'Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing And The Search For Genius'

The Bookworm

By Terri Schlichenmeyer

“Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius”

by Colin Dickey

c.2009, Unbridled Books


What were you thinking? Obviously, not the right thing. 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.

Never mind that these (mostly) guys — Haydn, Mozart, Goya and Beethoven, to name a few — were dead. Phrenologists were happy to pay through the nose for the famous and gravediggers were happy to take the cash and steal the noggins from the crypt.

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

Although phrenology eventually did become somewhat of a real science and although some still saw phrenology for what it was (a scam), many prominent people went for personal “skull readings.”

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. Eventually, the craze flattened and the skullduggery faded away.

Although there are 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.

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. If you’re looking for something Victorian-dark and gently shivery, look for “Cranioklepty.” For fans of the odd and strange, or for little-know history lovers, this is a book to head for.

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