Review: ‘The Embalmed Head of Oliver Cromwell’

Reading Time: 8 minutes
c. Curious Publications
c. Curious Publications

(Shiri received a free copy of The Embalmed Head of Oliver Cromwell: A Memoir by Marc Hartzman in exchange for an honest review)

Random Historical Factoid (courtesy of Marc Hartzman): Today marks Oliver Cromwell’s 358th Deathiversary. Which, apparently, was only the beginning of his story…

The Bio

According to ABCnews.com, Marc Hartzman is “one of America’s leading connoisseurs of the bizarre.” He is the author of five books: American Sideshow: An Encyclopedia of History’s Most Wondrous and Curi­ously Strange Performers (Tarcher/Penguin); The Embalmed Head of Oliver Cromwell: A Memoir (Curious Publications); God Made Me Do It: True Stories of the Worst Advice the Lord Has Ever Given His Followers (Sourcebooks); Found on eBay: 101 Genuinely Bizarre Items From the World’s Online Yard Sale (Universe/Rizzoli); and The Anti-So­cial Network Journal: A Private Place For All the Thoughts, Ideas and Plans You Don’t Want To Share (Knock Knock). In addition, Hartzman has been a contributor to the Weird News sections of AOL and The Huffington Post, has written for Bizarre magazine, and occasionally photographs oddities in stereoview. He’s discussed oddities on CNN, MSNBC, and the Travel Channel’s Mysteries at the Museum. He maintains a career as an award-winning Executive Creative Di­rector at a New York advertising agency and lives in New Rochelle, NY.

The Interview

GeekMom: Give us the elevator pitch for The Embalmed Head of Oliver Cromwell: A Memoir.

Marc HartzmanOliver Cromwell led the charge to behead King Charles I in 1649, but little did he know that twelve years later, his embalmed body would be exhumed and beheaded, and the head would roll through history for the next 300 years. The Embalmed Head of Oliver Cromwell: A Memoir covers the true story of that journey from 1661-1960—all told from the perspective of the Lord Protector’s head.

GM: What intrigued you about this particular story? Is Cromwell a figure you had studied in the past or did you happen upon a particular factoid that led you to dig deeper?

MH: I knew of Oliver Cromwell from my high school European History AP class, but only as the Lord Protector in the mid-1600s. I didn’t know of the head’s posthumous adventures until I started researching these kinds of stories—which I began doing after reading a book called Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius (which Shiri immediately purchased). A portion of the book discussed the tale of Joseph Haydn’s head, which was stolen from its grave to be studied by an ambitious phrenologist. Haydn’s head ended up traveling for 145 years. I began making my list of body parts with afterlives and came across Cromwell’s head. His 300-year tale more than doubled Haydn’s and I became so intrigued that I decided to ditch the rest of the stories and focus solely on Cromwell. The idea to write its memoir came to me, and I had to do it. The project became a mission.

GMWas there a particular influence that recommended the “memoir” form to you? What drew you to this form over a straight non-fiction style?

MH: No other memoir sparked the idea. I just thought a memoir from a head with 300 years of travels would be an entertaining way to tell its history and creatively challenging and exciting for me to write.

GM: What are some of your other favorite memoirs? What do you most enjoy reading for pleasure? Favorite book?

MH: I honestly don’t read a lot of memoirs, but I do love The Diary of a Surgeon in the Year 1751-52 written by John Knyveton and edited by Ernest Gray. It’s such a fascinating glimpse into the horrifying world of medicine in the 18th century. I often wonder if people will look back in a hundred years and laugh at today’s medical practices. In general, I love reading nonfiction about weird history, such as Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam by Pope Brock (which Shiri also purchased) and The Devil in the White City: A Saga of Magic and Murder at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson (as just a couple of examples) and 19th century fiction. Victor Hugo is my favorite author.

GM: What are you working on right now/next?

MH: I’m finishing up a middle-grade book right now–it takes place in the near future and is full of wonderful weirdness. My kids (11 and 8) have been a great help with ideas!

GM: If Cromwell had lightsaber what color would it be? Why?

MH: I’ll say red–because Cromwell was believed to be a redhead, and to signify the color of blood from Charles I.

(editorial note: Darth Oliverius?)

The Review

I love history. I have always loved history because I have always loved stories. Any and every sort of story: stories of people, of places, of things. Of events, epic and barely worth of notice, of music and churches, saints and devils. Walls and stones, fields and cairns. I love watching the strands of the web come together, unrolling the tapestry back toward the beginning from where we stand now. History, be it American, World, or any other category, was my favorite hour of the day in school (okay, except for cinema lit) and I love learning adding new bits and pieces to that which is sitting in my memory stacks waiting to be called upon. I love that my kids are fascinated by Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire; it gives me a chance to revisit beloved long agos and far aways. History informs my speculative fiction/fantasy writing and deepens my understand of the fiction I read.

I love reading even more than I love history.

I do not, general speaking, however, love reading non-fiction. The truthy  (thanks, Colbert) volumes I manage to complete are few and far between. Even the promise of learning more about my personal favorite august personages can’t keep from being tempted by webgoblins or divine assassins. Wookies. Rebels. Space bounty hunters…

No matter how well written the tome, no matter how deep my interest in a particular subject, I find most non-fiction forms difficult to connect with. Part of that is the OCD. I feel as though I need to memorize each fact before moving on instead of flowing with the narrative; I get bogged down in minutiae, with individual brushstrokes and find myself unable to step back and view the entire painting. Part of my difficulty: non-fiction = textbook = imminent exam = you’d better remember each and every word of this, at least until Tuesday at ten a.m. The rest? The rest is, at heart, I am a “fiction person.” It speaks to me in a way non-fiction never has, speaks to my soul. Yes, I know that sounds cheesy and no, I don’t care. Some things just are and this is. I’d rather read The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory and do a little verification digging about specific points of interest rather than a biography about Anne Boleyn, no matter how succinct, how well researched, how well written. And I very much prefer The Embalmed Head of Oliver Cromwell to a biography of the man himself.

I am also an ex-theologian which means I am, by unspoken contract, fascinated by relics, both religious and historical: the things themselves, the faith which imbues a tiny sliver of fingernail, and the social change that demotes (but certainly not always) once holy objects to mundane lumps of flesh or inanimate wood once more. Heads are particularly fascinating as they have been venerated for thousands of years as the seat of human power. The Celts believed to take an enemy’s head was to take his soul and, thus, represented undeniable, absolute victory.

Which is the long form way of saying The Embalmed Head of Oliver Cromwell is a perfect storybook for me, both in form and in focus.

The “fictional memoir” form is a difficult one to master because it requires the synthesis of so many essential bits: not only it require thorough research equal to, if not of greater caliber than, a regular biography. It must also capture the voice and tone of an actual, historical person, even if the individual is known only through folk stories, journals, and game-of-telephone oral genealogies. The author must synthesize all of the data into a viable simulacrum of the subject and then move it through a narrative both factual and fictional, informative, and entertaining. He must create a true historical fiction, an entity both grounded and fantastic but not so fantastic as to be unbelievable. He must engage while educating.

No small task and one I’ve only ever felt came to full fruition in Robert Olen Butler’s Severance, a book of short stories each consisting of exactly 240 words (the average number of words a human would be able to synthesize in the minute and a half the brain survives after decapitation) and each told from the perspective of a famous historical personage who lost his or her head for one reason or another.

The Embalmed Head of Oliver Cromwell has joined Severance on my very short list.

I typically try to find at least one nit to pick in a review because that’s what makes the thing a review rather than a gush. I suppose there are few parts of the book that felt a bit slow but, well, welcome to history. It isn’t all canons and people who shouldn’t be having sex with one another doing just that. I mean, a lot of it is, but there are also the waiting bits. The peaceful bits. The bits we watch but in which we can’t, or won’t, participate. Sometimes, all we can do is stand witness. And once you’re an embalmed head, you’re sort of at the mercy of someone with… well, a body. And limbs.

What I knew of Oliver Cromwell before reading The Embalmed Head of Oliver Cromwelwas the typical AP Euro fare: brought down Charles I, took control for a while, died. Left a constitutional monarchy in his wake one that, while it did revert to being royalty led for a time, was never the same.

I knew nothing about his wife or his children and certainly never paused to consider whether or not he loved them (he did). I had no clue he was disinterred so Charles II could spike his head to the gates at Westminster, that it was left there for decades. That is passed through hands who treated it as a relic, through the hands of family, of occultists and phrenologists.

I never wondered what Cromwell might think about the course of English history, about the ebb and flow of politics and fads. Of the American Revolution, of Americans. The joy a man who rode horses might find in his first automobile ride.

What it might do to a man of faith to find himself in a three hundred year purgatory.

I have never read a historical personage’s voice as clearly as I did Cromwell’s while reading this “memoir” (most of which is based on documented events per the extensive notes section and bibliography at the back).

The modern news cycle focuses on events for the most part, on a trial, a plane crash, an interaction than it does on people and, as such, we’ve lost sight of the fact history is made by, and of people. Individuals who do little things which ripple outward, those with the power to make sweeping changes with the stroke of a pen which irrevocably alter the lives of others, perhaps every life on the planet. We seek gods and culture heroes, forgetting that, like us, the Cromwells, the Henry VIIIs, the Einsteins, the Oppenheimers, the Clintons, the Parks, the Alis… all of them were born. All of them lived and chose, thought and felt, loved and hated. They have all, or will someday, die.

Perhaps being reminded of that fact is another reason I prefer my history with a side of fiction. I learned so much from this book and while Cromwell is the epicenter, there is so much more to the form. Hartzman introduces us to people we would never otherwise of met, people who seem unimportant in the grand scope of several thousand years but who sparked a remarkable chain of events by picking up a desiccated head from a muddy street or seeking it out in an oddities exhibition. It is a book which, beyond disseminating facts, disseminates the sense of a man–a man who was proud and foolish, religious and rational, arrogant and loving.

Just like us.

He made a difference. He changed the world.

His head made a difference.

And if the embalmed head of Oliver Cromwell can change the world?

So can you.

The Embalmed Head of Oliver Cromwell: A Memoir (Curious Publications) is available now.

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