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Ljuba brank via WikimediaCommons // CC BY-SA 3.0
Ljuba brank via WikimediaCommons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Why Does Haydn's Tomb Contain Two Skulls?

Ljuba brank via WikimediaCommons // CC BY-SA 3.0
Ljuba brank via WikimediaCommons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Just days after composer Joseph Haydn died in 1809, grave robbers broke into the cemetery and opened his coffin. Unlike other cemetery thieves, they weren’t interested in removing jewelry or other valuables—they simply wanted Haydn’s skull.

So why are there two heads in his tomb now?

A couple of Haydn's pals, Joseph Carl Rosenbaum and Johann Nepomuk Peter, paid a gravedigger to give them access to their friend's head, claiming that they wanted to "protect it from desecration." In reality, the pair were avid believers in phrenology and wanted to see if the composer's skull was as developed in musical areas as expected. 

Not content to just "scientifically" examine the head, Peter had a black cabinet made for it and proudly displayed the curiosity in his house. At one point, he transferred ownership over to Rosenbaum. The whole affair might have gone unnoticed had Haydn's former patron, Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy II, not decided to give the composer a proper burial more than a decade after his death. When Haydn was exhumed from his previous resting place, it became quite apparent that his head had gone MIA (his wig was still there, however).

Esterhazy's investigation led to Rosenbaum and Peter pretty quickly—it seems they were fond of showing off their unusual specimen—and Rosenbaum reluctantly produced a skull. Because doctors could see that the skull belonged to an older man, they accepted that it belonged to Haydn, who died at the age of 77. It didn’t.

The truth came out not long afterward, and police were sent to Rosenbaum’s residence to confiscate the goods. Tipped off to the search, Rosenbaum's wife hid Haydn's head in her straw mattress. When officials came to search her room, she informed them that she was bedridden because she was “having her days,” and they would have to leave. They did. 

It took nearly a century and a half, but after 145 years, Haydn’s skull and his body did eventually meet again. After Rosenbaum and Peter had both passed away, the head changed hands multiple times before finding its way back to the Esterhazy family, who held a ceremony to reunite the composer's remains. Of course, by this time, no one knew where the other skull had come from, so they just left it where it was—and now you know why Haydn's tomb contains two heads.

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Doctor Weighs In on What May Have Killed Saladin, the 12th-Century Muslim Military Leader
Hulton Archive, Getty Images
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Saladin, the 12th-century sultan of Egypt and Syria, was one fearless ruler. After unifying much of the Muslim world, he took on the Christian Franks at the Battle of Hattin and won, bringing Jerusalem back under Islamic rule and setting off the Third Crusade.

It wasn’t battle that did him in, though. Dr. Stephen Gluckman, a professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, believes the cause of Saladin's death in 1193 was most likely typhoid, LiveScience reports.

Up until now, the circumstances of Saladin’s passing have largely remained a mystery, as is often the case with people who lived long before modern diagnostic tools were invented. Gluckman was able to reach a diagnosis by analyzing Saladin’s symptoms as they were recorded more than 800 years ago, and shared his medical opinion at this year’s Historical Clinicopathological Conference at the University of Maryland, which taps experts to diagnose a different deceased historical figure each year. In past years, some theorized that Charles Darwin’s cause of death was cyclic vomiting syndrome, and Edgar Allan Poe’s demise was attributed to either rabies or delirium tremens—“a severe form of alcohol withdrawal.”

As for Saladin, he suffered a “mysterious fever and two-week illness,” according to LiveScience. He died at age 55 or 56, despite efforts to revive him with bloodletting techniques and enemas.

Gluckman was able to rule out plague and smallpox because they tend to kill quickly, and tuberculosis and malaria didn’t fit the bill, either. Typhoid, however, was common at that time, and Saladin's symptoms seemed consistent with other cases. Caused by the bacteria Salmonella typhi, typhoid is spread through contaminated water or food. High fever is the main symptom, but weakness and loss of appetite are also typically observed.

Saladin was buried next to the sword he had carried during the Holy War, but otherwise, his burial rites were “as simple as a pauper’s funeral,” according to author Stanley Lane-Poole in Saladin and the Fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The money for his funeral had to be borrowed because he had given away all his riches.

[h/t LiveScience]

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The Curse on Shakespeare's Grave
Ben Pruchnie, Getty Images
Ben Pruchnie, Getty Images

It's a pretty good practice to avoid incurring the wrath of the dead in general, but if there's a ghost you really don't want to upset, it's probably William Shakespeare's. Just think of the many inventive ways he killed people in his plays. That's why the curse on his grave at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Stratford-Upon-Avon should be taken seriously:

"Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare, To dig the dust enclosed here. Blessed be the man that spares these stones, And cursed be he that moves my bones."

It's thought that the warning was penned by Shakespeare himself. In his day, it was common for bodies to be exhumed for research purposes or even just to make room for more burials, and the Bard did not want that to happen to his remains. So far, his warning seems to have worked. Even when the grave received some repairs in 2008, workers said the stones would not actually be moved and the bones certainly would not be disturbed. 

It has recently been suggested that Shakespeare's remains be exhumed and studied using the same techniques that allowed us to learn more about King Richard III, so we may soon find out how effective that curse really is. Professor Francis Thackeray from the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, who wants to exhume the bones, seems to be pushing his luck. "We could possibly get around [the curse] by at least exposing the bones and doing high-resolution, non-destructive laser surface scanning for forensic analyses without moving a single bone," he said. "Besides, Shakespeare said nothing about teeth in that epitaph."

Will it be enough to avoid the Bard's wrath? Only time will tell.

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