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Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found

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The human head is exceptional. It accommodates four of our five senses, encases the brain, and boasts the most expressive set of muscles in the body. It is our most distinctive attribute and connects our inner selves to the outer world. Yet there is a dark side to the head’s preeminence, one that has, in the course of human history, manifested itself in everything from dec The human head is exceptional. It accommodates four of our five senses, encases the brain, and boasts the most expressive set of muscles in the body. It is our most distinctive attribute and connects our inner selves to the outer world. Yet there is a dark side to the head’s preeminence, one that has, in the course of human history, manifested itself in everything from decapitation to headhunting. So explains anthropologist Frances Larson in this fascinating history of decapitated human heads. From the Western collectors whose demand for shrunken heads spurred massacres to Second World War soldiers who sent the remains of the Japanese home to their girlfriends, from Madame Tussaud modeling the guillotined head of Robespierre to Damien Hirst photographing decapitated heads in city morgues,from grave-robbing phrenologists to skull-obsessed scientists, Larson explores our macabre fixation with severed heads.


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The human head is exceptional. It accommodates four of our five senses, encases the brain, and boasts the most expressive set of muscles in the body. It is our most distinctive attribute and connects our inner selves to the outer world. Yet there is a dark side to the head’s preeminence, one that has, in the course of human history, manifested itself in everything from dec The human head is exceptional. It accommodates four of our five senses, encases the brain, and boasts the most expressive set of muscles in the body. It is our most distinctive attribute and connects our inner selves to the outer world. Yet there is a dark side to the head’s preeminence, one that has, in the course of human history, manifested itself in everything from decapitation to headhunting. So explains anthropologist Frances Larson in this fascinating history of decapitated human heads. From the Western collectors whose demand for shrunken heads spurred massacres to Second World War soldiers who sent the remains of the Japanese home to their girlfriends, from Madame Tussaud modeling the guillotined head of Robespierre to Damien Hirst photographing decapitated heads in city morgues,from grave-robbing phrenologists to skull-obsessed scientists, Larson explores our macabre fixation with severed heads.

30 review for Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found

  1. 4 out of 5

    karen

    Decapitation is the ultimate tyranny; but it is also an act of creation, because, for all its cruelty, it produces an extraordinarily potent artefact that compels our attention whether we like it or not. who knew there were so many things to say about human heads?? not human minds, with all their psychological bells and whistles, nooks and crannies, but just… heads. decapitated heads. this book is an academic overview of all the ways in which severed heads have played a part in human history. cha Decapitation is the ultimate tyranny; but it is also an act of creation, because, for all its cruelty, it produces an extraordinarily potent artefact that compels our attention whether we like it or not. who knew there were so many things to say about human heads?? not human minds, with all their psychological bells and whistles, nooks and crannies, but just… heads. decapitated heads. this book is an academic overview of all the ways in which severed heads have played a part in human history. chapters include: shrunken heads, trophy heads (war), deposed heads (executions/guillotine/war), framed heads - the severed head in (or AS) art, potent heads (relics), bone heads (phrenology - stolen heads/anthropology), dissected heads - (medical school, discomfort), living heads (cryogenics, galvanization). so many uses for a severed head, y'all! it's pretty fascinating stuff, and not a subject i ever expected to see, much less read an entire book devoted to, but once you see it, you know you have to read it. i have read that book of short stories, Severance: Stories, which had a fantastic premise that it just didn't live up to, while this book is just straight-up scholarship that doesn't try to be narrative, and yet its subject matter is compelling enough that you don't mind the dryness of its tone, or its occasionally puzzling distinctions: Decapitation is a contradiction in terms because it is both brutal and effective." not really sure how that's a contradiction, but decapitation is definitely both of those other things. the chapter focusing on the guillotine was one of the most interesting ones, particularly in its discussion of how commonplace public beheadings became in france during its heyday, and how that affected the people as it went from being a horrifying cautionary spectacle to an entertaining diversion to just ho-hum, another beheading, pass the bread. The guillotine had transformed decapitation into a dispassionate procedure that minimized the brutality as much as possible, but taking the drama out of death is a dangerous ideal. The Terror demonstrated well enough that the only thing more horrifying than a severed head is a society that finds it mundane. when you start finding yourself bored by public executions, there's a real problem there. some of her conclusions are a little ghoulish For all their gruesome nature, severed heads are also inspirational: they move people to study, to pray, to joke, to write and to draw, to turn away or to look a little closer, and to reflect on the limits of their humanity. and "inspirational" seems to be a bridge too far, but it's hard to argue with some of her assertions Generally, a dry skull made a more attractive, and more manageable, trophy than a rotting human head. even when she edges into this near-confessional-feeling celebratory tone Taking a head is an audacious act of supremacy. It turns a person into mute matter. The headless body is leaderless and nondescript; the bodiless head is vacant and impotent. and In various walks of life, gruesome decapitations have become part of our cultural fabric, and part of our collective heritage. Such violent acts can inspire a surprising range of emotions. Feelings like grief, disgust and shame are to be expected, but these negative reactions are often mirrored by a sense of intimacy and wonder. Holding a severed head in your hands, even cutting off another person's head, can be a thrill. Owning somebody else's head can be a fascinating and deeply moving experience. It can be an expression of respect or an act of abuse, or both at once. but even though that makes you want to edge away from her slowly slowly, there's no denying how cool some of these stories are, especially those in which scientists get a little restless and curious with all the "i wonder what happens when i do this??" In the mid-twentieth century transplanting anything other than bone, blood vessels or corneas still proved to be a hopeless venture, and Demikhov set out to prove that soft tissues, even the delicate tissues of the brain, could survive transplantation. In each case, Demikhov's team attached the head, shoulders. heart, lungs and forelimbs of one dog onto the neck of another dog. Although most of the two-headed dogs died after a few days, some lived for a few weeks and the experiments were deemed to have been a success. The donor dogs not only remained conscious, they drank water and bit people's fingers. eek! In May 1908, in St. Louis, Missouri, Guthrie successfully transplanted a dog's head onto the underside of another dog's throat. He grafted the arteries together so that the blood from one dog flowed through the head of the other. The transplanted heads displayed basic reflexes: the pupils contracted, the nostrils twitched, the tongue moved. Seven hours after the operation complications set in and Guthrie euthanized the dogs. and i mean, obviously, poor doggies and all, but this still gives me not-unpleasant ripple-chills all over to discover all the shenanigans scientists get up to behind closed labs. and i am so glad that medicine made substantial advances before my new onset epilepsy turned up and all i had to deal with was boatloads of dilantin A German physician, Johann Schroeder, recommended pounding up the brains, skin, arteries, nerves, and whole spinal column of a young man who had met a violent end, and steeping the mixture in water and flowers, such as lavender and peony, before distilling it several times for use against epilepsy. Christian IV of Denmark, who died in 1648, was said to have taken powders partly composed of the skulls of criminals as a cure for epilepsy. These remedies were common for centuries, and executioners had to deal with the eager demands of the sick waiting to collect their prescriptions. Even in the 1860's there were reports of Danish 'epileptics stand[ing] around the scaffold in crowds, cup in hand, ready to quaff the red blood as it flows from the still quivering body'. i would not have waited in line for the opportunity to snort skull dust. not even at a rave. more on medicine: In the 1560's some of the traitors' heads from London Bridge were reused as medicinal cups for a group of men working at the Royal Mint who were suffering from arsenic poisoning, the symptoms of which include headaches and lightheadedness. The ailing men drank their medicine out of the cleaned skulls, but many of them died anyway. that last sentence kills me. the way that expecting skulls to have magical medicinal qualities kills people. the chapter on the severed head in art was also very enlightening, and i did have a nice little "you go, girl" moment in response to her exploration of salome By the turn of the twentieth century, Salome had become an intensely sexual character, appearing in musical halls, early films and paintings by artists like Gustav Klimt and Franz Stuck as a half-naked, self-satisfied and defiant temptress bearing her grisly prize. On the eve of the First World War, Salome was viewed as a woman who had more cunning than intellect, and who was empowered by her sexual charms. It is no coincidence that Salome had become a sexual monster in the eyes of many artists at a time when real women were deserting their "proper nature" by seeking education, employment and equal rights in greater numbers that ever before. Salome's prize of a severed head on its silver platter now stood for everything that men might lose in the face of women's emancipation - the head she held so close represented men's leadership, their authority, their intellectual and professional hegemony - while she, as its new mistress, danced on in a state of ecstatic vindication. and one last long quote from this book, which somehow made me sadder than those dog stories, maybe because i still can't believe those dog stories are real. i mean, i can, but i am pretending it was a movie i saw or something. but this: Morton's successors at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia carefully inked numbers onto the forehead of each of the skulls in his collection, along with the place where it was collected, and sometimes the name of the person who collected it. In museums, the identity of the collector often got a higher billing than the identity of the person they had collected. A list of respectable donors emphasized the prestige of the institution in question. It would be a serious error if generous donors were forgotten, but it was inconsequential - perhaps it was even easier - if no one knew the names of the dead people being studied. In contrast, a person's age, sex and place of origin were often written on skulls, because this information was important in considering their demographic value. makes me a different kind of sad. anyway, here's a book about severed heads. enjoy! come to my blog!

  2. 4 out of 5

    Richard

    The moral of the story is: Quit while you're a head. The moral of the story is: Quit while you're a head.

  3. 5 out of 5

    K.J. Charles

    Overall a really fascinating, readable, UTTERLY HORRIFYING account of the human tendency to cut each other's heads off. Which makes more of a book and a thesis than you might think. Loads of really crunchy detail, studded with fascinating facts and great quotes. Some very gross pictures, which frankly what would you expect. And a very, very interesting lot of cultural analysis involving racism and exploitation. Highly recommended for the less squeamish. (Not kidding: the chapter on Guadalcanal w Overall a really fascinating, readable, UTTERLY HORRIFYING account of the human tendency to cut each other's heads off. Which makes more of a book and a thesis than you might think. Loads of really crunchy detail, studded with fascinating facts and great quotes. Some very gross pictures, which frankly what would you expect. And a very, very interesting lot of cultural analysis involving racism and exploitation. Highly recommended for the less squeamish. (Not kidding: the chapter on Guadalcanal was stomach churning.) I will, however, say that this book refers on several occasions to 'decapitated heads', and this undermined my faith in it, because if you are writing 250+ pages about decapitation, I would expect you to know the meaning of 'decapitated'. I actually wonder if this was an introduced error by an editor, as there is a cluster of these in one chapter and then it doesn't arise again.

  4. 5 out of 5

    AdiTurbo

    It took me a long time to read this book, but I'm so glad I persevered. It was so worth it. The title doesn't do this book justice. It is so much richer than just a history. It looks at all of the aspects of severing a human head - the social, cultural, psychological, political, and more and more. It is rich with fascinating insights and facts about heads as a physical and cognitive concept in our culture throughout history, and in other cultures. It misses nothing in exploring all of the circum It took me a long time to read this book, but I'm so glad I persevered. It was so worth it. The title doesn't do this book justice. It is so much richer than just a history. It looks at all of the aspects of severing a human head - the social, cultural, psychological, political, and more and more. It is rich with fascinating insights and facts about heads as a physical and cognitive concept in our culture throughout history, and in other cultures. It misses nothing in exploring all of the circumstances in which heads are separated from bodies. It isn't an easy subject matter and I had to take it in small gulps, which is why it took me so long to read it. But it's one of the most compelling and informative non-fiction books I've read in a few years.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Justin

    This review was written for Historical Novel Review. Housing four of the five senses, our brain, and the body’s most elaborate set of muscles, the head naturally ranks as preeminent among our many body parts. It’s no surprise, therefore, that it should have an exceptional impact on human history and psychology. It is this history that anthropologist Frances Larson explores. She focuses on the severed head’s history in the West, with chapters dedicated to 18th- and 19th-century headhunting (by Wes This review was written for Historical Novel Review. Housing four of the five senses, our brain, and the body’s most elaborate set of muscles, the head naturally ranks as preeminent among our many body parts. It’s no surprise, therefore, that it should have an exceptional impact on human history and psychology. It is this history that anthropologist Frances Larson explores. She focuses on the severed head’s history in the West, with chapters dedicated to 18th- and 19th-century headhunting (by Western procurers), the venerated heads of saints, heads as trophies, the heads of decapitated politicians, and grave robbing by medical students among many others. Though this book often makes for grisly reading, it is amazingly thought-provoking and never macabre. What could have devolved into freak show is instead elevated to an honest and tremendously insightful study into the severed human head’s history. I had never considered how the boom in head collecting among Western buyers during the 19th century led to a supply problem that could only be met one of two ways: grave robbing and murder. It is insights such as these that make this book highly recommended—for those who aren’t squeamish (there are a lot of pictures…).

  6. 4 out of 5

    Grumpus

    This book is about the history and science of human heads and it is not as much of a squeamish read as I would have anticipated. It covers the history of everything from head hunters, to skull collectors, to the scientific study of the human head, to phrenology. My feeble effort to describe this book is to think Mary Roach and provide the following quote from the book, "Although they are often horrific and distressing, and embody great personal injustice, severed heads demand our attention in co This book is about the history and science of human heads and it is not as much of a squeamish read as I would have anticipated. It covers the history of everything from head hunters, to skull collectors, to the scientific study of the human head, to phrenology. My feeble effort to describe this book is to think Mary Roach and provide the following quote from the book, "Although they are often horrific and distressing, and embody great personal injustice, severed heads demand our attention in complicated and conflicting ways. Both familiar and other-worldly, they remind us of our own fragility. They draw us in to peer inside ourselves, and invite us to survey the limits of our humanity. We may not like what we see, but that in itself is no reason to turn away."

  7. 5 out of 5

    Paul Perry

    This is a book on the social history of decapitation, which is rather more widespread than you might imagine. Starting with a rundown of the indignities heaped on the (severed) head of Oliver Cromwell after his death - kept on a spike for years, stolen, traded and passed around - Larson then goes on to cover various aspects of the way Western society has viewed the act of decollation and the resultant cranium. And this is about how the Western (largely European and American) culture has both info This is a book on the social history of decapitation, which is rather more widespread than you might imagine. Starting with a rundown of the indignities heaped on the (severed) head of Oliver Cromwell after his death - kept on a spike for years, stolen, traded and passed around - Larson then goes on to cover various aspects of the way Western society has viewed the act of decollation and the resultant cranium. And this is about how the Western (largely European and American) culture has both informed the view of the practices and, indeed, affected it. We start with a chapter on the vogue for early anthropologists and collectors to seek out those 'savage' tribesmen who took severed heads as part of their culture, in South America and New Guinea among other places, and how the act of seeking out and collecting these 'cultural artefacts' completely changes the behaviour of the people concerned, almost entirely for the more murderous; the Shuar tribe of Peru, who collected a small number of heads and shrunk them as part of rituals to obtain the glory of that individual massively increased production when offered valuable trade goods by European anthropologists, as did the Maori in New Zealand and others in New Guinea - although many more also referred to these strange white men as 'headhunters' due to their habit of going around asking the locals if they could procure severed heads. Subsequently, a good proportion of those shrunken and tattooed heads in various museum collections, rather than being those of 'native warriors' are those of innocent people, creations made purely for the procurement of incredibly valuable trade goods. Larson continues the chapter tracing the changing attitude toward these collections. Each subsequent chapter follows a similar pattern, taking a specific aspect of the topic from its inception through its history to the most up-to-date perspective - the guillotine, trophy heads (largely in the Pacific Theatre in WWII), art and medicine - often referring back to previous entries (often done subtly but occasionally with clumsy repetition), the author weaves together stories that are interesting in themselves on a theme that opens up some thought-provoking avenues. I guarantee that some of the ideas - as well as some of the images - will stay with me long after the final page.

  8. 5 out of 5

    R K

    This book started off so well! Who wouldn't want to read a book about heads that had been cut off? It had an amazing start going from the infamous shrunken heads to the horrors of bone collecting in WWII to the invention of the guillotine to how we as humans generally reacted to such an event. These chapters were gory but informative and Larson did a really good job in presenting a very well thought out and detailed history of the topic at hand. You could tell she was very meticulous about not b This book started off so well! Who wouldn't want to read a book about heads that had been cut off? It had an amazing start going from the infamous shrunken heads to the horrors of bone collecting in WWII to the invention of the guillotine to how we as humans generally reacted to such an event. These chapters were gory but informative and Larson did a really good job in presenting a very well thought out and detailed history of the topic at hand. You could tell she was very meticulous about not being biased and the details she provided were not only interesting to learn but shocking at times. Within these first chapters, I was really drawn into the book. It surprising at how accepted the notion of head hacking is in many cultures. It was also fascinating to learn about how heads were persevered in order to be held up for all to see. What was surprising to learn was how barbaric the history was. As Larson put it, what was initially just a cultural concept became a dark and bloody business due to foreign investment and interest. The issue only propagates when taken to war where the consequences of military training, propaganda, and racism come to play with guns in their hands. We all know the dark stories of WWII and this book just brought it to a whole new level. However, there were problems with this book. The first, was that it didn't seem to have an aim. I didn't know if we were going to be told infamous cases or look more into why humans cut off heads. Neither were really discussed so much as were human heads were used and the moralities of that. The second issue, was the (to be frank) dullness that is the second half of this book. It completely went in some other direction and bored me to tears. We went from the history of heads to the affect it had on art and trust me when I say it was more boring than it sounds. Finally, and this was the issue that annoyed me the most. She only discusses Europe. The act of cutting off a person's head is so universal that's it's honestly captivating in its own weird way. Despite being so different from one another, we all seem to be okay with head hacking. xD Yet, we never went into detail on any of that!

  9. 5 out of 5

    Ellie

    Like many books on a niche subject, Severed explores heads from different angles, using history, culture and science. It’s split into fairly long chapters on Shrunken Heads, Trophy Heads (war), Deposed Heads (execution), Framed Heads (art), Potent Heads (religion), Bone Heads (skulls), Dissected Heads (medical) and Living Heads. It seems there’s a long-standing fascination with the human head once it’s been removed from the body. Obviously it covers the well-known guillotine and the French obsess Like many books on a niche subject, Severed explores heads from different angles, using history, culture and science. It’s split into fairly long chapters on Shrunken Heads, Trophy Heads (war), Deposed Heads (execution), Framed Heads (art), Potent Heads (religion), Bone Heads (skulls), Dissected Heads (medical) and Living Heads. It seems there’s a long-standing fascination with the human head once it’s been removed from the body. Obviously it covers the well-known guillotine and the French obsession with it during the revolution. It’s worrying to think it was created to reduce the spectacle; an efficient machine to remove head but to reduce the gore and horror that could be seen, and revelled in, by the crowds. I didn’t know that Madame Tussaud was an actual person and her original wax museum was filled with portraits cast from heads fresh from the guillotine. It does serve as a reminder of the awfulness of Europeans throughout history (and I’m including those who colonised America in this, they weren't innocent either). From creating an artificial demand for shrunken heads, so much so that people (or sloths!) were killed to order, to the degrading way bodies of the poor were treated, this is a side of history many would like to forget. We hear a lot about the Victorian obsession with classification of the natural world but not that it extended to the human race as well. Thousands of skulls were collected and studied in an aim to work out what made some people better than others. To classify races and keep a record of indigenous peoples practically wiped out by the rabid colonisation of the world. I found the most uncomfortable reading was that surrounding the experimentation on recently guillotined heads to see if they were still alive in there. There’s something really unsettling about this, and if it were true, what horrible tortures were committed during the period. On a more positive note, it redresses some of the bad rep of medical students, showing a huge amount of respect, and even tenderness, for their cadavers. There are no tales of pranks, but shows how people come to terms with cutting up a human being, how it’s not always an easy thing to live with, even if the end goal is something worthy. It’s a grisly but fascinating look at human history, I was probably less engaged in the parts about saints and the severed head in art. Not to say there weren’t interesting bits but I felt these chapters were too long for the material contained. There’s a fair bit of repetition across the chapters and the final one, “Living Heads” seemed to be a bit of a mish-mash of some areas already covered as well as a little bit on cryogenics and scientific experimentation.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Ape

    I love it when someone goes at history at a really odd and niche angle. What about severed heads in history? What do they mean culturally? Ethically? What why how? There's a lot more to this book than I had first assumed. I learned all kinds of random things - perhaps some is my own personal ignorance in the first place, but it has given me a fresh perspective on a lot of things and things to think about. Severed heads. Ok, what is this going to be about? Horror films and gratuitous gore? Not re I love it when someone goes at history at a really odd and niche angle. What about severed heads in history? What do they mean culturally? Ethically? What why how? There's a lot more to this book than I had first assumed. I learned all kinds of random things - perhaps some is my own personal ignorance in the first place, but it has given me a fresh perspective on a lot of things and things to think about. Severed heads. Ok, what is this going to be about? Horror films and gratuitous gore? Not really... consider the various chapters and introductions.... the several centuries of Oliver Cromwell's preserved head and where he has ended up and what people thought of it (ie his head). Shrunken heads and ritualistically preserved heads (interestingly, as you'll find out if you read this, it says more about Westerners than it does about S Americans and South Pacific islanders). World War Two in the South Pacific and the Americans and their head hunting of the Japanese. Heads of executions. Heads in art. Religious (Christianity - saints and all that) heads. Medicial disection, research and experimentation of... yep, you've got it, heads. You may think this is too shocking to read, or for ghouls only, but as the medical students mentioned in this book, when you get into it, you will be surprised by what you can do and what soon feels like normality.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Fishface

    This was often very interesting, a discussion of some of the ways severed heads resonate in our own heads, and what we use them for, think of them, believe about them, and so forth. This book could have gone a lot farther, in my opinion, but it was a good read overall. I confess I cringed every time I saw the odious phrase "decapitated head," as if it were possible to cut the head off someone's head. Subject-verb agreement was also sorely lacking. But I was enchanted to learn for the first time This was often very interesting, a discussion of some of the ways severed heads resonate in our own heads, and what we use them for, think of them, believe about them, and so forth. This book could have gone a lot farther, in my opinion, but it was a good read overall. I confess I cringed every time I saw the odious phrase "decapitated head," as if it were possible to cut the head off someone's head. Subject-verb agreement was also sorely lacking. But I was enchanted to learn for the first time that all the head-collecting in the Pacific Theater of WWII was not echoed in the European Theater, and the stories about the heads of guillotined criminals flushing with anger, flinching and snapping their jaws were nothing if not intriguing. Still, it would have been nice to see a single mention of Dr. Carl Hill, or the odd staying power of the rumor that Walt Disney's head is among those stored in one of those cryogenic deep-freeze facilities...

  12. 5 out of 5

    Emma

    CHARMING. For, like, one of the most morbid books I've ever read, and I read a lot of morbid material. I could have read twice as much content as is in here, which is why it loses a star, but quite well done. Read it in tandem with Robert Olen Butler's 'Severed'. CHARMING. For, like, one of the most morbid books I've ever read, and I read a lot of morbid material. I could have read twice as much content as is in here, which is why it loses a star, but quite well done. Read it in tandem with Robert Olen Butler's 'Severed'.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Chloe

    I really enjoyed this exploration of various topics related to severed heads! Larson touches upon heads as objects that have been removed from their cultural context and displayed in museums, heads as Christian relics, heads in the context of medical dissections, decapitation as a method of execution, phrenology, the search for proof of consciousness post-decapitation, heads as war trophies, and more! There is a ton that's covered in this book, but Larson keeps it moving, so that the book never I really enjoyed this exploration of various topics related to severed heads! Larson touches upon heads as objects that have been removed from their cultural context and displayed in museums, heads as Christian relics, heads in the context of medical dissections, decapitation as a method of execution, phrenology, the search for proof of consciousness post-decapitation, heads as war trophies, and more! There is a ton that's covered in this book, but Larson keeps it moving, so that the book never gets bogged down in any one section. I'd recommend this to any of my friends who have a streak of morbid curiosity in them.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Ben Rogers

    I enjoyed this book. Reminded me of some of Caitlin Doughty subject matter and (slightly) the writing. Morbid. But fascinating book. Could have dealt with less history, and more "head facts" (Vsauce reference). Still, it was fun! Eye-opening! I had a look at some of the preserved heads on display (via Google search) - terrifying in my opinion. But they apparently is very sacred. Heads will roll! I'll close the guillotine on this review! 3.4/5 I enjoyed this book. Reminded me of some of Caitlin Doughty subject matter and (slightly) the writing. Morbid. But fascinating book. Could have dealt with less history, and more "head facts" (Vsauce reference). Still, it was fun! Eye-opening! I had a look at some of the preserved heads on display (via Google search) - terrifying in my opinion. But they apparently is very sacred. Heads will roll! I'll close the guillotine on this review! 3.4/5

  15. 4 out of 5

    Cora

    Couldn't finish this one. Couldn't finish this one.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Rana Adham

    I wonder why this book is not a bestseller. The amount of research that went into this must have been flabbergasting.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Jerrod

    Two sentence review: This book really just didn't grab my attention;I quit about halfway through. Full of equivocation and uses an inconsistently applied judgmental tone. The first couple of chapters were essentially of the form: 18th and 19th century Europeans thought X about indigenous peoples of some Pacific Islands or South America; those Europeans were wrong and hypocritical and lacked any kind of self-reflection; I must heap scorn on them. I don't mind calling out archaic views of peoples o Two sentence review: This book really just didn't grab my attention;I quit about halfway through. Full of equivocation and uses an inconsistently applied judgmental tone. The first couple of chapters were essentially of the form: 18th and 19th century Europeans thought X about indigenous peoples of some Pacific Islands or South America; those Europeans were wrong and hypocritical and lacked any kind of self-reflection; I must heap scorn on them. I don't mind calling out archaic views of peoples of the past if they are inconsistent (heck... sometimes when they are consistent) with some of their other views or actions, but Larson seems to have a special (and non-circumspect) animosity towards those colonial powers of old that can only be born from a formal study in contemporary anthropology. She notes that once Europeans began to buy shrunken heads, the head hunting raids increased (a nice economics lesson there). She fairly points out hypocrisy of calling head hunters savage while also participating in the market for shrunken heads, but she elides over the savagery of head hunting by arguing that heads were not taken as spoils of war but were, instead, taken on special head hunting raids. I'm not quite sure what to think about this framing... it seems, at best, a bit obtuse. If you want to point out the inherent savagery of buying shrunken heads (and heap scorn on those who did), it seems only fair to point out the more despicable action of actually taking the heads (either reserve judgment or judge equally). The next one or two chapters were on soldiers taking heads and other body parts during war. Here she has a more disinterested tone that would have served the first chapters well. She focuses on the Pacific Theater during WW2. I can't tell how widespread the practice of taking body parts was because she constantly waffles between evidence that fellow soldiers thought those who took body parts were disgusting and abhorrent and statements trying to suggests that this kind of behavior was not common but not incredibly rare. Given the more than occasional equivocation, I would suspect Larson is trying to make the practice seem more common than it was. She does provide nice insight into how these practices did help soldiers cope with the horrors of war. And while the indigenous islanders make an appearance in this section, they are given special consideration in how she writes about them. She notes the shock of an Australian officer when one of the islanders brings him the head of a Japanese soldier and how the islanders earned a reputation for taking heads. She then suggests that this behavior was encouraged because the islanders were provided weapons by the Allied forces, but in less than a page or two, she informs the reader that the islanders mostly used their own weapons because they would have required too much training to learn how to use the guns they were given. Exploring the topic of disgust by using the history of heads (and other severed body parts) is what I was expecting. Larson did not secure my trust in her ability to accurately portray that story.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Justine Olawsky

    C'mon, admit it: just looking at the title of this book, you are intrigued. What is it about decapitation that immediately catches the eye, quivers the lips, twitches the nose, makes us gulp with revulsion? Could it be that we just want to use our heads when contemplating their potential removal? There is a reason that militant, extremist Islamists behead their victims on camera: it compels a visceral reaction of disgust, horror, and fascination in the viewer like no other form of execution can. C'mon, admit it: just looking at the title of this book, you are intrigued. What is it about decapitation that immediately catches the eye, quivers the lips, twitches the nose, makes us gulp with revulsion? Could it be that we just want to use our heads when contemplating their potential removal? There is a reason that militant, extremist Islamists behead their victims on camera: it compels a visceral reaction of disgust, horror, and fascination in the viewer like no other form of execution can. The head removed from its body, whether held up in triumph in the midst of war or cleaned and dried to a luminous, white skull, is the ultimate reminder of our frailty and human mortality. Ms. Larson does a good job of laying bare every facet of decapitation, from the shrunken heads of South America to war souvenirs to general Western execution to the efficient guillotine of the French Revolution to the power of the severed head in art. Most compelling to me, though, was the next to last chapter entitled, "Living Heads", which starts with the fascinating question of exactly how long a head retains some semblance of consciousness after being separated from its body and the lengths that scientists have gone to through the years to determine that and ends with a look at modern attempts at head transplants and the potential physiological and ethical ramifications of successful cryogenic neurosuspension. Wow. Morbid, but riveting.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Tom Quinn

    I've got a head. You've got a head. You'd think we'd all pretty much have this head thing figured out, what with owning our own our whole lives. But a severed head is quite the attention-grabber. Nobody can "ho hum" at it, and I'd bet very few can pass up the opportunity to see one. If the mind lives in the brain and the brain lives in the head, then lopping one off makes a hell of a statement. I love this sort of "telescoping" nonfiction writing, exploring a single topic in an additive explorat I've got a head. You've got a head. You'd think we'd all pretty much have this head thing figured out, what with owning our own our whole lives. But a severed head is quite the attention-grabber. Nobody can "ho hum" at it, and I'd bet very few can pass up the opportunity to see one. If the mind lives in the brain and the brain lives in the head, then lopping one off makes a hell of a statement. I love this sort of "telescoping" nonfiction writing, exploring a single topic in an additive exploration of its meaning in different contexts, i.e. Oliver Cromwell's head "was variously thought of as a trophy, a precious relic, a memento mori and a data set...it is emblematic of thousands of human heads..." (2) The author's goal is to look closely at one head, one execution, one event at a time and extrapolate from it the whole of human truth. We are not looking for a dry summary of events here, we welcome opinion and bias and spin. The novelty of the premise (come on, how many other severed head books have you read?) got me interested and the author indulges in fun speculation about the "why" of it all. 3 stars out of 5. (Read in 2017, the nineteenth book in my Alphabetical Reading Challenge)

  20. 4 out of 5

    Jeanne

    For a book on something that I thought was a very small and limited topic, this book manages to cover a variety of angles and perspectives - all of which have some sort of relationship to the topic, and managed to pose quite a few unexpected questions as well. For example, when is someone considered dead? Is the brain the only part of the body that holds our personality and identity? Can human remains be considered an object morally? What about the use of human remains for medicinal purposes? Is For a book on something that I thought was a very small and limited topic, this book manages to cover a variety of angles and perspectives - all of which have some sort of relationship to the topic, and managed to pose quite a few unexpected questions as well. For example, when is someone considered dead? Is the brain the only part of the body that holds our personality and identity? Can human remains be considered an object morally? What about the use of human remains for medicinal purposes? Is that seen as a barbaric practice because of our current detachment and so-called moral superiority despite it once being common in Europe? The angles themselves range from racism and classicism, colonialism and war, to morality and the current detachment to the dead in western society. All in all, I really enjoyed the ideas and the information that this book introduced!! I'd definitely recommend it to anyone even remotely interested in any of the above questions or angles, even if you're not that good with gore like me!!

  21. 4 out of 5

    Mike

    I ordinarily peruse the “New History” section of my local B&N just to get a sense of what’s going on in the field, and to add books to my wish list in 17th-19th century American History… I rarely actually buy anything. But I grabbed this one as soon as I saw it, and bumped it right to the top of my TBR pile- I’m very glad I did. Larson has done great work here, exploring the West’s (broadly speaking) fascination with severed heads- and head-severing- from historical, economic, psychological, and I ordinarily peruse the “New History” section of my local B&N just to get a sense of what’s going on in the field, and to add books to my wish list in 17th-19th century American History… I rarely actually buy anything. But I grabbed this one as soon as I saw it, and bumped it right to the top of my TBR pile- I’m very glad I did. Larson has done great work here, exploring the West’s (broadly speaking) fascination with severed heads- and head-severing- from historical, economic, psychological, and cultural perspectives. Disembodied heads (and their constituent parts) are presented as commodities, trophies, totems of veneration, objects of (pseudo- as well as legitimate) scientific research, even as works of art. There are plenty of morbid, gory thrills here but also serious meditations on human nature, as we consider powerful, tangible representations of our mortality.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Zach Anderson

    DNF @ 60%. I struggled with finishing this versus giving it up. The main reason why I struggled with it was its interesting premise contrasted with its long-winded, tedious content. On one hand this book is indeed about severed heads and their appropriate cultural and contextual history. But I thought it would be more about *specific* severed heads (i.e. "this chapter is about Daniel Boone's head being buried in one state and the rest of his body being buried in another"). Instead, the book read DNF @ 60%. I struggled with finishing this versus giving it up. The main reason why I struggled with it was its interesting premise contrasted with its long-winded, tedious content. On one hand this book is indeed about severed heads and their appropriate cultural and contextual history. But I thought it would be more about *specific* severed heads (i.e. "this chapter is about Daniel Boone's head being buried in one state and the rest of his body being buried in another"). Instead, the book reads like a more academic approach the subject of severed heads. Chapters focus on specific types of severed heads, for example, heads gathered from victories in war, or heads painted by artists. What sounds at first like a novelty and gruesome book, ends up being a much too meticulous for my liking College Style broaching of the subject.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Nick Spacek

    While delightfully gory, it did a wonderful job of exploring the racial and cultural dynamics behind heads. Be they shrunken heads, skulls, or trophy heads, Larson explores how European colonists affected what was, at one point, a cultural practice packed with import, and transformed it into a crass commercial exercise in butchery. The author looks into every aspect of the head, including the science behind a head leaving the neck, or the mental reactions of doctoral students as they dissect cad While delightfully gory, it did a wonderful job of exploring the racial and cultural dynamics behind heads. Be they shrunken heads, skulls, or trophy heads, Larson explores how European colonists affected what was, at one point, a cultural practice packed with import, and transformed it into a crass commercial exercise in butchery. The author looks into every aspect of the head, including the science behind a head leaving the neck, or the mental reactions of doctoral students as they dissect cadavers. It's more than just rubbernecking at a gruesome topic, because Larson goes deep and wide in her analysis.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Jo

    Whilst a book about severed heads might sound a bit odd and gruesome, this was actually a great piece of social history with a very unique theme. Larson talks about such topics as decapitated heads, heads taken as trophies in war and shrunken heads. More interesting than I expected.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Lauren Stoolfire

    Gruesome. Horrifying. Fascinating cultural analysis. I might have nightmares.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Kusaimamekirai

    This is not the book I was expecting it to be. I don’t say that in a negative sense, just that rather than a light hearted look at decapitation this is a scholarly analysis of the cultural significance of collecting heads. There is a surprisingly long history where heads were collected on battlefields as trophies, displayed after executions as a warning to would be criminals, for dubious racial research into cranial capacity, and even now where for 50,000 dollars you can have a medical team s This is not the book I was expecting it to be. I don’t say that in a negative sense, just that rather than a light hearted look at decapitation this is a scholarly analysis of the cultural significance of collecting heads. There is a surprisingly long history where heads were collected on battlefields as trophies, displayed after executions as a warning to would be criminals, for dubious racial research into cranial capacity, and even now where for 50,000 dollars you can have a medical team stand at your deathbed 24/7 until the moment you die at which point they will detach and freeze your head for eternity. The author here is less concerned with the how of decapitation (although the chapter on medical students having to remove heads is best not read after a meal) but the why. Why did for example thousands of Japanese skulls find their way back to America as trophies after WWII? Why were these same skulls discarded or buried 30 or 40 years later as societal norms changed? Why do thousands still flock to museums to see shrunken heads that are more than likely not even human (the 1800’s saw a booming trade in aboriginal heads. So much so that local people more often than not used monkey heads to feed the settlers demand for them and consequently cash in). Severed heads throughout history have been signifiers of strength and manhood. They have been markers of imperialism and economic power. While cultural mores changed and the significance of heads and changed with them, the only thing that hasn’t changed is our fascination with them. From the jungles, to the French and the guillotine, to the present day where terrorists beheadings are uploaded to the internet where millions watch and sate their curiosity. This book is shocking at times but it is not written for shock value. It is a nuanced, extremely fascinating look at a practice that has fascinated for centuries and continues to do so up to the present day.

  27. 4 out of 5

    J. Lee Hazlett

    3.5 stars. I enjoyed it, and there were several parts that I read out loud to my husband, but it didn't change my life or anything like that. Definitely interesting, but not a book I feel the need to own or will likely read again. Some of the pictures may be too graphic for more squeamish readers. 3.5 stars. I enjoyed it, and there were several parts that I read out loud to my husband, but it didn't change my life or anything like that. Definitely interesting, but not a book I feel the need to own or will likely read again. Some of the pictures may be too graphic for more squeamish readers.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Zoe Nielsen

    Delightfully macabre and well researched. I appreciated the efforts made to highlight the effects of colonialism on traditional tribal practices, and the exportation of shrunken heads as souvenirs of the "exotic". Delightfully macabre and well researched. I appreciated the efforts made to highlight the effects of colonialism on traditional tribal practices, and the exportation of shrunken heads as souvenirs of the "exotic".

  29. 4 out of 5

    Cintia Aleixo

    very very informative. Interesting

  30. 5 out of 5

    Kyla

    Excellent! If you're interested in body parts and what happens to the, I strongly recommend "Severed." A bunch of skulls, a touch of humor, a heap of history - what's not to love? Excellent! If you're interested in body parts and what happens to the, I strongly recommend "Severed." A bunch of skulls, a touch of humor, a heap of history - what's not to love?

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