‘The Embalmer’s Book of Recipes’

“Where was the truth? Madeleine asked the African violet on the window-sill. She was no longer sure. The vile dog Bob had been dead for years but he would have lied in any case, had he been able. ..”

Three characters:

Ruth pulls the old man’s bag open and stares “into the cat’s unblinking eyes. His back was arched, his ginger hair bristled around his neck, and his legs, fixed firmly to the stand, were stiff and straight. Every part of his body signalled, ‘Keep off!’ ” And Ruth (“the lady with the sky in her hair”) gives up nursing to become a taxidermist.

Lisa poses with fellow mathematicians by the patterned brick ‘masterpieces’ and she imagines the picture the camera will preserve: “Dr Lisa Wallace with her long blonde hair, dome-headed, an achondroplasic, small and imperfectly formed, against a backdrop of miniaturised perfection.”

Madeleine, widowed sheep-farmer in the Lake District, realises that “hiding, and hidden away, she had wasted her married life because she hadn’t known she had the strength to resist. But she knew now …”

Friendship, memories, objects: how do we preserve the past? And how do we deal with the hand that life has dealt us?

For the three very different women, whose lives become intertwined, these stark questions have been the undercurrent of their lives – but, within the Cumbrian landscape, they learn to deal with them with warmth and humour .

ISBN 9781503036918
Littoralis Press/Amazon CreateSpace, p/b, £9.95 p/b 2015 (2nd edition)

Also Kindle versions through Amazon, and as ePub versions through Kobo etc

Comments and reviews

An intriguing novel in a haunting setting, rich in texture, humorous and concerned, raising important questions about science and our relation to the natural world, to the individuals we know and to the communities we live in. A lovely book. Jenny Uglow

An exhilarating and compelling read. A powerful and haunting story of genetic difference, interwoven with maths, taxidermy, and the tragedy of foot and mouth disease.Professor Sir John Sulston, Nobel Laureate

A many-faceted book … The account of the dreadful days of foot-and-mouth disease in the last epidemic is agonising and the Cumbrian accent is perfect.Jane Gardam

A charming, intelligent and engrossing book, with enough dark heart to drag it away from the domain of standard female fiction fare and into much more engaging territory. I found myself drawn in by the delicate prose and fascinating descriptions … an engrossing and enjoyable read.Kat Arney, LabLit Read the full review

A rich, absorbing, intriguing novel … All of (the characters) felt like real people, whom I would want to know. And they were dealing with authentic issues; from everyday problems like relationships and family rivalry to the impact of foot-and-mouth on the local Cumbrian community. … An absorbing, clever writer …. – Mary Zacaroli, Oxford Times Read the full review

Ann Lingard skilfully weaves a handful of lives together … This engrossing and unusual tale is a window on the soul… and highlights something no embalmer can preserve: what it means to be an ordinary human being. – Michael Brooks, New Scientist

The book’s strength lies in the intense sense of time and place it creates in the reader’s mind. Images are conjured like old Polaroid photographs; faded snapshots filled with tinted memories – whether they are the horrors of sheep farming during the foot and mouth epidemic, or fleeting moments shared between illicit lovers. … a warm and atmospheric read. – Amy Strange, Bionews



The anatomists

Dr Frederik Ruysch (1638-1731) – anatomist, embalmer, man-midwife and praelector of the Amsterdam Surgeons’ Guild, botanist with an interest in insects …

van neck & ruysch
The anatomical lesson of Dr Frederik Ruysch: Van Neck

The Surgeons’ Guild was housed in De Waag in Amsterdam. My friend and former colleague, Dr Wil van der Knaap, was able to gain entrance for the two of us to see not only the painted heraldic shields of the surgeons, including the central shield for Frederik Ruysch himself, inside the roof of the restored Theatrum Anatomicum, but also the ‘masterpiece’ patterns of the bricklayers’ Guild (see ‘Patterns’ below).

Ruysch sometimes referred to himself as a konstenaar, or artist, and his Wunderkammer – of preserved plants and animals and human foetuses, dried, embalmed or fixed in alcohol, and his moralistic preparations and Tableaux of skeletons that were symbols of vanitas mundi – was visited by many high-ranking academics and others, including Peter the Great (who eventually bought the collection).

Cornelius Huyberts’ engravings of the Tableaux are preserved in the volumes of Ruysch’s Opera Omnia, the Thesauri,  in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. Photographs of all the pages of the Thesauri have more recently become available on the website of the Bibliothèque Interuniversitaire de Médécine.

Tableaux from Thesaurus VIII
© BIUM Paris: by courtesy of the Bibliothèque Interuniversitaire de Médecine (Paris)

These Tableaux show Ruysch’s artistry in preparing tissues such as blood vessels and the mesenteric tissues from around the gut, and arranging them to represent handkerchiefs and trees and – more morbidly here – an opened tomb or sepulchre created from a preserved uterus, containing a foetus with a ‘crown of natural flowers’.

Title page, and Tableau I, Thesaurus VIII explanations
© BIUM Paris: by courtesy of the Bibliothèque Interuniversitaire de Médecine (Paris)

The Scot William Hunter (1716-1783) was, like Ruysch, an anatomist, embalmer and man-midwife, and was also President of the Royal College of Surgeons in England. Remnants of his large anatomical museum – including the plaster casts of gravid uteri, and the bottles of human eyes mentioned in Ruth’s blog-post Making Eyes – are now held at Glasgow University’s Hunterian Museum.

His anatomy dissections and lectures, and his embalming methods that allowed long-term dissections of cadavers, were famous and led to many ground-breaking discoveries. It’s worth noting that his lectures and demonstrations to the Royal Academy of Arts on the importance of scientific observation and accurate interpretation are still very relevant to the work of writers and artists today!

zoffany hunter
Zoffany’s painting of William Hunter lecturing

The use of écorchés (flayed preserved corpses) to demonstrate the body’s musculature is well-recorded and discussed elsewhere, but Hunter – again like Ruysch – sometimes arranged his specimens in ‘artistic’ poses. The body of a hanged smuggler was fixed in the position of a dying Roman soldier before rigor mortis set in: the écorché of ‘Smugglerius’ was used as a teaching aid and subsequently immortalised as a plaster cast by William Pink, still held in the collection of the Royal Academy.

William Hunter’s younger brother John Hunter (1729-1793) was also a surgeon and anatomist and a naturalist, who accumulated his own large collection of animals and humans, both dead and alive, in his own museum. A large part of the collection remains in the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London.


Portrait of John Hunter, miniature copy by Henry Bone RA after Joshua Reynolds, 1798. (Thanks to The Hunterian Museum at The Royal College of Surgeons of England for permission to reproduce this image)

In the background are the bones of the feet and lower legs of Charles Byrne, ‘the Giant O’Brien’ (died 1783), as recounted in the blog-post Copper Kettles by taxidermist Ruth Kowslowski in the novel: “Perhaps finally he has been able to smile at the thought that his story as well as his bones (and a portrait of his feet!) are still preserved and admired nearly 250 years later.”  There is a fascinating video about Charles Byrne’s skeleton and genetic studies on acromegaly (a form of giantism) in the online version of the article “Should the skeleton of the Irish Giant O’Brien be buried at sea?” by Len Doyal and Thomas Muinzer.


As for Ruysch’s children, Rachel Ruysch was not only adept at making lacy sleeves for embalmed babies, but became a highly-respected artist, preserving the images of flowers and insects and reptiles in the rich colours and deep textures of her still-life paintings.


rachel ruysch glasgow
An arrangement of flowers by a tree trunk, Rachel Ruysch (1664 – 1750)

My thanks to ‘Culture & Sport Glasgow (Museums)’ for permission to use this image


What was the significance of the post-cards on the Café Waag table?

(Lisa) hastily pushed the postcards into a pile. They were all aerial views of tulip-fields; some were striped like the rough canvas of a deck-chair, narrow bands of red, orange, green and yellow; in others, the patterns were more intricate arrangements of rectangles and trapezoids, bounded by the dark curving ribbons of canals.” There is a longer extract from this chapter under Chromosome 4 of Ken MacLeod’s Human Genre Project.

tulip fields
Tulip fields: Frans Lemmens

Frans wrote to me that this postcard (which I bought in 2001) is “the best selling tulip image card in Holland. The publisher and I were astonished about this. We thought before that it would do well, but definitely not that it would become the best selling of all tulip fields”.

And what was so special about the brick patterns inside De Waag?

waag bricklayers1
The bricklayers’ ‘masterpieces’: photo Wil van der Knaap

The answer to the questions is that Lisa, Stefan, Kees and their colleagues – mathematicians, theoretical physicists, astronomers – were in Amsterdam for a conference on patterning and quasicrystal structure – and like crystallographers and the artist Maurits Escher before them, were working on the practice and theory of how shapes and images could be fit together to fill two- and three- and multi-dimensional space


As for the modern science of quasicrystals, my thanks to Professor Ian Stewart, who suggested Lisa might work on quasicrystals and sent me many relevant reprints, and to Professor Uwe Grimm.  Uwe, with the help of cardboard models laid out on our kitchen floor, helped me try to get to grips with the concept of the quasi-periodicity of repeating patterns in crystals: see, for example, What is Aperiodic Order? 

‘Making eyes’

cover 5crop
1st edn. cover. Photograph of artificial eye from the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, by Rosamond Wolff Purcell (with my thanks)

As taxidermist Ruth explains about her work, “It’s so important to get the eyes and the eyelids right … the face is everything, and it’s far too easy to get the expression wrong.

Glass-makers Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka are probably best-known for their series of exquisite and scientifically-detailed flowers in the Ware Collection at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, Boston, USA, and the glass models of invertebrate animals (including sea-anemones modelled on PH Gosse’s engravings).

They also made glass eyes, for humans.

White spheres lie on cotton-wool in the compartments of a flat wooden box: blue, brown or green circles, dark centres – pot-boilers, money-spinners: artificial human eyes. On a workbench there are small bottles, pinboxes and wooden trays containing different body-parts: glass tentacles of different shapes and colours, sponge spicules, tiny shells. ‘Mix ’n match’ invertebrates amongst the powdered glass and pigments.” (from Ruth Kowslowski’s blog-post ‘Making Eyes’)

Philip Henry Gosse exclaimed about the beauty of the multi-faceted eye of the dragon-fly. Insects have ‘compound eyes’, made up of many individual units each with a lens and light-sensitive cells that form an image. The surface of some compound eyes – like those of the fruit-fly, Drosophila – looks a bit like the surface of a raspberry, each separate unit bulging slightly outwards.

The structure and image-forming method of insect eyes could not be more different from that of vertebrate eyes, or even eyes of the squid and octopus. Yet in the mid-1990s, Walter Gehring and his colleagues performed a series of what turned out to be ground-breaking experiments in the field of developmental genetics – they showed that the gene pax6 which initiates the early stages of eye-formation in the mouse could also initiate eye-formation in Drosophila. Not a mouse eye – but a fly eye. If the mouse gene was inserted into fly cells that would normally form a leg or antenna – a fly eye grew instead!


See Figures 3 and 5 of Induction of Ectopic Eyes by Targeted Expression of the eyeless Gene in Drosophila

As Ruth writes: “We know now that Evolution is a conservationist and throws very little away: ‘You want an image-forming retina? There’s a bit of photosensitive pigment kicking around somewhere. A bit of this and a little bit of that, let’s try them in this order instead …’ The ingredients are mixed in a different sequence, to a different recipe.”


This photo of William Hart’s fighting squirrels held in the collection at Castle Ward was in a National Trust magazine in 2002 – and was a major stimulus in making me want to write about a taxidermist.

ntpl boxing squirrels

© NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel.
My thanks to the National Trust and their Photo Library for permission to use this image

The Victorians were very fond of these anthropomorphised specimens, and artist Polly Morgan has taken this trend to new, exciting levels. In the novel, Ruth mentions Walter Potter’s ‘Kittens’ Tea-Party’ and although all of Potter’s works are now held in private collections, there are photos of several of his kitten tableaux at the Booth Museum, Brighton – where Booth’s own taxidermal preparations are on display.

Walter Potter: Kittens’ tea-party

To learn more about how taxidermists work, I visited and watched George Jamieson at Cramond and Colin Scott in Hawick.

This very good BBC video , A Taxidermist’s Tale, shows George (who also taught Polly Morgan) at work.

The 2001 Foot-and-mouth disease epidemic in Cumbria

Madeleine Tregwithen, one of the main characters in The Embalmer’s Book, had her sheep flock ‘culled out’ in 2001; her neighbour Daniel’s pedigree herd of cattle was subsequently infected and killed.

So much has been written and photographed about this terrible time, so many stories have been recorded in print and audio and on film. Mathematical analyses and future predictions of the spread of disease continue, based on the very large data set that was gathered at the time.

Nick May’s exhibition of photographs, Till the cows come home, continues to haunt me.


nick may's Dodds-Parlour-1

‘Dodds’ parlour’.
© Nick May. I am indebted to Nick for giving me permission to use this photograph

Note:  Herdwick semen and embryos were collected during FMD and stored in the Sheep Trust’s gene bank, and were later were used successfully to breed new lambs: see my article, ‘Moving On‘ on page 22 of Firecrane#2


The character Lisa Wallace, mathematician at the University of Liverpool, is an achondroplasic.

Tom Shakespeare, a friend and former colleague, with whom I worked for two years on out two-year Wellcome Trust-funded Talking Science in Cumbria project, is himself achondroplasic – and he introduced me to Jo Hookway and Margaret Milne, both of whom were delightfully generous (and humorous) in helping me to try to understand what it is like to be a female ‘person of restricted growth’. Sandy Marshall, formerly of the Restricted Growth Association also gave me lots of helpful background information.

There is more about achondroplasia – about a 19th-century skeleton in the Surgeons’ Hall Museum, Edinburgh, and about James Jack who was a technician there, in the stories I wrote during my Visiting Fellowship at the Genomics Forum. ‘Stories about dwarves’, copied elsewhere in this blog, in addition to containing one of Joyce Gunn Cairns’ delicate drawings, also has an extract from the novel about ‘Lisa’.

Tom Shakespeare and Professor John Burn of Newcastle University made these ‘talking heads’ videos about achondroplasia.

(videos coming soon – sorry for delay)

The videos are reproduced with kind permission from Newcastle University – ©1998 Copyright Newcastle University; All Rights Reserved.
My thanks to Tom and John, and the University audio-visual service.

You should have been terminated!’ John Burn tells Tom ….



‘There was an old lady who swallowed a fly …’

The 5th blog by ‘Ruth Kowslowski’, chapter 25 in The Embalmer’s Book of Recipes

There are many ways of killing flies, but the extreme solution of first swallowing a spider is certain to cause discomfort.

Spiders – the non-bird-eating species – have evolved a variety of web-designs for snaring their prey. Much as a sea-trout swims into a net fixed across the mouth of a stream, so might a fly be caught, and held tightly by minute globules of glue. After a quick paralysing bite, the spider packages up the helpless creature in a silk winding-sheet. The sundew plant uses sticky globules too but its treatment is less aesthetic, the edges of its scarlet-fringed leaf curl over the insect, imprisoning it so that it stops wriggling and dies, and gradually, very gradually, its body is digested. All that remains on the web or in the sticky leaf is an empty husk, the insect’s scarcely recognisable, undigested exoskeleton.

campf sundew
Sundews wait with open leaves for unwary insects

Entomologists and butterfly collectors need their dead insects to be whole and unharmed. Gaseous carbon dioxide, freezing, fumes of chloroform or nail polish remover, or pickling in alcohol or formalin, the methods all have their advantages and drawbacks. To make a Killing Jar: place a layer of ten finely-chopped laurel leaves in the bottom of a honey-jar and screw the lid on tightly, to capture the marzipan fumes of hydrogen cyanide.

Kill and arrange aesthetically in your cabinet. Admire – and mourn. Cherish the memory.

Unlock and fold back the polished wooden bar on its bright hinges and slide out the shallow drawers, one by one. Look at the hundreds of beetles, thousands of green-eyed flies, their bodies pinned onto cork, the tiny labels with name and place and date. The ‘Type Specimen’, the acknowledged example of its kind, and dozens of variants with minute mutations and alterations. It’s like stamp-collecting, you must check the number of perforations, the graded colours of the patterns. But the modern collector does not merely tick the box but prefers to ask ‘how?’ and ‘why?’. The modern taxonomist deals in molecules not just  in external signs, and seeks the remnants of genes in mummified or pickled corpses, or from the blood-meals of mosquitoes preserved in the sticky exudations of trees.

The Dutch anatomist and botanist Frederik Ruysch was a collector of insects as well as foetuses and curious natural objects. Insects symbolised the transiency of life on earth, the beautiful butterfly bursts forth from its papery brown pupa-case but lives for a few short weeks (unless it has the wit, or inbuilt programming, to hibernate). Adult Ephemeroptera, the mayflies, live for a single day, escaping one medium into another, from water to air, to fly and mate. Brief encounter, brief lives!

Ruysch’s moralistic and allegorical tableaux on the theme of death now exist only as engravings (drawn ‘from life’ by Huyberts) in the large leather-bound volumes of his Thesauri Anatomici, his Omnia Opera. Insects, bones and anatomical curiosites share the stage. The skeletons of foetuses stand or lie in different postures, amongst pebbles and kidney stones and taxidermal preparations of birds and other animals, arranged artistically on ornate wooden stands. In the tableau depicted in Thesaurus VIII, dried blood vessels project upwards as a forest of branches, a skeletal arm waves a scroll of paper, and two foetuses weep into lacy handkerchief of dried mesenteric tissue. Well might they weep, for the hollow rock beneath them is a dried injected uterus, cut and opened like the door of the Tomb to show the dead embryo inside. ‘A Fate, ah bitter fate!’ sings the foetal skeleton in Thesaurus III, as it accompanies itself on a malformed bone ‘violin’ with a dried artery for a bow. Its grinning companion encircles itself around with a snake of injected sheep gut, the vase-like form of an inflated testis adds artistry and elegance, and in the foreground a prostrate tiny skeleton holds an adult mayfly.

Her father’s collections provided a handy source of specimens for Rachel Ruysch. Moths and butterflies, grass-hoppers and flies rest amongst the richly-coloured, richly-textured flowers in her still-life paintings. A lizard, a frog, snails with striped shells – the invertebrate creatures have such depth and colour as to seem alive, halting briefly for a single moment in time. No other artist could capture  the texture of velvety petals and reflections on the damp bloom on grapes so well as Rachel Ruysch.She became famous, her works were much sought-after, and in 1708, aged 44 years old, she was appointed Court Painter to the Elector Palatine of the Jülich-Berg duchy, Johann Wilhelm. She and her husband Juraien Pool stayed at the court in Düsseldorf until the Elector died.

rachel ruysch glasgow
An arrangement of flowers by a tree trunk, Rachel Ruysch (1664 – 1750).  Painted in Amsterdam, where Ruysch spent most of her life, this reflects the Dutch mania for flowers. …The flowers move upwards in a spiral. The Dutch love of varied detail is seen in the insects, fungi, and lizard. The artist used a sponge to apply the paint to get the correct texture for the moss and pressed fabric against the wet surface to portray the scales of the lizard.

In Arrangement of flowers by a tree-trunk, in Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Museum, six different butterflies and moths fly amongst the flowers, one drifting down to alight on a pure white trumpet of convolvulus, another fluttering vainly between the flat jaws of a lizard. But these insects, unlike her father’s specimens, are not moralising statements for they exemplify reality, their details have been observed and recorded, and are offered to us in all their glorious detail.

In 1697, Peter the Great, aged 25 years old, worked in an Amsterdam shipyard and attended Frederick Ruysch’s anatomy lectures. Peter enjoyed carving and joinery, he liked to work in wood and stone and human flesh, he even fancied himself as a bit of a dentist and a surgeon. His portrait was painted in Amsterdam by Jan Weenix, who later painted twelve large murals for the Elector Palatine. Perhaps Rachel sometimes stopped by to watch and advise: ‘Put a deer-fly or two on that stag’s skin.’

The portrait painter Godfried Schalken overlapped with Weenix in Dusseldorf in 1703 although not with Rachel Ruysch, but he had already painted her portrait in Amsterdam. In her late thirties she still has the same long straight nose but now she also has a double chin and lace at her bosom.

In 1699, a year after Peter left Amsterdam, boasting that he had bought his new boots with the proceeds of his work, Maria Sybilla Merian (1647-1717) visited Frederik Ruysch’s house to study his insect collection. She wanted to learn about insects, their metamorphoses and lives, and that same year she took her youngest daughter Dorothea and went abroad, to Surinam. She saw how caterpillars pupated into chrysalids from which a moth or butterfly crawled out, damp and crumpled, and spread its wings. She watched insects, she collected them, she wanted them alive as well as dead, and she painted their life-cycles and their food-plants.The details were as scientifically exact as the glass insects and flowers of the Blaschkas’ series on insect pollination. The colours glowed.

Thirty years previously the Leiden anatomist, Jan Swammerdam, famously dissected a preserved caterpillar for Cosimo de Medici. Swammerdam, according to the naturalist Boerhaave, wanted to preserve parts of the dissected body in constant readiness for anatomical demonstrations, freeing him ‘from the difficulty of obtaining fresh subjects, and the disagreeable necessity of inspecting such as were already putrified’. He, like all the other Leiden experimenters in embalming, used oil of turpentine (at that time, the distilled resin of the terebinthe tree, Pistacia): take a tin vessel large enough to hold the corpse or dissected organ, and place a grid in it two fingers’ width above the bottom; pour in oil of turpentine to three fingers’ width, place the corpse inside and cover the vessel tightly with a lid. An embryo requires two months, a spleen ten days, a liver one month. Swammerdam preserved the body of a month-old child – and a whole lamb.

The oil of turpentine converted the body fats of insects into a harder limey substance which could be washed away, leaving fibrous tissue intact. Inside Swammerdam’s dissected caterpillar de Medici saw the wings of the future butterfly, and saw too that metamorphosis was an unfolding of parts already present rather than an alchemical change. Swammerdam turned down de Medici’s offer of 12,000 guilders for his insect collection.

Houbraken’s engraving, taken from a  portrait (dating from 1700) by George Gsell, portrays Sybilla Merian with shells and plants around her. She died in Amsterdam at the age of 70 and that same year, 1717, Peter the Great returned to Amsterdam and bought not only most of  Frederik Ruysch’s great collection of tableaux, ‘naturalia’, embalmed babies and decorated foetuses, for 30,000 guilders, but also the late Sybille’s Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensis and part of her insect collection.

 Images from Wikiwand


He also acquired Sybilla’s daughter Dorothea, persuading her to use her skills to design the decorations around his new collection in the Kunstkammer.

Her husband (and Sybilla’s son-in-law) Georg Gsell, went too, and when the giant footman Bourgeois died in 1724, Georg painted him – posthumously – so that his fleshly appearance was preserved in a portrait before he was boiled.

Rachel Ruysch was long-lived like her father, and painted her last still-life at 83 years old, in 1749, less than a year before she died. In one of her paintings a caterpillar hangs by a thread. In Merian’s drawings from Surinam, caterpillars munch holes in leaves, spin silk around themselves to form protective cocoons, or their skin hardens and changes shape to form a pupal case or chrysalis. Inside the pupa, as Swammerdam had seen, organs and appendages shrink or grow, change shape, wings sprout, and antennae.

But now we know that  parasitic wasps may lay their eggs in living caterpillars, eggs which hatch into larvae that devour the caterpillar’s tissues from inside, the wasp larvae growing, moulting, themselves changing shape until they burst out, leaving an empty husk behind them. Did Merian and her daughter observe this metamorphosis of aliens, this apparent transmutation of species? The caterpillar as host, the food-provider, the life-support system, the container for a new life-form.

So also some modern matryoshki, variants of the wooden nested Russian dolls. The traditional dolls with rosy cheeks and peasant scarves, one inside another, date from the late 1800s, long after Peter the Great practised his own wood-turning skills. The mother figure is a symbol of birth and renewal, the handing on of the lineage and the mitochondrial genes. But modern versions of the matryoshka escape the human form, so that a cow contains a sheep, which contains a pig, a chicken and, of course, an egg. The outer form hides its inner secret wherein one species generates another.

The recipe for an Elizabethan dinner does this too, but in reverse for it symbolises death rather than birth. It omits the mammals and sticks with our feathered friends. ‘Take a boned swan, stuffed with a boned goose, stuffed with a boned capon, stuffed with a boned muscovy, followed by a boned pheasant, then a partridge, a woodcock and a dove, stuffed with a boned snipe, a boned sparrow and a dozen lark’s tongues.’

As for that old lady who swallowed a fly, she took in the whole range from mammals to invertebrates:

There was an old lady who swallowed a cow.
I don’t know how she swallowed a cow!
She swallowed the cow to catch the sheep…

 She swallowed the sheep to catch the dog…
She swallowed the dog to catch the cat…
She swallowed the cat to catch the bird …
She swallowed the bird to catch the spider
That wriggled and jiggled and wiggled inside her.
She swallowed the spider to catch the fly.
But I dunno why she swallowed that fly
Perhaps she’ll die.

And as for the old lady who swallowed a horse, what did you expect? ‘She’s dead, of course.’