134. Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius

Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius by Colin Dickey (Canada) - (USA)

Pages: 302 pages
Ages: 18+
Finished: July 12, 2010
First Published: 2007
Publisher: Unbridled Books
Genre: non-fiction, medicine, history
Rating: 4/5

First sentence:

At 2 o'clock in the afternoon on October 30, 1820, workers disinterred the body of the composer Joseph Hayden from his grave in the Hundsthurmer Church in Vienna, preparing it for transit to the nearby city of Eisenstadt, home of his powerful patrons, the Esterhazy family.
Acquired: Received a review copy from McArthur & Company.

Reason for Reading: I read a lot of fiction and non-fiction taking place during Victorian times and was interested in what this book had to offer from that time period especially on the topic of Phrenology. I also simply have a taste for the morbid.

Cranioklepty concentrates on man's fascination with human skulls and what they can tell us about the criminal, insane and especially the genius. The book covers the time period from 1790 through the early 1900s though the lasting effects take us right through the 20th century up to a 2009 law suit. Cranioklepty concentrates on the post death lives of famous people, especially Joseph Haydn, Thomas Browne, Mozart, and Beethoven. Each of these individuals had their head stolen from the grave, used for scientific purposes, traveled the world, or went missing for a time as they were hidden away by collectors.

The book tells a fascinating chronology from the scientific point of view as Phrenology first appeared on the scene as the New Science. This "science" was able to prove the intellect of individuals but it always had its detractors. As science disproved Phrenology and it became a parlour game, science moved onto craniology which at that time was concerned with the size of the skull and the brain cavity to prove a person's intellect.

A fascinating study of the people involved scientifically and those who collected skulls, as well as the stories of the stolen skulls as their journey lasted sometimes over a hundred years, amusing anecdotes (one including an ancestor of the Presidents Bush) and descriptions of preparing a head for examination of its skull (that are not for the weak of stomach) make for a bizarre yet dramatic read.


  1. This sounds really interesting. I watched a documentary not too long ago about scientists examining Hitler's skull to determine whether the body believed to be his really is.

  2. That sounds cool! How did they know the skull was his? What did they decide in the end about the body?


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