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Objects of Intrigue: Every Skull Has a Story

The Mütter Museum in Philadelphia (all images courtesy the museum)

Araschtan Gottlieb, age 19, suicide by potassium cyanide, suspected unfaithfulness of his mistress… Veronica Huber, age 18, executed for the murder of her child… Adalbert Czaptieonesz, age 51, Catholic, suicide. Cut his throat, because of extreme poverty… Jon Bargaunu, age 31, gypsy

The 129 skulls in Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum sit in neat rows, staring straight ahead and dimly illuminated. It’s not uncommon for a crowd to form in front of their case as people cluster around to get a good look. Each skull has a short accompanying text. As one visitor said, it seems disrespectful to exclude anyone in reading, even if you don’t see them in order.

Maria Bertolina, age 18, maidservant, died of perpetual meningitis in Trento (Northern Italy)… Carl Spanner, age 16, died in the General Hospital of tuberculosis… Wenzeslaus Kral, age 15, shoemaker. died of small pox, General Hospital, Vienna.

Perched delicately at the intersection of educational and ghoulish, the famous medical history museum displays oddities including deformed skeletons, jarred conjoined fetuses, and primitive gynecological devices. Not surprisingly, visitors often gawk and gasp and converse as they peruse the collection, which was originally meant to educate physicians but is now open to the general public. The Hyrtl Skull Collection remains a centerpiece, as it has since it arrived in 1874, and it is displayed much as it always has been. Recently, the museum held a highly successful “Save Our Skulls” campaign to raise money for the preservation of the skulls and upgrade their display, in which benefactors could adopt and individual skull and are honored for saving it on the skull’s label. 

Francica Seycora, Famous Viennese prostitute, died in the hospital of meningitis… Orazio Trani, age 39, idiot…  Joska Soltesz, age 28, reformist, soldier, dies of pneumonia… Kasimir Ostrowsczynski, age 30,  for crime of grave insubordination, died under the most cruel scourging.

Dr. Joseph Hyrtl, who was a Viennese physician and famous collector of medical specimens, used the skulls for the purpose of comparative anatomy, although most of his skulls came from people who were poor, indigent, or criminals. The doctor documented whatever he could about his specimens, inscribing tattoo-like notes on the skulls. Hyrtl even supposedly at one point had Mozart’s skull, but the Mütter didn’t acquire that one since it had changed hands several times after it had been exhumed.

Alfonso Vallese, Catholic, sharpshooter, died in Alexandria, 1860, of gunshot wounds… Tombs of the Kings, Sakkareth (Egypt)… Joseph Donat, age 30, brewer. died of edema of the lungs… Simon Juhren, age 19, suicide; hanged himself because of an unhappy love affair.

While many fellow 19th-century skull collectors used their specimens to promote phrenology, the doctors of the Mütter Museum used the Hyrtl skulls in a scientific campaign to disprove the theory, which asserted that a person’s or race’s character can be judged by the shape of the skull.

Constantin Aneskis, age 32, died of gunshot wound in Budapest… Julius Farkas, Protestant soldier, suicide by gunshot wound brought on by weariness of life… Rai-Tao-Si, famous criminal, guilty of many atrocities, captured with ten of his band in Batavia (now Jakarta). Hanged in castle of Semarang (Java)… Ladislaus Pal, reformist, guerilla and deserter.

1006.125         

Ismayl Koura Atzia

Wide interorbital distance (nasal root).

Dagestan, Kaukasus

1006.122       

Izzet Methem Fakhr

Robber. Beheaded in

Deir el Kamar, Lebanon.

Druse, from Lebanon

1006.090        

Constantin Jacic, age 24

Robber and murderer.

Executed by hanging.

Metopic suture; wide interorbital distance.

Serb

 


Objects of Intrigue is a feature highlighting extraordinary objects from the world’s great museums, private collections, historic libraries, and overlooked archives. See more incredible objects here >