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Sunday, July 25, 2010

SINGING MICE


ROBERT SCHNECK WRITES:

Hi Jon,

While doing some research on Lemurians, I came across several newspaper clippings about "singing mice". I never heard of singing mice, but they seem to have captured the public's attention in a small way from the mid-1930s to around 1940.

Robert

I have never seen these cuttings in the flesh as it were. I have been interested in singing mice for about 18 years now, and wrote a paper on the subject for the 1997 Fortean Studies and paraphrased it in my autobiography Monster Hunter (2004):

An item in the 43rd report of the Scientific Memoranda section of the Transactions of the Devonshire Association caught my eye. The headline read "Singing Mouse", and it quoted an item from the Western Morning News of 2 February 1937, which referred to:

“Mickey, the singing mouse caught by Mrs A. Eddey of Trafalgar-place, Stoke, Devonport.

Prof. Crews, of Edinburgh, wishes to investigate the vocal mouse in the interests of science, but Mrs Eddey's primary wish is that it should broadcast. . . ”

This was an opening paragraph worthy of anyone's attention. A singing mouse whose owner had showbusiness aspirations was a beast out of the pages of one of the Dr. Dolittle books. Mrs Eddey herself seemed almost prosaically matter-of-fact about the whole affair:

"It is true I have a lovely little singing mouse which I caught on the morning of January 10th. It sings like a canary. It is an ordinary house mouse, very small, and its little body seems to vibrate with music. It first came to my bedroom at 12. 2 [sic] A.M. on New Year's morning and it has sometimes sung the whole night. Even when trapped it did not stop chirping to me. I am sorry I can tell you nothing more, only that it is quite tame. . . "


The headline in the Western Morning News read "Mouse that has won fame", which seems eminently appropriate for such a peculiar story. George Doe, the Recorder of Scientific Memoranda for the Devonshire Association, reported that 'Mickey' was again in the news, when the Western Morning News of 12 March 1937 reported that Mrs Eddey's ambitions for her pet had been fulfilled:

“Apparently pleased with the success of his broadcast audition on Wednesday, Mickey, the Devonport singing mouse, kept his owner awake all night with his celebration tunes.

If all goes well, Mickey will soon be issuing a tuneful challenge across the ether to Minnie, his American rival. On Wednesday, Miss Mildred Bontwood, of the National Broadcasting Company, of America, travelled to Plymouth especially to see Mickey, having previously wired his owner Mrs A. Eddey, of Trafalgar-place, that she was bent on seeing him.

Mickey was put into his cage and taken around to the Plymouth Station of the British Broadcasting Corporation, and as a result of the audition Mrs Eddey has a contract to take the mouse to London and it is expected that Mickey will broadcast from there to the United States. ”

By the time I had finished reading this extraordinary series of articles I was almost in tears of laughter and was in imminent danger of being asked to leave the library. It all seemed too surreal, even for inclusion in a universe which experience has taught me and my colleagues is often totally absurd. The fact that the whole report had been compiled 54 years before by someone whose surname is commonly used by American policeman as a designation for unidentified corpses made the whole affair seem even more bizarre.

I decided that before proceeding with the affair the sources should be checked. I had the easy job. I checked the relevant issues of the Western Morning News and found that Mr Doe had indeed quoted the original press reports correctly. The BBC still had a copy of the recording, but unfortunately the documentation that went with it had gone astray. Alison, however, had the unenviable job of trying to find out something about Mrs Eddey.

Even if she had been a relatively young woman at the time, by 1991 Mrs Eddey would have been in her seventies. The odds were that she was dead. Trafalgar-place in Stoke didn't exist any more, and even if she were still alive, tracking her down seemed as if it was going to be an impossible task.

We were right. It was!

In 1991 there were 26 telephone numbers under the name of 'Eddey' in the Plymouth telephone book with Devonport addresses. Alison telephoned them all. Unfortunately none of them had heard of either Mrs Eddey or her talented rodent. Some people were helpful and polite, others abusive; none had any information that was actually any use in our quest.

There were several hundred people with the same surname living in other parts of Devon so we did what any sensible Fortean researchers would have done under the same circumstances. We gave up!

Instead of continuing the search for Mrs Eddey or one of her close relatives, we went back to searching the newspapers for more stories about this remarkable rodent, and we were not disappointed.

Back in 1937 the plot had thickened, as by April 'Mickey' had another British rival.

The headline in The Times on 22 April 1937 was:

“BBC Tests the Singing Mouse - (like a nightingale)”

The story read:

“Another singing mouse has been found - this time in Wales. It will be brought to the microphone on May 8th for a national broadcast, which will be relayed to the United States. The mouse, 'Chrissie', owned by Mr Gale of West Cross, Mumbles, Swansea, was given a test at the Swansea studio of the BBC and an official told a press representative that she sang 'like a nightingale'. For the test the mouse was held up to the microphone in a bottle.

The National Broadcasting Corporation of America has challenged any country to produce a singing mouse to beat the singing mice of Illinois. Mr Gale discovered the singing ability of his mouse last Christmas. Soon afterwards 'Chrissie' was missing. She was found hiding inside the piano. Before this it was claimed that the only singing mouse in Britain was that owned by a Devonport woman which has also been tested for broad-casting. ”

The Illinois mice had made their media debut the year before on a Detroit radio station when on 15th December they broadcast a recording of “Minnie the Singing Mouse” to mixed responses from the audience. “Some people thought that she sang like a robin, others compared her to a tone-deaf canary. The trouble with Minnie was getting her started, but once she opened her mouth she wouldn't stop.”

Three days later, according to Young, another Illinois mouse, named 'Mickey' and billed as her 'co-star', made his debut with a less than impressive performance. He, apparently got his feet wet while drinking water from a fruit jar, and refused to sing. After half a minute's silence an announcer told listeners that Mickey usually began a recital with a soft whirring trill rising into a crescendo, followed by a two note jump, tapering to a diminuendo. No-one believed him.

Writing in a book called Secrets of the Natural World, my friend and colleague, the British cryptozoologist Dr Karl P. N. Shuker, also described 'Minnie' and her career, and told how “…. in May 1937, a transatlantic radio contest for singing mice was staged, featuring rodent songsters from as far apart as London, Illinois and Toronto. ” .

The first English entry was a duet between Mickey from Devonport and Chrissie, a Welsh mouse. They piped quite brightly, but no-one could tell them apart. America's Minnie (from Illinois) ran round and round and refused to open her mouth. Mickey (also from Illinois) performed like a trouper, his top notes were described as being comparable with the greatest Italian tenors of the day.

Next came Johnny of Toronto, billed as the Toronto Tomado. He never had a chance; tens of thousands of radio listeners heard cries of 'Miaow! Miaow!', followed by a solemn announcement that the Tornado's career had ended.

It was back to London for another 'Mickey', but listeners mistook him for a leaky tap in the radio studio. At the end of the contest the sponsors (Canadian, American and British Broadcasting Corporations) announced the winners would take part in an international mouse opera broadcast live. Over half a century later we are still waiting for the grand results of the competition. Both NBC and the BBC have ignored my requests for the winners' names to be publicised, and to our knowledge the mouse 'grand opera' so eagerly awaited by Dr Dolittle and his friends has never been staged.
Young treated the whole affair in such a light-hearted matter, that, although there is enough corroboration to confirm that the event actually took place, the true details are obscure. We have succeeded in part of our original aim, however. 'Mickey' the singing mouse of Devonport definitely existed. He was not an unlikely hoax dreamed up by George M. Doe. There is even a picture of him, but there do not seem to be any records of his life after May 1937. Like so many semi-legendary historical characters, little is known of him apart from his brief flirtation with fame for five months in 1937. Mice don't as a rule live very long, and so we can reasonably suppose that he has passed over to pastures new.

The same can be said about the other mice in the story. Essentially the main part of our research was over. We were, however, still intrigued. Why had so many singing mice turned up between December 1936 and May 1937? What made them sing? Was there a historical precedent? Were there singing mice around today? If so, where could we get one?

I have to admit that my motivation at this point was not merely the furthering of the sum total of human knowledge. I have always had a strong and irrational dislike of Walt Disney. In the early 1980s there was an inept American punk rock ensemble called Bomb Disneyland and although the music was terrible I bought all their records because, unusually amongst the practitioners of American punk rock here was a sentiment with which I could sympathise. I was particularly incensed at what Disney Studios had done to great classics of English literature like The Jungle Book and Peter Pan and it would have amused me greatly to have proved that the whole Disney Empire had been based on an idea stolen from as peculiar rodent living in a suburb of Plymouth.

So, fuelled by a heady mix of righteous indignation and a surreal sense of humour, and ignoring the protestations of my wife I continued my researches. I discovered a number of letters to The Times discussing singing mice which were published during the 1930s and over a few months I amassed what I believe to be the largest archive of material on the subject to exist in the world.

It seemed that the phenomenon of 'singing' mice is quite a well-known one. As with so many things the phenomenon captured the interest of a number of Victorian writers and naturalists who discussed the matter at length. It seems that, despite our initial surprise in the Westcountry Studies Library, singing mice were a well-known phenomenon amongst out forefathers, and that it is only the effete researchers of Forteana and zoology at the end of the 20th century who had not heard of them. It was a little comforting to find out that with three exceptions, Dr Karl Shuker and my friends Clinton Keeling, the veteran British Zoologist and maverick zoological researcher Richard Muirhead (and they know all sorts of ridiculous things), no-one we would talk to during the rest of our investigations had heard of them either!

The 'craze' for singing during 1936 and 1937 led to much information becoming available. In The Times of April 22nd it was stated that a singing mouse had been found in Wales and that it was to broadcast on May 8th. A letter in the same issue informed the British populace that according to Red Indian mythology, 'Mish-a-boh-quas' the singing mouse always comes to tell of war. It may sing at other times but not to the same extent. The author of this letter cited “Ernest Thompson Seton's wonderful book 'Rolf in the Woods'.

This was just too much for me to deal with. What had originally been a mildly amusing piece of research into an obscure item of Devonshire Zoology now seemed to have analogues all over the world. A good friend and colleague of mine is a bloke called Tom Anderson. He lives in Scotland and it is a mark of the peculiar nature of the technological society in which we live that we have become firm friends by letter, e-mail and telephone conversation without ever having actually met face to face.

Besides being a highly amusing raconteur of tall tales and a collector of strange Scottish stories, Tom is an expert on matters appertaining to the Native American peoples, did some research for us but was unable to unearth any solid facts. He wrote to me:

“Despite strenuous efforts and consulting about thirty books on folk customs, anthropology and totemic realisation and ceremonial, I can find no reference to singing mice Their name sounds Algonquian, which limits them geographically but it doesn't appear anywhere, even as a sub-clan of a linguistic family such as kiowan, Siouan, Athabascan, etc.

Mice are an unusual tribal choice, either as totems, guardians or emblems. Not having the power of the Thunderbird to control the elements for the northern tribes, or the storytelling significance of the Coyote or Grandmother Spider further south, it's difficult to imagine its purpose. The nomadic tribes used medicine bundles for personal protection and luck, as you probably know. Feathers, lucky stones, weasel skins, claws, etc. , symbolic of speed, running and other desirable traits.
Custer's nemesis, the Oglala, Crazy Horse (Masunka Witco), whose war paint consisted of painting his face blue with white spots, symbolising hail, and wearing a sacred stone behind one ear and a hawk's body in his hair, was the rare combination of a mystic and a war leader”

Tom continued describing Crazy Horse for some paragraphs before returning to the main subject:

“…. mice are representative of nothing I'm aware of in Indian culture. Nor can I find evidence of them as design subjects for the Pueblo cultures on pottery, etc. Deer, yes. Mice, no!

He concluded:

I suspect it could be a 'retro myth'. A possibility, maybe even likely, but basically unfounded. It wouldn't be the first as Amerindians are 'hip' right now because of their 'green' lifestyle. I won't bore you with the shortcomings of this theory. ”

To confuse things further, Arkady Fielder wrote a book called The River of Singing Fish, referring to a type of sheat fish in the Ucauali River which apparently produces a noise like bells clanging. But no mice. Richard Muirhead, a bloke I had actually been at school with back in Hong Kong nearly three decades before eventually managed to track down the passage in the aforementioned book by Seton:

“A few nights later. as they sat by their fire in the cabin, a curious squeaking was heard behind the logs. They had often heard it before, but never as much now. Skookum turned his head on one side, set his ears at forward cock”

At this point, we feel, the reader should be reassured that 'Skookum' is the name of the dog owned by the eponymous hero, Rolf, during his sojourn in the woods. The narrative continues:

“Presently, from a hole 'twixt logs and chimney, there appeared a small, white-breasted mouse. Its nose and ears shivered a little, its black eyes danced in the firelight. It climbed to a higher log, scratched its ribs, then rising on its hind legs, uttered one or two squeaks like they had heard so often, but soon they became louder and continuous:

'Peo, peo, peo, peo, peo, peo, peo, oo,
Tree, tree, tree, tree, trrr,
Turr, turr, turr, tur, tur,
Wee, wee, wee, we'

The little creature was sitting up high on its hind legs, its belly muscles were working, its mouth was gaping as it poured out its music. For fully half a minute this went on, when Skookum made a dash; but the mouse was quick, and it flashed into the safety of its cranny.

RoIf gazed at Quonab inquiringly.

'That is Mish-a-boh-quas, the singing mouse. He always comes to tell of war. In a little while there will be fighting. '”

There are times when I look at my life as if from an outsider`s point of view that I think that everyone I know is either massively eccentric or barking mad, Some are both. For Richard was so excited by his discovery of the original 1915 reference to the Native American singing mice as a portent of war that he decided that merely posting me a photocopy of his discovery, or even telephoning me would be a wholly inadequate way to communicate this momentous discovery to me.

Nothing so tame! Despite the fact that the weather was appalling and it was a Bank Holiday weekend he decided to trace (I believe by a mixture of hitch-hiking and railway train) all the way from where he lived at the time in Salisbury to my home in Exeter in order to tell me of his fantastic find in person. Unfortunately he forgot to warn me of the fact. Alison and I were upstairs watching television when he arrived and didn`t hear his repeated knockings. Apparently he was standing on my doorstep for several hours singing the Red Indian mouse song a-la Ernest Thompson Seton before giving up and hitch-hiking back to Salisbury, still without having given me the original documents!

Rolf in the Woods is a dreadful book. From the photocopied excerpts eventually sent to us by Richard Muirhead we are exceedingly glad that we didn't have to read more of it than was absolutely necessary. It is also a work of fiction, although the author claimed to have based it on his own experiences. It also appears, although we cannot confirm this, to be the original source for both The Times, and the Young references.

We have not been able to find any other pre-1937 references to this legend. In the absence of any further supportive evidence we are forced to conclude that Tom Anderson may well be right and that the story of Mish-aboh-quas may well be nothing more than a relatively modern 'refto' myth based on an incident in a (not very good) novel.

Whether or not the Native Americans did have this legend, we can establish that native North American mice do sometimes exhibit this 'musical' ability.
So far all the mice which we have discussed which exhibited this 'musical' ability appear to be common house mice (Mus musculus), originally a Middle Eastern species which, commensal with man, has spread to every corner of the globe [161. Writing in 1871, however, William Hiskey noted:

“The cage had a revolving cylinder or wheel, such as tame squirrels have. In this it would run for many minutes at a time, singing with its utmost strength. This revolving cage, although ample as regards room, was not over three and a half inches long, and two and a half inches wide. ”

It could be argued, perhaps, that the sound of a mouse 'singing with its utmost strength', was in fact the sound of a desperately unwell animal wheezing and gasping for breath whilst rushing around in its wheel. I feel, however, that this hypothesis is unlikely, if only because of the unlikeliness of an animal suffering from such a severe and debilitating condition voluntarily taking exercise to this extent. And any way, Lockwood was a fine naturalist, and it would seem eminently unlikely that a man of his observational powers would have been unable to recognise diseased squeakings when he heard them. As we explored the surprisingly large body of source material about singing mice, it became more and more apparent that whilst it seems entirely likely, nay probable, that many of these 'singing' mice were, indeed, suffering from a debilitating respiratory tract infection, others, probably including 'Hespie', were exhibiting behaviour symptomatic of something else entirely. When an animal is ill, it is usually self-evident, especially to a competent naturalist, and Lockwood, in particular, spent some considerable time testing the 'respiratory infection' hypothesis, before rejecting it out of hand.

The final irony is that if indeed 'singing mice' are suffering from various respiratory tract infections, then the ancient Wiltshire folk legends of the advent of a singing mouse foretelling sickness could be nothing more than literal truth. The story of the 'Black Death', a global pandemic spread by lice living on the (then) ubiquitous black rat, is well known. If there is/was a disease of the respiratory tract which affected both mice and humans (and we should here remember that one of the best rationalisations for vivisection experiments on mice is that they are biologically relatively similar to our own species), then the advent of a diseased mouse could well have been the forerunner of an outbreak of disease amongst the human beings of the neighbourhood.

Unfortunately, it turned out that my main objective in this quest was fruitless and it was not possible to prove that Walt Disney made his fortune from an 'empire' based around the bastardised images of two rodents with debilitating upper respiratory tract infections, but the sheer peculiarity of our quest fascinated me and inspired me to go on stranger and more peculiar investigations into the soft white underbelly of the natural sciences.



1 comment:

Steve Jones said...

very interesting.I posted on this subject last year on here with a link to where you can actually hear the singing mice!