How Great-Uncle Harry Rediscovered the Lost Wax Process

Obituaries and memoirs, weird people

Great-Uncle Harry Bonforth was a missionary in the jungles of Peru, where the Amazon rainforests begin. Originally Harry was a Franciscan monk. In those days people joined the Franciscans so they could become missionaries and get free travel and lodging in exotic places, and I believe that was Harry’s deal. It was like being paid to work for National Geographic, except you didn’t just give cigarettes to naked savages, you baptized them too. And you fed the savages a little bit, generally a bowl of tapioca which they’d eat with their fingers, plus a glass of powdered milk and maybe “a piece of bread the size of a cracker,” as an old nun who’d been a friend of Great-Uncle Harry told us once.

Us kids were smartypants and couldn’t refrain from teasing her whenever she said that. “How BIG a cracker, Mother Morgan?” we’d say. “Like a little tiny Wheat Thin, or one of those humongous Zesta crackers [which are like four little saltines attached by a perforation so you could separate them, though they never really separated neatly on those dotted lines, and anyway they were a poor substitute for genuine Nabisco Saltines]?”

Mother Morgan would smile sweetly and chirp a little laugh, but I don’t think she really got the joke.

Many years later we figured that these savages, or their ancestors, had been baptized and converted to Christianity over and over and over again for four hundred years. They’d come and get baptized so they could get free grub, and maybe abduct a missionary, but they were no more susceptible to Christian Doctrine than a giant python. So centuries rolled on and the mission magazines kept telling us about the good work being done in leper colonies and among the jungle cannibals, and there was this endless supply of eager-beaver boys and girls who became Catholic friars and Protestant divines and starry-eyed nuns and stodgy, teetotaling Baptist missionary ladies … ready to convert the heathen over and over and over again, and get an all-expenses-paid exotic trip out of it as well!

Now you’d think these Protestant missionaries, and Catholic clergy and religious, would have figured this out by now: if you can’t save a jungle savage in 400 years, maybe you’d better turn your sights elsewhere. Maybe go after intelligent people, like Japanese or Greeks (yes, I know there are Christian Greeks; I mean the Godless ones). But the temptation was too fierce, all those free trips and exotic locales. Anyway no one was offering missionaries free trips to Kyoto or Mykonos.

But as to Harry. Gradually he went native, and began to believe whatever magic juju the savages believed. Missionaries will do that if they don’t keep strict boundaries between themselves and their wards. They’ll end up mating with the native wenches and having half-breed children who are twice as evil as the average savage, as they have a white man’s brain plus a savage’s cunning.

We don’t know how Harry went down the slippery slope, but I personally believe that what fascinated him at first were the shrunken heads. Most shrunken heads are strictly tourist stuff, made from monkey heads, or maybe other savages that looked like monkeys, as so many of them do. But the good stuff, the stuff that brought in the big money, were made from wayward tourists and National Geographic photographers. If they’d had Peace Corps volunteers in those days I suppose they’d have turned them into shrunken heads too, and I must say I wouldn’t blame them.

Harry was fascinated by primitive technology, which was often highly advanced within its narrow fields. He followed the whole process of head-shrinking with a gimlet eye, and rumor hath it he became quite the journeyman headshrinker himself. He sent my uncle and aunt a shrunken head adorned in bow tie and tiny straw hat, back around 1933, and while they were scared out of their wits, it appears Harry had become a master craftsman. That head now resides, sans tie and boater, in a drawer in a Peabody Museum someplace.

In Kon-Tiki, Thor Heyerdahl told a story about how a friend of a friend disappeared in the jungle. Later on his expedition party came across a savage selling a row of shrunken heads. And in amongst them was the head of their friend Tom, or Bill, or whatever his name was. It was perfectly recognizable, a miniature version of the fellow they’d known. After a fair amount of haggling, they bought the little head from the savage (it was expensive, as white people’s shrunken heads are scarce in those parts). Not knowing what else to do with it, they sent it to the guy’s wife as soon as they got back to civilization. So she’d have something to remember him by. Or maybe she could give him a Christian burial. It all sounds frighteningly tactless to me, but it’s the thought that counts, maybe. I’m sorry Heyerdahl didn’t follow up on the outcome of that tale.

After Harry had lived among the savages for a while, he learned that the raw material for shrunken heads was getting scarcer and scarcer. The government of Peru had banned their manufacture and sale, so if you were a savage and got caught with one, you might end up in a dank mountainside prison for ten years. The government posted these notices all over, so white explorers were less and less likely to penetrate the farthest reaches of the jungle because headhunters were everywhere. The immediate reaction of the savages was to create fake ones out of monkey heads. They’d dye the monkeys’ hair blond or red sometimes, but they still looked like monkeys. And the tourists wouldn’t buy them because they were a) ghastly looking and b) supposedly illegal.

But the savages had an alternative “technology,” if that is the word, and that was to manufacture shrunken heads that were completely fake. They mixed up a special kind of waxy clay, using cacao beans and wild-boar tallow, and sculpted their own “shrunken heads.” They often modeled these from pictures torn from old movie magazines. So some heads looked like Donald Barthelmess or a young Clark Gable. They may even have made Clara Bow and Jean Harlow shrunken heads, but generally they didn’t choose female subjects because these were a harder sell in the tourist bazaars of Lima, Peru.

The Peruvian federal police tried to raid these shrunken-head booths and arrest the proprietors. However, it was easily demonstrated that the heads weren’t made from actual human flesh. In fact, if you stuck a greased wick in the top of their skulls, you could use these heads as slow-burning candles. Soon all the artificial heads were made that way, with a strip of twine protruding from the top, so you could either hang up the head as a decorative novelty, or use it to provide subtle light for a romantic candlelit dinner.

A big problem with these sculpted heads is that they took a long time to make, one at a time. A savage sculptor might spend two days carving his creation, then gluing on hair and eyelashes and eyebrows and painting them with native dyes; and after all this he could expect to be paid no more than about fifty cents. Clearly there must be a more efficient way to do this, thought Uncle Harry. And so in a very small way he brought mass-production to the headwaters of the Amazon.

Using plaster-of-paris (or a reasonable substitute) he made molds of the most popular shrunken-head souvenirs. The biggest sellers proved to be likenesses of Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy, who were known the world over, even in the Amazon jungle. Harry and the savages would press heated, softened clay into the molds, let them harden for a day or two, then remove the two castings (front and back of head) and glue them together, clamshell-style, with the all-important wick growing out of the middle of the scalp. With this method, a single workman could mold and paint 20 or 30 heads a week, and earn as much as $25 each.

The savages were totally in awe of Harry for his ingenuity, both because they could now produce a multitude of heads, but also because they believed he had rediscovered a legendary process known to the Incas 400 years before. When the Spanish Conquistadores invaded Peru and drove the Incas to extinction, a few Inca craftsmen escaped to the distant rainforests and tried to dwell among the savages. There they taught them their secret “wax process,” by which it was possible to make the most intricate type of gold and silver jewelry. I believe they even wrote down instructions for them to follow, but since the savages couldn’t read Inca writing (or anything else) the secret process was soon forgotten, except as a dim memory in the mists of savage legend.

So Harry had apparently rediscovered the secret Inca process of reproducing items through clay and wax, long thought lost. The savages briefly believed him to be a god, or a reincarnation of the noble Inca craftsmen. They gave him the finest hut to live in, and adorned him with palm fronds and preserved python skins.

Relations soon grew sour, however, as the savages discovered that Harry was keeping most of the profits for himself. One night they resolved to kill him. But Harry sensed the unrest. Before dawn, he broke all the molds, packaged up the available inventory, and fled in a bark canoe to the Peruvian lowlands, where he caught a ride into Lima.

As luck would have it, the driver and passenger in the car were Franciscans, missionaries he had known slightly when he first came to Peru.

“Goodness, I do believe it’s Father Harry,” said the driver, looking him over. “Where have you been, Harry? Going native on us?”

“Deep research, boys!” Harry replied. “I have rediscovered the Lost Wax Process. But it is lost no more. Are you Laurel and Hardy fans, perchance?”

When he got to Lima, Harry unloaded the six dozen or so souvenir heads in his sack, and bought a steamship ticket to America. He soon settled in a seaside village in Maine, where for many years he taught summer arts & crafts classes, specializing in the manufacture of novelty items through the Lost Wax Process.