A woman holds a scull
Christina Brunson collects and sells oddities out of her Orrington home. Among her top sellers are human skulls. Credit: Julia Bayly / BDN

The one thing Christina Brunson really wants to complete her collection is an antique medical lobotomy kit.

They’d go nicely with the matched pair of human testicles floating in a jar.

Brunson deals in and collects so-called oddities, including human body parts, animal specimens, century-old medical equipment and unusual taxidermy displays.

Where others see the grotesque or creepy, Brunson sees wonderful curiosities, worthy of display.  

“I was always interested in taxidermy specimens. I decided one day to look for oddity groups or things like that to join,” Brunson said. “I found some and discovered I am not a freak.”

Brunson admits to being a “little odd” and was thrilled to find a hobby that matched her personality, despite it being somewhat uncommon.

That is changing, Brunson said, and points to the recent first Maine oddities show in April that drew a capacity crowd and where she was able to score a mounted taxidermy giraffe leg. The growing interest in collecting oddities has become more than a hobby. She has joined a mostly online community spread around the country making a business of buying and selling these unusual and sought-after items.

Christina Brunson collects and sells oddities out of her Orrington home. Credit: Julia Bayly / BDN

Brunson is not a body snatcher nor does she rob graves. It is completely legal to buy, sell and collect human body parts in Maine.

She displays her oddities on a series of bookshelves in her home.

The human testicles and a human skull occupy a place of honor, but they have a lot of company. They share space with more human bones, a glass medical vial of antique adrenolyn complete with a glass syringe to inject it, a dried puffer fish, a kitten floating in a glass jar, a fossilized sperm whale tooth, bones from a human infant, old prescriptions for heroin, zebra feet and an array of taxidermy rodents.

“If you like the gothic aesthetic you will probably like oddities,” she said. “Goths tend to be more of the people collecting.”

She recently sold a human skull — they start at around $1,000 — and upgraded to the one she has now.

“The skull cap comes off and you can see the imprint of the brain,” she said as she held it up. “It was a teaching specimen, and it’s very interesting.”

Brunson was able to turn her hobby into a home-based business and now advertises oddities for sale using social media.

The skull in Brunson’s collection will list for $1,600. Certain tribal skulls can go for $10,000 or more.

Anything that adds more of an oddity factor to a skull — medical school markings on the inside, a full mandible, deformities or a bullet hole indicating the original owner was killed — can up the price.

No one knows who the skulls or full skeletons were in life, Brunson said. For one thing, there are medical privacy laws and for another, they are all antique.

“They are all old teaching specimens for the most part,” she said. “Back in the day in the 1800s you could have people who dug up graves, and sadly, you are never going to really know if the skull you have came from that.”

One of the reasons human bones, skulls and even full skeletons are available now is that, up until the 1950s, medical students were required to have a complete human skull. Since then, plaster molds and computer modeling have been used in their place.

It is illegal to own any Indigenous American bones or body parts, Brunson said.

Christina Brunson collects and sells oddities out of her Orrington home. Among her top sellers are human skulls and preserved human body parts like a matched set of testicles. Credit: Julia Bayly / BDN

However, there is a legal market for the tribal skulls from what she calls “headhunter communities” located in some African countries.

Those skulls can be very difficult to find, Brunson said, making them something of a holy grail item in the world of oddities, along with any human parts that have been plastinated.

Plastination is a method of anatomical preservation in which all the body’s fluids are removed and replaced with a plastic polymer that is allowed to harden.

“You can actually see the veins, you can see the arteries and the muscles — you can see everything,” Brunson said. “The tissue is still attached but it does not rot.”

Oddity collectors are not specific to human parts.

“Taxidermy big cats are huge, but big cats are tricky,” she said. “If you want a big cat you have to buy it in the state you are living in. It cannot cross state lines.”

Even more difficult is acquiring taxidermy or parts from pets like cats or dogs.

“The law says you can’t buy those at all, even if they are antiques,” Brunson said. “Those have to be gifted to you if you want one.”

The loophole to buying a long dead pet is mummification — mummies can be sold — or if it is a wet specimen, meaning the entire body — fur and all — is preserved in a solution in glass.

Brunson said she gets many of her human items from medical collections.

“Doctors tend to keep things,” she said. “Sometimes they sell them, or they die and their family members think the things are gross and they sell them.”

Which is how she was able to get her hands on the human testicles in a jar.

“These are really rare,” Brunson said. “It’s insanely difficult to find them as a wet specimen and definitely insanely difficult to find them as a matched pair, which these are.”

She values the matched set at around $5,000.

One of the more terrifying items is the antique human tonsil-extractor that looks very much like a pair of sharp, rusty pliers.

Christina Brunson collects and sells oddities out of her Orrington home like this antique tonsil remover. Credit: Julia Bayly / BDN

On the might-as-well-be-impossible-to-find list are the old lobotomy items.

“You are just never going to find an authentic used lobotomy item,” Brunson said. “A lot were lost over time and a lot were destroyed because of the negative connotations because of how barbaric the whole process was back in the day.”

Used as a treatment for a variety of mental illnesses up until the middle of the last century, surgeons used the instruments to drill a pair of holes into the skull. They would then push a sharp instrument into the brain and stir it around to cut the connections between the frontal lobes and the rest of the brain.

“If I did find one?” Brunson said. “I have customers who would spend upwards of $500,000 on one.”

As for what makes an item odd? According to Brunson, oddity is in the eye of the beholder.

“It’s whatever tickles your fancy,” she said. “Whatever you find odd, or weird or different.”

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.