The Skeleton Trade

Although the human skeleton was well known as a symbol of mortality before 1500, the articulated skeleton does not seem to have come into its own as an object –scientific and artistic as well as symbolic – until the time of Vesalius.  Curiously ubiquitous, since everyone has one, but yet largely invisible, anatomists revealed the skeleton to view.  The well-known illustrations of VesaliusVesalius 1543 Wellcome were plagiarized over and over for two centuries after their publication in 1543.

Vesalius was the first, but not the last, anatomist to give detailed instructions on how to make a skeleton, for although it was a natural object, it was also a crafted object whose construction entailed a lot of work. The human body became an object in motion as it traveled from the scaffold to the dissection table to the grisly cauldron where the bones were boiled to remove their flesh.  While artists and anatomists employed skeletons for instruction, little evidence of their collection appears before the mid-seventeenth century, when they begin to appear in cabinets and collections.  Both the Royal Society and the Paris Academy of Sciences owned several.  At the Paris Academy, André Colson, described as an “ébeniste” or furniture maker, was charged with the making and maintenance of the skeleton room, while the physician Nehemiah Grew, who catalogued the Royal Society’s collections in 1681, may also have made its skeletons.  By the end of the seventeenth century, a vigorous skeleton trade flourished across Europe, and they often appear in auction catalogues and newspaper advertisements alongside books, works of art, and scientific instruments.  At the same time, relics, both old and new, retained their potency in both Catholic and Protestant countries.

After Vesalius, detailed instructions for making a skeleton appeared in many anatomical texts and manuals as part of the education of a physician or surgeons; in the eighteenth century, William Hunter took it for granted that each of his students would need to construct a skeleton for his own use and in addition procure “several skulls.”  While such a process would seem to confer anonymity to the finished skeleton, provenance and even identity often clung to the bones along with religious resonances.  Most skeletons were of executed criminals, some of them widely known.  The skeleton of the “Thief-taker General” Jonathan Wild, executed in 1725, hung until recently in the gallery of the College of Surgeons in London, and Hogarth’s famous 1751 “Fourth Stage of Cruelty”william_hogarth_-_the_fourth_stage_of_cruelty-_the_reward_of_cruelty_-_google_art_project shows the skeletons of other malefactors on display in niches at Surgeons’ Hall while a cauldron awaits the bones of Tom Nero, who is being dissected by the surgeons after his conviction for murder.

Widespread demand and changing scientific contexts expanded the market for skeletons (as well as skulls) beyond Europe to encompass much of the known world by the mid-eighteenth century.  The prodigious collector Hans Sloane received skulls and bones from contacts throughout the world, including native bones that his Jamaican contacts apparently stumbled across in caves.  Sloane’s meticulous catalogues of his collections allow one to trace the provenance of many of his human specimens though other collectors and agents.  Such catalogues, along with account books, advertisements, and illustrations,  reveal this worldwide commerce in skeletons alongside a continued trade in skeletal relics.  Traveling across time and place, skeletons embodied beauty and deformity, crime and punishment, sin and sanctity, science and colonial power, often simultaneously.

The Witches

This review appears in The Public Historian, vol. 38, no. 2 (May 2016), pp. 98-99

The Witches: Salem 1692 by Stacy Schiff. New York, Boston and London: Little, Brown and Company, 2015. ix + 496 pp.; figures, notes, bibliography, index; clothbound, $32.00; paperbound, $30.00; eBook, $14.99.

download            Like many academic historians, I have a complicated relationship with works of popular history. When I was in high school I found the works of Barbara Tuchman inspiring; now, I’m afraid to reread them because they would probably make me cringe. Yet I envy the audiences that such historians attract, and the possibility of communicating the past to a broader public.

Stacy Schiff has been a particularly prolific and successful practitioner of popular historical biography, with subjects ranging from Véra Nabokov to Cleopatra. When I heard she had written a book about the Salem witch trials, I suppressed a groan—hasn’t that been done?—but after reading Jane Kamensky’s scathing review in the New York Times Book Review last fall, I felt I had to read it. There aren’t all that many popular books on my chosen era of the late seventeenth century that I could justify ignoring one.

Schiff is a skilled and descriptive writer, bringing the “crow-black” nights of the edge of wilderness, the spring mud, the bone-cracking winter cold, and the dreary, dim interiors to vivid life. Yet she also emphasizes the strangeness of 1692 New England to modern eyes. Puritanism is both mysterious and repellent; early modern knowledge of science is laughable, its medicine bizarre. Although New England Puritans, with their love of litigation, held a “hypertrophied faith in reason,” they were nonetheless utterly superstitious, with stout beliefs in omens and a healthy respect for the spirits that swirled about them (103). To them, very little happened by chance.

Schiff bases her work on prodigious research in both primary and secondary sources, as well as interviews and e-mails with well-known academic historians of early America. Her account is mostly chronological, beginning with the first accusations in early 1692 and ending with the last trials in the fall of the same year.. In between, she strings together a coherent story from disparate narratives and interpretations. She relies particularly on biographical sketches of major players: the weak Samuel Parris, from whose house the first accusations came; rigid William Stoughton, a political survivor who presided over the trials; the hot-tempered George Burroughs, accused of being the witches’ ringleader; and the slippery and ambitious Mathers—Increase, the father, and his son Cotton—who exploited the crisis for their own ends. Striking vignettes emerge: the rumbling carts that brought the accused to be hung; the sound of Giles Corey’s groans as he was “pressed” to death; the shrieks and gyrations of the accusing girls.

Yet it comes across as surprisingly flat. We are not allowed to identify with these people. Critical elements of context are missing. By 1692—seventy-two  years after the Pilgrims set foot on Plymouth Rock, and sixty-two years after John Winthrop sailed into Massachusetts Bay—Puritans (who would not have called themselves that) were not the only religious sect in New England. Anglicans, Baptists, and Quakers pop up in Schiff’s tale, but she never tells the reader who these people were or what they were doing there. In addition, the New Englanders of 1692 stood chronologically between the Puritanism of John Winthrop and the Methodist-inspired, emotion-soaked Great Awakening of the 1740s. Indeed, we can see Cotton Mather as straddling this divide, rather than as the deluded egomaniac of Schiff’s telling. What did it mean to be a “conservative” or “orthodox” Puritan in 1692?  We never find out. Similarly, early modern medical practice may sound weird and disgusting to Schiff, but it followed its own logic and was not simply a morass of superstition. She seems unwilling to acknowledge the legitimacy of a belief system she does not understand, that is not somehow “rational.”  Her discomfort emerges here and there in jolting anachronisms: the Wizard of Oz comes up several times, as does Hogwarts, and she refers to Salem as “the Lourdes of New England” (323).  Cotton Mather, she says, viewed Indians and Quakers as a “colluding axis of evil” (266).

If Schiff may be said to have a hero, it is Thomas Brattle, who criticized the way the Salem trials had been run (in October 1692, when they were over). He is Schiff’s model of a future-looking, rational man. But Brattle, like his mentor, the English chemist Robert Boyle, nonetheless believed in the existence of witches and demons, a fact that Schiff glosses over. And Cotton Mather was probably one of the few men in New England who could understand Brattle’s mathematical ideas; both were fellows of the Royal Society. Yet Schiff’s enmity against Mather is such that even his later advocacy of smallpox inoculation is viewed as an extension of his belief in demons. The other colonial fellow of note was John Winthrop Jr., son of the founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who practiced alchemy, as did Boyle.

We will never know exactly why Salem erupted in witchcraft accusations in 1692, resulting in the execution of twenty people, mostly women. Scholars have offered many potential explanations, and it’s likely that many of those hold at least some truth. Schiff tells a good story, but at the end we are no closer to understanding Salem’s inhabitants than we were at the beginning. As historians, we should aim higher.