On May 31st, 1809, famed composer Joseph Haydn died, and he was soon buried in a simple ceremony—but his peaceful rest would not last long. Five days after his interment, a friend of his dug up his body and cut off his head. Joseph Carl Rosenbaum kept a detailed dairy chronicling his theft, noting that when he got into the carriage after severing the head, it smelled so bad that he almost vomited. It wasn’t until 11 years later, when Haydn’s body was to be moved to a different grave, that the authorities discovered that while the composer’s body remained in the coffin, all that was left of his head was the wig he was buried in.
As strange as this may sound, Haydn is far from the only man to have had his head stolen. When Mozart was buried in a mass grave, the cemetery’s rector tied a piece of wire around his neck so when the cemetery was retrenched he could correctly identify—and take—the skull. Painter Francisco Goya’s skull was swiped some time in between his death in 1828 and his exhumation in 1898. Philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg’s skull was stolen by naval officers after his death in 1772. British polymath Sir Thomas Browne’s head suffered a similar fate. Though short-lived, this trend of cranioklepty was a kind of obsession—the desire to acquire and understand a person’s life through their skull.
You won’t find much about the theft of Haydn or Mozart or Goya’s skulls in their biographies. Historians tend to nod quickly at the fact that their heads were stolen, and move on to the less gory details of their lives. Not writer Colin Dickey. “I’m fascinated by things that nobody likes to talk about,” says Dickey, who authored Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius. The book makes clear that cranioklepty, a term Dickey coined, is not merely a quirk of history—it actually tells us a lot about how people thought about human brains and bodies in another era.