Reviews — From the December 2014 issue

Heads Will Roll

The story of a morbid curiosity

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Headhunting, along with cannibalism, is savagery’s purest form and most recognizable symbol. And yet the collection and display of heads has often been a sign of one’s sophistication, refinement, and superiority over the supposed monsters who supplied them in the first place. It is amazing how easily culture can launder violence into something morally acceptable by making a head a commodity. The transaction forever washes away the taint. When we see a shrunken head in a museum or private collection, what we see is our superiority over societies that would ever do such a thing as hunt heads. Though the trade in tsantsas was driven by Western fascination with, as Larson puts it, “an untouched savage people,” shrunken heads are in fact “the gruesome trophies of a western fascination with the idea of an untouched savage people.”

Like other curious artifacts, from Roman coins to mummy wrappings to Nazi memorabilia, tsantsas can now be purchased online with relative ease. Most are imitation heads made from goat and other animal skins, but even authentic tsantsas were made to be sold to collectors, who, several degrees removed from the original violence, still line up to buy them. Last summer, I spoke to Glenn McGinty, who owns the website realshrunkenheads.com. McGinty sells mainly tourist heads produced in Ecuador between 1880 and 1950, which often come to him from families who discover them in attics and shoe boxes and, he says, want them gone. Many have insect damage, but a good head sells for around fifty thousand dollars. There are no laws against buying shrunken heads, which are legally considered antiques. Even Christie’s has auctioned them from time to time.

Severed is a typological study that links severed heads of all sorts and uses. The book suggests that detached heads have their own history, which transcends the histories of execution, murder, voyeurism, and colonial violence that produced them. Not surprisingly, the through-line connecting these diverse cases is money. Take James Sligo Jameson, heir to the Jameson whiskey fortune, who, in 1888, on a trip to the Congo to witness cannibalism firsthand, bought an eleven-year-old girl, handed her over to cannibals, and sketched her as she was murdered, dismembered, and eaten. (The episode may have inspired Joseph Conrad to write Heart of Darkness.) In 2011, the episode again came to light when Jameson ran an advertisement that glorified the company’s swashbuckling past. As a souvenir of his travels, Jameson arranged for the head of a murdered local man to be cut off, shipped home, and preserved by a well-known London taxidermist. It was displayed in Jameson’s home, where, Larson writes, it tended to “exude an unpleasant odour at certain times depending on the weather.”

Power inevitably enters the discourse around heads, and especially the heads of tyrants. For centuries, one of the most prized collectibles on the market was the head of Oliver Cromwell, which had a metal spike driven up its neck and out the top of its skull. Cromwell had been buried in state, but his body was exhumed after the Restoration, subjected to posthumous execution, and decapitated. His head was displayed atop Westminster Hall for more than twenty years, until a storm brought it down. As one story goes, the head was spirited away by a guard and vanished for decades. It turned up in the early 1700s in the London museum of the Swiss curiosity collector Claudius du Puy. When it fell into the hands of one Samuel Russell, an alcoholic comedian, it was apparently “tossed around and ‘treated incorrectly,’ leading to the loss of one its ears.” Counterfeit rivals emerged over the years, and the authenticity of the Russell head was never definitively established. It was finally buried in a secret location at Cambridge in 1960.

History’s beheaded include generals, nobles, suspected witches, and rank-and-file soldiers. By some estimates, 60 percent of Japanese remains found in the Mariana Islands after World War II lacked skulls. (Though other body parts were taken, too: FDR was apparently presented with a letter opener made from a Japanese soldier’s arm.) In 2012 Derrick Shaftoe found a footlocker in the attic of his Phoenix home. Inside was his grandfather’s collection of twenty Japanese skulls “labeled and marked with the location and date the man was killed.” Memorabilia dealers come across this kind of skull all the time; many are etched with inscriptions. In 1944, Life ran, as its picture of the week, the image of a pert American girl, pen in hand, writing a thank-you note to her boyfriend for the Japanese skull that lay on the table beside her.

Larson, an honorary research fellow at the University of Durham, has also coauthored a book about the Pitt Rivers Museum, at the University of Oxford, which is known internationally for its collection of ten shrunken heads. Several years ago, Ted Dewan, a children’s book illustrator, offered to donate his own head to the museum, promising, Larson writes, to “leave enough money to cover the shrinking and maintenance of his head.” The Pitt Rivers shrunken heads are part of a collection of some 300 skulls and skull fragments that are held by Oxford and displayed, according to the wishes of the museum’s founder, typologically. Closer to home, the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia counts among its treasures parts of Lincoln’s and Einstein’s brains, a collection of trephined Peruvian skulls, and several intact brains of murderers and epileptics.

Larson’s book describes the practice, in eighteenth-century France, of taking pills made from the heads of executed criminals to cure ailments of the head. “Skull moss,” made from lichens growing on the skull, was also sold for this purpose. These medicines were common, Larson writes, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when “the sale of ‘mummy’ — the remains of embalmed human corpses prepared and prescribed as remedies — thrived across Europe”:

Every part of the human body had a medicinal use, from the bones and blood to the skin and fat. There were various recipes for making “mummy,” which was described as a hard, black, resinous substance that smelled fragrant but tasted bitter. The flesh was repeatedly dried, and might be soaked in wine or sprinkled with myrrh until it darkened and ceased to smell. As usual, whole, young bodies were recommended, preferably those that had been executed and were free from disease. Some people recommended men who had red hair, because they were thought to have better blood. Mummy became so widespread that medieval shoppers were warned to avoid counterfeits and select only samples that were shiny black and smelled good, not pieces that were full of bits of bone and dirt.

As with shrunken heads, a cottage industry took hold: early anatomists found that “human fat and body parts could bring them useful extra income to fund their dissections.” Dissect to sell, sell to dissect; the logic worked powerfully in both directions.

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’s most recent book is Bicentennial: Poems (Knopf). His last review for Harper’s Magazine, “The Humble Vernacular,” appeared in the November 2012 issue.

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