Quick, bring me the head of a genius

Both Haydn and Goya were among the many victims of an era’s rampant mania for skulls

Quick, bring me the head of a geniusWhen the famed Austrian composer Franz Joseph Haydn died at age 77 on May 31, 1809, Vienna was in a shambles, bombarded and occupied by Napoleon’s troops. It wasn’t until 1820 that Haydn’s noble patron was ready to move the musician, one of the Hapsburg empire’s most honoured subjects, to a more monumental grave. Prince Esterhazy was outraged, to put it mildly, to discover there was nothing left north of Haydn’s neck other than his wig. His skull had been stolen. The government of Spain was rather more phlegmatic in 1898 when it set out to repatriate the remains of the famous painter Francisco Goya, buried in France 70 years before. The Spanish consul in Bordeaux telegraphed Madrid that “Goya skeleton without a head. Please instruct me,” and received the equally terse response, “Send Goya, with or without head.”

Haydn and Goya were not alone in their fate. A church sexton tied a wire around Mozart’s neck while he lay on his deathbed, which helped him identify and remove the composer’s head when he dug up the communal grave in which Mozart was buried. Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, English philosopher Thomas Browne and a host of less celebrated individuals were also victims of a mania for skulls that raged virulently from the late 18th century to the mid-19th. Skull theft was partly prompted by a lust for trophies, partly by a secular version of the medieval demand for saints’ relics, but mostly by the burgeoning pseudo-science of phrenology.

As described in American author Colin Dickey’s smartly written account, Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius (McArthur), phrenology (Greek for “mind knowing”) was the brainchild of German physician Franz Joseph Gall in 1796. He had noticed, to his satisfaction at least, that people with good memories had unusually large eyes. This gave him the idea that certain brain areas have localized, specific, measurable functions, proportional in size to a person’s tendencies and talents, and that individual skulls were shaped in a way that accommodated those differences. Hence a person’s abilities could be determined by measuring the area of the skull above the corresponding brain area.

Most of it was sublime nonsense, although Gall had one stroke of real genius: localization—the idea that different parts of the brain specialize in different functions is a mainstay of modern neuroscience. Gall had a trove of skulls, legally acquired from dead criminals and asylum inmates. Prison and madhouse graveyards continued to serve the needs of scientists, particularly medical students, for much longer than we’d like to think. In 1890 a spokesman for the Kentucky School of Medicine calmly confessed to sending a raiding party to the local insane asylum. “I tell you we must have bodies. You cannot make doctors without them. If we can’t get them any other way we will arm the students with Winchester rifles and send them to protect the bodysnatchers on their raids.”

But in the opinion of phrenologists, the plentiful supply of criminal, lunatic and—soon enough—indigenous skulls from growing European empires could only inform them about depravity and intellectual inferiority. What Gall and other phrenologists truly longed for—the heads of geniuses—were far harder to come by. They were forced to make do with plaster casts, but as Gall once remarked with commendable honesty, after he was given a bust of the head of the then elderly Goethe, “I implore you to bribe the relatives of this unique genius to preserve his head in nature for the world.”

Some skull lovers were prepared to go much further. Joseph Rosenbaum, the accountant and amateur phrenologist who stole Haydn’s head, was not just a devotee of the composer’s music but an actual friend of Haydn and believed his actions were a way of honouring the musical genius. With the help of a bribed gravedigger and some professional de-fleshers at a local hospital, Rosenbaum soon had his trophy, which eventually passed to the Society of Music in Vienna. Although scientists had known since at least the middle of the 19th century that human skulls have nothing to say about the minds that once flourished beneath them, it took not just the carnage of the Second World War but revulsion at the horrific things then done to human remains—the crematoria of Auschwitz—to bring Haydn’s body and head back together. In the summer of 1954, amid musical fanfare and flashbulbs, he was reburied intact exactly 145 years after Rosenbaum’s theft.