Saturday, January 23, 2016

On being eaten by a Lion




It goes without saying that people are most interested in seeing things that they are not supposed to see. The lure of the forbidden and the obscene, meaning that which should not be shown, is powerful. It is the nature of the images forbidden, however, that changes with each generation.

As an obedient child in a one-television household, I did my homework at night, watched a sit-com or two with my father, and, then, retired to bed. People in our home rose early in the morning to make their way to work – it was a long commute for my father from Eden Prairie to the Stinson Boulevard Honeywell plant a couple miles north of the University of Minnesota where he was employed. As a result, late night TV was generally banned. Unlike many of my generation, I didn’t grow up watching Johnny Carson on the Late Show.

Once, however, I recall that I stayed up late to watch that program. I may have been in sixth or seventh grade and, at this melancholy remove in time, can’t exactly remember what occasion authorized that viewing – it may have been an appearance by Orson Welles, a person that my father admired and that he usually encouraged us to watch with him. (Curiously enough, the other celebrity that my father admired and that he would let us stay up late to watch on the talk shows was Truman Capote.) In any event, some long-forgotten actress or chanteuse was occupying Johnny’s couch and chirping to him about her recent safari in Africa. The actress, a diminutive and busty blonde bombshell, said that her safari had seen many wild animals including lions. In a hushed voice, the woman announced that the company in her Land Rover had come upon several lions feasting on the carcass of a wildebeest or gazelle that the animals had killed. She told Johnny and the audience that she had a film clip showing the majestic lions and their prey. Johnny turned solemnly to the audience and issued this warning: "We will show this film, but I need to warn you that the pictures of the lions eating their meal are not too pretty and you may be upset by watching this." The actress batted her eyes for the camera and, then, the film clip was shown. People in the studio audience gasped as they watched a lioness tearing bloody gobbets from the flanks of the dead animal. I recall the carcass’ rib bones were exposed like a macabre ivory xylophone. I am writing about something that I saw more than 45 year ago – clearly the appeal of the forbidden inscribed these images in my memory.

A few weeks ago, I was channel-surfing and happened upon a re-run of an episode from The Walking Dead, a zombie-apocalypse series widely popular during the last couple years. In the show, four men and a couple of women had been captured by a group of desperadoes holed-up in a ruinous slaughterhouse. A mob of zombies, badly decayed and with their exposed inner organs leaking suppurating fluids, staggered around the perimeter of the place, periodically pawing with necrotic hands at the chain-link fence. Unfortunately for the six prisoners, their fellow survivors in the embattled slaughterhouse had become cannibals and planned to feast on the flesh of the protagonists of the series. A burly men dressed in gore-spattered leather aprons, swinging an iron club like a baseball bat, bashed in the brains of three of the prisoners. The dead men and women flopped forward, head down in a zinc tub and one of the cannibals slit their throats so that gouts of blood spurted into the basin. The other three prisoners knelt next to the tub, awaiting their turn to be butchered, trembling and crying out for mercy. All of this was staged in a grisly blood-encrusted industrial run replete with corroded hooks and chainsaws. Just as the butchers were about to smash in the heads of their remaining prisoners, someone burst into the room armed with a shotgun. The man with the shotgun fired at the butchers and the impact of the shots hurled the cannibals against the concrete-block walls imprinted them with huge rosettes of gore. At the same moment, a crowd of shuffling, mewling zombies broke through the perimeter and everyone was engaged in mowing these monsters down with machine guns, bullets ripping the zombies into writhing fragments. The three survivors at the zinc basin that was rapidly filling with blood rose to their feet and vamoosed down a shadowy corridor, fleeing through a kind of cooler where the flanks and torsos of butchered humans hung on hooks. At the far end of the cooler, the escapees encountered another crowd of zombies, but, fortunately, there were chainsaws available and the good guys made short work of the walking dead. All of this mayhem was filmed in close-up with the utmost attention to anatomical detail and realism. As my readers will know, The Walking Dead is a prime-time show and exceedingly popular with audiences of all ages.

For the Victorians, sexual images were forbidden and, therefore, much prized. The Reverend Harold Davidson, Rector of Stiffkey, began his life under Queen Victoria although he died in 1932, a victim, more or less, of forbidden sexual fruit and a highly publicized and calamitous photograph. It’s a peculiar story and, I think, worth reprising.

Three images and a picture that wasn’t taken define Rev. Davidson’s curious career. One picture shows a middle-aged man with commanding presence standing in the pulpit. The man has fierce eyes, an aquiline nose, and regular features. He wears the vestments of an Anglican clergyman with a row of medals in military style deployed in an even row across one side of his chest. Davidson grips the side of the pulpit with one hand; the other hand is locked around the edge of a slanting book-stand on which the pastor’s Bible is located and Davidson seems to lean slighly forward. A garland of ivy or interlaced evergreen decorates the pulpit. The preacher’s heavy brow and dark embattled eyes make him look slightly like the actor, Boris Karloff. The two other photographs are much more peculiar and I will detail them when the events that they depict arise my narrative: one of them shows the fully clad Davidson standing next to a naked teenager; the other picture shows a big crowd of dark-clad merrymakers watching as Davidson pokes his head out of a barrel. There is no picture to stand for the final event in Davidson’s life.

Harold Davidson was born in 1875 to a family for many generations comprised of Anglican clergy. Although he was a rebellious boy, Davidson’s parents felt that he was destined to follow the family trade and become a pastor. As a teenager, he was sent to Croyden town, a neighborhood in south London where he lived with two aunts and attended public school in preparation for theological training. Davidson was an indifferent student and stage-struck. While still in school, he began performing as a comedian on the British equivalent of vaudeville stages – we can imagine him as a contemporary of Charley Chaplin and Stan Laurel, although, perhaps, a few years older than those two actors. Davidson’s routine was apparently very funny and he was quite successful, touring Great Britain for several years. He acted as supporting man in a number of London comedies, including Charley’s Aunt. During this time, Davidson retained the values of an Anglican clergyman – he was a strict teetotaler, incorporated Bible readings into his schtick, and, by and large, avoided trouble with women. Beginning in 1894, however, Davidson began to develop an unseemly interest in prostitutes. Davidson explained that, in that year, he had met a desperate teenage prostitute about to throw herself from a bridge into the filthy Thames. Davidson talked the girl out of her suicidal plan and gave her some food and money. In that encounter, Davidson sensed his vocation – it would be his calling to rescue prostitutes from their trade and to lift them up as children of God.

Ultimately, at his father’s urging, Davidson retired from the stage and, in his mid-twenties, attended the seminary. At the seminary, Davidson was a terrible student and failed most of his exams. It is reported that his lodgings were wallpapered with autographed pictures of famous Covent Garden actresses. Davidson prevailed in his studies, earning his admission to the clergy when he was 28. Soon thereafter, fortune smiled upon him and he was granted a prosperous parish, Stiffkey – the appointment came with a pleasant manor house, a good-sized acreage, and generous annual Living (or stipend). By all accounts, Davidson was an enthusiastic rector and performed his pastoral duties effectively. This appointment made his situation sufficiently secure to allow him to marry an Irish actress with whom he had toured during his days on stage. The marriage was tempestuous and during World War One, when Davidson was away ministering to sailors in the British navy, his wife became pregnant – although the child was clearly not his progeny, Davidson raised the boy, said to resemble him in a peculiar way, as his own son. The name Stiffkey – Davidson was the Rector of Stiffkey – an appellation almost too good to be true in light of Davidson subsequent travails, refers to a river in Norwich, the rural parish that he served.

The first signs of irregularity in Reverend Davidson’s performance of his official duties preceded World War One. Davidson made frequent forays into London, apparently seeking prostitutes and other fallen women to counsel. He became a trustee of a mission settlement in the Docklands and, further, was the chapel priest at a church that ministered to show-people in Covent Garden. Some of Davidson’s parishioners expressed some discomfort at their rector’s community service in London and, from time to time, women of a disreputable sort were seen to frequent the rectory. During World War One, in a turbulent period in his marriage, Davidson volunteered for service abroad and worked as a chaplain in the Navy. In the course of that service, he was arrested in a brothel in Cairo. Davidson proclaimed that he had gone into that den of iniquity to hunt down a temptress afflicting with venereal disease who was poisoning crew-members on the ship where he was assigned.

After the war, Davidson’s ministry to the whores in London expanded and came to dominate his pastoral activities. At times, as many as 20 young women and girls, were housed at the rectory where Davidson attended to their needs. Davidson proudly announced to his clerical superiors that he had resolved to become the "Prostitute’s Padre." Although many of his Stiffkey parishioners objected to these activities, he persevered in this mission. Controversy ensued: not all of the young women with whom Davidson associated desired his particular form of salvation. Davidson haunted squalid tea rooms in London, often approaching girls with the disingenuous statement that he had mistaken his prospect for an actress famous on stage or in movies. Sometimes, Davidson masqueraded as an agent and suggested that he could find theatrical work for the impoverished women that he met in the tea rooms. In that capacity, he was said to audition the girls by asking them to dance for him. In some respects, Davidson’s behavior verged on what we would characterize as "stalking" today – he pursued his mostly teenage quarries with persistence, repeatedly importuning them to come to the rectory in Stiffkey where he could minister to their souls. Davidson backed-up his pleas with small gifts of money, purchasing the women meals and groceries, and sometimes supplying them with medicine. In this process, Davidson incurred substantial debts and lived beyond his means. People began to complain that his ministry to the prostitutes was monopolizing his time, distracting him from duties he owed to the upstanding members of his congregation, and, further, impoverishing his church.

Things came to a head in 1930 when Rev. Davidson inadvertently insulted the formidable Major Philip Hamond, one of the church wardens within the district for which the pastor was responsible. Davidson’s attendance at Sunday services had become erratic – often he missed train connections to return him from London to the Stiffkey parish in Norwich; on other occasions, he arrived obviously disheveled and ill-prepared, just in time for the service to begin – on several occasions, he appeared in his parish churches without bread and sacramental wine and the services had to be delayed while he procured those necessary elements. As it happened, Davidson failed to appear for an Armistice Day service at the church supervised by Major Hamond in Morston. Hamond took this as an insult to the all members of the British armed services and made complaints to the ecclesiastical authorities that Davidson was derelict in the performance of his duties. Things devolved between the two men to the extent that on one occasion, Major Hamond, who had a habit of putting his boot into people’s backsides, kicked Davidson – a substantial blow that resulted in litigation and a conviction of assault rendered against Hamond (he was obligated to pay Davidson damages).

On Hamond’s complaint, an ecclesiastical investigation was convened, witnesses were deposed, and, ultimately, a hearing was conducted in the Consistory Court of the Anglican Church as to whether the Rev. Harold Davidson should be defrocked. The proceedings were a media circus, avidly covered by the gentlemen of the press. A flock of soiled doves, fallen women, Jezebels and harlots testified that Davidson had harassed and importuned them, secured the keys to their flats, and, then, made visits at all hours of the night. Lurid accusations were advanced in the form of scandalous letters. A woman named Rose Ellis, who had advanced some of the most garish accusations, retracted her written statement, a document in which she detailed a ten-year meretricious liaison the Prostitute’s Padre. (In her retraction, she limited her intimate contact with Davidson to lancing a boil on his backside. This retraction led to reams of testimony as to the woman’s contact with the pastor’s buttocks and culminated in Davidson’s bizarre assertion that he didn’t know the meaning of the word "buttocks", had never heard the term before, and guessed that it referred to something below the waist.) Davidson gave jocular testimony, first acknowledging rendering professional assistance to one-hundred to two-hundred women but, then, amending his estimate to a couple thousand.

Of course, as in all media circuses, appearance trumps reality and so, when a compromising photograph of Rev. Davidson surfaced, and was much published, the result of the Consistory Court proceedings was a foregone conclusion. The photograph, the second image defining Harold Davidson, shows the Rector in a shabby-looking room with a potted plant on a tripod and a half-naked girl. The room has wallpaper that looks like the decomposing stuff in a Terence Davies’ movie and exudes a low bourgeois squalor – a typical low-end London lodging reached by climbing four or five flights of narrow, serpentine steps with each landing adorned with ashtrays full of fag-ends and framed engravings of sea-battles. Davidson, wearing a clerical collar, extends his hand to touch the arm of the girl. The Rector was a tiny man, standing slightly less than 5 foot 3 inches tall and the girl looks sideways and down on him – she doesn’t exactly tower over the clergyman but is palpably larger than him in all respects. The girl is holding some kind of garment in front of her body and we see her from behind. Visible to us, but, perhaps not to Davidson, are her naked buttocks, legs, and back. The girl’s figure is weirdly impoverished – her legs are white stalks like sprigs of asparagus under the saggy buttocks characteristic of late-nineteenth century glamour girls. The contrast between Davidson’s fussy clerical attire and the girl’s nudity is shocking, particularly since the girl doesn’t seem to be particularly attractive – we can’t see her face, only the tight little helmet of her black hair, ala Louise Brooks, crowning her small, velvety head. Davidson looks at the girl’s profile with a peculiar glittering eye and fixed jaw.

The picture is enigmatic. It doesn’t explain itself and, certainly, there is nothing clear about the setting or occasion. When the photograph was produced before the Consistory Court, Davidson claimed that it was staged. He asserted that he had been asked to judge the suitability of a bathing suit for a fifteen-year old girl, Estelle Douglas, the daughter of a close friend. The girl appeared before him with a cloak covering the front of her body. Davidson denied that he knew that the girl was naked under the cloak and asserted that the picture was taken to falsely corroborate the claims of immorality against him. But the photograph was widely disseminated and claimed to speak for itself and, ultimately, did its nasty work: the Rev. Harold Davidson was duly defrocked by the Court.

Rev. Davidson retreated to Stiffkey where some of his parishioners still supported him. But he was asked to surrender his churches to their wardens and, it was at this time, that he received the resounding kick to his backside delivered by Major Hamond, a tortious indignity for which the former Rector was paid money-damages. Davidson appealed the Consistory court’s ruling and, to finance his legal battle, reverted to show business. He enrolled himself in a freak show on the seafront boardwalk in a resort town in Lancashire, Blackpool. Davidson’s sojourn in that establishment is the source of the third and last photograph characterizing the reverend’s peculiar biography.

The black and white picture shows a great crowd of men and women, all of them wearing jaunty caps and dark coats; the people are watching something and the spectators all grin toward the camera that looks down upon them. The mob of people entirely surrounds a round, mortar-shaped cylinder, something that looks like it might be used to make beer or distill whiskey – there are some odd tubes and box-shaped appendages atop the barrel. At the lower right edge of the picture, we can see the silver mane of the little Rector of Stiffkey – he looks up appreciatively at the camera, showing his matinee-idol profile and also smiles. Again the picture shows an odd disconnect – it isn’t clear that the majority of the spectators can see Davidson; he is on the other side of the barrel with only his head emerging from inside the cylinder. The caption of the picture tells us that it shows Reverend Harold Davidson, the "ex-Rector of Stiffkey," preparing to enter his barrel for a fast "unto death".

Davidson announced that he would reside in the barrel displayed in the congress of oddities on the Blackpool boardwalk, "working on his appeal," and taking no sustenance until he was restored to his clerical officer. His supporters and the curious public were admitted to the exhibition after paying an admission fee and allowed to gawk at the ex-Rector through a glass panel. Other exhibits on display were the "world’s fattest man," a shabby and melancholy gorilla, and a "bearded woman from Russia." People who saw Davidson in his barrel recall the press of the crowd, their mockery and vituperative remarks, the stink of the seashore mingling with the rank odor of animal piss coming from the cages. (Presumably, Davidson took to a barrel for his dwelling in imitation of Diogenes, the cynic. After Diogenes was expelled from Sinope for defacing its currency, he was said to have lived in a large ceramic jug, a pithos used for storing wine – this habitation is variously described in English as a tub or a barrel. Like Davidson, Diogenes relished making a spectacle of himself and was said to masturbate and defecate in public.)

Of course, Rev. Davidson did not perish in his barrel. When the novelty of the exhibition faded, he revamped the show to feature various ordeals – first, he sat in a freezing chamber, covered with snow and ice, proclaiming his innocence to the world. This display was sufficiently disturbing to induce the local authorities to prosecute the ex-Rector for "attempted suicide" – presumably, the charge and the subsequent trial, a proceeding that Davidson won, were, themselves, publicity stunts. Later, he had a diorama rigged-up so that he could sit among flames, roasting as a mechanical devil prodded him with a pitchfork. But, ultimately, the public’s interest in his case was exhausted, admissions declined and Davidson withdrew from the Blackpool sideshows.

For a couple of years, the ex-Rector pursued various endeavors. He sold books door-to-door and gave lectures; for a time, he lugged trunks and suitcases as a porter at St. Pancras Station. (In 1935, he was charged with solicitation at Victoria station – Davidson was accused of trying to seduce two teenage girls that he had approached under the false auspices of winning them roles in West End musical; he was convicted and paid a small fine.) When his repeated appeals for reinstatement failed, Davidson went to Skegness, another seaside resort town, where he developed a sideshow attraction based on the story of Daniel in the lion’s den. The gimmick was simple enough: Davidson preached for ten minutes and, then, boldly entered a cage where two fat and middle-aged lions, Freddie and Toto, awaited him. The exhibition was the center-piece of a number of animal-themed shows operated on the Skegness boardwalk by Captain Fred Rye. (A possible basis of Davidson’s interest in this exhibition was the fact that the lions had been tamed by a 16-year old girl, Irene Sommer.) The show was a big success; people flocked to hear Davidson preach before entering the lion’s den, and, in fact, a number of clergy attended the sideshow exhibit and recommended it to their congregations.

On July 28, 1937, Rev. Davidson delivered his speech, nodded to the crowd, and, then, marched into the lion’s den. What happened next is unclear. By some accounts, Davidson is said to have "trodden upon" one of the lion’s tails. Other narratives say that he cracked his whip too loudly near Freddie, unduly alarming the beast. In any event, Freddie charged Davidson and seized the little man in his jaws. Holding Davidson by the throat, Freddie pranced around the lion’s den until Irene Sommer was able to persuade the beast to release his prey. Unconscious, Davidson flopped to the floor of the den. He was rushed to a hospital but never revived. Newspapers reported that over 3000 people attended the funeral of the ex-rector of Stiffkey.

Captain Fred Rye, the proprietor of the animal show, capitalized on the tragedy by displaying Freddie to the public for an additional admission fee – the animal was exhibited under the banner: "SEE the Actual Lion that mauled and caused the death of the ex-Rector of Stiffkey." By all accounts, the show was very popular.

Of course, there are no images of Reverend Harold Davidson dangling like a rag doll from the jaws of the lion. A lion’s repast is a gruesome thing and unsuitable for public display.

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