California Literary Review

Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius by Colin Dickey

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November 2nd, 2009 at 11:50 am

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Cranioklepty by Colin Dickey
Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius
by Colin Dickey
Unbridled Books, 272 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★★

Tracking Haydn’s Skull and Beethoven’s Ear-bone Fragments

The clunky, oddball title is both intriguing and off-putting, the subtitle quaint and risible — evoking images of Gene Wilder and Marty Feldman excavating a plot in a downpour (“Young Frankenstein”) or possibly Oliver Hardy whacking Stan Laurel’s toe in the graveyard dirt (“Habeas Corpus”).

In this age of cremations, cryonic storage, and ashes shot into space, grave robbing seems to hail from another era. However, the theft of human remains persists as a rare but fascinating phenomenon.

On the stump in October to promote his first book, Colin Dickey found himself tapped just days before Halloween to comment on an Associated Press story by Patrick Walters about thefts from cemeteries: bronze fixtures by meth addicts, ritual objects by occultists, and even human remains by teens playing pranks or possibly hoping to sell body parts.

Medical schools had trouble finding bodies legitimately in the 1800s, Dickey told the AP reporter. People who stole bodies for training of physicians were called “resurrectionists. … People recognized the scientific need but couldn’t sort of get over the religious problem with it.”

Earlier the same month, AP writer Christine Armario reported that the skull of Ruth Keaton, who died in 1984 at the age of 34, was finally restored to her grave in Royal Palm Cemetery, St. Petersburg, Florida, after sitting for 28 years on a table in a stranger’s bedroom. Keaton’s resting place had collapsed while gravediggers were preparing another plot in 1981. They kept her skull, which ended up with Gary S. Thomas, a member of the “Satan’s Saints” motorcycle gang at the time. County deputies noticed the skull when they visited Thomas’s home on an unrelated matter Oct. 3, and another gravedigger who had witnessed the initial removal led them to Keaton’s grave. An appalled nephew of Keaton, born eight years after she died, nevertheless requested that authorities not prosecute Thomas.

Still, it’s a shock to open Dickey’s book and learn that the skulls of some very prominent people — composers Ludwig van Beethoven, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Joseph Haydn; painter Francisco Goya; Renaissance scholar and theologian Sir Thomas Browne; and scientist and philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg — were dug up, stolen, mutilated, handed from one person to another, and perhaps in some cases mislaid or lost forever.

How could this have happened?

The eccentric history of cranioklepty (Dickey coined the term — from the Greek roots kranion for “head,” kleptein for “to steal” — though deciding on an elegant pronunciation for the neologism is a challenge) as it relates to genius occupies a fairly brief window of time: that period when the shape and size of the cranium was thought to relate directly to intellect and artistic genius.

The 19th century science known as phrenology — which posited that the human skull conforms to the shape of the brain within, which in turn expresses in physical form one’s innate moral and intellectual faculties (crudely, that by feeling the shape of a person’s head you could tell whether he or she had great intellectual or creative powers, or was more likely a criminal) — had a brief but rich heyday. It influenced the thought and writings of the Brontë sisters, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and especially Walt Whitman, as well as scientists and physicians of the time.

The related pseudo-science of craniometry, best described by Stephen Jay Gould in The Mismeasure of Man, suggested that intelligence was directly related to brain size, and “proved” that European whites were more intelligent than Asians or Africans because their crania were bigger (while in actuality they were not).

In rehearsing the evolution of these and other scientific beliefs from “theory to a science to an art and finally to a sideshow,” Dickey adopts a largely chronological account, which makes sense in one way, but has him revisiting the skulls and the various men who possessed and/or studied them, repeatedly, throughout the book. This can be confusing, trying to remember who’s who, and where Haydn’s skull or Beethoven’s ear-bone fragments were situated, the last time we checked. But this is a minor quibble and I’m not sure how else the author might have tackled the story more satisfactorily.

Friends and acquaintances of great men (and they are all men; though the theft of the skull of a minor Viennese stage actress figures in the story leading up to the theft of Haydn’s head, no famous women are reported to have suffered this honor) hoped to show, prove, and possibly even understand their genius through the evidence of their deceased heads. In none of the cases related here, however, did the honored figures involved know of the eventual posthumous use of their skulls, let alone pre-approve it.

Joseph Carl Rosenbaum, a friend and admirer of Haydn’s, intended to possess the composer’s head long before he died in 1809 (Rosenbaum’s the one who had the head of actress Elizabeth Roose retrieved from her grave and cleaned in a way that is described by Dickey in unsettling detail), paid a gravedigger to decapitate the body and bring the head, and arranged for others to clean it of its . . . er . . . coverings. He built a nice display case for it. When Haydn’s patron, Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, decided 11 years later that he could afford to construct a proper memorial to the composer, the theft was discovered. Rosenbaum managed to elude discovery by first supplying a substitute skull, then hiding the real one in the mattress under his wife, who told the searchers she was menstruating and could not be disturbed!

In the ensuing 70 years, Haydn’s skull passed through at least three different hands, before ending up with the Society of the Friends of Music in Vienna. Haydn’s tomb is in Eisenstadt, the family seat of the Esterházy family, however; and it was not until 1954 that the skull would be reunited with the rest of the remains — 145 years after their separation.

The cranium of Haydn’s student Beethoven suffered greater indignities. Physicians who performed the autopsy in 1827 botched it and broke the skull. Over time fragments were stolen. By 1863 his grave was in disrepair, so the Society of the Friends disinterred the remains, and a Beethoven admirer named Breuning made off with what was left of the skull, to keep it by his bedside. Fragments were spirited away by another admirer, Romeo Seligmann, then passed to his son Albert. Albert Seligmann died shortly after the end of World War II, and the box of Beethoven skull fragments was found among his effects, which went to his nephew Tom, who sat on them until he succumbed to dementia in the 1980s. They finally ended up at the Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies at San Jose State.

And so it went with Mozart (skull supposedly retrieved from a third-class grave and passed through at least four hands before landing in the Mozarteum, University of Salzburg, in 1902 — though a 2002 DNA study failed conclusively to establish the bones really were Mozart’s); with Goya (buried in Bordeaux where he had died in 1828, skull discovered missing when the Spanish consul to France sought to repatriate the remains to Spain, and actually two bodies were found in his grave and returned, with no certainty as to whether either was actually Goya); and with Swedenborg (coffin in London opened by a doubting American admirer in 1790, skull stolen about 26 years later, remains returned to Sweden in 1908, word got out that there was another, authentic skull in someone’s possession, and a scientific hashing out of which was the real McCoy ensued, which took nearly another half century, after which the supposedly proper candidate was not released to Sweden until Sotheby’s auctioned it off in 1978!).

Sir Thomas Browne lived and died more than a century and a half before the rest of these luminaries, so his story is not quite in line with the history of phrenology and the obsession of admirers with measuring and proving the nature of genius. Yet, as the philosophical theologian who famously addressed mortality in 1642 with such remarks as

Amongst all those rare discoveries and curious pieces I find in the Fabrick of Man, there is no Organ or Instrument for the rational Soul; for in the brain there is not anything of moment more than I can discover in the crany of a beast, and this is an argument of the inorganity of the Soul. Thus we are men, and we know not how; there is something in us that can be without us, and will be after us; though it is strange that it hath no history what it was before us, nor cannot tell how it entered in us.

his posthumous fortunes — or rather, that of his skull — are the most ironic. Browne’s writings, much admired by such modern fans as Virginia Woolf, cut to the heart of the ongoing obsession with skull theft and measuring of brains chronicled in this book. As Dickey writes, the popularity of phrenology “was owing in part to its ability to tap into a deep wellspring of anxiety and hope about who we are, why we act the way we do, and why we create art and imagination.”

Dickey names Sir Thomas Browne the patron saint of stolen skulls, for, after explicitly expressing anxiety about what might happen to one’s material remains (“But who knows the fate of his bones, or how often he is to buried? … To be gnawed out of our graves, to have our skulls made drinking-bowls, and our bones turned into pipes to delight and sport our enemies, are tragical abominations”), sure enough, Browne’s skull would be disturbed, removed, and put on display — for centuries!

Workers digging another grave in 1840 accidentally broke into the vault of his remains. Admirers and gawkers came to stare at the skull, the liquefied brains (chemical decomposition, called “apidocere,” reduces the biomass to soap), and the well-preserved hair (was it a wig or a beard, they wondered). A phrenology specialist had a cast made of the cranium for study . . . and the sexton apparently held back the skull when the rest of the skeleton was reburied. Fortunately, the doctor to whom he sold it a few years later gave it to the Norwich & Norfolk Hospital Museum. Unfortunately (or not), the museum felt the skull’s scientific and cultural value was such that it remained on display, and was even photographed in an iconic setting atop several of Browne’s famous books (I easily called up a digital copy on Flickr), for the next 74 years.

Dickey mostly tells the stories of these various skulls, their sometime owners and dissectors, and the associated sciences and pseudo-sciences over time, fairly straight. Other unnerving anecdotes — René Descartes’ skull turning up on display in a Swedish casino in 1821 (171 years after his death); Robert the Bruce and Jonathan Swift getting accidentally disinterred and immediately reburied; Laurence Sterne (author of Tristram Shandy) buried in a pauper’s grave and disinterred for dissection, but fortuitously recognized by the physician and reinterred; German poet Friedrich Schiller’s skull exhumed and displayed in 1826, 21 years after his death — surface along the way.

There’s no need to belabor the deeper implications; a thoughtful reader will come to them herself. What difference does it make, really, if strangers handle one’s skull after one is gone? The legacy of an author or composer is in his or her surviving works, yes? To be read and played by, and beloved of, the living. For those of us not destined for fame, our true legacy is the memories we leave in people’s minds, the material works we build, the children we birth and foster.

And yet who is sufficiently materialist, so purely an atheist, not to pause at the thought of one’s bones being stared at, handled, and poked, after one is gone? How many of us would be willing to go as far as the Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who willed that his body be stuffed and seated for display in a wooden cabinet he termed an “Auto-icon”? (There’s a photo in the book as well as on the Wikipedia page for the philosopher.) Bentham’s head became so disfigured by student pranks over the years that it has been removed and locked securely away, while the body sports a wax replica.

Phrenology and debates about the soul may be things of the distant past, but the fact of mortality and the material reality of the flesh versus whatever constitutes Dylan Thomas’s “force that through the green fuse drives the flower” will continue to deliver sharp smacks upside our heads, figuratively speaking.

To take two more stories from this month’s headlines, in early October 2009, excerpts from Larry Johnson’s new book, Frozen: My Journey into the World of Cryonics, Deception, and Death, asserted that baseball star Ted Williams’s body was mistakenly decapitated and incompetently frozen by employees of Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Scottsdale, Arizona, after which a technician hit it accidentally with a monkey wrench in trying to dislodge it from a tuna fish can on which it was balanced and to which it had stuck. How’s that for a dignified voyage toward immortality?

And on October 30, Jill Lawless of the Associated Press reported that the City of London Cemetery, final resting place of nearly 1 million Londoners, has nearly run out of plots and is trying to persuade people to place their loved ones in a shared grave. Cemetery employees have been digging up old remains and reburying them more deeply so that newer corpses may be placed above them.

There’s been some resistance to this. “A lot of people say, ‘I’m not putting my Dad in a secondhand grave,’ ” said Gary Burks, superintendent and registrar of the cemetery. “You have to deal with that mindset.”

Unlike countries on the European continent, where reusing a plot and reburying remains in mass graves has been a longtime practice, British citizens (and, one suspects, a majority of us in the United States) regard the grave as another castle — one’s home for eternity, and not to be shared or invaded. One anticipates a hefty outcry if any memorial park were to propose such a thing stateside.

But among those high-and-mighties, one wonders, would one find any folks who eagerly patronized any of those “Body Worlds” exhibits over the past five years? The ones that displayed the actual preserved muscles, nervous systems, circulatory systems, skeletons, respiratory and reproductive systems of dead human beings (handily exported from China, where the laws regulating the use of cadavers are more lax) ?

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