals people where in attendance. During their 78 years of residency in the property Maggs Bros never had any cause to report any unusual phenomenon in the house. So this begs the question, was the house really haunted or did the ghostly presence become silent sometime before 1937?

In his article “The Most Haunted House in London” in Fortean Times Issue 335, Jan Bondeson argues the former, that this house may have never been haunted at all. Jan suggests that the house’s spooky reputation may have begun when the house was owned by the eccentric Thomas Myers Jr. Myers possibly owned the house from as early as 1859 until his death in 1874, and during his tenure it is said that he mostly lived in a single room and let the rest of the house fall into disrepair. This dilapidation of a once prestigious house led to it having the reputation as the spooky house in an otherwise respectable square. The rundown and spooky state of the house may have been all the inspiration needed for over eager ghost hunters in the early 1900s to readily declare the house haunted, possibly repeating existing tales or perhaps creating their own as they saw fit; tales that have become repeated over time until they become well known "facts".

Or perhaps the house is haunted and Maggs Bros just did not declare any strange occurrences? I guess we will have to wait and see if the new owners report any odd goings on!

50 Berkeley Square and the removals men.

A blue plaque commemorating George Canning's residency at the property.

Pictures: London (February 2015).

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Saturday, 13 February 2016

Seville Oddities

In two of my previous blog posts I have shared some of the interesting sights and unusual history that the city of Seville has to offer. There is the derelict remains of a 1992 vision of the future, and the tale of the Mummy of the Golden Tower.

To finish my tour of Seville here are some more of the interesting and unusual sights that can be found in the city.

Seville Cathedral - 16th Century Graffiti

On the outside wall of the cathedral, examples of Latin graffiti can be found - which looks far more stylish than its modern counterparts. The graffiti is believed to date from the 16th century and one theory is that it was written by priests in waiting, who would write on the cathedral walls once they completed their studies to become a priest. Ultimately however, nobody is really sure who is responsible for the graffiti!

Seville Cathedral - The Tomb of Christopher Columbus

One of the main attractions of the cathedral is the spectacular tomb of the famous Italian explorer Christopher Columbus. On behalf of the Spanish Monarchy, Columbus completed four voyages across the Atlantic Ocean, landing in the New World (the Bahamas) by accident in 1492 - he had been trying to find Japan. Columbus' "discovery" of the New World and his attempts to establish a permanent colony started the Spanish push to claim the Americas for the Spanish Crown, a period of colonisation which continued for around three centuries.

As every one knows, Christopher Columbus was the first European explorer to discover the Americas, well except for the Icelandic explorer Leif Ericson (970 AD - 1020 AD) who probably landed in Canada in the 11th century.

One of Columbus' other dubious achievements was that he was an early entrepreneur who spearheaded the development of the transatlantic slave trade, a diabolical practice that continued well into the 19th century.

Seville Cathedral - The Wooden Crocodile

Also inside the Cathedral those that look up may see a wooden crocodile, an elephant's tusk and what appears to be a horse's bit hanging from the ceiling.

It is said that in 1260 in an attempt to win the hand in marriage of King Alfonso X's daughter that the Sultan of Egypt showered Alfonso with a number of exotic gifts. The gifts include a crocodile, an elephant and a tame giraffe. The Sultan failed in his attempts to marry Alfonso's daughter and Alfonso was left lumbered with some rather large pets.

Apparently the animals lived out their lives in the gardens of the Royal Palace (the Alcázar) and when the crocodile died it was stuffed and put on display. The crocodile did eventually rot and so it was replaced by a wooden replica, which can be seen today. The elephant's tusk hanging from the roof of the cathedral is all that remains of the elephant, and the horse's bit was supposedly used on the giraffe and is all that remains in tribute to the giraffe.

Seville Cathedral seen from a distance.

16th century graffiti on the outside of Seville Cathedral.

The tomb of Christopher Columbus.

The wooden crocodile.

The crocodile, the elephant tusk and the giraffe's bit. 

The Purgatory Tiles

On Calle de Doña María Coronel there is a Catholic Gothic church which dates from the 1300s. This is the Church of San Pedro, and on its outer wall there is a tiled scene depicting a number of naked people surrounded by flames. These people are apparently in purgatory, waiting for their opportunity to get into heaven. Even though the flames are licking high up their bodies, the artist depicted the people as not really suffering as a result of their experience - so perhaps purgatory is not really that bad?

A legend associated with these tiles is centered around a little bird, and like most legends, is a bit silly and without any clear provenance. The artist who created the tiles painted a small bird into the scene and apparently those who spot the bird will soon get married. The bird is fairly easy to spot, if you think "outside the box".

The church of San Pedro.

The purgatory tiles.

The Missing Pissers

The "Source of Sevilla" is the name of the fountain dedicated to the city of Seville, which is located in the plaza where the Jerez Door once stood (Puerta de Jerez).

The fountain was created in 1929 by the artist Manuel Delgado Brackembury and consists of a woman sitting atop a couple of fish like creatures, which are atop some large lotus leaves, which are supported by naked children, who are in turn riding on the back of turtles (a bit Disc World?). Around the perimeter of the fountain once stood four more free standing sculptures of children. These children once held shells which gushed water, leading to them being know as "pissers".

The fountain was removed from the plaza between 1974 to 1983 whilst the city's Metro was being installed and when it was replaced, the four pissers were not returned to the fountain. It seems that during the nine years that the fountain was in storage that the pissers had disappeared. To this day, nobody seems to know the fate of the missing pissers. Perhaps they were destroyed or perhaps they were pilfered and now adorn the garden of some wealthy person?

The "Source of Sevilla".

Pictures: Seville, Spain (November 2014).

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