Signs of the Times - Trophy Skulls
March 2002
2002 Virginia Festival of the Book: Trophy Skulls
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Growing up in Texas, my idea of a trophy skull was the bones of a cow or a sheep or a rattlesnake which would turn up from a hike in the hill country.

Invariably, these bones had been around for some time and were typically bleached from the sun. The exception was strolling into a broken down shack on the bayou once where I found the recent remains of a cow, hide semi-detached.

Out west, animal skulls acquire artistic value, as exemplified by David Schaefer's bronze sculpture of a bighorn sheep skull above.

So it was with some interest that I learned, upon attending Jan Burke's and Paul Sledzik's talk on "Revealing the Evidence: Forensics in Fiction" (at the 2002 Virginia Festival of the Book), that the term "trophy skulls" also refers to souvenirs of human skulls collected by soldiers in various wars. And that forensic scientists must sometimes determine whether a human skull is, in fact, a trophy skull when called upon to assist with a murder investigation.

Trophy Skull of a Male Vietnamese (front) - on display at the 2002 Virginia Festival of the Book

Jan Burke is the author of eight novels, including Flight and the Edgar Award-winning Bones.

Paul Sledzik is a forensic anthropologist at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, D.C.

National Museum of Health and Medicine: NW corner of Washington DC. 495 beltway west to exit 31B Georgia Ave. south 2.5 miles. Look for black wrought-iron fence on right. Through Walter Reed Army Medical Center gate at Elder St. Show picture ID. Make immediate right onto service road past loading docks, road makes sharp right turn stop sign, go 500 feet. U-shaped driveway on right. Bldg. 54 (facing Dahlia). Park in driveway. Visitors only have to show picture ID on weekends and evenings and parking pass is free.

As commander of the mid-Atlantic Disaster Mortuary Team, he assisted in identifying disaster victims. He also participated in the work at the Pennsylvania crash of September 11th.

Paul Sledzik's scientific research examines skeletal health and human identification and it is this expertise which he brought to the discussion of forensics in fiction. Recently, Jan Burke and Paul Sledzik teamed up to write a short story, "The Haunting of Carrick Hallow", which can be found in "Crime Through Time" (Edited by Sharan Newman, Berkley Prime Crime Time: New York, 2000).

Trophy Skull of a Male Vietnamese (back) - on display at the 2002 Virginia Festival of the Book

To learn more about trophy skulls, I turned to the web - which suggests that the practice of collecting and displaying human skulls dates back centuries:

Before Vietnam, there was Guadalcanal in World War II.

"We boiled the flesh off enemy skulls"

"Japanese skulls were much-envied trophies among U.S. Marines in the Pacific theater during World War II. The practice of collecting them apparently began after the bloody conflict on Guadalcanal, when the troops set up the skulls as ornaments or totems atop poles as a type of warning.

Propaganda and dehumanization - The charred, decapitated head of a Japanese soldier placed as a war trophy on a knocked-out tank by U.S. troops on Guadalcanal from Life.[1943, Life Magazine]

The Marines boiled the skulls and then used lye to remove any residual flesh so they would be suitable as souvenirs. U.S. sailors cleaned their trophy skulls by putting them in nets and dragging them behind their vessels. Winfield Townley Scott wrote a wartime poem, 'The U.S. Sailor with the Japanese Skull" that detailed the entire technique of preserving the headskull as a souvenir.

Propaganda and dehumanization - The charred, decapitated head of a Japanese soldier placed as a war trophy on a knocked-out tank by U.S. troops on Guadalcanal from Life.[1943, Life Magazine]

In 1943 Life magazine published the picture of a U.S. sailor's girlfriend contemplating a Japanese skull sent to her as a gift - with a note written on the top of the skull. Referring to this practice, Edward L. Jones, a U.S. war correspondent in the Pacific wrote in the February 1946 Atlantic Magazine, "We boiled the flesh off enemy skulls to make table ornaments for sweethearts, or carved their bones into letter-openers."

On occasion, these "Japanese trophy skulls" have confused police when they have turned up during murder investigations. It has been reported that when the remains of Japanese soldiers were repatriated from the Mariana Islands in 1984, sixty percent were missing their skulls."

Source: Kenneth V. Iserson, M.D., Death to Dust: What happens to Dead Bodies?, Galen Press, Ltd. Tucson, AZ. 1994. p.382.

Before World War II, there was Chele Kula.

Chele Kula 1809

And then, there is the never-ending discussion about the origin of human skulls - which may or may not exist - on the campus of Yale University.

In a report "American Journal" aired earlier this year, an Apache tribal leader discussed claims that George Bush's father dug up Geronimo's skull (at Fort Sill, OK) and took it back to Yale. He even showed us a purported photo of the skull inside the secret society's "Tomb" on the Yale campus.

The S&B Society has denied having Geronimo's skull, but -- according to the Apache gentleman -- admitted possessing the skull of an Indian child.

A cook who works at the S&B facility confirmed to us that a number of human skulls can be found within.

To identify those human remains, you might ask former - President George Bush; Texas Gov. George Bush, Jr; Senators Kerry or Chafee; or Bill Buckley and his writer son Chris. All are S&B members.

Yours in search of true legends:

Mark Sauter (August 8, 1996)
Investigative Correspondent
"Inside Edition"

If you have knowledge of or experience with trophy skulls or have interesting stories deriving from your participation in the 2002 Virginia Festival of the Book, please send them to where the most representative comments will be placed on my web site with full attribution.

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