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Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius (2009)

by Colin Dickey

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Showing 1-5 of 11 (next | show all)
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Finally! It seems ages ago (by the by it was) that I started reading this. Cranioklepty is far off the beaten path of books I would usually choose to entertain my mind, buy why not try something different I thought when I picked it from the batch of Early Reviewers.

The book had a strong beginning and I learned many interesting facts I enjoyed sharing with friends and family. Toward the middle of the book I felt I had no choice, but to find another book to read. It lacked the intrigue the beginning had. Only recently did I tell myself, “You must finish this book!” I picked it up and began to blaze through it. Thank goodness the pace picked up.

Mr. Dickey did a wondrous amount of research and a good job connecting different bits of history. I was thrilled with two instances particularly that occurred while reading his book. For one, my place of work owns a replica bust of L.N. Fowler’s Phrenology chart (discussed in the book). Second when the author tells the story of the Piltdown skull, it rang a bell in my memory. I quickly went home and asked my mom, “Didn’t you have me read an article in school about the Piltdown skull?” She didn’t remember for sure, but I looked through the files and found that yes I had. I was ready to get out my fighting words ready to disprove the author. However, the next chapter put him back on the same page as me . . . that the whole Piltdown affair was a hoax. Anyway I love these types of connections that flow over to everyday life.

The book was overall a good read and a must for history buffs interested in cranioklepty. It was sad to read the measures people went to, for essentially just a skull. The way they idolized the skulls causes one to wonder what the people themselves would think if they were still alive. ( )
1 vote books_ofa_feather | Jul 21, 2010 |
Reason for Reading: I read a lot of fiction and non-fiction taking place during Victorian times and was interested in what this book had to offer from that time period especially on the topic of Phrenology. I also simply have a taste for the morbid.

Cranioklepty concentrates on man's fascination with human skulls and what they can tell us about the criminal, insane and especially the genius. The book covers the time period from 1790 through the early 1900s though the lasting effects take us right through the 20th century up to a 2009 law suit. Cranioklepty concentrates on the post death lives of famous people, especially Joseph Haydn, Thomas Browne, Mozart, and Beethoven. Each of these individuals had their head stolen from the grave, used for scientific purposes, traveled the world, or went missing for a time as they were hidden away by collectors.

The book tells a fascinating chronology from the scientific point of view as Phrenology first appeared on the scene as the New Science. This "science" was able to prove the intellect of individuals but it always had its detractors. As science disproved Phrenology and it became a parlour game, science moved onto craniology which at that time was concerned with the size of the skull and the brain cavity to prove a person's intellect.

A fascinating study of the people involved scientifically and those who collected skulls, as well as the stories of the stolen skulls as their journey lasted sometimes over a hundred years, amusing anecdotes (one including an ancestor of the Presidents Bush) and descriptions of preparing a head for examination of its skull (that are not for the weak of stomach) make for a bizarre yet dramatic read. ( )
1 vote ElizaJane | Jul 16, 2010 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This book is a fascinating study into a science that has been discredited since the 20th century, phrenology.

Phrenology, in simple terms, explains the personalities and traits of a human based on the shape of their skull. The people who were involved (and were mentioned in this book, such as Karl Rosenbaum or Franz Joseph Gall) went to great lengths to prove that phrenology was as important as psychology (including robbing the graves and stealing the skulls of historical figures for their studies...which is quite mortifying, if you asked me).

The book covers all parts from its rise to its discredit with a twinge of morbid curiosity thrown in it, which makes it ever more an interesting book in my own library. ( )
  saint_kat | Jun 4, 2010 |
What do Haydn, Beethoven and Mozart all have in common besides being great composers? For one thing, they all had their skulls, or at least part of their skulls, stolen from their graves. Cranioklepty relates the intriguing history of Phrenology and the attempts made by phrenologists to validate their beliefs. According to Webster, phrenology is “the study of the conformation of the skull based on the belief that it indicates mental faculties and character traits.” It was developed in 1796 by Franz Gall and was very popular through the 1800’s. There were famous supporters of phrenology, including Walt Whitman who made references to it in some of his writings. There were famous skeptics as well. Mark Twain was openly critical when writing about the skull readings he received. Phrenologists were careful to “not to predict genius from the shape of the skulls but instead to confirm the already established genius in the heads before them.”
Skulls of prisoners and insane asylum patients were easy to acquire, but phrenologists were desperate to study the skulls of famous citizens, especially anyone with creative or intellectual genius. Since no one was offering to donate their skulls to this strange science, practitioners had to resort to grave robbing. The collecting of skulls became a hobby for some, and an obsession for others. Elaborate glass cases were designed to display the skulls in homes and offices. What we think of as morbid today, was thought of very differently in the 19th century. Keeping relics of someone you knew or admired was considered an honor. One collector, Joseph Hyrtl, donated his collection which is now housed in Philadelphia’s Mutter Museum. If you are a fan of the macabre, you should read “Cranioklepty”. If you are ever in Philadelphia, you should visit the Mutter Museum. ( )
1 vote suballa | Jan 9, 2010 |
Most history books we read nowadays deal with dead people. Cranioklepty, however, deals with a different aspect of its dead people: it chronicles their journeys AFTER they've died.

Cranioklepty, the word pertains to skull theft, which, while widespread in the lesser civilized parts of the world, made its leap into civilization through a little pseudoscience known as "phrenology," which uses the bumps and valleys on one's skull to determine aptitude and skill and whatnot.

Phrenology led to skulduggery, and pretty soon, even respected individuals were collecting the skulls of other respected individuals. Headhunting left the forest and tribal scene and became a passtime of highbrow individuals (including an ancestor of the Bush dynasty).

The book itself is written in clear language, has annotations for all the bizarre and possibly unbelievable passages, and does not hesitate to call a spade a spade, or explain how one goes from a recently deceased body to a bleached skull. Some passages may not be for the squeamish!

It chronicles the post-death story of several severed heads: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Thomas Browne, and so forth, tracing the historical twists and turns that led each of these great minds (now hollow skulls) into the hands of different collectors.

The book mixes humor with history, being factual and funny. All in all, if you're not easily turned off by the subject matter at hand, you will find Cranioklepty to be a book worth reading. I highly recommend you get this book for yourself, or perhaps for that large-headed friend of yours. ( )
  aethercowboy | Dec 30, 2009 |
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Epigraph
The end of the story isn't the end of the story at all. It's simply the opening shot in the next story: the necrological sequel, the story of the writer's after-life, the tale of the graveyard things to follow.
Malcolm Bradbury, To the Hermitage
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For Alex, Audrey, and Shane
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At 2 o'clock in the afternoon on October 30, 1820, workers disinterred the body of the composer Joseph Haydn from his grave in Hundsthurmer Church in Vienna, preparing it for transit to the nearby city of Eisenstadt, home of his powerful patrons, the Esterhazy family.
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The afterdeath stories of Franz Joseph Haydn, Ludwig Beethoven, Swedenborg, Sir Thomas Browne and many others have never before been told in such detail and vividness. Fully illustrated with some surprising images, this is a fascinating and authoritative history of ideas carried along on the guilty pleasures of an anthology of realafterlife gothic tales. Beginning dramatically with the opening of Haydn's grave in October 1820, cranioklepty takes us on an extraordinary history of a peculiar kind of obsession. The desire to own the skulls of the famous, for study, for sale, for public (and priva.… (more)

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