Severed Frances Larson

Severed by Frances Larson

Severed by Frances LarsonSevered by Frances Larson
Published by Liveright on November 17th 2014
Source: Publisher
Pages: 284
Buy from IndieBound


Though its title sounds relentlessly gruesome, Severed is less a look at severed heads themselves and more an investigation into the human fascination surrounding them. Anthropologist Frances Larson looks at different ways humans have approached heads throughout history, including the gathering of trophy skulls during World War II, the pseudoscience of phrenology, and dissection for modern medicine.

Early in the book, Larson discusses the collection of Shuar shrunken heads at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, which have long been a constant source of attention. The heads, once used by the Amazonian tribe in rare religious ceremonies before being discarded, quickly gained value when the Shuar realized Westerners were willing to buy them for a high price. Soon, the Shaur were making the heads specifically to sell and the market was flooded with fakes made from animal skulls, including some in the Pitt Rivers collection itself.

“People think that large, raucous crowds at executions belong to a distant era in our past, and so they do, but the more I have read about the history of executions, the more I think that the gradual concealment of executions from the public eye over the last two hundred years—and even, to some extent, the demise of torture as a method of punishment—has had less to do with popular opinion and more to do with the preoccupations of polite society.”

The idea of being fascinated by severed heads while ignoring the barbarism of viewing decapitation itself crossed over into the public executions of the French Revolution and even modern terrorism. Though her text was written before the recent rise of viral beheadings by ISIS, Larson touches on the issues of morality that circle when we have access to executions at our fingertips. These videos quickly become and remain leading search terms and top downloads, contributing to Larson’s theory on “polite society”.

While the topic itself may make readers squirm, the actual content of Frances Larson’s book is quite contained and endlessly interesting. More than just a look at decapitation, Severed is a history of human minds, bodies, thoughts and fears.

  • File this one under fascinating eccentricities! Was there any mention of the famous NY Post headline “Headless body in topless bar”? I guess that’s sort of the opposite of the premise of the book…given absence of the actual head!

  • I’ve often wondered about the mindset that allowed for public executions to be entertainment but I guess you’re right that it really isn’t all that different now it’s just more private. This sounds like an interesting book! While I haven’t read a book about severed heads I’ve read several death related books (Stiff by Mary Roach, American Afterlife by Kate Sweeney) and drove my family crazy by talking about them! I’ll have to look for this one!

  • Oh my goodness, this sounds so fascinating!

  • This sounds really intriguing, will have to keep a lookout for this book! (Hmm, my friend who studied French Revolution history might be interested in this, hehehe)

    • There’s a decent section on the French Revolution and the author makes some interesting connections between that time period and others.

  • Jennine G.

    It makes me wonder how the author’s mind works that she would think up this topic to write a book on! Imagine that thought process! Lol. But these off the wall topics usually make good books!

  • Oh, well. Another one on the list. Sounds so interesing!

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  • Sounds really interesting. Far more interesting than I would have thought. And the sub title is priceless.

    • I’m sure some historians could make this super boring, but coming at it from an anthropological side was perfect.

  • Lindsey Stefan

    At first glance, it seems like there wouldn’t be enough to write a whole book about. But it sounds like Larson covers a lot of interesting topics!

  • Words for Worms

    Oh my gosh, this sounds so cool!

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  • Although this does sound a bit gruesome, I love microhistories on surprising topics, so I’d definitely give this a try :)

    • Some microhistories don’t seem to make sense to me, but this one totally caught my attention and really worked.

  • Ti Reed

    Sounds fascinating and that title always gets my attention!

  • I will be reading this, and possibly buying it for my mom for Christmas. That’s all!

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