The Owl and the Wildcat: Mark Twain in the Naturalist Tavern

The owl from the Naturalist Tavern.

Mark Twain wrote about these eyes in A Tramp Abroad. This is the original owl from the Naturalist Tavern, now housed in the Langbein Museum.

They are Germany’s most famous stuffed animals, at least for Americans. A snowy owl and a wildcat lurk in the taxidermy display cases of the Langbein Museum in Hirschhorn, Germany. They’re renowned because Mark Twain wrote about them in A Tramp Abroad. And every year, dozens of tourists enter the museum, book in hand, with just one goal. They want to see the owl and the wildcat.

The animals from the Naturalist Tavern are now housed in the Langbein Museum.

The Langbein Museum in Hirschhorn, Germany.

Mark Twain in Hirschhorn

Twain visited Germany in 1878 while he was writing Huckleberry Finn. While living in Heidelberg, he took a trip along the Neckar River and  stopped at Hirschhorn to spend the night of August 9, 1878. It was a night to remember.

Site of the Naturalist Tavern

Hischhorn’s city hall (Rathaus) now stands where the Naturalist Tavern once stood. Mark Twain spent a memorable night here in 1878.

“We tramped through the darkness and the drenching summer rain full three miles, and reached ‘the Naturalist Tavern’ in the village of Hirschhorn just an hour before midnight, almost exhausted from hardship, fatigue, and terror. I can never forget that night.”

The Naturalist Tavern: An Inn Full of Animals

Carl Langbein, a hobby biologist, ran the Naturalist Tavern. It contained a menagerie of taxidermically prepared animals. After the inn closed down in the 20th century, the animals found a new home next door in the Langbein Museum, where you can still see them today.

The owl from the Naturalist Tavern.

Another angle of the same owl.

“ ‘The Naturalist Tavern’ was not a meaningless name; for all the halls and all the rooms were lined with large glass cases which were filled with all sorts of birds and animals, glass-eyed, ably stuffed, and set up in the most natural and eloquent and dramatic attitudes. The moment we were abed, the rain cleared away and the moon came out. I dozed off to sleep while contemplating a great white stuffed owl which was looking intently down on me from a high perch with the air of a person who thought he had met me before, but could not make out for certain.”

Mark Twain

Mark Twain, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, public domain

A Crouching Cat

The wild cat in the bedroom.  Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad, 1880 ed., public domain.

Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad, 1880 ed., public domain.

But at least Twain could sleep. His travelling companion had it worse:

“But young Z. did not get off so easily. He said that as he was sinking deliciously to sleep, the moon lifted away the shadows and developed a huge cat, on a bracket, dead and stuffed, but crouching, with every muscle tense, for a spring, and with its glittering glass eyes aims straight at him. It made Z. uncomfortable. He tried closing his own eyes, but that did not answer, for a natural instinct kept making him open them again to see if the cat was still getting ready to launch at him, — which she always was. He tried turning his back, but that was a failure; he knew the sinister eyes were on him still. So at last he had to get up, after an hour or two of worry and experiment, and set the cat out in the hall. So he won, that time.”

The original wildcat from the Naturalist Museum.

The original wildcat from the Naturalist Tavern, now housed in the Longbein Museum.

This was Europe’s wildcat, felis silvestris, somewhat larger than a housecat. That busy tail with three bold black stripes is one of the field marks for this species.

The Warbler Nobody Noticed

I wouldn’t describe Longbein’s cat as crouching (okay, Twain was known to exaggerate at times), but maybe it gave that impression in the moonlight. But there would have been no reason for Z. to fear: the cat had already found its prey. The taxidermist had prepared it with a male blackcap warbler in its mouth. Poor Z. probably never noticed the small, gray bird in the darkness of his room, and if he had, he might have been able to sleep more easily, knowing the cat had already found its meal for the night.

Close up of the warbler in the wildcat's mouth.

Alas, the warbler was the only one who had anything to fear that night.

Have you ever had an animal keep you up at night?

Male blackcap warbler

Male blackcap warbler. “Sylvia atricapilla -Lullington Heath, East Sussex, England -male-8” by Ron Knight from Seaford, East Sussex, United Kingdom – BlackcapUploaded by snowmanradio. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

Literature on point:

All quotes from Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad (public domain)

Werner Pieper, ed., Mark Twain’s Guide to Heidelberg (Löhrbach: Werner Pieper’s MedienXperimente)

Der deutsche Mississippi, Welt am Sonntag

Reichtum der Region, Echo online


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The 1864 Gold Hoax and its Impact on Union Troops

Gold hoax involved a gold investment.

Morguefile free photos

Might one crime have influenced the course of the Civil War? Yes, according to one researcher. The 1864 Gold Hoax blew a cannon ball through Lincoln’s efforts to build up the Union troops. It also highlights one of the strangest coincidences in the war. And this week marks the hoax’s 151st anniversary.

Shocking News about the War Drove up the Gold Price


Newsboy, ca. 1853. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, public domain

It all started on May 18, 1864. At that time, things were starting to look good for the North. Grant had just led the Army of the Potomac into Virginia and was pursuing Robert E. Lee. But two New York newspapers shocked readers with a press release from the White House. It painted a negative picture of the war in Virginia. Lincoln purportedly called for a day of fasting, humiliation, and prayer in response to recent Union defeats. He also called for 400,000 extra troops, threatening a draft should the states not be able to raise their quota of volunteers.

The press release’s cannon ball first sailed through the stock market. Bad news often makes the market volatile, and this case was no different. Gold, one of the safest investments, shot up 8% overnight.

The Press Release was a Hoax

But one thing was amiss. Why had only two newspapers printed the story? Investigation quickly uncovered a hoax. The press release was a fraud, written to appear like an Associated Press release. But the Associated Press repudiated the release.

Red River Campaign, mentioned in the gold hoax.

Harper’s Weekly depiction of the Red River Campaign, described as a “disaster” in the fraudulent press release. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division; public domain.

Someone had delivered it to the papers at 4:00 a.m., between the departure of the night staff and the day staff. That left the night foreman to make the decision about whether to publish it. And the foremen for two papers were duped.

Now the cannon ball sailed into the federal administration. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton called it “a base and treasonable forgery.” He sent a dispatch the Associated Press to repudiate the forged executive announcement. President Lincoln was furious about the hoax, and in a controversial move, ordered the arrest of newspaper personnel and even closed down the Independent Telegraph Line. New York papers offered a thousand dollars for discovery of the culprit.

More Precisely, it was a Gold Hoax

Joseph Howard

Joseph Howard, Jr. Harper’s Weekly, 1864. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division; public domain.

Detectives quickly honed down on the offender. Joseph Howard, editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, confessed. He had invested in gold and wrote the forged press release to drive the gold price up. And he knew the newspaper industry well enough to know that the early morning was a good time to send a fraudulent release.

Lincoln released Howard from prison less than three months later. And two months after the gold hoax, Lincoln did issue a proclamation calling for 500,000 volunteers.

The May 17 Coincidence

Much later, the discovery of a document signed May 17, 1864, the very same day as fake press release, brought more of the story to light. It was a presidential order for drafting 300,000 more troops. And it should have been made public May 18, the same day the gold hoax hit the papers.

Joseoph Howard

An artist’s sketch of Joseph Howard. By Alfred R. Waud, ca. 1864. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division; public domain.

Lincoln’s May 17 order is missing from the Official Records, and one historian has surmised that was due to the gold hoax. Howard had unknowingly preempted Lincoln’s authentic order, and Lincoln apparently waited two months for the furor to die down before issuing a new order.

But did the gold hoax cannon ball fly even further, impacting the outcome of the war? During the two-month period between the hoax and the new order, the Union army suffered a manpower shortage. General Grant was pleading for new troops. Had Joseph Howard never perpetrated the gold hoax, what difference would Lincoln’s extra 300,000 troops have made in May and June 1864? We will never know. That is one of the riddles of the Civil War.

Literature on point:

The Great Civil War Hoax

Webb Garrison, Creative Minds in Desparate Times: The Civil War’s Most Sensational Schemes and Plots (Nashville: Rutledge Hill Press, 1997)

Abott A. Abott, The Life of Abraham Lincoln (New York: T. R. Dawley, 1864)

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Heligoland: Germany’s Pirate Hideout

Dodgerton Skillhause, morguefile free photos

Dodgerton Skillhause, morguefile free photos

Pirate hideouts always entice with the lure of buried treasure.

Last week’s announcement that an American explorer might have found Captain Kidd’s treasure in Madagascar puts pirates back into the news. Madagascar was a famous 17th century pirate lair, but Germany had a pirate hideout too. A legendary pirate rendezvous in the 14-16th centuries, Heligoland – Germany’s only high sea island – harbored the country’s most famous pirate, Klaus Störtebeker. Shall we open Heligoland’s treasure chest and look at some of the colorful history inside?

Pirate Hideout Heligoland

The cliffs of Heligoland.

Pirates could keep watch for other ships from these tall red cliffs.

Heligoland is the North Sea’s only high sea island. Twenty-nine miles offshore, a splash of red sea cliffs, meadows, and white sands rises from the seafloor northwest of the German port Cuxhaven. It’s small – less than a square mile – but its allure made the literary rounds. Goethe wrote about it in 1827: From the west, a description of the Island of Heligoland just reached me, with beautiful depictions of geological and biological nature, the amassed remains of prehistoric life, and fresh evidence for the survival and impact of the eternal world spirit.”*

Germany acquired Heligoland from England in 1890 in exchange for Zanzibar. A naval station during the two world wars, it served as the German base for the Battle of the Heligoland Bight. Now it attracts scientists, not warships. Heligoland hosts two biological research stations, one for birds and one for marine life.

These are the rocks of Heligoland.

Behold the birthplace of quantum physics.

It is also the birthplace of quantum mechanics. In June 1925, Werner Heisenberg, a young German physicist, travelled to Heligoland to escape his hay fever on the mainland. There he made a major breakthrough – what has been called one of the major “jumps” in 20th century physics. “It was about three o’clock at night when the final result of the calculation lay before me…. At first I was deeply shaken…. I was so excited that I could not think of sleep. So I left the house … and awaited the sunrise on top of a rock…. That was ‘the night of Heligoland.’”** Heisenberg received the Nobel Prize in 1932.

The Pirate Störtebeker

What Heisenberg did for physics, Störtebeker did for German legend.

Klaus Störtebeker joined an infamous privateer group called the “Victual Brothers” in the late 14th century. They were mercenaries who fought for Denmark and Mecklenburg interchangeably in a series of conflicts in the North and Baltic Seas. Because Störtebeker took merchants captive, people later compared him to Robin Hood.

Pirates are fond of nicknames, and Störtebeker was no exception. In Low Saxon, “Störtebeker” means “empty the [gallon-sized] mug in one gulp.” He had a reputation for drinking too much wine.

When Denmark and Mecklenberg made a peace agreement in 1395, the Victual Brothers needed a new line of work. They first grounded a pirate town in Visby on the Swedish isle of Gotland in the Baltic Sea, but after they were attacked, the pirates moved to the North Sea. Störtebeker became one of their leaders. By 1400, Störtebeker had made Heligoland his basis.

Störtebeker's defeat at Heligoland.

Störtebeker’s defeat at Heligoland. Hamburger Staatsarchiv. Public domain.  „Stoertebeker1“ von Das Original wurde von Seebeer in der Wikipedia auf Deutsch hochgeladen – Übertragen aus de.wikipedia nach Commons.. Lizenziert unter Gemeinfrei über Wikimedia Commons –

A fleet from Hamburg attacked Heligoland in 1401 and defeated the pirates in 1401. The Flemish ship “Painted Cow” defeated Störtebeker’s ship, “Red Devil.” Tradition has it that one of his crew turned traitor and poured molten lead down the Red Devil’s rudder shaft. The rudder froze, the pirate lost control of his ship, and Painted Cow gained an advantage. You can see a model of the Painted Cow in the cellar of Hamburg’s city hall (Ratskeller).

Germany’s most famous pirate was executed on October 21 of the same year. He begged for mercy for his fellow sailors, but was refused. About 75 pirates were executed that day.

Impaled skull of a pirate.

An impaled pirate’s skull from about 1400. Found 1878 in Hamburg during a contruction project. “Schädel Hingerichteter Hamburg” by Michail Jungierek – Own Work, Ausstellungsstück im Museum für Hamburgische Geschichte. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

According to medieval tradition, people publically displayed the skulls of executed pirates on stakes. Two of these skulls have survived. Forensic scientists have examined them but can’t prove whether one was Störtebeker’s.

More than any other German outlaw, Störtebeker has become the stuff of legend and is a popular figure in German literature. Operas, poems, and novels etch the pirate legend into German culture.

Can you think of any other outlaws who are so celebrated?

Literature on point:

* Johann Wolfgang von Goethe & Carl Friedrich Zelter (Max Heller, ed.), Der Briefwechsel zwischen Goethe und Zeller, Vol. II (1819-1827) (Leipzig: Insel Verlag, 1915) p. 592.

** Mauro, Dardo, Nobel Laurietes and Twentieth-Century Physics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004) p. 179.

Helmut Neuhold, Die berühmtesten Freibeuter und Piraten (Wiesbaden: marixverlag, 2013).

Klaus Störtebeker.

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The Guglmänner and the Mystery of King Ludwig’s Death

Die Gartenlaube, 1886, public domain.

It. Was. Murder!

That’s what a sign held by a group of hooded men reads. It’s the battle cry of the Guglmänner, a secret society in Bavaria. It is trying to prove King Ludwig II was murdered in 1886 and thinks America might hold the clues it needs.

Who are the Guglmänner?

Guglmänner translates to hooded men, but they should in no way be confused with the white-hooded men in America. The German group traces its history back to a medieval knighthood with a tradition of dressing in black robes and hoods. That’s how mourning knights dressed following Kaiser Barbarossa’s death in 1190, the Guglmänner website explains. And during the time of the plague, the black-hooded knights became symbols of death and exhortation to the living; they were the ones that carried the victims to their graves. Guglmänner traditionally participate in the funerals of Bavarian monarchs by marching in front of the casket carrying two crossed torches and shields with the royal coat of arms. Their motto is: Media in vita in morte sumus. In the midst of life, we are surrounded by death.

Today the Guglmänner are still organized according to a 1037 law, Constitutio de feudis, regulating the knighthood. And their main focus has shifted to clarifying the mysterious circumstances of a royal death.

A Controversal Death

Bavaria’s best known king, Ludwig II – patron of Richard Wagner and builder of Bavaria’s fairytale castles – couldn’t have picked a more controversial way to die. You could call it Germany’s greatest unsolved mystery.

Ludwig II

Ludwig II portrait by Carl Theodor von Piloty, public domain

Bavarian ministers deposed Ludwig in 1886. They alleged his insanity, but the real reason may have had more to do the king’s overspending. They transferred Ludwig to the castle Berg on Lake Starnberg for psychiatric supervision and evaluation. The following day, on June 13, 1886, Ludwig and his psychiatrist took a walk along the lakeshore but never returned. Searchers found them dead several hours later, floating in shallow water near the shore. A previous blog post covers the death in more detail.

Authorities ruled Ludwig’s death suicide by drowning, but there are plenty of people who don’t agree. Years later, witnesses said a gag order prevented them from talking. Everyone who helped recover the bodies was forced to swear on a crucifix and Bible never to say anything about that night, not even on his deathbed. One witness said Ludwig was shot while trying to escape to a boat.

Might there be Overlooked Evidence in America?

Some of those witnesses immigrated to America after Ludwig’s death. It’s possible that one of them left information behind because witnesses who moved to America might have not longer felt constrained by a Bavarian gag order. On their website, the Guglmänner request that anybody with an ancestor bearing one of the following last names check to see whether a forefather might have been a witness to the occurrences the night of June 13, 1886 on Lake Starnberg. If so, they would like to hear from you. You can contact the Guglmänner by emailing info@guglmä

Ludwig II with Dr. von Gudden

A 1901 postcard showing King Ludwig II and Dr. von Gudden starting off on their fateful walk on June 13, 1886. Ludwig is on the left. Public domain.

Grashey, Gudden, Gumbiller, Hack, Hartinger, v. Holnstein, Huber, Klier, Lauterbach, Lechl, Lidl, Liebmann, Mauder, Mayr, Müller, Rasch, Schneller, Schuster, Ritter, Rottenhöfer, v. Washington, Wimmer, Zanders.

This avenue of research ought to be pursued, because I don’t think it’s been tried before. Since the Guglmänner website is in German, it’s worth bringing their request to the English-speaking world. Who knows? Perhaps someone has some interesting history boxed away in their attic.

Ludwig II once expressed his hope that his life would be an “eternal enigma.” His death has certainly become one. An international enigma.

Do you it still might be possible to resolve the controversy surrounding Ludwig’s death after all these years?

Literature on point:

Die Guglmänner SM. König Ludwig II. (Guglmänner website)

Die Guglmänner, Mitteldeutsche Zeitung Sept. 28, 2010


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