Authors: Colin Dickey
Peter himself seemed perfectly forthcoming when the police questioned him the next day. If he was nervous, he didn't show it. He claimed that a certain Dr. Leopold Eckhart, a physician at the Vienna General Hospital, “with whom I had a close personal relationship and who also knew of my interest in the Gall system, gave me an already macerated head purported to be that of the composer of music, Haydn.”
The “Gall system” Peter spoke of was “cranioscopy,” or “phrenology,” as it would come to be called. Invented by Franz Joseph Gall, it had swept Europe, in particular Vienna, as a means by which one could divine the workings of the brain from bumps and indentations on the skull. Gall had collected hundreds of human skulls in his quest to substantiate his ideas, and his theories had sparked an interest in the skull as a collector's object. “I bleached it in my garden and then mounted it on a velvet cushion in a small case,” Peter told the authorities. “During the bleaching process and later, I showed the skull to my friends as Haydn's head.”
But Peter went on to suggest that the skull Schwinner had seen was not in fact Haydn's. The identity of the skull was called into question, he told them, “first and foremost by the clerk to Count Esterhazy,” Joseph Carl Rosenbaum, “a very close friend and former schoolfellow of mine.” As a result of Rosenbaum's skepticism, Peter claimed, he lost interest in the skull: “So it happened,” he said, “that my wife had several skulls removed to the graveyard, and the aforementioned Rosenbaum received three as a present; he himself chose the ones he wanted, among them the head alleged to be Haydn's.”
Peter had no idea that Eckhart had come by the skull through any illegal means, and had he known, he told the police, he would have returned it long before. When he had first heard of the investigation, he quickly added, he had returned to Rosenbaum and asked for the head back. He now had the head again and was prepared to give it to the authorities. At this point Peter handed over a skull to the police, swearing that “it is the same head Eckhart gave me as Haydn's and which I showed to my friends as such.”
Thinking they had now recovered the skull, the police went to Rosenbaum the following day to corroborate the story. Rosenbaum had a much higher social standing than his longtime friend Herr Peter: A court secretary, he was married to one of the two most famous sopranos in Vienna and had been a personal friend of Haydn'sânot to mention dozens of other noteworthy composers
and musicians. He was well liked and respected throughout Viennese society. He had just celebrated his fiftieth birthday and had treated the two hundred guests in attendance to a cantata composed in his honor by the current
Kinsky, followed by a fireworks display.
Rosenbaum's story meshed perfectly with Peter's. “I am a childhood friend of Herr Peter's,” he said, and explained that Peter, as a passionate admirer of the Gall system, had received several skulls from the then senior physician at the Vienna General Hospital, Dr. Leopold Eckhart. Among them was one that Peter had passed off as Haydn's. “However,” Rosenbaum informed them, “Peter later discontinued that hobby.” At the time, none of the investigators made note of the fact that the language Rosenbaum used was nearly identical to Peter'sâalmost as if the two men had rehearsed their stories together. “And so it happened that I received three of the skulls from Peter as gifts, but not at the same time. Among them was the head alleged to be Haydn's.” Rosenbaum concluded his story by affirming that, a few days earlier, “Peter urgently demanded that the head be returned,” and that Rosenbaum had complied, to Peter's “great relief.”
Peter and Rosenbaum had both known Leopold Eckhart for years; he had been personal physician to both men. Having died, the doctor was in no position to rebut Peter and Rosenbaum's implication that it was he who had stolen the skull. But there were
problems with the story nonetheless. The first skull they handed over turned out to be from a much younger body; a cursory inspection revealed that its owner had likely been in his twenties when he had died, not in his seventies.
The police went back to Rosenbaum and insisted on searching his premises for the right skull; Rosenbaum had no choice but to let them in. They searched the entire house and found nothing out of the ordinary, except that when they came to the bedroom they found his wife, Therese, lying awkwardly in bed. This was a bit unusual, since it was the middle of the day and she didn't appear to be ill, but it would have been inappropriate to ask the lady to allow them to search her bed, or even to ask her to stand up. The police left empty-handed.
these events with increasing agitation. After learning that Rosenbaum was involved, he was doubly incensed. Rosenbaum had worked for the prince over twenty years earlier but had resigned following a contentious falling-out. The idea of having anything more to do with this man was deeply distasteful to the prince, but as word continued to spread that he had lost track of his composer's skull, it became increasingly important simply to get it back, no matter the cost. Convinced that Rosenbaum knew more than he was letting on, the prince resorted to bribery, offering a substantial amount to Rosenbaum if he could cause the head to reappear by whatever means necessary.
And so a few days later Rosenbaum turned over another skull. It had clearly belonged to an older man and seemed to match Haydn's physique in other regards, so it was made ready to be reburied with the rest of the composer's remains. The prince, however, did not bother to honor his promise of a bribe; having secured the head, he summarily dismissed Rosenbaum.
Haydn's headless body was in Eisenstadt by this time, and the prince had to forward the head “that was purloined by malicious persons but which has been recovered by the civil authorities.”
On December 4, over a month after the theft was first discovered, the provost of the Esterhazy crypt interred the skull with the rest of the body. The prince had ordered that the bodily reunion be done in secret to avoid public humiliation. There had already been a fair amount of laughter at the prince's expense over his inability to keep track of his favorite composer's remains, and he was not anxious for the people in Eisenstadt to learn what too many in Vienna already knew. And so the provost entered the crypt under the pretense of affixing a small nameplate to the coffin; alone, he unscrewed and removed the coffin lid, then placed the skull in its proper position before resealing the coffin and affixing the nameplate.
And that would have been that. But as Haydn's pupil Sigismund Neukomm had inadvertently foreseen, at least a part of Haydn was to live on for quite some time. It did not come to light until much laterâwhat neither the police chief or the prince
himself could have knownâthat the head enshrined with the composer's remains was not in fact Haydn's. It was just as well, then, that the prince had reneged on his offer of payment to Rosenbaum since the clerk had delivered the wrong head to the authorities. Had they thought to ask Therese Rosenbaum to get out of bed, or had they simply checked the mattress on which she was lying, they would have found what they were looking for: the head of Franz Joseph Haydn, which Peter and Rosenbaum had brazenly stolen eleven years before, less than a week after Haydn was buried. It would be over a century before that skull found its way back into the ground.
Poor skull, thy fingers set ablaze,
With silver Saint in golden rays,
The holy missal. Thou didst craze
'Mid bead and spangle,
While others passed their idle days,
In coil and wrangle.
“Stanzas on Some Skulls in
Beauly Abbey, near Inverness”
The theft of Franz Joseph Haydn's skull in 1809 was by no means an isolated incident. From the 1790s to the midânineteenth century, interest in phrenology sparked a bizarre and intense fascination with the human skull, and in particular with the skulls of great men. Just as phrenologists looked to the heads of criminals and the insane for proof of pathological deficiencies, they also sought out the heads of artists and philosophers for proof of genius and intelligence. Often they could investigate the heads of great men by taking plaster casts, but sometimes other means were necessary.
Francisco Goya had died in exile in Bordeaux in 1828 and lost his skull sometime before 1898, when the Spanish government exhumed his remains to return them to his home country. Upon discovering the theft, the Spanish consul dispatched a telegram to Madrid: “Goya skeleton without a head. Please instruct me.” The response came back immediately: “Send Goya, with or without head.”
Emanuel Swedenborg, the eighteenth-century Christian mystic and philosopher, suffered a similar postmortem fate. During his life he wrote of spirits that had invaded his “cerebral chambers” and caused him great pain. “I spoke with them,” he wrote, “and they were compelled to confess whence, who, and of what quality they were.” These cranial spirits told Swedenborg that “they dwelt in dark woods, and were there of deformed aspect, having ferine faces and shaggy hair, and roaming about like wild beasts.”
Having expelled these cranial spirits in life, he was less successful after his death in 1772, when his head was endangered once moreâthis time not by shaggy spirits in dark woods but by naval officers.
And then there was the English doctor and philosopher Sir Thomas Browne, who died in 1682 and stands as something of an icon in the history of cranioklepty because of the anxiety he seemed to express about the desecration of his own final resting place. Sir Thomas wrote in 1658, “But who knows the fate of his bones, or how often he is to be buried? Who hath the oracles of his ashes, or whither they are to be scattered?” Browne went on: “To be gnawed out of our graves, to have our skulls made drinking-bowls, and our bones turned into pipes to delight and sport our enemies, are tragical abominations.”
Because of statements like these, Browne might be considered the patron saint of
stolen skulls, speaking for the collective indignity of all those whose heads were shuffled between museums, collectors, and anatomists throughout the nineteenth century. Browne's own “tragical abomination” occurred in 1840 when his coffin in St. Peter Mancroft Church, Norfolk, was inadvertently disturbed while a vault was being dug next to his plot. His stolen skull would ultimately find itself the focal point of an extended battle between science and religion.
Such thefts as these happened throughout Europe, thefts both brazen and surreptitious, reverent and sacrilegious. Motivated by curiosity, by money, by a morbid fascination that seems inexplicable today, cranioklepts subtly and stealthily helped to change how we view the grave and the corpse, and how we view the great artists and thinkers who come to define an age.
In the wake of the scientific revolutions of the Age of Enlightenment, the body became a site of conflict between several warring factionsâthe religious, the scientific, the mystical. And at the center of this dispute was the skull: twenty-two discrete bones that fuse together in the first months of life. The skull has always been a central symbol for the human psyche, representing the enigma of life and the unavoidability of death. But by the dawn of the nineteenth century it had begun to assume a new meaning and significance. This was due almost entirely to the popular work of one man, Franz Joseph Gall.
Gall was born March 9, 1757, in the small town of Tiefenbrum in Baden, Germany. His parents wanted him to enter the priesthood, as was the custom for second sons, but as he would
later explain, his “natural dispositions were opposed to” religion.
Instead, Gall found he had a deep and abiding scientific curiosity, and in 1781 he went to Vienna to study medicine.
Gall found himself in 1781 was a city of dust, a city of wonder, and a city of music. The dust came from the cobblestones that were ground into powder by carriage wheels and lifted by the wind. It hung in blooms like smog, especially in summer, so thick that many first-floor rooms kept candles burning throughout the day for light. One visitor to the city called it “one of Vienna's great plagues.” The mortality rate due to tuberculosis, pneumonia, phthisis, and other respiratory ailments was incredibly high in Vienna, especially among coachmen, runners, soldiers, and anyone else who had the misfortune of a job that involved running a lot of errands. One man who recorded its effect was Johann Pezzl, a monk who came to Vienna in 1786 and wrote a series of journalistic reports on all aspects of the city. “If you leave your house at eight o'clock on a Sunday evening after a lovely warm day, it is like entering a fog,” Pezzl wrote; “one can only make out the lanterns flickering through the dust; and if one leaves by one of the city gates, a dense dust-cloud covers the whole Esplanade. In a few minutes, one's shoes, clothes and hat are covered with dust. The wheels of sixteen thousand carriages
and their horses' hooves, plus an army of more than two hundred thousand pedestrians, have covered Vienna in fog.” It was so thick in summer that buildings couldn't be seen on the far side of the city's parks and plazas, and even the closest suburbs seemed to recede into some distant landscape. “The worst situation,” Pezzl concluded, “occurs when, after several warm days, a strong wing springs up . . . the dust penetrates the mouth, nose and ears . . . and one's eyes weep.”