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By Selina Hurley on

Happy Halloween

The witching hour is fast approaching and ghouls, ghosts and monsters are coming out to play – but I’ll bet you’ve never seen anything quite like this.

Dried merman, possibly Dutch or Japanese, possibly a Javanese ritual figure, possibly 1850-1900.
‘Merman’, 1801-1900 (Science Museum, London)

I’m not sure what scares me the most about the chimera we lovingly call the ‘merman’ – the strange stitching together of bird, fish and monkey, or the rather creepy pose or the way the eyes follow you around a room.

The merman is more reminiscent of an animal version of Frankenstein than a museum object. These manufactured monsters often formed part of a gentleman’s cabinet of curiosity.  For others, they were simply forms of entertainment and bafflement.

But Halloween wouldn’t be Halloween without a nod to our blood-sucking friends and I don’t mean vampires. May I introduce Hirudo medicinalis.

Pharmacist holding a bowl of leeches, 23 January 1935 (© NMeM / Daily Herald Archive / Science & Society)

Leeches have been a weapon in the treatment of disease for centuries. They were used for bloodletting as a way of balancing the humours. The use of leeches in Europe peaked between 1830 and 1850, with demand far outstripping supply. Some pharmacists and doctors were using them right up until the 1930s and 1940s.

But how do you catch and store these blood suckers? In the 18th and 19th century, finding leeches was often women’s work. The leeches attached themselves to the legs and feet of the women who plucked them off and stored them in the little barrels of water. Not a pleasant job I imagine.

Women collecting leeches. Print, coloured aquatint from The Costume of Yorkshire.
‘Leech finders’, 1814 (1989-753/6, Science Museum London)

Storing these creatures is another matter. A range of containers were developed from cages, boxestubes, jars and even houses.

Blue and white pharmacy leech jar, marbled and gilt earthenware
Pharmacy leech jar, marbled and gilt earthenware, 1830-1870 (A637617, Science Museum, London)

Today, leeches are still used especially in cases of surgical reconstructions to aid and restore blood flow. I wonder if this will make you change your mind about some of the creatures you may meet tonight!

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