Saturday, April 26, 2014



There's nothing quite so fascinating as shrunken heads.
 I know. I've held them and smelled them and written about them. If I could weave a novel around them, it would be a bestseller.
For some reason, the prominent specialist from Harvard Medical School was chatting about my shrunken-head adventures during my latest, thank God, routine visit.
Just how do they shrink the skull, he asked? And we pondered that for a few minutes, which was more fun than discussing cataracts.
 I didn't know. So I asked my son Mark, the world-traveller who now lives and works in China, and he looked at me like sons do when they realize Dad isn't quite the genius they thought when they were six.
They can't shrink the bone, he said, and wondered just how bright the doctors from Harvard really were.
They peel the flesh off the skull and then shrink and tan and pickle that, he explained.
 Later, when I was checking up on him, since my sons have been known to try to pull a fast one on the old man, I read that the bare skulls then were used by tribes to plant around their borders or in streams to intimidate rival tribes.
I suspected Mark was right, though, because he was the one who introduced me to the legendary Billy Jamieson and his wonderful collection of the bizarre and the fascinating and the unique. You can get a taste of this since Billy died suddenly two years ago on his 57th birthday and Waddington's is selling his war clubs and electric chair and all the other strange stuff but not, probably for legal reasons,  the shrunken heads.
I must talk to his lady, Jessica Phillips, about that, because as I remember it, Billy guaranteed me that they weren't the products of recent murders or produced according to demand.
Once upon a time, Billy was selling a great blue whale skeleton on eBay, and Mark, who then ran some eBay departments, offered to help him by getting some publicity.
Billy sold it to an Arab sheik for  $200,000, a princely sum but only a shadow of the $2 million he got when he sold a mummy which turned out to be Rameses I to Emory University in Atlanta (but that's another story.) He took a shine to Mark who also likes to explore the Amazon and dig up ancient stuff.
So Mark, Mary and I visited his wonderful collection in his lovely downtown loft several times, including the greatest Halloween parties I've ever attended. They were the stuff of Hollywood thrillers.
I have written about Billy before, and this is the second reason I know people are fascinated about shrunken heads. I have written more than 300 blog columns, and something like 6,000 columns and 3,000 editorials, and I now know that all you have to do is put shrunken heads in the headline and your readership soars.
I will spare you all the stories I know about Billy, which my family will tell you is not normal because they claim I repeat everything...often.
But here are the headlines for some:
You may wonder about the bewildering mix of native artifacts and side-show carnie "treasures" in Billy's collection at Waddington's. Some came when he saved Canada's first public museum in Niagara Falls from extinction - which many older Canadians will remember with affection. That's is where he got the mummy which was just one of several being ignored. Most came when he wandered remote spots and yarned with adventurers over the campfires.
He was a fascinating mix of barker, archaeologist and explorer, happily juggling oddities with the macabre and anecdotes about all the caves and crannies of forgotten worlds.
For him, Raiders of the Lost Ark could have been a page from his diary.

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