Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found

At any moment I expected Frances Larson to quote from Stanley Holloway’s English music hall hit song of 1934, “with her head tucked underneath her arm, she walks the bloody tower ” describing the post-decapitation perambulations of Anne Boleyn after “the headsman bobbed her hair.” Even so, she missed few other opportunities to underline our cultural preoccupation with heads whether lost or found. This is an absorbing if unsettling book, a feeling reinforced by recent ISIS atrocities.

Larson holds an Honorary Research Fellowship at Durham University in the U.K. So, it is not surprising that much of this fascinating if slightly grisly book is about the anthropology of heads. She has, however, set out to write a popular work that synthesizes perspectives from history, literature, psychology, criminology, anatomy, neurology, and physiology.

Each of the chapters examines heads from a different pithy perspective. Her initial chapter, “Shrunken Heads,” begins with a discussion of the shrunken head collection at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford University. As one who is neither an anthropologist nor a shrunken head collector, I admit that I have never given much consideration to why shrunken heads matter. I was surprised that the museum’s shrunken head collection is its most popular exhibit and that efforts to remove the heads from the museum’s collection, out of regard for others’ cultural sensitivities, have been spectacularly unsuccessful. Larson then analyzed the economics of shrunken head production and marketing. Who knew that European demand for shrunken-heads as collectibles changed the essence of the shrunken head culture in Latin America? Instead of an on-again, off-again ritualized activity affecting a few adult men’s heads, the headhunters began harvesting shrinkable heads from men, women, children, and monkeys. Once again, Adam Smith’s wisdom was borne out: demand creates supply.

Lest the naive reader think that cranium collecting and processing are restricted to a few native tribes in the Amazonian rain forest, Larson quickly dispels this reassuring assumption. American troops fighting the Japanese during World War II occasionally sent or carried Japanese skulls home to the United States. The most famous Japanese skull appeared as a photograph in Life Magazine in May 1944. This photo was not a surprise to me since I have shown it to my history students for more than a decade. But every time I look at it, I get uneasy. It shows Natalie Nickerson of Phoenix, Arizona penning a thank you note to her Navy boy friend for gifting the skull to her. It is placed in the photo’s foreground. What is the look on Natalie’s face: wistfulness, pleasure, or enchantment?

Larson saves some of her best material for discussing the guillotine. Designed in 1792 when capital punishment was widely practiced for all manner of crimes, stealing a loaf of bread to treason, the guillotine was conceived as a more humane and scientific way of inflicting ultimate punishment on the condemned. Public executions in the 18th and 19th centuries tended to be public spectacles attracting large crowds that expected the condemned to “die well”, that is, to die with dignity following a short, decorous farewell speech. The guillotine was not popular. It ended the public spectacle too abruptly. With the advent of “Madame La Guillotine,” no longer did criminals kick and buck at the end of a rope, nor were there multiple swings of the ax in an effort to completely sever the victim’s head. The blade fell, the head tumbled into the basket. Voila! But that is hardly the end of the story as presented by Frances Larson in Severed.

She resists opportunities to sensationalize the material. Instead she pursues the serious issues that may arise from discussions of shrunken heads, extracted brains, trophy skulls, and capital punishment. Larson addresses them in a thoughtful, intelligent way. Her sources are somewhat tilted towards the British but that is a small caveat. – Neal Ferguson

Also available by Frances Larson: An Infinity of Things: How Lord Henry Wellcome Collected the World.

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