Reviews — From the December 2014 issue

Heads Will Roll

The story of a morbid curiosity

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If human remains can be administered for their salubrious effects, what’s to keep them from being brought back to life? Larson writes of a “chance discovery involving a steel scalpel, a brass hook and a pair of dissected frog’s legs in Bologna in the 1780s” that started the craze for “animal electricity” (a phrase, like “headhunter,” that has migrated very far from its source). The scene was the laboratory of Luigi Galvani, whose name gives us the word “galvanized.” He found that electrical charges administered to animal remains could “reanimate” them. Galvani’s nephew and “most fervent disciple,” Giovanni Aldini, toured Europe with homemade batteries, sometimes cutting off a dog’s head before attaching to it his galvanic probes “so that its teeth started to chatter and its eyes rolled in their sockets.” Word of these experiments reached Mary Shelley and her circle in Switzerland, and the result was Frankenstein.

Some eighteenth-century researchers thought that a head could remain conscious up to fifteen minutes after decapitation, horribly free to ponder its own condition. In 1971, a surgeon named Robert White, hoping to show the feasibility of head transplantation, successfully attached the severed head of a monkey to a new body. The resulting creature was, in Larson’s words, “dangerous, pugnacious, and very unhappy.”

Galvanism has given way, in contemporary quack science, to cryonics, the business of freezing humans for later resuscitation. When I was growing up, the only thing I knew about Walt Disney was that he had been frozen. It was a myth, but the story was so persistent that the Disney family finally spoke out against it in 2012. Ted Williams, the Red Sox legend, is apparently frozen in two pieces at an outfit in Arizona called Alcor Life Extension Foundation. His son, John Henry Williams, was supposedly planning to make a kind of superrace using the slugger’s DNA. CBS News, drawing on an article from Sports Illustrated, reported that

after Williams died July 5, 2002, his body was taken by private jet to the company in Scottsdale, Ariz. There, Williams’ body was separated from his head in a procedure called neuroseparation, according to the magazine.

The operation was completed and Williams’ head and body were preserved separately. The head is stored in a steel can filled with liquid nitrogen. It has been shaved, drilled with holes and accidentally cracked 10 times, the magazine said. Williams’ body stands upright in a 9-foot tall cylindrical steel tank, also filled with liquid nitrogen.

According to Frozen, a tell-all published by Alcor whistle-blower Larry Johnson, Williams’s head was propped in its container atop a can of tuna and was once struck with a monkey wrench by a rogue technician, littering the floor with “tiny pieces of frozen head.”

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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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