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6 Historical Heads Stolen From Their Graves

F.W. Murnau isn’t having a very good week. At least, his skull isn’t. Neither are the managers at the Stahnsdorf South-Western Cemetery outside Berlin, where, on Monday, officials discovered that someone had broken into the Murnau family plot, opened up the famed film director’s iron coffin, and made off with his head.

It's not the first time someone has broken into Murnau's tomb, which cemetery managers say was desecrated in the 1970s and back in February. Police are investigating the crime, but despite tabloid speculation about occult involvement, the motive is murky. Cemetery manager Olaf Ihlefeldt told the Washington Post: “There was a candle … A photo session or a celebration or whatever in the night. It really isn’t clear.”

The incident could almost be a scene out of Murnau’s best-known film, Nosferatu, a 1922 German expressionist retelling of the Dracula story (it also includes one of the most memorable uses of fake nails in film history). Murnau went on to make other films before dying in a car accident in California in 1931, but it’s the looming Count Orlok as played by Max Schreck, his shadow slinking across the wall, that sticks in everybody’s mind.

Yet Murnau is far from the only celebrity to be relieved of his head after death. Throughout the past few centuries, an assortment of famous people have seen their graves robbed by trophy-seekers, souvenir hunters, mad scientists, and other plunderers. In some ways, it's an ancient story: in traditional societies, headhunting was often a way of harnessing another person's spiritual power, and European societies engaged in their own head-hunting to fill the halls of museums.

But as Colin Dickey, author of Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius notes, when it comes to the heads of dead celebrities, the motive may be an extreme version of the drive to collect other celebrity ephemera: “To touch a bit of someone’s greatness, to possess something that radiates with the aura of a legend: this is what drives us to collect autographs, memorabilia, vials of Elvis Presley’s sweat.”

While heads go missing from a variety of contexts (museum cabinets, the tops of flagpoles, people’s houses), the ones listed below have all been dug out of their famous owners’ graves. If there is an afterlife, perhaps the ghosts of these men can provide F.W. Murnau some comfort.

1. Joseph Haydn

Whatever you think about your friends, you probably don’t expect them to steal your skull. But Haydn had the misfortune (or fortune, depending on your point of view) to be friends with an accountant, music lover, and phrenologist named Joseph Carl Rosenbaum. The phrenology Rosenbaum studied insisted that a person’s innermost being could be divined from the bumps on his or her skull, and the craze for this kind of skull-reading spread throughout Europe and America in the 18th and 19th century. Some phrenologists believed in the existence of an "organ of tune," which was said to protrude above the eye and be a clear sign of musical genius. Phrenologists said they had noticed the telling bump in portraits of Mozart and Beethoven, as well as Haydn himself. 

Rosenbaum decided he wanted Haydn's head before the composer was even in his grave, and bribed the gravedigger to deliver the skull a few nights after Haydn's death. The accountant kept it in his house for years, in a black case adorned with a golden lyre. The theft was discovered a decade later, when the Austrian prince who had employed Haydn decided to rebury him in a more lavish tomb, but the wily Rosenbaum handed over a series of fake skulls while keeping the real one for himself. Haydn's true skull didn't join the rest of his remains until 1954, 45 years after the composer's first burial.

2. Mozart

For a few decades at the start of the 20th century, you could see a skull labeled as Mozart’s on display at the International Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria. Although its provenance has never been rigorously fact-checked, the story goes that the skull had been stolen from Mozart’s grave by the sexton at his cemetery 10 years after the composer died.

Like most not-super-rich Europeans of his day, Mozart was buried in a common grave. And like most graves of the time, his was eventually cleared to make way for new bodies. Supposedly the gravedigger at this particular cemetery, St. Marx’s in Vienna, was a music lover who made a note of where Mozart’s body was buried. And when the grave was cleared in 1801, he took it as a souvenir.

The skull was later passed around among various Viennese before landing in the hands of famed anatomist Joseph Hyrtl, who attached a red label describing its origin to the top of the cranium. Hyrtl may also have been the one who added a note on the skull’s right temporal bone: musa vetat mori (the muse prevents death)—a poignant line from Horace.

In 1902, the skull was donated to the Mozarteum (it's not immediately clear by whom), but it was removed from display in the 1950s on the grounds that tastes had changed and that it had never been conclusively identified as Mozart’s. Some say it also spooked museum-goers by occasionally emitting eerie strains of music.

In the late 1980s, forensic anthropologist Dr. Pierre-François Puech of France’s Museum of Man examined the skull and noted that its details matched contemporary portraits of the composer. The skull also showed marks from a fall that may have hastened Mozart’s death, according to Puech. However, in 2006 scientists hired by Austrian state television to do DNA testing on the item failed to find a match with some of Mozart’s dead relatives. The problem wasn’t just matching Mozart to his family—DNA from the supposed family members showed that not all of his relatives were actually flesh and blood. In other words, someone was sleeping around. The Mozarteum still has the skull, but don’t expect to see it being displayed any time soon.

3. Marquis de Sade

The Marquis de Sade spent the final years of his life confined to an asylum in Charenton, France (if you've ever read his works, you'll understand why). One of the doctors who attended him, L.J. Ramon, wrote that he often used to see Sade walking alone in the asylum: "As I passed I would bow and he would respond with that chill courtesy which excludes any thought of entering into conversation … the only impression he produced on me was that of a haughty, morose elderly gentleman.”

Sade's will asked for him to be buried amongst the trees of his estate at Malmaison, and for acorns to be scattered over his grave, so "the traces of my grave will vanish from the face of the earth as I like to think memory of me will be effaced from men’s mind."

But Ramon was also a phrenologist, and when Sade's body was later exhumed during renovations at the asylum, Ramon took the skull for a little head-bump analysis. In the ridges and valleys of bone, he found evidence of “goodwill . . . no ferocity . . . no aggressive drives . . . no excess in erotic impulses.” All in all, Ramon concluded that the skull was “in every way similar to that of a father of the church.”

Not long after writing those words, Ramon was visited by one of the founders of phrenology, Johann Spurzheim, who persuaded Ramon to hand over Sade's skull to him. Spurzheim died with the skull still in his collection, and it's since been lost to history, as has the rest of Sade's body. However, at least one biographer has written that casts of Sade's skull were later used as a phrenological teaching tool to illustrate the characteristics of benevolence and religious faith.

4. Geronimo 

In 2009, the descendants of the Apache chief Geronimo sued Skull and Bones, Yale's notorious secret society, claiming that the members of the group had robbed their ancestor's grave in 1918 and had been keeping his skull in a glass case at their headquarters. The lawsuit aligned with whispers that had long circulated around campus, and while there's little hard-and-fast proof of the theft, in 2005 the historian Marc Wortman discovered an 1918 letter written from one Bonesman to another and describing "the skull of the worthy Geronimo the Terrible, exhumed from its tomb at Fort Sill." 

Neither of the correspondents were anywhere near Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where Geronimo died a prisoner of war in 1909, so the letter isn’t entirely damning. But it shows that a Bonesman at the time at least believed such a theft had occurred. The writer Alexandra Robbins has documented other evidence in support of the theft, including a 1918 logbook which describes Skull and Bones members using an ax to "pry open the iron door" of the Apache leader's tomb. One of the perpetrators mentioned in the logbook is Bonesman Prescott Bush, father and grandfather of the presidents. However, Wortman has noted that there’s no iron door on Geronimo’s grave—in fact, in 1918, it wasn’t even marked. He believes it’s more likely Bush and his cronies robbed someone else’s grave.

The lawsuit was later dismissed on technical grounds, and Skull and Bones representatives have dismissed the story as a hoax. But Geronimo’s skull is just one of the macabre remnants said to be housed inside the club’s “tomb” at Yale—according to Robbins and others, the society is also reported to have Pancho Villa's skull, Martin Van Buren's skull, and a skeleton they believe to be Madame de Pompadour. 

5. Beethoven

Most of Beethoven is still below ground, but several large chunks of his skull were removed from the rest of him in the mid-19th century. The theft wasn’t noticed until 1888, when Beethoven and cemetery-mate Franz Schubert were exhumed from a graveyard in northwest Vienna and moved to the Zentralfriedhof, Vienna’s central cemetery, as part of an effort to consolidate the city’s burial grounds.

The culprit has never been caught, but William Meredith, director of the Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies at San Jose State University, thinks that a physician friend of Beethoven’s, Gerhard von Breuning, may have taken them in 1863. Back then, Beethoven and Schubert were exhumed so they could be reburied in more secure coffins (grave-robbers were a persistent threat in the 19th century). The composer’s skull stayed above ground for nine days of tests and measurements, and according to Meredith, von Breuning was the only one left alone with the skull. As a friend of Beethoven’s who once visited him so often the composer nicknamed him “trouser buttons” (because Bruening stuck to him the way a button does to clothing), he may not have been able to resist slipping a memento or two into his pocket.

After a torturous journey that involves Goethe and the Nazis (for the full, remarkable story, see Russell Martin’s book Beethoven's Hair), the skull fragments made their way to America, where DNA testing against strands of Beethoven's curls in 2005 proved a match. At last check, the fragments were still in California.

6. Goya

The painter Francisco Goya died in 1828 of a stroke during a visit to France. In 1899, the Spanish government got permission to rebury him in Madrid, but when the Spanish consul assigned to France opened his grave in Bordeaux, he found two skeletons inside. Even worse, there was only one skull.

The decomposition had advanced far enough that the consul was unable to tell which body the skull had once perched atop. He sent a telegraph to Madrid: “Goya skeleton without a head. Please instruct me.” The ministry cabled back, “Send Goya, with or without head.” Since it seemed impossible to tell what was what, the consul had all of the remains dug up and buried together at Madrid's Church of San Antonio de la Florida, whose frescoes Goya had painted. Notably, the cupola fresco depicts Saint Anthony raising a man from the dead.

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7 Famous People Researchers Want to Exhume
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This week, the surrealist painter Salvador Dali is being exhumed from his grave in Figueres, northeastern Spain, where he has lain beneath the stage of a museum since his death in 1989. Researchers hope to collect DNA from his skeleton in order to settle a paternity suit brought by a tarot card reader named Pilar Abel, who claims that her mother had an affair with the artist while working as a maid in the seaside town where the Dalis vacationed. If the claim is substantiated, Abel may inherit a portion of the $325 million estate that Dali, who was thought to be childless, bequeathed to the Spanish state upon his death.

The grave opening may seem like a fittingly surreal turn of events, but advances in DNA research and other scientific techniques have recently led to a rise in exhumations. In the past few years (not to mention months), serial killer H. H. Holmes, poet Pablo Neruda, astronomer Tycho Brahe, and Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, among many others, have all been dug up either to prove that the right man went to his grave—or to verify how he got there. Still, there are a number of other bodies that scientists, historians, and other types of researchers want to exhume to answer questions about their lives and deaths. Read on for a sampling of such cases.

1. LEONARDO DA VINCI

An international team of art historians and scientists is interested in exhuming Leonardo da Vinci's body to perform a facial reconstruction on his skull, learn about his diet, and search for clues to his cause of death, which has never been conclusively established. They face several obstacles, however—not the least of which is that da Vinci's grave in France's Loire Valley is only his presumed resting place. The real deal was destroyed during the French Revolution, although a team of 19th century amateur archaeologists claimed to have recovered the famed polymath's remains and reinterred them in a nearby chapel. For now, experts at the J. Craig Venter Institute in California are working on a technique to extract DNA from some of da Vinci's paintings (he was known to smear pigment with his fingers as well as brushes), which they hope to compare with living relatives and the remains in the supposed grave.

2. MERIWETHER LEWIS

A portrait of Meriwether Lewis
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As one half of Lewis and Clark, Meriwether Lewis is one of America's most famous explorers, but his death belongs to a darker category—famous historical mysteries. Researchers aren't sure exactly what happened on the night of October 10, 1809, when Lewis stopped at a log cabin in Tennessee on his way to Washington, D.C. to settle some financial issues. By the next morning, Lewis was dead, a victim either of suicide (he was known to be suffering from depression, alcoholism, and possibly syphilis) or murder (the cabin was in an area rife with bandits; a corrupt army general may have been after his life). Beginning in the 1990s, descendants and scholars applied to the Department of the Interior for permission to exhume Lewis—his grave is located on National Park Service Land—but were eventually denied. Whatever secrets Lewis kept, he took them to his grave.

3. SHAKESPEARE

A black and white portrait of Shakespeare
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Shakespeare made his thoughts on exhumation very clear—he placed a curse on his tombstone that reads: "Good frend for Jesus sake forebeare/ To digg the dust encloased heare/ Bleste be the man that spares thes stones/ And curst be he that moves my bones." Of course, that hasn't stopped researchers wanting to try. After Richard III's exhumation, one South African academic called for a similar analysis on the Bard's bones, with hopes of finding new information on his diet, lifestyle, and alleged predilection for pot. And there may be another reason to open the grave: A 2016 study using ground-penetrating radar found that the skeleton inside appeared to be missing a skull.

4. JOHN WILKES BOOTH

A black and white photograph of John Wilkes Booth
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The events surrounding Abraham Lincoln's death in 1865 are some of the best-known in U.S. history, but the circumstances of his assassin's death are a little more murky. Though most historical accounts say that John Wilkes Booth was cornered and shot in a burning Virginia barn 12 days after Lincoln's murder, several researchers and some members of his family believe Booth lived out the rest of his life under an assumed name before dying in Oklahoma in 1903. (The corpse of the man who died in 1903—thought by most people to be a generally unremarkable drifter named David E. George—was then embalmed and displayed at fairgrounds.) Booth's corpse has already been exhumed from its grave at Baltimore's Greenmount Cemetery and verified twice, but some would like another try. In 1994, two researchers and 22 members of Booth's family filed a petition to exhume the body once again, but a judge denied the request, finding little compelling evidence for the David E. George theory. Another plan, to compare DNA from Edwin Booth to samples of John Wilkes Booth's vertebrae held at the National Museum of Health and Medicine, has also come to naught.

5. NAPOLEON

A portrait of Napoleon
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Napoleon has already been exhumed once: in 1840, when his body was moved from his burial-in-exile on St. Helena to his resting place in Paris's Les Invalides. But some researchers allege that that tomb in Paris is a sham—it's not home to the former emperor, but to his butler. The thinking goes that the British hid the real Napoleon's body in Westminster Abbey to cover up neglect or poisoning, offering a servant's corpse for internment at Les Invalides. France's Ministry of Defense was not amused by the theory, however, and rejected a 2002 application to exhume the body for testing.

6. HENRY VIII

A portrait of Henry VIII
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In his younger years, the Tudor monarch Henry VIII was known to be an attractive, accomplished king, but around age 40 he began to spiral into a midlife decline. Research by an American bioarchaeologist and anthropologist pair in 2010 suggested that the king's difficulties—including his wives' many miscarriages—may have been caused by an antigen in his blood as well as a related genetic disorder called McLeod syndrome, which is known to rear its head around age 40. Reports in the British press claimed the researchers wanted to exhume the king's remains for testing, although his burial at George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle means they will need to get the Queen’s permission for any excavation. For now, it's just a theory.

7. GALILEO

A portrait of Galileo
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The famed astronomer has had an uneasy afterlife. Although supporters hoped to give him an elaborate burial at the Basilica of Santa Croce, he spent about 100 years in a closet-sized room there beneath the bell tower. (He was moved to a more elaborate tomb in the basilica once the memory of his heresy conviction had faded.) More recently, British and Italian scientists have said they want to exhume his body for DNA tests that could contribute to an understanding of the problems he suffered with his eyesight—problems that may have led him to make some famous errors, like saying Saturn wasn't round. The Vatican will have to sign off on any exhumation, however, so it may be a while.

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Is Death by Guillotine Painless?
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Is death by guillotine painless?

Roger Kryson:

Death by guillotine would be painless because it immediately severs the nerves from your spinal cord to brain. The clean cut would paralyze you after severing your vertebrae, so pain receptors would no longer send signals as your nerves are severed and your body is non-functional. This is, of course, assuming you’re alive after having your head completely chopped off by a 10-pound blade accelerating at speeds of 40 mph, which you wouldn't be. You wouldn't even feel the cold touch of the blade as it sliced into your neck hair; it would be too fast.

For those saying that spasms have been witnessed after execution by guillotine, it should be noted that spasms such as involuntary jerks, eye fluttering, and twitches can occur up to five minutes after death. This is because the brain suffocates, but it does not mean the presence of pain is there. Many people who pass away naturally and painlessly in a hospital bed will twitch, their eyes flutter, and even have bowel movements minutes after death. Once you are dead, you can't “feel” anything, including pain. As for studies mentioned about brain activity continuing in rats after severing of the head, the same goes. Brain activity can still be present after death, but that does not mean the subject is alive, nor [does it have] the defined senses of feeling.

The guillotine was such an effective fear-mongering tool because it didn't focus on pain and suffering, but rather punishment. The idea was you're going to literally just be wiped off the face of the Earth for your crime—you're not even going to be allowed the few extra minutes of torture. The idea of dwelling in a dark cave before being escorted out blindfolded, having your neck placed on a board with a bucket to catch your severed head, and being executed by the drop of the blade and nothing else … it's a jarring realization of just how unsympathetic death is.

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