“Transmigration is held to be very marvelous”, reports H. L. Stephens in The Comic Natural History of the Human Race. And while these “kaleideiscopical” experiences are often attributed to “Hindoos, and other far-off outsiders”, he sets out to prove that metempsychosis can occur closer to home in Philadelphia. Lampooning well-known local and national personalities of the mid-nineteenth century, Stephens and the lithographer Max Rosenthal transformed them into exotic hybrid caricatures: forty human heads mounted on bugs, fish, and bats.
Thomas Birch Florence, a Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania, becomes The Florence Humming Bird (Trochilus politicus). Thanks to its popular vocalizations, the bird favors “the stump” as a habitat. Francis Martin Drexel — artist, banker, and father of the founder of Drexel University — reincarnates as a Gold Fish. You can find this species about the “shallow waters” of Wall Street: “we have caught him for you; now stare at him as you please—done in gold, gone, changed, transmuted perfectly, he did it himself—gold, gold—now he has turned into gold: stare at him.” The circus tycoon P. T. Barnum, self-proclaimed “Prince of Humbugs”, metamorphoses into a kind of Kafkaesque freakshow: his head growing out of a carapace with six candlewick legs. Here the Comic Natural History’s technique itself becomes a spoof of Barnum, whose fame was partially owed to his “Fee-jee Mermaid” — a hoax and monstrous cut-up of baboon, orangutan, and piscine parts.
While many creatures in this comic bestiary represent specific people, others appear to satirize broader nineteenth-century types. The authors claim that Audubon, for instance, overlooked the Jail Bird, a trickster that is “often taken by hand to be confined in a cage, under the vain hope that it may learn to change its tune”. In the wild, the bird can be found near a fence with shiny things in its beak. Jail Birds are often caught by the Stool Pigeon, who is “a spy of the police”, eavesdropping at “ins and outs, ups and downs, churchs, court houses, play houses, poor houses, jail houses, hot houses, beer houses, hose houses, &c. &c.”
The bird must be able to get on each particular “lay,” know all the “stalls”—be up to any “dodge,” ready for every “double,” apt at a “spot,” and “leary” at a “pull,” “shady” at a “blow,” and unerring at a “pipe,” “down upon a “plant,” certain as to the “swag,” know a “Thimble” from a “Peter” or “dummy,” and the “kickes clye” from the “pit,” and take a “tip” when “all’s right,” not always “lagg,” the crossman or put him in “quay.” Now a man to do all this must be “a bird.”
One of the most popular American comic illustrators in this period, when the genre was still emerging, Stephens published this volume in parts before assembling the lithographs as the book featured above. Additional humorists may have been involved with the text, as the index credits W. A. Stephens, Cornelius Matthews, Richard Vaux, and Thomas McKeon. Other supposed contributors were more likely H. L. Stephens himself, writing under pseudonyms such as “Ali Baba the Woodcutter”. The entries signed “C.” were the work of an actual ornithologist, John Cassin, who served as Vice President of the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences and died from arsenic poisoning after mishandling corpses. He wrote to Spencer F. Baird, the Smithsonian Institute’s first curator, in 1851 to advertise his comic endeavor: “Stephens and I are very busy getting up a lot of the greatest nonsense you ever saw.”
And there is, indeed, a great deal of nonsense. But the images themselves make use of a familiar set of sensical conventions. Imagining human heads on the bodies of animals has a long history: manticores and Zakariya al-Qazwini’s thirteenth-century hybrids are just a few of many precedents. Stephens’ illustrations rely upon a kind of correspondence between the qualities of individuals and their mirrors in the animal world — thus utilizing a logic closer to what’s at play in medieval bestiaries and antiquarian works of natural history than the pure imagination exhibited in, say, Edward Lear’s nonsense botany. In contrast to these images, the Comic Natural History’s prose is, at times, wonderfully innovative and seemingly outside of an obvious tradition. During a section on “The Little Dear”, an elkish satyr wearing tear-drop earrings and a crucifix, for example, our narrator gets lost in echolalia:
My dear is apt to become an abstraction; or like many titles, duke, baron, and others, signifying nothing, or only something that has been. So changeable is language. . . . The children are mamma’s dears, the young ladies are pretty dears,—and the ladies that are married are very distinctly their husbands dears, and those that are not married are quite as distinctly their own dears; and all of us have found out,—or if we have not, we will find out that many a thing in this world is by far too dear, and so —— Oh dear!—we are quite exhausted—that’s all.
North American natural history was, from some of its earliest incarnations, as much concerned with questions of national identity as it was attentive to the characteristics of flora and fauna on this newly colonized continent. Stephens’ comic natural history is no exception in the former regard. And perhaps that helps explain what is going on with all these “dears” and the cant of the Stool Pigeon above. Referencing great works of European and classical natural history throughout the book, Stephens and his contributors seek to assemble something homegrown and uniquely Philadelphian: “We have made the first effort in a species of Comic Literature, hitherto unknown in our city.” This new kind of comic literature requires a new idiom, the kind employed and referenced throughout the Comic Natural History. Americans have “a peculiarity of diction, as well in language, as in poetry and idiom and phrase, unlike the rest of mankind”, for the English language has been “outrageously corrupted” in the United States, creating “a new, or unknown tongue”. Embracing this unknown tongue, The Comic Natural History helped establish a habitat in which later species of American political cartoons could flourish.
Jun 20, 2023