January 1, 1924.
Deep in the sweltering rainforests of British Honduras, a team of diggers headed by world-famous explorer Frederick Albert Mitchell-Hedges is excavating the long-forgotten Mayan citadel of Lubaantún, “The City of Fallen Stones.” It is strenuous, unforgiving work.
For a week now the men have been digging into a ruined temple, beguiled by a tantalizing glimmer of buried treasure that calls to them through the rubble. In spite of their hard work they are still no closer to their quarry. In desperation, Mitchell-Hedges turns his 17-year-old daughter, Anna. She is the only person on the expedition small enough to squeeze through the small holes his diggers have opened.
Squeeze through she does. Inside the ruined temple, beneath a toppled sacrificial altar, she sees what has been calling to them all: a quartz crystal which has been carved into a life-sized simulacrum of a human skull. It is awesome in an Old Testament way: beautiful and terrible all at once.
Tucking the crystal skull beneath her arms, she climbs out of the temple. She hands it to her father, who gives it a long hard look and gently cleans it with his sleeve.
The turns around abruptly and holds the skull aloft to show his men what they have found. Three hundred natives cry out as one and fall to their knees, gripped by a strange combination of joy, reverence, and terror. They are laughing, crying, praying, pleading.
It is all too much for Anna, who has been unnerved by the macabre discovery. As his daughter vomits behind him, Mitchell-Hedges shifts his pipe in his mouth and drolly declares, “I’m not a religious man, but there’s something that’s very religious.”
Hours later, as the sun dips below the horizon, strange men wearing jaguar skins and bright feathers emerge from the jungle. They place the crystal skull on a makeshift altar and begin to dance. Anna watches in rapt fascination as her father confers with their leader. The great chief tells Mitchell-Hedges the crystal skull is a gift from the gods to their Maya ancestors. It is over three thousand years old and contains unimaginable power. It can speak to the dead, speak to the gods, speak to the future. It can heal and and it can kill.
Realizing how important the artifact is to these men, Mitchell-Hedges decides that he cannot take it back to Britain. This sparks another celebration which lasts for two solid weeks, bringing the dig to a crashing halt.
Months later, as Mitchell-Hedges is leaving British Honduras for the last time, the natives hand him the crystal skull as a parting gift. Its destiny, they tell him, is not with us but with you, with the world beyond. Use it wisely, and keep it safe from those who would use it for evil.
For once, the great explorer has no idea what to do. For now, he stores the crystal skull in his cabinet of curiosities. It remains there for over three decades.
Many of his visitors ask about the skull, and Michell-Hedges obligingly regales them with the legends he has been told by the Maya. Some of those visitors laugh at these primitive superstitions, but these skeptics are soon beset with sudden misfortunes and crippling accidents. Soon, the skull has a nickname: “the Skull of Doom.”
One day a friend of Mitchell-Hedges, a photographer who is documenting the skull, makes some off-hand jokes about it. Later that day he is killed in a freak darkroom accident which cannot be explained. Mitchell-Hedges knows that the skull is responsible, and vows to destroy it before it can kill again. His sudden resolve comes too little, too lat. Not long after he too dies.
The crystal skull is bequeathed to Anna, who can no longer bear to keep it on display and look at it every day. She tucks it into a leather case and puts it in the back of her closet, where it stays for most of the next fifty years.
That’s a great story, isn’t it? Pity it’s just a story.
In case you haven’t figured it out, today we’re talking about Mitchell-Hedges Crystal Skull, sometimes called “the Skull of Doom,” one of the most famous “paranormal” artifacts in the world. It is. There’s nothing paranormal about it, of course, but we’re going to have to shovel a lot of horse hockey out of the way before we can find the real story.
So why don’t we start with the man who seems to be at the center of it all.
Frederick Albert Mitchell-Hedges
Frederick Albert Hedges (“Mike” to his friends) was born in London in 1882. His family intended for him to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a stockbroker, but Mike had adventure in his blood. He dropped out of school at age 16 join an expedition looking for copper deposits in the Norwegian Arctic. Alas, a life of exploration doesn’t pay the bills and after the expedition he returned home, where his father got him a job as a clerk at the stock exchange.
Alas, Mike found the life of a clerk tedious and left to make his fortune in New York. He spent a few years in Manhattan as a day trader. He would spend his evenings playing poker with fading titans of the Gilded Age like J.P. Morgan and John Warne “Bet-A-Million” Gates, and in the morning he would rush out to make stock purchases based on the insider information he’d heard at the card table.
Over the span of five years he made about £4,000 — which doesn’t sound like much, but that’s about £500,000 today — and then returned Great Britain in triumph.
Mike decided to use his newfound fortune to open up his own stock trading company. While he was at it he polished his image by adopting his maternal grandmother’s surname to his own, becoming Frederick Albert Mitchell-Hedges, and marrying a solid middle-class girl, “Dolly” Clarke.
Unfortunately for Mitchell-Hedges, it turned out that without insider information he couldn’t pick a stock to save his life. His trading firm went bankrupt and he returned to the United States to try and make a second fortune. He spent several years wandering the American Southwest working as a waiter, a rancher, and several other odd jobs.
While working in Mexico in 1913 Mitchell-Hedges was first taken hostage by Pancho Villa, only to turn around and join the Mexican general’s revolutionary army. When World War I broke out the following year, Villa released his charge so he could go back home to fight the Boche. Unfortunately, leg wounds he’d suffered while riding with Villa resulted in Mitchell-Hedges being declared 4-F, or whatever the Royal Army’s version of 4-F is. He quickly returned to his rootless existence, splitting his time between New York, London, Canada, and Central America. Sometimes he would share lodgings with his close personal friend Leon Trotsky.
At some point he became the unlikely custodian of French war orphan Anna-Marie le Guillon, the daughter of a family friend. Mitchell-Hedges took a shine to the young girl, who he affectionately called “Sammy,” and officially adopted her in 1918. Not that he ever any actual parenting, mind you: he packed her off to a boarding school as soon as he could and made only occasional visits.
The story I have just recounted is a very simplified version of the first forty years of Mitchell-Hedges life. I could easily pad it out with other incidents and anecdotes, but then this episode would be longer than your average Hardcore History. The man had some truly incredible adventures. If only 1% of what he wrote about his own life was true, then he lived the most amazing life in recorded history.
Forget 1%. You’d be hard-pressed to find a single grain of truth in any of Mitchell-Hedges’ several autobiographies.
The man was such a notorious liar that he earned the nickname, “the British Baron Munchausen.” His specialty was covering simple lies with obvious exaggerations, so that you felt there was a solid foundation of truth beneath the self-aggrandizing showmanship. Of course, if you ever double-checked that “solid foundation” you would quickly find out that it was completely unverifiable.
- Did he spend his evenings gambling with Gilded Age millionaires? Maybe. Most of them were retired old men by the time Mitchell-Hedges made his first visit to New York. And they were all long dead by the time he started fondly remembering his nights around the poker table.
- Did he wander around the American Southwest? Maybe. A few scholars have noted that key details from this period of Mitchell-Hedges’ life appear to have been lifted wholesale from the autobiography of another writer, Frederick Walker.
- Did he ride with Pancho Villa? Maybe. It’s not like Villa kept detailed payroll records we could check. On the other hand, he certainly wasn’t discharged to go fight in World War I — he safe at home in London by February 1914, four full months before Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot.
- He also lied by omission. Yes, his stock trading firm did go into bankruptcy but it wasn’t because of a few bad bets. It was because it was suspended from trading, because Mitchell-Hedges had been attempting to illegally manipulate stock prices.
There have been some suggestions that Mitchell-Hedges was actually a British spy. That would certainly explain his constant wandering, his mysterious sources of income, and his non-stop stream of lies.
But it wouldn’t explain the next phase of Mitchell-Hedges life at all.
In 1921 Mitchell-Hedges began an extramarital affair with Lilian Mabel Alice, Lady Richmond Brown. Her ladyship was in a weird headspace: her husband was an insane invalid, and she herself had been given mere months to live by her doctors. Tall, rugged and confident Frederick Albert Mitchell-Hedges was exactly the sort of boy toy she needed to get her groove back.
At some point, Lady Richmond Brown declared to her paramour, “If I’m going to die I might as well die doing something worthwhile instead of living like a vegetable.” Mitchell-Hedges responded by taking her on an adventure: a months-long sport fishing trip in the Caribbean. Her ladyship, of course, paid for it all.
It went well. Mitchell-Hedges caught a lot of fish, Lady Richmond Brown found island life thrilling, and the change of scenery did wonders for her health. So they decided to make the fishing trip a yearly thing.
This, I think, is the real key to understanding Mitchell-Hedges — maybe he was a spy, maybe he was a pathological liar, but he was definitely a fisherman. It was all he thought about. Open up one of his biographies to a random page and you’re likely to be treated to a ferocious battle of wills with a man-eating shark or a sawfish bigger than his entire boat. It certainly explains his storytelling style, which anyone who’s ever swapped stories about the one that got away would recognize immediately.
At some point it occurred to Mitchell-Hedges and Richmond Brown that if they did a little light exploring while they were down in the Caribbean and then sold a few artifacts when they got back, well, then they could write the whole trip off as a business expense. And that’s exactly what they did in 1922.
They still spent most of their time fishing, mind you, but now their downtime was spent bartering food and medicine to impoverished local tribes in exchange for their cultural treasures. These artifacts were almost entirely valueless, mind you, since they were devoid of context and provenance. That didn’t stop the British Museum from snapping up whatever they brought back to Britain. Lady Richmond Brown used her social network to find buyers for the few pieces the Museum didn’t want.
Mitchell-Hedges and Lady Richmond Brown also showed an unexpected flair for showmanship, turning the prosaic details of their travels into exciting travelogues. Lady Richmond Brown played up the idea that they were venturing into uncharted seas and encountering unknown tribes, even though the areas they visited had already been thoroughly documented by a little-known explorer by the name of Christopher Columbus. Mitchell-Hedges leaned into the pseudo-historical side of their travels, claiming their expeditions had been searching for the Lost Tribes of Israel (who were also the ancient Maya) and the ruins of Atlantis (which was off the coast of British Honduras). Both of them played into the idea that they were white saviors who had been received by the savage natives as gods.
The public loved it, and the pair became celebrities.
At some point Mitchell-Hedges and Richmond Brown heard about Lubaantún, “the city of fallen stones,” a forgotten Mayan citadel hidden deep in the jungles of British Honduras. Not really forgotten, mind you. It had been “discovered” by Dr. Thomas William Frances Gann in 1903, though Gann didn’t actually have to look all that hard because the modern-day Maya living right next door told him exactly where it was. It had also been visited by Harvard archaeologists in 1915.
A forgotten Mayan city sounded perfect to Mitchell-Hedges and Richmond Brown, which is to say, it sounded like an endless source of artifacts they could sell back in Britain. They made it the target of their 1923 expedition. On their journey into the site they ran into Dr. Gann, who was making a return visit, and joined forces with him.
When they started their expedition, Lubaantún was a marvel, a vast Mayan ceremonial center six square miles in area. It had stepped pyramids, burial mounds, catacombs, terraced farms, even a stadium that could hold ten thousand people.
When they finished Lubaantún was a ruin.
Mitchell-Hedges, Richmond Brown and Gann were in it for the money. There was no method to their madness, no careful record keeping, no duty of stewardship over the site they were ransacking. At one point the trio even dynamited the top off of a step pyramid to see if there was a tomb inside. Well, if there had been one before, there definitely wasn’t one after the dust settled.
This wasn’t archaeology. This was looting, pure and simple.
Lucrative looting, at that. Mitchell-Hedges returned to the site every year from 1923 to 1927 to grab more artifacts.
Lady Richmond Brown did not: she broke up with Mitchell-Hedges in 1925, though the two remained on friendly terms. Her place was taken by Mitchell-Hedges’ private secretary, Jane Harvey Houlson. Houlson may have not had her ladyship’s good breeding and bottomless resources, but made up for it with her slavish fawning over “the Chief.”
After 1927, Mitchell-Hedges would sporadically return to the Caribbean, but he never returned to Lubaantún. There were several reasons. He was no longer a spring chicken but a man in his fifties. Lady Richmond Brown and the British Museum were no longer inclined to finance further explorations. And it didn’t help that the colonial government of British Honduras had passed laws preventing the removal of cultural artifacts from the colony. Laws that were, in part, intended as a response to the looting of Lubaantún.
Mitchell-Hedges then pivoted from a life of fishing and exploration to a life of writing and lecturing. He had a few assets that served him in good stead. He was tall and ruggedly handsome. He had a deep authoritative voice and good elocution. Americans, in particular, found his British accident utterly charming, but then, we always do.
He also played up his non-existent academic credentials. He would mention that he’d gone to the University College School, knowing that casual listeners would think he’d gone to University College, London and not a prep school in Hampstead. He added a veritable alphabet soup at the end of his name, becoming Frederick Albert Mitchell-Hedges, FRGS, FLS, FZS, FRAI, FAGS. For those keeping score at home, that’s:
- Fellow of Royal Geographic Society
- Fellow of the Linnean Society of London
- Fellow of Zoological Society
- Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute
- Fellow of the American Geographic Society
Not to besmirch any of these fine organizations, but the only thing these “fellowships” meant was that the check for his membership dues hadn’t bounced. If academic credentials or actual achievement were required, Mitchell-Hedges wouldn’t have made it in. To the end of his life the man couldn’t tell the difference between the Aztec and the Maya.
At first, Mitchell-Hedges new career went swimmingly. After a few years he was joined by Sammy, who had been working as a beautician but soon became her adoptive father’s personal assistant. Lady Richmond Brown and Jane Harvey Houlson even got in on the act, publishing their own accounts of their travels with Mitchell-Hedges.
Alas, by the late 1940s the great white explorer had run out of stories. He’d exaggerated the hell out of his few genuine adventures, stolen several from other people’s biographies, and even made up a few out of whole cloth. The public demanded a constant stream of new content, but Mitchell-Hedges no longer had the strength to go adventuring — he spent most of an aborted 1951 expedition to Tanzania sick to his stomach.
If he wanted to keep his lecture career alive, he would need to find something new to talk about.
The Skull of Doom
Increasingly, he started talking about the items in his cabinet of curiosities, a collection of artifacts he’d assembled over the years. They were always good for a quick column or a short lecture.
Some of these were items he’d acquired during his travels, like a wall of shrunken heads (probably fake) and “ancient Egyptian tapestries” (definitely fake). Others were cheap bric-a-brac he’d purchased at auction but had attached fanciful stories to; things like Lord Nelson’s jug, Catherine of Aragon’s wedding chest, and the “Chalice of Moses.”
A few of the items had more complicated histories. For example, he claimed to own the The Black Virgin of Kazan, a famous Russian Orthodox icon destroyed by revolutionaries in 1904 and whose destruction was supposedly the reason Russia had fallen to Communism. (Later testing would show that Mitchell-Hedges’ icon was a 16th Century copy.)
Around 1950, Mitchell-Hedges added a striking new item to his cabinet of curiosities: a life-size skull sculpted from a single block of quartz crystal of astonishing clarity. It was was anatomically accurate — it even had a detachable jawbone! And it was huge, over five kilograms, making it one of the largest worked gemstones in the world.
He called it the Skull of Doom.
For once Mitchell-Hedges was unusually cagey about where he’d acquired the Skull of Doom. In his 1954 autobiography Danger My Ally he would only say, “How it came into my possession I have reason for not revealing.” He would say, though, that the crystal skull was an ancient Maya artifact at least 3,600 years old, made without the use of metal tools tools, and polished to a high degree through fige generations of continuous rubbing with sand.
Oh, and did I mention the Skull of Doom had mystical powers? Mitchell-Hedges had all sorts of stories about people who had run afoul of the crystal skull’s ire.
- “It is stated in legend that it was used by a high priest of the Maya to concetrate on and will death. Said to be the embodiment of all evil; several people who have cynically laughed at it have died, others have been stricken and become seriously ill.”
- In 1942 Adrian Conan Doyle, the youngest son of Sir Arthur, psychically sensed the presence of the Skull of Doom in Mitchell-Hedges’ home, and refused to go near it.
- “In Zululand in 1949 I showed it to a witch-doctor. Within the hour the Royal House of the Zulus was struck by lightning and two people were killed. I did not show it again.”
- Later that same year, when Mitchell-Hedges fell ill, he made a full recovery only after the skull was removed from his house.
- “A girl who saw it laughed at the tale. She died a week later with no apparent illness. Her last words were: ‘It’s the Skull of Doom.'”
- “Once in Durban… photographer [Jack Ramsden] came to get a shot of the skull for his newspaper and jeered at its power… When he developed those films the darkroom caught fire and blew up. He was killed.”
- “[Mrs. John Dickson Carr] made fun of the skull, fell and broke her hip.”
- It wasn’t all bad, mind you. A South African woman who’d meditated with the skull was cured of her insomnia.
And its powers were only growing. By 1955 anyone who gazed upon the Skull of Doom would die within a week. Mitchell-Hedges vowed to destroy it on his deathbed. “Priceless as it is, this evil thing must die with me.”
An astounding story.
Skeptics had questions, of course.
Where had the skull come from? If it was Maya, presumably Mitchell-Hedges had picked it up sometime during his Central American explorations. But if that was the case, why hadn’t he mentioned it at all in the intervening years? Not one word in his books, newspaper columns, or radio shows. And the man talked about every shrunken skull he ever collected, every fish he ever caught, every famous person he ever brushed shoulders with. Why would he keep such an amazing find secret for over two decades? For that matter, none of his fellow travelers mentioned it in any of their memoirs, either.
That is, of course, assuming the skull was Maya in the first place. There was a complete lack of provenance, and no similar artifacts had ever been found. The also skull doesn’t show any Maya stylistic flourishes, instead showing an unusual degree of realism. And quartz crystals of that size are virtually unknown in Central America.
And of course, there’s also the matter of Sydney Burney.
You see, the Skull of Doom was not unknown before Mitchell-Hedges began exhibiting it it. In 1933 it was owned by Sydney Burney, claimed to have purchased it from a collector, who had purchased it from another Englishman. Burney put the skull on display in a prominent location at his London art gallery.
The Burney Skull, as it was then known, had caught the attention of curators at the Museum of Mankind, who noted its similarity to a crystal skull in their own collection that was of a more stylized appearance and attributed to a dubious “Aztec origin.” Burney even loaned his skull to the Museum for several months, so they could run some studies comparing the two skulls. The results were published in the July 1936 issue of the journal Man.
Burney eventually put the skull up for auction at Sotheby’s in 1943, though none of the bids met his reserve price. He sold it for £400 in the following year in a private sale… to Frederick Albert Mitchell-Hedges.
So, said the skeptics to Mitchell-Hedges, care to explain any of that?
Mitchell-Hedges’ response was elegant: he died without answering their questions in 1959.
After his death Mitchell-Hedges’ estate went to Anna. By this point Sammy had become accustomed to the relatively lush lifestyle provided by her father, and had no desire to go back to being a beautician. So she moved to sell off most of his collection, including the Skull of Doom. Unfortunately the complete lack of provenance for most of the items meant that they were, essentially, worthless junk. She sold what she could, and used the proceeds to to a purchase motel outside of Kitchener, Ontario which would provide most of her income for the rest of her life.
One item she hung on to? The Skull of Doom.
Early on she tried to to burnish its value by create a fake provenance for the skull. It was Anna who first told the story from the beginning of the episode, about discovering the crystal skull in a ruined Mayan pyramid on her seventeenth birthday. Of course, this story has some serious problems.
What few records do exist from Mitchell-Hedges’ expeditions indicate Anna was not a participant. Lady Richmond Brown and Jane Harvey Houlson do not mention the young girl at all, Passport records indicate her first trip to Central America did not happen until the 1930s and her only documented visit to Lubaantún was in the early 2000s.
Also, the supposed date of discovery kept shifting as people noticed problems with the timeline she presented. At first it was 1927, then 1926, then 1925 before finally settling settled on Anna’s 17th birthday in 1924.
As for why her father had not mentioned the skull until the 1950s, well, she implied that had its true origin been revealed he would have had to turn it over to the museums that had been financing his trips, or possibly returned to British Honduras because of the laws forbidding the removal of artifacts from the colony. Of course, were that the case, it boggles the mind that Mitchell-Hedges ever revealed the existence of the skull in the first place.
Why had no one else on the expeditions ever mentioned the crystal skull? Well, her father had divided the rights to stories of his fabulous discoveries to various members of the dig team. Anna was the keeper of the true story of the Skull of Doom and had not felt the urge to share it until about 1960. Of course, that hadn’t stopped her father from repeatedly mentioning it before then…
How did the crystal skull wind up in Burney’s art gallery? She claimed her father had given it to Burney as collateral for a loan, and that its subsequent “purchase” was just repayment for the loan. Strange, then, that Mitchell-Hedges let the skull go up on the auction block given that for most of the 1930s he could have scraped together £400 at a moment’s notice.
All of these facts could be verified in her father’s business records, of course. Unfortunately, they had been washed overboard during a cyclone near Cape Hatteras some years previously.
It should be pretty clear that if Anna picked up anything from her adoptive father, it was his talent for stretching the truth and peppering stories with believable-sounding but ultimately unverifiable facts.
Among those unverifiable facts? New tales of the Skull’s amazing powers.
- “My father believed that the Skull brought death only to those who did not revere it, who laughed and jeered at it. He lived for thirty years after he first found and took possession of the skull. During that time he survived eight bullet wounds and three knife attacks. He did not pray to the skull, but he treated it with the same reverence that he believed the priests of the Mayan civilization had for the skull.”
- “Only once did I ever wish bad upon someone, and it came true. I wouldn’t like to do it again. I’m sorry about it.”
- *Whatever you do don’t laugh at it! It has power, you see. It will not be mocked or jeered. Once my father showed it to two ladies on a ship to Capetown. They laughed at it and later, on separate days, they both fell out of their bunks and broke their hips.”
- “A while later I was moving to another house and carrying the skull in its case down a long long corridor to the car. I was halfway to along when the phone rang. I had to put down the Skull to answer, it was an angry male voice — our neighbor. ‘Sammy, are you touching that darn Skull of yours? Something has knocked my butler right off his feet. He’s lying on the floor, quite rigid and unable to talk.'”
- In 1930s her psychic friends in Paris found the skull’s aura “disturbing.” That they saw it at all was even more amazing, since by then it was already in Sydney Burney’s London gallery.
- And of course, dozens of celebrities had communed with the skull, including Peter O’Toole and Anton LaVey. None could be reached for comment.
Whether it was because of or in spite of Anna’s crazy stories, the Skull of Doom actually started to capture the public imagination. Hardly surprising. After all, it’s a mysterious and visually striking artifact. Over the years Anna exhibited the crystal skull on several occasions at museums and gem shows.
The Skull of Love
If Anna was ever going to sell the skull, though, she still needed to provide some sort of provenance. So in 1964 she entrusted the skull to Frank Dorland, an art conservator and expert in religious iconography from Mill Valley, California to see what he could discover.
Over the next several years Dorland examined the skull from every conceivable angle. He had it extensively photographed and documented, made casts and replicas, and had it examined by numerous scientific experts including Hewlett Packard’s Crystal Laboratory. At the end of all its testing, he announced:
- The skull and its detachable jawbone had both been carved from the same large crystal, and without regard to its internal axes. Both pieces were also perfectly symmetrical. This, at least, was true.
- He declared that the skull had been made without the use of metal tools since it did not show microscopic concentric scratches on its surface. Possible, though the skull itself was polished to such a high degree that obvious tool marks may have been obliterated.
- He gushed over the piezoelectric properties exhibited by the skull as if they were something special and not, say, a common property of all quartz crystals. Likewise, he marveled over the internal prisms which distributed light throughout the skull, as if they were some sort of intentional choice of the sculptor, and not just, say, inherit properties of the crystal it was sculpted from.
- He claimed the maintained a perfect inner temperature of 70°F at all times. Which was not true.
As for where it came from? He had no idea. It was clearly the representation of an ancient deity, perhaps the Babylonian Ea or the Zoroastrian Ahura-Mazda — neither of whom, mind you, is traditionally represented by a skull, which you’d think an expert in religious iconography would know.
He thought it had been sculpted by the Babylonians, or maybe the ancient Egyptians, or maybe the Tibetans or possibly the Atlanteans. It had been carried over to Central America after the sinking of Atlantis by the Phoenecians, or maybe centuries later by the Knights Templar.
(Here, I’m going to invoke one of this podcast’s golden rules: if someone starts dragging the Atlantis or the Knights Templar into a seemingly unrelated conversation, they are crazy person.)
You see, in addition to be a conservator Dorland’s was also a typical California New Age wacko. He declared that the skull was a magic artifact, the “brain box of the cosmos” that could transmit human consciousness to other dimensions. In addition to its aforementioned death dealing properties it also could pick up radio waves; emit colorless auras, unexplained sounds and strange odors; and tell the future via images seen in its in its depths.
Dorland held on to the skull far longer than he had agreed on — six long years. Eventually, Anna could take it no more. She took the long Greyhound bus ride from Kitchener to Mill Valley, angrily repossessed the skull, and returned to Canada.
Anna did learn one thing from Dorland’s brief stewardship of the skull: that New Age crapola was getting very popular, and the skull was uniquely positioned to take advantage of tha. After all, it was a supposed mystic artifact, and a skull, and a crystal. It’s like three things New Agers love in one compact package. So she leaned into it. For the remaining decades of her life she was more likely to be showing off the skull at spiritual gatherings than at gem shows. Always for a feee, mind you.
She also kept adding more stuff to its list of purported powers:
- It could shoot laser beams out of the eye sockets.
- Just by gazing into its depths you could see seven faces that would predict the future. It could also predict tragic deaths by sweating profusely, as it did for the deaths of John F. Kennedy and Lord Mountbatten.
- You could transfer your memories into the skull — and tranfser other people’s memories out of the skull.
- Those with psychic powers, like Canadian medium Carole Wilson, could use it to communicate with extraterrestrials and the dead.
- It could bestow great longevity on people.
I’m not going to bother to debunk most of these in any detail. It goes without saying that none of these powers were ever witnessed by unbiased third parties or adequately documented. No, the crystal skull cannot shoot lasers out of its eyes. No, it can’t tell the future and it certainly doesn’t sweat unless you have something wrong with your air conditioning. No one can talk to the dead, and extraterrestrials only communicate through Western Union telegrams. No, it doesn’t make weird sounds or smells or colors, though I imagine if you stare at it long enough you’ll probably start to hallucinate.
I will concede that maybe the longevity thing should be investigated. Anna lived to be over 100 years old before dying in 2007. Towards the end of her life, Anna even renamed the Skull of Doom the “Skull of Love” because she realized doom wasn’t selling with her target audience.
The problem with marketing to New Agers is that they’re going to pick up the ball and run with, sometimes in directions you might not like. And boy, did New Agers really do that with the whole crystal skull thing.
An elaborate mythology began to develop around the idea that there were other crystal skulls, like the one in the British Museum. Soon, new agers were claiming that there were thirteen of them — or maybe four sets of thirteen, or maybe thirteen sets of thirteen. They had been created not 3,600 years ago but 36,000 years ago, maybe by Atlanteans, or maybe by aliens, or maybe they were the same thing.
Anyway, each set of skulls consisted of twelve skulls representing the twelve planets, which stored the minds and knowledge of ancient Atlantean aliens or something. Each set also had a thirteenth “master skull” that served as a key or control. When the twelve skulls were placed in a circle with the master skull in the center, they formed a sort of ancient community that would unlock all human knowledge and potential. This, of course, would all happen at the end of the Mayan long count calendar on on December 21, 2012. Or, starting on December 22, 2012, at some unspecified future date.
As is typical with a lot of New Age woo, these beliefs are often attributed “legends” or “Native Americans” or “the Maya” though no one ever actually bothered to, you know, cite sources or even specific tribes. Most of them are just straight up modern inventions. The twelve planets thing in particular comes straight from the writings of crackpot Zecharia Sitchin (more about him in a future episode).
Once this modern legend was out there, new crystal skulls started coming out of the woodwork. Skulls made from quartz crystal, amethyst, jade, and all sorts of precious and semi-precious stones. Skulls with exciting names like Big Max and Synergy and Einstein, and exciting new powers like the ability to speak in your dreams and exorcise spirits, I dunno, power small lightbulbs like a potato.
Cynics have repeatedly pointed out that these days you can order any sort of crystal skull you like from the internet. Most notably, the Skullis company in China makes some really nice ones, including several exact replicas of the Mitchell-Hedges Skull. What took ancient Atlantean aliens centuries to accomplish can be done by Skullis in about a week.
But that’s just the new skulls. Surely the older ones were still legit, right?
The Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls
Well, probably not.
The staff of the British Museum were the first to start asking the hard questions. If you remember, they also had a crystal skull, this one attributed to unknown Aztec origins. But, well, something about it just seemed off.
- For starters, the design of the skull wasn’t quite right — it looked Aztec on a cursory inspection, but not if you really knew anything about Aztec art. The proportions were off, and it was too realistic.
- Also, objects made of worked quartz crystal were very rare in Aztec art. After the British museum crystal skull, the next largest Aztec crystal artifact was a cup. (And not a big cup, either, like an espresso cup.) That itself wasn’t unusual, since quartz crystals of crystal skull size were virtually unknown in Central America.
- And while several museums and individuals owned crystal skulls of purported Aztec and Mayan origin, no crystal skull had ever been discovered in a properly conducted and documented archaeological dig. They just appeared on the market with no indications as to their true origins.
- Their skull also had had a spotty provenance — they’d purchased it from Tiffany’s, who had purchased it from George H. Sisson, who’d purchased it from some guy, who’d bought it from some other guy in Mexico.
The British Museum conducted numerous tests of their skull, but they were inconclusive until Margaret Sax finally put it under an electron microscope in the 1980s. She discovered microscopic tool marks that could only have been made by disc-shaped rotary cutting tools, unknown in Central America until post-Colombian times. Chemical analysis of the skull also revealed impurities suggesting the crystal had been mined from Madagascar or Brazil — both far from Central America.
Clearly, the skull was a fake. Sax guessed that it was likely manufactured in Europe in the middle of the 19th Century, probably by German lapidaries in Idar and Obserstein, who worked with a lot of Brazilian quartz. The British Museum removed their skull from display. Another crystal skull in Paris was also tested, showed the same telltale marks and impurities, and was also removed from display.
Exactly where the fakes came from would not be figured out until almost a decade later.
In 1992, the Smithsonian Institution received an anonymous donation: a crystal skull, which had been purchased in Mexico City in 1960 and had purportedly been owned by Mexican president Porfirio Díaz. Smithsonian curator Jane MacLaren Walsh took the skull to London to be tested by the crystal skull experts at the British Museum, who found the same tell-tale rotary tool marks and chemical impurities. Thy also found traces of modern synthetic lubricants trapped inside pockets and crevasses in the crystal. Clearly, this new crystal skull was also a fake.
Walsh, though, was fascinated by the sheer number of fake Aztec crystal skulls. Why had someone gone to the trouble of faking what appeared to be dozens of them? As reviewed the evidence, she realized that while many crystal skulls had no provenance at all, the few that did could be traced back to Mexico in the late 1880s. Before that point, no one had ever heard of or seen a crystal skull.
And at that point, all of the existing crystal skulls had a provenance that converged on the same antiquarian: Eugène Boban.
Boban was a Frenchman who had journeyed to America in the 1850s to strike it rich, but wound up missing the California Gold Rush by a few years. He drifted down to Mexico and fell in love with the country. Boban started a cardboard factory, built a private collection of Mexican art, earned a reputation as an expert on Mexican antiquities, and opened a gallery. During the brief period where the French controlled Mexico, he even became the official antiquarian and chief archaeological advisor to Emperor Maximilian I. In that capacity, he sent his personal collection of artifacts to be shown at the 1867 Exposition Universelle in Paris. Alas, Maximilian was overthrown and put in front of a firing squad later that year. Boban initially tried to remain in Mexico under the new regime, but eventually he fled the country and returned to Paris. He spent the rest of his life one step ahead of his creditors, dying in New York in 1886.
Like many antiquarians of the day, Boban had a flexible arrangement with the truth. Sometimes he sold restored artifacts whose “restorations” made the Ship of Theseus look mint-in-box by comparison. Sometimes he created fake provenance for genuine artifacts. Sometimes he sold replicas and reproductions without explicitly labeling them as such. Sometimes he would arrange modern creations side-by-side with genuine artifacts, never actually saying that the newer items were ancient, but never actually not saying it either.
At some point in the late 1860s and early 1870s Boban commissioned several crystal skulls in a faux-Aztec style, and put them in the window to entice curious looky-loos into his shop. Both the London and Parisian crystal skulls could be easily traced back to Boban. Apparently he was the “Mexican adventurer” from whom they had been originally purchased.
Ah, but what about the Mitchell-Hedges Skull of Doom? It, too, seems likely to have been one of Boban’s creations but does not have the easily traceable provenance of the other skulls.
But 1996 the BBC made a documentary about Walsh’s discoveries. During filming, Margaret Sax subjected several crystal skulls to another round of testing. Astoundingly, Anna Mitchell-Hedges allowed them to test the Skull of Doom. And the tests revealed the exact same things — tool marks from modern rotary tools and chemical impurities the material came from outside Central America.
The Skull of Doom was also a fake.
Anna disputed the results, of course, and kept on claiming the skull was an ancient artifact right up until her death in 2007 at the ripe old age of 100.
The Skull of Doom wound up in the hands of her widower, Bill Homann. Homann, the owner-operator of a karate dojo in Crown Point, Indiana, had befriended Mitchell-Hedges in the 1980s and later became her primary caretaker and companionate spouse. He was also totally into New Age woo, which should not surprise anyone who knows enough karate guys. Like the crystal skull’s previous caretakers, he claimed it had amazing powers like the abilities to emit blue light from its eyes and crash computer hard drives. He also went even further afield into wackiness, claiming that the Ark of the Covenant contained not the Ten Commandments but a big pile of crystal skulls.
In 2008, the Smithsonian Channel made a documentary about the crystal skulls to capitalize on, and I kid you not, the release of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. As part of the documentary, they convinced Bill Homann to submit the Skull of Doom to yet another round of testing.
Homann was present during the tests. He politely listened to Smithsonian scientists as they ran his skull through a high-powered microscope, showed him the marks made by rotary carving tools and pockets of lubricants, and concluded yet again that it could not have been made in pre-Columbian Central America.
Homann, amazingly, agreed with everything they said. The skull had not been made by the Aztecs or the Maya. They just did not have the tools and resources.
Clearly, it had been made by aliens.
There’s just no reaching some people.
Here’s a strange aside that I couldn’t quite fit into the structure of the episode, but which I think you’ll find interesting.
In the 1970s, author Sibley S. Morrill claimed that the Skull of Doom had actually been smuggled out of Mexico during the revolution by Mitchell-Hedges, with the help from Pancho Villa, Ambrose Bierce, and Leon Trotsky. Mitchell-Hedges and Bierce then hid the crystal skull in British Honduras with the intention of retrieving it at a later date.
There’s only one problem: there’s no reasonable motive for anyone involved. Morrill suggests that it was perhaps some sort of money-laundering scheme orchestrated by a cabal of Gilded Age industrialists including “Bet-A-Million” Gates, James Keene, Jules Bache, and J.P. Morgan, but this too makes no sense. Most of these men were dead when Mitchell-Hedges made his first trip to Mexico, and the skull itself is not particularly valuable.
Fun to think about, though. And it definitely helps if you’re looking to make connections to other stories.
We cant prove that Frederick Albert Mitchell-Hedges was poker buddies with “Bet-A-Million” Gates, but we can’t prove that he wasn’t, either. Gates is little-known today, but was one of the more colorful characters of the Gilded Age. You may know his equally colorful friend, “Diamond Jim” Brady, who we discussed in the Series 6 episode “He Could Eat It All.”
Mitchell-Hedges probably wasn’t was part of a secret agent double act with Ambrose Bierce, though there is a brief window in 1913 where the two men might have met. The cynical Bierce is the favorite writer of smart-ass teenagers everywhere but you may also remember him from Series 6’s “Marching to Shibboleth,” where he called for faith healer John Alexander Dowie to be tarred, feathered, and run out of San Francisco on a rail.
Had Mitchell-Hedges had stayed with Pancho Villa through 1916, he would have gone up against the U.S. Army… and a then-unknown private named Rondo Hatton. Rondo would later go on to have a rather unusual movie career, which we discussed in Series 1’s “Monster Without a Mask.”
Most of the items Mitchell-Hedges looted from Belize wound up in the British Museum. One of the experts at the Museum who authenticated the artifacts was renowned anthropologist Sir Arthur Keith. You may remember Sir Arthur from, well, two episodes ago when he was involved in the Piltdown Man hoax.
One of the notables who purchased Mesoamerican artifacts from Eugene Boban was Russian diplomat Count Sergei Stroganov. You probably only know Stroganov from the beef-and-noodle dish that bears his family name. Back in Series 7, #7 presented “You Are Who You Eat,” a whole episode about foods named after people
If this episode doesn’t have enough crystal skull content for you, go check out Episode 15 of the Tales from Aztlantis podcast. Kurly and Ruben talk about the fraudulent “Crystal Skull of San Luis Valley” and about the New Age fascination with crystal skulls in general. It’s one of my favorite episodes of their show, and I think you’ll love it too.
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