The Boston Phoenix
November 4 - 11, 1999


The skeleton crew

Alicia Potter gets under the skin of some men with a very unusual hobby

Craig Webber A rabbit scurries in front of Craig Webber's red Toyota 4-Runner, and Webber hunches over the steering wheel and swerves to hit it.

"Ahahahaha!" he laughs, mimicking the snicker of a movie maniac. The cottontail scampers to safety beneath a scrubby hedge. "It could've been mine!"

Though he's only joking -- he's going about five miles an hour in a parking lot -- this bunny is still luckier than it'll ever know.

In a small room off the basement of Webber's Plymouth home are the bleached white craniums of 30 animals. On one cream-colored wall hang the skulls of a wart hog, a badger, a red fox, a gray fox, a black bear, a snapping turtle, a macaque monkey, a steer, a bull, an alligator, an Arctic wolf, a raccoon, a mink, a skunk, a hyrax, a coyote, a caribou, a porcupine, and a beaver. This spring, Webber hopes to add a human.

Craig Webber is a bone collector. A lanky man with amber-tinted aviator glasses, a rough beard, and gray hair the length of toothbrush bristles, he's part of an obscure subculture that has made a hobby out of accumulating the bones of animals -- including man's. Although no hard numbers exist as to how many share Webber's pastime, it's a sector of society certain to be getting more attention -- and more uneasy glances -- when The Bone Collector, a movie in which Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie track down a serial killer with a penchant for bones, opens this weekend.

The automatic link between bone collecting and the macabre sets Webber and the fellow members of his skeletal crew bristling, however. Bone collectors are not, they insist, an underground of sickos or Satanists. Instead, they see themselves as a curious, passionate breed: naturalists whose predilection for femurs and fibulas extends from a lifelong love of the outdoors.

"I'm just the same as a stamp collector," says the 50-year-old Webber, "except I like to collect something a little more unusual."

According to the bone collectors, what is scary about their hobby is the ambiguous nature of the laws regulating the commercialization of animal parts. Inadvertently acquire the wrong skull -- that of the common robin, for example -- and the penalty can be a hefty fine or even time in jail.

Still, Webber isn't about to give up on that rabbit head. "I've always been fascinated with skulls," he says. "Maybe because I'm getting older, my mortality is coming up. I think I can identify more with the guy in Shakespeare looking at the skull. You can see he was wondering what the other guy had thought. You look at that skull and say, `What was he thinking? What was he doing?' "

As he proudly shows off his "side collection" -- an array of mammal penis bones -- it's hard not to ask the very same questions about Craig Webber.

Humans are irrepressible collectors, and long before the birth of the Beanie Baby, we collected bones. The ancestors of humans first gathered them to use as tools and, later, as ornaments, musical instruments, and weapons. But it was several hundred thousand years later -- around 33,000 BC -- that someone recognized the artistic possibilities of a mastodon tusk and started carving. Eventually, art gave way to science in the 15th and 16th centuries, when scientists began to cull animal bones to study the relationship between the creatures' skeletal structures and their behavior.

Not surprisingly, the historical record says little about whether any Neanderthal possessed the cave equivalent of Craig Webber's basement. In the US, bone collecting has been a popular hobby among Southwestern ranchers, and it began attracting more disciples when natural-history retailers such as the Nature Company became popular in the '80s. Suddenly, Georgia O'Keeffe-inspired cow skulls stared out from many a yuppie mantel. Today you can buy fossils and shark teeth in the local mall.

But ask the modern-day collector what made him a fan of the osteological, and you're likely to hear a more involved story than a trip to Copley Place: a tale of a childhood spent hunting with Dad, walking through woods, or digging in dirt. (By most accounts, the majority of bone enthusiasts are male.)

"I've always been an outdoors person," says Webber, whose house skirts the Myles Standish State Forest, near where he played as a boy. "I was never a really successful hunter, because I was always spending too much time exploring."

Webber, who is also an avid collector of toy and real guns, has been collecting bones for about seven years. It started with a fascination with decorative skulls; even today, his upstairs guest room is crowded with more than a hundred cranial knickknacks. A curio cabinet is filled with ivory, glass, and gemstone miniatures; the bed's headboard is festooned with two grinning ceramic skulls.

It didn't take long before actual bones started creeping into his collection. A caribou vertebra led to a snapping-turtle jaw, and, gradually, Webber's passion for decorative skulls was superseded by one for the real thing.

"Once you start having that sort of stuff, it just keeps evolving," he says, sounding a little like a junkie explaining the escalation from pot to heroin.

Part of that evolution for many a collector is penis bones, also referred to by the Inuit word "oosik" or the Latin "bacculum" (meaning "little rod"). Found in many mammals that require extra rigidity during copulation, the bones are, like penises themselves, a study in diversity: the mottled, 22-inch, thick-as-a-carrot walrus dong; the four-inch, wishbone-delicate raccoon wiener; the one-inch, tapered beaver stub.

Though several cultures gather these types of bones to fashion fertility ornaments, Webber insists that his own display isn't a statement about his masculinity. He just likes to gross people out.

"Nobody knows about the penis bone," he explains. "It has shock value. It's kind of fun to hand them to people and say, `Guess what this is?' I like to watch the expression on their faces, especially the girls. They say, `A finger?' And I say, `No, no, no.' Finally, I tell them what it is, and they usually do one of two things: they drop it, or they say too bad men don't have one."

Skull Nicknacks Webber is more than eager to talk about his acquisitions, but by all accounts bone collecting isn't a very social activity. There are no osteological societies, no cranium conventions, no international skull swaps. The reasons for this are varied. One collector chalked up the lack of a social network to the fact that the activities most often related to the hobby -- hunting and fishing -- attract more-solitary types.

Henry Galiano, a bone collector and owner of the country's first natural-history retailer, 17-year-old Maxilla and Mandible, in New York City, sees the situation differently. He finds his bone-buying customers -- whom he describes as anyone from "doctors and lawyers to children and teachers" -- to be simply too disparate to come together.

The bone collectors are well aware that the popular perception of their hobby is that it's for weirdoes. As a result, they're not exactly surprised that the movie The Bone Collector is a fright show. "If the general public thinks we're gothic or Satanic," says Webber, "why shouldn't Hollywood?

"It's like guns," he explains. "They're a tool that can be used for good or evil. Obviously, there's a bad side. And it's the same with skulls. I'm a separate person from the movie. I'm not into anything weird whatsoever. Now if I had an altar and was praying to the skulls, that might be different."

The bone collectors I spoke to share one viewpoint distinctly at odds with the sinister reputation of their hobby: they see bones as beautiful. The cavernous sockets, the sculpted snouts, the differences between the ground-down molars of an herbivore and the knife-edged incisors of a carnivore -- all are enough to send them gushing.

Jay Villemarette, of Oklahoma City, who owns the country's largest private bone collection (2000 specimens), explains it like this: "Skulls are not just skulls. They're beautiful in nature and form and structure. Sometimes I just sit back and relax and look at them."

Still, to be a bone collector is to understand that not everyone appreciates the poetry of bones -- although most folks are awfully curious.

"Everybody finds out that I collect bones and they say, `Geez, that's gross! I don't like that!' " says Webber. "I always get the comments, the very negative comments, at the beginning. But every single person that's come over to visit that's heard about my bones has asked to look at them.

"And I have to say," he adds with an air of unabashed satisfaction, "that most of them ask for the penis bones first."

Penis Bones Assembling a top-notch bone collection takes commitment, perseverance, and networking. Oh, and a charge card helps, too.

Many bones are there for the taking. You just have to have a high tolerance for blood and guts to get them. Like the other bone collectors I spoke to, Jay Villemarette isn't above slowing down for some good-looking roadkill. In fact, one of his most treasured bone-collecting memories came as a teen, when, on the way to his grandmother's house for Christmas dinner, he and his father lopped off the head of a horse, dead on the roadside, in order to procure its skull.

"It was the best present I had," recalls Villemarette. The skull is still in his collection.

An interest in hunting is also helpful. Webber, who has been a hunter for much of his adult life, acquired several of his bones through his own hunting trips or through friends who shoot. The most dramatic result is a 450-pound black bear that Webber shot in Alaska and whose pelt dominates the wall of his skeleton-filled guest room: the beast's skull is displayed downstairs, his penis bone across the room in the curio cabinet.

And, of course, an understanding spouse is an asset. Although she drew the line at exhuming the family cats, Webber's wife, Rena, admits her husband's hobby "makes it really easy to buy him birthday and Christmas gifts."

If some of this sounds ethically questionable -- these are self-described lovers of the outdoors, after all -- Webber is quick to point out what he believes to be an important distinction: these animals are already dead. "I guess I'm politically correct in that respect," he explains. "If I found out a gray squirrel had a penis bone, I wouldn't go shoot one for the sake of having a bone. But if I'd come across a roadkill, I'd check him."

The process of cleaning an animal bone is not unlike that of preparing a Sunday roast. Webber cuts off the animal's head with a six-inch hunting knife, being careful to aim his blade for the soft area between the vertebrae, where the slicing's easier. He then carves off most of the flesh, sometimes resorting to a toothpick to pop the meat out of the small cavities along the animal's jaw. The parts are then placed in a pot -- Webber's is similar to the kind used for cooking lobster -- filled with water and sodium carbonate, a compound used by taxidermists to loosen remaining flesh. The bones boil for two to four hours.

Per his wife's orders, Webber usually does all of this outside, using a gas tank and burner. He does admit, however, that he once cleaned a raccoon skull and penis bone right on the kitchen stove. Webber insists that the boiling animal parts don't smell funny; in fact, he says, "No one would ever know what you were doing." Once the skulls are clean, he bleaches them with a paste of magnesium carbonate and hydrogen peroxide.

For the less hands-on collector, a handful of retailers specializing in the sale of bones have appeared in the past 15 years. Though these businesses primarily supply skulls and skeletons to medical schools, high schools, artists, and museums, they report that recreational collectors make up a stable sector of their clientele. In fact, one distributor, American Headhunter, of Dayton, Texas, estimates that about 50 percent of its sales come not from teachers or scientists, but from hobbyists like Webber.

The largest supplier is Skulls Unlimited International, owned by Jay Villemarette. Flip through a catalogue and you'll find among its 104 pages the skulls of an ostrich ($89), a pigeon ($18), a cat ($42), a buffalo ($249), a camel ($499), and, yes, several humans -- both adult ($599) and fetus ($450).

Where exactly the human specimens originate isn't always easy to pinpoint. A decade ago, most human skeletons were shipped to the US for educational study from India. In 1986, that country passed a law forbidding the exportation of human remains. These days, a small number of skulls come from China and Europe, but, according to those in the bone business, the majority are from stateside med schools, universities, and private collectors who no longer want the specimens.

If there are new sources, nobody's talking about them. So human skulls circulate much like silver dollars: the same handful of specimens are just changing owners. This limited supply, Henry Galiano reports, has jacked the prices up to a point where "they're really out of reach of most people."

Nonetheless, Webber is saving up. "My human is my ultimate quest," he says. "It's really the one thing that would complete the collection."

Craig Webber Unlike, say, baseball cards or coins, bone collecting has its risks. Some of them are even deadly: fresh roadkill, for example, is a breeding ground for botulism and tetanus. Yet what seems to be worrying the bone collectors I spoke with isn't the possibility of death; it's the possibility of getting arrested.

To put it simply, the dead have legal rights. The laws concerning human remains are pretty clear: it's illegal to exhume a body, and in Massachusetts, you are required by law to report the discovery of a corpse or human skeletal remains.

Still, the commercial trade of "regular" skulls is legal in most states, provided that the retailer has a permit. This allows sales for educational or scientific purposes. Since there are no laws that specifically address bone collecting as a hobby, many enthusiasts buy their specimens through authorized retailers such as Skulls Unlimited without any legal repercussions.

Wildlife laws, however, are another story. Though no one disputes that animals, especially endangered species, deserve protection from commercialization, almost everyone I spoke with -- even those enforcing the laws -- admits that the legal boundaries can be incredibly confusing. "Very few pieces of [conservation] law are as complicated as this," says Ellie Horwitz, chief of information and education at the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. "The difficulty comes because the laws were passed at different times and tweaked here and there. It's not as straightforward as one would like it to be."

To say the laws are arbitrary is an understatement. According to Horwitz, only state residents with in-season hunting licenses are legally permitted to touch roadkill, regardless of who killed the creature. And she reports that though it is illegal in this state to commercially trade wildlife parts -- including the bones of dead animals -- it is okay to sell deer heads.

"Why that's separate," says Horwitz, "is anyone's guess."

Federal laws seem equally arcane. According to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, passed in 1918, it's against the law to own or sell a skeleton, skull, or even a single feather of species such as robins, cardinals, and blue jays. This stipulation was originally passed to protect the decimation of these birds, who aided our agriculturist forebears by eating crop-destroying insects. Still, even now, if a blue jay bangs into your window and dies naturally, you can't remove any part of its body for sale; doing so could result in shockingly stiff punishment: up to $5000 in fines and up to one year in jail.

"Because we can't tell when a bird was killed deliberately or accidentally, there's just a flat prohibition on the commercialization of migratory birds and parts," explains Terry Tarr, a law-enforcement official from the Northeast division of the US Fisheries and Wildlife Service.

Though both federal and state officials say it's unlikely that your average hobbyist would get caught and penalized in these situations, those in the bone business are a definite target. For example, in 1993, Paul Micallef of American Headhunter coughed up $2500 in fines after a European dealer enclosed two skulls of chameleons -- an endangered species -- in his shipment of "various lizard skulls." Micallef claims he never specifically requested the contraband bones, but he decided to pay the penalty in order to avoid a more expensive trial. If found guilty, he would have faced 20 years in prison and up to $100,000 in fines.

It's a practice that has some bone collectors crying extortion. "Why would I go up against the federal government for two $5 lizard skulls?" says Micallef. "Somebody probably got a real nice vacation in the Bahamas with my $2500."

As for what this means to collectors such as Webber, Horwitz suggests that if you're going to buy bones, it's best to know exactly how they were obtained. And even then, she advises, be wary. "[Collecting bones] is a hobby I wouldn't get involved with personally," she says. "There are so many ins and outs; you might inadvertently cross lines you don't want to cross. I can certainly think of other things that are easier to collect."

Though Craig Webber admits to feeling a tad paranoid, he's still not about to take Horwitz's advice. Of all things, he reports his bone collection is helping him stay connected to the living.

"Anybody can go out and get a catalogue and buy 100 skulls," he explains over a bowl of venison stew. "I like to get them from friends, family, people with stories. I try to discover them rather than just going out and buying them like stamps."

In fact, as Webber talks about what his collection says about him, his answer touches upon one of the last subjects you'd expect to hear in a discussion about the bleached-out remains of dead animals: acceptance.

"I think the skulls I get the most satisfaction from are the gifts," says Webber. "I know a lot of my family and friends wouldn't want one in their house, but they care enough about me that they'll go out and get one for my birthday or for Christmas. It shows that they really think a lot about me."

As for the mass of bone beneath his own gray brush cut, Webber says: "Hopefully, I'll turn up in somebody else's collection. Somewhere where they can appreciate me."

Alicia Potter is a freelance writer living in Boston. She can be reached at

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