When Philadelphia naturalist Samuel George Morton died in 1851, no one cut off his head, boiled away its flesh, and added his grinning skull to a collection of crania. It would have been strange, but perhaps fitting, had Morton’s skull wound up in a collector’s cabinet, for Morton himself had collected hundreds of skulls over the course of a long career. Friends, diplomats, doctors, soldiers, and fellow naturalists sent him skulls they gathered from battlefields and burial grounds across America and around the world.
With The Skull Collectors, eminent historian Ann Fabian resurrects that popular and scientific movement, telling the strange—and at times gruesome—story of Morton, his contemporaries, and their search for a scientific foundation for racial difference. From cranial measurements and museum shelves to heads on stakes, bloody battlefields, and the “rascally pleasure” of grave robbing, Fabian paints a lively picture of scientific inquiry in service of an agenda of racial superiority, and of a society coming to grips with both the deadly implications of manifest destiny and the mass slaughter of the Civil War. Even as she vividly recreates the past, Fabian also deftly traces the continuing implications of this history, from lingering traces of scientific racism to debates over the return of the remains of Native Americans that are held by museums to this day.
Full of anecdotes, oddities, and insights, The Skull Collectors takes readers on a darkly fascinating trip down a little-visited but surprisingly important byway of American history.
Rutgers dean of humanities Fabian (The Unvarnished Truth) aims to explore "the tension between skull size as measures of racial difference and as markers of common humanity." Unfortunately, while she touches on this fascinating point on numerous occasions, she never fully examines these issues. She provides information about some of "craniology"'s founders, the oddest stories and contradictions, but leaves the reader to synthesize it all. The first half of the book is largely devoted to the work of Samuel George Morton, a 19th-century naturalist who amassed almost 1,000 skulls and used them to argue that there were five distinct races of humans. While Fabian reports on Morton's passion and methodology, and frequently says his work was the basis for the field of "scientific racism," she doesn't allow readers to get inside Morton's head to understand his perspective. Fabian writes most eloquently about the post-Civil War national dissonance, when the government was working aggressively to bury the war dead, while also promoting the unearthing of Native American graves so skulls could be collected for "scientific" use. However, by presenting more anecdotes than insights, Fabian will leave readers unsatisfied and searching for the big picture. 30 illus. (Oct.)