Ann Fabian. The Skull Collectors: Race, Science, and America's Unburied Dead. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010. xi + 270 pp. $27.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-226-23349-9.
Reviewed by Sean P. Harvey (Seton Hall University)
Published on H-Empire (April, 2014)
Commissioned by Charles V. Reed
Early on in The Skull Collectors: Race, Science, and America’s Unburied Dead, Ann Fabian describes what became of Samuel G. Morton’s head. It was interred with the rest of his body in the pastoral serenity of Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery in 1851. “No one … boiled off its flesh, and added it to his collection” (p. 11). The fact is notable because Morton himself was a naturalist who collected skulls. As the book’s evocative opening lines reveal, “He had a mouse, a finch, a hippopotamus, and a Seminole man drilled by a bullet in his left temple” (p. 2). The vignette indicates the strengths of this fine book: attention to the practice of science, a critical perspective that notes the significance of things that other scholars might have passed over, and a sensitivity to the physical and cultural violence of a science inseparable from “colonialism and conquest” (p. 3).
Skull Collectors is a series of interlocking essays, less linked by a single argument than the attempt “to explore personal histories and social circumstances that gave rise to ideas about dead bodies, race, and science” in the United States (p. 208). Throughout, Fabian successfully sketches the consuming desire of craniologists to objectify and know, through exhumation and quantification, diverse peoples, all while distinguishing the range of feelings that characterized their work. The reader encounters curiosity that is “generous,” “disciplined,” and “morbid,” mixed at times with “piety” and at other times more “irreverent” feelings (pp. 10, 48, 126, 57, 170). Occasionally curiosity produced “cultural relativism,” but the “linked histories of imperial expansion and scientific curiosity” is one of the book’s central themes (pp. 60, 212). After all, Fabian states, “Removing the dead erased markers of past settlement and helped open the land for American farmers and town builders” (p. 220). An overarching irony made her book possible: “Collectors robbed graves, insulted survivors, turned humans into numbers and their remains into specimens, curiosities, trophies, and pen racks. They also stored their memories, recorded their customs, and left signs of remarkable stories for others to follow” (p. 220). And follow Fabian does, telling the stories of the Indians, African Americans, Fijians, and others being collected. Each chapter contains a wealth of telling detail that this review can do little to convey.
The first and third chapters focus on Samuel G. Morton, the leading craniologist in the United States until his death in 1851, highlighting his education, his work, and his associates. Trained in medicine in Edinburgh, Morton encountered the ideas of leading anatomists, including Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, whose studies of the shape of skulls and five-part racial classification proved especially important for Morton, as well as the popular and heterodox ideas of phrenologists. Upon his return to Philadelphia, Morton established a wide-ranging network for collecting skulls from across the globe, which included “the remains of cannibals, criminals, chiefs, warriors, rebels, and poor children” (p. 43). Over time he collected nearly a thousand cranial specimens of the racially and economically subordinate from 138 correspondents, which included missionaries, settlers, soldiers, and diplomats. His research was steeped in racism, but, Fabian notes evenhandedly, it contributed to “modern methodology” by turning “an unwieldy collection of skulls into information he could exchange with collectors, naturalists, and scholars” (p. 15). Crania Americana (1839), perhaps the most influential U.S. scientific work of its generation, described five fixed races of unequal abilities (in descending order: Caucasian, Mongolian, American, Malay, and Ethiopian), based upon cranial capacity, determined by filling empty skulls of varying ages, sexes, and classes with “pepper seed and buckshot” (p. 15). It is a shame, since this reviewer would have liked to have read her reflections on the topic, that Fabian published her book before a team of scientists published research that argued, contra the late biologist Stephen Jay Gould, that Morton’s measurements were fairly accurate, though Morton was wrong to assume that cranial capacity corresponded to innate intelligence. Morton found few subscribers for his lavishly illustrated and expensive opus ($20, or about $500 today), at least outside of Charleston, Mobile, and other centers of slave-owning wealth, so he eagerly formed relationships with popular or prestigious scholars who could help him promote his book, including the phrenologist George Combe, the Egyptologist George R. Gliddon, and the zoologist Loius Agassiz. Fabian nicely sketches Morton’s relationship and influence with each, particularly regarding the polygenism--the theory that different races shared no common ancestor with one another--of the American School of Ethnology.
Chapters 2 and 4 focus upon the lives of human beings whom craniologists tried to transform into specimens: William Brooks (or Stuman), a Chinook man with a flattened skull who had journeyed east to raise funds for a Methodist mission, and Veidovi, a Fijian man taken captive by the United States Exploring Expedition (1838-42). These chapters provide a model for how ethnology illuminates the cultural history of the antebellum United States. “To capture Brooks’s story,” Fabian notes, “we need to weave together chapters in the story of nineteenth-century America that we often hold as separate experiences of native families along the Columbia River, of Methodist missionaries holding an outpost in Oregon, of craniologists in Philadelphia hatching unfortunate arguments about superior and inferior races, of phrenologists feeling the bumps on American heads” (p. 51). Among the most important aspects of this determination to rebraid, in the minds of twenty-first-century readers, histories that have always been intertwined, is Fabian’s clear description of how the work of skull collectors benefited from the deadly epidemics that intensifying colonization brought to Oregon in the 1830s. Fabian also compellingly demonstrates how white scientists, writers, and missionaries all depended upon Brooks to fulfill their own varied motives, and how participating in objectification could further Brooks’s own ends. Veidovi’s participation was less voluntary. While chapter 4 provides an excellent description of Fiji’s changing place in a global economy and the United States’s growing commercial and missionary ambitions in the region, and how each affected the lives of Veidovi and others, those accounts take us away from the gripping story of the killing and eating of U.S. sailors that provided the catalyst for Veidovi’s “extraordinary rendition” at the hands of the U.S. Navy (p. 145), his death in New York, and his skull’s featured place in the museum of the Smithsonian Institution and later in the Army Medical Museum.
The final portions of the book focus on federal scientific institutions “difficult to imagine for Morton’s generation” (p. 126). Chapter 5 compellingly juxtaposes efforts to bury the dead soldiers who remained on U.S. Civil War battlefields in the 1860s with simultaneous efforts of military men and other federal officers to scavenge the graves of Native people, as some of those who “helped consecrate burial grounds in the East, casually desecrated burial sites in the West” (p. 172). The United States’ long series of so-called Indian wars in the 1860s-70s killed many of those whose graves were pillaged in an “imperial body collecting” project (p. 171) that resembled previous efforts, but dwarfed them in scale and diverged from them in rationale. Notions of polygenism and biological fixity, which had impelled the American School, had been replaced by evolutionary views and the emergent conviction that way of life was a more important category than biology, all while new methods, such as composite photography, increased precision. Unsettling any easy effort to distance professional anthropological practice from such grisly work, however, Fabian notes that Franz Boas, the most important figure in twentieth-century U.S. anthropology, funded his early ethnographic and linguistic work by “peddling skulls” (p. 189). While collectors viewed their work as “a hobby to fill a frontier fort’s long and empty hours,” their own accounts of having “snatched bodies in front of grieving relatives and boiled flesh off of fresh corpses” are disturbing. As Fabian reminds us, with typical elegance, “Dead bodies cannot suffer, but communities of survivors can” (p. 171). Here, as elsewhere, she is meticulous in piecing together extant fragments of the collected’s lives. In the epilogue, Fabian highlights the work of the federal physical ethnologist Aleš Hrdlička, whose collection of almost twenty thousand skulls inspired Native activists to demand the return of stolen ancestors, which eventually resulted in the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act (1990). Efforts by Native communities to reclaim human and cultural remains continue in the face of “the social inequalities that have made it possible to collect or preserve or display the remains of certain human bodies” against “the wishes of the communities of those whose remains they collected” (p. 217).
To tell these stories, Fabian draws upon a wide base of sources, though the book carries its erudition lightly. The seminal texts of the American School are appropriately featured, and other major works of U.S. ethnology, some contemporary publications from Britain, Canada, and France, and related articles in U.S. newspapers and periodicals are also utilized. Fabian has also immersed herself in carefully chosen manuscript collections, which are especially important for their illumination of the conversations that craniologists had with collectors in the field and with other scientists. Her use of other kinds of primary sources, such as journals and travel narratives, ships’ directories, demographic descriptions, museum catalogs, and instructions and checklists for would-be collectors and craniologists, moreover, indicate her range and creativity as a scholar.
Her grasp of secondary literature ranging from the history of science to North American ethnohistory, to Pacific commerce and missionary work, to twentieth- and twenty-first century anthropology and attendant socio-political debates is also impressive, and Fabian’s notes reveal her awareness of the parallels between practices in the United States and those in other nations and empires .Although Fabian states that her examination of “encounters over dead bodies gives us a new point of entry into mid-century America” (p. 3) and although one of the dust jacket puffs refers to skull collecting as “peculiarly American,” readers of H-Empire will know that ethnology generally and craniology more specifically was a global project, and attentive readers will find that the book illuminates cultural terrain beyond the United States. One might hope for more explicit comparisons, but Fabian makes plain that the United States was a settler society analogous to those planted in Australia, Africa, and elsewhere (p. 131), that an “American empire” colonized western North America and eventually parts of the Pacific (p. 154), and that craniology was part of those processes.
Readers might have quibbles. Given her sensitivity to the violence, in conception and execution, of race science, some might think that Fabian excuses Morton himself of being proslavery. In Fabian’s telling, “in the decade after Morton’s death slavery’s defenders … turned his observations … into social commentary” (p. 10); but Morton knew the uses to which his work was being put in his lifetime, regardless of whether he lent the institution explicit support. The occasional error also creeps in. In discussing polygenesis, Fabian states that “Morton posited a Creator fashioning five mating pairs of humans” (p. 83); yet Morton was explicit that he believed that each race descended from multiple original pairs, an opinion that is especially notable because of its denial that race and descent were one and the same. Fabian also comments that craniologists of his generation were confident in their ability to “spot an African, Polish, Swedish, Irish, or German head” (p. 174). Morton himself, however, used skulls only to determine “race,” using language and culture to determine families and branches within races. More generally, Fabian neglects craniologists’ methodological competition with other kinds of ethnologists, especially philologists. The issue of hybridism, moreover, which consumed Morton and other members of the American School in the 1840s-50s, is also absent from Fabian’s analysis. Readers hoping for a consideration of ethnology as a variegated set of related and competing practices, therefore, will be disappointed.
Yet, as a cultural history of craniology, which details its inextricability from U.S. colonialism in North America and imperialism in the Pacific, Skull Collectors is excellent. While many intellectual histories of race science have examined the rise of the American School of Ethnology, and recent histories have even indicated the degree to which African American and Native intellectuals mounted determined opposition to these ideas, none have done so much to place these scholars and polemicists in their cultural contexts. This welcome contribution joins other recent work that has addressed the cultural significance of other ethnological practices in the United States. Fabian’s engagement with the history of science, with its attention to how facts are produced and gain authority, as well as her own deep and amiable familiarity with the cultural history of the nineteenth-century United States, is a successful formula. She treats readers to sessions on the popular lecture circuit of the 1830s-40s, “where serious learning bumped into popular entertainment” (p. 110); conveys some of the voyeuristic excitement that indigenous captives sparked in U.S. cities; and guides readers through the exhibition spaces of museums. To take one particularly important example of the dividends that her view provides, Fabian situates Morton’s work, printed at the same press as abolitionist material, within a Philadelphia that was home to a large free black community and the scene of a notorious anti-abolitionist riot. Overall, the texture Fabian provides to this macabre species of empiricism is the best available.
Fabian’s book conveys the multifaceted curiosity that drove the “skull collectors,” while illustrating the racial views that authorized gruesomely exploitative practices. It is an important story, beautifully told, which resonates with the reader long after he or she closes the book. One hopes that it will impress upon scholars that race science was not just an esoteric conversation among elites nor merely a predetermined justification for dispossession, enslavement, and commercial or missionary domination. Ethnological practices and debates were pervasive in an era of empire building, and their legacy remains.
. Jason Lewis et al., “The Mismeasure of Science: Stephen Jay Gould versus Samuel George Morton on Skulls and Bias,” PLoS Biol., June 7, 2011, at http://www.plosbiology.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pbio.1001071, accessed 1/15/2014. See also John S. Michael, “A New Look at Morton’s Craniological Research,” Current Anthropology 29, no. 2 (1988): 349-54. Cf. Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man, rev. ed. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1996), 82-104.
. See, for example, Paul Turnbull, “‘Rare Work amongst the Professors’: The Capture of Indigenous Skulls within Phrenological Knowledge in Early Colonial Australia,” in Body Trade: Captivity, Cannibalism, and Colonialism in the Pacific, ed. Barbara Creed and Jeanette Hoorn (New York: Routledge, 2001); Zine Magubane, “Simians, Savages, Skulls, and Sex: Science and Colonial Militarism in Nineteenth-Century South Africa,” in Race, Nature, and the Politics of Difference, ed. Donald S. Moore, Jake Kosek, and Anand Pandian (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003); and Simon J. Harrison, “Skulls and Scientific Collecting in the Victorian Military: Keeping the Enemy Dead in British Frontier Warfare,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 50, no. 1 (2008): 285-303. Somewhat surprisingly, Fabian does not engage the chapter, “Measuring Skulls: The Social Role of the Antihumanist,” in Andrew Zimmerman, Anthropology and Antihumanism in Imperial Germany (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 86-107.
. Samuel G. Morton, “Account of a Craniological Collection, with Remarks on the Classification of some Families of the Human Race,” Transactions of the American Ethnological Society 2 (1848): 219.
. Samuel G. Morton, Crania Americana; or, a Comparative View of the Skulls of Various Aboriginal Nations of North and South America (Philadelphia, 1839), 4, 260.
. William Stanton, The Leopard’s Spots: Scientific Attitudes toward Race in America, 1815-59 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960); George M. Frederickson, The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817-1914, rev. ed. (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1987), 71-96; Reginald Horsman, Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 1981); Robert E. Bieder, Science Encounters the Indian, 1820-1880: The Early Years of American Ethnology (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1986), 55-103; and George W. Stocking, Jr., Victorian Anthropology (New York: Free Press, 1987). For African American and Native counter-discourses, see Bruce Dain, A Hideous Monster of the Mind: American Race Theory in the Early Republic (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002); and Scott Michaelsen, The Limits of Multiculturalism: Interrogating the Origins of American Anthropology (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 139-63.
. Brian W. Dippie, Catlin and His Contemporaries: The Politics of Patronage (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990) is a notable early effort. More recently, see Andrew J. Lewis, A Democracy of Facts: Natural History in the Early Republic (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), 72-106; Molly Rogers, Delia’s Tears: Race, Science, and Photography in Nineteenth-Century America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010); and Sean P. Harvey, “‘Must not their languages be savage and barbarous like them?’: Philology, Indian Removal, and Race Science,” Journal of the Early Republic 30, no. 4 (2010): 505-32.
. Ann Fabian, Card Sharps and Bucket Shops: Gambling in Nineteenth-Century America (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990), and The Unvarnished Truth: Personal Narratives in Nineteenth-Century America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000).
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Sean P. Harvey. Review of Fabian, Ann, The Skull Collectors: Race, Science, and America's Unburied Dead.
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