The news that crooks had just broken into the Natural History Museum annex at Tring in Hertfordshire, just north of London, to steal precious Rhino Horns caught my attention.
On the Asian black market these horns would fetch £240,000, where they would be ground to powder and sold as weird medicinal potions. Fortunately, the robbers were thwarted by the museum curators who had replaced the originals with resign replicas after a spate of similar thefts from other museums. Chuckling at the news story I was reminded of a pair long forgotten fleas.
The Museum at Tring was a privately owned collection of Birds, Mammals and Insect from around the world and was the passion child of Lionel Walter – 2nd Baron Rothschild, heir to the world wide Rothschild Banking Dynasty. He reluctantly ran the bank during the late 1880’s, he didn’t make a big fist of it, instead always distracted by his real interest: Natural History.
Lionel turned the family home in Tring Park into a unique collection of birds, insects and mammals from around the world. He was the only man ever to ride a carriage drawn by Zebras to Buckingham Palace. Lionel was not a strong man, and although he made some trips to North Africa to collect species, he mostly paid other explorers to gather the collection for him. By the time he opened the museum to the Public in 1892 he had the largest Natural History collection in the world.
He never married but had several mistresses. In 1932 he was forced to sell a majority of his rare stuffed bird collection to the American Museum of Natural History to pay off a woman who was blackmailing him.
His younger brother Charles, who took over running the family business – is the one really relevant to our story here. Although he took the Bank into its most prosperous period he also had a parallel passion – insects! He always dreamed of becoming a professional Entomologist, (indeed he wrote his first scientific paper, on moths and butterflies, while still at school), but his real speciality was fleas: he became the world’s leading expert and assembled a collection of more than a million of the little things, (now housed in the British museum).
What these robbers missed were the fleas. In fact, two fleas in particular, the fleas that are dressed as a pair of Mexican water carriers. Had they taken them instead; they would then have joined a rare coterie of people who posses Dressed Fleas.
Dressed fleas are really a Mexican tradition. Nuns would sit in the cool of the evening toiling under oil lamps and using a magnifying glass, they would glue the tiny bits of clothing onto the dead fleas. In the hot afternoon Sun, they would sell them, to passing tourists for a very small sum. A pair of these fleas was purchased by one of Baron Rothschild’s proxy explorers and put into his museum where they are still displayed.
I first saw them on a visit to Tring one afternoon when my partner at the time and I were planning our camping Safari to Kenya. We had set up the tent we were taking by the river in Tring about 10 miles outside London.. We were testing our equipment. We cooked with new the stove. We lay in our light weight sleeping bags, with our head s outside the tent smoking and listening to the night sounds. The radio was tuned to the BBC World Service.
The next morning, just to get us in the mood for our Safari, we went to the Natural History Museum to check out some stuffed wild animals;. On the first floor where the head of the Giraffe on ground floor poked through, we wandered around the insect room. Many of the exhibits were in display cabinets; each with a pair of wooden doors, and in order to see what was inside, one had to open the doors revealing a variety of very frightening bugs, insects and spiders. I thought I was ready for the animals of Africa, but I had not once thought about the little critters. The Lions and crocodiles will rip you apart in seconds; but the little ones will either frighten the bloody bejeebers out of you, or fill you with venom guaranteeing a slow, sweaty, paralyzing death.
I had to stop opening the doors on the display cabinets; I couldn’t take the shock of seeing another spider with legs that would span the Grand Canyon and colouring that reached down into my guts and twisted them tight. I don’t like Spiders. But I couldn’t resist just one more door. Inside was something quite tiny, and viewers were invited to look through a lens suspended against the glass. Placing one eye close to the cabinet glass I spied a pair of fleas dressed with Mexican hats, coats and something like water bags on their backs. That’s what the label told me, or I wouldn’t have quite seen it.
The exhibit was so unusual and amusing that all the knotted dread of creatures I might encounter in Africa vanished. I decided not to think about spiders and scorpions any more. The Safari – which culminated in a few days on the most relaxed and chilled Island of Lamu off the Kenyan coast in the Indian Ocean – was back on.
There are flea circuses.
Did you know that? Over the last couple of hundred years there are entertainers who have run end-of-the-pier type attractions and fairground side shows employing the help of performing fleas. I say performing but in reality, they are reacting.
The human flea is the only variety that can hack the circus life; by “human” I don’t mean to confer on them any high evolutionary status, but merely that they like human blood. Size for size, they are powerful beasts. They can jump several hundred times an hour to 10 inches in the air. When they start the jump they are pulling over 100g’s of force.
Astronauts on Apollo missions only experienced 7.9g’s of force on their bodies. It would be like us jumping over Big Ben in less than two seconds from standing still.
If you are dexterous enough to put a fine wire harness around their necks, then you can mount them on all sorts of contraptions. For example you can affix them to a very small carriage and their powerful legs will enable them to pull the vehicle forward as they try to escape. Put four of them in line and we’re off to the races. Secure two of them upright facing each other and by introducing a cotton wool ball you can get them to play soccer, their powerful flailing legs will propel the ball between them. Glue fine wires on the ends of their legs and you can get them to sword fight. They can walk the high wire and dance a waltz.
For all the flea’s miniature strength and prowess, there is little talent or showmanship; all the pizzazz coming from the circus owner who would beguile an audience with the wonders of the flea world.
Knowing about the Tring dressed Fleas are just one those bits of information one has rattling about my mind’s cupboard that hardly ever prove to be useful, save for the hope that one day it might come up in a Pub quiz.
Twenty years later and I find myself driving through Northwood, a very leafy suburb to the North of London, looking for a tucked away house I had often visited; but this time I couldn’t find it. I pulled into the forecourt of a car showroom. I pushed open the glass door and walked through the showroom looking for someone to get directions. My shoes squeaked loudly on the polished floor as I walked past brand new BMWs and Mercedes cars.
Sitting at a desk in the back of the showroom was a salesman and across from him a most glamorous woman, slim with legs that went that on for ever, slender fingers with bright red nails, and elegant two-piece and some discreet jewellery. She listened intently as the salesman was trying to describe an object with his fingertips denoting something tiny. He was emphasising just how small this something was. Suddenly in mid sentence he stopped speaking, they both looked up at me.
Without preamble and with his fingers still poised in mid air describing that tiny something he said “Have you heard about the Mexican water carrying fleas at the Tring Natural History Museum?”
“Oh yes” I told them, “The museum is a few miles up the road from here. They were quite popular with tourists to Mexico in late Victorian times. Old women would make these curios for a peso or two”
There was no stopping me now. “They are known as Pulgas Vestidas” I continued “which is Spanish for “Dressed fleas”and have become collector’s items – but I doubt the Museum would ever sell theirs. Did you also know that in the Edinburgh Museum of Childhood they have a small box containing a flea wedding party?”
I didn’t know what his game was, but to ask independent verification of the tale he was telling her from a chance random stranger who had just happened to walk into the showroom was an all or nothing gambit. It paid off!
Slightly shaking his head in amazement, He couldn’t believe his luck, and she was obviously newly impressed by the salesman.
They couldn’t help me with directions, so, having served my purpose, I began my squeaky return journey across the car showroom and back out into the bright afternoon sun.
I often wonder if he managed to sell her a car that afternoon.