Author Colin Dickey on the 19th-century obsession with collecting - and feeling - human skulls

By Stephen Smith
August 23, 2009

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It was larceny most ghoulish.

Under cover of darkness - and abetted by well-placed bribes to gravediggers - 19th-century students of human behavior would steal into cemeteries seeking their loot: human skulls. Not just any skulls, mind you. They coveted the noggins of the famous and the lyrical. The remains of composer Joseph Haydn were plundered. So, too, those of the philosopher Sir Thomas Browne.

They did it in the name of research. As Colin Dickey recounts in his forthcoming book “Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius,” acolytes of the pseudoscience of phrenology mapped the peaks and valleys and ridges of skulls in the belief that they could unlock the human mind’s secrets, exposing both strength of character and frailty of spirit.

Skull collecting was largely a European phenomenon, although there was a renowned phrenology salon in the heart of Manhattan where the heads of the living were read (including that of Mark Twain, who belittled the art). And Boston is home to the head of one of phrenology’s chief proponents, Austrian physician Johann Spurzheim, who died here while on the lecture circuit.

Soon enough, phrenology itself became a relic, its guesses and prejudices eclipsed by actual knowledge of the brain. And with its passing, the market for skulls also faded. But in the seemingly absurd practices of the phrenologists, Dickey traces the roots of modern beliefs about the human capacity for improvement through recognition of our inner strengths and weaknesses.

Ideas interviewed him by telephone from his home in Los Angeles.

IDEAS: The title of your book - “Cranioklepty” - what does that mean?

DICKEY: The obvious etymology would be “cranio” as in “skull,” and “klepty” is theft, related to kleptomania. It’s a term I made up. In the era I was writing about, the early 19th century particularly, phrenology was kind of legendary for making up new terms. “Phrenology” itself is an invented term. It means mind knowledge. Phrenology is the study of the way in which the brain imprints patterns on the skull that then can be read through feeling the skull.

IDEAS: Whose skulls made for the most inviting targets?

DICKEY: The three categories of individuals who were most interesting for finding out about the human mind were criminals, the insane, and geniuses, in the sense that they represented the extreme versions of the human mind .... It was easy enough to get the heads of criminals and the insane. Nobody wanted these, really. You could go to any asylum cemetery and root around and not be bothered, or hang out at the gallows and scoop up an executed criminal. Those two were pretty easy. Getting the heads of geniuses proved to be considerably more difficult.

IDEAS: Just how common was grave robbing for phrenology?

DICKEY: It was probably not too common, though significant enough to be a recurring theme. I think it was really more the fear that this was happening on a much more widespread basis, especially in Vienna, where phrenology began. Among detractors of phrenologists, there was something close to a panic about people’s heads being stolen from the grave. Franz Joseph Gall, the guy who invented it - he was very clear that he didn’t take heads illegally. He got them all through legitimate means, although he said at one point, “If I had Gabriel’s killing sword, Kant and Goethe would have to watch out.”

IDEAS: What does this reveal about 19th-century philosophies about the human mind?

DICKEY: Because the skull is such a poor indicator of what it contains, it was easy to get it to say whatever you wanted. You could make skulls describe white Europeans as inherently superior. You could make skulls suggest that brain volume had something to do with intelligence. You could make skulls do any number of things with enough fudging of the data, just because the instrument was such a vague one.

IDEAS: In your book, you talk about the theft of Haydn’s head and also about how bits of Beethoven’s skull were kept secreted away. Were there episodes in New England?

DICKEY: I was excited to be in Boston back in April because of the Warren [Anatomical] Museum [at Harvard]. That’s where the skull of Spurzheim, who was Gall’s disciple and really the guy who popularized phrenology as a self-help cure-all, is. He had come to the States to spread the gospel of phrenology after being in England and Scotland and had really wowed the medical professors at Harvard with a dissection of a hydrocephalic brain that he performed. But he got fever and died less than three months into his visit to the States. Boston, luckily, ended up with Spurzheim’s body, and, per his wishes, his skull was preserved, and it’s now in the Warren Museum. Certainly, I think that’s one of New England’s big claims to fame in regards to this history.

I don’t think that in the States there was as much outright stealing of skulls. It just may have been a slightly different culture...there was maybe a little more reverence for bodies.

IDEAS: It seems that scientific advances ultimately doomed skull stealing and phrenology.

DICKEY: It was always a ridiculous science, even when it was extremely popular .... Phrenology was singular in this desire for individual skulls, this belief that a single skull of a famous person could tell us something about the human mind in general.

IDEAS: Was it simply a fad of its time, or has had it some enduring impact?

DICKEY: Phrenology was really the first widespread self-help movement. I would argue that the contemporary landscape - the belief that you can change your life with a small fix - that whole landscape you can trace back to phrenology .... Spurzheim popularized this idea that phrenology could help you to become a better person, that you could develop the parts of your brain, you could improve your memory like a muscle in the way that you would at the gym.

IDEAS: Do you have any skulls on your mantel?

DICKEY: I don’t. I thought at several moments about acquiring one, and there was a local antique store that had several skulls. But I had an ethical hesitation. I thought there was something rather inappropriate about owning another human being’s remains.

Stephen Smith is a reporter on the Globe’s Health/Science desk.

(File photo )