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.

Elvis Presley’s Lincoln Limousine "Family Car" Is Hitting the Auction Block

Elvis Presley not only liked peanut-butter-bacon-and-banana sandwiches, he also loved cars. The King owned more than 100 automobiles, including several limos. Whereas most of his cars—and his plane—have been preserved at Graceland, one of Elvis’s lesser-known and most sentimental cars has almost been forgotten. Atlas Obscura reports that Presley’s 1967 Lincoln Continental Executive Limousine by Lehmann-Peterson will hit the auction block in Monterey, California, on August 15, courtesy of Mecum Auctions.

“Colonel” Tom Parker, Presley's manager, gifted the limo to Elvis and Priscilla on their wedding day in 1967. For the '60s, it featured a lot of advanced amenities, like air conditioning, power steering, power brakes, power windows, a power antenna, and a power front bench seat. Over the years, it became known as the Elvis Presley Family Car. Elvis’s imprint is all over it: The limo’s Tennessee license plate reads “1-Elvis,” and comes with a copy of the car’s original title application, with Elvis’s name on it.

But since Presley’s death in August 1977, the car has fallen into disrepair—dust covers the black exterior and interior. In 2014, the car was found in car collector James Petrozzini’s collection after Petrozzini died. As Mecum Auctions states, Petrozzini liked to use the limo to pick up his son and his friends from school while wearing a chauffeur’s hat and white gloves.

If you’re interested in bidding, Mecum Auctions recommends calling for an estimate. For comparison: In 2018 Presley’s 1971 Mercedes-Benz sold for $116,600.

12 Facts About Woodstock For Its 50th Anniversary

Tucker Ransom, Getty Images
Tucker Ransom, Getty Images

From August 15-18, 1969, an estimated 400,000 spectators attended Woodstock, a music event held in Bethel, New York, that quickly became a defining moment in the counter-cultural movement of the era. Nearly three dozen acts performed over the course of four days, ranging from the Grateful Dead to The Who to Jimi Hendrix, who closed out the show. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of this milestone in music history, we're looking at some of the things about the festival you might have missed.

1. Woodstock was banned from its original site because of toilets.

Attendees at Woodstock pose while sitting inside a car trunk
Three Lions/Getty Images

Woodstock was conceived in early 1969 by a group of twenty-somethings: Artie Kornfeld, Michael Lang, Joel Rosenman, and John Roberts. In January of that year, the four men—Kornfeld and Lang as music industry vets and Rosenman and Roberts as venture capitalists who provided the financial backing— formed the company Woodstock Ventures, named for the New York town that Kornfeld and Lang were scouting to build a recording studio in. Woodstock had long been known as an artists' retreat about two hours north of New York City, and even has its own "Artists Cemetery" for a variety of creative types.

The original site of the festival was intended to be at Howard Mills Industrial Park in Wallkill, near Middletown, New York. After negotiations with landowners, the four believed they had found a solution. But Wallkill residents shot the idea down, fearing that an influx of visitors—possibly under the influence of alcohol or drugs—would be potentially problematic. By insisting the concert's portable toilets weren't up to code and refusing to grant a permit, Wallkill effectively banned Woodstock from taking place there just a month before its scheduled August 15 start date.

2. Woodstock was saved by a farmer.

When Wallkill fell through, promoters turned to Bethel, New York, a small town with just 2366 residents where a farmer named Max Yasgur owned a 600-acre dairy farm. As in Wallkill, Bethel residents were not terribly enthusiastic about hosting a concert that would attract a considerable crowd. But Yasgur didn't share their apprehensions. Even though he was middle-aged, blue-collar, and as far from a "hippie" as he could be, he respected the desire of concert-goers to share in a communal experience and allowed organizers the use of his property for a fee of $50,000. He even came out at one point to address the crowd (above), congratulating them on the assembly. It was said he received as loud an ovation as Jimi Hendrix.

3. Woodstock wasn't meant to be a free concert.

The crowd at Woodstock is pictured
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Mounting Woodstock was not intended to be an altruistic venture. Kornfeld, Rosenman, Roberts, and Lang paid for talent, production costs, Yasgur's site, and incurred other expenses in the hope of profiting from ticket sales. One day's admission was $7; attending all three (which stretched into early Monday morning due to rain and technical delays) was $18. But as people began to show up to Bethel days before the scheduled start, the infrastructure was still incomplete. Fences still needed to be erected and ticket booths set up. With no practical way of turning away crowds, the partners decided to make it a free event for people who had not purchased one of the 100,000 tickets that had been pre-sold. Of the 400,000 who ultimately attended, 300,000 were never charged an admission fee. (The total number of attendees would have likely been more if not for traffic back-ups. Some people walked miles to the site.)

After expenses, the partners ran into a deficit. Two of them—Kornfeld and Lang—sold their share in Woodstock Ventures, the company they had formed to put on the concert. Roberts and Rosenman eventually saw a modest profit after other income sources, like the 1970 concert film Woodstock, were tallied.

4. Many cows were in attendance.

Attendees at Woodstock sit near their car
Three Lions/Getty Images

Yasgur's farm was a functioning site of business, which meant that the incoming crowds were going to be displacing the cattle usually present on site. His workers tried to corral them into a fenced area, but so many people ran over the barrier and set up campgrounds that they decided to just let the cows wander and mingle with attendees. One of Yasgur's employees, George Peavey, told United Press International that the cows and music fans "seem to be getting along together fine."

5. Jimi Hendrix got $18,000 to perform.

Booking big-name acts didn't come cheap. Jimi Hendrix was Woodstock's highest-paid performer, earning $18,000 (roughly $125,000 in 2019 dollars, accounting for inflation). Creedence Clearwater Revival, the first act booked, received $10,000. The Who received $6250 (although another report has them receiving $11,200) and Joe Cocker made a relatively paltry $1375. Sha Na Na got $750, while Quill was the most economic booking at $375.

6. Woodstock's musical acts needed to be helicoptered in.

Musician John Sebastian performs at Woodstock in 1969
Tullio Saba, Flickr // Public Domain

The traffic leading into the event was so awful that Sweetwater, which was due to open the festival, didn't make their scheduled start. (Richie Havens went on instead.) The band was airlifted to the grounds by helicopter so they could go on second. A number of other performers also traveled by air to circumvent the traffic issues.

7. Woodstock's crowd was actually very well-behaved.

Attendees at Woodstock are pictured
Three Lions/Getty Images

Despite concerns from both Wallkill and Bethel over the anticipated misbehavior of attendees, virtually no reports of violence ever came out of the festival. When those in attendance used telephones to place long-distance calls back to home, local switchboard operators were amazed that all of them said "thank you." Lou Yank, the chief of police in nearby Monticello, declared them "the most courteous, considerate, and well-behaved group of kids I have ever been in contact with in my 24 years of police work." The only real impropriety came as a result of concession food shortages, driving some attendees to loot nearby farmland for corn and produce.

While it's possible law enforcement could have arrested many, many people for marijuana possession, they opted not to. As one state police sergeant said, there "wouldn't be enough space in Sullivan County, or the next three counties, to put them in."

8. Even the ice had acid in it.

Attendees at Woodstock in 1969 are pictured
Paille, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Woodstock has a well-earned reputation for being a trip in more ways than one. Drug use was pervasive and seemingly inescapable. In 2009, the Who's John Entwistle told Billboard that he decided to drink a bourbon and Coke and realized that someone had spiked the ice with acid. The use of psychedelic drugs was estimated to have resulted in 25 "freak-outs" every hour the first night of the festival; emergency medical staff and members of a commune known as the Hog Farm sat with attendees until the drugs wore off.

9. The Who's set was crashed by Abbie Hoffman.

Performing on day two of the festival, British rock band the Who experienced an interruption when political activist Abbie Hoffman (who had co-founded the Youth International Party the previous year to protest the Vietnam War) rushed on stage to protest the imprisonment of White Panther Party leader John Sinclair. Pete Townshend swung at Hoffman with his guitar and ushered him off-stage. It was probably worth the hassle, as Townshend later said he thought their performance boosted sales of their Tommy album.

10. There were public service announcements between each act.

In an era before cell phones, trying to communicate with friends in a sea of humanity was challenging. To try and facilitate important messages, a member of the production staff named Edward "Chip" Monck (seriously) took to the microphone to deliver announcements, alerting the crowd to unattended children or to notify people where to find help. "Kenny Irwin, please go to the information booth for your insulin," he said. "Paul Andrews, Mike needs his pills and will meet you where he did yesterday." In the above video, you can also hear someone—possibly Monck—warning the crowd about some potentially harmful "brown acid" making the rounds.

11. The original Woodstock site is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

A plaque stands at the original site of Woodstock in Bethel, New York
Mario Tama, Getty Images

Cementing its status as a historic site, the concert area was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2017. The farm is now known as the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts. It contains a campus, museum, and 15,000-seat amphitheater. The site will be host to a number of 50th anniversary events, including performances by Ringo Starr and original Woodstock acts Arlo Guthrie and Carlos Santana the weekend of August 16, 17, and 18, 2019.

12. Even the garbage had a message.

People clean up the garbage left behind at Woodstock in 1969
Three Lions/Getty Images

Woodstock's pacifist vibe extended to the extensive clean-up required after the crowds began to dissipate following Hendrix's closing performance on Monday, August 18, 1969. By then the audience had dwindled to just 25,000 or so. When Hendrix was finished, a crew set about picking up the considerable garbage left behind. Surveying the concert site in a helicopter, co-promoter Michael Lang noticed that workers had started to shovel the trash in formation. A peace symbol appeared, made up of the litter left behind.

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