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Shakespeare’s Skull and Other Famous Stolen Body Parts

Someone really wanted Shakespeare’s head—ditto the bones, brain, and penis of these other famous people.

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Researchers believe William Shakespeare’s head is not in the Bard’s grave in England. If so, Shakespeare’s skull would be one of many body parts missing from famous graves.


This week, archaeologists revealed that William Shakespeare’s skull is probably missing from his grave at Holy Trinity church in Stratford-on-Avon. Researchers made the discovery by performing the first radar scans of the playwright’s tomb for an upcoming documentary.

The news, which comes a month before the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, lends credence to a legend that grave robbers stole the skull in 1794. It also gives him something in common with other famous leaders, artists, and writers: People can’t keep their hands off him, even after death.

Mussolini's Brain

Several years ago, the granddaughter of Benito Mussolini told the police that someone was selling parts of the fascist Italian dictator’s brain on Ebay. The auction site promptly removed the listing, as users are not allowed to sell body parts on the site.

It’s likely that the sellers didn’t actually have Mussolini’s brain. But it’s not unthinkable, since only part of his brain was returned to his widow after he was killed at the end of World War II—the other parts were supposedly kept in the U.S.

Mozart’s Skull

A decade after Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s death in 1791, a gravedigger named Joseph Rothmayer supposedly snached the skull for himself. The souvenir was passed down through his family until the early 20th century, when it was handed over to the Salzburg Mozarteum Foundation.

But researchers still aren’t sure that the skull is really Mozart’s, and DNA tests in 2006 showed that the skull didn’t match the remains of two of his dead relatives. Which either means that the skull is a fake, or that there was some infidelity going on. (Read: “DNA Confirms: Here Lieth Richard III, Under Yon Parking Lot.”)

Interestingly, Mozart wasn’t the only composer of his era to be grave robbed. Both Ludwig van Beethoven and Joseph Haydn had part or all of their skull stollen.

All of Thomas Paine

Poor Thomas Paine has had his body parts flung all over the world. After the author of Common Sense—a pamphlet that influenced the American Revolution—died in the United States in the early 1800s, a Paine fanboy shipped his body to England. We know the patriot was stored in an attic trunk for several years. After that, it gets murky.

Legend has it that some of his bones were destroyed, made into buttons, or sold off individually. People have claimed to have parts of his body—a rib in France, a skull in Australia—but we still don’t really know what happened to his bones.

Napoleon’s Junk

You can’t make this stuff up. During French Emperor Napoléon Bonaparte’s autopsy in the 1820s, a doctor cut off his penis and gave it to a priest.

The appendage has since resurfaced. In the 1920s, it went on display in Manhattan (a Time magazine journalist was not impressed). An American urologist bought the penis in the 1970s, and it has remained in his family ever since.

As an object of scientific study, one presumes.

Follow Becky Little on Twitter.

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