BOOKWORM: Grave robbing and searching for a genius

“Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius” by Colin Dickey, c. 2009, Unbridled Books, $25.95, 272 pages.

By Terri Schlichenmeyer

What, exactly, were you thinking?

Obviously, not the right thing, that’s for sure. And now it’s time to face the music, time to eyeball the problem and go cheek-by-jowl with everybody to make sure it doesn’t happen again. You’re bone-tired at this point, but your chin is up.

By the sweat of your brow and without too much lip, you’ll sink your teeth into a solution and make things better.

You just weren’t using your head, that’s all.

So why not let somebody else use it? Pick up “Cranioklepty” by Colin Dickey and read ahead…

While people throughout the centuries have collected some odd things, a fad that started in the late 1700s made some Europeans lose their heads – literally. Phrenology, or the study of intelligence through the terrainium of the cranium, was considered a “science” and phrenologists were generally quite eager to get their hands on the heads of brilliant men of the time.

Never mind that these (mostly) guys – Haydn, Mozart, Goya, and Beethoven, to name a few – were dead. Desperate phrenologists were only happy to pay through the nose for the noses (and then some) of the famous and gravediggers were happy to take the cash and steal the noggins right from the crypt.

Grave robbing, of course, was nothing new. Wanting someone’s body in a “scientific” way had been going on for ages. But this skull-stealing was head and shoulders worse, mostly because the grinning skulls, once collected, were oftentimes displayed in beautiful glass cases for all to see.

Although phrenology eventually did become somewhat of a real science when brain-studying got involved, and although some still saw phrenology for what it was (a scam), many prominent people went head-over-heels for personal “skull readings.”

Author Walt Whitman was said to have carried his reading with him for years. George Eliot, the Bronte sisters and Charles Dickens added phrenology to their stories. Even Mark Twain was said to have dabbled, but was skeptical.

After awhile, though, when multiple skulls were claimed to belong to singular bodies and collectors were going head-to-head over authenticity, it was obvious that the whole thing had come to a head. Eventually, the craze flattened, cooler heads prevailed and the skullduggery faded away.

Although there are way too many names to keep track of (which can make it hard to follow), “Cranioklepty” is, overall, a deliciously gruesome, quirkily odd look at history and science from – thankfully – time past.

Head Honcho Colin Dickey does a great job setting the stage with a sense of time and the social mores that would allow someone to justify removing the head from a days-old corpse for the sake of owning a piece of the person it once belonged to. Dickey’s writing gives this book a Jack-the-Ripper feel and lends just a touch of the macabre.

If you’re looking for something Victorian-dark and gently shivery, don’t beat your head against the wall. Look for “Cranioklepty” instead.

For fans of the odd and strange, or for little-know history lovers, this is a book to head for.

The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. Terri has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. She lives in West Salem, Wis., with her two dogs and 9,500 books.

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