Don’t lose your Head: Haydn’s Skull

Haydn's skull

Around the turn of the 19th century, Schädellehre (doctrine of the skull) — better know as phrenology — was considered on the cutting edge of medical theory. Developed by the renowned Viennese neuroanatomist and physiologist Dr. Franz Joseph Gall, the theory suggested that it was possible to determine an individual’s psychological attribute by observing and/or feeling for certain “bumps on the cranium.” These bumps, according to Gall, corresponded to the advanced development of some of the 27 individual organs he thought made up the human brain. Gall, who was so highly regarded as a physician that he was once offered the post of personal physician to Emperor Franz II, gave his first lectures on phrenology in 1796. In due course, he gave lectures at the most important European medical centers and found a lively following in England and the USA. However, Gall also had his followers at home, including Johann Nepomuk Peter, superintendent of the royal and imperial prisons of Vienna.

In order to more intimately understand criminal behavior, Peter had become an amateur phrenologist. His prisons were full of suitable subjects, however, in order to advance the theory, he needed to compare his findings with a subject that had exhibited great genius during his lifetime. The recent occupation of the Austrian capital by Napoleonic troops, which had forced the Habsburg Emperor to flee the city, finally gave Peter the opportunity to conduct his experiment. On 31 May 1809 Europe’s most famous and revered composer, Joseph Haydn quietly passed away in the Viennese district of Gumpendorf. Raging battles and all, it took over two weeks before his body was interred in the Hundsturm cemetery with both French and Austrian officials attending.

Face it, you couldn’t get more genius than Joseph Haydn, and Superintendent Peter saw his chance. Together with Joseph Carl Rosenbaum, a former secretary of Haydn’s employer Prince Esterházy, Peter bribed the sexton and returned to the graveyard on the evening of 17 June. That night, they exhumed Haydn’s body and hacked off his head. The ensuing phrenological examination revealed that Haydn’s skull — in full agreement with Gall’s chart — displayed a fully formed “bump of music.” Having independently verified Gall’s theories, Haydn’s head was stripped of flesh and muscle, and his brain removed. In turn, the cleaned skull was placed in a wooden box and catalogued for Peter’s personal collection. We might never have known about this lurid case of skullduggery if Prince Nikolaus Esterházy II had not insisted on giving Joseph Haydn a proper funeral in 1820. But when the Prince made plans to have Haydn’s remains transferred to the family seat in Eisenstadt, he discovered that the head was missing. The Prince was outraged, and the guilty parties quickly identified. Yet Peter and Rosenbaum had no intention of giving up the skull, so Rosenbaum purchased a substitute skull from a mortician, which was given to the authorities for authentication. During examination, the forged skull was found to be of a man much too young to have been Haydn. Peter apologized for the blunder, and immediately bought the skull of a much older man, which satisfied the doctors. It was declared the genuine article and buried with Haydn’s body.

Bergkirche in Eisenstadt

When Rosenbaum died, he bequeathed the real Haydn skull to Peter, who in turn willed it to the Vienna Conservatory of Music. However, Peter’s wife passed the skull to an unnamed Viennese doctor who passed it to the Austrian Institute of Pathology and Anatomy in 1832. The Institute had no need for Haydn’s skull and gave it to the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (Society of the Friends of Music) in Vienna. In 1932, the Esterházy family built a marble tomb for Haydn’s remains in the Bergkirche in Eisenstadt, and asked that Haydn’s remains be unified. The ensuing negotiations lasted for more than a decade, and by that time, Austria was divided following the Second Word War. Haydn’s body was now located in the Soviet Bloc, while his skull rested in the International Zone of a divided Vienna. Finally in 1954, 145 years after being separated, Haydn’s skull was restored to the remainder of his skeleton. And in case you are wondering, the substitute skull was not removed — to this day Haydn’s tomb contains two skulls.

More Anecdotes