Authors: Colin Dickey
Having finally achieved their goal, Rosenbaum and Peter were
faced with a dilemma: They had fantasized about the clean, antiseptic skull devoid of any trace of decay that they could study at their leisure, but neither had prepared himself for the great stench of a rotting and rancid head whose smell would be evident to anyone who came within fifty feet. Afraid that they'd be stopped by the police with such odoriferous cargo, they decided to keep the head in the cemetery. Demuth agreed to hide it under some old coffins that he kept in a shed, provided they return to fetch it the next day.
HE NEXT DAY
dawned dark and cold, and early in the morning Rosenbaum drove back to the graveyard. On the way to Demuth's shed, they passed Roose's gravesite: The soil was visibly disturbed, and anyone who cared to notice would have seen that something was amiss. But there was nothing to be done about that now. Demuth was eager to be rid of the head, though he agreed to conceal it under his cloak and carry it as far as the carriage Rosenbaum had left waiting. They drove directly to Peter's house, and it was Rosenbaum's turn to hide his foul-smelling trophy under his coat as they brought it inside.
Once in the house they put it in the glass jar they had had built and immersed it in water, mainly to suppress the smell. The head submerged, they put a lid on the jar and let the room air out. Only then could they finally take stock of their prize. “The face was distinguishable,” Rosenbaum commented. “The left side and part of the right were greenish black, the forehead green with black
stripes, the right side yellowish white . . . the eyes were closed but bulged greatly, the mouth was slightly open so that the teeth could be seen.”
It was an odd trophy, a grim and garish reminder of the reality of death and a far cry from the phrenological resource they had hoped to recover. Rosenbaum went home, leaving Peter to finalize the details for the dissection and cleaning.
Giddy with excitement, Rosenbaum told Therese of his plan and its success. He wanted her to share in this moment, to understand why it was important to him and why she should care about his triumph. But on some level, he also wanted absolution from her. With all the morbid illegality and sacrilege he'd lately engaged in, Rosenbaum was a bit uneasy about what they'd done, and he was eager to display the “solemnity” of his intentions (a term that he used frequently in his journal) as if to absolve himself of any crime. He assured Therese of his intention to bury the remains of Roose's head in a separate ceremony and invited her to participate in this private reburial. He also asked her to bring a few friends. With an audience of respectable ladies, it would be clear to allâincluding Rosenbaumâthat this was not simple grave robbing but something more noble.
Therese was unsure. She was still deeply uncomfortable with what her husband had done, but she tried her best to fulfill the role of supportive wife. In the end she agreed to pass the invitation on to her friends, but she declined to come herself.
The following day, November 6, they began the true workâ the same day, as Rosenbaum grimly recorded, that both Roose's husband and father were back onstage, performing once again. Peter had recruited a young doctor named Weiss to handle the actual dissection. “The stench was simply inconceivable,” Rosenbaum reported, “the most noisome odor was made by the brain which had become completely putrid.” It was difficult to get too close to the head without getting nauseated. But Weiss was fearless, and Rosenbaum “had to admire the young man for the dexterity with which he cut everything away.”
To combat the odor, they burned incense, so much that the smoke turned Weiss's face black. The young doctor cut away the skin and muscle, slowly scraping away the layers that made up Elizabeth's celebrated face until the bone was exposed. He broke through the occipital bone on the underside of the skull and scooped out the brain, collecting everything in a bucket. Curiously, Weiss left the jaw attached, and by the time he was finished there was still a great deal of ligament still intact. Perhaps the smell had started to get him, too.
Afterward they put the skull in limewater to bleach it out, then buried all that Weiss had cut away under a plum tree in the garden. As Peter, Rosenbaum, and Weiss concluded their “solemn
,” their audience arrived: Madames Geissler, Goldman, and Hocheder, all of whom had been invited to participate. Hocheder had been a close friend of the actress in life, and now Rosenbaum,
presiding over these improvised last rites, had her wave a funerary torch three times over the makeshift grave. This act of mourning completed, Rosenbaum led the women back to Peter's grotto and proudly showed them “the head stripped of all flesh.”
HEN CALCIUM OXIDE
âquicklimeâis mixed with water, the resulting chemical reaction gives off a great amount of heat and quickly raises the temperature of the water to boiling. For this reason, limewater is ideal for cleaning boneâthe heat boils off any remaining matter or viscera but leaves the bone relatively untouched, thus bleaching it white and clean. For a month they kept the skull in a solution of limewater, changing the solution every so often as it worked on the actress's skull. And slowly the head lost whatever traces it might have borne of a living woman, becoming instead a sterile death's-head perfect for study.
A month later the head was out of the lime; Rosenbaum and Peter uncovered it in its new state and stood looking at it for quite some time. Gone were the flashing eyes, the sly smile that could captivate an audience, and the dimpled cheeks. What was left of Betty Roose was a series of grooves and ridges, a map of her mind in the white bone that was all that remained beyond death. Finally Rosenbaum said, “So was she, so is she now.”
HE SKULL WAS
to stay in limewater for the next four months in Peter's garden, where it would occasionally be shown to visitors. Four months turned out to be much longer than necessary. So long, in fact, that the lime burned off too much of the fat and necessary oils in the bone, and the skull became overly brittle. After a while, to make matters worse, the skull began to grow algae. On Easter 1809, Rosenbaum the resurrectionist noted that “the head is very spotted, wild and greenish.”
This was the last entry in Rosenbaum's diary that mentioned Elizabeth Roose. If he worked more on her skull, he didn't mention it. But by then other events had been set in motion. In May the French laid siege to Vienna, and shortly thereafter, amidst the chaos, the great and venerated Joseph Haydn died. The night he heard of Haydn's death, nearly oblivious to the massing armies around him, Rosenbaum “pondered Haydn's destiny.”
The next day he went to work.
While in London Haydn had begun working on an opera to be called
The Soul of a Philosopher
, a retelling of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, which he never completed and was never staged in his lifetime. Of all the Greek and Roman myths, the tale of Orpheus and his beloved had special resonance for musicians: The poet and singer, whose lover dies tragically, is so overcome with grief that he descends to the underworld with his lyre and there plays a song so beautiful that even the Lord of the Dead is moved and allows Orpheus to return with Eurydice to the land of the living, so long as he doesn't look back at her while they ascend. It is a story about the power of music to transcend all boundaries, including death. There had been at least three other operas based on it, including works by Monteverdi and Gluck. When E. T. A. Hoffman made his case for the supremacy of music, he invoked Orpheus to prove his point: “Music is the most romantic of all the arts; one might even say that it alone is purely romantic. The lyre of Orpheus opened the gates
of Orcus. Music unlocks for man an unfamiliar world having nothing in common with the one which surrounds him.”
In life Haydn would have been the natural choice to play Orpheus, but now it was Rosenbaum who prepared to assume the role, descending into the land of the dead to snatch back his beloved.
N MAY 10
the French had taken up positions outside the city walls of Vienna, ensconced in the western suburbs. They demanded that the Archduke Maximilian surrender; he responded by opening fire. His bombardment was so intense that the hospitals and almshouses were draped with large black flags so they might be recognized and avoided by his cannoneers. Around 9 o'clock that night, the French returned the gesture. Throughout the night they hit Vienna with everything they hadâliterally. By 3 a.m. they had to stop shelling because they had run out of ammunition.
Citizens of Vienna, most of whom had spent a terrified night barricaded in their cellars, stepped out onto the street that frigid morning of May 11 to find that they could not walk for the broken glass that covered every inch of the ground. In addition, there were fires everywhere; Rosenbaum came out of his cellar that morning to find a fire racing down the block toward his building. He managed to save it only by a heroic effort organizing the neighbors into a bucket brigade.
By then Maximilian's army had withdrawn to the far side of the Danube, burning bridges in its wake and leaving the city to the French. In the ensuing occupation Napoleon had an honor guard stationed at the door of Haydn's home to spare its owner from looting or further distress. But Haydn's strength was fading, his long life nearing its end. A few days before his death a French officer called on him and sang for him one of his own arias, from
, “with so much truth of expression and real musical sentiment” that Haydn broke down in tears of joy.
Later that day he called his family to the piano one last time and played for them the Austrian hymn that he had composed for the emperor ten years before, an anthem for a country that now lay in ruins around him. He played it three times, building in intensity each time, and then retired. The next day he could not get out of bed, and on May 31 he passed peacefully into death.
N THE DAY
of Haydn's funeral the air was thick with “warm, choking dust”; breathing was difficult, and it exhausted the mourners. Haydn lay in state in his room, adorned with his medals of honor from Paris, Russia, Sweden, and Vienna. In the afternoon his coffin was carried to the Hundsthurmer Church in Gumpendorf, carried three times around the church, and then brought inside. It was a small ceremony, and after a short service
Haydn was buried in the Hundsthurmer cemetery. Buried next to him was a prominent artist named LÃ¶schenkohl, who had been known for his silhouette portraits and had once been the lover of Therese's friend Madame Geissler.
On the other side of LÃ¶schenkohl's plot was the violated grave of Elizabeth Roose.
As soon as the dusty funeral was over, Rosenbaum pulled aside the grave digger, Jakob Demuth. Since Rosenbaum had last seen Demuth, all his possessions had been plundered by the besieging French army, and he was certainly in the state of mind and economic position to accept another bribe from Rosenbaum. His financial straits quickly outweighed any concern he might have had over desecrating such a famous corpse. And so Demuth agreed to dig up the body the following night and remove the great man's head.
With the grave digger's help once again secured, there was only one loose end. Rosenbaum's descriptions of his first try at skull cleaning suggest that he had fouled Roose's skull by leaving it in limewater for so long, and he didn't want to make the same mistake with an infinitely more valuable head. As capable as he might have been with numbers, anatomy and chemistry seemed beyond him, so he decided that this time he would have to hire someone to clean the skull professionally. The question was whoâRosenbaum needed someone of both great skill and great discretion.
After Rosenbaum was finished at Gumpendorf he was exhausted, the dust in the air making it difficult to breathe, but he
still dragged himself to Peter's to explain the details of the plan and secure his friend's support. But he found Peter to be on edge, frantic, suddenly uncooperative and erratic. The realization of their long-standing plan was finally at hand, and Peter was at moments wildly exuberant about the prospect. But then he would suddenly become paranoid, convinced that the theft of such a famous man's head would not go unnoticed. This was no up-and-coming but little-known actress. This was a significantly more serious undertaking.
Peter's nerves might also have been justifiably shaken by the cataclysmic battle going on all around them. But Rosenbaum knew the war to be a stroke of luck. Had Haydn died at any time other than in the middle of such a citywide catastrophe, he would have been given a lavish state funeral, and the theft they now contemplated would have been impossible.
HE NEXT DAY
a small service for Haydn was held, with a requiem by his brother Michael. According to Rosenbaum, the music was “abominable,” as was the attendance. Only a meager handful of people turned out, and none of the
s of Vienna bothered to attend. In fact, the only Viennese singer to perform was Therese herself. It was as if the city had already forgotten the composer.
After the dreadful mass, Rosenbaum drove to the cemetery to speak with Demuth, but the grave digger wasn't there. Rosenbaum regretted having to place so much faith in a compromised
alcoholic, but what other sort of man could so readily be bribed into stealing the head of Franz Joseph Haydn?
On his way home Rosenbaum happened to run into Leopold Eckhart, his friend and doctor. Eckhart knew of Rosenbaum's interest in phrenology and had been present seven years earlier when they both had first heard Gall's name. He was the sort of man, Rosenbaum now saw, who not only could be trusted but also could prove quite useful. Rosenbaum revealed to him the plan to steal Haydn's head and the need for someone as skillful as Eckhart to carry out the dissection and maceration.