Birds and beasts have been used as oracles since the time of the ancient Celts and superstitions regarding "lucky" and "unlucky" animals are modern versions of this old tradition. Birds in particular are seen as symbols of varying fortunes. Doves symbolise peace and purity, swans love and devotion, but by stark contrast night-flying birds or birds with dark plumage, such as carrion crows and ravens are regarded as omens of evil and death.
The superstition was observed in the market town of Caistor in 1893 when two birds of an unknown species remained in the vicinity of a house where the owner was dying. It was said the ominous "death birds" had already visited the place as a precursor of death on two former occasions.
Another curious incident relating to this superstition occurred in Boston on Saturday, 8th September, 1860, when a " large and strange looking bird settled on the steeple of St. Botolph`s church.( known locally as the Boston Stump) Its effects on the superstitious among the town people and the tragic events that followed were recorded at the time by a Mr Charles Ingamells in the "Stamford Mercury"
" On Monday morning, Mr Hackford, the doorkeeper or custodian of the church, rose between five and six o`clock, loaded a gun and shot the strange bird. It was found to be a cormorant; it measured four feet six inches from tip to tip of the wing. Several of these kinds of birds have been seen about the scalp and lower parts of the river this season, and according to Pishey Thompson`s History of Boston, they were formerly very plentiful about the Herring Hill, off Frieston some thirty of forty years ago. There were two took up their residence for a whole winter in the tower. In Leviticus this bird is classed among the unclean and in Isaiah XXX11 and again in Zephaniah 11-14 it is named: but in both cases it is in connection with desolation and departed glory. Anyone, therefore, who is disposed to be superstitious, might regard this settlement upon the church as decidedly ominous. Superstitious people in Boston considered the perching of the bird on their beautiful church as clearly significant of some approaching calamity to the town, and the superstitious feelings were largely increased, and in many ways ineradicably confirmed, when it was announced in the London Papers of about a fortnight afterwards that on the very morning when the bird was first seen, Mr Ingram and his young son had both perished, with about 300 other passengers by the collision of the Lady Elgin with a schooner called the Augusta."
The aforementioned Mr Ingram was renowned Bostonian Herbert Ingram (1811-60) MP for Boston and founder of Britain`s first illustrated newspaper, the "Illustrated London News." Despite making his fortune in London, Herbert Ingram never forgot the town of his birth and did much to improve its amenities. He was largely responsible for the clean water supply from Miningsby reservoir, a much improved gas supply to the town and a railway connecting Boston to the prosperous mid districts of England. These and many other good deeds ensured his return to parliament three times in succession as Liberal MP for Boston and always with a vast majority. However, disaster was soon to follow. On the 7th September, 1860, when on a sight seeing tour of America, forty-nine year old Herbert and his fifteen -year old son, boarded the lake steamer "Lady Elgin" bound on an excursion of Lakes Michigan and Superior. A contemporary report of the tragedy appeared in the "Illustrated London News":
"The wind blew hard from the north-east and a heavy sea was running but the party was a happy one. There were music and dancing in the saloon and all went merry as a marriage bell, when shortly after two in the morning of the eighth, there came a sudden crash. Thirty miles from Chicago and ten miles from land, off Waukegan, the schooner Augusta, making eleven knots an hour, came down on the doomed ship, struck her on the midships gangway and then, having her sail set, and the wind blowing freshly, drifted off in the darkness. In half an hour the steamer sank in 300 feet of water and of the 400 persons on board, not a hundred were saved. Amongst the drowned are Mr Herbert Ingram, the proprietor of this journal, and his eldest son."
Above: The ill-fated Herbert Ingram and the "Lady Elgin" sketched from a photograph taken the day before she was lost. (From the Illustrated London News)
Mr Ingram`s body was found washed ashore some sixteen miles from Chicago by his friend and colleague Mr Haywood and was brought back to Boston for burial. His son`s body was never found.
Two years after the tragedy the Ingram monument was erected by public subscription in the north-west corner of the market place in the shadow of St. Botolph`s tower where the ominous bird of ill-omen took up its perch. The much maligned bird according to the "Boston Society` vol 1-3 1899-1902, was still to be found in the town some forty years later stuffed and mounted and residing at "Ye Sign of ye Olde Church Key" where it was said "Mr G E Hackford or Miss King will doubtless give you a personal introduction. It is quite tame."
Above: Herbert Ingram`s monument outside St. Botolph`s Church
Regrettably, nobody knows the current whereabouts or eventual fate of this most curious relic. All that remains of the unfortunate creature that caused such a furore in the town of Boston in 1860 is the photograph shown below from the "Boston Society, Vol 1. 1-3 1899-1902
In a bizarre sequel to this story, the death of Herbert Ingram`s youngest son, Walter, who was killed by an elephant in Berbera, Africa, in 1888, was said to have been prophesied by an ancient Egyptian curse. Shortly before his death, he had been in Egypt where he had unwound the bandages of a mummy. Having done this, he found within the wrappings an inscription saying whoever desecrated the mummy`s remains would die violently within three months and " body would be scattered to the winds of heaven." Walter Ingram did in fact die within that period and only a thigh bone was found when an attempt was made to recover the body.