The Phony Disease That Helped Researchers Identify Bach's (Purported) Body

Rischgitz/Getty Images
Rischgitz/Getty Images

Three days after Johann Sebastian Bach died from a stroke in July 1750, his body was laid in an oak coffin and hauled to a cemetery outside the city walls of Leipzig, Germany. Like many burials back then, no headstone was placed to mark Bach’s plot. Within years, the exact location of the composer’s grave had faded from memory.

Bach died a respected musician, but was by no means a superstar. That would change over the coming decades: An 1802 biography about his life—as well as a burgeoning interest in the musical works of the past—would launch him to the top of the newly formed classical music canon. Bach grew to become a source of national pride, and musical pilgrims worldwide were hungry to visit his grave to pay him homage. In 1894, a group set out to find where, exactly, he was buried.

Rumor suggested that Bach’s corpse lay six paces from the south door of St. John's Church, but nobody was certain. “The oral tradition apparently originated in 1894 from a 75-year-old man, who in turn was informed about the location 60 years earlier by a 90-year-old gardener employed at the graveyard,” write Richard H.C. Zegers and several other scholars in the Medical Journal of Australia [PDF]. That same year, Pastor F. G. Tranzschel, the vestry chairman at St. John’s, ordered an excavation based on that information.

Dr. Wilhelm His Sr., a Leipzig professor of anatomy, served as the dig’s leading egghead. As workers dug into the slop and mud of the church graveyard, His inspected the skeletons to see if the bones resembled those of a 65-year-old man. He described the scene as “heaps of bones, some in many layers lying on top of each other, some mixed in with the remains of coffins, others already smashed by the hacking of the diggers.” (To say the least, this was not history’s most scientific excavation.)

Thankfully, there was one telltale sign to look for: Most of the coffins in the cemetery were pine, but Bach’s bones were supposedly entombed in a casket of pricey oak. The crew found at least three such coffins. One contained a young woman (definitely not Bach), a second contained remains that had been smashed to splinters (hopefully not Bach), and a third contained a beautifully preserved skull (Hallelujah?). In the words of musicologist and Bach expert David Yearsley at Counterpunch, Wilhelm His believed this skeleton “belonged to a man of distinction.” He studied the cranial cavity and even attempted to reconstruct the skull's face, later claiming in a book that this "strange skull of very distinct and by no means ordinary forms" belonged to J.S. Bach. Shortly after, the skeleton was laid in a crypt below the altar of St. John's Church.

But there was always a lingering doubt that His got it wrong. In 1949, Bach’s purported skeleton was exhumed and later reburied in St. Thomas Church in downtown Leipzig (where the composer once worked as Kapellmeister, or music director). Before this celebrated second burial, researchers decided to give the bones a second look. The skeleton was re-examined by the oral surgeon Wolfgang Rosenthal, who claimed to see proof of Bach’s identity not in the skull—but in a region, well, slightly south.

Rosenthal was intrigued by abnormal bony growths, called exostoses, around the skeleton’s pelvic ring, as well as growths at sites of muscle and ligament attachment, called enthesophytes, near the arms. Both are signs of occupational stress, common in physically active people who make repetitive motions day-in and day-out.

Rosenthal wondered: Could a lifetime of organ-playing cause somebody to develop these bony growths? After all, an organist must regularly make awkward, repetitive foot and arm movements—especially if he or she practices a lot. To test his hypothesis, Rosenthal x-rayed the hips of 11 professional organists organists who, like Bach, had been playing since childhood. In a paper published more than a decade later, he claimed that all of them showed signs of the same bony growths as Bach's purported bones. Rosenthal came away convinced that not only had he re-confirmed the identity of the skeleton, he had discovered a new medical ailment: Organistenkrankheit, or organist’s disease.

Unfortunately for Rosenthal and fans of weird diseases with fun German names, the surgeon may have been mistaken. In 2007, researchers at the Academic Medical Center of Amsterdam tried to replicate Rosenthal's experiment, this time adding a control group of non-musicians. According to their report in the Medical Journal of Australia, of the 12 church organists x-rayed, only 33 percent had growths near the pelvis. Damningly, 75 percent of the non-organ-playing control group also showed an incidence of bony hip growths.

While the researchers admitted that their sample size was small, their work does appear to throw a wrench in Rosenthal's hypothesis. “Our findings do not support the existence of Orgnistenkrankheit as a condition among organists,” the research team wrote. Furthermore, they concluded that "given the uncertainties about the burial site, His's controversial facial reconstruction, and Rosenthal's irreproducible Organistenkrankheit, it is unlikely that the remains are those of Bach." Evidence, it seems, that hips really can lie.

13 Fascinating Facts About Nina Simone

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Nina Simone, who would’ve celebrated her 86th birthday today, was known for using her musical platform to speak out. “I think women play a major part in opening the doors for better understanding around the world,” the “Strange Fruit” songstress once said. Though she chose to keep her personal life shrouded in secrecy, these facts grant VIP access into a life well-lived and the music that still lives on.

1. Nina Simone was her stage name.

The singer was born as Eunice Waymon on February 21, 1933. But by age 21, the North Carolina native was going by a different name at her nightly Atlantic City gig: Nina Simone. She hoped that adopting a different name would keep her mother from finding out about her performances. “Nina” was her boyfriend’s nickname for her at the time. “Simone” was inspired by Simone Signoret, an actress that the singer admired.

2. She had humble beginnings.


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There's a reason that much of the singer's music had gospel-like sounds. Simone—the daughter of a Methodist minister and a handyman—was raised in the church and started playing the piano by ear at age 3. She got her start in her hometown of Tryon, North Carolina, where she played gospel hymns and classical music at Old St. Luke’s CME, the church where her mother ministered. After Simone died on April 21, 2003, she was memorialized at the same sanctuary.

3. She was book smart ...

Simone, who graduated valedictorian of her high school class, studied at the prestigious Julliard School of Music for a brief period of time before applying to Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music. Unfortunately, Simone was denied admission. For years, she maintained that her race was the reason behind the rejection. But a Curtis faculty member, Vladimir Sokoloff, has gone on record to say that her skin color wasn’t a factor. “It had nothing to do with her…background,” he said in 1992. But Simone ended up getting the last laugh: Two days before her death, the school awarded her an honorary degree.

4. ... with the degrees to prove it.

Simone—who preferred to be called “doctor Nina Simone”—was also awarded two other honorary degrees, from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Malcolm X College.

5. Her career was rooted in activism.

A photo of Nina Simone circa 1969

Gerrit de Bruin

At the age of 12, Simone refused to play at a church revival because her parents had to sit at the back of the hall. From then on, Simone used her art to take a stand. Many of her songs in the '60s, including “Mississippi Goddamn,” “Why (The King of Love Is Dead),” and “Young, Gifted and Black,” addressed the rampant racial injustices of that era.

Unfortunately, her activism wasn't always welcome. Her popularity diminished; venues didn’t invite her to perform, and radio stations didn’t play her songs. But she pressed on—even after the Civil Rights Movement. In 1997, Simone told Interview Magazine that she addressed her songs to the third world. In her own words: “I’m a real rebel with a cause.”

6. One of her most famous songs was banned.

Mississippi Goddam,” her 1964 anthem, only took her 20 minutes to an hour to write, according to legend—but it made an impact that still stands the test of time. When she wrote it, Simone had been fed up with the country’s racial unrest. Medger Evers, a Mississippi-born civil rights activist, was assassinated in his home state in 1963. That same year, the Ku Klux Klan bombed a Birmingham Baptist church and as a result, four young black girls were killed. Simone took to her notebook and piano to express her sentiments.

“Alabama's gotten me so upset/Tennessee made me lose my rest/And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam,” she sang.

Some say that the song was banned in Southern radio stations because “goddam” was in the title. But others argue that the subject matter is what caused the stations to return the records cracked in half.

7. She never had a number one hit.

Nina Simone released over 40 albums during her decades-spanning career including studio albums, live versions, and compilations, and scored 15 Grammy nominations. But her highest-charting (and her first) hit, “I Loves You, Porgy,” peaked at #2 on the U.S. R&B charts in 1959. Still, her music would go on to influence legendary singers like Roberta Flack and Aretha Franklin.

8. She used her style to make a statement.

Head wraps, bold jewelry, and floor-skimming sheaths were all part of Simone’s stylish rotation. In 1967, she wore the same black crochet fishnet jumpsuit with flesh-colored lining for the entire year. Not only did it give off the illusion of her being naked, but “I wanted people to remember me looking a certain way,” she said. “It made it easier for me.”

9. She had many homes.

New York City, Liberia, Barbados, England, Belgium, France, Switzerland, and the Netherlands were all places that Simone called home. She died at her home in Southern France, and her ashes were scattered in several African countries.

10. She had a famous inner circle.

During the late '60s, Simone and her second husband Andrew Stroud lived next to Malcolm X and his family in Mount Vernon, New York. He wasn't her only famous pal. Simone was very close with playwright Lorraine Hansberry. After Hansberry’s death, Simone penned “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” in her honor, a tribute to Hansberry's play of the same title. Simone even struck up a brief friendship with David Bowie in the mid-1970s, who called her every night for a month to offer his advice and support.

11. You can still visit Simone in her hometown.

Photo of Nina Simone
Amazing Nina Documentary Film, LLC, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

In 2010, an 8-foot sculpture of Eunice Waymon was erected in her hometown of Tryon, North Carolina. Her likeness stands tall in Nina Simone Plaza, where she’s seated and playing an eternal song on a keyboard that floats in midair. Her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, gave sculptor Zenos Frudakis some of Simone’s ashes to weld into the sculpture’s bronze heart. "It's not something very often done, but I thought it was part of the idea of bringing her home," Frudakis said.

12. You've probably heard her music in recent hits.

Rihanna sang a few verses of Simone’s “Do What You Gotta Do” on Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo. He’s clearly a superfan: “Blood on the Leaves” and his duet with Jay Z, “New Day,” feature Simone samples as well, along with Lil’ Wayne’s “Dontgetit,” Common’s “Misunderstood” and a host of other tracks.

13. Her music is still being performed.

Nina Revisited… A Tribute to Nina Simone was released along with the Netflix documentary in 2015. On the album, Lauryn Hill, Jazmine Sullivan, Usher, Alice Smith, and more paid tribute to the legend by performing covers of 16 of her most famous tracks.

This article originally ran in 2018.

Bob Dylan's Lyrics, Poetry, and Prose Showcased at Chicago's American Writers Museum

A collection of Bob Dylan poems that was auctioned off by Christie's in 2005.
A collection of Bob Dylan poems that was auctioned off by Christie's in 2005.
Stephen Chernin, Getty Images

Like a Rolling Stone, Tangled Up in Blue, Blowin’ in the Wind, and The Times They Are a-Changin’ are among Bob Dylan’s best songs, but the 77-year-old singer’s writing isn’t limited to lyrics. Dylan has also penned poems, prose, an autobiography, and a nearly four-hour movie (that got terrible reviews).

An ongoing showcase at Chicago’s American Writers Museum is paying homage to Dylan the writer. The "Bob Dylan: Electric" exhibit, which will remain on view though April 30, 2019, highlights dozens of items from Dylan’s expansive career.

“The world knows Bob Dylan as a prolific songwriter,” museum president Carey Cranston said in a statement. “'Bob Dylan: Electric’ gives the public a chance to see how his writing shaped more than just American music, but American literature as a whole.”

The period covers Dylan’s “electric” career, beginning with the time he made his electric guitar debut at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. The exact instrument he played at the festival—a 1964 sunburst Fender Stratocaster—is naturally one of the items on display.

Visitors can also check out Dylan’s personal copy of The Catcher in the Rye, which he read in the summer of 1961. He jotted down notes and drew doodles in the back of the book, including a bottle of rye and the words “good book.” (Interestingly enough, a talent agent approached Dylan the following year and asked if he’d play Holden Caulfield in a movie adaptation of the book. For better or worse, that never came to fruition.)

Dylan’s writing was recognized with a Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016. At the time, the committee's decision to award a songwriter rather than a novelist was a controversial one. The New York Times dubbed it a “disappointing choice,” while Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh (author of Trainspotting) was a little more blunt, calling it “an ill-conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies.”

Nonetheless, Dylan accepted the award, eventually releasing a video detailing his literary influences. Moby-Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front, and The Odyssey are just a few of the singer-songwriter’s many inspirations.

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