Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius
In 1796 Dr. Franz Joseph Gall began lecturing in Vienna about his anatomical studies of the human skull that he believed showed that the mental faculties of a person could be ascribed to specific areas of the brain. By “reading” (feeling) that person’s skull, one could make several observations about that person’s character and intelligence. Further, he argued, the bigger the skull, the larger the brain, the more intelligent the person. Gall was an instant hit in Vienna, and soon his science of phrenology spread throughout Europe and North America, lasting well into the mid-19th century.
But in order to carry out their studies, phrenologists needed human skulls, and lots of them. The heads of executed criminals were one source of supply, but as the demand for skulls outpaced the supply, grave robbing became a common and lucrative business.
Author Dickey discusses this macabre, but fascinating business in vivid detail and writes at length about the after-death trials and travels of the skulls of Haydn, Beethoven, Swedenborg, Sir Thomas Browne, and other men of genius whose skulls were prized by phrenologists.
Interesting and informative, this book is a useful resource in helping to understand 19th-century medicine and popular culture.