Hidden Histories

"The Widow Who Sold Her Husband's Head" and the One Who Preserved it!

Wednesday, 6/9/10
Events in history can often be both bizarre and macabre. Such is the case of a widow of Kings County, New York, who purportedly "sold the head of her husband" to doctors, "between the period of his death and burial" in 1845. 

In those days, physicians or would-be doctors, as is widely documented, often resorted to raiding cemeteries or graveyards in order to obtain body parts for anatomical studies. The above account, published widely in U.S. newspapers throughout July of that year, accused the woman of attempting to sell her husband's corpse (specifically the head) for profit. One account emphatically declared:

"If poverty compelled the widow to the act, why did she not sell the whole body, and not substitute a piece of carpet for the head of the dear defunct?..It was with difficulty that she could be removed from the grave. And this bereaved, heart-broken widow, sold her husband's head to the M.D.!!"

Later newspaper accounts attested the "Brooklyn Widow," who had been married to her spouse for sixteeen years, had not sold her husband's head for gain, but that a "cancer was removed...under authority given by the deceased before his death...for good and justifiable motives," in order to allow "scientific examination" in the hope of finding a cure, so that others in the future would not have to suffer from the "dreadful malady." 

The famed widow of English explorer and adventurer, Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618),  'Bess' or the Lady Elizabeth Throckmorton (1565-1647), a former 'lady-in-waiting' to Queen Elizabeth I of England, appears from tradition and published accounts to have been somewhat  'partial' to her husband's head. Sir Walter was decapitated on October 29, 1618, at the scaffold, only to have his wife place his 'noggin' (head) in a red velvet bag, after his execution. Some sources attest that Lady Raleigh carried the head around with her 'in the bag' for years, while others declare she had it embalmed and placed next to her bed-side for the next twenty-nine years, or until her death in 1647, after which it was 'bequeathed' to their son, Carew Raleigh.

Carew Raleigh (1605-1666) was born in the 'Tower of London' where his illustrious father had been imprisoned. The son of the famed Englishman would later serve in Parliament, and at his death, was buried in his father's grave at St. Margaret's Church, Westminster. Some sources state that when Carew's grave was opened many years later, there were not 'two bodies' but 'two heads' within, his own and that of his father's, while others believe "its ultimate disposition has never been discovered."

Truly, 'truth is stranger than fiction,' and there are many opportunities to search out the truth in history, for the above and similar topics, here at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

(See for example:  Philadelphia (PA) Public Ledger,  July 17th, 18th & 19th, 1845; William S. Powell, "John Pory on the Death of Sir Walter Raleigh," The William & Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol.IX, No.4 (October, 1952): 532-538).