It’s the middle of the eighteenth century and an expectant audience is crammed into an exhibition room in London’s Haymarket to witness a bizarre performance that is the talk of London. The audience settles and the show begins.
Three cats sit ready to play their dulcimers, their sheet music on little music stands in front of them. The conductor signals for the performance to commence, and the cats pluck and strum the dulcimers while caterwauling different notes in turn to produce various tunes. As if the this was not surreal enough, rhythm is kept by a trained hare marching around on his hind legs and beating a drum while a monkey and a dog dance and caper together in time to the music. This is the strange but true story of Samuel Bisset and his amazing cat orchestra.[i]
Bisset was born in Perth, Scotland in 1721 to a watchmaking family and later settled in Ireland and worked as a shoemaker. At some point he moved to London and married into wealth, eventually becoming a broker and making even more money. In 1739, he read about a horse that had been trained to do tricks and decided that this was his calling.
He started with a dog and then moved on to a horse, training them both with great success. Next came a couple of monkeys which he taught to do various acrobatic tricks as well as training them to play a barrel organ and to dance with his dog. But his biggest challenge was yet to come: cats.
He bought three young cats, and with infinite patience, trained them to strum dulcimers with their paws to accompany themselves while they meowed in turn and in key. He positioned little music stands in front of them with sheet music on, and he soon had a show that became a sensation.
The shows took place in his house, which became ever more crowded with spectators. Soon, the performances were so successful he rented an exhibition room in the Haymarket and called his show the Cat Opera. The musical kitties, dancing dog and monkeys and drumming hare attracted even more crowds and the money rolled in.
Bisset extended his menagerie to include dancing turkeys (which he rather cruelly got to dance by putting them on a heated floor) and other birds. Unfortunately, the time and expense of looking after and training such a large troupe meant that he eventually had to sell some of his animals and to take the show on the road round Britain and Ireland.
Eventually, enough was enough for Bisset and he gave up on his cat orchestra and the dancing critters and moved into a pub in Belfast.
But he just couldn’t resist his calling for long. He again trained a dog, and then a goldfish, to do tricks before settling on his next challenge, an animal even more obstinate than a cat: the pig.
After much work, he finally succeeded and took his ‘learned pig’ to shows in Belfast and Dublin where it astounded the audiences. The pig was able, we are told, to tell the time, spell out names and do arithmetic. It’s not clear how this was done, but probably Bisset recited numbers or letters and the pig grunted or signalled with a trotter when the required number or letter was spoken.
But tragedy was about to strike. For reasons that are obscure, one of the Dublin shows was violently raided by police who assaulted and injured Bisset. One of the officers even drew his sword and was ready to execute the poor pig on the spot, though in the end Bisset was told not to repeat the performance or face prison.
Bisset never recovered from the shock of the assault and died soon after in Chester while taking his learned pig to London.
We’ll never know what Bisset’s cat orchestra sounded like or just how proficient they were on their dulcimers. Perhaps, as with the learned pig (where the trainer can send subtle signals to the animal) there was some trickery involved with the cats’ performance. There were other cat orchestras in the following years, but these mostly involved them being trained to turn a handle on a barrel organ.[ii]
Anyway, none of them compared to Samuel Bisset and his amazing feline musicians wailing plaintively as they accompanied themselves on their dulcimers while the marching hare beat time on his drum and the twinkle-toed monkey and dog pirouetted and waltzed around them.
[i] GH Wilson, The Eccentric Mirror (1807)
[ii] For more on learned pigs and other odd animal stories see Jan Bondeson, The Cat Orchestra and the Elephant Butler: The Strange History of Amazing Animals (The History Press, 2006)
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