The Silver Swan is a Marvel of 18th-Century Clockwork Automata

The 250-year-old automaton swan made of silver and clockwork gears plays music, moves its head, preens, and eats a fish.
Silver Swan automaton on display at The Bowes Museum
The Silver Swan automaton on display at The Bowes Museum

The Bowes Museum in England is home to an incredible feat of craftsmanship from the Georgian era – a life size, clockwork-driven mechanism that has been mesmerizing crowds since its creation in 1773. Built by London inventors and horologists John Joseph Merlin (creator of the rollerskate) and James Cox, the Silver Swan is a automaton that mimics the movements of a real swan in a stream. When wound up, music begins to play as the swan swings its head from side to side and seems to preen itself. It then notices silver fish swimming between the spinning glass rods that represent the surface of the water. It bends down to catch one, and then returns to its upright position as the 32-second performance comes to an end.

The Silver Swan first garnered attention in Merlin’s Mechanical Museum in 1774. 90 years later it made a splash at the Paris International Exhibition in 1864 where it was being displayed by a jeweler named Harry Emanuel. It was there that John Bowes and his wife Joséphine Chevalier first encountered the swan. They purchased it for £200 in 1872.

Mark Twain was also captivated by the swan while it was on exhibit in Paris, describing the wondrous sight in his 1867 travel book The Innocents Abroad:

“I watched the Silver Swan, which had a living grace about his movement and a living intelligence in his eyes-watched him swimming about as comfortably and unconcernedly as it he had been born in a morass instead of a jeweller’s shop – watched him seize a silver fish from under the water and hold up his head and go through the customary and elaborate motions of swallowing it…”

In a 1773 United Kingdom Act of Parliament, the automaton was described as being 18 feet high. It is believed that a waterfall was originally positioned behind the swan which may have been stolen while it was on tour. In 2008, the swan was subjected to a meticulous public conservation led by specialists Matthew Read and Ken Robinson to dismantle, document, clean and repair the entire mechanism. Their findings suggested that there may be even more lost and forgotten features, such as more fish, ornaments, or flowers that once floated in the stream.

Watch the Silver Swan in Motion

The Silver Swan can typically be seen at The Bowes Museum at Barnard Castle, where it is only operated once a day to preserved the internal mechanism. However, for the first time in over 150 years, it will return to London as part of the Robots exhibition at the Science Museum from February 8 to March 23, 2017. It will then return to Barnard Castle in time for the museum’s 125th anniversary celebration in June.

The Sweet Hereafter: Honey from Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery

From the grave to the table, this honey is produced by Green-Wood’s bees and sold exclusively at the cemetery gates.
Green-Wood Cemetery beehives
Beekeeper Davin Larson tends to bees in Green-Wood Cemetery.

Brooklyn’s historic Green-Wood Cemetery is the final resting place of over 560,000 New Yorkers, including famous artists, composers, politicians, and more. According to the website, “Everyone who was anybody in 19th-century New York wanted to be buried there, and they were.”

In the spring of 2015 Green-Wood also became home to several hundred thousand more lively residents: A colony of honey bees. The project was thought up by beekeeper Davin Larson several years ago when, while attending a classical music concert at the cemetery surrounded by graves, crypts, and Gothic revival architecture, he realized it was the perfect place to keep bees in the city.

Green-Wood brought in 15 hives in hopes of combating the recent rise of colony collapse disorder, a crisis believed to be created by a combination of many factors including urbanization, pesticides, antibiotics, and pathogens, that wipes out roughly one third of hives every year. When a colony collapses, the adult worker bees abandon the hive. They vanish, leaving behind the queen, as well as the food supplies, for reasons not yet understood.

Of course, keeping bees has its costs. To fund the project, Larson and the other Green-Wood beekeepers harvested about 200 pounds of honey this year. It was processed, jarred, and labeled with an image of a honey bee on a gravestone.

Jars of The Sweet Hereafter honey from Green-Wood Cemetery
The Sweet Hereafter honey available onsite at Green-Wood Cemetery only. via @historicgreenwood

‘The Sweet Hereafter’ is currently available for purchase exclusively onsite at Green-Wood’s 25th Street Gothic Arch entrance.

Green-Wood Cemetery in fall
Green-Wood Cemetery

Telling the Bees

Throughout history honey bees have been symbolic of human mortality. In mythology, the bee was often a sacred insect that bridged the natural world with the afterlife. Honey bees served as the royal emblem of the Merovingians, symbolizing death and rebirth for the dynasty that ruled France for 300 years.

In Victorian times, the superstition arose that if bees were not informed about the death of their keeper, they might leave or die. Some traditions involved offerings of biscuits from the funeral, decorating the hives in mourning bunting, or turning the hives to face the procession.

For more on the odd folklore of “telling the bees,” watch this installment of Caitlin Doughty’s Ask a Mortician:

Slovakian Brothers Win Title in Central Europe Grave Digging Championship

Grave diggers gathered in Slovakia to compete for the title of fastest grave digger in central Europe.
Grave diggers compete to see who can dig the fastest

Earlier this year professional gravediggers in Hungary gathered to test their skills in the first ever National Grave Digging Championship. The winning pair faced off last week against nine other teams from Poland, Hungary and Slovakia to compete for the title of Central Europe’s fast gravediggers.

With only shovels and picks, each team had to dig a grave to exact specifications (5 feet deep, 6.5 feet long, and 3 feet wide) as quickly and neatly as possible with a 5-member jury judging their work. The champions, brothers from a village in Slovakia with 15 years in the business, dug the winning grave in a mere 54 minutes.

The event took place in the Slovakian city of Trencin as part of the International Exhibition of Funeral, Burial and Cremation Services. In many crowded cemeteries, graves must be dug by hand rain or shine (or snow) because they’re too crowded for machinery. The competition was intended to bring funeral companies together and show people how difficult the job is.

Fastest grave digging competition winners
Winners Ladislav and Csaba Skladan, representing Peter Pastorok’s funeral services in Kalná nad Hronom.

via The Guardian

Beware the Slenderman

Beware the Slenderman

HBO documentary Beware the Slenderman is about two 12-year-old Wisconsin girls who attempted to murder their friend to appease the creepypasta character.

Morbid Curiosities: Book Launch at the Morbid Anatomy Museum

Join author Paul Gambino at the Morbid Anatomy Museum with collectors featured in his new book Morbid Curiosities: Collections of the Uncommon and the Bizarre.
Morbid Curiosities book by Paul Gambino
The collection of Ryan and Regina Cohn featured in Morbid Curiosities.

Date: Monday, November 14th
Time: 7pm
Admission: $5
Location: Morbid Anatomy Museum, 424 Third Avenue, 11215 Brooklyn NY

The Morbid Anatomy Museum is presenting an evening with author Paul Gambino and the collectors featured in his new book Morbid Curiosities, including Calvin Von Crush, Ryan Matthew Cohn, D.L. Marian, Dani Devereux, Daniel Erenberg, and Nathan Roberts.

From the event description:

Hosted by Evan Michelson (who is also featured in the book) the evening would be a dynamic, informative, and entertaining glimpse into the world of serious collecting of the macabre from a diverse group of collectors.

Topics to be introduced and discussed will include the obligatory How did you get started in this niche of collecting? and What was the oddest item you have ever had in your collection or have seen in someone elses collection? to the more sophisticated areas like Have you ever turned down a piece because of moral or ethical reasons? and What have been some of the recent consequences of collectors who sell illegal and/or stolen items online.

Each of the six collectors will bring their own unique spin on a group of collectors who many lay people have painted with a broad brush. In addition to the Roundtable section of the evening, the collectors will also bring three of their favorite pieces to put on display and discuss with the audience.

A collection of wax anatomical models featured in Morbid Curiosities

Morbid Curiosities is featured on the Cult of Weird Fall Reading List.

Buy it on Amazon right here.