Saturday, July 14, 2012

Hey, did I sign on to a natural history museum or the BPRD?!

So, a little background on my museum work.  I'm being employed to help unearth, organize, and archive any information on a specific donor to the museum and his contributions to the collections.  Said donor's name is Daniel Hector Talbot.  And, not to put too fine a point on it, but the man was totally out of his mind.  In the best, most fascinating way possible.

Talbot was born in 1850, and while still in his childhood he decided that he wanted to be a doctor (not to cure anyone, mind you, simply for the knowledge that he could apply to scientific pursuits.  Translation:  He wanted to take things [read, people/animals] apart and see how they worked).  His father, however, fast tracked him into the family brick making business (which was probably just as boring as it sounds).  Talbot weaseled his way out of that job pretty quickly, it seems, because the next references one sees of him relate to him becoming a lawyer of sorts (where did this law degree come from?  No clue.)

Now at the same time that Talbot had moved into the law business, (1870 or so), soldiers returning from the Civil War were being given, as payment for their service, plots of land and 'scrips', papers which indicated that they owned said plots of land.  Said scrips/land were not to be sold or traded, but Talbot, being the clever and resourceful (amoral?) man that he was, dug out a loophole in the legalese which allowed land scrips to be bought, sold, and traded.  With this to his advantage, Talbot proceeded to amass quite the fortune.  Now wealthy, he proceeded to use his questionably gotten gains to finance all his stifled scientific dreams.  He went on umpteen collecting trips, from Labrador (in Canada), to Mexico (he went through Texas in the process, and can be credited with making some of the first jokes about the state), during which he engaged in the Victorian naturalist's passion of 'if it looks interesting, kill it, take it apart, and preserve it in formaldehyde/stuff it and mount it'.  In reading his journals one can find accounts of days where he and his team shot some forty birds (each!), and were still complaining that they weren't able to get more.  It's astonishing anything was left once Talbot moved on.  He also went to various scientific conventions in Iowa and elsewhere, which results in him essentially photobombing (newspaperbombing?) several important historical events, including the eclipse of 1878, where he rubbed elbows with Thomas Edison.

When he wasn't galivanting around the country doing his best to make things go extinct, however, Talbot largely seemed determined to become the genetic equivalent of Dr. Frankenstein.  He set up an experimental farm outside of Sioux City, where he proceeded to tinker with nature in some very strange ways.  Specifically, be began various breeding experiments.  Some of these actually made sense, such as his managing to develop a breed of 'mule footed' or solid hooved pigs, to combat the fact that pigs with cloven feet were falling ill and dying at the time.  Others, however, were pretty much the stuff of nightmares, such as genetic crosses between bison and zebras or bisons and regular cows, resulting in offspring so big that the mother had to be killed so the calf/foal/unholy abomination could be delivered.  Apparently there is one such mutant offspring stuffed and mounted floating around in Iowa somewhere, though I can't say that I really want to see it. 

But all did not stay champagne and caviar (and genetic anomalies) for Talbot.  In the bank panic of 1893, his bank recalled the loan he had taken out, rendering Talbot abruptly bankrupt with virtually all his possessions to be delivered to the bank.  Several years prior to this event, however, Talbot had bequeathed the whole of his collection and enormous library to the Iowa City University, to be delivered after his death, and this fact caused a legal battle of epic proportions as to who had the rights to the specimens, weird animals, and latin editions of the Necronomicon (I'm kidding about the last one.  Maybe.)  The University ultimately recieved the items, and Talbot slunk into the shadows, dying destitute in a shack in 1911 (he did make a valiant effort to sue the bank and regain at least some money, but this flopped.)

Then, as if this all wasn't dramatic enough, in 1897, three years after his library was absorbed by the university, the library where the books were stored caught fire (in the middle of a convention for firemen, proving that fate has a nasty sense of humor).  Of the multitude of volumes that were lost, Talbot's were some of the few to survive.  In point of fact, the book cases containing said books were the only parts of the library still standing.  (Cue Twilight Zone theme at this point.)

And this is the man who it is my job to research.  Every day reveals some new quirk or questionable behavior on Talbot's part, and every day I feel more like some kind of weird detective *cough* Hellboy *cough*.  I'm just waiting for a contract with Mephistopheles or a book written in some eldritch Elder Tongue to fall on my head.  And even if neither of those appear, there's never a dull moment in the company of Daniel Hector Talbot, the man who proves that truth really is stranger than fiction.

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