Confession: I learned about this story last week, on the relatively well-known paranormal folklore podcast Lore. If you also heard it on a recent episode of Lore, my apologies for the rerun. But when you read this story, I’ll hope you’ll see why I couldn’t possibly not use it for a DTTA letter.
It’s got everything:
That’s right: today we’re talking about:
The Severed Head of Joseph Haydn!
The year: 1809. The place: Vienna, Austria. The man: Joseph Haydn, the famous Classical Era composer who wrote such renowned pieces as the “Surprise Symphony.” (The surprise is literally that drums can be real loud sometimes.)
Now in his late 70s, Haydn had been ill for several years by this point, and he passed away in his sleep in May 1809. Haydn was basically the 19th-century Austrian version of the Beatles, so all signs pointed toward him getting a tremendous, ostentatious state funeral in the heart of Vienna.
Which is what would have happened, if it weren’t for this unpleasant man.
Napoleon had already been bombarding Vienna for weeks when Haydn died, one of the lesser-advertised stops on his “Be A Gigantic Imperial Turdwaffle On A Global Scale” tour. Given the whole violent-occupation thing, Vienna was forced to scale down Haydn’s funeral, and he was buried without much fanfare in Hundsturm Cemetery.
“Great,” you say, “a funeral in a cemetery. Yawn. Where are the dirtbags in this story?”
Oh, buckle up, friends. THE DIRTBAGS ARE COMING.
Meet the Dirtbags
Namely, Johann Peter and Joseph Rosenbaum. Two Austrian dudes at the turn of the 19th century, who would have been completely unremarkable were it not for their complete and deeply weird interest in phrenology.
You know, phrenology? That ““science”” where you’re supposed to be able to tell someone’s personality and mental capabilities from feeling the bumps on their skull? AKA my absolute favorite science by virtue of its sheer batshittery?
Yes, friends, the very same.
You can probably see where this story is going next.
Rosenbaum and Peter thought if they could get their hands on Haydn’s head, they could figure out what bumps made him such an incredible musical genius, which would be a huge benefit to science. I don’t know, maybe it’s supposed to be flattering?
Anyway, they snuck into the cemetery shortly after Haydn’s funeral, dug up his corpse, cut off his head, reburied the coffin, and absconded with the skull.
The head was gross at this point (summer is…not the ideal time to have a rapidly decomposing head in your house), so Rosenbaum and Peter had the flesh removed from the skull, which was then bleached and put on display in Rosenbaum’s house.
Zoom forward a bit to 1820. Napoleon is in the process of slowly dying on the island of Saint Helena, so the Austrians now have a bit more time on their hands, and they decide to finally give their beloved Haydn the fancy funeral he deserves. Better 11 years late than never, right?
So Prince Nikolaus Esterházy II, the rich guy whose family Haydn had worked for throughout most of his life, ordered Haydn’s bones to be exhumed for reburial.
Well, you can probably guess what was SUSPICIOUSLY MISSING.
The authorities were involved, and the Great Search for the Missing Head was underway.
It didn’t take too long for the Prince’s men to turn up at Joseph Rosenbaum’s doorstep. I can’t imagine Rosenbaum was surprised. If a head is missing and your whole schtick is “really really obsessed with heads,” you gotta expect that someone’s gonna come knocking.
But did Rosenbaum take the arrival of the Prince’s men as a sign to give up the head and repent of his graverobbing ways?
OF COURSE THE FUCK HE DID NOT.
He stowed Haydn’s head under the mattress just before the guards came in to search his house. Amateur hiding, you might think. But then he had his wife lay down on the mattress and loudly complain about her period cramps.
Which, unsurprisingly, hundred and ten percent did the trick.
Dudes: afraid of the endometrium since significantly before 1820.
Rosenbaum was kind enough to offer up another skull out of his sizeable skull collection, which the guards accepted as a substitute and buried with Haydn in his official funeral.
Sisterhood of the Traveling Skull
“But what happened to Haydn’s actual skull?” you ask.
After narrowly escaping Prince Esterházy’s guards in 1820, it WENT OUT TO SEE THE WORLD!
Rosenbaum bequeathed the skull to Peter when he died, making his will almost certainly the weirdest thing his lawyer had ever seen. Peter then gave the skull to his doctor, who gave it to a college professor, who gave it to a musicologist who apparently liked to take the skull out and show it off at parties.
Finally, after 145 years of sightseeing and bopping around Austria, Haydn’s skull was finally sent back to the rest of Haydn’s body in 1954. Where it remains to this day. Along with the other random skull Rosenbaum offered up. Which is also still there.
History’s weird, isn’t it? You never know where a strange and gruesome story might be…haydn.
(Also I didn’t make a single “decomposing” pun in this newsletter, which is more than I can say for literally any of the sources I consulted while writing this. Someone please give me a medal.)
Until next time, friends, share this newsletter with anyone you think might enjoy it, and leave all skulls securely where you found them.