Nat Turner’s Skull and My Student’s Purse of Skin

Daina Ramey Berry in The New York Times:

NateThis month, Richard Hatcher, a former mayor of Gary, Ind., delivered what researchers suspect is the skull of Nat Turner, the rebel slave, to Turner’s descendants. The skull had been kept as a relic, sold and probably handed down through generations, for nearly 185 years. If DNA tests confirm that the skull is genuine, then Turner’s family will have the opportunity to lay their famous relative to rest. Many were shocked when National Geographic reported the existence of the skull, the same day that “The Birth of a Nation,” a new movie about Nat Turner, was released. But the traffic and trade in human remains — from the fingers, toes and sexual organs of executed enslaved people, to the hair and nails of the victims of the Holocaust — are part of our history. Some Americans were not surprised at all by the news; they might even have some “family heirlooms” of their own hidden in their homes, waiting to be shared with their children.

Turner was hanged in southeast Virginia on Nov. 11, 1831, for leading a rebellion of slaves that left some 55 white people dead. Those who came to witness his death then decapitated and skinned him. They bragged about it for decades. One participant, William Mallory, also known as Buck, gloated so much about having skinned Turner that it was listed in his own obituary. Turner’s skull was not the only one in circulation. Nineteenth-century newspapers occasionally advertised that a decapitated head had been discovered. Sometimes they were found on trains, left on the side of the road, or impaled on stakes following executions. Public hangings — of people of all races — were a routine part of early American life. Vigilantes often took trophies, proof, in their mind, that “justice” had been served. They made purses of skin and took the grease from the flesh, and used it as oil. These souvenirs were then passed down through generations.

More here.