6 Historical Heads Stolen From Their Graves

The grave of German film director F.W. Murnau
The grave of German film director F.W. Murnau

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

Thomas Hardy, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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

Barbara Krafft, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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

Charles-Amédée-Philippe van Loo, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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

Frank A. Rinehart, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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

Joseph Karl Stieler, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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

Vicent López Portaña, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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.

Up in the Air: When 'Balloon Boy' Took Flight

John Moore, Getty Images
John Moore, Getty Images

It was like a Weekly World News cover come to life. On October 15, 2009, most of the major network and cable broadcasters interrupted their daytime programming to cover what appeared to be a silver flying saucer streaking through the air. Out of context, it was as though the world was getting its first sight of a genuine UFO.

Reading the scroll at the bottom, or listening to the somewhat frantic newscasters, provided an explanation: It was not alien craft but a homemade balloon that had inadvertently taken off from the backyard of a family home in Fort Collins, Colorado. That, of course, was not inherently newsworthy. What made this story must-see television was the fact that authorities believed a 6-year-old boy was somehow trapped inside.

As the helium-filled balloon careened through the air and toward Denver International Airport, millions of people watched and wondered if its passenger could survive the perilous trip. When the craft finally touched down after floating for some 60 miles, responders surrounded it, expecting the worst. The boy was nowhere to be seen. Had he already fallen out?

The brief saga that became known as the Balloon Boy incident was one of the biggest indictments of the burgeoning worlds of reality television and breathless 24/7 news coverage. It seemed to check off every box that observers associated with societal decline. There was the morbidity of a child speeding through the air without control; the unwavering gaze of news networks who cut away from reports on world affairs and even ignored their commercial breaks to obtain footage of an aircraft that measure around 20 feet wide and 5 feet high and resembled a bag of Jiffy Pop.

 

The boy in question was Falcon Heene, one of Richard and Mayumi Heene's three children. The couple had met in California and bonded over their mutual desire to get into the entertainment business. Richard dreamed of becoming a comedian; Mayumi played guitar. The couple married in 1997 and eventually relocated to Colorado; they got their first taste of Hollywood in 2008, when they made their first of two appearances on the reality series Wife Swap.

But Richard Heene wanted more. The avid tinkerer envisioned a show that followed his family around, while at the same time working on his new inventions—one of which was sitting in his backyard. It was essentially a Mylar balloon staked to the ground, which he would later describe as a very early prototype for a low-altitude commuter vehicle.

 sheriff's deputies seach a field for Falcon Heene before learning he had been found October 15, 2009 southeast of Ft. Collins, Colorado
Sheriff's deputies search a Colorado field for Falcon Heene before learning he had been found safe at home.
John Moore, Getty Images

It was this balloon, Bradford Heene told police in 2009, that his brother Falcon had climbed into just before it had taken flight. Earlier, Richard said, Falcon had been playing near the contraption and was scolded for potentially creating a dangerous situation. Now, Falcon was gone, the balloon was in the air, and Falcon's parents feared the worst. Mayumi called the authorities.

“My other son said that Falcon was at the bottom of the flying saucer,” Mayumi told the 911 dispatcher. “I can’t find him anywhere!”

As news cameras watched and the National Guard and U.S. Forest Service followed, the balloon reached an altitude of 7000 feet. Police made a painstaking search of the Heene household, looking for any sign of Falcon. After three passes, they determined it was possible he was inside the balloon.

Approximately one hour later, the balloon seemed to deflate. Authorities cleared the air space near Denver International Airport and greeted the craft as it landed, tethering it to the ground so no air current could hoist it back up and out of reach.

No one was inside the small cabin under the balloon, which left three possibilities: Falcon was hiding somewhere, he had run away ... or he had fallen out.

 

Not long after the craft had landed, a police officer at the Heene house decided to investigate an attic space above the garage. It had gone ignored because it didn’t seem possible Falcon could have reached the entrance on his own.

Yet there he was, hiding.

Elated, authorities explained to the media that they thought Falcon had untethered the balloon by accident and then hid because he knew his father would be upset with him.

Jim Alderden, the sheriff of Colorado's Larimer County, assured reporters that the Heenes had not done anything suspect. They demonstrated all the concern for their missing child that one would expect. Alderden stuck to that even after the Heenes were interviewed on CNN and Falcon appeared to slip up. When asked by Wolf Blitzer if he had heard his parents calling for him, the boy admitted that he had but was ignoring them “for a show.”

Though the Heenes seemed to scramble to cover up for their son's gaffe, Blitzer didn’t appear to register the comment at first. He came back around to it, though, insisting on clarification. Richard would later state that Falcon was referring to the news cameras who wanted to see where he had been hiding. That was the "show" he meant.

Alderden reiterated that he didn’t think the boy could remain still and quiet for five hours in an attic if he had been instructed to. But he admitted the CNN interview raised questions. After initially clearing the family of any wrongdoing, Alderden said he would sit down and speak to them again.

Within the week, Alderden was holding a press conference with an entirely different mood. He solemnly explained that the Heenes had perpetuated a hoax and speculated that they could be charged with up to three felonies, including conspiracy and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Outlets had already tracked down an associate of Richard’s who detailed his reality series idea, with one episode devoted to the balloon.

 

Richard and Mayumi voluntarily turned themselves into authorities. They each pled guilty: Richard for attempting to influence a public servant and Mayumi for making a false report. In addition to paying $36,016 in restitution, Richard wound up with a 90-day jail sentence, 60 days of which was served on supervised work release. Mayumi got 20 days. Though they pled guilty, Richard maintained that he and his family had not perpetuated any kind of a hoax. In a 2010 video posted to YouTube, Richard said he only pled guilty because authorities were threatening to deport his wife.

Mayumi, meanwhile, reportedly told police it had all been an act (though critics of the prosecution argued that Mayumi's imperfect English made that confession open to interpretation). Mayumi later stated she had no firm understanding of the word "hoax."

Richard Heene and his wife, Mayumi Heene (R) are flanked by members of the media after they both plead guilty to charges related to the alleged hoax of the couple claiming that their son, Falcon Heene was last month onboard a helium balloon, at the Larime
Richard and Mayumi Heene surrounded by the media after they both plead guilty to charges related to the "Balloon Boy Hoax" on November 13, 2009.
Matt McClain, Getty Images

In addition to the fine and jail sentences, the judge also mandated that the family not seek to profit from the incident for a period of four years, which meant any potential for Richard to grab a reality show opportunity would be put on hold until long after the public had lost interest in the "Balloon Boy."

The Heenes moved to Florida in 2010, and soon after their three boys formed a heavy metal band—reputed to be the world’s youngest—dubbed the Heene Boyz. They’ve self-released several albums, and in 2014 even released a song called "Balloon Boy No Hoax."

Richard also peddles some of his inventions, including a wall-mounted back scratcher that allows users to alleviate itching by rubbing up against it. It’s called the Bear Scratch.

In October 2019, Robert Sanchez, a writer for 5280 magazine in Denver, profiled the Heenes and produced a smoking gun of sorts. Sanchez, who was allowed access to the Heene case file by Mayumi's defense attorney, discovered copies of Mayumi's notes about the events leading up to the flight. In one entry, she disclosed Richard had asked her about the possibility of letting the craft go off while Falcon remained in the basement, stirring up attention for the news networks. Later, when the saucer flew away, Richard was confused when Falcon wasn't downstairs. (He chose instead to hide in the attic.) That made the Heenes believe he might really be inside.

When confronted with the document, Mayumi told Sanchez she had made that story up in an attempt to "save" herself and her children, presumably from being separated in the ensuing legal struggle. In the Balloon Boy story, the saucer may have come crashing back to Earth, but the truth remains up in the air.

Invasive Snakehead Fish That Can Breathe on Land Is Roaming Georgia

Mohd Fazlin Mohd Effendy Ooi, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Mohd Fazlin Mohd Effendy Ooi, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

A fish recently found in Georgia has wildlife officials stirred up. In fact, they’re advising anyone who sees a northern snakehead to kill it on sight.

That death sentence might sound extreme, but there’s good reason for it. The northern snakehead, which can survive for brief periods on land and breathe air, is an invasive species in North America. With one specimen found in a privately owned pond in Gwinnett County, the state wants to take swift action to make certain the fish, which is native to East Asia, doesn’t continue to spread. Non-native species can upset local ecosystems by competing with native species for food and habitat.

The Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Resources Division is advising people who encounter the snakehead—a long, splotchy-brown fish that can reach 3 feet in length—to kill it and freeze it, then report the catch to the agency's fisheries office.

Wildlife authorities believe snakeheads wind up in non-native areas as a result of the aquarium trade or food industry. A snakehead was recently caught in southwestern Pennsylvania. The species has been spotted in 14 states.

[h/t CNN]

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