An Overdue Update

New York City sunset
Times Square electronic sunset

I’ve recently been chastised for my absence from this blog (I won’t name names), and just when I thought no one was paying attention! I think all internet-enabled writers know the difficulty of juggling their paid work, creative projects, and social media efforts, which ideally overlap and cross-pollinate, but also distract from one another. Also, it’s hard to sit in a chair for more than ten hours a day. Nevertheless, I’ve been remiss in keeping all of you updated. Here’s a bit about what I’ve been up to:

The Order is about making death a part of your life. That means committing to staring down your death fears–whether it be your own death, the death of those you love, the pain of dying, the afterlife (or lack thereof), grief, corpses, bodily decomposition, or all of the above. Accepting that death itself is natural, but the death anxiety and terror of modern culture are not.

  • I’ve been working on editing a few projects for the Port Townsend publishers Feral House, including a fantastic forthcoming encyclopedia of black metal by Dayal Patterson. It’s got everything you want to know about the controversial genre, from the origin of corpse paint to the 70s glam metal band that inspired most of the Norwegian second wave. Feral House, of course, are the same folks who previously published Lords of Chaos, which both disturbed and fascinated the 18-year-old me.
  • Last but not least, congratulations to the curious and wondrous Atlas Obscura, the world’s most awesome travel-related website, on their re-design! You can see my spotlight on Einstein’s brain in their “Objects of Intrigue” series.

If you made it to the end of that, you get a gold star. Or maybe a skull in a jar, like the beautiful one (made of netting?) I saw at ABC Carpet & Home during the trip. More news, and skulls, soon!

Skull from ABC Carpet & Home (artist unknown)
Skull from ABC Carpet & Home (artist unknown)

The Adventures of Ned’s Head

Ned Kelly shortly before his execution. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Update: Ned Kelly finally had a funeral, 132 years after his death. The Guardian posted a video on the subject with some great background. But his skull is still missing–read on below.

It’s not every day the news talks about a witch returning a skull. And not just any skull: the skull of the notorious outlaw Ned Kelly, one of the best-known characters in Australian history.

In late August 2012, various news outlets reported that Anna Hoffman, a 74-year-old New Zealander and self-proclaimed witch, had come forward claiming to possess Ned Kelly’s head. Hoffman is only the latest in a line of colorful characters who’ve made the same statement, and so far they’ve all been—let’s just say—not entirely in touch with reality. I tell the full story (or at least the story so far) in Rest in Pieces, but here’s the Cliff’s Notes version.

Ned Kelly was a bushranger, a criminal who used the Australian outback as the base for conducting robberies of stagecoaches and small-town banks. His daring escapades and defiance of the British establishment made him a folk hero, and after he was captured in a police shootout in 1880 wearing homemade armor, nearly 30,000 people signed a petition asking for a stay of execution. But the authorities were determined to end his life, and Kelly was hanged at the Melbourne gaol on November 11, 1880. His last words are said to have been “Tell ’em I died game.”

As a Roman Catholic turned newly devout in prison, Kelly wanted his remains be given to his family for burial in consecrated ground. But as an about-to-be executed criminal, his had little say in the matter: his body was the property of the Crown. His corpse was buried on the grounds of the Melbourne gaol, where it stayed until renovations in 1929. That year, part of the gaol grounds were turned over to a nearby college to create a new engineering school. When the skeletons were exhumed, local schoolboys plundered the graves. That’s when Kelly’s skull disappeared—for the first time.

Things get pretty weird from here, but an object said to be Kelly’s skull was returned to police shortly after the exhumations in 1929. However, this skull never made it back to Kelly’s grave. Instead it was kept at a variety of Australian institutions, and casts of it went on display in the 1940s at the Australian Institute of Anatomy in Canberra, where it kept company with aboriginal artifacts and preserved koala bear hands. Later the skull was moved to the Old Melbourne Gaol Museum, where it was on display next to Kelly’s death mask. But in 1978, the skull was stolen again, this time out of a locked cabinet.

The theft has never been solved. In the years since, several lively characters have come forward claiming to have the skull, including an eccentric activist named “Fast Buck$” and former Australian Marijuana Party Senate candidate known as J. J. McRoach. For years, Ned’s missing head has been a ghostly character in Australian politics, known only by its absence.

In the later 1990s, a sandalwood farmer named Tom Baxter from a remote region of western Australia came forward saying he had the skull. Baxter refused to say whether or not he himself had stolen the skull, but said he was taking care of it because he objected to its display as a “police trophy.” After a decade of negotiations, Baxter returned the skull to authorities in 2009 on the anniversary of Kelly’s death.

But as it turned out, Baxter never had Ned’s head. Forensic analysis in 2009 showed that Baxter’s skull, the same one stolen in 1978, probably belongs to another character from Australia’s history: Australia’s first serial killer, Frederick Deeming, who some think could be Jack the Ripper.

As for the “witch” Hoffman, who is something of a folk hero herself, she claims that she was given the skull by a security guard thirty years ago while on a vacation in Melbourne. A report in the Telegraph says:

Ms Hoffman, who courted controversy as a witch in the 1960s and 1970s, told the Herald on Sunday newspaper that she has cared for the skull, one of more than 20 she has in a collection. “I have treated it with respect, I haven’t lit candles in it or drunk red wine out of it or anything bohemian like that.”

Goodness gracious, nothing like that.

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.

Sade’s Skull Onscreen

A few weeks ago I had the misfortune of watching The Skull (1965). I don’t recommend it. Based on a short story by Robert Block (author of Psycho), the movie centers on an occult scholar and collector who purchases the Marquis de Sade’s skull after its exhumation by an phrenologist sometime back in Thee Olden Days. In the movie, no mention is made of Sade’s sexual proclivities—instead he’s a Satanist, and as a result his skull has malevolent powers on par with Chucky.

The movie stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, who are great, and includes some enjoyable creepy-groovy 1960s sets. The main problem is that the skull is treated like a main character, which is hard to do with an inanimate object. Large chunks of the end of the movie are actually shot through the skull’s eyes, which I guess is supposed to make you feel closer to the skull, but really just makes you feel like you’re looking through a pair of broken binoculars.

I took a screenshot to prove I’d watched it. Here’s the phrenologist, “Pierre,” with his new friend freshly plucked from the grave:

Say hello …

(There’s a whole mess of stills over at the Peter Cushing Appreciation Society, where they seem to share my ideas about the film.)

Robert Block’s original short story looks like it might be more promising, and I’m going to try to track it down. Just for fun, here are some of the  original posters for the movie and covers for the book:

Poster for the movie, via Wikimedia Commons

1976 book cover via Flickr
Tie-in book cover via eBay

While looking for the movie posters, I discovered that ZombosCloset has the movie’s entire press pack! Apparently the original promotion options included a tabloid herald printed with day-glo ink and silver novelty skull rings with fake ruby eyes. But the best is the sheet of ideas for promoting the movie: a Coffin Contest! Cranium Hunt! Shock-tail party! Check it. I may have to steal some of these:

Remember That You Will Die

I’ve long been fascinated by memento mori, both the phrase and the objects. In Latin, memento mori means “remember you will die.” The phrase is usually associated with the Middle Ages in Europe, when it was fashionable to depict skulls, bones, and corpses in art and personal effects. The message behind these motifs was to encourage people to reflect and repent, to live holy lives, lest they be swallowed by the flames of hell –  always waiting around the corner for a new sinner to char.

At the Rubin Museum in NYC, a new show includes some stunning examples of memento mori, from bejeweled skull rings to an ivory bust of a Bohemian general missing half his face. But in a fascinating departure from gloomy Europe, the exhibit also includes objects representing Tibetan ideas of death and the afterlife. (The Rubin Museum is usually devoted to art of the Himalayas, presented in a serene little pocket of Chelsea.)

Ivory bust of General Wallenstein, Europe, after 1634, Science Museum London

The show is called Remember That You Will Die: Death Across Cultures, and indeed the objects represent a small survey of European and Tibetan ideas about the end of life. Europeans had skull rings, but the Tibetans had bone armor – a shawl woven of bone beads carved to look like skeletons. In various paintings on view, deities dance with the pearlized armor in a way that recalls the glittering props of belly dancers. Several other paintings show yogis meditating in charnel grounds, which were considered an ideal place to confront the fear of death. Two 18th century Tibetan bronzes depicts the Lord of the Charnel Grounds as a skeleton, dancing amid a ribbon of his skin. Also on display is a shin bone trumpet, and a hand drum decorated with images of human skulls and intestines. (For more great images, go to Morbid Anatomy.)

Skull pocket watch, Europe 1701-1900, Science Museum London. It's said Mary Queen of Scots carried a watch engraved with a skull as she paced the Tower of London awaiting news of her fate.

The objects from both parts of the world are a joy to view and contemplate. Buying a ticket, the admissions girl told me, “prepared to be scaaarrrreed!” as if I was entering a creepy funhouse ride. Yet the images didn’t scare me at all. They’re didactic, meant to teach a lesson. In both cultures, the lesson is intertwined with social control – behave properly, and you will avoid hell and bask in heaven. However, the wonderful thing about memento mori is that even as they compel the believer to look beyond this life, they also compel him or her to seize it. For the hedonist, that can mean embracing pleasures that religious authorities would prohibit, and in that sense memento mori are sweetly subversive.  For me, the objects are a call to penetrate the sleepiness of everyday life in order to cultivate a greater awareness of the moment. One of the most fascinating things about death is how it reinforces the preciousness of life. Looking at the objects on display, I am reminded of what Kafka said about literature – that it should serve as “an ax for the frozen sea within us.” The tug of these objects can serve a similar purpose.

Hitler’s Head

New post over at The Faster Times about Hitler’s skull. Seems new research proves a skull fragment (at left) long thought to be Hitler’s is actually female:

The History Channel got curious about the skull fragment, which belongs to the Russian State Archive in Moscow and displays a prominent bullet hole smack-dab in the middle. While the Russian authorities have long said the skull fragment belonged to Hitler, and came from the ditch outside his bunker where his body was dumped, the History Channel decided to use some good ol’ fashioned American technology to examine their claims.

While it’s pure morbid speculation (my specialty), the discovery raises the possibility that it was not actually Hitler’s body cremated by the KGB in 1970.

Just in time for Yom Kippur, Daily Intel enumerated the possibilities raised by this discovery, “in descending order of plausibility”. Last on the list: Hitler escaped and is still walking around somewhere. Keep your eyes peeled for a 120-year-old German man, because he’s probably Hitler!