"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, June 25, 2018

The Lives of Adolphus Cooke; Or, The Down Side to Being Reincarnated as a Fox

Eccentrics arise in any era, and from any walk of life. However, it could be argued that the most outstanding examples of personal peculiarities could be found in the pre-modern gentry. Their financial and social security, coupled with large amounts of leisure time, allowed those who were naturally inclined to have a few screws loose to achieve their full potential of weirdness. The results were often people who were gloriously uninhibited, delightfully original, and first-class menaces to all unlucky enough to cross their paths.

What would this blog be without them?

In today's post, we look at one of the finest flowers of upper-class derangement: Adolphus Cooke, the Pride of Westmeath, Ireland. In his book "Irish Eccentrics," Peter Somerville-Large wrote that Cooke managed to "skirt the boundary of true madness." However, when one contemplates the fact that Cooke was convinced that his father had been reincarnated as a turkey, leading him to instruct his servants to take off their hats and genuflect whenever they encountered the bird, it may be that Somerville-Large was being overly optimistic.

Cooke was born in 1792, on his family's estate of Cookesborough. Cookes had lived on the land since the late 17th century. Unfortunately, by our hero's time, this land was much smaller than it had originally been. The Cooke menfolk combined a passion for gambling with appallingly bad luck, with the result that much of their property wound up being frittered away on losing bets.

Adolphus was illegitimate, the product of a union between lord of the manor Robert Cooke and one of his servants, whose name is now lost to history. After his birth, Robert's wife left him. Adolphus' mother was sent away, and the baby was given to a woman named Mary Kelly. Adolphus and his foster-mother were exiled to a cottage on the edge of the estate, never being allowed near the mansion.

Robert looked after his son's welfare, albeit in the traditionally peculiar Cooke fashion. Each day, a basket of provisions was sent to the cottage. There was never more than one day's worth of supplies, and these were carefully itemized out, down to weighing the amount of salt and counting the number of sods for the fire. One day a year, Kelly was allowed to go into town to buy the child clothes and shoes. When Adolphus grew old enough, he was sent to school in England, and then the army, where he served under Wellington. He seemed destined for the drab, anonymous existence usually allotted to illegitimate sons of rich men.

Fate, however, decided that Adolphus was destined for grander things. Robert Cooke's two legitimate sons predeceased him, without leaving children of their own. He had little choice but to leave Cookesborough and its seven hundred acres to his only surviving child, Adolphus. When Robert died in 1835, the 43-year-old heir left the army and returned to claim his estate.

It was clear right from the start that Cookesborough's new master had his own distinctive way of doing things. He hired two large, heavy men, gave them the titles of "Gentlemen of Nature's Stamp," and essentially gave them the run of the place. One of the new "Gentlemen," named (I kid you not) Tom Cruise, was interested in sport, and not much else. He was constantly leaving the estate to attend various sporting matches, and insisted that the local parish priest announce these events as part of his Sunday Mass. On one occasion, Cruise interrupted the sermon to chide, "Father, you are forgetting to tell them about the sports at Longfield today." Adolphus' other aide was Billy Dunne, whose most notable characteristic was his large, flat feet. Dunne spent much of his time drilling imaginary troops, when he wasn't playing policeman. He liked to march around in a cast-off police uniform, swinging a stick he called his "bayonet." He was a great figure of fun to the local children.

Cooke was, as you might expect, something of a mixed blessing to his tenants. He generously provided them with warm blankets and other furnishings, pensions, and funeral expenses. On the other hand, he expected everyone on his land to conform to his particular ideas of discipline. Each morning, Cooke would lead his men in a sort of army parade. He'd give the command, "Fall in! March in step!" and the workmen would obediently follow in a line, each pushing a wheelbarrow full of tools. If the men should lose any of those tools, they were instantly fired. At the end of the day, he would lead them home, all again marching in step.

On a more heartwarming note, Cooke loathed children. A couple who lived on his lands spent years hiding their offspring from him, out of fear of being evicted. On one occasion, a panhandler asked Cooke for some charity. When Adolphus learned the man was childless, the delighted seigneur rewarded him with five pounds. Conversely, when another vagrant pleaded for help on the grounds that he had twelve children to support, Cooke sternly called him a "naughty man," and sent him packing.

It was his dealings with animals that brought out Cooke's most peculiar side. He bred some of the finest horses in the country. However, he did not allow them to be broken until they were at least ten years old. Once, when he heard that a bullock had fallen into a river and was drowning, his reaction was to order that all the other cattle be driven to the riverbank to watch the edifying spectacle. "It will be a warning and a caution to each and everyone during their mortal tenure to shun water."

On another occasion, when a bull had the temerity to threaten Cooke, he challenged the animal to a duel. I am pleased to report that the bull got the better of the battle, and would have turned his adversary into a grease spot if a maidservant hadn't intervened. She set the dogs on the bull and opened the paddock gate wide enough to allow Cooke to escape. Adolphus showed his gratitude by firing her. Only the best, he explained, should be allowed to survive.

Cooke had a particular predilection for crows. During nesting season, he spent much of his time watching them, getting very anxious if they should fight, and expressing great relief when the squabbles were over. He forbade cutting any trees on the estate, simply because the crows made their homes in them. One year, he ordered his men to gather twigs and make the nests for his favorite birds. (The crows ignored them and built their own nests elsewhere.) Cooke boasted that Cookesborough had the best and strongest crows in all Ireland, able to make short work of any rivals. Anyone on the estate who shot or otherwise ill-treated any of his corvids was immediately sacked or evicted.

As I mentioned earlier, Cooke was a believer in reincarnation, which proved to be very fortunate for his dog, Gusty. Gusty was a playful, affectionate dog who was a great favorite on the estate. Unfortunately, Gusty liked to roam the countryside, a habit much condemned by his owner. After Gusty was brought back from one of these journeys, Cooke gave him a stern lecture about his wandering ways, and announced that if the dog left the estate again, he would be hanged like any common criminal. He even showed Gusty the rope and the tree that would serve as the gallows.

Like so many recidivists, Gusty failed to heed all warnings. Not long afterward, he was found in nearby Mullingar in the company of some common village mutts. Cooke's feudal soul was outraged by this blatant consorting with the peasantry. The next morning, Gusty stood trial in Cookesborough's Great Hall, with the staff serving as jury. Cooke, of course, was the judge. After hearing testimony about Gusty's escape and subsequent resisting arrest, the jurors returned a verdict of "Guilty of Misbehavior."

Cooke put on the black cap and delivered the ultimate penalty. After giving a long sermon on Gusty's ingratitude and disobedience, Cooke ruled that the dog must hang. After the execution was carried out, a tombstone would be erected over the setter's grave, reading:

Executed for high crimes and misdemeanors
Once the favourite setter dog of
Adolphus Cooke, Esq.,
And it is earnestly hoped that his sad fate will be a
warning to other dogs against so offending.
Tuesday, 8th May, 1860.

Judge Cooke had spoken. But who was to serve as executioner? No one on the estate wanted to perform the appalling deed, but they were equally fearful of antagonizing their mercurial master. Finally, a man known as "The Bug Mee" volunteered to act as canine Jack Ketch, saying cheerfully, "To plaze your honour I'll hang him; and I'd hang the missus and childer too, if it came to that."

On the morning scheduled for execution, Bug Mee took the condemned dog off into the woods. A short while later, he returned to the mansion...accompanied by a very much alive Gusty. When Cooke demanded an explanation, Bug Mee replied, "Your honour, I was knotting the rope on his neck when he put the heart across me. He began speaking to me in some kind of foreign language. So, I said to myself, I'd bring him back to you because there is something in him...Who knows, but it's the ould gentleman himself that is living with?"

Cooke certainly did not want to be guilty of patricide. Gusty's sentence was commuted on the spot, and he lived happily for many years after.

As Adolphus grew older, he naturally began contemplating his own burial plans. At first, the idea of the simplest of burials--in a lonely spot, with no formal service and no stone marking his grave--had a poetic appeal. However, he soon changed his mind and went for the notion of putting on a jolly good show. He built himself a huge marble vault on the estate, forty feet square and forty feet deep. (He did not want his eternal rest spoiled by hearing the crows quarrel.) When it was completed, he installed a large fireplace, along with a marble chair and a table holding pens, ink, and paper. There were shelves filled with books. Cooke ordered that when the time came, he should be embalmed and placed in a sitting position before the fire, which was to be kept perpetually lit.

He obviously had big plans for his afterlife.

Sadly, this novel and entertaining burial never took place. After Cooke died in 1876, the rector (perhaps getting revenge for all those years of Sunday sermons turning into "Wide World of Sports,") ignored his wishes and had him buried in the stone vault that contained the bodies of Cooke's father and foster-mother. (Cooke had designed the mausoleum to resemble a beehive, as he thought it possible that Dad came back as a bee.) The grand marble vault was demolished.

Eccentrics often have great fun with wills, and Cooke was no exception. He made no less than three of them. The first left his estate to a nephew who lived in Scotland. However, when the nephew and his fiancee came to visit Cookesborough, the lady mortally offended Adolphus when she sat in the marble chair in his marble vault and asked, "Is this how you will look in it?" Such levity caused Cooke to banish the pair from the estate forthwith and disinherit the nephew.

Cooke's second will left everything to his cousin, Dr. Wellington Purdon. Unfortunately, Purdon went in for fox hunting. One day, Purdon's pack of hounds killed a fox in front of Cooke. As Cooke had become convinced that he would be reincarnated as a fox, this naturally disquieted him. He certainly did not want to leave his estate to a man who might well be responsible for having him murdered in the next life. So, Purdon got the boot as well. As an extra precaution, Cooke ordered that a number of deep foxholes and stone trenches be installed on the estate, so that if he indeed came back as a fox, he would have plenty of hiding places.

Cooke's final will left the estate to Edward Pakenham, a younger son of the Earl of Longford, on the condition that the impecunious young man change his name to Pakenham-Cooke. However, after Cooke's death, Dr. Purdon contested this will, on the highly unsurprising grounds that Cooke had been of unsound mind. This case yielded what is one of the greatest bits of dialogue ever heard in a court of law. It came when Cooke's doctor, William Williams, took the stand. Williams insisted that while Adolphus may have been a difficult man, he had been perfectly sane--he believed that Cooke enjoyed making himself look more lunatic than he really was. Purdon's lawyer questioned the doctor about the time when Cooke told him he was turning into a screech owl.

Williams: I told him that I admired screech owls very much.
Counsel: Do you admire screech owls?
Williams: Well, I said I liked places that had birds and crows and rooks...that they generally accompanied old demesnes and old families.
Counsel: Can you give me the exact words he used when he said his voice was becoming like that of a screech owl?
Williams: He said, "This is the first day I perceived my voice becoming like that of a screech owl." He was very hoarse at the time.
Judge: Did you ever hear a man saying he was as hoarse as a raven?
Williams: I did.
Judge: Now, when Mr. Cooke said his voice was becoming like that of a screech owl, do you think he supposed he was a screech owl?
Williams: I do not.

The court ruled in favor of the newly-christened Pakenham-Cooke, with the judge noting, "If a man believes he will turn into a successful screech owl after his death, that is no proof that he is incapable."

Dr. Purdon took his case to Dublin's High Court, which also ruled in favor of Pakenham-Cooke. Unfortunately, thanks to all this litigation, the only ones to profit from Cooke's will were the lawyers. The estate was declared bankrupt. The disgrunted Edward, feeling that it was scarcely worth his while to change his name for a denuded estate, dropped the "Cooke" and went back to being plain old Mr. Pakenham.

As for what became of Adolphus in the next life, I am very sorry to say that a few days after he died, a fox broke into Cookesborough's kitchen, where it was killed.

Of course, there is no proof that this was the former master visiting his old home, but the locals had few doubts. As a later history of the area quipped, "The kitchen was a fit and proper place to find a Cooke."


  1. Ah yes, the British gentry are a favourite of mine, and the Irish gentry seem to be the most interesting of the lot - though Mr Bug Mee should have run for Parliament, with his notion of solving difficult situations.

  2. Apparently the rector was not the only one ignoring Cooke's wishes. Bet half the staff ran in to kill the fox.
    I love the ending quip. I wonder, though, if perhaps the correct pronunciation of Cooke should be "Kook".


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