Tales of Heads: Famous and Infamous

Tales of Heads: Famous and Infamous Cromwell's Head as exposed after his post-mortem decapitation. From Wikipedia Commons

Tales of Heads: Famous and Infamous Cromwell’s Head as exposed after his post-mortem decapitation. From Wikipedia Commons

From Number Nine, Penwiper Mews,

There is really abominable news;

        They’ve discovered a head

        In the box for the bread,

But nobody seems to know whose.

                — Edward Gorey

 A recent article about a gruesome experiment with the consciousness of severed heads reminded me of my file of mummified head stories. You’ll find no special insights or redeeming social value to this post; it’s presented merely as a cabinet of cranial curiosities because I am interested in the grim and gruesome. An upcoming post will share stories of hauntings involving disembodied heads.

I recently had occasion to research mummified heads while looking at 900+ articles on the notorious Pearl Bryan decapitation case for The Headless Horror. The lady’s  head was reported as found numerous times over the course of two decades with locations as far away as Chicago being searched. A grave in a Hamilton, Ohio cemetery was even opened on the theory that, in a kind of reverse bodysnatching, the head had been deposited in a fresh grave. None of the heads proved to be the genuine article and to date, Pearl’s head has never been found.

Obviously severed heads have been a matter of interest and reverence throughout history: the so-called Celtic head cult, the mysterious embalmed Head held by the Templars, jewelled saints’ skulls in Germany, the mummified heads of Sts Oliver Plunkett and Thomas More in England, and multiple skulls of St. John the Baptist honoured in half a dozen sites including Rome and Amiens. (Perhaps it was a miracle, like the multiplication of the loaves and fishes.)

The heads of famous secular people also held a strong interest for the readers of 19th century papers. You may have seen my story on the post-mortem career of the head of President Garfield’s assassin, Charles Guiteau.  Here are a few more capital tales of heads that outlasted their owners.

For some baffling reason there was a particular fascination in the press for the head of Oliver Cromwell. More stories were syndicated from the 1870s through the 1970s about the mummified head of the Protector than any other head: it was lost, then rediscovered, then its history thus far was recounted, then there was a debate over its authenticity, finally it was verified as genuine, then it was put up for sale….

Here’s a fairly typical specimen:


“Senex” in London Times. Several imperfect statements having lately appeared on the above subject, let me explain what became of the remains of Cromwell. Partly from printed records, and partly from what I heard from Mr. Wilkinson, to whom some of the press have alluded, Oliver Cromwell died at Whitehall Palace, on the 3d of September, 1658, after a protracted illness. He had been long suffering with ague, and his case is cited in medical books as one of a man who died of ague while our warehouses were groaning with Peruvian bark, which we did not know how to use. During this illness he became so depressed and debilitated that he would allow no barber to come near him; and his beard, instead of being cut in a certain fashion, grew all over his face. After his death, the body lay in state at Somerset House, having been carefully embalmed, and was afterward buried with more than regal honors in Henry VII’s Chapel in Westminster Abbey, where it lay until, after the restoration, it was taken out of his grave, as were also the bodies of Ireton (Cromwell’s son-in-law) and Bradshaw, the latter, as President of the High Court of Justice, having pronounced sentence of death on Charles I. The three bodies were taken in carts to the Red Lion, in Holborn, and on the 30th of January, the anniversary of King Charles’ death, they were removed on sledges to Tyburn, where they were hanged until sunset, and then taken down and beheaded, their bodies buried in a deep pit under the gallows, and their heads stuck upon the top of Westminster Hal), where, at that time, sentinels walked.

Ireton’s head was in the middle, and Cromwell’s and Bradshaw’s on either side. Cromwell’s head being embalmed, remained exposed to the atmosphere for twenty-five years, and then one stormy night it was blown down, and picked up by the sentry, who, hiding it under his cloak, took it home and secreted it in the chimney corner, and, as inquiries were being constantly made about it by the government, it was only on his death bed that he revealed where he had hidden it. His family sold the head to one of the Cambridgeshire Russells, and, in the same box in which it still is, it descended to a certain Samuel Russell, who, being a needy and careless man, exhibited it in a place near Clare Market. There it was seen by James Cox [the jeweller and automaton maker], who then owned a famous museum. He tried in vain to buy the head from Russell, for, poor as he was, nothing would at first tempt him to part with the relic, but after a time Cox assisted him with money, and eventually, to clear himself from debt, he made the head over to Cox. When Cox at last parted with his museum he sold the head of Cromwell for £230 pounds to three men, who bought it about the time of the French Revolution, to exhibit in Mead court, Bond street, at half a crown a head. Curiously enough, it happened that each of these three gentlemen died a sudden death, and the head came into the possession of the three nieces of the last man who died. These young ladies, nervous at keeping it in the house, asked Mr. Wilkinson, their medical man, to take care of it for them, and they subsequently sold it to him. For the next fifteen or twenty years Mr. Wilkinson was in the habit of showing it to all the distinguished men of that day, and the head, much treasured, remains in his family.

The circumstantial evidence is very curious. It is the only head in history which is known to have been embalmed and afterward beheaded. On the back of the neck near the vertebrae, is the mark of the cut of an axe where the executioner, having perhaps, no proper block, had struck too high, and laying the head In its soft, embalmed state on the block, flattened the nose on one side, making it adhere to the face. The hair grows promiscuously about the face, and the beard, stained to exactly the same color by the embalming liquor, is tucked up under the chin, with the oaken staff of the spear with which the head was stuck up on Westminster Hall, which staff is perforated by a worm which never attacks oak until it has been for many years exposed to the weather.

The iron spearhead, where it protrudes above the skull, is rusted away by the action of the atmosphere. The jagged way in which the top of the skull is removed throws us back to a time when surgery was in its Infancy, while the embalming is so beautifully done that the cellular process of the gums and membrane of the tongue are still to be seen. Several teeth are yet in the mouth; the membrane of the eyelid remains, the pia-mater and the dura-mater, thin membranes, which I believe, lie under the brain, may be seen clinging to the upper and inner part of the skull. The brain was, of course, removed, but the compartments are very distinct. When the great sculptor, Flaxman, went to see it, he said at once, “You will not mind my expressing any disappointment I may feel on seeing the head?” “Oh, no!” said Mr. Wilkinson, “but you will tell me the characteristics by which the head might be recognized?“Well,” replied Flaxman, “1 know a great deal about the configuration of the head of Oliver Cromwell. He had a low, broad forehead, large orbits to the eyes, a high septum to the nose, and high cheek-bones; but there is one feature which will be with me a crucial test, and that is, that, instead of having the lower jaw-bone somewhat curved, it was particularly short and straight, but set out at an angle, which gave him a jowlish appearance. The head exactly answered to the description, and Flaxman went away expressing himself as convinced and delighted.

The head has also a length from the forehead to the back of the head which is quite extraordinary, and one day, before Mr. Wilkinson retired from practice, his assistant called him into the surgery to point out to him how exactly the shaven head of a lad who was there as a patient resembled the embalmed head of Cromwell up stairs.

Mr. Wilkinson mentioned the circumstances to the gentleman who brought the lad to him. “No wonder.” said the gentleman, ” for this lad is a direct descendant of Oliver Cromwell, whose name, like this boy’s, was Williams before they changed it to Cromwell. It was curious that this type should reappear or remain after so many years.

When the head was in the possession of Samuel Russell he was frequently intoxicated when he showed it to his friends, and they cut off pieces of the hair, until the hair was closely cropped…

The embalmed head is now in the possession of Horace Wilkinson, Sevenoaks. Kent. There is a small hole where the wart was on his forehead, and the eyebrows meet in the middle. The head has the appearance of hard dry leather. There are other details, and there is other circumstantial evidence, and there are records printed and published at the time, but I must not trespass on your valuable space any further, although it is a subject in which many of your readers may take as great an interest as I do. Cincinnati [OH] Daily Gazette 20 January 1875: p. 7

This piece, excerpted from an article about the sale of the relic, is striking for its socially-conscious editorial stance:

Incredible as it may sound, the head of the great Oliver Cromwell is for sale again after being hawked about England for years as if it were an antediluvian fossil or some other old curiosity.

The most worthless kings that ruled the country were buried with tremendous pomp and their bodies are to-day preserved with religious care. The head of the man who beheaded a tyrant king, founded England’s sea power, and raised his country to the highest position she had ever know, is bandied about as an old curiosity.

Why has it not been acquired by the Government and buried with due reverence? Could there be better proof than this of the hopeless snobbish, undemocratic, narrow-minded, inherently brutal character of the governing classes of England?

The ghastly head with a pike driven through it has just been on exhibition before the Royal Archaeological Society of England. It is understood that this is a preliminary step to getting a higher price for the old relic.

The head now belongs to the Rev. H.R. Wilkinson, whose great-grandfather, a doctor, acquired it in 1812.

Some years before this it had been purchased for $600 by James Cox, a well-known dealer in curiosities, from a drunken actor named Russell, who was a last descendant and a very disreputable one of a family related to Cromwell. Cox put the old skull up at auction and sold it for $1,150 to a syndicate of three men, who exhibited it for fifty cents a head admission, but they came to grief and had to sell the thing cheap to Dr. Wilkinson.

He was interested in the skull for professional as well as historical reasons. It amused his patients while they were waiting for treatment. He satisfied himself, by careful inquiry, that it was genuine.

Here is should be explained that there is another alleged head of Oliver Cromwell kept on exhibition in a glass case for the diversion of the curious in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford. Recent investigation by experts appears to prove that the Oxford head is not Cromwell’s and that the Wilkinson head is the genuine article…

Soon we shall hear a callous English auctioneer calling out:

“’Ow much am I offered for this very rare ‘ead of Oliver Cromwell?”

Probably the relic will then go to some American Millionaire and find a luxurious resting place, although not the kind that a nation mindful of its obligations would give it. New Orleans [LA] Item 7 May 1911: p. 34

Another famous head receiving much play in the papers was that of Pompey the Great, part of the First Triumvirate with Crassus and Caesar. The article hints at some doubt about the provenance. Armenians at the time had a reputation as sharp traders….

 The head of Pompey the Great is in New York!—at least, such is the opinion of the learned in that city; and it is not altogether irrational. Commodore Stewart [of the U.S. Navy] brought home in the Franklin, two Egyptian mummies (embalmed bodies) the one a human head, the other a dog, of the species that were worshipped by the Egyptians. They were brought to leghorn from Egypt, by an Armenian, in 1819, and obtained by the Reverent Thomas Hall, in May of that year. The Dog, or Anubis, was found, among other mummies, in the pyramid last opened. The head was discovered by some persons, in digging the canal from the Nile to Alexandria, cased in a stone coffin: and was purchased of a slave by the Armenian. Now, the reasons for supposing the Head no other than Pompey’s, are these: As this Head was found in a stone vase separate from the trunk, and shews moreover marks of having been severed before it was embalmed; and as the honors of embalming were conferred upon none but the virtuous or the illustrious—this could not be the head of a low born malefactor. History no where furnishes an instance of any one being embalmed, whose crimes had subjected him to the punishment of death—the common mode of which was decapitation. Though Pompey was assassinated on the Egyptian shore, at Pelusium, which is on the extreme mouth of the Nile over against Alexandria, and his body was devoted to the humble funeral pile where he lay; the court of Ptolemy was at Alexandria, where the head was carried. It was there the mean prince presented it to Caesar, it having been preserved (embalmed) for that purpose; and Caesar ‘commanded it should be interred in the suburbs of Alexandria.’ (Dryden’s Translation of Appian) Here, then, is a singular instance of an embalmed head alone; and the coincidence is altogether striking. There is room nevertheless for doubt. In the first place, the incredulous must be convinced that there was no deception practised by the slave who sold the curiosity to the Armenian, or by him. Appian must be investigated to see whether Dryden’s translation be strictly accurate—whether his meaning was interred or burned, for as Mr. Hall observes, Valerius Maximus, another Historian has it, that Caesar ordered the head to be burned with precious perfumes. But he has not the weight of Appian, for Appian gives the detail from information obtained on the spot, and as Valerius is eulogizing Caesar when he introduces the circumstance, he may be supposed not to have been nice about adding the costly perfumes, or the mode in which the honors to the memory of Pompey were paid. We congratulate Dr. Mitchell, however, upon the possession of these most rare curiosities being as they are, curious, if the Anubis be a mere cur, or the Pompey’s head no better. Alexandria [VA] Gazette 14 June 1820: p. 2

Stories about embalmed heads often made their way into the papers via reports from tourists. Thus stories about how much it cost to view the head of the Duke of Suffolk in the “shabby” Church of the Holy Trinity and this report on the head of a beheaded Doge of Venice:

THE HEAD OF MARINO FALIERO. On this ghastly relic a correspondent thus writes to the Editor of the Times :—

“I venture to send you a few lines on the subject of an historical relic of great interest, shown me the other day at Venice. Its existence seems almost unknown, and I write this in the hope that some historical scholar or physiologist may be persuaded to examine it, as it is either an extraordinary memorial or a marvelous hoax.

“This singular and ghastly fragment of the past is asserted to be the head of Marino Faliero, the beheaded Doge of 500 years ago, best known in England as the hero of Byron’s tragedy.

It will be found at the Correr Museum, which is soon to be removed to the well-known Fondaco del Turchi. The custode stated that the head was taken direct from the Doge’s grave. I can only say, from close inspection, that it appears to be the head of an old man of high breeding and organisation, from the delicacy of the features, which are very well preserved; also that it was cut off during life, as the flesh has swelled at the cut, from the contraction of the skin. Many of your readers will remember the story of Gentile Bellini, and the Sultan’s dissatisfaction with his picture of the decollated St. John, because the freshly-severed head did not possess this feature of reality. The present head seems to have been severed with one blow, but to have hung by the skin of the throat, which has been cut away in a long flap, like that of a pocket-book. The state of the veins leads me to suppose that some process of injection has been used to preserve it. It appears to be a remarkably narrow, high, and long head, strongly developed behind. Finally, the expression of the features is absolutely lifelike as well as deathlike, and is one of such dreadful and inexpressible agony and sudden shock that I think the authenticity of the relic is confirmed by it…

“A modem portrait or attempted reconstruction of Faliero’s likeness exists, I believe, in the Doge’s Palace. His proper place in the frieze of the Sala del Gran Consiglio is occupied, as all remember, by the well known black curtain and inscription—‘Hic est locus Marini Faliero, decapitati pro criminibus.’  San Francisco [CA] Bulletin 16 August 1871: p. 2

 One of the most exciting embalmed head finds was—well–only wishful thinking.


A physician of Detroit, whose practice appears not to make such demands upon his time as to preclude attention to the exciting sport of cipher hunting, has discovered in the bowels of the accredited works of Lord Bacon and the so-called” Shakespearean plays the story of a murder which has up to this time escaped the official investigation of the prosecutors for the English crown. At least this doctor says he has discovered this, and, as he is respectable, sane and rich, his tale is no doubt true.

The Detroit discoverer, who must under the circumstances be esteemed veracious, avows that this bad Lord Bacon not only one fine summer day, struck off the head of his good gossip William Shakespeare, but thereupon proceeded cooly to embalm the same, inclose it in a leaden casket, together with  a parchment setting forth the facts, and thereafter to bury it at a certain designated crossroads, that it might remain forever undisturbed until the cipher narrative of the truth should be uncovered.

All of this happened some time ago, but so well taken were the measures of concealment that the suspicions of the centuries have never been directed against the author of the crime. His own confession alone convicts now.

Prosecution does not lie, but the case, however musty, possesses certain features of interest which will be heightened when Dr. Owen of Detroit proceeds to England for the purpose of digging up the leaden box, the embalmed head, and the precious parchment. This the discoverer of the cipher and the crime promises at once to do. He has unearthed minute directions which satisfy his intelligence that he will have no serious trouble in securing the evidence against the late Francis Bacon’s moral character, but in favor of the truth of his cipher story. The exhumation of the embalmed head he intends to offer as “a last and final proof of the authenticity of my cipher.”

It will be so accepted. The doctor has the price of ocean passage in one of his inside pockets and there is no good reason for delay. Even before the middle of May a delighted world may be staring at the embalmed head, which, by the right of discovery ought to become the sole property of Orville W. Owen and serve to double his present fortune. The English speaking nations will await with impatience the opportunity to pay admission fees to the doctor’s curio hall.

As matters stand the gentleman from Michigan is a good many lengths ahead of the gentleman from Minnesota as a translator of the great cryptographist. Beside the tame tale of Donnelly the Owen narration glows with romantic color. There is spice in such phrases as “ere yet my bloody hands were washed,” and something charmingly eerie in all the subsequent proceedings. Dr. Owen should haste upon his voyage of discovery. The proof lies at the cross roads, and if only he will dig in the earth with an ardor equal to that which he delved in the Novum Organum he will become as famed as he doubtless is good.  Kansas City [MO] Times 22 April 1891: p. 4

Dr Beachcombing  wrote about the cautionary tale of Dr Owen and his disappointing trip to England.

Private collectors also were enthralled with heads. We have read previously of the museum of Dr Segato, which contained some beautifully prepared heads.  Dr. Q.H. Graser, an Ohio physician, who had one of the finest private museums in the United States, was especially interested in new techniques of embalming. This snippet from a longer article (another post, another day) is ambiguous as to whether this mummified head was purchased or made by the good Professor.

PROF. Q.H. GRASER – Wonders and Curiosities to be Seen In His Fine Museum

Perched upon the top of a cabinet are the embalmed head and hand of a Spartan woman, for which the doctor has been offered five hundred dollars. The ear-rings are still in the ears and on the index finger of the hand is an iron ring of unique design. Cleveland [OH] Leader 3 May 1881: p. 4

A mummy’s head (with or without curse) was a must-have souvenir of a trip to Egypt. They were found in the homes of French Adventuresses and were a de-rigueur accessory for the apartments of a Decadent Poet.

The Potations of Poets

Francois Coppee, the French poet, while in England, met Algernon Charles Swinburne. The rest of the experience came after Coppee had accompanied Swinburne to his house and had something to drink. Swinburne offered him delicious refreshments, and when the visitor was sufficiently recovered to enjoy a cheerful treat showed him over the villa. The place, according to Coppee after the drink, was a museum of horrors. Everywhere one turned hideous sights met one’s eyes. There were “skeletons of men and beasts, skinned heads under glass cases, snakes, monkeys, satanic cats, odious dogs with Chinese faces, models of the coffins of different countries, death’s heads grinning between curtains, the embalmed head of a negro resting on a white velvet cushion.” Jackson [MI] Citizen Patriot 16 march 1900: p. 1

We finish with what is meant to be an amusing story about an all-American mercenary in a spot of bother over his shrunken head mascot, mistaken for a “Bolshevist trophy” (!!)  One could write whole books on the disrespectful treatment of tribal relics including shrunken heads from South American tribes, Native American scalps, and trophy heads from New Guinea and New Zealand.

Put in Peril by Mascot.

American Aviator’s Mummified Head

Nearly Caused Arrest in Germany.

Special Cable to The New York Times.

Parris, June 6. An American veteran’s mascot, a mummified human head from Ecuador, nearly caused his arrest at the eastern frontier of Germany recently.

Captain T.H. Windsor, formerly a soldier of fortune in South and Central America, after having fought in France as an airman, spent several months in the Lithuanian Army. His Indian head mascot, reduced to the size of an orange, but with the features perfectly recognizable, accompanied him everywhere, and, he says, kept him from injury in two crashes in France and one on the Lithuanian front.

At the German-Lithuanian frontier post of Eytkunnen the German customs officers, who go carefully through the baggage of all travellers from the east, found the head in Windsor’s first trunk, and evidently decided that it was a Bolshevist trophy. When he was interrogated Windsor proudly declared that it was a human head, which increased the officers’ suspicions, and they reported the American to their superior.

Fortunately, the officer had himself been in the air service, and the magic word “mascot” was a bond of sympathy. He restored the head to the American and passed him without opening the rest of his baggage. The New York Times 7 June 1920

Any thoughts about why Cromwell’s was the cranium of choice? Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.

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