In 1658, physician and author Thomas Browne published his reflections on death and burial in Hydriotaphia: Urne-Buriall which made him a pioneer in the British history of cremation. Every word in this splendid discourse smells of ashes. Anxieties about the desecration of his own final resting place put him in the forefront of a fight against body snatching. In a striking passage he wrote: ‘To be gnaw’d out of our graves, to have our sculs made drinking-bowls, and our bones turned into Pipes, to delight and sport our Enemies, are Tragicall abominations, escaped in burning Burials’.
His foresight was uncanny. Browne died in 1682 and was buried at St Peter Mancroft Church, Norfolk. In 1840 his coffin was disturbed while a vault was being dug next to his plot. Sensing an opportunity, the sexton George Potter absconded with the skull and sold it to Edward Lubbock, a surgeon. The latter left Browne’s head to the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital Museum, which put it on display. A photograph of the skull resting on two volumes of Religio medici appeared as the frontispiece to the 1904 edition of The Works of Sir Thomas Browne. It was not until 1922 that the missing head was returned for reburial. Browne is the patron saint of stolen skulls. He speaks for the collective indignity of all those corpses whose heads have been dragged around by curators, collectors, souvenir hunters, anatomists, phrenologists, and craniologists.
Robbing graves in order to facilitate the detailed study of bones and cadavers has been a long tradition in medicine and art. Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci were known for stealing bodies from morgues in order to research human anatomy. The dissection of corpses did not become a standard practice in medical education until the mid-sixteenth century. Finding suitable corpses was one a major problem. Bodies cut up tended to be those of criminals or heretics and were predominantly male. The occasional dissection of a woman attracted large numbers of spectators lured by the prospect of the exposure of female organs. A public dissection in those early days was both spectacle and instruction, being attended by professionals, artists, and the curious alike. Within medical circles, the cutting up of a body was regarded as a celebration of scientific progress.
Anatomy and dissection became integral parts of medical study during the early eighteenth century. The demand for corpses increased, but the supply was limited. The ‘Murder Act’ of 1752 allowed for the public dissection of killers following their execution. The underlying idea was that the process would serve science and overwhelm the crowd with a graphic set of images that restored the deterrent effect of punishment. But even criminal bodies were hard to obtain as families and friends battled with the authorities for the right of burial. As a consequence of cadaver shortage, a clandestine trade emerged. Anatomists paid resurrectionists (body snatchers) to dig up recently interred bodies. It was a seasonal occupation as the coldness of winter slowed down putrefaction. Until the passing of the Anatomy Act of 1832 grave robbers earned a good living. The act allowed for unclaimed bodies to be turned over to the medical profession, effectively substituting the poor for the executed.
For the anatomist the freshness of a corpse was an essential condition – any corpse. Phrenologists were more selective. The first half of the nineteenth century was the age of gruesome skull-theft. Franz-Joseph Gall was the godfather of phrenology. He based his research on the assumption that mental faculties are located in ‘organs’ or ‘bumps’ on the surface of the brain. Each bump corresponds to a brain chart and the cranial bone adapts to accommodate the different sizes of these particular areas. In his topographic organisation of the brain, Gall identified twenty-seven organs (his pupil and protégé Johann Spurzheim added another ten to the list) which affect the contour of the skull. Phrenology, therefore, is the study of skull structure to determine a person’s character and mental capacity. Scientific grave robbers were particularly interested in collecting the skulls of creative individuals. As both Gall and Spurzheim were working at the University of Vienna, is not surprising that the disinterred heads of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, or Schubert, received particular attention from phrenologists in search of the ‘music bump’, the node on the brain that (supposedly) corresponds to musical genius.
Thomas Browne was still alive in 1666 when the catastrophic Fire of London broke out. The rebuilding of the city required a vast number of workers and an endless supply of materials. Scandinavian timber ships had been coming to London for centuries, bringing their cargoes right up to the inner London docks. The huge demand for timber in the aftermath of the Great Fire substantially increased the trade and brought countless skilled workers to London. Timber merchants established their discharging wharves at Wapping, as their ships were too large to pass under Tower Bridge. Nordic immigrants settled around the Thames in East London and built their own shops and churches. Caius Gabriel Cibber designed the Danish Church in Wellclose Square. With local Norwegians involved in its foundation and finance, the church was consecrated in 1696. Three decades later, the Swedish Lutheran Church was built in nearby Prince’s Square, Wapping, under the episcopal oversight of Jesper Swedberg, Bishop of Skara. As the Swedish community (including Swedish-speaking Finns) around Wapping expanded, the church played a significant welfare role in an enduring maritime presence of Nordic citizens.
Swedberg was the father of Emanuel Swedenborg. The latter first visited London in 1710 and was to return a dozen times or more, often residing in the city for extended periods. He appreciated London’s freedom of expression allowing him to publish his works without the interference of Sweden’s strict anti-heresy laws. During his visits to the capital, Swedenborg resided in Wapping’s Scandinavian quarters and worshipped regularly at the Swedish Church. He was finally buried there following his death in 1772. The capital did not forget him. In 1789, the New Jerusalem Church at Maidenhead Court, Great Eastcheap, which was based on Swedenborgian principles, opened its doors to devotees with William and Catherine Blake as founder members. The London Society for Printing and Publishing the Works of Emanuel Swedenborg (now: Swedenborg Society) was founded in February 1810.
In 1906, the deserted Swedish Church (its congregation had moved on) was in danger of being demolished. Members of the London Swedenborg Society made representations to the Swedish government, recommending the repatriation of Emanuel’s remains. Some five years later, preparations were made to have his body reburied in Uppsala Cathedral. When the corpse was exhumed, it appeared that the body had been tampered with. An investigation revealed that Swedenborg’s cranium was stolen after the coffin had been opened in 1790 and sold to a phrenological society. In its place was put a substitute. After that, the relic changed hands several times, eventually finding its way to no. 4 Victoria Arcade, Swansea. Bookseller and phrenologist William Alfred Williams had purchased the skull in a London curiosity shop before World War I. When he died in 1957, it remained in the family before being offered at a Sotheby’s sale in March 1978. The auctioneer described the skull poetically as ‘of dark ivory colour, jawbone lacking … otherwise in good condition with an attractive patina’. The Swedish Royal Academy of Science was the highest bidder (£1,500), having decided that the skull was (almost) certainly that of the mystic philosopher. Swedenborg’s remains were reunited with its wandering cranium and returned to his country of birth.