Hellfire Holidays

Gentlemen, Charge Your Indecent Props!
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Dec. 18 2009 10:09 AM

Hellfire Holidays

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Visitors flock to St. Andrews from all over the world to play its venerable golf course, the oldest in the world. But to me, the town just oozes history. I suppose I was thinking of balls and strokes too, albeit in a slightly different way.

At 10 a.m., I dashed through the flower-filled cloisters (yes, where Prince William once studied!), under Gothic arches to the university museum repository, an unassuming office building directly opposite the police station. There, a receptionist showed me to an anonymous room, painted a clinical white, as if I were about to give evidence. But the door opened and two chirpy female curators entered carrying heavy cardboard boxes containing the artifacts of Scotland's celebrated 18th-century masturbation society, the Beggar's Benison, and its even more perverse offshoot, the Wig Club. Giving me a cheery greeting, they snapped on white latex gloves and started to lay the contents on the table, carefully unwrapping each item from archival paper and acid-free bubble wrap.

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This was it, I marveled—the strangest shards of British history.

"These items are a bit notorious here at the museum," Jessica, one of the curators, confessed. It wasn't hard to see why. One phallus after another, fashioned from glass and metal, was carefully revealed. These were followed by a colorful array of sashes, bowls, platters, and medals engraved with lewd, vaguely nightmarish images, like lighthouses that were modeled on penises and roosters with penis heads. Some were engraved with shapes known as "vulvaform," but the male organ certainly got top billing.

I picked up the Test Platter, the receptacle for Benison members' seed for over a century, and read the engraved inscription, "THE WAY OF A MAN WITH A MAID." There was a clumsy drawing of an erection with a purse hanging from it and the date, 1732.

"I hope it's been washed," I said.

I was then presented with two of the so-called prick glasses, each about nine inches long. They were made from blown glass and had seen rough handling; each had suffered a cracked gonad. Perhaps this fragility was what inspired the other, longer version of the phallic drinking cups, made from metal. There was also a horn, mysteriously engraved with the words "My Breath Is Strange" from the Book of Job. And a rather nice porcelain punch bowl.

The Beggar's Benison and Wig Club Collection relics have never been publicly displayed.

"St. Andrews is such a family tourist spot," said the second curator, Amy, who was wearing a candy-pink dress, pink earrings, and pigtails. "There was some thought of exhibiting a few of the tamer items, but it was vetoed. I mean, how do you explain what they were used for in a G-rated way?"

But what of the fabled wig, the most notorious of the club curios? This secret mascot, supposedly woven from the pubic hairs of King Charles II's mistresses, was first worshipped by the Benison, but its powers were such that it attracted its own club. All that remains is the wooden wig box. Like a game-show host, Amy slowly creaked open its door to reveal the wig stand, a wooden head with a protruding chin and nose. Someone had painted on eyes, unfortunately crossed. The effect was ghoulish.

But the wig itself was missing.

"At some stage the wig got separated from its box," she said sadly. "It never made it to the museum."

The provenance of the pubic wig makes a fascinating story in itself. According to club lore, the relic dates to 1651, when hedonistic King Charles II visited Scotland and was treated to riotous drinking parties, especially in Fife. Later, he sent the wig as a gift to his debauched Scottish friends, its very size a symbol of royal virility. In the 1730s, the treasured headpiece was passed on to the Beggar's Benison by its keeper, the earl of Moray, and worn in ceremonies by the sovereign in an attempt to tap into its talismanic power. Then, in 1775, a schism struck the Scottish club world. Lord Moray, a descendent of the wig's original keeper, ran off with the prized item and started his own breakaway society in Edinburgh called the Wig Club. Instead of ritual self-abuse, new members were obliged to reverently kiss the wig and contribute a hair from their own mistresses' nether regions to embellish the thinning mane.

It was as compensation for this sorry loss that King George IV, who had become an honorary member of the Benison four decades earlier, presented the club with a locket of his own mistress's pubic hairs in a lovely silver snuff box in 1822. Club tradition holds that he greeted the sovereign at the Leith docks on his highly publicized official visit and pressed it into his eager hands. The tuft was intended to be the embryo, as it were, of a new and revitalized wig, although the idea never got off the ground. At least nobody stole it, as I found when I got to fondle the royal gift in the club cache at St. Andrews.

There had been concern, when Prince William was studying here from 2001 to 2005, that the press might take a leering interest in the trail of royal debauchery.

"You know the British tabloids," Jessica shrugged.

All these royal connections, I mused absently, wondering who stole that wig.

In the underground archive of the university library, with pallid Ph.D. students blinking at their laptops, I sifted through original Beggar's Benison diplomas and piles of correspondence until I found a crumbling, leather-bound tome—the minutes of the Knights Companions of the Wig, starting with the first meeting in March 6, 1775. The ornate cover features a gilt drawing of the stolen pubic headpiece—even more wild, florid, and curly than I had imagined, like an exuberant head of broccoli.

I tried to track the wig's progress over the last century. It turned out that we can thank a retired Scottish army officer, Lt. Col. M.R. Canch Kavanagh, for the safety of the St. Andrews relics. In 1921, Kavanagh, whose two passions in life were military camouflage and masturbation clubs, tracked down the artifacts of both the Beggar's Benison and the Wig Club. They had been saved by their last surviving members and ended up in Glasgow at the Kelvingrove Museum, where the curator was desperate to get rid of them. So Kavanagh bought them, and for a time he even tried to revive the Beggar's Benison rites in Edinburgh. It appears that the wig went astray at some point in the 1930s. In 1938, when American historian Louis C. Jones of Columbia University hunted it down for a book on Georgian clubs, he received the report that it was in "a lawyer's office in Leith … although which lawyer's office [Jones writes] this author did not discover."

Here ends the trail. But I couldn't stop thinking about this last detail. Could it be that the sacred relic was somehow still sitting in a solicitor's filing cabinet? I drove to Leith, Edinburgh's harbor district (it provides the cheery setting for Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting), before I realized that instead of scouring every legal office in town, I should place a classified ad. Perhaps someone had heard stories from a grandparent or knew where the relic was but had kept quiet out of embarrassment?

I soon got a line back from the editor of the local online magazine, Leith Links. "This seems to be far, far too interesting to ignore, " he wrote. He suggested that I write a report on the wig's peregrinations, which appeared recently under the promising title "The Case of the Missing Wig: Is Scotland's strangest relic still hidden in Leith? An ongoing investigation by our correspondent in New York."

Up top was a fetching cartoon of a bald King Charles II asking, "Have you seen my wig?" I concluded with a rousing call to arms for all Scottish history lovers:

Could the wig—no doubt the worse for wear—still be somewhere in the musty cupboards of a Leith solicitor's office? ... Anyone with any information on the item's whereabouts, please drop a line to historian Tony Perrottet.

I mentioned my media blitz to historian David Stevenson. He wasn't optimistic. "I imagine some poor young legal clerk one day put his hand into a dark cabinet and discovered this festering ball of hair. Probably let out a shriek and threw it straight into the fire."

Unless, I thought wildly, it was pilfered by agents sent from Buckingham Palace, whose job is to wipe out all historical trace of royal misbehavior …

I think I have the next plot line for Dan Brown.

A contributing writer at Smithsonian Magazine, Tony Perrottet is the author of The Naked Olympics:The True Story of the Ancient Games.

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