Book review: Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 April, 2015, 10:30pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 April, 2015, 10:30pm

Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found
by Frances Larson

Frances Larson knows a lot about severed heads. Her latest book is a mishmash of historical accounts about human heads that have been chopped off, then boiled, burned, scraped, polished and then jammed onto a spike, or put atop seats of power, or traded for guns, or displayed in Victorian homes or hoarded for their magical powers.

The book is meant to be scientific - Larson is a doctor and medical writer, and the book is referenced - but really this is a book to be grossed out while reading. "It is difficult to cut off another person's head in a single clean motion while they are still alive if you are armed only with a knife or an axe. It takes a good deal of strength and skill, or luck, or all three," she writes.

Larson opens her book with the story of Oliver Cromwell's head and its torturous journey through the world of English curio collectors and weirdoes. That story pretty much sums up the book: there's more to be said about the person holding a human head than about the person to whom it once belonged.

Larson writes about how heads were used as currency with Europeans as the buyers, how collecting Japanese heads helped dehumanise them during the war and all the other heads that have rolled over the ages - most are Euro-centric and in particular about the English obsession. Of the shrunken Shuar heads kept in the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, Larson writes: "… you realise that shrunken heads like these are a product as much of European curiosity, European taste and European purchasing power as they are of an archaic tribal custom."

Larson's a good storyteller, using wry observations and asides rather than embellishment or emotional plays. Describing the medicinal and magic powers of bodies and skulls, she writes: "At the turn of the 19th century, quite a few people were in the business of bringing the dead back to life."

The motives for decapitation vary, from hatred to love, respect, curiosity or greed. Or vanity: "If you are considering cryopreservation, there are numerous advantages to being decapitated after your death, and the first is financial."

Severed is organised by theme, discussing the use of human heads in art; how to properly prepare, maintain and study a human head; the scientific and medical history of severed heads.

These days, unless you go to a Body World exhibition or visit an obscure museum, you're not likely to see many severed heads. So read the book: you're not the first person to be interested in the ghoul of it all. "In London in the early 19th century, there might be 5,000 to watch a standard hanging, but crowds of up to 40,000 or even 100,000 came to see a famous felon killed."