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Graverobbing, Skull Stealing, And The Search For Genius

Featuring a skull enshrouded by a glass encasement, the book cover for "Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius," gives a glimpse into the morbid details of grave robbing.
Featuring a skull enshrouded by a glass encasement, the book cover for "Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius," gives a glimpse into the morbid details of grave robbing.
Graverobbing, Skull Stealing, And The Search For Genius
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MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. The march of science across the centuries has never taken a completely straight path. Many well-meaning scientific pioneers have found themselves stuck in ideological dead-ends, pursuing theories that are not just wrong, but are absolutely ridiculous. Such is the history of the science of phrenology and its obsession with the shape of the human skull. From the late 18th to the middle of the 19th century, renowned men of science sought a connection between skull shape and genius, and that quest led them down some very strange paths indeed. A new book called "Cranioklepty" examines the lengths some were willing to go to possess the skulls of famous people and reveals who wound up losing their heads in the process. Author Colin Dickey is my guest, and, Colin, welcome to These Days.

COLIN DICKEY (Author): Thanks for having me on.

CAVANAUGH: Now you’ve coined the term cranioklepty. First of all, am I saying it correctly?


DICKEY: Yeah, it’s pretty much just cranio, skull, and klepty, like kleptomania so…


DICKEY: …skull stealing. Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: So it’s skull stealing. You felt you needed that word for this book.

DICKEY: Well, certainly, phrenologists were kind of legendary for making up a lot of works, not just phrenology itself but cranioscopy and organology and a whole series of sort of, you know, weird new words, and so I felt like that kind of fit this topic, to have my own kind of new word for – to describe this.


CAVANAUGH: Well, for people listening who are not familiar with phrenology, give us phrenology 101. What was going on? This is where people went and they felt your head and for the bumps and all of that. What was that about?

DICKEY: Right, the idea was that different parts of your brain do different things and that’s something that actually we still maintain to be true. But that – What the phrenologists thought was that if a specific part of your brain was more well developed, it would be physically larger and that it would actually press against the skull and make a sort of indentation. So the skull sort of acts as a way of sort of recording where your brain is sort of stronger or weaker so that you could feel somebody’s head and figure out, you know, if they were going to be a great scientist or a good soldier or a, you know, good wife and mother or some nonsense like that.

CAVANAUGH: So how did this pseudoscientific idea result in the quest for skulls?

DICKEY: Well, right, because at this time, the notion of artistic genius was something that was completely sort of mystical and magical. You know, nobody had any idea what made Mozart the great composer that he was. These phrenologists thought that if they got, you know, enough heads of famous great thinkers and great artists and musicians, they could figure out where they had, you know, big bumps on their heads and, thus, that would be where, you know, maybe musical genius would be stored. And so this notion of stealing the heads of famous people came about as people were trying to figure out exactly where genius was located in the brain.

CAVANAUGH: And it wasn’t just the famous geniuses’ heads that they wanted to look at either. What – there were other kinds of popular skulls as well.

DICKEY: Right, well, they really liked executed criminals and member – you know, insane people, basically. And those were really easy to get. You just show up at a execution, you could – you know, nobody really wanted those bodies, and you could go to an asylum graveyard and, you know, root around there without too much trouble. So it was easy to get those kinds of heads and it was really the heads of the geniuses, as you could imagine, which, you know, people were actually attached to, you know, and, you know, nobody wanted to see, you know, great poets and writers have their graves dug up and stolen by wacky scientists.

CAVANAUGH: Right. This leads to the subtitle of your book, “Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius.” Now who was involved in this grave robbing for genius skulls?

DICKEY: Well, I follow – I managed to track down the stories of about half a dozen different heads. The Viennese composers Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, the Spanish painter Goya. There’s a Swedish mystic, Emanuel Swedenborg, who had his head stolen multiple times. And Sir Thomas Browne, a contemporary of Milton, who had actually saw this coming. When he had been alive, he had written what an tragical abomination it is to have your bones gnawed out of your grave, and then 140 years after his death it happened to him. So I followed, you know, these different – these six different stories and each one was kind of a different situation. Haydn, Joseph Haydn, the composer, his head was stolen by a friend of his in life who thought that the best way to memorialize his friend would be to break into the cemetery less than a week after he died and commit a really gruesome act of grave robbing. So – But, you know, others were done. Thomas Browne’s head was sort of accidentally unearthed and then somebody happened to see it and happened to think he might be able to make a quick buck selling it to phrenologists. So, you know, each story is kind of its own separate history and it’s, you know, got its own peculiarities for each head, you know.

CAVANAUGH: With friends like these, right?

DICKEY: Exactly. I mean, you know, I could see some of my friends thinking that maybe after I’m gone, the best way to sort of keep me around would be to dig up my skull and stick it on a mantle somewhere.

CAVANAUGH: Well, was there ever any real monetary trade in skulls? Or was it just the occasional head that was sold?

DICKEY: It became quite – I mean, it’s not like an industry in the same way that, you know, we would think of an industry. But, I mean, for a point of reference, when Haydn’s head was stolen in 1809, they bribed the gravedigger with a fee of 25 floren, you know, whatever a floren equates to. But when Beethoven died some 30 years later, unknown parties offered the gravedigger 1000 floren to steal his head. So, you know, over the course of a few decades, this had become so popular that it had gone from one random guy doing it to people who were very interested and willing to pay high amounts of money to get this head, so…

CAVANAUGH: Tell us a little bit more about Haydn’s story because that’s really quite remarkable. After his friend did him the favor of relieving him of his skull while he was in his grave, it go – the story goes on, though.

DICKEY: Right. Well, yeah, so – And this guy, Joseph Rosenbaum, was the guy who stole the head, knew that this was going to be difficult so even before Haydn died, he did a practice run where he stole the head of a lesser known actress out of the same cemetery just to sort of make sure he had all of his ducks in a row. So, right, so then Haydn dies, and Haydn dies while Napoleon is invading Vienna, so there’s all sorts of chaos and Haydn doesn’t get the grand funeral that he might have otherwise gotten. So it was easy for Rosenbaum to get into the cemetery and, you know, cut off his head. It gets pretty morbid and grotesque in the book. But they didn’t find out about it, the authorities didn’t find out about it until 11 years later when they finally tried to give him his long overdue ceremonial burial and the realized that his head was missing. So this then led to a massive police investigation to find Haydn’s head and they came to Rosenbaum and some of his conspirators and, you know, and they gave him, you know, they gave the police like a different head and sort of, you know, kept swapping heads back and forth and telling these stories. And, ultimately, they did a search of Rosenbaum’s house and, in a panic, he stashed the skull under the bed and had his wife, who was a famous soprano, lie down on the bed to sort of, you know, hide the fact that the skull was buried in it because I guess they figured that they wouldn’t disturb a lady and make her get up. So that’s how they were able to keep it out of the hands of the police so…

CAVANAUGH: I mean, these stories are absolutely, on one level, hysterical but on the other, I mean, this is such a terrible violation for such a great, great individual. Did anybody actually do any scientific studies on these skulls based on the principles of phrenology to come up with any ideas, any theories about what the skulls revealed?

DICKEY: I mean, they certainly did continue to posit ideas about where genius was in the brain and how that, you know, these people might have specific bumps on their heads. But, I mean, I think there was as much as there was the scientific inquiry there was also something of kind of the relic quality of the head of a great man. And so I think these guys were just as interested in having this really amazing souvenir on their mantelpiece as they were doing science on it. So even as the science quickly fell into repute – disrepute, as phrenology did by, you know, the mid-19th century, you know, these skulls still had a lot of value and people still seemed to think that they were worth hanging onto.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Colin Dickey. He’s the author of “Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius.” Tell us a little bit more about the response to phrenology and cranioklepty, this stealing of heads. At the time, at the time it was going on, did people think that this – were they split on it? Did some people think it was an outrage and some think it was a legitimate scientific inquiry?

DICKEY: Yeah, it was always a polarizing topic. It was always controversial. And phrenology had been banned in Vienna, where it started, as early as 1802, although the reason it was banned by, you know, primarily by the church was because phrenology was positing that your soul is located inside your brain, you know, which is, again, something that many people now would find not very controversial at all, you know, certainly not as wacky as the bump thing. But that was originally what got people so upset. But, yeah, I mean, you know, it never was fully accepted. People always sort of saw it as something of a ridiculous science even as it became very popular. And, you know, Mark Twain famously set out to expose, you know, phrenologists in New York by going in as a nobody and being told that he had a kind of, you know, boring, not-very-interesting skull, and then going back, announcing himself as Mark Twain and being told that he had this massive humor bump, you know, that, you know, that was towering, the size of Mt. Everest or something on his head. So, yeah, people were always looking for ways to expose it as a kind of fraud so…

CAVANAUGH: And – But it’s interesting that phrenology never actually took hold in the U.S., here in America, the way it did in Europe.

DICKEY: Oh, that’s not true.


DICKEY: The Fowler brothers, Orson and Lorenzo Fowler, were the guys who were really pushing phrenology and they were the guys, if you’ve seen the sort of ceramic bust that often gets held up as a sort of model of phrenology, the white bust with the blue lines, that’s – that was their invention and that, you know, they popularized it. And, certainly, I mean, Walt Whitman, of all people, was a huge phrenologist and…


DICKEY: …published his phrenology chart from the Fowlers he published in the second edition of “Leaves of Grass” as proof of his poetic genius basically. Like I’ve got a testament from, you know, these great phrenologists that I am truly destined to be a wonderful poet.

CAVANAUGH: Isn’t that interesting. Maybe I mixed it up with the stealing of heads that not that much of that went on here.

DICKEY: Yeah, the stealing of heads was primarily in Vienna where, you know, it had started and, you know, Viennese composers seemed to be, you know, more suspect than others. And also England, of all places, because, you know, phrenology really got its – it went international in England and so, you know, both Swedenborg, the mystic, who happened to die in England, his head was stolen in London as was Thomas Browne’s a couple of years later. So…

CAVANAUGH: What ever got you interested in this topic?

DICKEY: You know, I knew about Thomas Browne just because he had written about it, you know, sort of, you know, the irony of, you know, talking about how terrible it is to have your bones desecrated in this way and then it happened to him, and sort of was, you know, a story that I was aware of. And then quite by accident I learned about the Spanish painter Goya, you know, who – whose head has still never been found and is the only one of the heads I followed who never – There’s no resolution to that story. It could still be out there somewhere. But it was after I read about Goya that I started to think, well, was there a pattern here? And that quickly, you know, I quickly found these other stories and they – they both speak to a certain moment in time when, you know, a certain cultural belief was prevailing and yet each one is its own separate story that has its own twists and turns to it.

CAVANAUGH: You have some wonderful photographs in the book with the skulls. I mean, really in a place of pride. I mean, they’re on display and they have sort of like this kind of a thing you would put over a cake over their heads, this glass covering and that’s how the collectors would apparently keep them.

DICKEY: Right, right, and that was Rosenbaum’s – he built this cabinet for Haydn’s skull and, again, you know, Napoleon was invading Vienna and there was just chaos. You know, people were dying left and right and Rosenbaum in his diary is complaining about – on one paragraph he talks about, you know, people starving in the streets and then complains about having to spend all this money to get his cabinet for Haydn’s head built, and so it’s, you know, completely divorced from reality at that point, I think. So…

CAVANAUGH: Now, you postulate in this book, however, that there – something – We did get something from phrenology and the quest for skulls and that is the modern idea that we can improve ourselves.

DICKEY: Right, yeah, I mean, I think that phrenology is one of the earliest versions of maybe the self-help movement that, you know, I think we still see today. I mean, I think of, you know, various, you know, schemes to sort of become a better person with one simple fix or, you know, lose weight with one, you know, tip or whatever. And that, I mean, phrenology really popularized that in a lot of ways because it was really the phrenologists like the Fowlers in the United States who were arguing, you know, that yes, if you just understood phrenology and maybe, you know, worked a muscle in your brain, you could become a better person. You know, you could improve who you are, you know, just by, you know, like learning the tools of phrenology. So I think they really kind of put that model into the form that we recognize today and that it’s still with us, just under different names, so…

CAVANAUGH: So you could cheat fate by putting different kinds of bumps into your skull.

DICKEY: Right. Exactly. If you knew your head well enough, you knew where the bumps were, you could sort of – you could accommodate that or you could, you know, counteract those or maybe you could sort of develop bumps by, you know, working. If you had an underdeveloped memory bump maybe you’d spend two hours a day memorizing and then come back in six months and maybe it’ll have grown and your skull will have changed or something.

CAVANAUGH: A diet sounds easier, doesn’t it?

DICKEY: Yeah, exactly, but, you know, but again, I mean, they were pushing it as this is the simplest thing in the world and it will bring utopia to the planet once everybody is into phrenology. So…

CAVANAUGH: Colin, thank you so much for talking to us about your book.

DICKEY: Oh, thanks for having me on.

CAVANAUGH: Colin Dickey is the author of “Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius.” He’ll be signing copies of “Cranioklepty” tonight at seven at the Bookworks bookstore in Del Mar. Stay with us for hour two of These Days coming up in just a few minutes.