Colin Dickey: Cranioklepty

Colin Dickey: Cranioklepty

The historical facts and stories in Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing And The Search For Genius are so bizarre that first-time author Colin Dickey might have produced an enthralling read just by stringing them together. But just as people in the 1800s were divided over whether to interpret the skull as an object of scientific inquiry or a religious icon, Dickey seems torn about his own role: He shifts between presenting the facts and jumping in to ask philosophical questions that seem out of place and pointless.

Cranioklepty tells stories of gravediggers bribed into providing the heads of great actors, composers, and philosophers, so phrenologists could attempt to puzzle out their nature by studying the bumps in their skulls. It also follows medical professionals’ desperate fights against the prevailing religious views that opposed autopsy—some doctors even tried to dispel the mystique of the corpse by volunteering to have their bodies used for science, then turned into useful things like chairs and pillboxes. Others sent students into graveyards to dig up subjects so they could improve their understanding of anatomy.

The jumping narrative often focuses on the life and activities of one individual at a time before redirecting to a contemporary or two, then progressing chronologically. As a result, Dickey often feels the need to remind readers of connected events by repetition. This is fine when it comes to reintroducing characters, since there are a lot of names to keep track of, but when he repeats full quotes from previous chapters, he seems to just be padding out his 300 pages. Further evidence: As part of his excellent research, he often quotes entire passages from contemporaneous poetry, music, and newspapers on the subject of skulls, phrenology, or grave robbing. While some of these do have the desired effect of showing how the subjects weighed on the public consciousness, he tends to present overlong passages where a simple excerpt would do.

In spite of the weaknesses of presentation, the strength of the subject makes Cranioklepty fascinating and at times laugh-out-loud funny. It’s filled with bizarre missteps, like grave robbers not realizing how incredibly foul-smelling a week-old head would be, or researchers making preservation mistakes and ending up with skulls sprouting algae.

There are also great stories of detractors attempting to prove phrenology as a fraud, including one from Mark Twain, who visited a phrenologist in disguise for a reading and was told he was too cautious to amount to anything, then returned as himself and got a very different result. While it would benefit from more consistent writing, Cranioklepty is well worth reading for anyone who loves strange truths.

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