This week's Friday funny, brought to you as ever by author and journalist Eugene Byrne, looks at a letter from Mrs Mary Midnight to the Royal Society, containing some 'new and curious improvements upon the Cat-Organ'

The letter


I need not inform persons of your infinite experience and erudition, that the Cat-Organ, as it has hitherto been made use of, was no more than what followeth, viz. A plain harpsichord, which instead of having strings and jacks, consists of cats of different sizes, included in boxes, whose voices express every note in the gamut, which is extorted from the imprison’d animals, by placing their tails in grooves, which are properly squeezed by the impression of the organist’s fingers on the keys. – This instrument, unimproved as it was, I have often heard with incredible delight; but especially in the Grand and the plaintive – This delight grew upon me every time I was present at its performance. At length I shut myself up for seven years to study some additions and improvements, which I have at length accomplished, agreeable to my warmest wishes, and which I with all due submission now lay before you.

In the first place then it is universally known and acknowledged that these animals, at the time of their amours, are the most musical creatures in nature; I would therefore recommend it to all and singular Cat-Organists, to have a most especial regard to the time of cater-wauling, particularly if they have any thing very august or affecting to exhibit.

Secondly, it is also very well known that the best voices are improved by castration. I therefore never have less than eight geldings in my treble cleft. – And here I cannot help informing you of an experiment I lately made on an Italian boar-cat, and an English one of the same gender; and I solemnly protest that, after the operation, my country animal had every whit as delicate, piercing, and comprehensive a tone as the foreigner. – And I make no sort of doubt but some of our harmonious Englishmen would shine with an equal lustre, if they had the same ADVANTAGES as the Italians. – This may be worth the consideration of the people in power: - For, if this experiment had been tried with success, how many thousand pounds would it have save this nation?

Thirdly, of the forte and Piano. – I must not omit to tell you, gentlemen, that my Cat-Organ resembles a double harpsichord; for as that has two rows of keys, so mine has two layers of cats. – The upper row on which I play piano, or softly, consists of cats, both of a lesser size, and whose tails are squeezed by a much less degree of pressure; that is, by nothing but the bare extremity of the key. – But the lower row, on which I play forte, or loudly, contains an harmonious society of banging grimalkins; and whose tails are severely pricked by brass-pins inserted at the end of the key for that purpose.

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I am, Gentlemen,
Your most obedient humble Servant.

The story

That's a (somewhat edited) version of an article written by Christopher 'Kit' Smart (1722-1771), friend of Samuel Johnson and Henry Fielding, and literary star of 18th-century London in his own right. Smart was a colourful figure, but to posterity he is also enigmatic in the extreme.

A devout (if not fanatical) Anglican, he is mostly known for his religious poetry, yet he was also capable of coarse buffoonery as well as high satire and ended his days in a debtor's prison. He spent several years in an asylum, though whether or not he was actually suffering from any mental illness is disputed. During his time in St Luke's Hospital for Lunatics, he wrote what is now his most famous poem, Jubilate Agno, which was not, however published until 1939. It was set to music as Rejoice in the Lamb by Benjamin Britten.

The spoof letter to the learned men of science in the Royal Society appeared in his magazine The Midwife under his pen-name Mary Midnight in 1751. It's partly satirical - those with a sharp historical eye will also note the poke at the period's infatuation with Italian castrati opera singers. Mostly, though, this is an example of the surreal strand of English humour what had taken root by the 18th century (see also, e.g. Laurence Sterne or Jonathan Swift) and which is a direct ancestor to the Goons and Monty Python, and many others.

Python scholars may have been reminded by this of the Python sketch in which Terry Jones proposes to entertain an audience by "playing" white mice which have been trained to squeak different notes ... by hitting them with mallets.

While Christopher Smart was making a joke, history before his time and since is littered with bizarre episodes in which people did indeed try to make music from banks of animals. The most famous would probably be the occasion on which the emperor Charles V and his son (later Philip II of Spain) were "entertained" by a cat-organ. In this, 16 cats, arranged in order of the tone of their meows, were "played" by a keyboard which pulled their tails.

Apparently a number of other cat organs have been made down the years, including one by the pioneering German psychiatrist Johann Christian Reil (1759-1813) who used it to treat patients with attention disorders - on the basis that if an organ made of cats didn't get their attention, nothing would!

Other animals have been tried, too. Louis XI of France (r. 1461-1483) was said to have been entertained by an organ made of pigs. A similar instrument was a big hit with the crowds at London's Great Exhibition in 1851.