A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Frederick Mitchell-Hedges's letter to his brother about his new acquisition indicates from the outset that he was not above embellishing a story, even an already good story. It is impossible to know where Mitchell-Hedges got the "pre-1800 B.C." date, or his tale of five generations of polishers, but six years later, he was claiming to have discovered the crystal skull himself, and not in a London salesroom. On May 31, 1949, Echo, a local Bournemouth paper, reported the existence of a "Skull with an evil eye" in his collection:
The remarkable thing about the skull, confided Mr. Mitchell-Hedges, is that scientists are of the opinion that it dates back to 1600 BC and it was made by at least five generations working from father to son to shape it out of a block of rock crystal by rubbing it down with sand! Mr. Mitchell-Hedges found it when he led a British expedition to uncover traces of the lost Maya civilization in Central America in the 1930s. It had been taken by the High Priest into the depths of the Temple where he concentrated on it and willed Death."
In spinning his yarn, Mitchell-Hedges may here be relying on some information he's gathered from The Crystal Skull, a popular adventure story written by Jack McLaren in 1936. It features Lyndon Cromer, an ethnologist who supports his research with thievery, and a crystal skull that he steals. A local person in New Guinea sees it and exclaims, "It is the skull of air. The skull of air!" He then tells Cromer that, "He who holds the skull of air so that it looks at another man knows that other man's life. He knows all about that other man. That is the power that the skull of air gives to him who holds it." On his part, Cromer envisions the "tremendous interest that the arrival of this crystal skull in London would cause—of the excitement of the British Museum experts, of the meticulous comparings between this newly-found skull of crystal and the one already there."
A novel about a larcenous ethnologist and a supernatural crystal skull might have inspired Frederick Mitchell-Hedges.
Five years after making these amazing claims, Mitchell-Hedges more or less repeated them in his fanciful memoir, Danger My Ally, although minus the part about his having found it in Central America. He writes (1954: p. 240),
It is at least 3,600 years old and according to legend was used by the High Priest of the Maya when performing esoteric rights. When the High Priest willed death, with the help of the skull, death inevitably followed. It has been described as the embodiment of evil. I do not wish to try and explain this phenomenon.
Had he forgotten about Sotheby's?
When Mitchell-Hedges died in 1959, the crystal skull became the property of his adopted daughter, Anna. This was despite the fact that he may have had two sons, according to various sources. One was named John (aka Bumble) who is described in 1921 as a "crack shot" with pistol and rifle at age six (Times & Directory, April 23, 1921). The other was James, who was living with Mitchell-Hedges in Cape Hatteras in 1936, according to a newspaper account that described him as fighting off an attacking shark at the age of 13 (New York Times, August 26,1936).
Anna Mitchell-Hedges, née Anne Marie Le Guillon, claimed to have personally discovered the crystal skull, while accompanying her father on an expedition to Lubaantun. But the story of when and how she found the skull varies with the telling, and range from discovering it beneath the stones of a collapsed altar atop a pyramid to being lowered down into a cave, beneath or inside a pyramid, to retrieve it. These events are detailed in various sources as having taken place in 1924, 1926, 1927, and 1928, in contrast to her father's version of discovering it somewhere in Central America sometime in the 1930s.
I recently found a file of letters Anna Mitchell-Hedges wrote to Frederick Dockstader, then director of the Museum of the American Indian in New York City, between 1964 and 1973. This correspondence is housed in the Cultural Resource Center of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian. Dockstader initially contacted Anna on March 4, 1964, writing,
I was delighted recently to have a visitor who...had just come from a chat with you. This was a welcome opportunity for me to learn that a relative of Mr. Mitchell-Hedges was living. I am taking the liberty of directing this note to you in that regard.
Continuing, he wrote that he had exhibited some of the artifacts donated by her father, and that "it would be a distinct honor not only to show you what we have done, but also the degree to which we have made use of the Mitchell-Hedges collection." Dockstader may have been courting Anna, whom he assumed to be heir to Mitchell-Hedges's estate, and as her father had donated collections, perhaps he thought the daughter might do the same.
Anna Mitchell-Hedges in 1980, holding the "Skull of Doom" above the British Museum's crystal skull (Courtesy Jane M. Walsh)
Anna responded quickly on March 10, 1964, writing, "I am Sammy of the book, and I together with Jane, father's secretary, used to accompany father when he came to the museum. Were you there then and do you remember us?" This first letter (OC 276, folder #11) is mostly a four-page typed description of a Russian icon called "The Black Virgin of Kazan," which was exhibited at the New York World's Fair. (According to Daniel Loxton, editor of Junior Skeptic, it was a later copy of the original icon.) Anna noted that her father had begun negotiations with San Francisco art dealer Frank Dorland to promote and sell the icon, but "After father passed away Mr. Dorland and I commenced negotiations again and I eventually sent it to the States two years ago." In almost an afterthought, she adds:
When I come out [from England] it is so that I take out the "Skull of Doom," which was the only thing my father ever kept from any of the expeditions. It is made of pure rock crystal and is over 3,600 years old. I am taking it out so that research may be done on it, and I hope that it too may one day find a home where it will be revered by all who see it.
The correspondence includes various typescripts of Anna's contracts with Dorland, the "Black Virgin of Kazan" promoter, who wrote Anna in November 1963:
The Skull of Doom, or perhaps more likely the Skull of Knowledge, as I have said many times before, I would like to handle this art treasure for you...we can launch a programme about the Skull and get your price. (OC 276, folder #11)
In July 1964, Anna Mitchell-Hedges signed an agreement with Dorland to promote the skull for its eventual sale with an asking price of not less than $50,000.
Three months after the contract was signed, Anna sent Dockstader a typed statement, dated November 1, 1964, which was titled "Mitchell-Hedges Godshead [sic] Skull-Mayan Skull of Divine Mystery." The written description (OC 276, folder #11) avers that the skull is "estimated by the British Museum to be at least 3000 years old," and that it "was found by Anna Mitchell-Hedges in British Honduras in 1928 in the ruins of an abandoned Mayan complex." The document also claims the skull has special powers, including that it wards off "the evil eye and carries protection from heaven, being white crystal and highly polished, it defeats all evils of witchcraft and is a benevolent divine magic dealing with heaven and angelic forces." Apparently Dorland drew up this document as part of his promotional efforts. My research indicates that it is the first time Anna claims to have found the skull herself. The statement appears to have the intention of establishing a provenience (history and find spot) that could be verified solely by Anna Mitchell-Hedges, since all of the people involved in her adopted father's expeditions to Lubaantun were dead by then.
Dorland's estimate of age comes presumably from Frederick's newspaper descriptions, since no source indicates that the British Museum ever estimated the age of the skull. The British Museum's own crystal skull was previously thought to be Aztec, which if it had been true, would date it to around A.D. 1500, so 500 years old not 3,000.
Dorland distanced himself from the book Phrenology in a letter to Anna Mitchell-Hedges during a difficult time in their promoting of the crystal skull. (National Museum of American Indian Archives Collection)
By 1970, Anna Mitchell-Hedges, then 63, and Frank Dorland had a falling out, partly because of publications in which he clearly had a hand that detailed a variety of progressively outlandish claims for the skull and characterized him as its owner and keeper. The exaggerations and mythologies put out by Dorland and his surrogates seem less bothersome to Anna than the reports that the skull belonged to him, and that he still had not found a buyer. At this point Dorland proposed that he and Anna collaborate on a book of their own, to be written by novelist Richard Garvin:
I have convinced Dick Garvin (who does sell) it is worth the percentage to you and me and you to furnish the information. This makes it a better book, makes more money all the way around. The skull is not sold, it is put to use in this manner and for public appearances to boost sales and interest. (OC 276, folder #11 - 3/10/1970)
Garvin's book, The Crystal Skull (1973), reports that "The skull, it is claimed, was discovered rather recently--in the Lubaantun Tomb, part of the abandoned ruins of an enormous Mayan citadel, in British Honduras. The year was 1927" (p. 13). As mentioned earlier, in correspondence and in published sources, the array of years given for the skull's discovery includes 1924, 1926, 1927, and 1928. "I am a little hazy about the exact date," Anna wrote in a note to Dockstader, "but we started the expedition in 1926 and left before the rainy season in 1927" (OC 276, folder #11 -9.20.1970).
Frederick Mitchell-Hedges, in the company of Lady Mable Richmond Brown, spent two very brief stays in Lubaantún, the first in 1924 and the second in 1925. They may possibly have had a third visit in 1926, but it is not entirely clear that they ever returned after 1925. In January 1927, Mitchell-Hedges was supposedly attacked and robbed in Bournemouth of a case with papers and five or six shrunken heads. But the much publicized assault was later proven to be a hoax. In 1928, Mr. Mitchell-Hedges was involved in a libel trial, the result of a suit he had brought against the Daily Express, the newspaper that had exposed the robbery hoax. He lost the suit. A New York Times article (February 15, 1928) noted that
During the cross-examination of Hedges, he was questioned about his exploration trips by Mr. Jowitt, Daily Express counsel, who sought to throw doubt on some Central American discoveries and adventures related by Hedges and his companion, Lady Richmond Brown. Lord Chief Justice Lore Hewart, in summing up today said to the jury: "You may not think that Mr. Jowitt put the case too high when he said that Mr. Mitchell-Hedges was an imposter."
Frederick Mitchell-Hedges was not at Lubaantun in 1928, nor was Anna. The British Museum archaeologist J. Eric S. Thompson was at the site in 1927 and 1928. Thompson wrote about Mitchell-Hedges in Maya Archaeologist (1963), and his characterization was not flattering (p. 73):
He had penetrated the interior of British Honduras to discover this immense mysterious city, which in fact, had been known to archaeologists and European residents since the last century and had been described in print many years before. Worst of all from an archaeological point of view, he had workers build a wall on one of the terraces to make a more impressive photograph. Later he and his collaborator [Lady Richmond Brown] wrote a book, Land of Wonder and Fear; to me the wonder was how he could write such nonsense and fear of how much taller the next yarn would be.
Anna eventually settled on the year 1924 for her great find, and specifically on January 1, which was, coincidentally, her 17th birthday. It seems odd that she would initially have such a hazy memory of such a momentous birthday discovery. Her father never mentioned that Anna found the skull, and his 1954 book Danger My Ally was the first account in which he said she even accompanied Lady Richmond Brown and him to British Honduras. According to Mitchell-Hedges's hometown newspaper, the Daily Mail had received a cable toward the end of March 1924 from the "explorer" to announce, "that, with Dr. T.W.F. Gann, of Liverpool University, the eminent archaeologist and authority on Honduran antiquities, he [Mitchell-Hedges] had discovered the ruins of a vast Maya city in the heart of British Honduras" (March 31, 1924). The paper quotes Mitchell-Hedges's cable describing the astounding find of a "vast truncated pyramidal mound.... The stone structure reared to a height of 300 feet above the valley." A January 24, 1931, letter to the New York Times quotes Mitchell-Hedges as having
penetrated a hitherto unknown portion of the hinterland of Panama, discovering a new race of people [in 1922-1923]. In 1924 with Dr. T.W.F. Gann, he discovered the ruins of the vast Maya City of Lubaantún in the interior of British Honduras. He returned there on another expedition in 1925 and commenced the work of clearing and excavating the Maya City.
According to the article, the British Museum sent T.A. Joyce with the expedition in 1926 and then took over the work.
In response to questions posed by Frank Dorland about the connection of Anna's father to the Museum of the American Indian, Dockstader wrote:
He and Lady Richmond-Brown explored many Middle American areas, collectively and in behalf of the Museum. Some of this was financed by Lady Richmond Brown, some by Dr. Heye, the founder of this museum. (OC 276, folder #11 - 8/11/67)
By 1971, Dockstader was thinking about exhibiting the Mitchell-Hedges crystal skull at the Museum of the American Indian, but he was concerned about Phrenology (1970), a book with ties to Dorland, written by Sybil Leek, a British witch. Leek claimed that F.A. Mitchell-Hedges had brought the skull from London to Central America, and that it may originally have belonged to the Knights Templar, whose main temple was in central London. This upset Dockstader, who wrote Anna asking about the skull's origins. I found no response from her.
In March 1972, Dockstader wrote to Anna that the Crystal Skull would be the centerpiece of an exhibition called "The Skull in Indian Art," but he still had questions:
I'll not beat around the bush. Just recently, J. Eric Thompson heard that the Skull was here at the Museum, and wrote a friend about it, apparently in answer to that friend's query. In turn, the friend sent Thompson's comment on to me. It was such a surprise, that I am typing it here.... "The crystal skull was acquired by Mitchell-Hedges in an antique shop in London sometime around 1928 [sic]. The London dealer who owned it was Sidney [sic] Burney. J. J. Braunholz of the British Museum told me he had seen the piece displayed in the shop before Mitch bought it. There was no provenience on the skull--it was generally assumed at that time to have been North Italian. Sometime later Mitchell Hedges published an article about the Skull in a local newspaper in Bournemouth where, I think, he was then living. The story of the skull's origin in that article was different; I forget the details, but it had nothing to do with Lubaantún.
Notes in British Museum files indicate that archaeologists and curators there worried about the director of the Museum of the American Indian exhibiting the skull without knowing its actual history. Although there was a great deal of hesitancy, it would seem, about calling into question the veracity of the Mitchell-Hedges family, the BM's Eric Thompson apparently found a way to get this information to Dockstader.
Anna's "Statement of Fact" (National Museum of American Indian Archives Collection)
Anna responded with a "Statement of Fact" on official-looking typed letterhead, "Anna Mitchell-Hedges F.R.G.S., F.L.S." It reads:
The Rock Crystal Skull was discovered by me upon one of my father's expeditions to Lubaantun during 1926/27. I found the skull itself after we had cleared a very heavy wall, which had fallen on the altar, which we also moved. The rocks were so heavy we were only able to move about 5 or 6 a day, not having the equipment at hand today. It was therefore another three months before I found the jaw, which was about 25 yards away from the skull. This was my father's expedition therefore the Rock Crystal Skull was his. With us on this expedition was: Lady Richmond Brown (deceased); Jane Harvey Houlson (Father's sec. dec.), Capt. C.C. Joyce (Brit Museum dec); Dr. Gann, Mr. Tuke (British Painter) and myself, beside help. Also father's brother-in-law Mr. George Hudson who came along to take photographs. (OC 276, folder #11)
According to Mitchell-Hedges himself, writing in his 1931 book Land of Wonder and Fear (p. 16), the party who "first discovered" Lubaantun "consisted of Lady Richmond Brown, the late Mr. H.S. Tuke, who came with us in order to depict on canvas the true atmosphere of the tropics, Dr. Thomas Gann, and myself."
Gann, who had actually published notes about the ruins in 1903, presumably led Mitchell-Hedges and his party there in 1924. In his book Mystery Cities; Exploration and Adventure in Lubaantun, published the following year, Gann noted (pp. 128-129) that Frederick Mitchell-Hedges and Lady Brown had arrived a few days ahead of him, but
not knowing either Spanish or Kekchi, had been unable to hire any labour for cleaning bush over the ruins, so had been marking time till I turned up. Both were feeling rather gloomy, as on the previous day Hedges had been obliged to shoot Michael, a pet ape to which they were both very much attached as he had eaten some sort of poisonous irritant leaf in the bush, which brought on diarrhea, vomiting, and intense pain. His end was, however, painless, and he was accorded the honor of burial beneath one of the ancient Maya pyramids of Lubaantun.
One would suppose that if Gann saw fit to mention Michael, the couple's pet monkey, that he would have noted the presence of Mitchell-Hedges's daughter, Anna, but neither he, nor Mitchell-Hedges, nor Lady Richmond Brown ever mention her in connection with this visit. That is, until Frederick Mitchell-Hedges' 1954 book Danger My Ally in which he wrote or, perhaps more accurately, rewrote the history of his Lubaantun expeditions.
Altogether our excavations extended over three years.... In 1925 Mabs's [Lady Richmond Brown] place was taken by Jane Harvey Houlson and the following year Sammy, after several years in London, New York and France--where she lived with some of her relatives and, incidentally, learned the art of manicuring and hairdressing--joined us. This was our last visit. As far as I know, no white man has been there since.
The above statements are fabrications. Numerous newspaper accounts describe Lady Richmond Brown and Mitchell-Hedges on expeditions from the early 1920s until the early 1930s. She bankrolled nearly all of their travels, she purchased their yacht, Cara, and donated their finds to the Heye Foundation's Museum of the American Indian. A June 11, 1930, New York Times article noted that Lady Richmond Brown was sued for divorce by her husband, Sir Melville Richmond Brown, naming Mitchell-Hedges as co-respondent. Despite her companion's marriage to Lillian Agnes (Dolly) Clarke, Mitchell-Hedges and Lady Richmond-Brown traveled together for at least a decade. The final split with Midge, as she called him, seems to have occurred when Mabs discovered he'd bigamously married a dancer named Dorothy Copp in New York in 1938. Ms. Copp quickly "divorced" Midge in New Jersey in April 1938, after a life-threatening jungle honeymoon, luridly reported in the Hearst newspapers in May, and written in the same style as Land of Wonder and Fear and Danger My Ally.
Within two months of the very public "divorce," Lady Richmond Brown wrote George Heye, the founder of the Museum of the American Indian, requesting the return of the Cuna collections from Panama that she had donated to his museum. Heye, on a trip to Alaska, responded politely, saying
Your letter of June 28 has been forwarded to me here. I must confess at some surprise at its contents, for my impression was that the Indian textiles were a gift to the Museum, and our exhibit of the same has always borne your name as the donor. (OC 138, folder 32 – 7/12/1938)
George Gustav Heye, founder of the Museum of the American Indian (NMAI)
In December of that year, Heye wrote to Mitchell-Hedges,
I had a most surprising letter from Lady Richmond Brown...she said she would like the Chucunaque specimens that she lent to the Museum returned,...I had understood that these were a gift. (OC 138, folder 32 – 12/28/1938)
Midge responded in a January 16, 1939, letter denouncing his former benefactor,
I should ignore the letter from Lady R.B. definitely the entire Chucunaque specimens were a gift from us to the museum. I had no knowledge that Lady R.B. had personally lent, given, or sent, any specimens to your museum. In fact I cannot imagine where she could have collected them. It's just absurd.
This may be why Mitchell-Hedges wrote Lady Richmond Brown out of his recollections of their expeditions after 1925 in Danger My Ally; but since Mabs died in 1946, his version of events would not be contested.
Mitchell-Hedges not only recast Lady Richmond Brown's role in his memoir, but also sought to create more mystery about his Skull of Doom: "How it came into my possession, I have reason for not revealing" (Danger My Ally, p. 243). Anna's explanation of this statement to Dockstader was that her father bought the skull at Sotheby's because,
Father was wanting to return to Lubaantun, but was short of money and Capt. Joyce introduced him to Mr. Burney. Mr. Burney loaned father money and father left the skull with him as security until he could redeem it.... Then they heard that he had been claiming he found the skull etc and that he had placed it into the sale room...father was livid when he heard this although it had been withdrawn. He repaid Burney with interest and reclaimed the skull.... (OC 276, folder #11 - 9/20/1970)
If Joyce introduced Mitchell-Hedges to Burney and if Midge had wanted to join Joyce's British Museum expedition to Lubaantun, then this would have taken place around 1927. If Burney had lent him the money, then why didn't Mitchell-Hedges return to Lubaantun? Perhaps this was because of his unsuccessful liable suit? But then, why would he leave the skull for years before reclaiming it by purchasing it at the auction house? Another inconsistency is Anna's statement that Joyce introduced her father to Burney, since the Official Mitchell-Hedges Website (accessed 11/08) quotes Anna as saying that Mr. Burney was an old school chum of her father's. If the story about her father buying back his very own (or Anna's very own) artifact were true, why wouldn't he mention this fact in the proud announcement to his own brother? He reports on the collection that "grows and grows and grows," and tells his brother that the newest acquisition is a crystal skull from the Sydney Burney collection. He mentions the skull's close relative in the British Museum, but says nothing about Lubaantun, nor that he thinks it is Maya.