Hogarth’s Evening, painted in 1736, shows Sadler’s Wells in the background.
One of the most notorious stories about Sadler’s Wells Theatre involves the so-called ‘Hibernian Canibal’ who performed there in 1699. His act was eating a whole Cockerel – feathers, bones, internal organs, and all. The audience, understandably, began chain-vomiting at the sight. But is it actually true?
The main source is the writer Ned Ward’s magazine Weekly Comedy from May 1699. The report is set out as a short drama involving several characters including ‘Snarl, a Disbanded Captain’, ‘All-craft, a Turncoat’, ‘Prim, a Beau’, and ‘Whim, a Projector.’
After a short discussion about ‘writing and fighting’, it begins:
Snarl: What News do you hear abroad? You, Mr Whim, I know are never without a Budget full.
Whim: There’s none stirring, that I know on, in relation to the State. But, I believe, i can give you such a piece of news from Sadler’s Wells, of an Exploit perform’d there, by a Hibernian Canibal, that will operate as well upon a foul Stomach, as a Gallon of Cardus Posset-drink. But I won’t venture to tell it you, unless you assure me first of your Strength of Constitution, that no gentle Purgative will work with you; for otherways, I know not but I may put you into the Condition of the Spendthrift’s Ale-Firkin, Tap you at both ends, that you may run out the sooner.
Snarl: Prithee, Mr Whim, let’s hear what News this is that carries these Physical Virtues along with it; as for my part, there’s no danger of bringing up my Dinner, if you story be never so Beastly; for this day I have kept as a Fast, in Memorandum of the Parliaments kindness to us for the Hazards and Fatigues we’ve run thro’, in the Service of an Ingrateful Nation […] But pray, Mr Whim, as to the News you were talking of?
Whim: Why truly Captain, it’s only an unusual piece of Gluttonism, perform’d by one of St Patrick’s Cormorants, which if he can bring his manner of Eating into Fashion, amongst our Voluptuous Epicureans, it will certainly be the Ruin of all Cooks and Coal-Merchants.
Snarl: Pray, Mr Whim, proceed to the Matter; never fear the turning of my Stomach; I have not Din’d so often with Colonel Walker, at the Siege of Londondery, upon Salt Hides and Horse Flesh, but sure I am able to hear a story about eating, if he tug’d as hard at a Cows Countenance, as a hungry Bear will at the stinking Haunches of a dead CoachHorse.
Whim: Why then I will venture to tell you, and when you begin to Keck, I’ll leave off. My Friend Mr All-craft and I, took a Walk yesterday to the New River Head, where we observ’d abundance of Inns-of-Court Beaus, and Lady Bumfitters, mingled with an innumerable swarm of the Blew-Frock Order, flock into Miles’s Musick-House, which occasion’d us to believe, there was something Extraordinary to be done, which encourag’d the Sweating Multitude to so crowd in, after an unusual manner, which made us equally desirous, with the rest, of seeing what was to be seen, tho’ we knew not what to expect; accordingly we mix’d with the Herd, and jostled into the House amongst ’em, which we found as full, as if an Elephant had been to Dance a Jigg, or the Salamanca Doctor to have Preach’d a Sermon. With much difficulty we crouded up Stairs, where we soon got Intelligence of the Beastly Scene in agitation, that had drawn such a Numberless body of Spectators to disturb their stomachs. At last a Table was spread with a dirty Cloth, in the middle of the Room, furnish’d with Bread, Pepper, Oyl and Vinegar; but neither Knife, Plate, Fork, or Napkin; and when the Beholders had conveniently mounted themselves upon one anothers Shoulders, to take a fair view of his Beastlyness’s Banquet, in comes the Lord of the Feast, Disguis’d, in an Antick’s Cap, and with Smutty Face, like a Country Hang-man, attended with an ill-looking Train of Newmarket Executioners. When a Chair was set, and he had plac’d himself in sight of the whole Assembly, a live Cock was given into the Ravenous Paws of the Ingurgitating Monster, who, after he had pluck’d out a few of the Tail and Pinion Feathers, he clap’d a few Oats in his Mouth, which he extended to the width of a Ladies Chamber-pot, then held up his Living Morsel, who peck’d out several Corns, and play’d at Bob-Cherry with him a considerable time, to the great Diversion of the Company, till at last, he catch’d him behind the Gills, and snap’d off his Head with as much Slight and Expedition, as a New-England Hog will an Acorn from a Dwarf-Oake, cracking the Skull as nimbly, to come at the Brains, as a Squirrel does a Nutshell, to come at the Kernel; then dipping on’t in a Platter of Sawce, gave it all Mastication together, except the Beak, and down he swallow’d it, Feathers and all, that it might sit the lighter upon his Stomach: Then he clap’d the Fundament to his Mouth, and dragging out several Yards of Guts, he laid those by him, to Eat at last; as People do Cheese for Digestion. Then laying each Hand upon a Leg, he tore them asunder with as Angry a force, as if he had learn’d to Carve his Dinner of the Tyger; And when he had lug’d off a Quarter, he pick’d off the flesh as clean as a Dog would a Marrow-bone; showing as greedy an Appetite, as a Bear that had been kept at short commons would over a plentiful dish of Guts and Garnish. At this rate he dispatch’d the whole Body; and then takes a piece of the Skin he had laid by for a second Course, turns the Feathers inside, and gulp’d it down at once, as a Bawdy Sinner would a Bolus. Then takes up the Guts in his Hand, quoild up like a pound of Sausages, and dandled them about in his Hand as a lady would a Necklace, and at last tosses them into his Mouth and when one end was down in his Stomach, he drag’d it up again by the other, to scowre his Throat from little Bones or Feathers that might obstruct the passage of his delicious Morsel. Then Rowles ‘em up, as a Man would a bundle of Whip-cord, and communicates them very dexterously like a Juggler, to his Jaws, where he toss’d ‘em, and turn’d ‘em, and chew’d ‘em, and tu’d ‘em about, till the unsavory stuffing of the reaking Puddings run down from each corner of his Mouth, like the Grease of fat Pork from between the Lips of a hungry Plough-man. This made the Spectators begin to change Colour, and be sadly troubled with the Hickup; and with those that were most squeamish it began first to Operate; but their Reaching and Exgurgitating, soon made the rest sympathize, that at last there was such a Hawking, Spitting, Slabbering and Drivelling, that I thought some of them would have left him their Intrals too, for an afternoons Luncheon. By this time he had thoroughly compleated his Meal, and, as well as himself, had given everybody else a Belly-full; and was reconvey’d by his guard De Mobile, to his own private Apartment.
Snarl: Prithee Tom make haste and give us some Brandy, or I shall run over at such a rate that I shant leave as much, what d’ye call it within me, as will fill the Bowl of a Tobacco-pipe.
Prim: O dear! (Yauks) my Stomach is so Sick and Head so Giddy, (Yauks) That if you don’t lead me to, (Yauks) the Necessary-House, I shall be forc’d to do something that I should not do.
Whim: I told you, Gentlemen, what would be the effect of my Story. Methinks you look like so many Jacobites that had taken the Oath, against your Consciences, and were hauking of them up again, that they should not lie heavy upon you Stomacks.
The story of the ‘Hibernian Canibal’ seems too good (or disgusting) to be true, but the local historian William J. Pinks states that the performance was also reported in Dawk’s Protestant Mercury of May 24, 1699: ‘On Tuesday last a fellow at Sadler’s Wells near Islington, after he had dined heartily on a buttock of beef, for the lucre of five guineas, ate a live cock, feathers guts and all, with only a plate of oil and vinegar for sawce, and half a pint of brandy to wash it down, and afterwards proffered to lay down five guineas more that he could do the same again in two hours time. This is attested by many credible people who were eyewitnesses of the same.’
Pinks also claims the same Hibernian Canibal ate a live cat at a music house in St Katherine’s on January 24 the same year.
This kind of performance doesn’t seem to have been that unusual, either. In the late 18th century, a French showman called Tarrare ate live cats, snakes, lizards, eels and puppies to test his stomach capacity.
It was also reported in March 13, 1788 that the Duke of Bedford had bet Lord Barrymore 1,000 guineas that he could not eat a live cat. The Lord doesn’t appear to have followed through, but in January 1790 the Sporting Magazine claimed a man had devoured a nine-pound cat, leaving only the bones behind.
Update: There’s also a story from ‘Kirby’s Wonderful and scientific museum’ (free online at Google Books) about a French soldier who was captured and taken to prison in Liverpool in February 1799. Charles Domery, 21, claimed he ate 174 cats, dead or alive, in a single year while serving in the army. ‘Sometimes he killed them before eating, but when very hungry, did not wait to perform this humane office.’ Domery also claimed to have eaten human body parts. ‘Finding himself hungry, and nothing else in his way but a man’s leg, which was shot off, lying before him, he attacked it greedily, and was feeding heartily, when a sailor snatched it from him, and threw it overboard.’