To judge by what is fittingly called the “head shot” of Frances Larson on the jacket of her book, she is a young and pretty woman with a remarkably long neck. If one were a headsman—that is, if headsmen were still plying their ancient trade, outside the desert wastes of Iraq and Syria and Saudi Arabia—one might well be licking one’s lips while thumbing the blade of one’s axe.
All the more so, perhaps, as Severed must be the definitive work on the detachment of heads from bodies in the pre-ISIS era (jihadist beheadings are only cursorily treated). But if Larson’s head, so precariously seated, is filled with horrified thoughts on the subject, you wouldn’t know it from the dull tone of clinical detachment she employs, or the muddy half-tone illustrations that save this volume from accusations of tastelessness—and the publishers from unnecessary expense.
In the days when public executions were a form of entertainment, beheadings were a rare treat outside of post-Revolutionary France, reserved for the most aristocratic of criminals. Common folk had to make do with hanging, which took longer and presumably involved more death-agony for the victim, though that was sometimes disputed. After the advent of the guillotine, science—or what went under that name—devoted some of its investigatory zeal to an unsuccessful attempt to determine how long the victim retained consciousness after the presumptively fatal blade had fallen.
Frances Larson generally disapproves of such 19th-century scientific curiosity, which also manifested itself in such pseudo-sciences as craniometry and phrenology, and of harvesting in its name, as European imperialists once did, vast numbers of skulls from their subject races. Her own curiosity is thus made safe by a cordon sanitaire of academic jargon about imperial “objectification” of such people. The reader in search of titillation must also sit through a certain amount of psychologizing about the dehumanizing processes that typically take place in war. Who knew?
There is no indication whether or not a World War II sailor named Thomas J. “Horrible Swede” Larson was any relation of the author, but he seems to have had an unusual degree of self-awareness about his principal avocation when he wrote that “a guy is pretty far gone when he begins to collect enemy skulls.” In some ways, the most memorable of the book’s illustrations is a photograph from Life (1944) of a girl with a smile and ribbon in her hair pensively regarding a “Jap” skull sent home to her as a souvenir from New Guinea by her naval boyfriend. Yet it is interesting, really, because of its rarity. Along with the contemporaneous presentation by a congressman to President Roosevelt of a letter opener fashioned from a Japanese arm bone, it created such a public outcry that there was an official crackdown on souvenir-taking—and photographing. Like the disciplining of General Patton for slapping a shell-shock victim, this seems to foreshadow our more tender-minded attitude of today, which, along with a stern disapproval of the more unabashed curiosity of our ancestors, is everywhere present in this volume.
To that attitude, and “curiosities” like the detached heads of foreigners, we owe the foundation of many of the modern, but now more tasteful, museums in which we are fortunate enough to while away so many happy hours. Larson suggests that we had better enjoy them while we can, however, since the recent return of Maori skulls harvested in New Zealand for the edification of Europeans and Americans is said to have led to the re-sacralization of museums or parts of museums in that country, making them into places not for “curiosities” but for the descend-ants of the deceased and dismembered to venerate their restored bones.
“The very definition of a museum is shifting as people are given the space to honor their dead,” Larson writes. And that, I suppose, is a development to be welcomed, although I would have found a history of that evolution of public sensitivity more interesting than the dreary catalogue of Stakhanovite skull-collecting by 19th-century empire-builders that Severed at times threatens to become.