Stealing skulls from the grave, with science in mind

  • Article by: JACK EL-HAI , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 17, 2009 - 10:06 PM

Skull-stealing was once a macabre but a well-intended practice among men of science.

Cranioklepty by Colin Dickey

In science, as in economics, demand determines value. Anything can seem valuable if enough scientists want it. This entertaining and illuminating book chronicles a century-long period in which the evolution of a variety of scientific and pseudo-scientific endeavors -- phrenology, psychiatry, anatomy and anthropology, to name a few -- drove up the demand for the skulls of dead geniuses and transformed these remains into priceless relics. As a result, people with the noblest intentions disturbed graves to steal the skulls of such luminaries as Franz Josef Haydn, Ludwig van Beethoven, Francisco Goya, Alexander Pope, Friedrich Schiller and Emanuel Swedenborg.

Colin Dickey, who previously co-edited an anthology of essays on the subject of failure, explores this macabre episode of history armed with formidable research skills and the ability to tell his story with the gusto it deserves. With frequent digressions, he follows the travels of a half-dozen skulls of famous men as they are heisted from cemeteries to the cupboards of scientists and enthusiasts of theories of questionable scientific merit. Finally, he describes the eventual repatriation of the skulls -- sometimes a century or more after their theft -- to the countries, crypts and skeletons from which they originated.

Along the way, he sheds light on the development of cranioscopy, Franz Joseph Gall's theory that human character is inherent at birth and appears in the size of specific regions of the brain and skull. Gall's disciple, Johann Spurzheim, morphed these ideas into the skull bump-reading techniques of phrenology. A phrenologist could read the skulls of brilliant men much as a geologist interprets strata of the Earth. "Why hide such a worthy skull out of the sight of humankind when it could be proudly displayed, a testament for centuries to come?" Dickey writes, explaining that skull stealers did not consider themselves vandals.

Perhaps the most moving thread traces the fate of the skull of the philosopher and scientist Swedenborg, which was stolen twice before the Swedish government recovered it a century later. Other skulls, including that of physician and philosopher Sir Thomas Browne, fell under the scrutiny of people trying to advance theories of inherited criminality and the supposed superiority of the white race. Not until the waning years of the 19th century did such notions decline, leaving the skulls of the famous with little scientific value.

Curiously, Dickey never defines and rarely mentions his title term cranioklepty (the practice of stealing skulls). Is it a recognized medical disorder, like kleptomania? Does it happen today? We're left wondering. What we do learn is that the skull thieves of the past influenced the evolution of now highly respectable fields that investigate the essence of what it means to be human.

Jack El-Hai is the author of "The Lobotomist: A Maverick Medical Genius and His Tragic Quest to Rid the World of Mental Illness." He lives in Minneapolis.

  • CRANIOKLEPTY

    By: Colin Dickey.

    Publisher: Unbridled Books, 302 pages, $25.95.

    Review: An entertaining examination of the theft of the skulls of dead geniuses for scientific or pseudo-scientific reasons, featuring the unfortunate crania of Haydn, Beethoven, Goya, Swedenborg and others.

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