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April 26th 1721

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The tragedy of Samuel Bisset

Samuel Bisset was born in Perth in 1721, the youngest of three brothers. He became a journeyman shoemaker but being an ambitious young man he resolved to try his fortune in London.

He worked quite successfully but then was lucky enough to marry a woman who brought with her a considerable dowry. He gave up his job as a shoemaker and became a broker. Again, he prospered and all might have been well had he not read of a horse exhibited at a fair which had amazed the spectators with its strange tricks. Samuel was intrigued but more than that he conceived the ambition of becoming a professional animal trainer himself. This was the time when there were wonderful stories told of dancing bears, counting horses and performing dogs and monkeys.

Bisset purchased a horse and a dog and using his own particular methods of training achieved a satisfying success, enough success at any rate to increase his performing menagerie by a couple of monkeys. One he taught to dance on a tightrope while his companion held a lighted candle in one paw while with the other he turned a barrel organ. All this was fairly routine stuff by the standards of the day but it was at this stage that Bisset conceived the idea of a musical performance. And as if this was not difficult enough he decided that the star performers would be cats!

He brought home three kittens and with tack and infinite patience he eventually persuaded them to strike their dulcimers with their paws in such a way and in such order as to produce musical tunes. As might be imagined the cats also contributed their own accompaniment to the dulcimers. In due course the Haymarket Theatre was hired and the Cats Opera was advertised all over London. The performance was a tremendous success, the show ran for several nights and netted over £1,000 for Samuel Bisset.

This success encouraged him to turn to other animals. He taught a hare to beat military marches on a drum with its hind legs. He taught linnets, canaries and sparrows to spell the name of any person in company. He trained six turkey cocks to go through a regular country dance and he even taught a turtle to fetch and carry like a dog. But in spite of all these new acts he was unable to repeat the success of the Cats Opera.

He decided to try his luck in Ireland. His two brothers had emigrated there many years earlier and Samuel, after a tour of Southern Ireland, joined them in Belfast. He made an attempt to abandon his old life and took over a public house. But even here the old interests intruded. “He trained a dog and cat to go through many amazing performances. His confidence even led him to try experiments on a goldfish which he did not despair of making perfectly tractable.” 

He was told that a pig was an animal that was too obstinate to be trained and rather than accept such an opinion he purchased “a black sucking pig in the market for three shillings and trained it to lie under the stool on which he sat at his work but made no further progress with it. He was in fact on the point of giving it away when he decided to try a new method of teaching and in the course of sixteen months he made an animal supposed the most obstinate and perverse in nature, to become the most tractable and docile.” 

Once again the lure of the entertainment world proved too much for him. He sold his business and “in August 1783 he once more turned itinerant and took his learned pig to Dublin where it was first shown for two or three nights at Ranalagh. It was not only under full command but appeared as pliant and as good natured as a spaniel. It was seen to spell without any apparent direction, the name or names of those in company; to cast up accounts and to point out even the words thought of by persons present; to tell exactly the hour minutes and seconds; to point out the married and unmarried; to kneel and make his obeisance to the company, with many other tricks no less wonderful and extraordinary…” 

It appeared that at long last he was on the road to success when tragedy struck. “A man whose ignorance and insolence disgraced authority, broke into Bisset’s room, and with that brutality which the idea of power gives, he assaulted the unoffending man, broke and destroyed everything by which the performance was directed and drew his sword to kill the swine…The injured Bisset pleaded, without avail, the permission he had obtained from the chief magistrate. He was threatened to be dragged to prison if he was found any more offending in the same manner. The agitation of mind he experienced on this occasion threw him into a fit of illness from which he never recovered, and he died not long after.” 

Such was the sad end of Samuel Bisset the animal trainer from Perth.

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