Episode 47 - The Great Taxidermist

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Carl Akeley was born on a farm near Clarendon, New York on May 19, 1864. Carl loved animals and being out in nature. As a young boy, Carl would spend a lot of time outdoors painting pictures of plants and animals. Carl’s art medium was his own blood. After a few years of perfecting his blood art, Carl moved on to stuffing the animals. Carl ordered a taxidermy manual and spent hours in his room studying it. The manual said that a taxidermist should work in secret so that “none may know the mysteries of the art”, kind of like magic. Carl borrowed thread and scissors from his mother’s sewing basket. Soon his bedroom was filled with stuffed animals, mostly chipmunks, robins, squirrels and other small animals.

When Carl’s aunt found out about his hobby, she threatened to send him to an insane asylum. When his aunt forgot to put a blanket over her canary’s cage during a cold winter night, the bird died. Carl stuffed the bird and after that Carl’s aunt never tried to steer him away from taxidermy again. Carl got his first paying job by working for an interior decorator named David Bruce as his assistant. Bruce had Carl paint wildlife murals in the parlors of rich families in New York and occasionally stuffing a bird or chipmunk that would be displayed in a parlor cabinet. However, it quickly became obvious that Carl only wanted to do the taxidermy part of the job and none of the painting, so Bruce had to let him go. Bruce convinced Carl to apply for a job as a taxidermist at the Ward’s Natural Science Establishment in Rochester.

So when Carl turned 18, he went to Ward’s to look for a job. Carl saw a man carrying a stuffed giant anteater and asked where he could ask about a taxidermy job. Carl was pointed towards a building with a large taxidermy ape stood on the front porch and told to go talk to Professor Henry Augustus Ward. Luckily for Carl, Ward’s Establishment had just landed two huge contracts to supply the American Museum of Natural History with specimens of every known bird and mammal in North America and specimens of every known monkey in the world. Carl was to report for work at 7 am to work his twelve hour shifts for $3.50/week ($89 today), had room and board taken out of his salary, and would be given no holidays or sick days. The main rules were no smoking and no sleeping on the job.

The process of stuffing an animal at Ward’s was to treat the skin of the animal with salt, alum, and arsenic soap. The bones of the animal would be taken out, wrapped in wire and then placed back into the animal and then the carcass would be stuffed with either straw, sawdust, or rags until it couldn’t hold any more and the skin would be sewed back together. In order to give the stuffed carcass the right shape of the animal, the mount would then be beaten by a plank of wood until it looked close enough. Carl thought that many of the mounts produced at Ward’s lacked accuracy and detail of the live animals they were supposed to look like and was embarrassed by what they were producing. In the book “Kingdom Under Glass” these mounts were described as “blank-eyed corpses” that “were no more expressive than parlor room sofas.”

After he got done working his twelve-hour shift, Carl would study anatomy and try out new methods that might make the mounts more realistic. Because Ward didn’t want his employees to use company time to try anything new, Carl would give up sleep to spend time in the studio after hours and gave up meals in order to pay for supplies and lantern fuel. The mounts that Carl spent all his time at night to perfect were often sabotaged by his co-workers who would cut his skins into ribbons and smash his molds. After working several late nights, a foreman found Carl asleep on the job and reported him to Ward and Carl was promptly fired.

Carl then moved to Brooklyn and began working for a taxidermist named John Wallace where he spent his days stuffing birds that would then be placed on lady’s hats. These wouldn’t just be small birds like sparrows or hummingbirds, but bigger birds like owls, pheasants, and gulls. Some hats also had whole nests with preserved eggs.

Carl worked in a basement of a moldy warehouse located under the Brooklyn Bridge. Carl saw no future at this job where he would often end up skinning 100 birds a day for fashion and even considered returning to his family’s farm. After working there for about six months, Carl received a letter from Professor Ward asking him to come back. Ward had realized that Carl’s mounts were selling for a lot more money than all of the other mounts and decided to give Carl and his new methods a chance. Carl quit at Wallace’s as soon as he finished reading the letter.

When P.T. Barnum’s elephant Jumbo died after being hit by a train, Carl was given the job to stuff the large elephant. It was a tough job since Jumbo had been cut up by people looking to take a souvenir from the famous elephant on top of being hit by a train. It took 5 months, but Carl was able to recreate a beautiful mount of Jumbo and had even stretched out Jumbo’s skin to make him larger than he was when he was alive. After spending another three years working at Ward’s, Akeley left to go work in the taxidermy department at the Milwaukee Public Museum in 1886.

Carl worked at the Milwaukee Public Museum, honing his taxidermy craft. He often kept several animals in cages in his office so he could study how their body looked while they moved and it would help him recreate life-like scenarios in his mounts. Carl began to use clay to shape the muscles of a mount that helped his mounts look even more real and would also place his mounts in a recreated scene of their habitat that would help transport a museum visitor into another place. Carl left the Milwaukee Public Museum in 1892 and started doing some freelance work until he found another job. Carl had also met a woman named Delia, whom he called Mickie, who took a lot of interest in Carl’s work and would often help with the taxidermy herself.

Carl was hired by the Field Museum in 1896 and his first assignment was to go to Africa on a hunting expedition where he would collect new specimens that would be brought back to the museum to be turned into mounts. Carl arrived in Somaliland in April of 1896 and began hunting gazelles, hyenas, kudus, lions, etc. and placed the skins into barrels full of salt to be cured. One day, Carl shot a warthog, but then saw a male/female pair of ostriches. He began to track the ostriches, leaving his warthog kill, hoping they would lead him to a nest of decent sized chicks that he would be able to take out in one swoop. After tracking the ostriches for along time, but eventually losing them, he made his way back to his warthog. When he got to the place that he had left it, all he found were vulture feathers and hyena tracks. He began to walk back to camp when saw an animal moving through the grass next to him. He quickly fired two shots into the grass and then started to run. He didn’t get far when a leopard pounced on him and knocked his rifle out of his hands.

The leopard tried to bite at Carl’s throat, but Carl twisted away and then leopard bit down on his shoulder. Carl was screaming and thrashing and finally was able to pin the leopard under his own body. Carl put his knees in the leopard’s chest and jammed his elbows into the leopard’s armpits while his left arm was in the leopard’s mouth. With his free hand, Carl grabbed the leopard by the throat and began to squeeze. When the leopard gagged and tried to take a deep breath, Carl pushed his left arm down into the leopard’s throat. Carl kept squeezing the leopard’s throat with one hand and pushing his other hand down the leopard’s throat. Carl was losing a lot of blood and was fading in and out of consciousness. Then, with his last bits of energy, Carl got on top of the leopard and forced his full weight down onto the leopard. Carl heard a crack, so he did it again and heard another one of the leopard’s ribs snap. Finally, the leopard went limp and Carl was able to pull his arm out of the leopard’s mouth, though it was pretty mutilated from being dragged through the leopard’s fangs. Carl laid next to the leopard until he felt strong enough to crawl back to camp and dragged the leopard’s carcass with him.

Carl returned to Chicago shortly after his encounter with the leopard and married Delia in 1902. In 1905, Carl left to go back to Africa, this time with Delia. While there, both Delia and Carl killed an African Bull Elephant. Delia’s was the largest elephant and when they brought them back to the Field Museum, they created one of Carl’s most notable works named “The Fighting African Elephants” that can be still seen today at the Field Museum. President Theodore Roosevelt was a huge fan of Carl’s work and visited the Field Museum to admire his mounts and dioramas. Roosevelt was a huge advocate for the conservation movement that was becoming popular across America.

During the early 1900’s, Americans finally began to realize that the resources that had propelled America into the leading country of the free world were not infinite and needed to be conserved in order to ensure that America wouldn’t collapse in on itself when these were finally depleted. It was also known by this time that the animals we have today are not the same animals that roamed the earth millions of years ago and animal species often went extinct. So many scientists began to hire Carl to kill animals and mount animals that were on the brink of extinction due to colonization so that these animals could be preserved and admired for years to come.

Carl and Delia began to be known as famous hunters across the world. In 1909, Carl was hunting in Nairobi and met up with Roosevelt and his Smithsonian expedition group. During his Smithsonian expedition, Roosevelt’s group killed and trapped around a total of 11,400 animals that ranged from insects to hippos and elephants and brought back around 10,000 plant specimens. On their second day of Carl joining Roosevelt’s group, Roosevelt and his son killed four elephants that Carl helped skin and then send the skins and tusks back to America. However, none of those elephants had been a bull elephant, so Carl’s mission was to kill a bull elephant so Roosevelt’s collection could be complete.

While Carl searched for the bull elephant, that were becoming harder and harder to come by because of the ivory trade. Carl came down with several sicknesses while on this Africa trip, including meningitis, spirulina fever, and black fever.

Carl was also a prolific inventor and invented Shotcrete, which is basically a cement gun, that he created to help repair the deteriorating façade of the Field Columbian Museum in Chicago. In 1915, Carl patented the Akeley Motion Picture “pancake” camera that was a highly mobile motion picture he designed to shoot wildlife and was later used by the War Department and newsreel companies to capture aerial footage. Over Carl’s lifetime, he was awarded over 30 patents.


“Kingdom Under Glass: A Tale of Obsession, Adventure, And One Man’s Quest To Preserve The World’s Great Animals” by Jay Kirk

“Carl Akeley” an article by the Field Museum

“Wrestling Leopards, Felling Apes: A Life In Taxidermy” article by NPR

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