Feb 18, 2021
ARSENIC & OLD KLINKHART
Why is there a bottle of “DEADLY POISON” in the attic of Klinkhart Hall? Mark Thaler (Lacey Thaler Reilly Wilson Architecture & Preservation), the architect for the Klinkhart restoration project, came across this surprising item in the dark, slightly treacherous, unfinished attic above the second floor Masonic Hall, the original Klinkhart Opera House. Mark also helped track down the rest of the story.
A close look at the label shows the content of the bottle is “arsenical soap,” intended for use by taxidermists. This part we can figure out. From the 18th century to the late 20th century, arsenic compounds were commonly applied as a preservative to biological specimens, often in the form of soap mixtures (arsenic trioxide and sodium arsenite): it was brushed onto the inside of the skins of birds and mammals it prevented bio-deterioration and insect attack. Despite its toxicity, arsenic was preferred because its smell was considered better than that of other chemicals used for preservation, such as sulfur, which could also cause specimens to change color.
(By the way, arsenic remains toxic for a long time, so old taxidermy mounts – anything prior to 1980 – should be handled with care!)
But that still doesn’t tell us why this bottle of taxidermist’s “arsenical soap” is in the Klinkhart Hall attic.
Perhaps this newspaper story from the February 23, 1898 edition of the Wide-Awake Courier, a Canajoharie newspaper, is the key. It certainly gives us a fascinating look into what was going on at the Klinkhart Hall Opera House, 123 years ago today!
THE GUN CLUB BALL
The gun club gave its first anniversary ball, Friday evening, February 18, 1898, in Klinkhart Opera House. It was unique in its perfect spirit of harmony, and takes rank with the most brilliant functions in the social annals of Sharon Springs. The decorations were of a lavish and magnificent scale. The large hall was transformed into a Northern woodland.
As the guests entered the hall, the first to catch their eye was two beautiful deer with their large antlers and bulging eyes peering through the thick foliage. A hunter could almost feel that he was on watch at a runway, and imagine himself hearing the barking of the hounds as they chased the frightened deer to the water. A little further on, a bear was seen crouching behind the tree, lying in wait for some unfortunate pedestrian. In the fore-ground a fox stood on a ledge, waiting to spring on a rabbit as he came forth from his hole in the earth.
Red and gray squirrels darted in and out among the trees. A mink was seated under a tree watching his chance to capture a partridge.
Two large white owls appeared very wise as they looked over the ballroom seeming to say, “Owly Moses! Where are we at?”
The three black crows sat on a tree. No. 1 said “this crowd is not slim,” said No. 2, “I’ll sing a solo,” but 3 replied, “we’re ‘stuffed’ you know.” Other native birds and animals were among the trees.
This part of the decoration was the work of taxidermist Kuhl, who has been making preparations for this event during the past six months. To say the least, he deserves great credit.
The ceiling was adorned with Japanese lanterns and bunting, and the walls were covered with mottoes of the club and numerous fancy designs composed of guns and clay-pigeons.
Leppert’s Orchestra of Fort Plain furnished music which was the leading feature of the evening, an unusually spirited program being rendered.
Supper was served in the room a little before mid-night.
Unless you can suggest a more likely story, we’ll stick with the February 18, 1898 Gun Club Ball in Klinkhart Opera House as the most likely reason this bottle ended up in the Klinkhart Hall attic. Perhaps taxidermist Kuhl did some last minute touch ups of his work in the Opera House itself, just before the big event.
We certainly hope this amazing scene was photographed, although we have not yet found any record of the event — other than a bottle of “DEADLY POISON” in the attic and this article from the 1898 Wide-Awake Courier.
PS it won’t still be there when Klinkhart Hall reopens, and that will be in July 2022, if all goes well!
Marte, Fernando, et al. “Arsenic in Taxidermy Collections: History, Detection, and Management.” Collection Forum, vol. 21, 2006, p. 8. https://repository.si.edu/handle/10088/8134. Accessed 16 Feb 2021.