Jan 25, 2023 I Brent Swancer

Stealing Genius: Why Dead Geniuses Keep Having Their Heads Go Missing

We have long tried to understand what makes us what we are, what makes us human. For centuries there have been many attempts to find out just what causes our emotions, our thoughts, our personalities, indeed our very souls. One area that was long pondered was just exactly where genius comes from. It seems that every generation produces those few individuals that transcend the norm, to come out with incredible vision that propels our species. Where does this come from? Is it some innate feature, something born into us? Is it just diligence and practice of a craft? Or is it something more? For centuries there was serious pursuit into these questions, and it had a lot to do with stealing the heads off of dead people. 

In the latter part of the 18th century, the idea that the shape of a person’s skull, its various contours and bumps and depressions, could predict all manner of things about a person, including personality traits, talents, affinities, propensities, and much more, was en vogue. Called phrenology, although it had been practiced since the 17th century it was first popularized and thrust into the public consciousness by the German physician Franz Joseph Gall in 1796, and quickly caught on to become influential in the 19th century, especially from about 1810 until 1840. The basic idea was that the brain is the organ of the mind, and that certain regions of the brain possessed localized, specific functions or modules that influenced the person. According to phrenology, these different regions were sort of like muscles of the brain, and that their workings affected the shape of the skull, which was why everyone had bumps in different places and why everyone had different shaped heads. It was believed that by examining someone’s skull you could tell a lot about them, including not only their general personality, but many other things such as how religious a person might be, how angry they were, how well they could concentrate, whether they were destined for a life of crime or fame, if they would be a good scientist or soldier, or a good wife or mother, the list goes on and on. To the phrenologists your skull told them everything they needed to know about you.

As phrenology gained popularity, it was used to read the skulls of criminals to determine how redeemable they were, to choose the best slaves, the best wives, and by employers looking to weed out any employees whose skulls were deemed to be unfit for their profession. It was not long at all before people were also musing on whether the shape of the skull could also give us a glimpse into the wellspring from which human creativity and genius originates. There was the idea at the time that perhaps genius did not come from merely practicing and perfecting one’s craft, but that it was an innate trait that came from some nebulous, intangible source within the brain, and that this could be identified through examining the skulls of geniuses. The problem was that most geniuses did not really want their heads examined and were unwilling to donate their bodies to science, so there were grave robbers willing to do it the old fashioned way and just take them. Colin Dickey, the author of Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius, calls the act of stealing the skulls of geniuses “Cranioklepty,” and says of it on the These Days podcast:

The idea was that different parts of your brain do different things and that’s something that actually we still maintain to be true. But what the phrenologists thought was that if a specific part of your brain was more well developed, it would be physically larger and that it would actually press against the skull and make a sort of indentation. So the skull sort of acts as a way of sort of recording where your brain is sort of stronger or weaker so that you could feel somebody’s head and figure out, you know, if they were going to be a great scientist or a good soldier or a, you know, good wife and mother or some nonsense like that.

At this time, the notion of artistic genius was something that was completely sort of mystical and magical. You know, nobody had any idea what made Mozart the great composer that he was. These phrenologists thought that if they got, you know, enough heads of famous great thinkers and great artists and musicians, they could figure out where they had, you know, big bumps on their heads and, thus, that would be where, you know, maybe musical genius would be stored. So the idea of taking a skull of a famous person—not just a famous person but specifically an artistic genius—would be mediated by a desire to try and make visible that ineffable, invisible quality of genius that you couldn’t do from the works themselves. And so this notion of stealing the heads of famous people came about as people were trying to figure out exactly where genius was located in the brain.

While it was already common for the skulls of executed criminals and those of the insane to be stolen and sold to phrenologists, the skulls of geniuses were much more difficult to get and much more valuable, and so this was seen by grave robbers as a rather lucrative proposition. There were people who desperately wanted to find that fountain of genius, the heart of creativity, and were willing to go through great lengths to get their hands on these skulls so they could find it, and possibly even find a way to absorb it somehow, like some sort of weird and mystical osmosis. 

One of the more well-known and weirdest such skull theft was that of the famed Austrian composer Franz Joseph Haydn, often called the "Father of the Symphony" and "Father of the String Quartet,” a friend and mentor of Mozart, a tutor of Beethoven, and at one time the most celebrated composer in Europe. Haydn died in 1809, and five days later his body was dug up and his head cut off by a Carl Joseph Rosenbaum, who was an accountant for the Esterhazy family, the wealthy nobles who were Haydn’s patrons, and also a good personal friend of the composer. By all accounts Rosenbaum had been plotting the theft of Haydn’s head since long before the composer had even died, and had even done a test run robbing the grave of a lesser known singer and actress, Elizabeth Roose, to steal her skull. Rosenbaum successfully stole Haydn’s skull by bribing a gravedigger and had it preserved, keeping a meticulous diary on everything from how he stole it, to how retched it smelled, to how he managed to keep it in such good condition. 

For years Rosenbaum kept Haydn’s skull in his home in a black cabinet adorned with a golden lyre, and it would not be until 11 years after the theft that anyone would even realize that the head was missing, when it was decided to rebury him in a more lavish tomb, something he had been denied at the time of his death due to the chaos swirling around Napoleon invading Vienna at the time. When the grave was opened, it was soon found that, although Haydn’s body was still there, all that was left of the head was the wig he had been buried in. This led to a massive police investigation to track down the missing skull, which led them to Rosenbaum, and even then he gave them a different head so that he could keep the real one for his own. Dickey says of it:

He really felt as though he was doing a great service by desecrating this great man’s corpse so that his head could be preserved. The authorities didn’t find out about it until 11 years later when they finally tried to give him his long overdue ceremonial burial and the realized that his head was missing. So this then led to a massive police investigation to find Haydn’s head and they came to Rosenbaum and some of his conspirators and, you know, and they gave him, you know, they gave the police like a different head and sort of, you know, kept swapping heads back and forth and telling these stories. And, ultimately, they did a search of Rosenbaum’s house and, in a panic, he stashed the skull under the bed and had his wife, who was a famous soprano, lie down on the bed to sort of, you know, hide the fact that the skull was buried in it because I guess they figured that they wouldn’t disturb a lady and make her get up. So that’s how they were able to keep it out of the hands of the police.

Franz Joseph Haydn

It would not be until 1954 that Haydn’s head would finally be found and reunited with his body, and it is all quite the bizarre tale, indeed. Famous composers seem to have been a prime target for having their heads stolen, because another well-known case is that of the prolific and influential composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Despite being a legend of classical music respected and revered to this day, when he died in 1791 he was not a particularly rich man, and so was buried in a commoner’s grave at St. Marx’s in Vienna. When the grave was eventually unceremoniously cleared in 1801 to make way for new bodies, the gravedigger at this particular cemetery decided to take the head, and so it would begin a rather strange journey.

Mozart’s head was passed around until it wound up in the possession of the famed anatomist Joseph Hyrtl, who studied it and found signs of the composer’s greatness in it, in particular in the shape and size of the skull’s right temporal bone, to which he attached a note reading musa vetat mori (the muse prevents death). The skull was donated to the Mozarteum, in Salzburg, Austria, in 1902, where it was put on display until the 1950s, during this time acquiring the eerie reputation of being haunted, as museum goers would report that they could sometimes here a faint music coming from it. During this time there was some amount of debate as to whether it was even Mozart’s skull at all, as it had never been conclusively proven to be such and some phrenologist could have easily switched skulls to keep the real one for themselves, as Rosenbaum had attempted, but it was nevertheless advertised as such. In the late 1980s, the skull was analyzed by forensic anthropologist Dr. Pierre-François Puech of France’s Museum of Man, who concluded that it was likely the real deal, but in 2006 scientists hired by Austrian state television to do DNA testing on the item could find no match to any of Mozart’s living relatives, leaving the skull’s real identity unknown. To this day the skull is at the Mazarteum, but whether it really belonged to Mozart or not is anyone’s guess.

Joining the ranks of great composers who had their heads stolen for a peek into their genius is none other than the great German composer and pianist Ludwig van Beethoven. One of the most admired composers in the history of Western music, Beethoven died in 1827 at the age of 56, and was buried in the Währing cemetery, north-west of Vienna. When exactly the head went missing and who took it remain unclear. When the body was exhumed to be studied in 1866, it still had its head fully intact, but when the remains were moved in 1888 to be reinterred at Vienna's Zentralfriedhof the head had large portions missing from it that had obviously been selectively removed and stolen. The perpetrator has never been found, but it is widely thought that the pieces of skull were taken by a physician friend of Beethoven’s and phrenologist, Gerhard von Breuning, who may have secretly taken them during the time the body was first exhumed. He had been the only one left alone with the skull at the time, and had shown an intense interest in studying the skull of a genius, so it makes sense. The fragments were eventually found decades later and identified as Beethoven’s in 2005.

Ludwig van Beethoven

It is not only composers who have had their graves desecrated so that someone could steal their precious skull. The eighteenth-century Christian mystic, philosopher, and intellectual Emanuel Swedenborg was on the radar of phrenologists from long before he died, not only because he was famed for his intellect, but also due to the fact that he often claimed to be in commune with various spirits and demons and also because he claimed to be immortal. When he died in 1772 there were some who even thought he had faked his own death. When the body was exhumed 1816, the head went missing, and over the years it was allegedly found again only to be lost on several occasions, with no one ever sure if it was even really Swedenborg’s or not. One phrenologist who allegedly got his hands on it during this time claimed that he had studied it looking for “the organ of imagination.” The mystery of Swedenborg’s skull has never been solved.

Adding to the list is the celebrated painter Francisco Goya, who died in 1828 of a stroke during a visit to France. When he was reburied in 1899 the bizarre discovery was made of two skeletons in the grave and only one with a head. It could never be determined which remains were which and the missing head has never been found. There is also British polymath and author Sir Thomas Browne, who died in 1682, after which his head went missing when his lead coffin was accidentally re-opened by workmen in 1840. The head would eventually be recovered in 1922 and reinterred, but the culprit remains unknown. 

Another famous missing skull is that of none other than the famed English playwright, poet, and actor William Shakespeare, whose grave has long been a mystery in its own right. Shakespeare died in 1616, and was buried at the Holy Trinity Church, in Stratford-upon-Avon, with a nameless headstone that carries the rather sinister message “Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forbear, / To dig the dust enclosed here. / Blessed be the man that spares these stones, / And cursed be he that moves my bones.” Over the years there were many rumors about the grave, including that he had been buried standing up, that he was buried 17 feet deep to avoid being disturbed, or that he had actually been buried in a family tomb. Another rumor was that 18th-century grave robbers had stolen Shakespeare’s skull, but this was not confirmed until 2016, when archeologist Kevin Colls and his team used ground penetrating radar to examine the grave and learned that there was much evidence that indeed the head has been taken. Colls has said of his findings:

We came across this very odd, strange thing at the head end. It was very obvious, within all the data we were getting, that there was something different going on at that particular spot. We have concluded it is signs of disturbance, of material being dug out and put back again. There is also a very strange brick structure that cuts across the head end of the grave. Grave-robbing was a big thing in the 17th and 18th century. People wanted the skull of famous people so they could potentially analyze it and see what made them a genius. It is no surprise to me that Shakespeare’s remains were a target.

Phrenology would continue to grow in popularity into the 19th century all over Europe and even across the sea in America, but over the years would gradually fall out of favor. One problem was that it was increasingly being seen as a pseudoscience with no basis in empirical facts, while there was also the fact that it was a controversial and macabre practice that was being seen as rather distasteful, and the Church also did not agree with it at all. Indeed, phrenology was technically banned in Vienna in as early as 1802 by the Church, although it continued to be practiced until well into the 1800s. Dickey has said of it:

It was always a polarizing topic. It was always controversial. And phrenology had been banned in Vienna, where it started, as early as 1802, although the reason it was banned by, you know, primarily by the church was because phrenology was positing that your soul is located inside your brain, you know, which is, again, something that many people now would find not very controversial at all, you know, certainly not as wacky as the bump thing. But that was originally what got people so upset. But, yeah, I mean, you know, it never was fully accepted. People always sort of saw it as something of a ridiculous science even as it became very popular. And, you know, Mark Twain famously set out to expose, you know, phrenologists in New York by going in as a nobody and being told that he had a kind of, you know, boring, not-very-interesting skull, and then going back, announcing himself as Mark Twain and being told that he had this massive humor bump, you know, that, you know, that was towering, the size of Mt. Everest or something on his head. 

So, yeah, people were always looking for ways to expose it as a kind of fraud. I mean, they certainly did continue to posit ideas about where genius was in the brain and how that, you know, these people might have specific bumps on their heads. But, I mean, I think there was as much as there was the scientific inquiry there was also something of kind of the relic quality of the head of a great man. And so I think these guys were just as interested in having this really amazing souvenir on their mantelpiece as they were doing science on it. So even as the science quickly fell into repute – disrepute, as phrenology did by, you know, the mid-19th century, you know, these skulls still had a lot of value and people still seemed to think that they were worth hanging onto. It’s now brains instead of skulls and neuroscience instead of phrenology. We haven’t lost our obsession with how brilliant people think—we just think about their thinking differently.

And so there you have it. For a while there people were stealing the skulls of geniuses to get a glimpse into what it was all about, and even though their basic principles and ideologies were warped, twisted, and scientifically unsound, it all gives us a glimpse into the innate human desire to delve into what makes us who we are, in a sense, to find a soul. No matter that it is all an outdated idea, many of these dead geniuses remain without a skull, and we still remain without an answer to what drives us, or from whence genius and creativity springs. Whetever the case may be, it is all a rather macabre piece of history at the very least, and a dark look into our past efforts to understand the mysteries of the human condition. 

Brent Swancer

Brent Swancer is an author and crypto expert living in Japan. Biology, nature, and cryptozoology still remain Brent Swancer’s first intellectual loves. He's written articles for MU and Daily Grail and has been a guest on Coast to Coast AM and Binnal of America.

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