Top 10 Strange Tales of Skulls and Bones


Bones are all around you. Most of the ones closest to you are safely hidden inside bodies, but every skull and bone must come out of its shell and return to dust at some point. Each one leaves behind a story in the process, and some of these tales are quite remarkable—like the people, beasts, and macabre model skull on the list below.

10. The Legend of Shakespeare’s Missing Head

For years, it was believed that the bard’s head had been stolen by thieves keen on studying it for clues about the playwright’s genius. In fact, a magazine called The Argosy published an 1879 article that even assigned an exact date to the crime—1794. But few gave the tale credence, and the years passed by.

Shakespeare died in 1616, which makes 2016 the 400th anniversary of his death, and we can thank this milestone for the discovery that the legend of his missing skull is quite probably fact. The Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon, where Shakespeare and other family members rest, had long refused archaeologists’ requests to investigate the grave. But with the anniversary fast approaching, a team from Staffordshire University led by Kevin Colls was finally given permission to perform testing for the documentary Secret History: Shakespeare’s Tomb, and what they found corroborates the whisperings of yore.

Using ground-penetrating radar, Colls and his team peered inside the grave to see what they could see. And what they saw was odd—a body that appeared to lack a head, plus a section of tomb that contained intentional damage and repair. These finds pointed the team to another skull of legend, this one located not too far away in Beoley at St. Leonard’s church. Proponents of the stolen head theory previously thought the Beoley Skull was Shakespeare’s. However, Colls’ team carefully analyzed the skull and concluded it belonged to an old woman. So, a dead end.

Which leaves us with two questions: Where is Shakespeare’s skull? And what curses befell the scoundrels who seem to have made off with it? For the inscription on the ledger promises nothing good to cranioklepts:

“Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forbear,

To dig the dust enclosed here.

Blessed be the man that spares these stones,

And cursed be he that moves my bones.”

9. Tchaikowsky’s Posthumous Acting Career

Unlike Shakespeare’s skull, we know where pianist Andre Tchaikowsky’s is located. It’s in a box at Stratford’s Royal Shakespeare Company, in accordance with the composer’s last will. You see, Tchaikowsky wanted his skull to star as Yorick’s in future productions of Hamlet, a wish that went unfulfilled for years because it was deemed inappropriate.

But during the 2008 Stratford run, Tchaikowsky’s dream came true. David Tennant of Doctor Who fame held the real skull during the famous graveyard monologue, and audiences weren’t aware of the prop’s true nature until later. The actual skull was also used in the London run from December 2008 to January 2009—even though the secret was out and the company had promised to retire Tchaikowsky’s skull.

An interesting segue here involves the influential comedian Del Close’s similar skull wish. In Close’s case, the recipient was the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. However, Close’s skull never made it to the stage; it was cremated along with the rest of his body after physicians refused to play along. A skull was in fact donated to the theater, but it was definitely not Close’s.

8. F. W. Murnau and the Crypt of Nightmares

In yet another stolen-skull escapade, it would seem that Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, influential director of the 1922 classic horror film Nosferatu, is not resting in peace. According to representatives of the Stahnsdorf South-Western Cemetery where he is buried, Murnau’s eternal slumber has been interrupted several times going back to the ’70s. However, in the most recent invasion of the family crypt in July 2015, the intruders left the director’s corpse headless.

Appropriately, there is evidence from this heist that points to occultist activity. When the grave robbery was discovered, remnants of wax were found on the floor of the crypt, a possible sign of a Satanic candlelit ceremony. Either Murnau is spinning in his famous grave, or he is pulling the strings of present-day horror from the afterlife.

7. King Richard’s Face and DNA

Greyfriars in Leicester, England, was the final resting place of King Richard III, the English monarch portrayed in Shakespeare’s namesake play. His battlefield death in 1485 was obviously traumatic, as his remains indicate multiple wounds—including two vicious blows to the head; one of which was probably from a halberd. A few decades after the king was dumped in a hole, the friary was demolished, and Richard’s grave location was lost to time until archaeologists finally dug up his body in August of 2012. It was buried underneath a parking lot.

Having Richard’s skull in hand has allowed facial anthropologists and artists to build a remarkable reconstruction of his appearance. This is especially valuable for any future actors who play Richard—as well as the audiences who hear his story—because it gives them a pretty conclusive idea of what the man really looked like. With new evidence comes a new level of understanding and authenticity.

Having Richard’s DNA, on the other hand, has opened an entirely different can of worms. Mitochondrial testing confirms beyond all doubt that the skeleton is Richard’s, with odds that it’s not to the tune of 6.7 million to 1. But strangely enough, tests on the Y chromosome compared to modern-day descendants of Richard’s great uncle reveal a false paternity. This raises serious questions about whether other rulers in the Plantagenet and Tudor lines, such as Henry V and Elizabeth I, actually had valid claims to their royal positions.

6. Geronimo’s Descendants vs. Yale

The story of Geronimo’s skull involves more speculation than truth. But there is truth in rumor, and in this case the rumor was true enough to create a lawsuit. One of the defendants named was the exclusive Yale society The Order of Skull and Bones.

Founded in 1832, Skull and Bones is a highly secretive society with quite a few powerful turnouts, including several generations of the Bush family. As told in a 1918 letter between society members, a few trophy-hunting Skull and Bones scallywags located the Chiricahua Apache warrior’s grave and disinterred his body, helping themselves to the skull, a couple bones, and some riding gear. These objects were then removed to The Tomb, the society’s headquarters in New Haven, Connecticut.

On February 17, 2009, exactly 100 years after Geronimo’s passing, a group of 20 of his descendants filed a lawsuit against Yale, as well as Skull and Bones, in an attempt to win back the remains. The suit was dismissed in 2010 on technical grounds, and the story remains somewhat of a mystery to this day.

Although many are convinced the skull is in the Bonesmen’s hands, others think not. Historian David Miller refers to accounts of Geronimo’s grave being unmarked and overgrown until the 1920s. If true, this would mean that while Skull and Bones members quite likely did dig up a grave, there’s no way it was Geronimo’s.

5. This Dinosaur’s Enormous Head

Reaching a height of 10.5 feet, the skull of this 74-million-year-old beast towers over the crowd. Its remains were discovered in 1941 in New Mexico. However, due to wartime funding cuts, it spent the next five decades hurrying up and waiting at the University of Oklahoma—underneath the school’s football stadium, oddly enough.

As fate would have it, the ancient giant was eventually rediscovered and unboxed by D. E. Savage, a paleontologist who had assisted with the initial dig as a student. Today, it stands in all its restored glory at the Sam Noble Museum of Natural History in Norman, Oklahoma.

There is some discussion about whether this creature is a Pentaceratops or an entirely new specimen, which Yale paleontologist Nicholas Longrich has dubbed Titanoceratops. The inner workings of the debate aren’t too important, because what matters here is that this dinosaur holds the Guinness World Record for largest land animal skull. Whatever the name, we can all agree that’s one massive head.

4. A Dark and Stormy Bison Skull

The Sam Noble Museum gets a second mention on this list by virtue of housing another strange skull, albeit a much smaller one belonging to an extinct species of bison. At roughly 10,500 years old, the Cooper Skull is the oldest painted object ever found in North America. It takes its name from the archaeological site where it was unearthed, a long-ago gully where Paleo-Indian Folsom hunters trapped and slaughtered bison herds on three separate occasions.

The Cooper Skull was buried in the bottom layer of death, and it stood out immediately for sporting a red lightning-bolt design. The paint was a monumental find on an artifact of this age, but there was also something a little more mysterious about the Cooper Skull that turned heads.

To allow other experts to inspect and document the skull before removal, the archaeologists left it in the ground and went home. That night, a thunderstorm rolled in and dropped two inches of rain on what had been bone-dry land for a month gone by, as if responding to the lightning bolt’s exposure.

Six years went by. The skull had been safely excavated, studied, and preserved, and it was about to find a forever home in the newly completed Sam Noble Museum. On the night before the museum doors were to open, it once again summoned a thunderstorm to strike. The volume of rain was such that it overwhelmed the roof drainage system, and the building sprung a single leak—right above the Cooper Skull exhibit.

3. Leonardo da Vinci’s Handmade Skull

In 1987, a German couple named Winfried and Waltraud Rolshausen walked out of an antique store in Homburg with a very unique piece—a 1/3-scale model of a human skull, sans lower jawbone, crafted of a white stone material. The handmade skull served nicely as office décor for Winfried, a medical doctor.

Fast forward to 1996. Dr. Roger Saban, a skull specialist and museum director at Paris Descartes University, examined the skull and decided it was something much more than simply decorative. He was the first to notice a major clue about the miniature’s past; namely, that it resembled a set of three 1498 anatomical drawings by the one and only Leonardo da Vinci. These drawings, which are held at the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle in England, show detailed sectional sketches of a human skull that shares certain anatomical oddities with the Rolshausens’ antique model.

Further analysis by Belgian researcher Stefaan Missinne revealed that the skull was not made of marble, as Saban presumed, but rather an agate mixture traced to a mine about 50 miles southwest of Florence, Leonardo’s hometown. Its composition also contained the rare element iridium, which must have been added during formation of the skull. Based on Leonardo’s documented invention and use of just such a mixture (which he called “mistioni”), Missinne dated the skull to around 1508.

Accounts by Leonardo’s contemporaries also attest to the fact that he owned a miniature skull. But is this thing really his work? Perhaps, but without more examples of Leonardo’s sculpted art, it will be hard to know for sure.

2. The First Murder Case?

In the never-ending quest to interpret the evidence left by our ancestors, we continue to find increasingly older signs of interpersonal violence. A 430,000-year-old Neanderthal skull called Cranium 17 bears witness to such conflict, but at a much earlier time than has yet been recorded.

Discovered at the Sima de los Huesos archaeological site in Northern Spain, Cranium 17 belonged to one of at least 28 individuals tossed down a shaft that is now believed to be a burial pit. What sets Cranium 17 apart from the rest are two large holes in its forehead, which experts say are certain signs of foul play.

Research led by Dr. Nohemi Sala of the Centro Mixto UCM-ISCIII Evolución y Comportamiento Humanos concluded that the two holes are the result of an attack with intent to kill. Fracture and trajectory analysis showed that the blows were delivered by the same object at different angles. This essentially means Cranium 17’s death was no accident, and that murder has run in our family for a very, very long time.

1. Phineas Gage and the Iron Rod

At last we turn to the story of Phineas Gage, who is noteworthy for his unwitting and unfortunate role in the advancement of modern neuroscience and personality psychology.

In 1848, Gage was working as the foreman of a railroad crew. While laying tracks in Cavendish, Vermont, Gage had an explosive moment when the powder he was packing into a hole blew up unexpectedly, launching his tamping iron skyward. The 3.5-foot iron rod left his hands and rocketed straight through his head. Incredibly, Gage not only survived, but retained the presence of mind to dryly quip to the attending doctor, “Here is business enough for you.”

But Gage would never be the same. After the accident, he changed drastically in both temperament and cognitive function, turning to alcohol and indecent behavior. Seizures ultimately led to his death in 1860. A sad ending, but not a vain one—according to Smithsonian, the case of Phineas Gage broke new ground in neuroscience by connecting the dots between brain trauma and personality change.

More recently, Gage’s tale gained an interesting epilogue involving a 19th-century daguerreotype. In it, a handsome man with a determined, one-eyed stare confronts the camera. He is holding an iron rod with a blurry yet partly readable inscription—and it matches the inscription on the rod displayed alongside Gage’s punctured skull in Harvard’s Warren Anatomical Museum: “This is the bar that was shot through the head of Mr. Phinehas P. Gage.”

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