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“Disturbingly Informative”

I was lucky enough to visit the Mutter Museum on a recent trip to Philadelphia. One of the brochures describes it as “disturbingly informative”. It was awesome. Not only does the Mutter Museum house a giant colon and a collection of objects swallowed and removed, it houses the skull collection of Joseph Hyrtl. In Colin Dickey’s book Cranioklepty”, he writes about phrenology and the collecting of skulls.

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.  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.

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January 10, 2010 Posted by | Non Fiction | | Leave a comment