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

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

by Ann Fabian
 

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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

Overview

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.

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.”

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780226233499
Publisher:
University of Chicago Press
Publication date:
10/15/2010
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
288
Sales rank:
1,118,937
File size:
3 MB

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.

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