Songs About Coffins

October 18th, 2010 · 12:59 pm  →  the blog

In early nineteenth century Britain, grave robbing had become such a problem that numerous devices were invented to secure one’s everlasting peace. One such device, “The Patent Coffin,” was devised by a London candle maker named Edward Bridgeman: made out of iron, with concealed spring catches that prevented any would-be resurrectionists from prying off the lid; additionally the sides were joined in a manner that would prevent anyone from being able to pry them apart. The Patent Coffin was so popular that songs were written about it, such as this broadsheet, credited to a “Mr. Didben”:

Each age has boasted curious selves,
By patent notoriety,
Whose inventions have enriched themselves,
For advantage of society.
I, an immortal artisan,
Pray, gents, favour your scoffing,
Produce to night, muse, sing the man
That made the patent coffin.
Then toll the knell, each passing bell
Shall of the mighty name of this wondrous man be talking,
While foremost in the ranks of fame
His coffin shall be walking.

We’ve patent legs, and patent eyes,
And many other fallacies,
And next shall patent pillories
Succeed to patent gallows;
Ephemerends of art away,
In trifles only clever
Your labours may exist their day,
But his will last forever.

Yet to take heed you must not fail,
Lest to the grave they hurry you,
If you’re not dead as a door nail,
Before you let them bury you;
Tho’ from a trance when in,
Often cry and rave and shout again
Caught fairly in our patent gin,
The world can’t let you out again.
Resurrection men, your fate deplore,
Retire with sore vexation,
Your mystery’s gone, your art’s no more,
No more your occupation;
Surgeons, no more shall ye ransack
The grave, with feelings callous,
Tho’ on the Old Bailey turn’d your back,
Your only hopes the gallows.
Death-hunters, mutes, shall sing my verse,
The wond’rous man applauding,
And sable plumes on many a hearse
For joy shall fall a nodding;
Hatchments and tombs his name shall raise
Clerk’s, sexton’s, undertakers,
While graves shall open in the praise
Of this prince of coffin makers.

An alternative method of preventing grave robbing: the mortsafe

A Picture of Good Health, A Picture of Inept Framing

October 14th, 2010 · 12:36 pm  →  the blog

Here’s what happens when you take a cheap print, do a mediocre matte job with a store-bought frame, and then hang it in a room with high humidity so that the crappy tape you used to center the print loses its grip.

Trepanned Skull, Oaxaca

October 11th, 2010 · 8:17 am  →  the blog

Apropos of not much at all, here’s an image I took of a great trepanned skull. It was discovered during the excavation of Monte Albán in Oaxaca.

Mario Vargas Llosa on Phrenology

October 7th, 2010 · 7:39 am  →  the blog

Congrats to Maria Vargas Llosa on winning the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2010! He appears briefly in the book, so I thought I’d repost that here in honor of his win today.


Phrenology was a science for an uncertain time, and perhaps no one exemplified this better than the phrenologist and revolutionary Gustav von Struve. The young Struve had come to Mannheim in Baden, Germany, to practice law, but his ambitions quickly grew. He began actively to promote both phrenology and radical reform, which he saw as inextricably linked.

Ever since Gall’s expulsion from Vienna, German-speaking countries had lagged behind the rest of Europe when it came to phrenology. For Struve, this rejection accounted for Germany’s lack of progress and why it still lay captive to oppressive religious and aristocratic regimes. He set out to remedy the problem, co-founding the German-language Phrenological Journal and advocating tirelessly for the New Science. Combe recognized the value of his contributions in his own A System of Phrenology, and the Fowlers regularly translated excerpts of his work in their own journal. His colleague Alexander Herzen claimed that Struve was so devoted to phrenology that he deliberately chose a wife who lacked a “passion” bump.

Struve’s own passion was for political and social reform. He argued for vegetarianism and temperance, against capital punishment. He set aside a portion of every day to meditate on the great secular heroes of revolution, from Washington and Lafayette to Rousseau and Robespierre. Contemporaries described Struve as having a face that “showed the moral rigidity of the fanatic … with uncombed beard and untroubled eyes,” but he was sincere in his desire for reform, and in 1847 he dropped the aristocratic “von” from his name in solidarity with the common man.

Mario Vargas Llosa, in his 1984 novel The War at the End of the World, would reincarnate this archetype of the revolutionary phrenologist and put him in South America. An amalgamation of Struve and Combe, Llosa’s character, a Scotsman who takes the name Galileo Gall, comes to Brazil to foment revolution: “As other children grew up listening to fairy stories, he had grown up hearing that property is the origin of all social evils and that the poor will succeed in shattering the chains of exploitation and obscurantism only through the use of violence.” Inextricable from this revolutionary fervor is a fervor for phrenology:

Whereas for other followers of Gall’s, this science was scarcely more than the belief that intellect, instinct, and feelings are organs located in the cerebral cortex and can be palpated and measured, for Galileo’s father this discipline meant the death of religion, the empirical foundation of materialism, the proof that the mind was not what philosophical mumbo jumbo made it out to be, something imponderable and impalpable, but on the contrary a dimension of the body, like the senses, and hence equally capable of being studied and treated clinically.

Galileo Gall thus operates from a simple precept: “Revolution will free society of its afflictions, while science will free the individual of his.”

Something very similar was at work in the mind of Struve: a desire for a violent overthrow of oppressive regimes, which could in turn allow the democratic and progressive principles of phrenology to flourish. He was not alone in his democratic zeal: In 1848 democratic revolutions broke out all over Europe, starting in France and quickly engulfing the entire continent. The year Marx and Engels published The Communist Manifesto, all of Europe was ready for change, and men like Struve saw their chance. On March 31 of that year, German reformers gathered in a “Pre-Parliament” to discuss the establishment of a free, united German republic. During the discussion Struve read his fifteen-point plan to end the “subjugation, stultification, and bleeding dry of the people,” which included the abolition of the standing army, all aristocratic privileges, and any connection between church and state and their replacement with laws that were based on “the spirit of our age,” including phrenology.

The Pre-Parliament rejected Struve and his radical coalition in favor of a more moderate approach, and so the radicals decided to bring about emancipation by force. They raised a small army to march on the capital of Baden, but when they met the government’s forces in the Black Forest they were severely routed, and Struve and the others were imprisoned. Freed the following year, the undaunted phrenologist once again joined another failed uprising against the government—one in which, it should be noted, his “passionless” wife fought with unmatched tenacity.

Of Dogs, Dreams and Human Skin, Part Two

October 2nd, 2010 · 2:33 pm  →  the blog

When David B. Metcalfe posted this article with its reference to dreaming of dogs, I immediately responded with another curious fact, this one from Roman superstition. While dreaming of dogs may be a good omen, as Artemidorus of Daldis (2nd century, CE), writes, to dream that you are a tanner is an ill omen, “for the tanner handles dead bodies and lives outside the city.” I found this quote in the inexhaustibly rich “The Cult of the Saints,” by Peter Brown. (though Valerie M. Hope’s book on Roman attitudes towards the dead has a similar quote from another source—tragically, I had to return this one to the library before I could dig up the quote again.)

Googling this piece of evidence, David came up not with Artedmidorus, but rather this article, by Lawrence S. Thompson, “Tanned Human Skin.” Which is odd, since I knew the article already. Over the summer I had been researching the practice of anthropodermic bibliopegy, that is, binding books with human skin, for a talk on Saint Bartholomew for Morbid Anatomy in Brooklyn. 

Anthropodermic bibliopegy is one of those truly practices that was far more widespread—and far more accepted—than I think we are prepared to admit nowadays. Often this was done for non-punitive measures, but in early nineteenth century England it became particularly popular as a means of marking the extreme status of the criminal. In 1827 a man named William Corder murdered his girlfriend in a barn (the so-called “Red Barn Murder”); caught and convicted, he was not only sentenced to death but to dissection at Cambridge University afterwards. And after the dissection, one of the attending surgeons removed a portion of Corder’s skin, tanned it, and used it as the cover of a book containing the court record of Corder’s trial. Additionally, William Burke, the famous murderer who sold his victims to medical schools, giving rise to the verb “burking,” underwent a similar process. After his dissection, part of his skin was made into a wallet that was given to the doorkeeper of the dissection lab; another part was bound in a book containing a record of Burke’s crimes given to Sir Walter Scott.

The question about all of this, of course, as David mentioned about that original Lawrence S. Thompson article he turned up: what does the U. S. Department of Agriculture have to do with tanned human skin?