jThe Case of Joseph Haydn's missing head

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The strange case of Joseph Haydn's missing skull

Joseph Haydn was a composer whose work was popular in its own
right, as well as an inspiration for the likes of Mozart
and Beethoven. He would likely have received a lavish funeral
service when he died in 1809, but his Austrian countrymen
were overwhelmed by Napoleon's invasion, so Haydn received a
simple funeral and burial in a suburb of Vienna.

Once a person is buried, he or she usually stays put, but in
Haydn's case this was not to be the case. Haydn had worked for
the Esterhazy family, and in 1820 Prince Nikolaus II Esterhazy tried to move Haydn's remains to the Esterhazy estate in Eisenstadt.

Ah, but this was easier said than done. Once Haydn's crypt was
opened, it became evident that someone had stolen his skull.

It later turned out that Joseph Carl Rosenbaum*, a close friend
of Haydn, had bribed a gravedigger in order to make off with
the composer's skull shortly after the burial. Rosenbaum was
an advocate for phrenology, a popular “science” of the time.
He believed that the shape of a person's skull was indicative
of the person's talents and abilities. Inspecting Haydn's skull,
he thought he saw the “seat of hearing” (i.e. cerebellum).
Rosenbaum felt that the skull should not be left to decompose in the ground, but be kept in a special mausoleum. Rosenbaum built one in his yard.

Prince Esterhazy suspected Rosenbaum, but Mrs. Rosenbaum hid the
skull under her mattress and then lay on it, claiming that it
was “that time of the month.” The Prince, still certain that
Rosenbaum had the skull, attempted to buy it from him.
Rosenbaum supplied the skull of a twenty-year old man, but the prince was certain that it was not Haydn's skull. The prince had known Haydn in life, and could have used visual cues to come to his conclusion. He could also have compared the skull with Haydn's deathmask. The prince returned the skull to Rosenbaum, who offered the skull of an anonymous elderly man. Prince Esterhazy accepted this skull, and put it with the rest of Haydn's remains, which were duly transported to Eisenstadt.

Looking back two centuries, it is now known that just before Rosenbaum died in 1829, he gave Haydn's skull to a friend, who likewise handed it to someone else, and so on over the rest of the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Eminent doctors and pathologists and their families kept the skull, until finally
one of the recipients decided to just donate it to the
Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna.

Finally, in 1954, there was a ceremony at the Musikverein. The
skull was put on display in a lavishly decorated urn. A procession
of 100 cars drove past Haydn’s birthplace in Rohrau and thence to
the church in Eisenstadt, where the skull was finally reconnected
with its body. So what if the ersatz skull formerly included in
the burial chamber was also there? Aren't two heads better than one?

*It is true that Johann Nepomuk Peter aided and abetted Rosenbaum,
but Rosenbaum seems to have been the chief instigator of the plan.




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