Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius

From Colin Dickey, author of the bestselling Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places. . . an earlier work, Cranioklepty — deemed by the Cleveland Plain Dealer a “highly unusual, fascinating, and cautionary Halloween choice.”

“Skullduggery”, indeed!

Click to Keep Reading


The theft of Franz Joseph Haydn’s skull in 1809 was by no means an isolated incident. From the 1790s to the mid — nineteenth century, interest in phrenology sparked a bizarre and intense fascination with the human skull, and in particular with the skulls of great men. Just as phrenologists looked to the heads of criminals and the insane for proof of pathological deficiencies, they also sought out the heads of artists and philosophers for proof of genius and intelligence. Often they could investigate the heads of great men by taking plaster casts, but sometimes other means were necessary.

Francisco Goya had died in exile in Bordeaux in 1828 and lost his skull sometime before 1898, when the Spanish government exhumed his remains to return them to his home country. Upon discovering the theft, the Spanish consul dispatched a telegram to Madrid: “Goya skeleton without a head. Please instruct me.” The response came back immediately: “Send Goya, with or without head.”

Emanuel Swedenborg, the eighteenth-century Christian mystic and philosopher, suffered a similar postmortem fate. During his life he wrote of spirits that had invaded his “cerebral chambers” and caused him great pain. “I spoke with them,” he wrote, “and they were compelled to confess whence, who, and of what quality they were.” These cranial spirits told Swedenborg that “they dwelt in dark woods, and were there of deformed aspect, having ferine faces and shaggy hair, and roaming about like wild beasts.”10 Having expelled these cranial spirits in life, he was less successful after his death in 1772, when his head was endangered once more — this time not by shaggy spirits in dark woods but by naval officers.

And then there was the English doctor and philosopher Sir Thomas Browne, who died in 1682 and stands as something of an icon in the history of cranioklepty because of the anxiety he seemed to express about the desecration of his own final resting place. Sir Thomas wrote in 1658, “But who knows the fate of his bones, or how often he is to be buried? Who hath the oracles of his ashes, or whither they are to be scattered?” Browne went on: “To be gnawed out of our graves, to have our skulls made drinking-bowls, and our bones turned into pipes to delight and sport our enemies, are tragical abominations.” Because of statements like these, Browne might be considered the patron saint of stolen skulls, speaking for the collective indignity of all those whose heads were shuffled between museums, collectors, and anatomists throughout the nineteenth century. Browne’s own “tragical abomination” occurred in 1840 when his coffin in St. Peter Mancroft Church, Norfolk, was inadvertently disturbed while a vault was being dug next to his plot. His stolen skull would ultimately find itself the focal point of an extended battle between science and religion.

Such thefts as these happened throughout Europe, thefts both brazen and surreptitious, reverent and sacrilegious. Motivated by curiosity, by money, by a morbid fascination that seems inexplicable today, cranioklepts subtly and stealthily helped to change how we view the grave and the corpse, and how we view the great artists and thinkers who come to define an age.

In the wake of the scientific revolutions of the Age of Enlightenment, the body became a site of conflict between several warring factions — the religious, the scientific, the mystical. And at the center of this dispute was the skull: twenty-two discrete bones that fuse together in the first months of life. The skull has always been a central symbol for the human psyche, representing the enigma of life and the unavoidability of death. But by the dawn of the nineteenth century it had begun to assume a new meaning and significance. This was due almost entirely to the popular work of one man, Franz Joseph Gall.

Gall was born March 9, 1757, in the small town of Tiefenbrum in Baden, Germany. His parents wanted him to enter the priesthood, as was the custom for second sons, but as he would later explain, his “natural dispositions were opposed to” religion. Instead, Gall found he had a deep and abiding scientific curiosity, and in 1781 he went to Vienna to study medicine.

THE VIENNA WHERE Gall found himself in 1781 was a city of dust, a city of wonder, and a city of music. The dust came from the cobblestones that were ground into powder by carriage wheels and lifted by the wind. It hung in blooms like smog, especially in summer, so thick that many first-floor rooms kept candles burning throughout the day for light. One visitor to the city called it “one of Vienna’s great plagues.” The mortality rate due to tuberculosis, pneumonia, phthisis, and other respiratory ailments was incredibly high in Vienna, especially among coachmen, runners, soldiers, and anyone else who had the misfortune of a job that involved running a lot of errands. One man who recorded its effect was Johann Pezzl, a monk who came to Vienna in 1786 and wrote a series of journalistic reports on all aspects of the city. “If you leave your house at eight o’clock on a Sunday evening after a lovely warm day, it is like entering a fog,” Pezzl wrote; “one can only make out the lanterns flickering through the dust; and if one leaves by one of the city gates, a dense dust-cloud covers the whole Esplanade. In a few minutes, one’s shoes, clothes and hat are covered with dust. The wheels of sixteen thousand carriages and their horses’ hooves, plus an army of more than two hundred thousand pedestrians, have covered Vienna in fog.” It was so thick in summer that buildings couldn’t be seen on the far side of the city’s parks and plazas, and even the closest suburbs seemed to recede into some distant landscape.

“The worst situation,” Pezzl concluded, “occurs when, after several warm days, a strong wing springs up . . . the dust penetrates the mouth, nose and ears . . . and one’s eyes weep.”

Nonetheless, people of all kinds flocked to the city, and visitors to Vienna noticed how cosmopolitan it was in comparison to Europe’s other metropolises. Situated on the western edge of the Hapsburg Empire, where Eastern Europe met the West, its streets were thronged not just by Austrians but by Hungarians, Poles, Serbs and Greeks, Muslims and Jews — each with their own peculiarities of dress and style. It was a place where one could sample the world’s riches — chocolate from Milan, oysters from Istria, wine from Tokay. “Works of art and music from Italy, France’s fashions, Germany’s books,” Pezzl wrote, “appear at his purse’s command, as if by rubbing Aladdin’s lamp.”

It was a tightly packed city, seething with energy — a city of 270,000 people with only about 5,500 houses. Land was expensive, so buildings shot upward, and Vienna was known for its five-story townhouses crammed along narrow streets that allowed little natural light. Whereas in London there was an average of nine inhabitants for each house within the city limits, in Vienna that number was closer to forty-seven people. Houses were known not just by their street numbers and locations but also by such colorful monikers as “At the Green Wreath,” “At the Three Green Trees,” “Blue Lord God,” “Eternal Light,” or “At the Golden Bed.” One house in the Bognergasse was known simply as “At the Skull.”

It was also a city of wonder. At the north end of the Leopold-stadt was the Augarten, where the emperor released a massive flock of nightingales every year. And the Prater, a “pleasure garden,” was home to one of the largest annual fireworks displays in Europe. In those days of revolution and enlightenment, Vienna was a place where one could still believe in miracles. In August 1784, a Swiss named Boden plastered the city with placards announcing that he would cross the Danube on foot. A massive crowd turned out to see him stagger out onto the water on oversized shoes made of cork. After two attempts ended in Boden plunging headfirst into the river, the assembled crowd was so enraged at his ineptitude that the police had to hold them back from attacking him.

Among the other wonders and pleasures that Vienna displayed was Angelo Soliman, or at least, what was left of him. Born in Nigeria around 1721, Soliman had been enslaved as a young child and bought by the Austrian governor of Sicily, Prince Johann Georg Christian Lobkowitz. In the service of Lobkowitz, Soliman distinguished himself as a companion and a soldier, and his fame and stature grew as he accompanied the governor on a number of military expeditions. After Lobkowitz’s death, Soliman went into the service of Prince Wenzel von Lichtenstein in Vienna. There he became a court favorite — he was fluent in six languages and was widely admired for his erudition and wit. He became a Mason in the same lodge as Haydn and Mozart.

Despite this prestige, when he died of natural causes in 1796, the Hapsburg emperor, Franz II, did not see fit to accord him the same rite of burial that any other Mason would have been granted. After Soliman’s death the emperor had him skinned, and his skin was fitted onto a wooden frame and put on display in Franz II’s “Imperial and Royal Physical Astronomical Art and Nature and Animal Cabinet.” Wonder cabinets had been around for over a century, so when Franz II opened his in 1797, he wanted something special. In life Soliman had dressed in the latest fashions and proved himself equal to the greatest minds of Europe; in death he was decked in a loincloth and headdress made of ostrich feathers, perched alongside the birds of paradise. He was the highlight of the cabinet.

But above all, what made Viennese culture singular was its obsession with music, which was elevated above all other forms of artistic expression. E. T. A. Hoffman, who spent years as a music critic before writing gothic tales like “The Sandman,” wrote, “Music is the most romantic of all the arts; one might even say that it alone is purely romantic.” The English and the French had their playwrights and their poets, the Dutch and the Italians their painters, but in Germany and Austria there were first and foremost the composers.

The Viennese believed in music as more than just a distraction or recreation. By the end of the eighteenth century Austrians had begun to regard symphonic music as a fundamental component of civilized society. As one music critic explained, “when it is appropriately practiced and employed,” music can “soften manners, ennoble feelings, spread joy and sociability among the people, and in general have a great influence on the cultivation of the moral character.” This could be doubted, he concluded, only “by those who have never had occasion to reflect on the essence and effects of this art, or by those who have still not discerned that the culture of a nation promotes its happiness.” Another writer went so far as to say, “I am convinced that music is not to be recommended to youth simply as a means to develop taste, as a noble form of entertainment, etc; it is infinitely more important (especially song) as the most excellent means of education, in order to develop a pure and noble spirit, to weave love of the good and beautiful in general, and of virtue and religion, deeply and intimately into our being, so that they remain forever inseparable.” It was expected that all members of the Austrian nobility and upper class be well versed in music, regularly attend performances, and patronize the many performers and composers who flocked to Vienna.

Franz Joseph Gall.

IT WAS TO this city of contradictions and manic excitement that Franz Joseph Gall came in 1781. Ambling with his awkward gait through the city, Gall kept mostly to himself, taking in everything. As he began his medical studies, he found himself to be a mediocre student. Struggling to keep up and envious of those around him, he began to fixate on students who excelled at memorization, staring at them across lecture halls and dissection theaters with admiration and frustration. How was it possible, Gall wanted to know, that these men could so easily keep track of that which bedeviled him? It seemed to him as if their brains must be structured differently. Over time Gall became convinced that there was something peculiar about these men, something worthy of attention. He started to notice that these men all seemed to have unusually large eyes. The longer he thought about it, the more he came to believe that this was not a random occurrence — the large eyes, he concluded, were somehow related to the faculty for memorization.

Convinced of this causal connection, Gall began to look for other correlations between mental attributes and physical appearance. “Proceeding from reflection to reflection,” he would later write, “from observation to observation, it occurred to me that, if memory were made evident by external signs, it might be so likewise with other talents or intellectual faculties.”

This simple observation became the core of Gall’s system, one that he would refine in the coming years. What he came to call “organology” had four main principles: (1) The moral and intellectual faculties are innate and determined from birth; (2) the manifestation of these qualities depends on their organization; (3) the brain is the exclusive seat of the mind; and (4) each faculty of the mind corresponds to a different independent section of the brain. Though it may seem dubious to draw such sweeping conclusions from an arbitrary connection between memory and eye size, it is worth noting that contemporary neuroscience supports many of these same principles, albeit in modified forms. Indeed, it was ultimately the third proposition, the least controversial from a modern perspective, that would get Gall in the most trouble.

Gall’s fundamental discovery was localization, the idea that different parts of the brain control different elements of our mind and body. Even two centuries later, with phrenology thoroughly discredited, most anatomists still recognize this concept as Gall’s fundamental contribution to the study of the mind. Granted, Gall had no evidence for this belief and little way of proving or disproving it, but it was nevertheless to be a watershed moment on the road to modern neurology.

Armed with this simple principle, Gall set out looking for other correspondences between physical appearance and personality. “From this time,” he would later write, “all the individuals who were distinguished by any quality or faculty, became the object of my special attention, and of systematic study as to the form of the head.”

The question was how to go about this systematic study. What Gall needed was a way of mapping the brain and its functions. The brain’s workings are invisible and silent. It doesn’t work like other organs. Take the heart: Cut open a body and there it sits, at the center of the human world. You can trace its veins and arteries threading out in every direction, in order to understand its networks. If you cut open a still living body, you can see it going about its bloody work.

The brain is a different matter. It sits removed; it keeps its secrets to itself. When the Egyptians embalmed a body, they placed each organ in a separate urn; each was sacred, each was worthy of reverence — except the brain. It works not with blood or food but with its own electricity, and it keeps its own counsel. The Egyptians didn’t know what it was for, so they threw it away. By the eighteenth century, anatomists knew more about the brain and its networks, but it still remained remarkably aloof.

IT WAS A few years before Gall hit upon his concept, but in the end his assertion was quite simple, even elegant. His discovery was a process he called “cranioscopy,” what became colloquially known as “bump reading” and his pupil Johann Spurzheim would rechristen “phrenology.” It was predicated on a few simple principles. First, Gall theorized that, all other things being equal, size determines propensity: A bigger brain implies a higher capacity for intelligence. This was, Gall asserted, equally true of different parts of the brain — if the segment of the brain devoted to memory was larger in one individual than in another, then it stood to reason that the former would have a higher capacity for memory. Second, it was well known that the skull, like all bones, is initially malleable upon birth, only gradually becoming more rigid. So it stood to reason, Gall theorized, that the ridges and folds of the brain might imprint themselves on the bone when it was still pliable and that one could come to know the brain by understanding these imprints. From this apparent insight Gall began to explore the possibility that the brain’s workings might be made visible by the patterns it made on the skull.

This is the motivation that drives phrenology: a quest for the visible. From a contemporary vantage point, it is easy to dismiss it as quackery, but it made a good deal of sense at the time, given the prevailing intellectual climate. The Enlightenment was a time when people were obsessed with sight and metaphors of vision — you can see the obsession in the name itself, an age of illumination. To see a thing was to know it. The metaphoric connection between sight and knowledge drove much of Enlightenment thought, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s desire in 1761 to become “a living eye” to Ralph Waldo Emerson, ninety years later, becoming a “transparent eyeball” in moments of transcendence. As one modern commentator points out, the Enlightenment conceptualized a reasoning mind whose “processes appear to have been closely akin to those of the seeing eye.” Gall was ultimately a man of his age, who sought knowledge in sight and did his best to bring the study of the brain into an era in which only sight mattered. Maybe he can be forgiven if in trying just a little too hard to solve this problem he created one of the most egregious pseudosciences of the nineteenth century.

Two hundred years earlier, Rene Descartes had written, “All the management of our lives depends on the senses, and since that of sight is the most comprehensive and the noblest of these, there is no doubt that the inventions which serve to augment its power are among the most useful that there can be.” He was speaking of telescopes and microscopes, but cranioscopy would soon find its place as just one more such lens, opening up what was hitherto invisible to the eye. As if a weirdly organic precursor to the phonograph, the skull appeared to phrenologists as something like a recording device, a malleable surface onto which a record of the ineffable could be printed. The etymology of the terms is telling: whereas “phrenology” means “mind-knowing,” Gall’s own term, “cranioscopy,” means “skull-seeing.” The skull, Gall reasoned, was a lens through which one could see greater things.

Even at the beginning, this line of inquiry was not without its detractors. While some people found Gall’s attempt to see the mind stimulating, others thought it deeply offensive. Napoleon, for one, was utterly contemptuous of phrenology. “Nature does not reveal herself by external forms,” he said; “she hides and does not express her secrets. To pretend to seize and penetrate human character by so slight an index is the part of a dupe or an imposter. . . .

The only way of knowing our fellow creatures is to see them, to associate with them frequently, and to submit them to proof.” Napoleon would on his deathbed claim that his attempt to block phrenology in France was the best decision he ever made.

But Napoleon’s view wasn’t the popular one. Gall began lecturing on his findings in 1796 and was an instant hit. His public lectures drew large crowds to whom he espoused his ideas that the brain — rather than some ineffable, immortal soul — was the home of the mind and that the strengths and tendencies of this brain could be read through the skull. His lectures were scandalous in part because they were open to the general public, including women, though he claimed that women were never present when he discussed sexual proclivities and reproduction.

Gall worked largely by induction. He would identify a principle of the mind and then find someone whose personality demonstrated this principle. From there it was just a matter of finding something equally noteworthy about this person’s head. Sometimes such connections were formed from only one or two examples. Aaron Burr, for example, had fathered a child out of wedlock and had a large ridge on the back of his head — thus, Gall reasoned, that portion of the brain must be where “love of offspring” was located, a faculty particularly excessive in Burr’s case.

But even with such a lax methodology, he needed a body of evidence. He needed heads — lots of them. And so Gall quickly amassed a huge collection of skulls and plaster casts of heads. By his own estimate, this collection cost 7,000 gulden; on top of that was another 15,000 guldens’ worth of preparations, a sum equal to forty times the average salary of a middle-class Viennese and over twice the value of Haydn’s entire estate.

For the most part, Gall acquired his skulls from executed criminals and asylum graveyards; if he wanted the head of someone important for his collection, he would take a plaster cast. But that didn’t stop his detractors from imputing darker motives. Pierre Flourens, a rival anatomist and one of Gall’s many antagonists, would later claim that at one time everybody in Vienna was trembling for his head, and fearing that after his death it would be put in requisition to enrich Dr. Gall’s cabinet. . . .

Too many people were led to suppose themselves the objects of the doctor’s regards, and imagined their heads to be especially longed for by him as a specimen of the utmost importance to the success of his experiments. Some very curious stories were told on this point. Old M. Denis, the Emperor’s librarian, inserted a special clause in his will, intended to save his cranium from M. Gall’s scalpel.

This was mostly invention on Flourens’s part, as Gall, it turns out, had some trouble acquiring skulls other than those of criminals and the insane.

“Men,” he wrote in a letter, “unhappily, have such an opinion of themselves, that each one believes that I am watching for his head, as one of the most important objects of my collection. Nevertheless, I have not been able to collect more than twenty in the space of three years, if I except those that I have taken in the hospitals, or in the asylum for idiots.”

But it wasn’t for lack of trying. “If you could arrange it that any kind of genius would make me the heir of his skull, I would promise to build a splendid building within ten years,” he wrote in 1898. “Certainly it would be dangerous for Kästner, Kant, or Wieland, if I had David’s killing angel at my disposal.” As late as 1827 his desperation for the heads of geniuses was evident; after receiving a bust of the head of Goethe as a gift, he replied that, should Goethe die, “I implore you to bribe the relatives of this unique genius to preserve his head in nature for the world.”

For the general public, this was the most disturbing byproduct of Gall’s new system, and it tapped into a larger fear that had begun to surface long before, when modern anatomists had first started to turn to the corpse as a means of understanding the body. There was a widespread belief, especially in Catholic areas like Austria, that one’s intact and naturally decomposed remains were vital for resurrection. Dissection or dismemberment represented a fate far worse than death, and it was for this reason that only executed criminals were turned over to anatomists — dissection was seen as the final form of punishment. To have one’s body cut open for science implied the damnation of one’s soul. A particularly horrific cartoon from the early nineteenth century showed a dissection lab on the day of the Last Judgment, with dismembered arms and legs reanimated and moving about, desperately seeking the rest of their bodies.

But what Catholics saw in Gall’s skull collection was something far more sinister than the doctor could have meant. Gall’s contention that the brain was the sole organ of the mind suggested a dangerous form of heresy — “materialism” — that went counter to centuries of church doctrine. The implication inherent in phrenology was that one need not consider the immortal soul because everything of consequence could be located in the brain. It was this notion that led the Austrian government, motivated by the Catholic Church, to ban all public lectures by Gall on January 9, 1802.

Gall attempted to defend himself in a lengthy retort against this and other accusations. He wrote, It has occasioned to me infinite distress, that his Majesty has been led to entertain the unfounded apprehension, that my theory appears to lead to materialism, and consequently to militate against the first principles of morals and religion. In all ages, it has happened that truths entirely new, or even truths only better demonstrated, have appeared to threaten the existence of all previously established principles. But experience has uniformly proved, that old and new truths soon cordially combine, and mutually support each other, that opposition to them is only pernicious, and, especially, that obstacles thrown in their way tend only to promote their advancement.

He went on to argue that he did not actually believe one could determine a subject’s personality solely by looking at the bumps of a skull: It was impossible, he claimed, to distinguish the worthless from the virtuous solely through the skull “because moral, social, civil, and religious conduct, is the result of many and different concomitant causes, and especially of many powerful external influences; for instance, education, example, habits, laws, religion, age, society, climate, food, health, and so forth.”

Ultimately, though, Gall saw the writing on the wall and was forced to leave Austria for France. He could not afford to transport his extensive skull collection, which was subsequently lost. Eventually Gall and Spurzheim made it to Paris, where they were instantly popular, having among their many clients notables such as Prince Metternich. Austria, it would seem, was free of its dangerous heretic.

But Gall’s subversive ideas had already begun to have an impact. Enterprising phrenologists quickly understood that if they were going to know the mind, they needed the skulls not just of prostitutes and murderers but of greater men and women — and, more important, that these skulls might be worth something.

Around the same time Gall began lecturing on the properties of the skull, the sexton of Vienna’s St. Marx Church, Joseph Rothmayer, undertook a rather unorthodox mission. A few years earlier he had been present when Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had been buried there, and, sensing the potential value of the composer’s skull, he had wrapped a metal wire around the corpse’s neck before it had been unceremoniously dumped into the mass grave. Now, in what Peter J. Davies has aptly described as “a moment of animated musical enthusiasm,” he dug up the communal grave and picked through the pile of remains until he found the skeleton with the wire around its neck. He removed Mozart’s head and saved it from destruction.

Excerpted from Colin Dickey’s Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius.