The Theft of Joseph Haydn’s Skull

In the midst of royal intrigue and pseudo-scientific machinations, Haydn’s head spent many years traveling outside of his gravesite. The original article I wrote can be found here.


On May 11, 1809, Joseph Haydn slipped quietly into death at the age of 77. War was raging outside as the French laid siege to Vienna, but Napoleon had posted guards at Haydn’s home to spare the composer any danger. A French officer had even come to honor Haydn by singing an aria from The Creation. The relative tranquility that surrounded the composer on his final day, however, gave no hint of the bizarre events in store for Haydn’s remains.

Joseph Rosenbaum and Phrenology

The early 19th century was the heyday of phrenology, a “new science” whose practitioners claimed to measure intelligence and character by examining the size and placement of bumps on the human head. Doctors were becoming increasingly interested in collecting and studying skulls, and particularly liked to get their hands on the skulls of eminent persons, like great philosophers and artists of genius.

Joseph Rosenbaum managed the accounts of the stables belonging to the powerful Esterhazy family of Eisenstadt, Austria. Rosenbaum was a friend of the much older Haydn, and was also keenly interested in phrenology. He never made a great secret of the fact that he wished to study Haydn’s skull, and as he knew his friend was nearing death, Rosenbaum began to make plans to obtain the composer’s head after burial. Since he didn’t want to botch the job when the time came, he decided to do a trial run.

Practice Grave-Robbing

A well-known actress on the Vienna stage, Elizabeth Roose died in childbirth in October 1808. Rosenbaum had not planned to steal her head specifically, but when the opportunity arose, he grabbed it. About a week after Roose’s death, Rosenbaum and friend Johann Peter bribed a gravedigger to exhume the actress’s body and cut off her head.

The friends took their reeking prize to Peter’s home, where they and a Dr. Weiss proceeded to scrape the skin and muscle off the bone, scoop out the rotting brain, and bleach the skull clean by submerging it in quicklime. The experiment was only partly successful; the smell and mess had been far more horrible than Rosenbaum had expected, and lengthy immersion in the quicklime solution left the skull brittle and moldy. Rosenbaum decided that when it came time to swipe Haydn’s head, he would turn to the experts.

Taking Haydn’s Head

Less than a year after the Roose experiment, Haydn died. Shortly after the composer was buried in Hundsthurmer Cemetery, Rosenbaum paid the same gravedigger to purloin the head, which he then handed over to his trusted friend Dr. Eckhart and a team of “corpse bearers” at Vienna General Hospital. Their work on the skull was impeccable, and Rosenbaum could hardly contain his excitement. He had a fancy case made to hold Haydn’s skull; it was black with a glass front, and topped with a golden lyre.

The Prince and the Missing Skull

Rosenbaum and Peter kept possession of the skull for the next eleven years. But in 1820, Nicholas II of the Esterhazy clan, who had been Haydn’s patrons, belatedly decided to honor a family promise to move the composer’s remains from their modest digs at Hundsthurmer to a more spectacular tomb in Eisenstadt. The only problem was that when the body was exhumed, it was, of course, missing its skull.

The prince called in the Vienna police; their investigation turned up Johann Peter’s name. When interviewed, Peter claimed the skull had been given to him by the now-dead Dr. Eckhart, who had told him it was Haydn’s but had not told him how he had procured it. Peter apologized, telling police that had he known Eckhart had obtained the skull illegally, he would have turned it over to authorities immediately. Then he handed the officers a skull. When Rosenbaum was questioned, he gave police the exact same story, and for a time, the police were satisfied.

Haydn Skull Switcheroo

Later examination of the skull that Peter handed over showed that it could not have been Haydn’s, as it was the skull of a young man. Rosenbaum’s house was searched, but police turned up nothing. Prince Nicholas, embarrassed by the bad press the whole affair was causing, offered Rosenbaum a bribe to turn over the real skull. Rosenbaum did hand over another skull, which seemed to be that of a man Haydn’s age, and this skull was shipped to Eisenstadt and interred with the rest of Haydn’s remains.

The Real Skull Makes the Rounds

But the skull buried in Eisenstadt was not the one Haydn had possessed in life. Rosenbaum had in fact stashed the real skull in a mattress when the police came to search, and then had his wife Therese lay on it, knowing the officers would never ask a lady to get out of bed. Rosenbaum kept the skull until his own death was approaching, when he turned it over to Peter with the wish that it eventually be given to the Society for the Friends of Music. When Peter died, his wife tried to give the skull to the Esterhazy family, but ironically the family would not take it, as they thought Haydn’s skull was already in its tomb.

The skull of Joseph Haydn passed to Peter’s physician Karl Haller, who gave it to his mentor, famed pathologist Carl von Rokitansky. In the 1890s, the skull finally made its way to the Society for the Friends of Music. In 1946, another attempt was made to return the skull to Eisenstadt, but it wasn’t until 1954 that Haydn’s wandering skull was finally reunited with the rest of the composer’s mortal remains.


Dickey, Colin (2009). Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius. Unbridled Books. ISBN: 9781932961867.

Germany’s Waiting Mortuaries

Fears of premature burial prompted the construction of these strange institutions in the 19th Century. The original article I wrote can be found here.



The idea of being interred alive is one of humans’ most primal and unspeakable fears, though its common recurrence in legend and literature betrays a helpless fascination as well. There is probably no way to ever discern how many unfortunate people throughout history have fallen victim to this gruesome fate; it’s likely that the numbers swelled during plagues and other epidemics of disease, as bodies were hurriedly placed into mass graves to forestall contagion. Whatever the actual numbers, it is certain that the problem was clearly widespread enough to cause some societies to take unusual precautions.

Bruhier and the Uncertainty of Death

Debates about the exact moment when a person made the transition between life and death had been raging at least since the days of Pliny, with many criteria being used to determine the difference between a dead body and a living one. But the possibility that fallible medical professionals or family members might mistakenly bury someone who was still alive didn’t fully capture the public’s imagination until the 1745 publication of a book called Dissertation sur l’incertitude des signes de la mort by Jean-Jacques Bruhier.

The book was a translation and expansion upon the work of a Dutch anatomist named Jacob Winsløw, who recommended a series of tests on supposed corpses — blowing pepper into the nostrils, shoving red-hot pokers up the anus, slicing the soles of the feet with a razor — to ensure death before burial. Bruhier’s book repeated these ideas, but also added scores of grim, sordid accounts of premature burials — some well-documented, some repetitions of long-lived folk tales. Additionally, Bruhier took Winsløw’s calls for burial reform even further, arguing that putrefaction was the only sure sign of death, and advocating for a system of “waiting morgues” where bodies could be kept above ground until they began to rot.

The Germans Build the Morgues

Though Bruhier’s ideas were never implemented in France for one reason or another, the massive success of the book ensured a series of translations, including a German one in 1754. This book, along with a similarly themed tome by another Frenchman, François Thiérry, was taken very seriously, discussed at length among German doctors and intellectuals. Beginning in the early 1790s in Weimar, at the behest of influential physician Christoph Wilhelm Hufeland, plans began to percolate to construct a Totenhaus, or house for the dead, in every German town.

These first waiting mortuaries were large, stately affairs. Corpses (or supposed corpses) were laid out in their shrouds, watched over by attendants who stared through windows, waiting for any signs of life. The attendants often worked 12-hour shifts amid the pungent stench of rotting flesh, and were not allowed to move from their posts. In addition, each corpse was fitted with a series of strings attached to fingers and toes; the strings all led to a central alarm bell which would ring at the slightest movement. Unfortunately the gases from the putrefying bodies were often sufficient to set off the bell, and there were countless false alarms.

Waiting Morgues Spread Throughout Germany

Throughout the following decades, interest in premature burial was high, and more of these waiting mortuaries were built around the country — Ansbach, Munich, Frankfurt, Berlin. Their architecture became ever more elaborate, with classical columns and marble façades that would rival any church or mausoleum. Many of the mortuaries had separate, fancier chambers for the wealthier corpses, and later morgues upgraded their alarms with ingenious clockwork mechanisms and electric buzzers. The morgues also became something of an odd tourist attraction, even visited by literary luminaries like Wilkie Collins and Mark Twain.

The Heyday for Waiting Morgues Passes

Though similar institutions were established in Copenhagen, Prague, Lisbon, and New York, and though a few of the morgues were still operating in Brussels and Amsterdam as late as the 1870s, Germany remained the center of the waiting mortuary phenomenon. But even there the enthusiasm soon began to wane. For one thing, though the morgues were applauded for their philanthropic aspects, the fact was that few citizens actually wanted to install their loved ones in such places, and some morgues had to close for lack of “customers.” In addition, there was never any solid evidence that any corpse had ever revived after a stint in the mortuary; critics questioned the tremendous expense on something which seemed so unnecessary.

Finally, by the mid-nineteenth century, better medical instruments like the stethoscope were coming into common use, making determination of death easier. Besides that, there was also a slowly evolving movement away from unsanitary “communal” death houses and toward more individualistic inventions like “security coffins” outfitted with air tubes, lock-and-key mechanisms, firecrackers, bells, flags, and sirens.


Bondeson, Jan (2001). Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear. W.W. Norton & Co., Inc. ISBN: 039332222X.