Uncomfortable History: Modern Skull Collecting

By Jeremiah J. Garsha (@jjgarsha)

It is comforting to think of the collecting of human heads as existing in the distant past. When visitors to the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford marvel at the shrunken heads display, they do so under a combination of alterity and distancing. The process of shrinking the heads renders them distinguishable from life-sized heads, as does their distant geographic origins as creations by Amazonian ‘tribes’ bought by Victorians as souvenirs. Visitors to art museums also encounter human heads. Dubbed memento mori, the appearance of skulls in early modern European works of art was a leitmotiv reflecting mortality. Viewers of these paintings can relegate even this artistic practice as existing in a removed history, like the objects themselves.

This made it all the more shocking to readers of the 22 May 1944 issue of LIFE magazine, when they encountered a full page black and white ‘Picture of the Week’of a recently collected skull. Framed like a painting with the skull a memento mori, the image showed Natalie Nickerson, a 20-year-old female ‘war worker’. Pen in her right hand as she ‘writes a thank you letter to her Navy boyfriend for the Jap skull’, her own head resting on her left hand, she stares pensively at the skull.[1] The writing on the skull is reminiscent of scientific scribbling that could have placed this skull in a distant phrenology exhibit. Her ‘big, handsome Navy lieutenant’ boyfriend had reportedly sent her the skull. According to the photo’s caption, the writing on the skull was the signatures of this boyfriend and 13 of his fellow soldiers: ‘This a good Jap- a dead one picked up on the New Guinea beach’. The caption on the photo tells the reader that ‘Natalie, surprised at the gift, named it Tojo’ after the Japanese wartime Prime Minister Hideki Tojo.

Much can and has been written about this image. For Niall Ferguson, the image fit with his War of the World thesis that ethnic conflict had broken down ‘social relations [under] the dissemination of theories of racial difference’ which had forced the United States, in their ‘war against totalitarianism […] to adopt another of totalitarianism’s defining characteristics: they had dehumanized the enemy in order more easily to annihilate him’.[2] In a 2014 reflection piece on this photo in Time-LIFE Magazine, Ben Cosgrove cited Ferguson, then postulated ideas of atrocities in the Pacific as happening on both sides through his depiction of the Rape of Nanking, before extending the photo to encapsulating the then-recent filmed decapitation of Steven Sotloff by ISIS forces, posted online.[3]

For LIFE readers in 1944, responses were more measured. The ending of the photo caption reads: ‘The armed forces disapprove strongly of this sort of thing’, however due to this sentence’s placement it is unclear if the armed forces are against the collecting of heads generally, or rather just the naming of the skull after Tojo. Subsequent published letters to the editor from LIFE readers show emotionally charged outrage over encountering a photo that was ‘revolting and horrible’.[4] One reader humorously wrote ‘The head of the Navy lieutenant mentioned is without a doubt as empty as the skull pictured on the desk’.[5] Even in the midst of the Americans landing at Normandy that very week and wartime propaganda at its apex, the publication of these letters to the editor show an American mindset that also placed acts of head collecting as existing, in its most modern incarnation, within fin de siècle colonial practices. In a memo dated the day after these letters to the editors were published in LIFE, Major General Myron C. Cramer called the collecting of the skull ‘an atrocious and brutal policy […] repugnant to the sensibilities of all civilized peoples’.[6] The binaries of ‘civilised’ and its other, ‘savage’, frame the debate back in colonial contexts, with a soldier collecting a head from a battlefield, defleshing it and posting it home. That it was then seized upon by LIFE magazine, which has been called the American public’s ‘major source of information on the war’ shows that skull collecting cannot be historically and temporally removed.[7]  A well-composed rejoinder to the LIFE photo was published in the next issue by one of its readers: ‘Let us reverse the situation and imagine that one of the most prominent magazines in Tokyo published the picture of a young Japanese girl in such a pose, gazing at the skull of one of our sons who died for his country- the storm of protest at such savagery would sweep America and it would most certainly be held up to us as an example of the hopeless depravity of Japanese youth’.[8] It is uncomfortable to think of skull collecting having a recent past and being a practice of ‘civilised’ nations. But perhaps we need to be made uncomfortable more often.



[1] Life, 22 May 1944, 34-35

[2] Niall Ferguson, The War of the World: History’s Age of Hatred(London: Penguin Books, 2007), xli; 547

[3] Ben Cosgrove, ‘Thank you, Sweetheart, for the “Jap Skull’: Portrait of a Grisly WWII Memento’, in Time-LIFE Magazine, 22 Sept. 2014. Accessed 15 Jan. 2019. http://time.com/3880997/young-woman-with-jap-skull-portrait-of-a-grisly-wwii-memento/

[4] LIFE, 12 June 1944, 6

[5] Ibid.

[6] Quoted in James J. Weingartner, ‘Trophies of War: U.S. Troops and the Mutilation of Japanese War Dead, 1941-1945’, in The Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 61, No. 1 (Feb., 1992), 59.

[7] Weingartner, ‘Trophies’, 57

[8] LIFE, 12 June 1944, 6; emphasis added.


Image:  sketch by Italian Explorer Elio Modigliani, depicting a human trophy (skull) belonging to a Chief in the Indonesian island of Nias (1886). Made available via a Wikimedia Commons licence.

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