An Empire of Skulls: The History of The Samuel George Morton Cranial Collection and Scientific Collecting Practices in 19th Century Philadelphia

Brandon Zimmerman Independent Scholar 2013-2014 Research Fellow

My project explores the formation of the Samuel George Morton Cranial Collection in early nineteenth century Philadelphia by situating the collection within Philadelphia-based cultures of display. My greater ongoing goal, via articles and a full-length book, is to shed light on the historical significance of Morton’s collection as it relates to the development of the natural sciences in Philadelphia and the United States, and the early structuring of American scientific reasoning. I further seek to provide evidence of the complex relationships that developed between Morton and his skull collectors and their place –divorced from questions of morality – in the development and furthering of American Physical Anthropology. Samuel George Morton (1799-1851), a naturalist, anatomist, physician, and ethnologist, began his skull collection, in Philadelphia, in 1830.

By the time of his death in 1851, Morton’s collection featured an unprecedented global display of the skulls of man, beast, and bird, forming a comprehensive cabinet of comparative anatomy. He was aided in his efforts by an inexhaustible legion of skull collectors, an impressive roster of some of the greatest naturalists and explorers of the early 19th- century, including John James Audubon, John Kirk Townsend, John Collins Warren, and Elisha Kent Kane. Also at his disposal were the immense resources of Philadelphia’s prestigious scientific and medical communities, including those of The Philadelphia Almshouse, The American Philosophical Society, and The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. Yet despite The Morton Collection’s scope, and its significance as one of the first comparative anatomy collections in the New World, in the years following Morton’s premature death and the end of The Civil War, the collection fell into a intense state of disrepair. Neglected both physically and scientifically, many skulls would enter the 20th century mislabeled, lost, stolen, traded, and even destroyed. But how could such a then scientifically important, expensive, and globally amassed collection end up in such disarray?

My first stop in seeking answers to these questions was at the Academy of Natural Sciences. The institution purchased Morton’s Collection in 1853, and was its steward until 1966, at which point, divesting themselves of all anthropological and ethnographic objects, gave the collection to the museum of the University of Pennsylvania. While the Academy no longer holds Morton’s physical collection, their library and archives still maintain important documents that helped me fill the gaps on the reasoning behind this “purge” of anthropological materials. I also examined countless early letters and catalogues on the collecting of objects of natural history, which were sent to Morton at a time when he held the coveted position of Corresponding Secretary of the Academy. These letters were monumental in the tracing of the complex relationships between many of his collectors, their additional collecting practices (i.e. – Paleontology, Ornithology, etc.) and the role the Academy played in the acquisition of specimens, scientific knowledge, and skulls.

Next I visited the American Philosophical Society and the Library Company of Philadelphia. Combined, these two institutions hold a vast majority of the correspondence between Morton and his skull collectors. I was able to read letters written to Morton from Egypt, England, France, and the western and southern United States, sent by both well known and obscure collectors, many who would have eventual ties to Philadelphia scientific institutions. These letters were especially helpful in establishing that Morton’s followers were not made exclusively of “ghoulish racists,” as many current notions dictate, but rather comprised high-ranking members of the medical and military professions, many with numerous ties to Philadelphia, who were attempting to further a new American science. Also included in this material are various inventories and shipping manifests. These were of great interest to me as my work has a particular focus on Morton’s animal skulls. The APS and LCP documents confirmed the fact that Morton’s animal skulls were procured and shipped simultaneously with those of humans, an often-overlooked concept when it comes to scholarly works on Morton.

I then visited the Wagner Free Institute of Science to gain insight into nineteenth century practices of natural history display. The Wagner is an invaluable resource for this. Wagner’s original journals, located in the museum’s archives, established a timeline of his original collecting interests, local and international trades and purchase of specimens, and the identities of certain European dealers, including many famous names such as the Blaschkas, Tramond of Paris, and Madame Tussauds. This information added much-desired provenance to many of his museum specimens, and much to my surprise uncovered a link between Morton, the Academy, the Wagner, and several European fossil dealers.

My final stop was The University of Pennsylvania, both the museum’s Physical Anthropology collection, which now holds the remaining skulls of the Morton Collection, as well as the university’s rare book department. UPENN’s library contains many works pertaining to Morton, including a rare copy of his doctoral thesis, and an edition of his landmark work Crania Americana, which was a fascinating piece of material culture, given that someone has defaced many of the plates, having drawn noses, eyes, and even horse heads over several of the lithographs in a poor attempt to fit the depicted skulls, many of which were artificially deformed, inside those of animals. The research fellowship from PACHS was invaluable in advancing my project to a stage where I can now draft articles and sections of a book dealing with the Samuel George Morton Cranial Collection. My sincere thanks to the PACHS staff, and all the curators, collections managers, librarians, archivists, and reading room staff members, who assisted me with my countless inquiries during my time in their collections.

Brandon Zimmerman