The Marquis and His Skull

Portrait of Sade via Wikimedia Commons

The Marquis de Sade was an author, philosopher, and politician who led a turbulent life during one of the most turbulent periods of history—the French Revolution. Arrested time and again for his licentious writings and activities, he spent more than a third of his life in prison, where he wrote many of the works that would later define him (including 120 Days of Sodom, which he scrawled on a single long roll of paper while in the Bastille). Much of Sade’s work is devoted to exploring freedom and individuality as expressed through extreme forms of sexuality that often involve pain, torture, and even death; it’s from Sade that we get the term “sadism,” to take pleasure in cruelty.

Sade spent the last thirteen years of his life in prison. He was arrested for the last time at his publisher’s offices in 1801, declared insane, and transferred to the Charenton asylum in 1803. A nineteen-year-old medical intern, L.J. Ramon, later wrote about what it was like to encounter Sade shuffling down the halls of the asylum:

I often used to meet him, walking all by himself, with a heavy, dragging step, most carelessly attired … as I passed I would bow and he would respond with that chill courtesy which excludes any thought of entering into conversation … the only impression he produced on me was that of a haughty, morose elderly gentleman. [1]

Sade died in the asylum on December 2, 1814 at the age of 74. He had been ill for some time, suffering violent pains in his abdomen and testicles. Years earlier, at the age of 66, he had written his last will and testament, which includes the following lines:

I categorically forbid the dissection of my body for any purpose whatsoever; I must pressingly request that it be kept for fourty-eight hours in the room in which I die … During this time an express messenger shall be sent to M. Le Normand, firewood merchant … to take my body and in his care transport it in the said firewood wagon to the woods on my Malmaison property … where I wish it to be placed, without any sort of ceremony … once the grave is filled in, acorns are to be scattered over it, so that in time the grave is again overgrown, and when the undergrowth is grown as it was before, the traces of my grave will vanish from the face of the earth as I like to think memory of me will be effaced from men’s minds … [2]

Sade’s body was not dissected, but the other provisions of his will were completely ignored. He was not buried in Malmaison, the property having been sold some years earlier. Instead he was given a cheap Christian burial at the far eastern end of the cemetery of the Charenton estate, in a grave marked with only a plain stone cross. That would have made Sade turn over in his grave—he was a militant atheist.

A few years later (it’s not clear exactly when), Sade’s body was exhumed during renovations on the Charenton grounds. Ramon—who had long since become a doctor at the hospital and attended Sade in his final moments—asked for and received the skull of his most famous patient. Ramon was a devotee of phrenology, a psuedo-science developed by the Germans Franz Joseph Gall and Johann Spurzheim that linked the shape of a person’s skull to their mental and moral characteristics. Phrenologists believed that mental activity changes the shape and size of the brain, which in turn changes the shape and size of the skull. The first idea influenced the development of neuroscience; the second is totally bonkers.

Ramon had only a short time with the skull, but it was long enough to conduct a phrenological investigation. This examination found: “excellent development of the top of the cranium (theosophy, benevolence),” a lack of ridges above and behind the ears that would have indicated combativeness, and no signs of “excess in physical love.” In his notes, Ramon wrote: “His skull was in all respects similar to that of a Father of the Church.” [3]

Johann Spurzheim

But Ramon didn’t get to keep Sade’s skull for long. Soon after writing the above analysis, he received a visit from the eminent Spurzheim, who convinced Ramon to give him the skull. Spurzheim promised to return it, but he never did. Instead he travelled the world, giving lectures to sold-out crowds, before dying of typhoid in Boston in 1832. It’s said the skull was still in his possession at the time of his death.

No one knows exactly what happened to the skull after that. At least part of his collection passed into the hands of his friend Johan Didrik Holm, a wealthy Swedish naval captain who amassed one of the largest personal collections of skulls in Europe, and was probably also responsible for stealing the skull of the Swedish scientist-turned-mystic Emanuel Swedenborg.

There’s a theory that Sade’s skull was brought to America, where casts of it were made for teaching phrenology and anatomy. Apparently the casts were used to demonstrate skulls of a particular type—benevolence and religious faith. Of course, the students handing the skulls had no idea they were really looking at the head of a man whose name has become a byword for cruelty. The absurdity of such a situation highlights the absurdity of phrenology itself.

According to biographer Maurice Lever, Thibault de Sade—a descendant of the Marquis—eventually found a mold of the skull in the anthropology laboratory of France’s Musee de l’Homme. Red letters scrawled on the side of the skull read: “Marquis de Sade. Coll. Dumoutier no. 259.” (Dumoutier was a teaching assistant who prepared the hall for Spurzheim’s lectures.) This image, which has been floating around the internet without a definite provenance, looks like it might be that skull:

Does this skull look “benevolent” to you?

1. Quoted in Lely, Gilbert. The Marquis de Sade: A Biography. Translated by Alec Brown. London: Elek Books, 1961.

2. Quoted in ibid.

3. Lever, Maurice. Sade: A Biography. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. New York: Farrar, 1993.

Other sources:

Thomas, Donald. The Marquis de Sade. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1976.

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