5 Insane After-Death Adventures of Famous People's Bodies
For most of us, our journeys have come to an end when we die (at least, in the terrestrial sense). Once they incinerate you, toss you in a box, or donate you to science, the odds of you going on a globetrotting adventure are pretty slim. But not if you're a famous person. In that case, your remains suddenly become valuable souvenirs. That's why ...
Frederic Chopin's Heart Was Stolen By Nazis
While on his deathbed in Paris, legendary composer Frederic Chopin asked for his heart to be cut out and then buried a thousand miles away from the rest of his rotting body. We'd have to say this is about the most metal funeral request we've ever heard, second only to JFK insisting that his grave be, "Just like, on fire. All the time."
Back then, being mistakenly buried alive by bumbling, impatient undertakers was a legitimate concern, so it could be that Chopin just wanted to make one billion percent certain he was dead before anyone tried stuffing him into the ground. Any possible secret motives notwithstanding, what he told his sister was that he wanted a piece of him to be carried back to his home of Warsaw, Poland to be buried, since by that time, he was far too ill to make the journey himself, and nobody wants to ship a whole dead guy all the way from France to Poland.
So once Chopin finally passed beyond our realm, his sister did as he bade and had her brother's heart removed and dropped into a vial of Cognac to be smuggled into Poland. However, rather than carry out the least-insane portion of his request, she chose not to bury it, but to enshrine it in the Holy Cross Church, where it sat for decades as a symbol of Polish pride ... until the Nazis showed up and ruined everything (as they do).
"Be cool, Poland. We're sure this won't escalate any further."
Chopin had been targeted by the Third Reich's campaign of historical obliteration -- all of his music was outlawed, and any statues or images of him were destroyed. Fearful that the Nazis would destroy Chopin's heart (which they absolutely would have), a sympathetic German priest named Schulze offered to take it away from the war zone. The Polish priests accepted the kind proposal and entrusted the heart to Schulze ... who immediately turned it over to the Nazis, with whom he shared a rousing chorus of treacherous German laughter.
Luckily, the Nazi who claimed the heart was Heinz Reinefarth, a huge Chopin admirer who was appalled by the thought of destroying such an artifact. He made sure the organ stayed intact until it was eventually returned it to the Polish, who, having learned a powerful lesson about trusting World-War-II-era Germans, kept it hidden in the village of Milanowek just in case Reinefarth changed his Nazi mind. When the war finally ended, the heart was returned to its place in the Holy Cross Church. Which, as you may recall, is still not where Chopin wanted it to be.
He should really speak to someone about that.
The Liver of Mary Shelley's Husband Was Traded Between His Friends
You probably know Mary Shelley as the author of Frankenstein (a story she slapped together to win a contest at a party). But her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, was also a big deal -- an influential British poet who rolled with professional literary maniac Lord Byron. So maybe what happened to his earthly remains isn't that surprising.
Shelley drowned off the coast of Italy in 1822 while attempting to sail through a storm. It took ten more days for his body to wash ashore, and as one might imagine, he was in less-than-pristine condition by then -- bloated and rotting, with any part of his body not covered by clothing picked clean to the bone by opportunistic fish. Since Italian quarantine laws forbade a corpse like that from going anywhere near society -- both to prevent the possible spread of disease and from what we assume was a powerful fear of sea zombies -- this meant his body had to be cremated right there on the beach. So Shelley's friend Edward Trelawny built a giant Darth Vader funeral pyre, while his buddy Lord Bryon hung out in the carriage (presumably with his pet bear).
And Hayden Christensen, because George Lucas knows no bounds.
As the fire began to die down, Trelawney noticed that one stubborn part of Shelley's body refused to burn. Believing the partially charred mass to be Shelley's heart, because 17th-century twenty-something poets were much more familiar with flowery romanticism than human anatomy, he reached into the flames and grabbed the blazing hot organ, presumably burning the almighty fuck out of his hand like the evil Nazi accountant in Raiders of the Lost Ark in the process. Although no one can say for certain, there's almost no possible way the organ in question was Shelley's heart, since such a frail, hollow lump of tissue would've been quickly incinerated, like a wad of bacon in a campfire. In all likelihood, what Trelawney fished out of the impromptu funeral pyre was his friend's liver. In addition to being the largest internal organ in the human body (meaning it takes more time to burn), Shelley's liver would've been engorged with seawater like a grotesque sponge, making it even more unlikely to crumble in the blaze.
"Definitely works better than the Chianti."
Heart or liver notwithstanding, Trelawny didn't keep his dead friend's underdone torso meat for very long. He soon bequeathed it to Leigh Hunt, another poet friend of Shelley's who hadn't bothered to show up for the beach blanket corpse bake. Hunt was so overwhelmed by the gift that he immediately passed it off to Mary Shelley, Percy's infinitely more famous wife. Appropriately, the woman whose magnum opus involved a reanimated corpse puzzle had absolutely no problem hanging on to a chunk of her dead husband. She lovingly wrapped the (probable) liver in silver, stuck it in a silk bag, and kept it at her side until her death in 1851, which concludes our entry on Percy Bysshe Shelley and the goose-shittingly insane people he hung out with.
The Body of Drew Barrymore's Grandfather Was Laid Out On Errol Flynn's Couch as a Goof
Revered actor (and grandfather of pouting Adam Sandler foil Drew Barrymore) John Barrymore died in 1942 after a long and storied career of alcoholism and sex with young actresses.
Often at the same time.
Shortly after his death, Barrymore's fellow actor pals Errol Flynn and Raoul Walsh were drinking their sorrows away when Walsh got what can confidently be described, without hyperbole, as one the greatest ideas anyone has ever had. According to Flynn's memoirs, Walsh insisted that he was too overcome with grief to continue drinking, which is a feeling that nobody has ever experienced and as such should have immediately tipped Flynn off that something was afoot. Flynn, as anyone aware of his reputation will not be surprised to hear, elected to continue drinking, and Walsh used the excuse to slip away with a few other conspirators to smuggle Barrymore's fantastically dead body out of the funeral home where it was waiting to be embalmed.
Yo ho ho and a bottle of formaldehyde.
Of course, simply walking off with a famous dead man would at the very least qualify as "suspicious," so they needed to cook up a convincing cover story. Walsh told the funeral director that Barrymore's ailing aunt wished to pay her respects to the fallen actor, but that her health prevented her from leaving her home. So like any band of responsible friends, they were going to borrow Barrymore's body for the evening and cart it over to her place so she could say her goodbyes. This, as you might imagine, is spectacularly illegal, and the director told them as much. But Walsh knew how to talk his way out of a pickle -- he offered the director $100 (over $1400 in 2015 money) to look the other way, and the other way he did look.
Walsh and his accomplices carried Barrymore's body back to Errol Flynn's house, where they propped the rapidly-stiffening star of stage and screen up in a chair. Almost on cue, Flynn drunkenly stumbled in, flicked on the light, saw Barrymore's carcass, and immediately shit every pair of pants he owned. He screamed and ran off, intending to jump in his car and cause an accident as far away from his haunted mansion as possible. Walsh stopped him by quickly explaining it was just a gag, and once everyone was done having their giggles (a phrase here meaning "getting punched by a frightened, angry Errol Flynn"), they returned Barrymore's body to the funeral home, and Flynn spent the next several years trying to scrub the "dead friend" smell out of his furniture.
"It frightened me so much, I briefly forgot to be smoldering."
Full disclosure -- one of Barrymore's friends, Gene Fowler, insists that none of this ever happened, and that Flynn made the whole story up, but that's exactly what someone who pranked his friend with another friend's corpse would say.
Joseph Haydn's Head Went Missing for 145 Years
When classical composer Joseph Haydn died in 1809 at age 77, he was unceremoniously rolled into a simple, anonymous grave, because that's what history felt the man who invented the symphony deserved. Then, as luck would have it, the universe wasn't quite done shitting on Haydn, because his eternal rest would soon be disturbed by a slapstick adventure, thanks to grave-robbing scientists.
You see, back then, the idea of phrenology -- a pseudoscientific theory favored by racist eugenicists asserting that bumps and hollows in a person's skull determined their talents and personality -- was becoming more and more popular. Joseph Rosenbaum, the ex-secretary of Prince Esterhazy (who had employed Haydn as a court musician for decades), teamed up with a bunch of other less-than-scrupulous men of vision to exhume Haydn's corpse and search his decapitated skullbone for the "music bump" that fueled Haydn's musical genius, because "science" 200 years ago used to include any activity that could be narrated by Vincent Price.
"His combativeness bump is strong. He might be the one to finally resist the evil of the thriller."
After Rosenbaum and company convinced themselves that Haydn had indeed possessed a musical skull bump, they did what any one of us would -- skinned his head and kept the bleached white rictus of a conversation piece as a souvenir. They were all pretty satisfied that none of them would ever get caught, because who would bother to check an anonymous grave to see if it were still occupied?
Well, in 1820, Prince Esterhazy had a change of heart and decided to shovel Haydn out of nameless oblivion and give him a properly-marked grave and funeral, as befits a famous person. When the Prince saw the grave of his former composer unearthed to reveal an embarrassingly headless corpse, he understandably flipped the fuck out. The Prince demanded that the skull thieves be tracked down and apprehended, which they quickly were, as grave-robbing men of scientific discourse aren't exactly criminal masterminds.
"Off with their heads! And then burn the heads to ash. See how they like it."
Rosenbaum, not wanting to give up Haydn's genius-bumped skull, purchased a generic brain briefcase from a local mortician and tried to pass it off as Haydn's, because history occasionally plays out exactly like Young Frankenstein. Prince Esterhazy didn't buy it, pointing out that the skull Rosenbaum was trying to pass off was clearly that of a young man (Haydn, as you may recall, had been damn near 80 when he died). Finding his perfidious ways exposed in front of the lord of the realm a second time, Rosenbaum took the obvious course of action and went back to the mortician to buy an older skull. Esterhazy accepted this one (either because he was legitimately fooled or he was just tired of Rosenbaum wasting his goddamn time), and buried Haydn's corpse with someone else's head attached to it.
"Alas, poor somebody! I knew him ... possibly."
Haydn's actual head, meanwhile, went traveling through Europe like Paddington Bear. Rosenbaum willed the skull to one of his fellow phrenologists (see "racists", above), whose wife gave it to some doctor in Vienna, who passed it on to the Austrian Institute of Pathology and Anatomy. The Institute, unable to learn anything about the skull aside from "this used to be a living person's head," sent it to the Viennese Society of the Friends of Music, who carefully and responsibly displayed it in a glass case on top of a piano. It is unclear whether they utilized one of Haydn's "music bumps" to hold tips.
If you botched a chord, Haydn's soul emerged and dragged you straight to Hell.
Finally, in 1932, Prince Esterhazy's family learned that their prized composer's skull was sitting on top of a piano and demanded it back. The only problem was that at the time, Austria was divided by civil war, and Haydn's skull was on the opposite side of the country from the rest of his body. After two freaking decades of negotiation, Haydn's stolen head was finally returned to his body. This isn't to suggest that they replaced the dummy skull he'd been buried with -- they simply tossed the correct one in with him and covered him back up. So Joseph Haydn has been lying in the ground with two heads since 1954.
Ensuring an afterlife filled with double the pleasure and triple the fun.
Thomas Paine Was Dug Up, Paraded Around England, and Thrown Into an Attic
While we generally regard Thomas Paine as one of the first true champions of independence for the United States of America (he might've even been the first person to speak the phrase "United States of America"), his reputation was decidedly less stellar while he was still drawing breath on this thankless planet. Among his fellow colonists (many of whom would've actually preferred to have remained under British rule), he was seen less as an inspiring uber-patriot and more as one of those dipshit freshmen who think they're the first person to ever read a Noam Chomsky book.
"Arise from thine slumbers, people that most tragically resemble sheep in personality!"
Thomas Paine was shunned and branded a traitor; after dedicating his entire life to alienating every person he came into contact with, he died alone and forgotten in 1809, and was buried unceremoniously beneath a tree on his own property, in a service attended by six people (his last request to be buried in a specific cemetery was denied, because the Quakers in charge of the cemetery hated him that much). Dead goldfish are interred with more dignity.
Ten years later, however, one of Paine's old rivals, William Cobbett, felt his heart soften considerably towards the poor dead bastard. Cobbett decided that Paine had been right all along, and for pursuing his rightness in the face of shattering every single personal relationship in his life, Paine was a goddamn saint who deserved better than an anonymous hole attended by fewer people than it takes to field a baseball team. But rather than just speak or write praises of the man, Cobbett decided the public needed to experience Thomas Paine. So he dug up the skeletal pariah, smuggled his bones to England, and started parading them around while hyping him up like a 19th-century Flava Flav.
No source says he didn't sport a gigantic pocket watch around his neck, meaning he absolutely did.
Predictably, the people of Britain had zero interest in Cobbett's efforts to get them to love a man who had spent the majority of his life shitting on the British Crown, which left Cobbett in a bind. He couldn't exactly return Paine to his prior resting place in America, because grave robbing is turbo illegal and the cops were absolutely waiting for him. Furthermore, Cobbett didn't have the money to rebury Paine with the respect Cobbett felt he deserved. There was only one logical solution: throw him in a trunk and stick him in the attic until everybody either forgot about it or declared International You Guys, William Cobbett Was Totally Right About Thomas Paine Day.
Sadly, Cobbett died in 1835 before at least one of those things happened. Cobbett's son attempted to auction off Paine's bones, but the moratorium on giving a shit about Thomas Paine still hadn't been lifted. When the bones didn't sell, Cobbett's son took them and ... well, actually, nobody's sure exactly what he did. Most likely, he sold Paine's body piecemeal over the years, meaning the man responsible for Common Sense could be scattered to the four corners of the Earth like the Iron Giant. Several people claim to own Paine's skull, Paine's jaw, and even buttons made out of Paine's recycled bone matter, because despite what our history books may say about him, people's respect for Thomas Paine has stayed pretty much exactly the same for the past two hundred years.
Hank Ketcham / Fantagraphics
Lead, follow, harass Mr. Wilson, or get out of the way.
Hank Ketcham / Fantagraphics
Jef spends most of his time as a journalist for the Houston Press, but he also has a new short story, a tale of mad robot nurses and a man of miracles called "Sleepers, Wake!" available now. You can connect with him on Facebook.
For more ways death isn't the end, check out The 5 Most Bizarre Things People Have Done With Dead Bodies and The 6 Greatest Things Accomplished by Dead Bodies.
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