Cranioklepty (Grave-robbing for Profit and Pleasure)


I stumbled across this little gem a few days ago, and just had to have it. Conveniently, it was on sale for a quarter, but I would have happily paid more for it. Cranioklepty, if you hadn’t already guessed, the stealing of heads or skulls, a fairly profitable enterprise especially during the early days of phrenology, around the late 1700s. Frustrated by his mediocre performance as a university student, budding scientist Franz Joseph Gall noticed (while not paying attention to his lectures) that the best students had heads shaped slightly differently than his own. What a relief it must have been to find that the reason he was not a stellar scholar was in his physical make-up rather than in his character or study habits!

I don’t want to be too hard on Gall, though, because he was not as ‘out there’ as those who later took his ideas and used them for profit. Gall, for one, did not believe that phrenology could be used to identify worthless minds or geniuses per se, and he made this very clear when he was kicked out of Vienna for his outrageous ideas. Gall is not the one who came up with the handy-dandy phrenology bust you may have seen at least images of, — that was the work of a pair of Americans, the Fowler brothers, who developed their own (commercial) version of phrenology from his ideas. He did, however, believe that the brain determines the shape of the skull while the skull is still soft (early childhood), meaning that examining the bumps, ridges, or other physical characteristics of the skull was nearly as good as looking directly at the brain (which one could pretty much only do when its owner was dead already).

Franz Josef Gall

Franz Joseph Gall

Gall was not a very good scientist: his approach was to make one observation, derive a theory from it, and then look for more examples to prove this theory right. Research on human skulls is difficult — most people are very attached to their heads, and the good people of Vienna (like many others) believed that to be resurrected at the Second Coming, one’s body needed to be intact. For these reasons, Gall had to make do with the skulls of executed criminals and, well, anyone who died in the local lunatic asylum. Having fled from Vienna, Gall continued his work with his pupil, Spurzheim, until the two fell out and Spurzheim took off to the United Kingdom. The two men’s work still captured people’s imaginations, and among those fascinated with their ‘research was Joseph Carl Rosenbaum. He was more than fascinated, he wanted to take part in the gathering of genius skulls to help identify the characteristics that signify greatness.

Rosenbaum’s first stolen head was that of Elizabeth Roose, an up-and-coming actress with an expressive face and great talent. She died in childbirth, and her head was in Gall’s possession only a week or so after her funeral. This was a kind of trial run for the great caper Rosenbaum was planning — the theft of his friend Haydn’s head. Haydn was clearly going to die soon, and Rosenbaum knew he had to have the genius’s head to examine it.

Phrenological "map" from around 1900 (source: wikimedia)

Phrenological “map” from around 1900 (source: wikimedia)

If you’ve read this far and found this interesting, you should really read the book. It’s very easy to read, very interesting, and you’ll walk away having learned something about science, music, literature, Austria, Scotland, America, phrenology (obviously), grave-robbing, and any number of other things that will make great conversation starters (or stoppers, depending on your use). I managed to read half of the book in one night, and I’m not a particularly fast reader. Plus, this would look great on any coffee-table…

I was particularly surprised to see a number of writers’ names show up: George Eliot, Walt Whitman, Dickens, and of course Mark Twain, who could not resist his own little experiment. He went to the Fowler brothers as a paying, plain-clothes, ordinary client to have his head interpreted and measured. A little while later, he went again, dressed in his signature white suit and introducing himself as Mark Twain, the famous writer, and had the same thing done again. Surprise, surprise — the same skull suddenly read very differently. Must have been the suit. (Though dramatic changes in skull measurements were not unheard of in writers; after all, Whitman increased / edited the readings of his skull in later editions of his book…)

Of course phrenology has come and gone, and the only person who is still fully convinced this is real science is Montgomery Burns:

Mr.Burns measuring Mr.Smithers' skull

Mr.Burns measuring Mr.Smithers’ skull

If you’re interested in the (slightly) (or slightly more) morbid, you might also enjoy Mary Roach’s Stiff — The Curious Life of the Dead, which is however a bit more graphic in its descriptions than this book.


About annette.c.boehm

words escape me.

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