The Owl and the Wildcat: Mark Twain in the Naturalist Tavern
The owl from the Naturalist Tavern.

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


Written by
Ann Marie
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  • Our new cat likes to meow in the middle of the night – we’re not sure about what. She’s not stuffed – but she does eat a lot.

  • I love Twain’s observation about the stuffed owl that looked down on me “with the air of a person who thought he’d met me before, but couldn’t make out for certain.”

    I lived in a small town in central Missouri until I was 12. Every spring, my school bused the students to Mark Twain Caves in Hannibal, MO where we explored and heard stories of Huck Finn and Mark Twain’s adventures. Now I live near Elmira, NY where Samuel Clemens had a summer home and a famous study modeled after a Mississippi River steamboat. He’s also buried in Elmira. Mark Twain has always been part of my life. His insights about his countrymen are still true.

    • Twain had such a rare sense of humor. One of the German kaisers (I think it was Wilhelm) used to read Twain whenever her was in a bad mood. Twain was the only thing that could get him laughing again.

      If I ever get to Elimira to visit the grave of my favorite American author, perhaps we could meet for a cup of tea.

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