Authors: Colin Dickey
Eckhart readily agreed to help with the dissection., More important, like any doctor, he knew of the usefulness of cleaned skeletons for teaching and reference purposes. Like any good medical institution, he said, the Vienna General Hospital where he worked employed men whose job it was to clean and articulate skeletons professionally. He offered to put Rosenbaum in touch with the corpse bearers who worked at the hospital.
After meeting those men at the hospital morgue, Rosenbaum was doubtful. The cleaning of Haydn's head had to be done flawlessly, and he was unimpressed with the rough and grubby workers whom Eckhart brought him. It took a great deal of personal assurance on the part of the doctor to convince Rosenbaum of the quality of their work and to get him to agree to let them undertake the project. Finally Rosenbaum told them that he would have the head the following night, and they should be ready to receive it. The last piece had fallen into place. Now all that was needed was the head itself.
URING THAT LONG
week Rosenbaum's public persona continued to be that of a respectable member of the Viennese bourgeoisie. But throughout it all, his darker personal agenda continued. The night after meeting EckhartâFriday, June 2â Rosenbaum drove to the cemetery to receive the head, but no one met him there. Rosenbaum waited in vain for some sign from Demuth before finally heading home, once again empty-handed. For a time his plans seemed on the verge of unraveling, and it was not at all clear to Rosenbaum that he would be able to pull off the theft. He had entered a subterranean economy with questionable associatesâthe notoriously unreliable Demuth, the increasingly erratic Peter, and Eckhart's too-earthy corpse bearers, who were to him an unknown quantity.
Rosenbaum had hoped to keep the head in his possession for a few nights before turning it over to be cleaned. Roose's head had always been on hand for inspection and meditation, but now that Rosenbaum had involved professionals, he was going to lose the head for over a month. Before that happened he wanted some time alone with it, stinking and rotting though he knew it would be. But he didn't get the chance. Saturday, for the second night in a row, Demuth failed to show. The reason, it turned out, was that he had been beaten the night before and was still recovering. Rosenbaum was forced to inform the corpse bearers at the hospital that it would be another night before the head would arrive.
Finally, on Sunday, June 4, Rosenbaum drove to the cemetery with Peter and a few other friends. They found that Demuth had already decapitated the body, and while the others waited in the carriage, Rosenbaum undertook the retrieval.
At the gates of the cemetery he felt himself transformed. He had become Orpheusâhe had seen someone he loved taken by death and now stood on the precipice of the underworld. Through dedication and perseverance, he would venture into places unknown by the living. And so Rosenbaum strode forth to meet Demuth, who delivered, as promised, “the most valuable relic of Joseph Haydn.”
raced through Rosenbaum's mind: elation at having finally accomplished what he'd spent over a year planning, anxiety about the hurdles still to be overcome. But above all, like Orpheus, he was overcome by a desire to look, to gaze upon his prize. As he returned to the carriage, he peeled away the rags in which Demuth had wrapped the head and looked down at the now horrific face of his old friend. Haydn had died almost a week before, and this was Vienna in June. And so, upon entering into the carriage with the head, its stench now confined within the carriage's narrow walls, Rosenbaum did what anyone might have done: He threw up.
Surrounded by friends, Rosenbaum struggled to regain his composure. He covered the head once more and had the driver deliver them to the hospital. Still feeling ill, Rosenbaum nevertheless understood that he had a duty to be present during the dissection.
Eckhart himself cleaned away the molding skin and muscle and divested the skull of its putrefying brain. “The sight made a life-long impression on me,” Rosenbaum later wrote. “The dissection lasted for one hour; the brain, which was of large proportions, stank the most terribly of all. I endured it to the end.”
This time there was no solemn reburial of the remains in Peter's garden. Eckhart and his men were professionals and treated Haydn's remains as they would any medical waste, disposing of it unceremoniously in the hospital's furnaces.
Still nervous about the competence of the corpse bearers, Rosenbaum once again impressed upon them the need to take the utmost care with the skull. He was extremely reluctant to part with it, and Eckhart once again had to provide assurances of the quality of the work. And so, with “a thousand reminders of the diligence and precision with which this head is to be macerated and bleached,” Rosenbaum finally relinquished the skull.
Peter, meanwhile, had become bored during the dissection and wandered off; he now returned with an already cleaned skull he had found, asking whether he might buy it for his collection.
EN DAYS LATER
there was another requiem for Haydn, staged this time by the Friends of Music. It was a far more successful affair than the earlier performance. The requiem this time was Mozart's; the church and its pews were draped entirely in black; and in the center a
had been erected, displaying Haydn's seven medals of honor. This time all of Viennese society appeared in mourning; it was “most solemn and worthy of Haydn,” Rosenbaum wrote.
Among those present was a contingent of French officers who had been granted leave to attend, including a young commissary named Henri Marie Beyle. Of all those present, Beyle would have been most sympathetic to Rosenbaum's project had he been aware of it. Like Rosenbaum, Beyle loved Haydn's music and would shortly publish a biography of the composer (which, it turned out, was largely plagiarized). He also had an abiding interest in phrenology, having been one of Gall's patients back in Paris.
But the affinities between the two men ran deeper, though they were never to know each other. Beyle was fascinated by the story of Marguerite de Navarre and her lover Boniface de la Mole: Boniface had been guillotined for high treason during the height of the French terror, and his head had been impaled on a spike as a warning to other dissidents. Marguerite had put herself
at some risk by taking down the head and then, according to legend, had had it embalmed and placed in an ornate jeweled case that she would show off to friends. In 1830, when Beyle was writing his masterpiece under the pseudonym “Stendhal,” he would be reminded of the story of Marguerite and Boniface and would incorporate a version of it into the final scene of the book that was to become
The Red and the Black
. In that novel, after Julien Sorel's death, his lover Mathilde (whose family name, de la Mole, was itself an homage to Boniface) goes alone to his crypt the night before his burial and decapitates his corpse, spending a night alone with the head before interring it in a separate, private ceremony.
Paying his respects to Haydn that day, Beyle scarcely could have imagined that life was busy imitating art some twenty years in advance and that, while he and the other mourners had gathered to honor the composer, Haydn's head was soaking in limewater at a nearby hospital.
was massing all around him, preparing for the largest land battle Europe had ever seen, Rosenbaum waited for the corpse bearers to finish cleaning the skull of Joseph Haydn, all the while designing the display cabinet. In the surreal context of a city under siege and in the process of disintegration, the skull never left Rosenbaum's mind. In early July he wrote in his diary, “At 12 o'clock midnight the great and decisive battle began. May its outcome be favorable for us!” following this
sentiment immediately with the line, “At Reimann's I altered our design of the case for Haydn's head.”
At the end of the month he retrieved the head. True to their word, the corpse bearers had done an excellent job and delivered the clean, pristine skull of the world's greatest composer. After more than a year's worth of preparation and planning, considerable expense, and no small amount of risk, Rosenbaum at last had his prize.
It was an odd moment to be celebrating, given that the world around him was crumbling. On September 2 he gave the following description of Wagram, the site of Napoleon's last victory: “Of a population of 400 in the village, 2 to 3 die each day, because of the shortage of food and because so many people are cooped together in each house.” A week later, in this same climate of famine and scarcity, Rosenbaum complained of having to spend the outrageous sum of 12 gulden on “taffeta and fringe” for Haydn's display case.
It is during moments like these that it becomes most clear that there are two kinds of death. There is Death, the immortal and symbolic figure embodied in the skull, and then there is the other, messy death that was happening all around Rosenbaum, the death that came with the waste of battle, a dismembering and decapitating death, a death of putrefaction and unbearable smells. What Rosenbaum struggled with, even at his most audacious, was that alchemical transformation from one kind of death to the other, a
transformation that required more than just quicklime. The clean white skull that philosophers have long gazed at has an antiseptic quality, utterly inorganic and pure. But resurrectionism is dirty work, and a severed head is a long way from a skull. It is a reflection of the singular nature of those times that men like Rosenbaum could so clearly hold both attitudes toward the dead simultaneously, even if these attitudes contradicted one another.
HE DISPLAY CASE
Rosenbaum designed for Haydn's skull was a simple, elegant black box with a glass front and a taffeta curtain. It was understated, mostly devoid of ornamentation save for one feature. Hanging above the skull inside the case was the symbol of Orpheus, a golden lyre. Orpheus, emblem of all great musicians, patron saint of the ones who descend into the underworld to retrieve that which is most precious.
The skull of Joseph Haydn, in the case designed by Rosenbaum and Peter.
In 1820 the young poet John Keats and his friend Charles Brown collaborated on a piece titled “Stanzas on Some Skulls in Beauly Abbey, near Inverness,” riffing off each other and trading verses. The abbey in question had been ransacked by Protestant reformers, and the records of those buried in its catacombs had been destroyed; Keats and Brown's poem in turn offered an alternate way of telling the stories of the dead:
Your chronicles no more exist,
Since Knox, the revolutionist,
Destroyed the work of every fist
That scrawled black letter.
Well! I'm a craniologist
And may do better.
A parody of the graveyard scene in
, the poem offered a series of mock readings based on various skulls. The jocularity of
the tone only thinly masks a certain disgust at a changing world, one in which Hamlet's great meditation on Yorick's death has been replaced by the schematic rationality of Gall's system. Phrenology had threatened the church by suggesting that the brain trumped the immortal soul, and it had threatened more reputable sciences by its lack of rigor or verifiability. Poets like Keats were perturbed by phrenology for yet another reason: It sought to denude the skull of its aura and its totemic power, reducing it to just one more scientific apparatus.
Men like Rosenbaum might have reassured Keats on this point. Motivated by phrenology, his appreciation of the skull as a relic nonetheless tapped into something deeper, a respect and awe for the uncanny and the unknown that was more akin to the Romantics than to the quacks who had begun to travel the globe offering personalized phrenological readings.
Enshrined in its velvet case beneath the lyre of Orpheus, the skull of Haydn straddled so many worlds.
ND THERE IT
stayed for most of the next eleven years, in its elegant box, Peter and Rosenbaum trading off possession every so often. But while Peter may have kept the skull in his garden occasionally, there was no doubt to whom it belonged.
It was the last skull Rosenbaum was to pilfer by such spectacular means. The excitement over, he and his wife returned to their lives. Therese had to retire from performing in 1812, her voice unexpectedly failing. For fifteen brief years she had cut a
path of brilliance across the Viennese stage; now she settled into the life of a housewife. The Rosenbaums continued to prosper: They owned a large estate in the suburbs of Vienna, with their own lavish gardens. Therese's mother, had she lived to see it, would have no doubt been amazed at the lifestyle this no-account clerk had provided for her daughter. By the year he turned fifty Rosenbaum had settled with Therese into the perfect image of middle-class respectability. And then the past caught up with him when, four months after his birthday, grave diggers unearthed a startling revelation in Gumpendorf.