Field of Science

Maison Verreaux - Animal Specimens of All Varieties

Jules Verreaux. Photo from here.

Last week, I mentioned that I was attempting to research details of the lives of the 19th Century naturalists Jules and Édouard Verreaux, and indicated that I would share what I had been able to find. This is that post. I warn you, it's going to be a trifle incoherent. I'm no Brian Switek, and the problem is that despite the significant presence of Maison Verreaux in mid-1800s European zoology, none of the Verreauxs (Verreauxes?) seem to have left much in the way of personal accounts of their activities. As a result, one is forced to try and cobble together details from secondary sources and other writer's allusions, and when one does find more than one description of a certain event, the descriptions often conflict. (There are also a few significant references that I don't have access to.)

Jules Pierre* (born 1807), Jean-Baptiste Édouard (1810) and Joseph Alexis (the youngest) were the three sons of Pierre Jacques Verreaux, the founder in 1800 (or shortly afterwards) of the firm Maison E. Verreaux in Paris. Their mother Joséphine was the sister of Pierre Antoine Delalande, another well-known French naturalist. Maison Verreaux was a commercial taxidermy and natural history firm, bringing in specimens from all other the world and reselling them to interested parties, including a number of museums (the Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle seems to have been a big customer). In 1818, at the age of eleven, Jules accompanied his uncle Delalande to South Africa, and was there until 1820. He was to return to the Cape in 1825, after his uncle's death, and became a curator of the South African Museum in 1829.

*Not even his name is unequivocable - a couple of sources give it as "Pierre Jules".

In 1828, Jules Verreaux was sued for marriage by the family of Elisabeth Greef, a young woman who had borne an illegitimate child to Jules earlier that year (McKenzie, 2005). Jules had previously proposed marriage to Elisabeth, only to revoke the proposal later. Jules defended himself in the court with the claims that he was ignorant of having made such a proposal due to his not speaking Dutch, that he was a minor and so not empowered to make such a proposal without parental consent, and that it was all Elisabeth's fault anyway for being a slut (he even went to the extent of engineering for Elisabeth to mistakenly embrace a old boyfriend of hers while being watched by hidden witnesses). The court was not impressed by Jules' "artful, malicious and diabolical" behaviour - his claim of ignorance was obviously an outright lie, and Elisabeth was no more improprietous than any other young woman of the time. Unfortunately, Jules' minor status was an impassable legal hurdle, and the marriage suit had to be turned down. The judge did suggest to Elisabeth that she renew the suit once Jules reached his majority, but this never happened - as McKenzie (2005) suggests, perhaps the emotional trauma of being publicly scrutinised for slatternry was more than Elisabeth was willing to put herself through again.

The controversial "El Negro" while still on display in Spain in 2000. The exaggerated blackness of the skin was due to its being overly blackened with boot polish (chemicals such as arsenic probably used in preparing the mount would have bleached his skin). Widespread protest lead to the BaTswana man's repatriation and proper burial in Botswana shortly after this photo was taken. Photo from Univiersity of Botswana History Department, via South Pacific Taxidermy.

In 1829 or 1830, Édouard joined his brother in the Cape, taking custody of a large collection of South African specimens collected by Jules and returning with them to Paris in 1830 or 1831. One of these specimens, though it attracted relatively little attention at the time, was to become the subject of much controversy in the 1990s - the stuffed body of a young BaTswana man. See Parsons (2002) and Molina (2002) for the history of "El Negre", as this figure became known. Jules claimed in a letter to Georges Cuvier to have stolen the body from a graveyard the night after its burial, at no small risk to himself from its guards (though to be honest, I can't help wondering if he had jazzed up the story a little in order to increase the apparent value of the specimen - if so, the pitch failed. Cuvier didn't buy the body). The collection of human remains was not entirely uncommon at the time - the specimens from Delalande's earlier expedition to the Cape included nearly two dozen skeletons and a number of skulls, while the remains of Tasmanian aborigines were to be among material later collected by Jules in Australia. Only a few years earlier, in 1816, Cuvier himself had conducted his dissection of Sara Baartman, who had been patronisingly eroticised as the "Hottentot Venus" (despite not being a Hottentot). While Maison Verreaux never handled a huge number of human specimens (the unfortunate BaTswana notwithstanding), this was probably a matter of commercial interests rather than due to any ethical considerations (Molina, 2002).

During the period of 1832-1838, things get confusing (which is annoying, because this is one of the periods I most need to find out about). What is certain is that Édouard returned to the Cape in 1832 in the company of the youngest brother, Alexis, who was to remain in South Africa until his death in 1868 (Gunn & Codd, 1981). Édouard then took ship to east Asia in 1832 or 1833. In Jules' 1874 obituary in the Ibis, it states that Jules also travelled to east Asia, and implies that the two brothers both remained there until 1837. However, other sources (Stresemann, 1975; Gunn & Codd, 1981) state that Édouard returned to Paris in 1833 or 1834 to take over the running of Maison Verreaux's home office. Meanwhile, Stresemann (1975) implies and Dubow (2006) states that Jules remained as curator of the South African Museum until 1838! I have little idea how to decide between these accounts*, but it is certain that Jules returned to Paris in 1837 or 1838 and became established at Maison Verreaux. Also certain is that the wreck of the ship "Lucullus" in 1838 resulted in the destruction of a large number of specimens collected by Jules Verreaux on their way back to Paris from abroad (despite one source referring to Jules himself only narrowly surviving the wreck, in this regard at least I am inclined to trust the obituary, which states that Jules had returned on a separate ship from his specimens).

*Normally, I would trust the obituary as having been written closer to the time, but the obituary has a slipshod composition and 'boy's own story' tone that, to be honest, undermines its credibility for me. In cases where it disagrees with other sources, it also tends to form the minority.

Jules Verreaux's "Arab Courier attacked by Lions". This mount remains on display at the Carnegie Institute. Photo, again, from here.

For the next few years, Jules remained in Paris, but in 1842 (we're back on firmer dates now) he travelled to Australia with the backing of the Muséum national, where he was to remain until 1847. No detailed account of Jules' movements in Australia exists, but he seems to have mostly travelled in New South Wales and Tasmania. He may have also travelled to New Zealand about this time. After his return to Paris, he concentrated most of his attention on bird specimens, though continuing to handle a number of other taxa. His taxidermic diorama 'Arab Courier attacked by Lions', featuring a man mounted on a camel being (as the label said) attacked by two lions (the lions and the camel were all stuffed specimens; the man in this case was a mannequin*) was highly awarded in 1867 (dioramas were a great source of public entertainment before the invention of film). Offhand, the lions featured in the diorama were the Barbary subspecies, Panthera leo leo, which was to become extinct not long afterwards.

*Molina (2002) implies that it could have originally been a real human and later replaced by a mannequin, but other than the previous case of the BaTswana there seems little reason to entertain this suggestion.

Édouard Verreaux died in 1868. Jules Verreaux fled Paris at the beginning of the Franco-Prussian war in 1870, and was received enthusiastically in England by the young ornithologist Richard Bowdler Sharpe. He remained in England until his death in 1873.

While Jules Verreaux was highly praised by his associates during his lifetime, the affair with Elisabeth Greef was symptomatic of a certain, shall we say, economical attitude to the truth. This attitude has, unfortunately, clouded Jules Verreaux's legacy in zoology. Maison Verreaux specimens became notorious for poor locality data (usually with little more detail than 'Madagascar' or 'Australia'), and what little data there was has often proven unreliable. In at least a few cases, specimens were attributed to completely inaccurate localities (Olson et al., 2005). These misattributions may even have been deliberate, in order to give a specimen a more valuable provenance (Olson et al. mention, among others, a Virginia rail originally labelled 'Martinique' for which the original locality had been crossed out and 'Nlle Zelande' [New Zealand] written instead). As a result, many Verreaux specimens simply cannot be trusted as far as you can throw them. So the answer to my original question that sparked this search, whether a supposedly Australian Verreaux specimen held at Paris actually came from Australia, or whether it could perhaps have come from south-east Asia instead, can't be pinned down to anything more definite than "Who knows?"


Dubow, S. 2006. A Commonwealth of Knowledge. Oxford University Press.

Gunn, M. & L. E. W. Codd. 1981. Botanical Exploration of Southern Africa: An Illustrated History of Early Botanical Literature on the Cape Flora. CRC Press.

McKenzie, K. 2005. Scandal in the Colonies. Melbourne University Publishing.

Molina, M. 2002. More notes on the Verreaux brothers. Pula: Botswana Journal of African Studies 16 (1): 30-36.

Olson, S. L., R. C. Fleischer, C. T. Fisher & E. Bermingham. 2005. Expunging the ‘Mascarene starling’ Necropsar leguati: archives, morphology and molecules topple a myth. Bulletin of the British Ornithologists’ Club 125 (1): 31-42.

Parsons, N. 2002. One body playing many parts- le Betjouana, el Negro, and il Bosquimano. Pula: Botswana Journal of African Studies 16 (1): 19-29.

Stresemann, E. 1975. Ornithology from Aristotle to the Present. Harvard University Press.


  1. "I'm no Brian Switek"

    It's a good thing you're not, and I'll tell you why.

    1) One Brian Switek is more than enough.

    2) I could not have written such an excellent post. Well done, Chris! I had forgotten about the man behind "Arab Courier attacked by Lions", one of my favorite bits of taxidermic art.

  2. Unfortunately stuffed African is no longer unusual.

    There is now a collection of skinned human cadavers mounted in fancy poses (eg. playing chess or burdsting out of their skins) travelling around Europe and N America. Oh, carcasses are white and there is some unspecified suggestion that it is education, so all if fine. So are we better than 19. century?


  3. John Scanlon FCD8 April 2009 at 07:31

    "So are we better...?"

    Mostly, I think. There were some pretty decent folk around in the 1800s (Charles Darwin e.g. stood up to proponents of slavery and did not collect recent human skulls on his travels, though he easily could have) and still plenty of racism today (but most prominent in political struggles where race is largely an arbitrary marker for affiliation: consider Mugabe vs. the white farmers, or redneck Obamaphobia, or Hutu and Tutsi). Those plastinated human cadavers are actually a technical and educational marvel, and the fact that they were once the bodies of Chinese people (or of executed 'criminals') is not THE point of them, in the way that El Negro's blackness IS. But you suggest there are 'white' ones on these touring exhibitions as well? Didn't know that. So what's the problem? - if from Europe or North America, they would presumably have volunteered; nobody is harmed.

  4. Jerzy, I'm going to (somewhat reservedly) agree with John, but I do think that your question is one that is well worth asking (and indeed, one that must be asked) in these situations.

    I don't have anything against the exhibit of human remains in itself. The important questions, as I see it, are whether the subjects were bequeathed voluntarily for exhibit by their original owners, and what is the purpose of the exhibition. Maison Verreaux's specimen was probably stolen, and was shown off as a specimen of a savage (though he may have originally been prepared as a demonstration of the Verreaux firm's technical skill). I don't know about the modern exhibit Jerzy refers to - if John is right about the subjects being executed Chinese criminals, then it probably fails my first requirement.

  5. "So are we better...?", evolution would tell you that as nature shape us, then we follow - not the other way around.

  6. A greeting.
    Let me introduce myself. I am a natural science teacher at a secondary school of Badajoz (Spain). Our center was founded in 1845. It is one of the High School called historical. We are doing the catalog of naturalized animals and scientific instruments from our collection. (You can see the progress on this blog )
    We have about 125 species of birds and over 50 fish, many of them from the house Verreaux. I am writing you for help.
    We know your website and would like to know if you have more information on the Maison Verreaux. Our main problem centers on the dating of these pieces. We have a list of birds of the house in 1849, we believe that there are others, 1868, 1870, 1874. Do you have any of them? You know how to get them?

    Thank you very much for your attention.
    We await your response.
    Sorry for my English
    Sincerely natubarbara

  7. Unfortunately, I don't really know much more than I included in the post. The Paris museum received a large number of Verreaux specimens - perhaps they may have more detailed records?

  8. The Museum d'Histoire Naturelle de Paris has the manuscript of the Journal Jules Verreaux wrote during his voyage in Australia from 1842 to 1847. He came on the vessel "Le Rhin" as "naturaliste voyageur" employed by the Museum and came back with 15 000 specimens for the Museum.
    Jean Hyenne

  9. Thanks, Jean, that's very interesting. Do you know if any part of the journal has been published anywhere?

    1. I don't think so. I read that journal and took some notes. I also took photos of documents related with his financial dispute with the Muséum when he came back from his journey in Australia and also photos about his attempt to create a zoological garden.
      Jean Hyenne

    2. Hello

      If you go to the CALAMES online database = for manuscript material in French institutions - and then search : VERREAUX - you get this:

      22 items (with many sub items) and in which institutions they are held in France.


  10. Thanks for a great summary. I'm trying to find out more about the travels and collections of the Verreaux clan in Southern Africa - with particular interest in their herpetological collections. You may be interested in this summary of Jules momentous collecting trip with his uncle Pierre Delalande

    1. Thank you for that link. The idea of spending two months carving up a beached whale is not one that would be top of my bucket list.


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