The Skull Collectors: Race, Science, and America's Unburied Dead

Hardcover (Print)
Rent from
(Save 59%)
Est. Return Date: 07/23/2015
Buy New
Buy New from
Buy Used
Buy Used from
(Save 41%)
Item is in good condition but packaging may have signs of shelf wear/aging or torn packaging.
Condition: Used – Good details
Used and New from Other Sellers
Used and New from Other Sellers
from $10.65
Usually ships in 1-2 business days
(Save 61%)
Other sellers (Hardcover)
  • All (17) from $10.65   
  • New (8) from $17.56   
  • Used (9) from $10.65   


When Philadelphia naturalist Samuel George Morton died in 1851, no one cut off his head, boiled away its flesh, and added his grinning skull to a collection of crania. It would have been strange, but perhaps fitting, had Morton’s skull wound up in a collector’s cabinet, for Morton himself had collected hundreds of skulls over the course of a long career. Friends, diplomats, doctors, soldiers, and fellow naturalists sent him skulls they gathered from battlefields and burial grounds across America and around the world.

With The Skull Collectors, eminent historian Ann Fabian resurrects that popular and scientific movement, telling the strange—and at times gruesome—story of Morton, his contemporaries, and their search for a scientific foundation for racial difference. From cranial measurements and museum shelves to heads on stakes, bloody battlefields, and the “rascally pleasure” of grave robbing, Fabian paints a lively picture of scientific inquiry in service of an agenda of racial superiority, and of a society coming to grips with both the deadly implications of manifest destiny and the mass slaughter of the Civil War. Even as she vividly recreates the past, Fabian also deftly traces the continuing implications of this history, from lingering traces of scientific racism to debates over the return of the remains of Native Americans that are held by museums to this day.

Full of anecdotes, oddities, and insights, The Skull Collectors takes readers on a darkly fascinating trip down a little-visited but surprisingly important byway of American history.

Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Rutgers dean of humanities Fabian (The Unvarnished Truth) aims to explore "the tension between skull size as measures of racial difference and as markers of common humanity." Unfortunately, while she touches on this fascinating point on numerous occasions, she never fully examines these issues. She provides information about some of "craniology"'s founders, the oddest stories and contradictions, but leaves the reader to synthesize it all. The first half of the book is largely devoted to the work of Samuel George Morton, a 19th-century naturalist who amassed almost 1,000 skulls and used them to argue that there were five distinct races of humans. While Fabian reports on Morton's passion and methodology, and frequently says his work was the basis for the field of "scientific racism," she doesn't allow readers to get inside Morton's head to understand his perspective. Fabian writes most eloquently about the post-Civil War national dissonance, when the government was working aggressively to bury the war dead, while also promoting the unearthing of Native American graves so skulls could be collected for "scientific" use. However, by presenting more anecdotes than insights, Fabian will leave readers unsatisfied and searching for the big picture. 30 illus. (Oct.)
American Indian Quarterly
“Fabian provides the reader a firm understanding of the history of American physical anthropology during the nineteenth century, serving as an excellent reminder of how far methodologies have come since then. . . . This volume is an excellent contribution to growing literature in the early physical anthropological praxis.”
Michael Kammen
“Ann Fabian’s latest book is fascinating, astonishingly original, and supplies significant implications for our understanding of life and death in America—among other things.  Brain capacity leads to issues of intelligence, and we all know where that leads. The subject is both curious and compelling—American studies and cultural history at its best.”
David W. Blight

 “Ann Fabian's The Skull Collectors has all the elements of great history: genuine surprises, originality, imaginative research, and marvelous storytelling. Even more importantly, it is a brilliant, disturbing story about the fateful convergence of science and racism in the nineteenth century. Samuel George Morton's famous skulls, and the quest by so many others to find, steal, measure, and collect so many varieties of ‘heads’ tells us much about the roots of modern racism as well as about why ‘we’ still struggle to define ourselves as one species. Fabian shows us how the dead have always been our teachers, but what we learn depends on the questions we ask.”

Karl Jacoby
“A haunting voyage through the peculiar—and peculiarly American—world of human skull collecting. Ann Fabian's remarkable and moving study illuminates as few other works have the powerful hold that the dead and their remains continue to have upon the living.”
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226233482
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 10/15/2010
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 1,006,259
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Ann Fabian is dean of humanities and professor of American studies and history at Rutgers University. She is the author of many books, including, most recently, The Unvarnished Truth: Personal Narratives in Nineteenth-Century America.

Read More Show Less

Table of Contents


Introduction: Ghosts of the Unburied Dead 1

1 "The Promise of a Fine Skull" 9

2 A Native among the Headhunters 47

3 Crania Americana 79

4 "News from the Feegees" 121

5 The Unburied Dead 165

Epilogue: Brains, Bones, and Graves 205

Notes 221

Index 261

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Be the first to write a review
( 0 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star


4 Star


3 Star


2 Star


1 Star


Your Rating:

Your Name: Create a Pen Name or

Barnes & Review Rules

Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

We highly value and respect everyone's opinion concerning the titles we offer. However, we cannot allow persons under the age of 13 to have accounts at or to post customer reviews. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.

What to exclude from your review:

Please do not write about reviews, commentary, or information posted on the product page. If you see any errors in the information on the product page, please send us an email.

Reviews should not contain any of the following:

  • - HTML tags, profanity, obscenities, vulgarities, or comments that defame anyone
  • - Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • - Single-word reviews. Other people will read your review to discover why you liked or didn't like the title. Be descriptive.
  • - Comments focusing on the author or that may ruin the ending for others
  • - Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • - Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • - Advertisements or commercial solicitation


  • - By submitting a review, you grant to Barnes & and its sublicensees the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use the review in accordance with the Barnes & Terms of Use.
  • - Barnes & reserves the right not to post any review -- particularly those that do not follow the terms and conditions of these Rules. Barnes & also reserves the right to remove any review at any time without notice.
  • - See Terms of Use for other conditions and disclaimers.
Search for Products You'd Like to Recommend

Recommend other products that relate to your review. Just search for them below and share!

Create a Pen Name

Your Pen Name is your unique identity on It will appear on the reviews you write and other website activities. Your Pen Name cannot be edited, changed or deleted once submitted.

Your Pen Name can be any combination of alphanumeric characters (plus - and _), and must be at least two characters long.

Continue Anonymously

    If you find inappropriate content, please report it to Barnes & Noble
    Why is this product inappropriate?
    Comments (optional)