Tordenskjold, Linnaeus and the Hydra

The Danish-Norwegian naval hero Tordenskjold and the Swedish “Father of Modern Taxonomy” Carl von Linné – perhaps better known as Linnaeus – are connected through the taxidermied remains of a seven-headed hydra. The mysterious beast indirectly caused the young Tordenskjold’s death and forced Linnaeus to leave Hamburg in a hurry.

Hannover, 9 November 1720

After the end of the Great Nordic War, Tordenskjold embarked on a journey to Germany, possibly to look out for a new employer that could use his services. On 9 November 1720, he guested a dinner party in the home of baron Von Görtz in Hannover. In between dishes, Tordenskjold recounted of a friend of his who in Hamburg had been swindled during a game of cards by a man who owned a seven-headed hydra. Whether Tordenskjold knew this or not remains an open question, but the man in question was at the table at that very same moment.

The owner of the strange creature was a former officer in the Swedish army, the Livonian nobleman Jacob Axel Staël von Holstein. Staël was deeply offended, maintained that he hadn’t cheated, terms of abuse were exchanged, and in the end – on the way out of the mansion – the two gentlemen got into a fight. Staël tried to draw his sword but Tordenskjold was quicker and gave the man a right beating. Humiliated to the core, Staël challenged Tordenskjold to a duel, which was to take place three days later in a field near Hildesheim. A duel that Tordenskjold would lose. The hero of Dynekilen and Marstrand was killed almost instantly by a stab in his right breast.

Vilhelm Rosenstand – Tordenskjold’s servant Kold at his fallen master’s side (1894)

(On a side-note, Tordenskjold’s death is surrounded by conspiracy theories. Some versions maintain that it was never a duel but in fact a murder case, of which the lines would lead “all the way back to Stockholm.” What really happened remains unclear until this very day and the truth might in all likelihood never be uncovered, although the Swedish connection can with great certainty be debunked as fake news).

Hamburg, April 1735

Fifteen years later, the young botanist Carl Linnaeus passed through Hamburg on his way to Harderwijk, where he was to study Medicine. The mayor of the city proudly showed him a miracle of nature that was in his possession: indeed, the seven-headed hydra. A true man of science, Linnaeus immediately had his doubts and after closer examination concluded that the monster had been stitched together from pieces of snake and weasel. He posed the theory that the whole thing had been an invention of monks who wanted to create the beast from the Book of Revelation.

Linnaeus made his findings public and in that way reaped the wrath of the mayor, who had intended to sell the specimen for good money. Together with his comrade Claes Sohlberg, Linnaeus had to make an early escape.


A Deadly Monster

The Hydra of Hamburg had been famous throughout Europe in the eighteenth century. Although inanimate and obviously fake – certainly from our modern-day perspective – the monster proved to be powerful enough to kill a man and send two others on the run. Imagination can be brutal.

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