Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius

I don’t usually link to book reviews but this one is fascinating. Check it out, from California Literary Review:

The clunky, oddball title is both intriguing and off-putting, the subtitle quaint and risible — evoking images of Gene Wilder and Marty Feldman excavating a plot in a downpour (“Young Frankenstein”) or possibly Oliver Hardy whacking Stan Laurel’s toe in the graveyard dirt (“Habeas Corpus”).

In this age of cremations, cryonic storage, and ashes shot into space, grave robbing seems to hail from another era. However, the theft of human remains persists as a rare but fascinating phenomenon.

On the stump in October to promote his first book, Colin Dickey found himself tapped just days before Halloween to comment on an Associated Press story by Patrick Walters about thefts from cemeteries: bronze fixtures by meth addicts, ritual objects by occultists, and even human remains by teens playing pranks or possibly hoping to sell body parts.

Medical schools had trouble finding bodies legitimately in the 1800s, Dickey told the AP reporter. People who stole bodies for training of physicians were called “resurrectionists. … People recognized the scientific need but couldn’t sort of get over the religious problem with it.”

Earlier the same month, AP writer Christine Armario reported that the skull of Ruth Keaton, who died in 1984 at the age of 34, was finally restored to her grave in Royal Palm Cemetery, St. Petersburg, Florida, after sitting for 28 years on a table in a stranger’s bedroom. Keaton’s resting place had collapsed while gravediggers were preparing another plot in 1981. They kept her skull, which ended up with Gary S. Thomas, a member of the “Satan’s Saints” motorcycle gang at the time. County deputies noticed the skull when they visited Thomas’s home on an unrelated matter Oct. 3, and another gravedigger who had witnessed the initial removal led them to Keaton’s grave. An appalled nephew of Keaton, born eight years after she died, nevertheless requested that authorities not prosecute Thomas.

Still, it’s a shock to open Dickey’s book and learn that the skulls of some very prominent people — composers Ludwig van Beethoven, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Joseph Haydn; painter Francisco Goya; Renaissance scholar and theologian Sir Thomas Browne; and scientist and philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg — were dug up, stolen, mutilated, handed from one person to another, and perhaps in some cases mislaid or lost forever.

How could this have happened?

[continues at California Literary Review]


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