These are good times to have tentacles. Thanks to the internet, even the most ordinary of octopuses can be catapulted to worldwide fame. Exceptional skills or abilities are not required. A simple coconut hiding act or a short crawl over land are more than enough to break the internet headlines. But as this new generation of octopus idols rises in the ranks of popular culture, we tend to ignore the cephalopod celebrities that came before them. This is the sad tale of a Victorian pioneer, lest we forget the tragedies that can befall our most beloved octopuses.
Henry Lee (1826-1888) adored octopuses. As the resident naturalist at the Brighton aquarium he wrote regular columns about these creatures, which he bundled in the short but delightful book "The Octopus". Lee shared his fascination for all things tentacles with the Victorian gentry. In the chapter 'Octopods I have Known' he describes how the aquarium's public had grown bored with the exotic fish that had been on display for so long. In those days, in the words of Henry Lee, "an aquarium without an octopus was like a plum-pudding without plums". So when the Brighton aquarium obtained its first octopus in October 1872, the public rejoiced.
"The new octopus became "the rage." Visitors jostled each other, and waited their turn to obtain a peep at him - often a tantalizing exercise of patience, for the picturesque rock-work in the tanks provided so many hiding places, that the popular favourite only occasionally condescended to show himself."
"[It] became necessary to clean out a tank in which were some "Nurse-hounds", or "Larger spotted dog-fishes", Scyllium stellare. No hostility between them and the octopus being anticipated by their attendant, they were temporarily placed with it, and, for a while, they seemed to dwell together as peaceably as a 'happy family' of animals."
A predator and prey, in one happy family. Splendid!
"But one fatal day - the 7th of January, 1873 - the "devil-fish" was missing, and it was seen that one of the "companions of his solitude" was inordinately distended. A thrill of horror ran through the corridors. There was suspicion of crime and dire disaster. The corpulent nurse-hound was taken into custody, lynched and disembowelled, and his guilt made manifest. For there, within his capacious stomach, unmutilated and entire, lay the poor octopus who had delighted thousands during the Christmas holidays. It had been swallowed whole, and very recently, but life was extinct."
Needless to say, Lee was shocked by this untimely death. At least there was some consolation to be found in the 'brilliantly written' and 'kindly sympathetic' articles that appeared in the newspapers. One of the daily papers of London reported on the tragic death of the Brighton octopus as follows:
"Thus was an end put to a most distinguished and useful life. Octopuses doubtless die every day, but seldom has there been an octopus who will be so much missed as the octopus at Brighton."
It took almost two months before the aquarium had found a suitable replacement for the popular star. But the novelty had faded, and the public lost its interest in the shy creatures. Not before the invention of embeddable video clips would octopuses rise to fame again.