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5 historical figures whose heads have been stolen

An iconic scene of the shadow of Count Orlok climbing up a staircase.  Image from Wikipedia.

An iconic scene of the shadow of Count Orlok climbing up a staircase. Image from Wikipedia.

The graves of famous people have been plundered for hundreds of years. Bodies and body parts have been stolen by guards trusted to keep corpses safe, scientists determined to study them, and even admirers with good intentions (i.e. Thomas Paine).

Skulls are usually the part of the body that is the most sought after because of its scientific value or appeal as a trophy. Recently grave robbers looted the burial plot of the man who directed Nosferatu in 1922.

On July 13th, workers at the Stahnsdorf cemetery discovered that the Murnau family plot had been disturbed. After a closer look at the grave they found that the head of famous director Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau had been stolen from his metal coffin (Smith 2015).

Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau (1888-1931) is the director of the legendary black and white vampire film Nosferatu (1922). He directed Sunrise (1927), which one several Oscars at the first Academy Awards in 1929, as well 20 other films. (Smith 2015 and Mejia 2015).

Murnau died in a car crash in California in 1931 when he was just 42-years-old and his body was buried in his family’s plot in a German cemetery (Smith 2015).

Officials at the Stahnsdorf cemetery believe that the skull was stolen some time between July 4th and 12th. When the crime was reported a criminal investigation was started and evidence was collected. Investigators believe that Murnau’s skull may have been taken during an occult ritual because of the presence of wax drippings in and around the grave (Smith 2015).

The cemetery is considering either sealing the grave or moving the family plot altogether (Smith 2015). Hopefully his head will be recovered and his body can be reburied.

Below are few examples of heads that have stolen over the centuries. Some have happy endings, others not-so-much.

Mata Hari

Postcard of Mata Hari in Paris. Image from Wikipedia.

Mata Hari (1876-1917), born Margaretha Zelle, was born in the Leeuwarden, Netherlands. Margaretha was raised in a middle class family, had a tumultuous childhood, and was married and divorced by the time she was 25. In 1903   Margaretha started performing in Paris under the stage name Mata Hari in dance halls and nude reviews (WWI spy 2001). She became famous for provocative dancing and barely-there costumes, but her career declined over the next decade and she performed her last show in 1915.

Mata Hari was just as famous for her love life as her stage career. She was an infamous courtesan who dated businessmen, politicians, and high-ranking officers. It was the latter that was her biggest weakness and probably her downfall.

In 1917, the French arrested her for being a German spy in her Paris hotel room. Mati Hari was tried, convicted, and executed by firing squad on October 15, 1917 when she was 41-years-old. She refused to wear a blindfold and was killed by eleven shots from a 12-man squad (WWI spy 2001).

In recent years the French government has considered re-opening the case because she may have been convicted on “trumped up charges” (Schofield 2001). In 1999 a historian British intelligence papers, declassified in 1999, described how they could not find any evidence that Mata Hari worked as a secret agent (WWI spy 2001).

When no one claimed Mata Hari’s corpse it was donated to the Museum of Anatomy in Paris. Her body was dissected and her head removed and preserved in wax. Mata Hari’s head became part of the museum’s display of infamous criminals that were executed in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. When the French Minister of Education threated to close the museum in 2000, the museum director decided to give the minister an inventory of the museum’s collections. However, when he reviewed the list he found that Mata Hari’s head was missing. Officials at the Museum of Anatomy don’t know when the head was taken or by who (Hoffman 2000).


Geronimo, Chiricahua Apache leader. Photograph by Frank A. Rinehart, 1898. Image from Wikipedia.

Geronimo is a nickname that was given to an Apache warrior named Goyahkl, a Chiricahua word meaning He Who Yawns. Goyahkl was born in Arizona on June 16th, 1829 near the Gila River, along what is now the Arizona and New Mexico border (King 2012). He was one of the most famous American Indian leaders of the 19th century.

In 1858, Geronimo left his tribe to go on a trading trip and when he returned he found that Mexican soldiers had slaughtered his people, including his mother, wife, and three children. He vowed revenge and participated in a series of revenge attacks against the Mexicans. He got the name Geronimo when one of the men he attacked cried out to Saint Jerome, which is Geronimo in Spanish (King 2012).

For almost 30 years he attacked both Mexican and U.S. troops, and raided both Mexican and American Settlers. When American settlers asked the military to intervene in 1874, the Apaches were forced onto a reservation in Arizona (King 2012). Geronimo and some of his men escaped and were pursued by U.S. troops. He surrendered in 1886 and spent the rest of his life in U.S captivity. In 1901 he marched in Teddy Roosevelt’s inauguration parade and appeared at the World’s Fair in St. Louis in 1904. In 1909 he died from pneumonia and was buried in Ft. Sill, OK (McKinley 2009).

Allegedly in 1918 six members of Yale’s Skull and Bones society, a not-so-secret society at Yale University, robbed Geronimo’s grave. These members, which included Prescott Bush, father of President George H.W. Bush and grandfather of George W. Bush, were stationed at Ft. Sill while serving as army volunteers. They supposedly took Geronimo’s skull, 2 bones, and bridle back to the society’s clubhouse, known as the tomb. The society officially denies this rumor and local historians say there is no evidence that Geronimo’s grave was disturbed in 1918 (McKinley 2009)

In 2009 Geronimo’s descendants filed a lawsuit against Skull and Bones and Yale on the 100th anniversary of his death. In 2010 a judge dismissed the case because the plaintiffs cited a law that only applies to Native American cultural items that were excavated or discovered after 1990.


Deathmask of Beethoven by Josef Dannhauser. Image from Wikipedia.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) is a legendary Classical composer who was born in Bonn, the capital of Cologne. His best known works include nine symphonies, five piano concertos, and one violin concerto. He suffered a host of health problems including abdominal pain, eye infections, and hearing loss (Lovejoy 2013). He stared to lose his hearing around 1796 and was almost deaf by 1810.

Although his body was autopsied after his death on March 26, 1827, doctors were never able to confirm the cause of death. Beethoven’s grave was exhumed in 1863 so it could be renovated. At this time anatomists, like Dr. Romeo Seligmann, and sculptors examined the bones (Lovejoy 2013).   Historians believe that Gerhard von Breuning, who befriended Beethoven as a teenager, took this opportunity to steal fragments from the back of Beethoven’s skull (pictured here). It was Breuning’s job to transport the bones to and from each scientist and artist. Breuning gave the skull fragments to Seligmann, and the Seligmann family passed them down from family member to family member (Lovejoy 2013).

Then in 1990 a California man by the name of Paul Kauffman inherited the skull fragments after his uncle died. He had heard family rumors that the bones might belong to Beethoven so he submitted them to DNA testing. DNA samples were taken from the skull fragments and Beethoven’s hair. In 2005 the DNA results were publicized and the analysis showed that the DNA from the bone fragments partially agreed with the samples from the hair (Lovejoy 2013).

Beethoven wasn’t the only composer to have his skull swiped. The heads of both Mozart and Haydn suffered the same fate.

René Descartes 

Portrait of Rene Descartes. Image from Wikipedia.

René Descartes (1596-1650) was a French philosopher and mathematician. He’s known as the father of modern philosophy and his celebrated for his work on mind-body dualism and analytical geometry. He coined the philosophical statement, “Cogito ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am.), and his philosophical writings are still taught in universities today.

In 1649 Queen Christina of Sweden invited Descartes to join her court and give her philosophy lessons. He died of pneumonia in 1650 and was buried in a Catholic cemetery in Stockholm (Lovejoy 2013).

Descartes’ body was exhumed in 1666 and returned to Paris and buried at the Church of Sainte-Genevieve-du Mont. As the revolutionary rebels started to attack the church in 1792 Descartes’ bones were supposedly hidden at the Museum of French Monuments in an Egyptian sarcophagus (Lovejoy 2013). After the museum closed in 1819 city officials decided to rebury him at the Abbey of Saint Germain des Près. When they opened the sarcophagus they discovered that the skull was gone along with most of the other bones, but the body was buried anyway (Lovejoy 2013).

A Swedish scientist named Jacob Berzelius attended Descartes’ third burial and had heard about his missing bones. In 1821 Berzelius read about an auction in newspaper that had sold the “skull of the famous Cartesius (Lovejoy 2013).” Berzelius found the owner and offered to buy it from him for what he paid for it at the auction. The owner accepted the offer and handed the skull Berzelius (Lovejoy 2013).

Because the skull had been signed by previous owners (pictured here), historians were able to piece together what happened. It turns out that Descartes’ skull never made it back to France in 1666. A Swedish soldier named Isaak Plantsom, who was hired to guard the bones on the trip from Stockholm to Paris, beheaded Descartes’ corpse at some point (Lovejoy 2013).

The head is currently in the collection at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris.

Marquis de Sade

Depiction of the Marquis de Sade by H. Biberstein in L’Œuvre du marquis de Sade, Guillaume Apollinaire (Edit.), Bibliothèque des Curieux, Paris, 1912. Image from Wikipedia.


The Marquis de Sade (1740-1814) was French aristocrat, politician, and writer infamous for his sexual exploits and crimes. His erotic writings and novels endorsed amoral sexual freedom that involved things like violence and bestiality. Sade also had political interests. In 1792 he became the secretary of the Revolutionary Section of Les Piques in Paris. He also gave speeches in favor of the Revolution.

Marquis de Sade also spent more than 30 years either in jail or asylums and almost fell prey to the guillotine. The last years of his life were spent at an asylum in Charenton, France, where he was under the care of Dr. L.J. Ramon (Lovejoy 2015).

In his will Sade asked to be buried at his estate at Malmaison. However, Ramon didn’t honor this requested and buried the Marquis at the Charenton Asylum. This was likely for selfish reasons because a few years later Ramon dug Sade’s grave and took his skull for his phrenology collection (Lovejoy 2013).

Ramon analyzed the bumps and ridges on the skull and found that the skull belonged to “goodwill . . . no ferocity . . . no aggressive drives . . . no excess in erotic impulses.” And that “in every way similar to that of a father of the church.” Granted phrenology is junk science, but he had to know his patient’s history, right? Either Ramon had a sense of humor or an idiot (Lovejoy 2013 and Lovejoy 2015).

Ramon ended up giving Sade’s skull to a famous phrenologist, Johann Spurzheim. Spurzheim kept the skull until his death but afterwards it vanished. Thibault de Sade, a descendant of the Marquis, said he found a cast made of the elusive skull at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris, the same places that Descartes’ skull is housed (Lovejoy 2012).


Works Cited

WW1 spy Mata Hari framed – lawyer. (2001). Retrieved from:

Hoffman, B. (2000). Mata Hari heads off – femme fatale’s skull swiped from museum. Retrieved from:

King, G. (2012). Geronimo’s Appeal to Theodore Roosevelt. Retrieved from:

Lovejoy, B. (2012). The marquis and his skull. Retrieved from:

Lovejoy, B. (2013). Rest in Pieces: The curious fates of famous corpses. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Lovejoy, B. (2015). 6 historical heads stolen from their graves. Retrieved from:

McKinley, J.C. (2009). Geronimo’s heirs sue secret Yale society over his skull. Retrieved from:

Mejia, P. (2015). Head Case: Nosferatu director Murnau’s skull swiped from German crypt. Retrieved from:

Schofield, H. (2001). Mata Hari ‘was framed.’ Retrieved from:

Smith, N.M. (2015). Nosferatu director’s head stolen from grave in Germany. Retrieved from:

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