By Colin Dickey
At the height of the phrenology craze, phrenologists were constantly in search of noteworthy heads that displayed specific traits or characteristics: a great military leader’s skull might be exhibited to demonstrate “combativeness,” or a renowned lover’s head might be prized for proof of the “amative” ridge. And when it came to the “language” bump, no one was more sought after than Cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti.
Mezzofanti (1774-1849) was a renowned polyglot, who read and spoke fluently thirty-eight languages and forty dialects, even though he never left his native Italy. Late in his life a phrenologist approached him, asking if he might buy the Cardinal’s skull, and exhibit it after Mezzofanti’s death as illustrative of the organs of language.
Cardinal Mezzofanti was not himself a phrenologist, and dismissed this request outright, but just after the phrenologist left, a destitute woman arrived at the Cardinal’s door, asking for assistance. Mezzofanti had no money to give, but was moved by her pleas, and called back the phrenologist, agreeing, after all, to sell him his skull, saying “On second thoughts I am inclined to treat with you for my skull, but it will be dear. I am not sure that there is such another in the world.” The price being agreed on, Mezzonfanti gave the proceeds from his skull-sale to the impoverished woman.
However, the Cardinal (according to one source) “tired of carrying on his shoulders a head belonging to another person,” and subsequently bought it back from the phrenologist, so that it could be buried with the rest of his remains in Rome.
Nevertheless, after his death rumors began to circulate that phrenologists had indeed made off with his head, and in 1885 his body was exhumed, to double-check that his skull was still attached.
Colin Dickey is a writer living in Los Angeles and the author of the recently published book Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius
IMAGE: Drawing of a Phrenology Chart