The four Modocs dangling from the gallows at Fort Klamath, Oregon, on October 3, 1873, had barely been cut down when the ghoulish souvenir-taking started. Soldiers auctioned off a hank of hair shorn from the head of Modoc leader Kientpoos (a.k.a. Captain Jack) to fit the noose around his neck, and they sold unraveled gallows rope for $5 a strand. Thomas Cabaniss, a physician from nearby Yreka, California, who had worked for the army during the Modoc War, claimed two halters. Other spectators snatched pieces and parts from the gallows. Meanwhile, in a nearby tent, military medical officer Henry McElderry was taking the army’s share of hanging-day mementoes.
A surgeon practiced in battlefield amputation, McElderry severed the four heads, then had soldiers return the decapitated corpses to their coffins and drop them into graves close to the guardhouse. He still had further work to do.
A little more than three weeks later, McElderry shipped a barrel labeled “specimens of natural history”—the four skinned, defleshed, and preserved heads—to the Army Medical Museum in Washington, D.C. The shipment was accompanied by a letter that identified “the heads of four Modoc Indians, Capt. Jack, Schonchis [Schonchin John], Boston Charley and Black Jim.” Upon arrival, the barrel was unpacked, and each skull was assigned a number. Kientpoos became 1018, Schonchin John 1019, Boston Charley 1020, and Black Jim 1021.
As atrocious as this act was, McElderry didn’t invent it. He was following a long-standing order.
In 1868, George Otis Alexander, then assistant surgeon general of the United States Army, circulated an order among military physicians requiring them to help the Army Medical Museum’s effort to build its collection of Native crania. The museum had already amassed 143 skulls and wanted to add more.
“The chief purpose … in forming this collection,” Alexander explained, “is to aid in the progress of anthropological science by obtaining measurements of a large number of skulls of aboriginal races of North America.”
The official purpose for collecting Indian skulls was comparative study of racial differences. George A. Otis, MD, of the Army Medical Museum, after studying the “osteological peculiarities” of the skulls collected up to 1870, announced that America’s Native peoples “must be assigned a lower position in the human scale than has been believed heretofore.” Lewis Henry Morgan, a pioneering physical anthropologist who had sought unsuccessfully to be appointed Indian Affairs commissioner, wrote that Native Americans “have the skulls and brains of barbarians, and must grow toward civilization.” Thus did the crude, pseudo-Darwinist science of the time support herding Natives on to reservations to learn English and farming.
Army doctors in Indian country could augment the collection by gathering skulls and forwarding them to Washington and the Army Medical Museum. Accurate statistical analysis required as many specimens as possible: “… it is chiefly desired to procure sufficiently large series of adult crania of the principal Indian tribes to furnish accurate average estimates. Medical officers will enhance the value of their contributions by transmitting with the specimens the fullest attainable memoranda, specifying the locality where the skulls were derived, the presumed age and sex….”
The army’s medical officers responded enthusiastically, swelling the collection to more than 1,000 skulls by the time of the Fort Klamath hangings. Some remains came from ancient burial sites, such as the mounds of the eastern United States, others from tribal cemeteries captured during military operations. Epidemics were a boon for the collectors, since, besides felling Indians in droves, they tore apart Native societies and made it difficult for survivors to protect their dead against white grave robbers. And then there were the many battles and executions.
Military medical officers enjoyed easy access to all these opportunities. Plus, they had the surgical skills to dissect away soft tissues and prepare heads for boiling in water or steeping in quicklime to leave only the bare bone the Army Medical Museum wanted.
The Army Medical Museum collection had grown to 2,206 skulls by 1898, when it was turned over to the Smithsonian Institution. The collection had fallen into disuse as academic anthropologists adopted different modes of study, and the museum no longer wanted to maintain it. Almost a century later, the skulls became part of the more than 6,000 individual human remains offered for repatriation by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and the National Museum of Natural History through federal legislation passed in the 1980s and 1990s. The Modoc skulls were among the remains repatriated.
Despite the federal government’s latter-day efforts to make this wrong right, the Army Medical Museum’s collection marks the United States as the only national government ever to officially use warfare to collect human skulls.
For further reading:
Bieder, Robert E. A Brief Historical Survey of the Expropriation of American Indian Remains. Boulder, Colorado: Native American Rights Fund, 1990. Available online.
James, Cheewa. Modoc: The Tribe That Wouldn’t Die. Happy Camp, California: Naturegraph Publishers, 2008.
Juzda, Elise. “Skulls, Science, and the Spoils of War: Craniological Studies at the United States Army Medical Museum, 1868–1900.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, vol. 40 (2009), pp. 156–167.
Smithsonian Institution. Annual Report of the Repatriation Activities of the Smithsonian Institution 2014.