A pioneer of science and hanging

THE extraordinary transformation of Dublin Zoo, which began in 1994, continues apace. Last year saw the completion of the new state-of-the-art Asian elephant facility. Now, a landmark building is being restored.

The Haughton House, an elegant half-timbered structure which dates from 1898, occupies a focal point in the gardens. Surrounded by lawns with some fine trees, it has fond memories for generations of Dubliners, having housed the Zoo’s restaurant for many years.

The world’s third oldest public zoo was opened in the Phoenix Park in 1831. Only the Paris Zoo of 1828 and London’s of 1829 are older. Although Queen Victoria became its patron in 1838, the year of her coronation, the Zoo was not always the thriving institution it is today. During a lean period in the 19th Century, the Reverend Samuel Haughton, president of the Royal Zoological Society of Ireland, is credited with saving it from closure.

Haughton, who was born in Carlow in 1821, became Professor of Geography at Trinity College. A fellow the Royal Society and president of the Royal Irish Academy, he was a man of boundless energy with an extraordinary range of interests.

These included climatology, tidal movements and the mathematics of elasticity. He took a medical degree at the age of 41 and studied the action of bone joints.

His calculation that the Earth is 2,300 million years old, was controversial. In the face of criticism, he reduced the figure to 153 million. What a pity he didn’t stick to his guns; he was much closer to the truth than anybody in his time. The current estimate is 4,600 million years.

But Haughton was less prescient when it came to the greatest controversy of his day. On July 1, 1858, the famous paper by Alfred Russel Wallace was presented to a meeting of the Linnean Society in London, together with extracts from Charles Darwin’s 1844 Sketch and a letter he wrote to Asa Gray of Harvard. Neither author was present; Wallace was in the Far East and Darwin’s youngest son, also named Charles, had died of scarlet fever three days earlier.

A new world view had been born, but the significance of the meeting was lost on the 30 or so people present. Nobody spoke from the floor and only one person wrote about the meeting; Haughton. Criticising the three items, he declared “what was new in them was false and what was true was old”.

But Haughton’s main claim to fame is more grisly; he proposed a new, and more humane, method of hanging. In those days, a condemned prisoner would be forced to stand on a cart or trap-door and the rope placed around the neck.

When the cart was rolled away or the trap-door released, the prisoner would fall a few inches before the slack in the rope was taken up. The slow agonising death, from strangulation, took about three minutes. The eyes bulged in their sockets and the tongue protruded from the mouth. Haughton proposed the rope be lengthened, allowing the victim to fall further. The neck would be broken by the sudden jerk and the spinal cord would be severed. Unconsciousness and death would follow in seconds.

The length of the rope had to be carefully calculated; an excessive drop would decapitate the unfortunate prisoner. The correct drop would be anything from five to eight feet, depending on the weight of the victim. “Haughton’s drop”, which was first used in England in 1872, soon became standard practice. The last “short drop” execution was carried out in 1874.

The refurbishment of Haughton’s House began last September. Although the old roof remained intact, various extensions added over the years had destroyed much of building’s original fabric.

The house will be returned to its original size, with a learning and discovery centre at ground level. A meeting room on the first floor will hold up to 70 people. This will be surrounded on three sides by a wooden veranda from which the new Kaziranga Forest Trail facility can be viewed.

Zoo director Leo Oosterweghel has insisted that only timber from internationally certified renewable sources is used in the restoration. The building will be completed this year.

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