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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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Weird
The Long, Strange Journey of Buffalo Bill's Corpse
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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

You probably know William Frederick Cody, a.k.a. Buffalo Bill, as the long-haired Wild West icon who turned the frontier experience into rip-roarin’ entertainment. But the story of Buffalo Bill’s body and its many burials is almost as outrageous as the man himself.

When Cody died of kidney failure in January 1917, his body ended up on a mountain outside of Denver, Colorado—a counterintuitive choice given his close ties to the town in Wyoming that bore his last name. Cody, Wyoming was founded in the 1890s with help from Buffalo Bill, who employed many of its residents and was responsible for its tourism business. It might seem natural that he’d be buried in the place he’d invested so much in, but he wasn’t. And that’s where the controversy began.

Though Cody spent much of his time in the town named after him, he also loved Colorado. After leaving his family in Kansas when he was just 11 to work with wagon trains throughout the West, he headed to Colorado for the first time as a 13-year-old wannabe gold prospector. During his short time in the area, he chased the glittery fortunes promised by Colorado’s 1859 gold rush. Even after leaving the territory, his traveling vaudeville show, which brought a glamorous taste of Wild West life to people all over the United States, took him back often. Later in life, he frequently visited Denver, where his sister lived. He died there, too—after telling his wife he wanted to be buried on Lookout Mountain.

The mountain, located in Golden, Colorado, has a commanding view of the Great Plains, where Buffalo Bill experienced many of his Wild West adventures. It was also a place to contemplate the giant herds of buffalo that once roamed the West, and from whom Cody took his nickname. (Denver still maintains a small herd of buffalo—direct descendants of original American bison—near the mountain.)

But weather almost thwarted Cody’s burial plans. Since he died in January, the road to Lookout Mountain was impassable and his preferred burial site frozen solid. For a while, his body lay in state in the Colorado Capitol building. Governors and famous friends eulogized Cody in an elaborate funeral service. Then his body was placed in a carriage that moved solemnly through the streets of Denver, where thousands showed up to say goodbye. Afterwards, his body was kept in cold storage at a Denver mortuary while his family waited for the weather to change.

Meanwhile, Colorado and Wyoming started a heated feud over one of America’s most famous men. Wyoming claimed that Cody should be buried there, citing an early draft of his will that said he intended to be buried near Cody. Colorado cried foul, since Cody’s last will left the burial location up to his widow, who chose Lookout Mountain. Rumors even began to circulate that a delegation from Wyoming had stolen Cody’s body from the mortuary and replaced it with that of a local vagrant.

In part to stop the rumor mill, Cody was finally buried in an open casket on Lookout Mountain in June 1917. Twenty-five thousand people went to the mountaintop to bid him farewell before he was interred. To prevent theft, the bronze casket was sealed in another, tamper-proof case, then enclosed in concrete and iron.

Pennies on Buffalo Bill's grave
V.T. Polywoda, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Yet his rocky grave was anything but safe. In the 1920s, Cody’s niece, Mary Jester Allen, began to claim that Denver had conspired to tamper with Cody’s will. In response, Cody’s foster son, Johnny Baker, disinterred the body and had it reburied at the same site under tons of concrete to prevent potential theft [PDF]. (Allen also founded a museum in Wyoming to compete with a Colorado-based museum founded by Baker.)

The saga wasn’t over yet. In 1948, the Cody, Wyoming American Legion offered a $10,000 reward to anyone who could disinter the body and return it to Wyoming. In response, the Colorado National Guard stationed officers to keep watch over the grave.

Since then, the tussle over the remains has calmed down. Despite a few ripples—like a jokey debate in the Wyoming legislature about stealing the body in 2006—Buffalo Bill still remains in the grave. If you believe the official story, that is. In Cody, Wyoming, rumor has it that he never made it into that cement-covered tomb after all—proponents claim he was buried on Cedar Mountain, where he originally asked to be interred.

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Exhumation Confirms Gravesite of World's Fair Killer H.H. Holmes
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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

It’s a sordid true crime tale that has few peers. By 1893, the year of the Chicago World’s Fair, a man named H.H. Holmes had converted a sprawling property into an amusement house of murder, filled with secret passages, gas chambers, ovens, and the bodies of young women who made the mistake of booking a room.

Holmes eventually confessed to over two dozen murders and was sentenced to death by hanging in 1896. His body was tossed into a plot at Holy Cross Cemetery near Philadelphia. But ever since then, there has been speculation that Holmes somehow cheated death and may not have been buried there at all. Those rumors can now officially be laid to rest as researchers have confirmed that the remains buried at Holmes's gravesite do in fact belong to the serial killer, according to the AP.

In May, NBC Chicago 5 reported that two of Holmes’s great-grandchildren had persuaded a Pennsylvania court to allow the inspection of their relative’s body in the hope that DNA testing would settle the issue of whether Holmes faked his own death once and for all.

According to newspaper accounts of the era, Holmes requested that his coffin be laid over cement, then topped off with more of the same. That led to a belief that Holmes had somehow eluded his appointment with the noose by offering bribes to law enforcement and had his tomb sealed to prevent any investigation into the matter. Other accounts, including one from the Chicago Tribune on May 8, 1896, appeared certain it was Holmes (real name: Herman Webster Mudgett) who was hung by his neck.

The definitive answer came with assistance from the University of Pennsylvania's Anthropology Department, which agreed to assist Holmes's descendants. The results of that testing were confirmed earlier this week on the series finale of American Ripper, a History Channel series that documented the exhumation and the scientists' search for the truth.

University of Pennsylvania anthropologist Samantha Cox, who was part of the team, said it was a difficult job. Even though his body had decomposed, because of Holmes's very specific burial requests, his clothes were almost perfectly intact, as was his ever-present mustache.

“It stank,” Cox said. “Once it gets to that point we can’t do anything with it. We can’t test it, can’t get any DNA out of it.” Instead, Cox and her colleagues had to use Holmes's teeth to identify him.

[h/t AP]

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