Authors: Colin Dickey
That night Rosenbaum noted in his diary, “Thus Haydn was, after all, honored during his lifetime.”
He knew the composer was dying and knew he might soon be given the chance of a lifetime: to know the mind of the greatest composer the world had yet seen! To be able to get the exact measurement and proportions of his head, to quantify each segment of that magnificent mind. What alchemy! To convert those adagios and crescendos into centimeters and grams, to assemble a picture of the man in terms not of art but of science. Haydn would live for another year, but Rosenbaum was already making preparations.
It's not clear at what point he decided to steal Haydn's skull, but he began planning the theft long before the actual death. He knew in advance how difficult it would be, and he decided to take a practice run.
The subject of Joseph Carl Rosenbaum's first foray into cranioklepty was the actress Elizabeth Roose, who died in childbirth in October 1808. Roose was from a family of actors; she, her father, and her husband had all come to Vienna in 1798 and had made a huge impression on the theatergoing public. Of Elizabeth, a reviewer noted that she had a “magnificent head and an expressive face,” and it was this magnificent head that Rosenbaum and his conspirators would cut from her corpse a week after her death, this same expressive face that they would cut away with a scalpel and burn off with lime.
Betty Roose's head from her body in November 1808, he joined a long line of body snatchers
in a practice that had grown rampant over the past several hundred years. As doctors began to abandon the model of the four humors in favor of direct observation of the workings of the body, the corpse became the primary site of education. Anatomists were free to dissect the bodies of executed criminals, who had forfeited their souls, but as demand outpaced supply, doctors and schools increasingly turned to grave robbers, known as “resurrectionists.”
By the eighteenth century a thriving trade in grave robbing had taken root. In 1728 the anonymous author of a pamphlet titled “A View of London and Westminster” noted that the Corporation of Corpse Stealers “support themselves and Families very comfortably; and that no-one should be surprised at the Nature of Such a Society, the late Resurrectionists in St Saviours, St Giles's and St Pancras' Churchyards, are memorable Instances of this laudable Profession.”
This desire for corpses was to last well into the nineteenth century. As late as 1890, for example, the Kentucky School of Medicine was accused of plundering various graveyards, including that of the Asylum for the Insane in Anchorage, Kentucky. The school was unapologetic: “Yes, the party was sent by us,” a school official told the press. “We must have bodies, and if the State won't give them to us we must steal them. The winter classes were large and used up so many subjects that there are none for
the spring classes. The Asylum Cemetery has been robbed for years, and I doubt if there is a corpse in it. I tell you we must have bodies. You cannot make doctors without them, and the public must understand it. If we can't get them any other way we will arm the students with Winchester rifles and send them to protect the body-snatchers on their raids.”
This was only ten years before the turn of the twentieth century.
This extensive history of grave robbing had gone a long way to divest the gravesite of its sanctityâdespite religious prohibitions, men of learning and progressive thought could believe that grave robbing in the name of science, while not quite legal, was morally acceptable, even laudable. This change in belief helps to explain why Rosenbaum and his friends were able to speak so openly about their actions and why they thought nothing of displaying their trophies in glass cases in their living rooms.
Among those who fell victim to the resurrectionists was Laurence Sterne, author of
When he died of tuberculosis in 1768, Sterne, who had often gone by the nickname “Yorick,” was insolvent, and buried in a pauper's grave. As such he was easy pickings: A few days later his body was stolen by grave robbers and turned up on a dissection table. It was only by chance that he was recognized by the doctor who received his body and was quickly returned to the ground. Sterne's situation
was unfortunate, but it highlights the difference between an average resurrectionist and a cranioklept such as Rosenbaum. Sterne's was just one fresh body among many, his genius and wit inconsequential. In contrast, the cranioklepts were looking for something specific. Whereas the anatomist wanted the whole body, the cranioklept wanted only the headâcleaned, bleached, impervious to time and radiating its mystery. The skull, for men like Rosenbaum, was something like a scientific fetish, a secular relic.
In this regard men like Joseph Carl Rosenbaum had much earlier antecedents. The ancient Christian cult of relics had long since put a premium on the remains of the dead, and in particular of dead saints. Their tombs were privileged places where Heaven and Earth met; the bones of the saints were the physical evidence of the coming resurrection, a tangible proof of Christ's promise in the form of the undecayed corpse.
But that didn't mean one couldn't steal them. Relic theft had long been an accepted practice in medieval Christianity. Indeed, such actions were not considered thefts at allâthe term for this process was simply “translation,” and it was almost universally praised and considered an act of Christian virtue. As Patrick J. Geary explained, “A real conviction that the relic was the saint, that the relic was a person and not a thing, undoubtedly helped mitigate the more blatantly immoral aspects of stealing. Paralleling the customs of ritual âkidnappings' of brides by their prospective husbands, the theft of relics was at once a kidnapping and a seduction; overcome by the force of the thief's ardor and devotion, the saint allowed himself to be swept away to a new life in a
This attitude captures the motives of men like Rosenbaum much more closely than the pure-profit motive of the typical resurrectionist. The stealing of Haydn's skull was in many ways an act of love: reverence by way of defilement. Why hide such a worthy skull out of the sight of humankind when it could be proudly displayed, a testament for centuries to come?
Any piece of a saint might be potent and valuable, but by the end of the Middle Ages the skull in particular had developed an iconic exceptionality. Associated with the trope of
, the skull embodied a complicated union of ideas and themes, from bodily decay and physical death to penance and ultimately salvation. As Thomas Browne himself wrote, “In these moral acceptions, the way to be immortal is to die daily: nor can I think I have the true Theory of death, when I contemplate a skull . . . with those vulgar imaginations it casts upon us; I have therefore enlarged that common
[Remember you must die], into a more Christian memorandum,
Memento quatuor Novissima
[Remember the four last things], those four inevitable points of us all, Death, Judgement, Heaven, and Hell.”
By the time Browne's own skull was put on display, it was perhaps contemplated for different reasons, but certainly phrenology and cranioklepty contain the echoes of this much earlier legacy.
Perhaps because of this tradition, it would seem that to possess another's skull allowed for a unique connection that could
last beyond death. Saint Francis of Assisi, who himself would come to be iconically associated with skulls, recorded the lament of a Brother Julius, who, upon the loss of a close friend and fellow monk, cried, “Alas, woe is me; for there is no good left me now, and all the world is darkened to me by the death of my sweet and most loving brother Amazialbene! Were it not that I should have no peace from the brethren, I would go to his grave and take out his head, and out of his skull I would make me two vessels; from the one I would always eat, in memory of him, for my own devotion, and from the other I would drink when I was thirsty.”
Many of the more prominent thinkers of the Enlightenment, of course, had tried to put an end to this kind of sentimental attachment to human remains. Voltaire decried the worshipping of relics as a “superstition” left over from “our ages of barbarity,” when they had appealed to “the vulgar: feudal lords and their imbecile wives, and their brutish vassals.”
But even so rational a thinker as G. W. F. Hegel, from whom so much of modern philosophy derives, was susceptible to the aura of the skull. In 1807 he published his opus
The Phenomenology of Spirit
, which included a lengthy section on phrenology. Although he ultimately concluded that phrenology as a science was dubious at best, he nonetheless recognized the cultural importance of the skull: “The skull-bone does have in general the
significance of being the immediate actuality of Spirit. . . . If now the brain and spinal cord together constitute that corporal
of Spirit, the skull and vertebral column for the other extreme to it, an extreme which is separated off, viz., the solid, inert Thing. When, however, anyone thinks of the proper location of Spirit's outer existence, it is not the back that comes to mind but only the head.”
HE THEATER WORLD
in Vienna was small, and if the Rosenbaums did not know Elizabeth Roose directly, they certainly had many friends in common with the actress. Her unexpected death during childbirth was a tragedy for her family and a blow to the theatrical world, but Rosenbaum saw it as an opportunity. He was clearly not thinking of the possibility of stealing her skull before her death, and he made no mention of her in his diary before the “dull, melancholy” day of her burial on October 26, 1808. But when he heard the news of her death, something clicked in him, and he quickly saw that she was the perfect specimen.
Roose was in many ways an ideal subject for phrenological study. When her family had come to Vienna (both her husband and father were also well-known actors), they brought with them a new style of acting. A contemporary reviewer wrote that “with the appearance of this family a proper conversational tone came
to the theatre, and naturalness replaced the stilted, strutting style of play-acting.”
And while Betty's father was known for his awkward gait, his stout frame and gangly limbs, her own genius was largely in her face and expressions.
The night after her burial, Rosenbaum and Peter discussed their plan to liberate Roose's head, discussing what possible correlations might be found between her appearance and her character once they could carry out exact phrenological measurements. There was something intoxicating in the possibilities. To the phrenologist the skull had its own landscape, where valleys and ridges told a secret story, a hidden territory to be unearthed. Like a geologist reading the strata of rock, a phrenologist could unravel a decades-old history in the contours of a cleaned skull. Rosenbaum and Peter spent the long night talking of these possibilities, imagining what secrets Betty Roose's head might reveal about the actress and her genius. Therese was so revolted by their discussion that she left the room: “Her phantasy,” Rosenbaum explained, “conjured up nothing but dreadful sights.”
It took Peter a few days to work out the details, but by the end of the month he came back to Rosenbaum with high hopes. Therese already asleep, Peter sketched out the plan of first securing the head, cleaning the bone of as much flesh as they could, and then soaking it in limewater to bleach it fully. They decided they would need to have a glass vessel built so that they could
watch the bleaching process through the various stages of decay. That night Rosenbaum wrote in his diary, “It is of the greatest interest for me.”
By this point they were making no secret of their agenda; over the next few days friends occasionally dropped in to see whether Rosenbaum had yet found the means of liberating the actress's head, though he was careful to spare Therese any further discussion of his sudden preoccupation.
HE THEFT WAS
planned for November 3, almost a week after the actress's death. On the 1st of the month Rosenbaum and Peter had driven out to the cemetery and met with the grave digger, Jakob Demuth, a “rather plump, tall, jovial man.” He agreed to dig up the body and cut off the head for 25 gulden, plus gratuity. This was not an insubstantial sum, and certainly the money was not coming from Peter. But it was all Rosenbaum could think of in those days, and he wanted desperately to have his prize. As they waited for darkness, Peter and Rosenbaum went over their plans again, not just the dissection but also “the solemn burial of the brain, flesh and fat” in Peter's garden.
The theft was delayed a night because when they arrived on the 3rd they found Demuth drunk and passed out. “We ultimately had to leave,” Rosenbaum wrote that night, “after so
many sacrifices, with nothing accomplished. . . . I returned home around 1 o'clock, greatly annoyed and exhausted.”
A man of business, Rosenbaum worked diligently on his accounts nearly every day of his life, awake at 4 or 5 in the morning and at his desk by 6:30. These nocturnal forays would quickly take a toll on him, especially if he was to be repeatedly dragging himself to the cemetery past midnight only to be stood up.
The following night was more successful. Rosenbaum, accompanied by Peter, supervised Demuth as he unearthed Roose's coffin. Normally resurrectionists worked by digging down only over one end of the coffin; when the top was exposed, they pried off the lid, using the weight of the earth over the rest of the coffin as leverage and splitting the lid in half. But this was Demuth's cemetery, and as long as they were within its walls they could take their time without fear of discovery. “At 8 in the evening the great work began,” Rosenbaum wrote that night. “By shortly after 10 o'clock the head had already been removed.” Only after they had finally unearthed the body did the reality of what they were doing occur to Rosenbaum. Ten days after her death Roose's body was well into decomposition. “The foul smell beggars all description,” he explained, “and we were actually concerned for the gravedigger's life. She had begun to decompose badly.”