Ann Fabian

 

On her book The Skull Collectors: Race, Science, and America’s Unburied Dead

Cover Interview of December 15, 2010

A close-up

It seems pretty clear that none of those whose skulls wound up on museum shelves imagined their body parts cleaned, measured and put on display.  To figure out what nasty twists of fate got a skull into a collection, I spent time unearthing the stories of two extraordinary men whose paths crossed with skull collectors.

One of them was a young man from Oregon named Stum-ma-nu.  Like many of the native peoples of the Columbia River, Stum-ma-nu had an artificially flattened head.  Methodist missionaries brought Stum-ma-nu, very much alive, to the eastern United States and introduced him to Dr. Morton and his naturalist friends.  They knew that if Stum-ma-nu were to die, his flattened skull would be a fine prize for a lucky collector.

Audiences flocked to hear the young man describe his Christian faith and to praise the work of American missionaries.  They also gawked at his curiously flattened head.  But a winter’s sermonizing wore out the young man, and he died in the spring of 1839.  Collectors coveted his head.  Only a chance encounter with a crusty New York doctor assured the young man the good Christian burial he had said he expected.

A man from Fiji, who died in New York just three years later, was not so fortunate.  His body was buried in the cemetery of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, but his head went to the new Smithsonian collections in Washington.  It’s still there.

The unlikely story of Ro-Veidovi’s skull begins with the American traders who ventured to Fiji, trying to make a little money in the sea-slug trade.  The slimy creatures, aphrodisiacs some believed, sold well in Chinese markets.  Looking for profits from sea slugs, American traders bungled into Fiji’s local politics and a batch of sailors died at native hands.

A few years later, American explorers arrested Ro-Veidovi for these murders and brought him back to the United States to teach him lessons about all the good things likely to come to Fijians who helped out traders and explorers from the United States.  Ro-Veidovi died the day he arrived in New York, taught only what he might have learned from sailors on a long voyage back from the Pacific.  Like Stum-ma-nu, Ro-Veidovi died far from home, and his body was buried in a fashion that could only have surprised him.