RHODY LIFE

Local taxidermist's path to success

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Among the residents of Johnston in 1870 were factory workers, grocery merchants, farmers and carpenters. One man, however, had an occupation in which he stood alone.

Pertia Aldrich was in his 40s at the time he was plying his trade as a taxidermist in Johnston. From the Greek words for “skin arrangement,” a taxidermist was one who preserved, prepared, stuffed and mounted the skins of insects, reptiles, mammals, birds and fish to produce a lifelike effect.

Prior to becoming a taxidermist, Aldrich lived and worked as a butcher in Providence. By 1852, he was known as the resident professional “Bird Stuffer.” He moved his life and business to Cranston for a short time before relocating to Johnston, where trophy hunters trusted him to immortalize their gunned down squirrels and foxes.

Aldrich then moved on to Canton, Massachusetts, and paired up with another taxidermist, Elwyn Capen. They formed Aldrich & Capen in Boston and soon became one of the most renowned and respected taxidermist businesses in America.

In charge of the Naturalist’s Supply Depot in Boston, Aldrich helped to introduce others to the art of taxidermy by selling all manner of necessary tools and supplies, including wire and artificial glass eyes. The display of animal specimens there was one of the most impressive to be found anywhere and included birds, nests and eggs; antlers and horns; as well as a large variety of former living things. Representatives from museums regularly came to Aldrich for his expertise in creating taxidermy displays.

While the art had been around for centuries, it had grown to be somewhat less gory. In the early days of taxidermy, animals were gutted and the skin tanned with toxic chemicals which would keep it from rotting. The skin would then be simply upholstered and the cavity inside stuffed with old rags.

The Victorian era pushed taxidermy into a more sterile place. Upscale Americans began to see dead and mounted animals as an integral part of interior decorating and wanted stilled birds with their wings spread and glass-globed unbreathing mice to come to them in the most hygienic manner. Taxidermists began tanning their skins with less harmful chemicals and mounting them over wire armatures for stability.

In 1883, once Elwyn and Aldrich had established themselves as two of the leading taxidermists in the country, they sold their Boston business. Aldrich remained living in Canton where he was employed as a game-keeper for the police department.

In 1890, he married his second wife, Lorena Sharples, who was 40 years his junior. By 1900, he and his wife and their daughter Asenath had removed to Hartford, Connecticut, where he continued his career in taxidermy. On March 13, 1906, he was sitting in his Hartford home eating some fruit a half hour before his 15-year-old daughter discovered him hanging by a small rope from a cross-joint in their cellar. Depressed over a stomach ailment he had been suffering from, the 78-year-old committed suicide.

Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.

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