More than a century before Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin became the most celebrated fictional squirrel in England, there was another famous squirrel in Britain. Unlike Nutkin, he was not a red squirrel — the tiny, tufted-ear rodent native to the British Isles — but an Eastern gray, an immigrant from the Americas. And this squirrel was not a literary creation. He was real.
His name was Mungo, and his brief life and violent death inspired no less a figure than Benjamin Franklin to eulogize him.
I’ve become a little infatuated with Mungo. He has become a tiny preoccupation within my larger squirrel obsession.
Gray squirrels are common in Britain today — introduced in the 1870s and now seen by many as an invasive scourge deserving of extirpation — but in the 1770s they were rare.
Benjamin Franklin was himself rather rare. The Pennsylvanian had risen from apprentice printer to become a noted scientist, inventor, aphorist and bon vivant. He was also a diplomat, which is how he came to spend years living abroad as a representative of Pennsylvania.
“He was the most famous American in England,” said George Goodwin, historian and author of “Benjamin Franklin in London: The British Life of America’s Founding Father.”
Franklin rented rooms in a house on Craven Street in central London. (It’s still there, and you can tour it.) Whenever he could, Franklin escaped the smoke of the capital to relax at the country estate of Jonathan Shipley, a bishop who lived with his wife, son and five daughters in Twyford, a Hampshire village not far from Winchester.
Franklin became so enamored of the family — and especially of the second-youngest daughter, Georgiana — that he asked his wife back in America, Deborah, to procure some gray squirrels that he could give as gifts.
You can imagine what Deborah must have thought of this. Her celebrated husband was living it up in England while she struggled to run their household. And now he wanted her to source some squirrels and send them 3,000 miles?
In late 1771 or early 1772, Deborah managed to get some and ship them to England. As Joyce Chaplin wrote in “The First Scientific American: Benjamin Franklin and the Pursuit of Genius”: The “hapless squirrels showed Franklin’s authority over and trust in his network of ship’s captains, who, agreeing to transport the animals, accepted the delicate task of keeping them fed, watered, and out of the hands of ravenous, rodent-roasting midshipmen.”
In January 1772, Franklin wrote to Deborah: “The Squirrels came safe and well. . . . A 1000 Thanks are sent you for them, and I thank you for the Readiness with which you executed the Commission.”
Franklin refers to squirrels — plural — but it seems what eventually ended up with the Shipleys was a single animal named Mungo, also referred to as “Skugg,” a nickname Franklin said the English used for all squirrels.
The teenage Georgiana adored Mungo. She said he was better than the native squirrels, being “more Gentle and Goodhumored.”
In September of 1772, Mungo escaped from his cage and, in the countryside near Twyford, was confronted by a man and his dog, Ranger. As dogs will do, Ranger chased Mungo, who ran up the man’s arm and perched on his shoulder. The man shook him off, and Mungo perished in Ranger’s jaws.
When Franklin heard the sad news, he wrote Georgiana. “I lament with you most sincerely the unfortunate End of poor Mungo,” he began. “Few Squirrels were better accomplish’d; for he had had a good Education, had travell’d far, and seen much of the World.”
Mungo was, Franklin wrote, a special squirrel, deserving of a special elegy. And that is what the soon-to-be Founding Father composed and sent to Georgiana, a lament that was monumental in “Stile and Measure”:
Alas! poor Mungo!
Happy wert thou, hadst thou known
Thy own Felicity!
Remote from the fierce Bald-Eagle,
Tyrant of thy native Woods,
Thou hadst nought to fear from his piercing Talons;
Nor from the murdering Gun
Of the thoughtless Sportsman.
Safe in thy wired Castle,
Grimalkin never could annoy thee.
Daily wert thou fed with the choicest Viands
By the fair Hand
Of an indulgent Mistress.
But, discontented, thou wouldst have more Freedom.
Too soon, alas! didst thou obtain it,
Fell by the merciless Fangs,
Of wanton, cruel Ranger.
Learn hence, ye who blindly wish more Liberty,
Whether Subjects, Sons, Squirrels or Daughters,
That apparent Restraint may be real Protection,
Yielding Peace, Plenty, and Security.
In 22 unrhymed lines, Franklin managed to echo Shakespeare, conjure the wilds of America, and turn a dead squirrel into a metaphor for the situation between England and her colony while revealing his (at the time) reluctance to embrace revolution: Learn hence, ye who blindly wish more Liberty.
Franklin concluded his note to Georgiana by proclaiming his epitaph superior to something simpler, such as:
As a Bug
In a Rug.
Franklin also offered to procure another squirrel. In the meantime, Mungo was put to rest.
Tomorrow: Squirrel Week continues as I go in search of Mungo.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.