Usually, when people die, there are various options for how to dispose of their remains properly and respectfully. The methods differ, but they all normally involve dealing with the entire body at once.
That’s not always what happens, though. Sometimes, certain body parts are removed for preservation. Other times, they mysteriously go missing, especially when we’re talking about a famous or infamous figure. Today we are going to examine ten such body parts, that went on to have interesting stories to tell, long after their owners had shuffled off this mortal coil.
10. Galileo’s Middle Finger
When it comes to Italian scientists, few, if any, were more prolific or important than Galileo Galilei, the astronomer who got into trouble with the Catholic Church for his heretical heliocentric hypotheses. If you take a trip to the Galileo Museum in Florence, formerly the Institute and Museum of the History of Science, you can see many of the artifacts that he used to make his discoveries. You can also see his middle finger, encased in a glass egg.
How did it get there? Well, in 1737, almost 100 years after Galileo’s death, some of the scientist’s devotees arranged for his body to be dug up and interred in a mausoleum more befitting someone of his stature. Since they were there anyway, they also cut off three of Galileo’s fingers, to take as keepsakes, alongside his last remaining tooth.
The middle finger was kept by Florentine antiquarian Anton Francesco Gori, and was later sold to various scientific institutes until it came into the possession of the Museum of the History of Science in 1927. It has been on display ever since, becoming the only human remains exhibited in a place dedicated to scientific instruments.
At least, it was until 2009, when the other missing fingers and the tooth reemerged after being lost for almost 300 years. They were sold at auction and then reunited with the middle finger and are now displayed together.
9. Washington’s Last Tooth
George Washington’s dental problems are fairly well documented. He began experiencing toothaches and decay in his 20s and the issues only got worse as he aged, causing him frequent pain and prompting the need for multiple dentures. Despite the myth, none of them were made of wood. In fact, Washington’s first set of dentures was made by Dr. John Baker out of ivory, prior to the Revolutionary War.
Afterward, Washington employed the services of a French dentist named Jean-Pierre Le Mayeur, but, ultimately, a doctor named John Greenwood became the Founding Father’s personal dentist.
By the time Washington became President, he only had one real tooth left and Greenwood did everything possible to save it, leaving a hole to accommodate it in all the dentures he made for the president. This was not only due to Greenwood’s belief that a dentist should never extract a tooth when it can still be saved, but also due to practical purposes since the real tooth was used to anchor the dentures.
However, eventually the inevitable happened and Washington lost his last tooth, as well, which he gifted to John Greenwood as a token of appreciation. Greenwood kept the tooth in a special locket that he carried with him at all times, which is now in the New York Academy of Medicine collection.
8. Brother André’s Heart
During the early 20th century, André Bessette, better known as Brother André, became a significant figure in the Catholic Church in Canada, getting beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1982, and, ultimately, canonized as a saint in 2010.
This all happened decades after he died, though. Immediately following Brother André’s death in 1937, his heart was removed and placed inside a reliquary, which was put on display at St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal. Fast forward a few decades, to 1973, when the heart was stolen and held for a $50,000 ransom.
No ransom was paid so, for a year, the heart was considered lost. Then, one day in 1974, prominent Montreal lawyer Frank Shoofey received an anonymous phone call from a man who claimed to know the location of Brother André’s heart. Following his instructions, Shoofey and several police officers went to the basement of an apartment building in town and found the reliquary hidden inside a locker, with the seal unbroken and the heart intact. The identity of the thief remains a mystery, as does what prompted his…change of heart, pun definitely intended.
7. The Tollund Man’s Big Toe
In 1950, a bog body was found in Denmark which became known as the Tollund Man. Roughly 2,400 years old, he had been preserved in exceptional condition, especially the head which still had visible hair and beard stubble. Unfortunately, removing the body from the bog intact was a challenge that scientists weren’t up to 70 years ago, so they reached a compromise – save the head, leave the rest. So if you ever see the Tollund Man at the Silkeborg Museum, you should be advised that, while the head is the genuine article, the body is a replica.
So what happened to the real body? Well, it was excavated out of the bog as safely as possible, then it was autopsied and cut up into smaller pieces that were sent all over the place for research. Since the head was, without a doubt, the centerpiece of the collection, nobody kept close track of the other parts and, soon enough, they started getting misplaced.
During the 1980s, scholars thought that maybe they should try assembling the body. After years of effort, they got everything back, except for the internal organs and the big toe from the right foot, which had clearly been sawed off.
Move forward again a few more decades and, in 2016, the museum got an interesting call from a woman named Birte Christensen who had the Tollund Man’s big toe. She was the daughter of the late Brorson Christensen, a conservator who helped preserve the Tollund Man’s head. While working on the bog body, he cut off the toe to study various preservation techniques. Nobody ever asked for it back, so he just kept it in a jar of blue liquid on his desk until his death.
6. Einstein’s Brain
A similar situation happened with the brain of Albert Einstein after his death in 1955. His body ended up in the care of pathologist Thomas Harvey, who proceeded to remove the brain for research. Given that the name “Einstein” has become synonymous with “genius,” it’s hardly surprising that people wanted to study his brain. What makes this story controversial is that it remains unclear whether or not Harvey had permission to do what he did or if he simply stole Einstein’s brain and then refused to give it back.
According to Einstein’s biographers, the scientist left instructions to have his body cremated and his ashes scattered in a secret location. Harvey didn’t know any of this, of course, he just saw a golden opportunity to advance his own career. When Hans Albert, Einstein’s son, found out about this, he was furious, but Harvey managed to convince him to let him keep the brain in order to study “the secret of genius,” with the caveat that he would publish his findings soon in scientific journals.
But years turned into decades and still…nothing. Everyone eventually forgot about Einstein’s brain, but Harvey still held on to it, storing it in several mason jars that he lugged with him across the country.
Although this wasn’t known at the time, the reason why Harvey kept quiet all those years was that there was nothing to say. The various neurologists and neuropathologists who studied the small samples that Harvey was willing to part with all said the brain was normal and he didn’t want that published.
It wasn’t until 1985, three decades after Einstein’s death, that the first papers on his brain came out, claiming various differences between his brain and a regular one, which could have outlined the characteristics of genius. These papers were heavily criticized and debunked, but Harvey still kept the brain. By that point, he had lost his marriage, his job, and his career, and the brain was all he had. It wasn’t until his death that his heirs finally gave away Einstein’s brain, most of which ended up at the National Museum of Health and Medicine.
5. The Hamlet Skulls
There’s a famous scene in Hamlet where the protagonist picks up the skull of a dead court jester and launches into a monologue that starts with the line “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio.” Since then, Yorick has been described as “theater’s greatest skull” and it used to be played by a real human cranium. We don’t think this was done in Shakespeare’s own time, based on diaries and lists of props from that era, but it was practiced during the 18th and 19th centuries. We know this from journals and reviews written by multiple contemporary critics, who referenced the use of “real skulls and bones” in the play.
But what about in modern times? London’s National Theater Director Peter Hall supposedly wanted to try it in 1975, but he became so overwhelmed during rehearsals that he switched it with a replica for the live performances.
In 1982, pianist André Tchaikowsky bequeathed his cranium to the Royal Shakespeare Company, specifically to be used as Yorick. Following his strange request, his skull was used in photo shoots and rehearsals, but never on stage. Until 2008, when the Doctor himself, David Tennant, used the real skull during the show for his performance as Hamlet.
American comedian and acting coach Del Close had the same idea. He died in 1999 and willed his skull to the Goodman Theater in Chicago to be used as Yorick. While a real cranium was employed on stage, suspicions soon arose that it did not belong to Del Close. Although the executor of his estate first denied the allegations, she eventually came clean, saying that she couldn’t find someone to preserve the skull before the cremation and that she bought a stand-in skull from a medical supply company.
4. Burke’s Skin
Even though their killing spree took place almost 200 years ago, William Burke and William Hare remain among Scotland’s most notorious murderers. Originally starting out as body snatchers who sold fresh corpses for anatomical dissections, Burke and Hare eventually discovered that it was easier and more profitable to simply create the corpses instead of digging them up. They killed 16 people before being caught, at which point Hare turned king’s evidence and ratted out his partner in exchange for immunity.
William Burke was hanged on January 28, 1829, in front of a giant crowd numbering in the tens of thousands. As part of his sentence, Burke was also publicly dissected, and his skeleton was removed and preserved, and put on display at the Anatomical Museum of the Edinburgh Medical School.
3. Haydn’s Heads
Famed Austrian composer Joseph Haydn died in Vienna in 1809. A man such as him surely deserved a lavish funeral, especially since he was under the patronage of the Royal House of Esterházy, but, as it happened, Austria was at war with France at the time, so Haydn was quickly buried without too much fuss.
Around 10 years later, someone reminded Prince Nikolaus Esterházy II that Haydn was still sitting in that same grave, so the wealthy royal had him dug up and his remains transferred to his family seat. Except that when he did so, he discovered that Haydn’s head was missing.
Here’s what happened. Shortly after his burial, two fans of the composer bribed the gravedigger to give them Haydn’s head to use in phrenology, the debunked quackery that measured bumps on the skull to predict various traits. After they were done, they kept the head as a trophy. They also showed it to anyone who came to visit, so it wasn’t hard for the prince to discover who stole it. He demanded that they return the skull, which they did…sort of. They did return “a” skull that was then buried in a mausoleum alongside Haydn’s remains.
We don’t know whose cranium it was, but it definitely was not Haydn’s, because the devious duo held on to that one. Over the centuries, the skull passed from hand to hand, until the early 20th century when it made its way into the possession of the Esterházy family. They held a ceremony and finally reunited the body with the head, 150 years after they were separated. However, because they didn’t know who the other skull belonged to, they didn’t want to just throw it in the bin, so they left it there, and now Haydn’s tomb has two heads.
2. Jeremy Bentham’s Entire Body
Jeremy Bentham was the father of utilitarianism, as well as one of the founders of University College London (UCL), but today he’s mostly remembered as the guy who asked for his body to be dissected, preserved, and put on display – an “auto-icon,” as he called it.
Strangely enough, Bentham got his wish. After his death in 1832, Dr. Thomas Southwood Smith removed his skeleton and dressed it in Bentham’s clothes, and the auto-icon was later displayed inside the student center of UCL, becoming an unofficial mascot for the college.
The head was another matter. Bentham wanted them to use his own mummified head, but Dr. Smith wasn’t exactly an expert on mummification. He tried his best, but the end result looked quite ghastly, so the college chose to replace it with a wax replica. Even so, for the majority of the auto-icon’s existence, the real head was still on display, placed at the feet of its former owner. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the genuine head was stored inside a safe for security reasons, after getting stolen and damaged during a prank.
The culprits were students from UCL’s rival university, King’s College. In 1989, they purloined Bentham’s head and, according to legend, played football with it down the street. It was certainly in rough condition by the time the college got it back, which was why UCL decided to take it off the display. The students weren’t too deterred, though. The following year, they simply stole Bentham’s wax head.
1. Napoleon’s Penis
“What’s Napoleon’s penis doing in New Jersey?” I hear you ask. Well, that is a strange and twisted tale, one full of uncertain gaps. It seems that after Napoleon’s death in 1821, his physician, Francesco Autommarchi, chopped off the “little general” during the autopsy and gave it to the priest who administered Napoleon’s last rites, Abbé Anges Paul Vignali.
The “tendon” stayed with the Vignali family for a while, but we’re unsure of its exact movements until the early 20th century when it ended up in the collection of American rare books dealer A.S.W. Rosenbach. In 1927, the organ was displayed for the first and, so far, only time at the Museum of French Art in New York. Afterward, its journey gets a little murky again, until 1977 when it was purchased at auction for $3,000 by urologist Dr. John Lattimer. He kept it at his home in New Jersey for decades, allowing only a handful of people to see it.
The member is now in the hands of Lattimer’s heirs, who also keep it under close guard. And in case you were wondering what it’s like, it’s been described as “very small,” “withered,” and “like a piece of leather or a shriveled eel.”