Bill Jamieson became fascinated with Ecuador's Jivaro tribe
and their hallucinogenic rituals. When he found out they shrunk
heads, he was hooked, By Stephen Smith
a woman called Fabio comes to clean Bill Jamieson's apartment.
She'll swab the kitchen floor, dust the ostrich in the dining
room and the coftin in the corridor, maybe walk a vacuum over
the zcbra pelt on the living room floor. "Bill has the
best stuff." she says. "I love it." Bill is
an obsessive collector which means that he has so much stuff
it's too much entirely for one person to get around in a day.
Lucky for Fabio. Bill's realistic that way. He doesn't ask
here to tend the illuminated saltwater aquarium that's housed
in the truncatad nineteenth - century hearse at the foot of
his bed: there's a fish guy who comes in once a week to see
to the well being of the anglefish, the shrimp untl the Filipino
electric clam. Nor does Fabio have to worry herself with Jamieson's
collection of shrunken heads from tht Amazon jungle; Jamieson
handles thos; himself. Of course, they're pretty much as clean
as they're going to get, so mostly he ends up taking the heads
he likes best out from under their bell jars and admiring
their grimaces in the light.
we're clear on this, while the ostrich is full-size but faux,
the heads are the real article, human-born. formerly tenanted,
gravely downsized - ugly mugs as big as your fist. Jamieson
begun his quest for these curiosities last July; that's when
his notorious ad went into The Globe and Mail: "AUTHENTIC
SHRUNKEN HEADS wanted by collector. Serious calls only."
He now has ten of them in his possession. including a gruesome
pair he calls the Ramones and a redheaded white mim nicknamed
Dr. Livingstone. And the phone's still ringing.
WHO'S forty-one, has a kind of serenity in his smile, something
that might come to your lips if you were afloat sensory deprivation
tank. He has a recurrent, high register. non-maniacal laugh.
"I'll babble," he says, "so stop me." What
he wishes for is space to expnnd his personal museum and if
he buys a share of a warehouse with friends, he may soon have
it. Until then he'll keep museum. home nnd office crammed into
his two-level, heavily deco apartment above a restaurant in
the Queen West area.
a moment for the impression of density to replace one of clutter
the first time you pass through Jamieson's front door. Before
you can get your coat off, you're in curiosity overload: it's
like walking into the underlit stash vault of someone who's
just bock from plundering a natural history museum with a
sideline in decorative thirties furniture.
in the dining room that opens on your immediate right-hand
reveals a sleek Parisian dining room set and plumage (the
ostrich is here as well as at couple of African death musks
onto shrink it and it's yours"'- and there were those
who thought they had a shrunken head when it was actually
an awkward fake made out of goat or monkey heads. Jamieson
has a fruit bowl full of those on his dining room table.
there were the serious sellers. The owner of a Queen Street
antique store called and Jamieson bought his charter head,
a particularly grotesque candidate with gaping nostrils and
a mess of raven-shiny hair. Dr. Livingstone - Jamieson's "white
guy" - came on a call from Kitchener. "A guy was
married to a woman from Ecuador and her family had it in Colombia.
I bought it off them sight unseen: they mailed it to me."
The major haul (five heads) came from a woman in Germany whose
husband had designed nightclubs for Al Capone in Chicago during
did he pay? Jamieson recoils from talk of money, for fear
of losing bargaining ground when it comes to future acquisitions.
The market in shrunken heads is tiny nowadays; sensitive to
the implications of displaying human remains (shrunken heads,
after all, come from victims of murder), museums don't make
a fuss of the ones they have in hand (the Royal Ontario Museum
reputedly has two securely in storage - a fact it won't confirm
or deny) and aren't much interested in acquiring new ones.
Still, Jamieson does have competitors in the field. There's
a collector in Baltimore with twelve in his possession, along
with twenty-two pieces of mummified remains. Then there's
an institutional rival in Ripley's Believe It Or Not chain
of outlandish museums. "I try and buy them for two or
three thousand dollars," Jamieson will say. "White
heads are more valuable. A couple of years ago, Ripley's paid
in excess of $15,000 U.S. for a head at an auction in London.
The thing is, the trophy had once belonged to Ernest Hemingway."
HEADS wear small, pained expressions on their faces. Dr. Livingstone
looks like he's been beaten up, which, of course he has. Some
of the others look like they're asleep. One or two others appear,
uncannily, to be wincing before a blow, as if their last mortal
expression has endured. Except for Dr. Livingstone, whose complexion
is defnitely pallid, the heads are green in the
face, as if they'd been soaked in tobacco soup, subsequently
soot-enhanced and finally grass-stained. "I prefer the
ones with the long hair," he says. "I think they're
the most effective. From a looks point of view."
wants to know, of course, is just how you shrink a head. The
"recipe" adorns the back of Jamieson's T-shirts;
describing it out loud, he manages to make it sound deeply
nasty but altogether manageable. "They tried to take
the head as close to death as possible," he says. "Sometimes
a person wouldn't even be dead and they'd be cutting his head
were like surgeons. They'd cut the head right up the back
of the neck. Basically what they'd do is peel the face off
the head. And then they'd turn it inside out and scrape it.
Then they would sew the back of the neck up, the eyes shut,
the lips also."
and brain they'd discard into a convenient body of water-sacrifice
it to the spirit of the anacondawhile simmering the leftovers
in a pot of berry-cured water. "Within an hour, an hour-and-a-half,
it would just tighten up and shrink to about a third of its
heat pebbles or hot sand and put them in at the neck and shake
them, "just like clothes in a dryer," Jamieson says.
"They would do this until the skin became like leather.
They'd use charcoal and also berries and rub the face to keep
it moisturized, so it wouldn't crack. After they'd gone through
the whole process and were happy with the size and everything,
they'd hang it over a fire and let it smoke all night. They'd
trim the hair to suit."
washes his hands after handling his heads; otherwise, he can
smell them on his skin. "It's almost like a smoke,"
he says. "If I don't have them covered, you can smell
them. It smells a little musty." When certain squeamish
friends are expected, he's been known to hide one or two of
his ghastlier exemplars. But mostly the heads aren't an issue.
Fabio blithely cleans around them. Jordan, Jamieson's eleven-year-old
son who's over every week, actively approves of them: "Shrunken
heads are cool." As for dates, he says the collection
hasn't scared anyone off yet. "I guess," he says,
"the way it works is that I just don't hang out with
the kind of people who'd be bothered by them."
the heads are inert as the ostrich in his dining room or the
wood in his front door. "I'm pretty spiritual," he
says. "I believe in a lot of things and I believe in other
worlds and I believe anything's is possible. But I really believe
the heads are just like turtle shells: what was in them is gone.
As humans we tend to put ourselves on a pedestal that we're
much more than other animals, but really we're not. I think
of them in that respect, so it doesn't bother me at all."