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January 09th 2014 print

Geoffrey Luck

The Sheep Are With Us Always

A puckish correspondent and his "frolicsome editor" hoaxed the world some 134 years ago. In these times of climate change and catastropharian prediction it is almost re-assuring to know that the eagerness to be gulled remains undiminished

sheepDecember 2.2013. Cyber Monday in America.

It is the day online retailers post a nationwide sale. The day Amazon flew a kite through television screens across the nation with its proposal for a delivery service to your doorstep by drone. The CBS 60 Minutes item was clearly puffery, but it had the right mix of innovation and fantasy to suspend disbelief. And too few details to betray its utter impracticality. Inevitably in these derivative times, excited comment and speculation immediately flourished around the world.

Here’s a quote from the London Spectator:

“That is a very curious instance of a new form of credulity which is growing up amongst us – a credulity which is not faith, but rather disbelief — so far-reaching that it causes a certain powerlessness of mind, an inability to reject at once and decidedly anything that even puts on the appearance of ‘science.’ “

The editor of the Spectator was moved to scorn, not by the Amazon hoax, but by a much earlier example, absolutely comparable in the tempo of its time. For he was writing in May, 1879, in response to the credulous acceptance of a report published in the Brisbane weekly, The Queenslander, in January that year, and reprinted a few days later in its sister newspaper, the Brisbane Courier. As with the Amazon drone, it spread around the world, only more slowly.

The story recounted that an Italian naturalist, a Signor Rotura, had discovered in South America two substances. The first, when injected into animals, could suspend animation; the second would subsequently restore them to full activity.

In a secret laboratory hidden in Sydney’s Middle Harbour, the process was demonstrated on a pet dog.

“First poisoned by some liquid resembling strychnine in its outer effects ; the body, quite rigid and cold, showing for a day and night all the usual symptoms of death. Then another liquid was injected under the skin ; the body was placed in a warm bath, and the ‘dead’ came to life….the dog first showed the return of life in the eye, and after five and a half minutes he drew a first long breath, and the rigidity left his limbs. In a few minutes more he commenced gently wagging his tail, and then slowly got up, stretched himself, and trotted off as though nothing had happened.”

When the report went on to detail the success of more extensive experimentation with farm animals, imagination ran wild on the implications for Queensland’s export trade.  The first attempt to ship frozen meat from Australia to Britain on the SS Dunedin had failed in 1876 when the refrigeration equipment broke down. But in 1879, the year of this sensational story, 40 tons of frozen beef and mutton, shipped on the Strathleven, arrived in good condition. With the new technique, slaughtering would be unnecessary – cattle and sheep could be shipped whole.

Sig. Rotura supposedly showed The Queenslander reporter a freezing chamber with 14 sheep, four lambs and three pigs, stacked on their sides, in a heap, where they had been for 19 days, and would remain for another three months. He had discovered that in the warm climate, decomposition would set in at the extremities after a week, but if the temperature was reduced sufficiently, animals could be kept for months, possibly years.

The scientist had then taken a lamb from the stack, frozen and as hard as stone, restored it to normal body heat in warm water, and injected it with a pale green liquid, a decoction from the root of the Astra-charlis, found in South America.  “In ten minutes the lamb was struggling to free itself, and when released skipped out through the door and went gambolling and bleating over the little green in front.”

“You will see at once the benefits claimed by the discoverers of this process”, the reporter went on. “Cargoes of live sheep can thus be sent to England by large steamers, and although a freezing atmosphere will still be an essential, a temporary breakdown, necessitating a stoppage of eight or ten days in the production of cold, would be of no consequence.”

When the tongue moved even further into the cheek, nobody seemed to twig. Sig. Rotura had no doubt at all his experiment would be perfectly safe for human beings. He had, he said, already requested NSW Premier Sir Henry Parkes release to him the next felon under capital sentence, to be allowed to operate on. Rotura proposed suspending animation, then placing him in the freezing chamber for one month, and insisted had no fear of a fatal result. There was the possibility that he would be restored to society a better man.

It remained only for the magazine article to conclude on a note which would illustrate the beneficial outcomes for humanity possible from the prisoner’s selfless but non-voluntary sacrifice:

“It occurred to me at once, what a chance for young gentlemen of fortune, who have outrun their means, of allowing their finances to right themselves by the most rigid of all personal economy – lying up for a few years in the frozen state! We should probably have no more impecunious governors sent out to the colonies to live on their screw while the home estates freed themselves of debt, if these gentlemen had the option of a dreamless exile in the freezing chamber. But this, of course, is idle speculation”.

I have traced re-prints of this article in every Australian provincial newspaper, and as far afield as the Otago Witness, New Zealand, the Chicago Daily Tribune, and of course the London papers. The Times ran the story straight-faced, but pointed out English farmers could gain much more than Australian squatters: “The great difficulty of profitably feeding cattle during the winter months would be disposed of very simply and effectively. Nothing more would be needed than to congeal the larger part of the livestock late in the Autumn and to restore them to life in the Spring.”

Then, gathering itself together in a sense of editorial responsibility, the paper hedged its bets on what it had called this “wonderful discovery”. “Unfortunately”, it intoned, “it would seem that our cousins in Australia are beginning now to do what the Americans were famous, or rather were notorious for doing a quarter of a century since or more. They invented lately for our benefit the telegastrograph, an instrument by which a dinner, with appropriate wines, could be communicated by the electric wire, at least so far as the taste of the food was concerned.”

But the temptation to speculate was too great to resist. What if Sig. Rotura really had something? “If men could at their own will be reduced to a state of absolute lifelessness for months and years together, the time thus passed being ‘so many unvalued and profitless years added to a lifetime,’ what strange results might follow! A man might extend the threescore years and ten over as many centuries, being brought to life for a week or two at a time after intervals of two or three years passed in frozen lifelessness.” The Times then applied the invention to the parable of the Prodigal Son: “A first-born who had displeased his father might be frozen until all his brothers had got the start of him, and reappear among men as a younger brother.”

The Telegraph had none of the reservations of The Times, and threw itself into the task of forecasting the benefits of the process applied to man: “The transport of men is easy enough; the difficulty is to find a market for them on arrival. Beyond doubt a cheaper form of immigration might be started on this basis. A Liverpool firm might pack and send out at a very low rate – say £1 per head – a certain number of frozen Irishmen, undertaking to revive them on their arrival at New York. Thus all expense of provisions would be saved on the trip, and the emigrants might land not a day older than when they were despatched – ‘This Side up; Handle with Care’.”

So it was left to The Spectator of May 31,1879 to poke holes in the theory and apply a lofty philosophical tone. Although a clever idea, the story was, of course a bit of deliberate nonsense, it said, clearly a literary hoax, chiefly interesting because it showed there existed in Brisbane a story-teller with some at least of Edgar Poe’s capacity for weird suggestion. There were two problems with the hoax – “first, the temperature of 32 degrees Fahrenheit as blood heat; second the fact that the blood, when frozen would occupy one-sixth more than its usual room, and would fracture its containing vessels, as water does our pipes.”

Then, as befitted a journal of the intelligentsia, The Spectator declared: “It is amusing to see that in many instances, those who republish it think it necessary to be cautious, and repudiate total disbelief. So many wonderful things, they say, and in especial one London journal says, have turned out to be true, that it would be rash to declare this one certainly invented.”

And now the superior tone:

“There is a disposition perceptible to think there may be something in it, though not all that is alleged, and that as Mr.Edison has bottled sound, so Signor Rotura -an Italian name probably chosen because an Italian has made the most recent and successful experiments in embalming – may have bottled life; that as sound may be re-echoed weeks after it was first heard, so a lamb may skip about after it has been some weeks frozen. As there is an electric telegraph, why should not death be bottled ?”

Long before London was treated to this amusement, both the Brisbane Courier and The Queenslander received an avalanche of letters, expressing both excitement and annoyance. A week later, The Queenslander which had first published the story, printed an abject apology, written by its author:

“The Queenslander expresses itself very justly incensed at the appearance of Mr Richard Newton’s quasi-scientific hoax in describing a discovery for ‘suspended animation’ by an imaginary Italian and suggesting its application for shipment overseas as of surplus cattle and sheep.  We humbly crave the pardon of anyone on whom this abominable fiction may have been imposed.”

Richard Newton was a latter-day journalist, taken onto the staff of the Brisbane Courier after the failure of a number of his pastoral and agricultural ventures. Fortytwo years after the ‘suspended animation’ story, he returned to the pages of The Queenslander to explain the hoax in an article, “How the pen boiled the pot.”

The thought came to him, he said, when contemplating the little store of delicacies the hornet provides for her family. “Walled up in their clay cell are an assortment of creatures, alive but insensible, awaiting the time apparently, when the larvae will be strong enough to enjoy their juicy feast. In a flash I saw the question of surplus stock settled.”(Newton was an acquaintance of Thomas Mort, pioneer of refrigeration who founded  the NSW Fresh Food and Ice Company in 1875.) “Apply the hornet’s method to the denizens of our pasture,” he went on,  “and with the aid of freezing chambers on ships, fat cattle might be sold on the hoof at Smithfield, and store sheep landed to be fattened on English meadows.”

Writing that in 1920, Newton still seemed bemused that anyone could have taken such an extravagant idea seriously, especially when he threw in the request to Sir Henry Parkes for a condemned prisoner for experimentation. But his marvellous invention nearly didn’t come off. O’Carroll, the Courier sub-editor pronounced his article ‘excellent fooling’ but declined to publish it in The Queenslander column ‘Scientific and Useful.’ Newton then went over his head to the Editor and Managing Director Gresley Lukin, whose ‘certain frolicsomeness’ made the prospect of mystifying the public particularly alluring. Despite having to repudiate his story, Newton was comforted by the fact that British gullibility was quite up to the colonial standard.

Some 134 years later, suspended animation has still not been perfected. But who knows – maybe cattle and sheep will soon be delivered to market by drones? Or even by Kindle.

Geoffrey Luck was an ABC Journalist from 1950 until 1976.