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Misfortunes with Severed Heads: Richard Owen and Lancaster Jail April 17, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

Beachcombing regrets that he cannot provide the primary source for the following anecdote from Richard Owen’s early life. Anyone lucky enough to have instant access to mid nineteenth-century periodicals will find it in Hood’s Magazine and Comic Miscellany vol 3 (1845), 294-303. Beach is taking this paraphrase from the excellent Dinosaur Hunters by Deborah Cadbury, a book to slaver over.

Richard Owen was, for those who don’t know, the rather insufferable scientist who, by his own estimation, ‘brightened’ mid and late nineteenth century England. As a young man he had become apprenticed to a surgeon in the north and after some traumatic weeks of autopsies and operations Owen was bitten by the anatomy bug: something which led to an extraordinary incident involving an African’s head.

By chance, a black patient had died in the gaol hospital [in Lancaster] and Owen assisted at the post mortem. Inspired by and article had he had read on ‘The Varieties of the Human Race’, he slipped some silver to the old turnkey. ‘I told him I should have to call again that evening to look a little further into the matter before the coffin was finally screwed down.’ It was snowing that night, when he returned to the gaol. He made his way up the same spiral stairway that had so terrified him just a few weeks previously, entered the corpse room and took the head of the dead man. Carefully concealing the head in a brown paper bag under his cloak, he went back down, past the turnkey. His thoughts, he said later, were only on craniological speculations of ‘facial angles’, ‘prognathic jaws’ and the ‘peculiar whiteness of osseous tissue’. But his thoughts were not on such lofty matters for long. As he hurried down the hill, he slipped on the ice and lost his balance. The black head was catapulted out of the bag and went bounding off down the slippery hill, pursued by Owen in his great, flapping, dark cloak and leaving splashes of red on the white pavement slabs. It bounced against the door of a cottage, which flew open, and he heard unearthly shrieks from inside. Owen rushed inside, ‘saw the whisk of a garment of a female’ vanishing through the door, ‘and the ghastly head at my feet with its white protruding eyeballs.’ He grabbed it and ran home. The next day the whole town was talking of the phantom, which was widely rumoured to be the ghost of a Captain Tasker and his Negro slave, perhaps even the Devil himself. For any doubters, a drop of blood now dry and dark by the door to the cottage, provided proof of their nocturnal visit.

Beachcombing would be grateful for any other good severed head stories and he would be very grateful for the scans from Hood’s Miscellany which he promises to type up for the world: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


18 April 2012: Invisible writes with this calling into question the anecdote and its identification with Owen: I’m sorry to say that Ms. Cadbury seems to have been misled. I pulled up the reference from >shudder< Google Books and it says nothing whatever about Richard Owen, but is part of a series of comic vignettes written as fiction, apparently to mock popular superstitions about ghosts, goblins, haunted houses, etc. I’ve been unable to find out anything about the author as yet.  I tried to attach a PDF of the relevant passage which is “Recollections and Reflections of Gideon Shaddoe Esq IX pp. 294-303. Signed by “Silas Seer” but it was taking hours to load. Perhaps you can pull the plain text from the link above so you don’t have to transcribe.  It’s a lovely tale to attribute to Richard Owen, but I don’t think it will hold up. And given Owen’s propensity to appropriate other scientists’ research, it’s ironic that his name somehow should have become attached to this fiction. Then later the same day. Here’s a bit more about Hood’s Magazine and Comic Miscellany which makes it’ pretty clear that the Gideon Shaddoe series was written by Hood himself. He apparently wrote many satires on events of the day so it IS possible that Richard Owen was supposed to be recognized as the anatomist mentioned in the piece. I just haven’t found the clef to this comic roman if that’s what it is.  Owen was such a prominent figure; he would have been ideal topical material Hood’s Magazine and Comic Miscellany was a monthly journal originally published by Thomas Hood. A total of 61 issues were published from January 1844 to June 1849. Hood made most of the original material for it. After his death in 1845, Charles Rowcroft became the editor. The magazine was not particularly successful, partly due to the refusal to take on a publisher. Hood wrote humorously on many contemporary issues. One of the most important issues in his time was grave robbing and selling of corpses to anatomists–another reason Owen might have been a target.  Thackeray and Dickens mention Owen by name in The Newcomes and Our Mutual Friend respectively, briefly and in a mildly satirical vein. Richard Altick, in The Presence of the Present: Topics of the Day in the Victorian Novel has this to say about Thomas Hood. ‘With the exception of numerous treatments of public issues of the day in the form of ‘addresses’ to their respective proponents, Hood’s kind of topicalities did not relate primarily to news events. Instead, they took the form of witty improvisations on the trivia of everyday life, ‘manners’ as we would call them. From the perspective of a century and a half, they are closer to the weekly contents of Punch than to Byronic comedy. Buried in them are uncountable ‘in-jokes’ from which posterity is excluded. Only Hood’s contemporaries would have recognized them and welcomed their humor for whatever it was worth.’ Again, I suppose it is possible that Owen was the person alluded to in the severed head incident. But if he was, I’d just like to know how Ms. Cadbury deduced his identity. I spent the morning photographing the 20 B-25 bombers here for the Doolittle Raider 70th (and final) reunion and my computer is locked up loading them to my FB page. Otherwise I might have more answers for you!  I still think, given the context of the Gideon Shaddoe series, which positions itself as a satire on the superstitions of the ignorant lower classes, that it’s reaching (without further proof) to assume that Owen was the target of that satire.’ Thanks Invisible!