Famous Exhumations Austrian Composer Franz Josef Haydn

About the Austrian composer Franz Josef Haydn and history of his exhumation.


FRANZ JOSEF HAYDN (1732-1809), Austrian composer

When Haydn died, Austria was at war with France, and enemy troops were battling their way into Vienna. In the midst of the fighting, Haydn's burial in Hundsthrum churchyard was a dignified but quiet event. Things were not to remain quiet for long. The local prison chief, Johann Peter, was an amateur phrenologist, and the opportunity, under cover of war, to study the head of such an illustrious man as Haydn was too much of a temptation to resist. Two days after the interment, a small group of bribed officials assisted four workmen in exhuming the body, cutting off the head, then reburying the remains. After carefully stripping the head of all flesh, Peter cheerfully pronounced that Haydn had "the bumps of music fully developed."

Because it was too dangerous to return the skull, Peter kept it in a silk-lined box until the war was over. Then he gave it to Josef Rosenbaum, secretary to Haydn's patron, Prince Esterhazy. Frau Rosenbaum was thrilled with the acquisition and had a glass and ebony display case specially made for the gruesome relic, which became the highlight of her famous musical evenings. Prince Esterhazy, unaware of what had transpired, decided to give Haydn a more dignified burial in his private church at Eisenstadt eight years later. The coffin was opened and the robbery was discovered.

Esterhazy learned the full story and demanded the return of the head, but Rosenbaum's wife refused to give up her cherished relic. When the desperate Rosenbaum bought a secondhand skull from a Vienna mortuary and tried to pass it off as Haydn's, Esterhazy had it examined and identified as the head of a 20-year-old man (Haydn had lived to be 77). Rosenbaum obtained another skull closer in phrenological details to Haydn's, and it was accepted as the original article and interred with Haydn's body in the Eisenstadt church.

On his deathbed, Josef Rosenbaum bequeathed the real skull back to Peter, who in turn bequeathed it to the Vienna Conservatory of Music. However, Peter's wife gave it to her doctor instead, who presented it to the Austrian Institute of Pathology and Anatomy in 1832. Later, it came into the possession of the Society of Music in Vienna.

In 1932 Prince Paul Esterhazy--direct descendant of Haydn's patron--promised to build a magnificent tomb for Haydn if the head were restored to its body. While the authorities discussed the idea at length, W.W.II erupted. As a result of new political divisions after the war, Haydn's skeleton lay in the Soviet Zone of Austria while his skull rested in the International Zone of Vienna. Finally, in the summer of 1954, Haydn was exhumed for the last time. Amid church music and flashbulbs, his head was reunited with his body precisely 145 years after the two had been so rudely separated.

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