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How to Get A-Head in Museum Studies

By Nick J Booth, on 18 March 2014

This is a guest blog written by two Museum Studies MA Students – Jenni Fewery and Christina Hink – who are discussing an object they have been researching this term as part of their ‘Museum Curatorship’ module.

When we tell people we are Museum Studies students, the first question is usually, “Is that a real thing?” We are here to tell you that Museum Studies is indeed a real thing and share with you a bit of what we do. 

Carl Gottlob Irmscher: Freiburg murderer.

Carl Gottlob Irmscher: Freiburg murderer.

In our Collections Curatorship class, we research objects from the original origin to their current life within a museum collection. UCL curators “auctioned off” three of their most mysterious objects. As members of the History of Science and Medicine group we were offered the opportunity to research one of three objects that the curator wanted to know more about. After being offered a rare yet (slightly) underwhelming fossil and the famous Jeremy Bentham, cast 34 came into the foreground.

With only a surname and the word “murderer” written on an old label, we were instantly struck with curiosity. “Who was this man?” And “who did he murder?” “Why did Robert Noël want a cast of this man’s head?” More importantly, “How did the cast end up at UCL?” And so our research began.

We could tell you it was a long arduous journey tracking down the identity of the murderous villain, but that really wasn’t the case. After a quick search on the British Library catalogue Christina discovered the entire published list of Robert Noel’s plaster casts and more importantly the identity of our man number 34 detailing his misdeeds and Noel’s phrenological theories. And so without further delay, we introduce to you Carl Gottlob Irmscher: Freiburg murderer.

Close up of the plaster heads label.

Close up of the plaster head ‘murderer’ label.

Carl Gottlob Irmscher was born on 31 January 1812 in Saxony. Early on in his childhood it was observed that he had a generally bad disposition and often displayed cruelty. As an adult, he laboured in a manufactory and married in 1834.

The marriage was plagued with issues from the start. His new wife failed to mention that she had amassed considerable debts. She also believed him to be unfaithful and accused him of infidelity. For these reasons, a bitter loathing between the two developed. 

Irmscher was furthermore displeased with the fact that his wife had produced three children instead of one, which is what he desired. The second child, a boy, was sickly from birth. Irmscher grew to resent this child and the fact that he required more attention and financial resources. This resentment would result in murder.

Warning: The Following is not for the Faint of Heart

death masks for blog

Part of the Noel Collection of plaster heads on
display, including our man in the centre.

On 18 October 1838 Irmscher sent his wife away from the house. He took the two-year-old from his bed to a stream behind the house. Holding the child by his feet, Irmscher submerged the boy’s head under water until he drowned. He then transferred the child’s body back to his bed, as if the boy had died from natural causes.

Afraid that his dreadful deed would be discovered, he resolved to eliminate his ever-suspicious wife. On 27 October 1838 he asked his wife to descend to the cellar with a basket to retrieve potatoes. As she was ascending the stairs, he ‘felled’ her to the ground with a violent blow from a hatchet. He then issued additional blows to ensure his evil plot was complete.

Irmscher maintained his innocence throughout the trial. As he could not offer a viable defence, he was sentenced to death by sword, as was the custom of his region. His remains were brought to the Medical Chirugical Academy in Dresden, which is where Robert Noel happened upon it. Noel had a cast made of the head and added it to his growing collection of life and death casts.

Please stay tuned for more fun with phrenology…

Jenni Fewery and Christina Hink are Museums Studies MA students based at the Institute of Archaeology. For more information on the course please see here.

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