They are a savage breed of subhumans, roaming the globe in search of victims. They dig up graves, they lurk about hospitals, all for an opportunity to snatch up a skull or two to mount in their collections, where other members of the tribe meet to admire each other’s stolen heads. One of the kings of the headhunters was Samuel George Morton, who collected vast numbers of ghoulish remains.

The trafficking of remains belonging to other people’s ancestors dominated Morton’s correspondence. On February 3, 1837, Bostonian Dr. John Collins Warren, an early leader in surgical education in the United States and the first dean of Harvard’s Medical School, wrote to his Philadelphia colleague, Morton, asking, “Have you the Guanche? If not, I can let you have a head.” A couple months later, Warren sent Morton the “head,” along with a brief anecdote about how his friend found and stole it for him.

Today that skull of an Indigenous person from the Canary Islands, Dr. Warren’s gift to Dr. Morton, sits on a wooden shelf in an old cabinet in the basement of the Penn Museum. On those same shelves, in those same cabinets, sit crania of people from other parts of the world.

To be fair, this wasn’t just about frivolously turning a museum into a Hallowe’en haunted house. They had a higher purpose.

Warren and Morton are just two examples of the depraved history of trafficking in the skulls of our ancestors as part of the larger racial science project of the European Enlightenment to “prove” the superiority of the white race. This laid the groundwork for the way that race operates in the present.

Hmmm. Somehow, introducing “science” into the phenomenon just makes it worse.

This wasn’t just an archaic 19th century hobby, either. More recent remains have been collected.

The presence of Black Philadelphians in the Morton Cranial Collection—the same individuals who Penn now seeks to bury—was surfaced by a report written by a Penn graduate student in February 2021. In late April 2021, one of the authors reported that the remains of Black children who were their neighbors, who were murdered in the 1985 MOVE bombing, were sitting in a box in the same museum basement. These remains were used as teaching material for an online course.

I wonder what they learned from those bones? Morton’s own science has been thoroughly discredited — he believed that the different races of humans had all been created independently by god, no dark-skinned progenitors in his ancestry, for sure! — and I don’t know what anyone learned by throwing the bones of children killed in a crime into a box.

I’m fine with and see the utility of research and training on cadavers, but they have to be willingly donated, not looted from a grave site. They also have to be treated with respect. The University of Pennsylvania is currently trying to get rid of the skeletons in their closets by rushing to bury them, without doing the appropriate research to identify the bodies they snatched.

I’m left with one question, though. I know where Morton’s grave is — it’s in Laurel Hill cemetery in Philadelphia.

Has anyone got a shovel or pickaxe I can borrow?


  1. says

    I’m fine with and see the utility of research and training on cadavers, but they have to be willingly donated, not looted from a grave site.

    I mostly agree with you — all of our present knowledge of the brain damage caused by concussions from playing football, came from examination of brain tissue donated by dying football players or their surviving families. But what if no one had made any such donations? Where would sports medicine be if either the NFL, or the deceased players’ churches, had ruled against such donations? Such a loss would have impacted, not only sports medicine, but military healthcare as well (both on and off the battlefield).

    No public interest was served by the plundering of graves described here — Morton wasn’t really trying to help anyone or find the cause of any specific malady. But I could easily imagine situations where medical science might need access to more cadavers, or a wider variety of cadavers, than are available through voluntary donation. Private plundering clearly isn’t a valid option here, but I’m not sure what would be a valid option. Emergency warrants to intercept bodies en route to the mortuary? Not sure that would go over real well…

  2. says

    I’m reminded of this bit from The Case of Charles Dexter Ward:

    A hideous traffick was going on among these nightmare ghouls, whereby illustrious bones were bartered with the calm calculativeness of schoolboys swapping books

  3. strangerinastrangeland says

    To answer the question of superiority: The person not stealing human remains is the one morally superior to the one who does.

  4. Howard Brazee says

    I can understand why people care about their remains.
    But I don’t care whatever people want to do with mine. I won’t be there. It will be the same thing as the remains of any other animal.

  5. wzrd1 says

    And in this exhibit item, we have the craniums of children from the MOVE incident, murdered in a heinous terrorist attack.
    I remember the event well. We could hear the gunshots from our home in SW Philly.
    The homes that the city contracted to replace the incinerated ones being substandard in the extreme and of decidedly odd design. That, I know firsthand, as I’ve been in some of them. Walk up the steps, enter the front door, to look down into the pit of the basement and hear of the leaking roof and moisture in the “livingroom” in the basement.
    But, all in keeping with a fine Philadelphia tradition, police riots against Black citizens. Events I continually witnessed with my own eyes growing up and since.

  6. says

    So this is where Dumb Idiot Ham got his made up lie about scientific institutions ordering the killing of indigenous people so that they can cut off their heads, shrink them, and use them as evidence of human evolution from.

  7. birgerjohansson says

    In Sweden, It was the Lapps that got their graves looted by skeleton collectors.

  8. says

    Raging Bee @3 Then nobody would have made them and we’d know less but at least without losing our humanity.

    Howard Brazee @6 This is about consent, but it’s also about respecting those who are still here and would be horrified knowing their ancestors’ – or children’s – remains are sitting in a box in some building.

  9. says

    Bill Bryson, in his Short History of Nearly Everything, told a cute story about Richard Owen, the 19th century British biologist, comparative anatomist and paleontologist, who

    sometimes illicitly borrowed limbs, organs and other parts from cadavers and took them home for leisurely dissection. Once, while carrying a sack containing the head of a black African sailor that he had just removed, Owen slipped on a wet cobble, and watched in horror as the head bounced away from him down the lane and through the open doorway of a cottage, where it came to rest in the front parlor. What the occupants had to say upon finding an unattached head rolling to a half at their feet can only be imagined. One assumes that they had not formed any terribly advanced conclusions when an instant later, a fraught-looking young man rushed in, wordlessly retrieved the head, and rushed out again.

    I suppose we could admire his dedication and apparent lack of squeamishness, albeit in a vague, abstract sort of way.

  10. outis says

    Yes, there’s a mention of this collection in Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man IIRC. He located the crania and repeated Morton’s measurements – and oh look, the alleged superior bigness of white noggins was nowhere to be found.
    These skulls were procured in a horridly unethical way and used to produce rubbish science. Really, what a train wreck…

  11. wzrd1 says

    Tabby Lavalamp @ 11, there’s another factor to consider. The MOVE children’s remains were from a crime scene and somehow got diverted away from both burial, per Commonwealth law and from criminal evidence and ended up, apparently without next of kin consent, to the university to be gawked at.
    Sounds like grounds for a criminal investigation to me, on each and every point. And a massive civil liability litigation as well.

    For century and older remains, there are valid scientific studies that can be of value. Mineral composition of the bone proper and dental wear giving indications on diet. But, as remains, they always should be treated with respect and not subject to public spectacle.

  12. microraptor says

    In response to PZ’s last question, I can arrange for shovels, picks, and potentially a backhoe.

  13. tuatara says

    Many heads were also collected as mere curiosities.

    As a result, Horatio Gordon Robley amassed a sizable collection of tattoo’d New Zealand Māori heads.


    Continuing with writing after his retirement, he returned to his interest in tattoos and wrote two books relating to his time in New Zealand, Moko or Maori Tattooing in 1896 and Pounamu: Notes on New Zealand Greenstone. In the first book, as well as demonstrating and explaining the art of Māori tattooing, he also wrote chapters on the dried tattooed heads or Mokomokai. Robley decided to acquire as many examples of Mokomokai as possible, and at length built up a unique collection of 35 heads. In 1908 he offered them to the New Zealand Government for £1,000; his offer, however, was refused. Later, with the exception of the five best examples which Robley retained, the collection was purchased by the American Museum of Natural History, New York, for the equivalent of £1,250.[4]


    It is true that some Māori were happy to collect and trade the heads of their tribal enemies, but that should not excuse those whose hunger for heads fuelled the enterprise. The trade in Māori heads was significant, with hundreds of heads of mostly men but some women involved. Robley himself possibly traded many more than the 35 mentioned above as he was known to have at one point more than 50 in his collection.

    The heads acquired by the American Museum of Natural History, New York, were repatriated in 2014, but where the other 5 of my ancestor’s heads Robley kept for himself are is a mystery.

    One could easily condemn Robley for this oddly macabre collection, but this would be doing the man a grave disservice. His was a far more nuanced and complicated story, one that needs careful and compassionate consideration. He was a veteran of the NZ wars, a witness of apalling brutality and victim of battlefield trauma. He did not collect the heads in NZ. In fact, his collecting started some time after returning to England from New Zealand in 1867, with his collection acquired piecemeal from private collectors, phrenologists and museums, at considerable cost. And he did try to have them repatriated, offering to sell them to the NZ government at a great loss. They refused for their own fucked up reasons that I don’t want to go into.

    The trade in Māori heads was banned by the Sydney act in 1831. Robley began his collection after retiring to London in 1887, so all the heads Robley collected were at least half a century old by the time he acquired them.

    While in NZ, after peace was negotiated at Tauranga in 1866 and before he was shipped out in 1867, Robley met a Māori woman Herete Mauao and they had a son. Robley was returned to England with the military in 1867, probably never seeing his lover or son again.

    As a mixed-‘race” (I really don’t like the word ‘race’) person myself I consider Robley to also be one of my own ancestors. His blood and my blood are mixed together.I can feel his trauma and loss across the 93 years since his death.

    Sorry, just a strange story from my homeland, but at least not a story of a racist who considered himself a scientist.

  14. tuatara says

    As for my Māori ancestors, well they had a varied justification in head-hunting. I am sure you lot here can find out about that yourselves if your curiosity leads you by that way.

  15. StevoR says

    @ ^ tuatara : FWIW. I’d highly recommend Sam Neil’s documentary series ‘The Pacific in the Wake of Cook’ here giving the Polynesian, maori, Indigenous Australian and Native American sides of those voyages here. On iView and been replayed really late at night /early in the morning here in Oz. (SA at least & I presume other states too.) Excellent and fascinating history and modern culture doco and wish they’d taught more of those perspectives in history classes when I was a kid. Suffice to say the encounters and things weren’t only or always what Cook and his crew thought they were & (mis)interpreted them as..

    Trailer here – 2 mins 20 secs.

  16. tuatara says

    ^ StevoR.
    Thanks. I have seen that series. It is excellent and well worth a watch.
    On a slightly different note off topic, but relating obliquely to Cook, the documentary titled Whetū Mārama: Bright Star (trailer) on Polynesian oceanic navigation is very insightful, not only in terms of the navigational skills but also worldview of pre-contact Pacific-islanders.