Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Lost heads in history

I've stumbled across a couple of reviews of a book that came out last year:  Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found by Frances Larson.

While I hate the idea of decapitation as a method of execution or murder, it's always interesting to read some history about it.   I'm not sure that I had heard before that it was novelty seeking Westerners who helped create a market for the creation of shrunken heads:
Larson’s most telling case study is the saga of the shrunken heads that can be seen today in museums. Collected avidly by 19th-century explorers and scientists, they seemed proof of the bestial nature of native peoples, and the West’s superiority. Yet, as Larson demonstrates, the market was created by such collectors, who often unwittingly bought shrunken monkey-heads or caused murder to be committed. Whites themselves were seen as head-hunting ghouls by indigenous people, even as they supplied the demand.
I also hadn't heard before that the audience was somewhat displeased with the efficiency of the guillotine:
The guillotine, created during the French Revolution to be humane, terrifyingly accelerated the production line of execution and effected the Terror. The initial spectators felt cheated. Its action was too quick for the eye to see; there were no enjoyable writhings or screams.
I had not heard of Jameson, of the whiskey family, and the scandal caused when it was claimed he had paid for a slave girl to be killed by cannibals (I have read elsewhere that he - sort of - denied it, but in a way that left considerable doubt.) And as for skulls of the Japanese in World War 2 - I think I read in Chickenhawk that US soldiers in Vietnam were not above doing the same thing:
The most grotesque of Larson's anecdotes from this period concerns one James Jameson, a naturalist in Henry Stanley's equatorial party, who in 1890 paid African soldiers to kill and cannibalise a girl while he watched, sketchbook in hand. He was also said to have had the head of a murdered man shipped home and stuffed for domestic display by a taxidermist in Piccadilly.
Jameson's tale is emblematic, in part because of the public horror that greeted accounts of his grim antics. Mostly, people have found decapitation quite acceptable in limited circumstances, only objecting to the act or the spectacle when it seemed to be flaunted a touch too cruelly. The trophy hunting of American soldiers during the Second World War is a case in point. Larson has read numerous diaries and letters in which men serving in the Pacific admit to boiling Japanese heads in oil drums, bleaching skulls to make candlesticks or amusing themselves by tossing pebbles into the open cranium of a dead enemy. Many cleaned, painted or jauntily inscribed skulls ('This is a good Jap!') were sent home as souvenirs, but it was only in 1944, when Life magazine published a photograph of some GI's sweetheart with a skull grinning away on her writing desk, that the army and the government publicly deplored the habit.

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