The Washington Post this week has a terrific series on a dark and little-known chapter of American history – one that drives the plot of my third novel, Avenging Angel.
The Post series examines the legacy of the Smithsonian Institution’s “racial brain collection” — gathered for research into long-discredited theories that anatomical differences between races could prove the superiority of White people.
It focuses on Ales Hrdlicka, a prominent anthropologist and curator of the division of physical anthropology at the Smithsonian’s U.S. National Museum, now the National Museum of Natural History. Hrdlicka encouraged doctors and others to support his racist research by sending him brains and other body parts removed upon death – or scavenged from graves or battlefields – mostly from people of color.
Hrdlicka, who died in 1943 at 74, was a member of the American Eugenics Society, dedicated to racist designs to “improve” the genetic pool – theories that would be used by the Nazis to justify the Holocaust. The Post reports how in speeches and correspondence Hrdlicka spoke openly of his belief in the superiority of White people.
His work occurred decades after the events in Avenging Angel, which is set in 1868 in the Wyoming and Montana territories at the close of Red Cloud’s War. Where my fiction intersects with the Post’s reporting lies in the origins of the grisly collection that Hrdlicka inherited and built upon.
The idea to collect body parts for scientific study began with more noble intentions. The Army Medical Museum, established during the Civil War, collected examples of battlefield injuries so that doctors might learn from them. Only later were curators encouraged to gather specimens to support a project in comparative racial anatomy. Some of the grave robbers working on their behalf took to the task with a “rascally pleasure,” as one later wrote.
Where Hrdlicka’s research centered on brains, early efforts focused on skulls. The macabre pursuit proved fascinating to the public. After Ford’s Theater was vacated following Abraham Lincoln’s assassination there, it housed the Army Medical Museum, which became one of the most popular tourist destinations in Washington. Its skull collection was later transferred to the Smithsonian’s U.S. National Museum, where Hrdlicka eventually took charge of it.
In Avenging Angel, the character of Dr. Edward Hamilton, while wholly fictional, was based on the naturalists who scoured the West for specimens that could be sent back to Washington. He, like Hrdlicka in real life, was an intellectual disciple of naturalist Samuel Morton, whose skull collection launched American work in craniology.
Morton measured the volume of the skulls he collected. His idea was the larger the cranial capacity, the larger the brain. He was convinced his work would prove the intellectual superiority of the White race. After his death in 1851 at 52, other so-called scientists carried on his work.
Hamilton serves as his proxy in Avenging Angel and is motivated to take his pursuit of fresh specimens to ghastly extremes – until his genocidal ambitions cross paths with Annabelle and Josey Angel. He pities Annabelle, cursed as she is with a woman’s smaller cranium capacity, and attempts to “mansplain” Morton’s theories to her.
Her efforts to point out the obvious flaws in Morton’s theories prove no match for the prejudice that fostered them. Yet, if you’ve read any of my books featuring Annabelle and Josey, you know the encounter doesn’t end well for the misguided doctor.
Unfortunately, as the Post reporting demonstrates, Morton’s theories held sway for decades longer in the real world. Even now, more than 150 years after the events described in Avenging Angel and 80 years after Hrdlicka’s death, the prejudices that allowed such baseless theories to flourish are not so alien in our own time as we might wish them to be.