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.

11 Things You May Not Know About John Lennon

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

You know that John Lennon, who would have turned 78 years old today, was the leader and founding member of The Beatles. Let's take a look at a few facts you might not have known about him.

1. HE WAS A CHOIR BOY AND A BOY SCOUT.

Yes, John Lennon, the great rock 'n' roll rebel and iconoclast, was once a choir boy and a Boy Scout. Lennon began his singing career as a choir boy at St. Peter's Church in Liverpool, England and was a member of the 3rd Allerton Boy Scout troop.

2. HE HATED HIS OWN VOICE.

Incredibly, one of the greatest singers in the history of rock music hated his own voice. Lennon did not like the sound of his voice and loved to double-track his records. He would often ask the band's producer, George Martin, to cover the sound of his voice: "Can't you smother it with tomato ketchup or something?"

3. HE WAS DISSATISFIED WITH ALL OF THE BEATLES'S RECORDS.

Dining with his former producer, George Martin, one night years after the band had split up, Lennon revealed that he'd like to re-record every Beatles song. Completely amazed, Martin asked him, "Even 'Strawberry Fields'?" "Especially 'Strawberry Fields,'" answered Lennon.

4. HE WAS THE ONLY BEATLE WHO DIDN'T BECOME A FULL-TIME VEGETARIAN.

John Lennon (1940 - 1980) of the Beatles plays the guitar in a hotel room in Paris, 16th January 1964
Harry Benson, Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

George Harrison was the first Beatle to go vegetarian; according to most sources, he officially became a vegetarian in 1965. Paul McCartney joined the "veggie" ranks a few years later. Ringo became a vegetarian not so much for spiritual reasons, like Paul and George, but because of health problems. Lennon had toyed with vegetarianism in the 1960s, but he always ended up eating meat, one way or another.

5. HE LOVED TO PLAY MONOPOLY.

During his Beatles days, Lennon was a devout Monopoly player. He had his own Monopoly set and often played in his hotel room or on planes. He liked to stand up when he threw the dice, and he was crazy about the properties Boardwalk and Park Place. He didn't even care if he lost the game, as long as he had Boardwalk and Park Place in his possession.

6. HE WAS THE LAST BEATLE TO LEARN HOW TO DRIVE.

Lennon got his driver's license at the age of 24 (on February 15, 1965). He was regarded as a terrible driver by all who knew him. He finally gave up driving after he totaled his Aston-Martin in 1969 on a trip to Scotland with his wife, Yoko Ono; his son, Julian; and Kyoko, Ono's daughter. Lennon needed 17 stitches after the accident.

When they returned to England, Lennon and Ono mounted the wrecked car on a pillar at their home. From then on, Lennon always used a chauffeur or driver.

7. HE REPORTEDLY USED TO SLEEP IN A COFFIN.

According to Allan Williams, an early manager for The Beatles, Lennon liked to sleep in an old coffin. Williams had an old, abandoned coffin on the premises of his coffee bar, The Jacaranda. As a gag, Lennon would sometimes nap in it.

8. THE LAST TIME HE SAW PAUL MCCARTNEY WAS ON APRIL 24, 1976. 

Paul McCartney (left) and John Lennon (1940-1980) of the Beatles pictured together during production and filming of the British musical comedy film Help! on New Providence Island in the Bahamas on 2nd March 1965
William Lovelace, Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

McCartney was visiting Lennon at his New York apartment. They were watching Saturday Night Live together when producer Lorne Michaels, as a gag, offered the Beatles $3000 to come on the show. Lennon and McCartney almost took a cab to the show as a joke, but decided against it, as they were just too tired. (Too bad! It would have been one of the great moments in television history.)

9. HE WAS ORIGINALLY SUPPOSED TO SING LEAD ON THE BEATLES'S FIRST SINGLE, 1962'S "LOVE ME DO."

Lennon sang lead on a great majority of the early Beatles songs, but Paul McCartney took the lead on their very first one. The lead was originally supposed to be Lennon, but because he had to play the harmonica, the lead was given to McCartney instead.

10. "ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE" WAS THE BEST LYRIC HE EVER WROTE.

A friend once asked Lennon what was the best lyric he ever wrote. "That's easy," replied Lennon, "All you need is love."

11. THE LAST PHOTOGRAPHER TO SNAP HIS PICTURE WAS PAUL GORESH.

Ironically (and sadly), Lennon was signing an album for the person who was to assassinate him a few hours later when he was snapped by amateur photographer Paul Goresh on December 8, 1980.

Lennon obligingly signed a copy of his latest album, Double Fantasy, for Mark David Chapman. Later that same day, Lennon returned from the recording studio and was gunned down by Chapman, the same person for whom he had so kindly signed his autograph.

Morbidly, a photographer sneaked into the morgue and snapped a photo of Lennon's body before it was cremated the day after his assassination. Yoko Ono has never revealed the whereabouts of his ashes or what happened to them.

This post originally appeared in 2012.

The Stories Behind 7 Famous Songs about Smiling

Povareshka, iStock
Povareshka, iStock

World Smile Day (celebrated on the first Friday in October) was founded to honor Harvey Ball, the commercial artist who created the iconic yellow smiley face image in the 1960s. It's no wonder that the happy image took off—humans have evolved to be attracted to smiles. So it's also no wonder that we sing about their charms as well. Here are the stories behind seven smiley songs, from upbeat crooners to cheesy power ballads.

1. "SARA SMILE" // HALL & OATES

In 1975, "Sara Smile" was Hall & Oates's breakthrough single—their first to hit the Top 10—and its namesake influenced countless other songs by the duo. Daryl Hall's longtime girlfriend, Sara Allen (they were together for 30-some years), would later help pen many of their hits, like "You Make My Dreams," "Private Eyes," and "Maneater." But for this sweet ballad, Hall later said that it was a sincere appreciation about "the essence of a relationship … It's a heartfelt story. It's the real thing."

2. "A WINK AND A SMILE" // HARRY CONNICK, JR.

The easy swing of "A Wink and a Smile" may sound like an old jazz classic, but it was written specifically for the Sleepless in Seattle (1993) soundtrack by composer Marc Shaiman and lyricist Ramsey McLean. Shaiman and director Rob Reiner were big fans of Harry Connick, Jr.—he'd been scouted to do the entire soundtrack for When Harry Met Sally… four years prior; that album was hugely successful and won Connick his first Grammy—so when they needed a jazz pianist for a key song for Sleepless, they knew where to turn. "Wink" was nominated for Best Original Song at that year's Oscars but lost to Bruce Springsteen's "Streets of Philadelphia."

3. "YOUR SMILING FACE" // JAMES TAYLOR

It's been speculated that this sunny song was written about his then-wife Carly Simon, but according to a 2009 biography on Taylor, the song was about their young daughter, Sally. Imagining the "pretty little pout" of a toddler turning a proud dad "inside out" might just push this saccharine song into unbearable cuteness territory.

4. "YOU'RE NEVER FULLY DRESSED WITHOUT A SMILE" // ANNIE

Written by Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin for the 1977 Broadway musical Annie, "You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile" opened the second act with an upbeat Depression-era radio song meant to cheer the downtrodden public. For the 2014 remake of the movie starring Quvenzhané Wallis, Sia released a cover for the soundtrack that upgraded some of the more dated fashion references (like replacing "Chanel, Gucci" for "Beau Brummell-y") and made it an empowerment anthem as opposed to a 1930s radio jingle.

5. "SHE SMILED SWEETLY" // THE ROLLING STONES

"Here, Mick Jagger significantly tones down his approach to women," the tome The Rolling Stones: All the Songs declares. "There is no misogynistic double meaning." However, misogyny (or lack thereof) aside, it's still unclear who—if anyone—this ballad was about. In 1968, the year after "She Smiled Sweetly" was released, Jagger told Rolling Stone that their numerous songs centered on women were about "Different girls. They are all very unthoughtout songs." And though many, including music biographer Stephen Davis, pointed to Jagger's late-'60s relationship with singer Marianne Faithfull as being the muse for "the first real love lyric Mick wrote," Jagger later told NME that the song was meant to have religious connotations. "It was he smiled sweetly, but someone changed it," he said.

6. "WHEN YOU'RE SMILING (THE WHOLE WORLD SMILES WITH YOU)" // VARIOUS

This American standard was written in 1928 by the trio of Shay, Fisher, and Goodwin and released that year by Seger Ellis, a jazz musician from Texas. Ellis's early recording included an intro verse ("I saw a blind man/he was a kind man/helping a fellow along // One could not see/one could not walk/but both were humming this song") that was cut from the popular subsequent versions by people like Dean Martin, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, and Frank Sinatra.

7. "WHEN I SEE YOU SMILE" // BAD ENGLISH

In the late '80s, a supergroup of Babys and Journey musicians teamed up behind lead singer John Waite to form Bad English, a band SPIN once called "music for the masses who like their rock 'n' roll lite." Waite and company (including longtime Journey guitarist Neal Schon) started putting together their eponymous first album, and according to Waite, the band was opposed to doing any outside songs. Their label had sent them a Diane Warren power ballad though, and Waite insisted on using it; "When I See You Smile" is one of only two songs on the album that Waite doesn't have a writing credit on. He recorded the vocals in two takes, and the song hit No. 1 for two weeks in November 1989.

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