Joseph Haydn - The Man With Two Heads

Joseph Haydn was not somebody born with two heads as happens in some freak births. He was a normal man like any other though he was not a common person either. He was a celebrated musician of the 19th century Austria.

But Haydn’s mausoleum in Eisenstadt, Austria, does have two heads buried with his body.

Behind this strange fact lies a bizarre tale:

Portrait of Joseph Haydn by Thomas Hardy, 1792
Portrait of Joseph Haydn by Thomas Hardy, 1792 | Source

The Genius of Joseph Haydn

Joseph Haydn was a highly accomplished musician with numerous original compositions to his credit.

Most of his life he was a musician at the court of Esterházy family, living at their remote family estate.

This isolation is said to be one of the reasons for his originality as it kept him from being influenced by the works of other composers of the time.

By the time Haydn died in 1809, he was considered one of the most celebrated geniuses of Western music. It is a credit to his unparalleled accomplishments that he is often called the Father of the Symphony and Father of String Quartet.

Haydn was buried in the Hundsturm cemetery in a Viennese suburb in a simple ceremony though he certainly deserved a grand funeral.

The reason for keeping Haydn's burial a low-key affair was that Austria was passing through a difficult time at that time. The country was at war with Napoleon whose army had occupied Vienna.

Phrenology Chart

19th century phrenological chart
19th century phrenological chart | Source

Study of Skulls

At that time phrenology, the study of human skulls, was very much popular in Europe. Phrenologists believed that the shape of the human skull and bumps on it indicated the mental capabilities of a person.

Joseph Carl Rosenbaum and Johann Nepomuk Peter were two such phrenology enthusiasts living in Austria at that time.

Rosenbaum knew Haydn very well because he also worked for the Esterházy family who were Haydn’s patrons. The other man Johann Nepomuk Peter was a prison governor of Lower Austria.

On Haydn’s death these two had a brain wave. Here was an artiste of rare genius lying in his grave. What if they could get hold of his skull? Wouldn’t it be a rare opportunity to advance and validate their knowledge of phrenology?

So Rosenbaum and Peter hatched a plot to steal the dead man’s head with the help of a sexton. Cutting the head of a decomposed corpse must have been a grisly nauseating task but they did it.

Then they cleaned and studied the skull. Later Peter was to say that Haydn’s skull validated the phrenology theory as it did have a fully-developed bump of music.

He kept the skull in a specially-made wooden box with glass windows.

Prince Nikolaus Esterházy II

He discovered the theft of Haydn's head
He discovered the theft of Haydn's head | Source

Discovery

The theft went undetected for years. Then someone reminded Haydn’s patron Prince Nikolaus Esterházy II that he had planned to move the musician’s remains to his family seat. The Prince ordered the grave to be opened and learned to his amazement that the corpse didn’t have a head.

Suspicion immediately fell on Rosenbaum and Peter who were known to be interested in phrenology. The Prince demanded the return of the skull but they somehow evaded doing so even when their houses were searched. In the end seeing that the Prince wasn’t to let them off so easily, Rosenbaum played a trick. He gave the Prince a different skull.

This trick may have worked and the Prince Nikolaus who died in 1833 perhaps never suspected that Rosenbaum had deceived him.

But the deception wasn’t to last forever.

The Location of Haydn's Tomb

A markerEisenstadt, Austria -
Eisenstadt, Austria
[get directions]

The location of Haydn's tomb

The Final Reunification

After the deaths of Rosenbaum and Peter, the skull ended up with Vienna’s Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (Society of the Friends of Music) in 1895. There it was shown to visitors making it a public knowledge that the skull buried in Haydn’s tomb was a fake.

In 1932 Prince Paul Esterházy, a descendant of Nikolaus, built an ornate marble mausoleum of Haydn befitting the maestro. He also wanted to reunite the original skull of Haydn with his remains in this monument so that Haydn's burial would be complete in the real sense of the word.

But getting back the original skull proved not to be a quick thing to accomplish. There were many delays and it was only in 1954 when at last Haydn’s skull was unified with his remains.

When the original skull was buried in the mausoleum, the previous one was not removed with the result that Haydn’s tomb in Eisenstadt has two skulls now.

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Comments 4 comments

kschimmel profile image

kschimmel 4 years ago from North Carolina, USA

Wow, that is just too weird!


surefire profile image

surefire 4 years ago Author

@kschimmel

Thanks for reading and comment


Headfullofsound 4 years ago

Intriguing! Maybe I didn't read this closely enough but why hasn't the other head been returned to its rightful owner?


surefire profile image

surefire 4 years ago Author

@Headfullofsound,

I am not sure but the reason could be that by the time the original skull was returned nobody probably knew who was the owner of the substitute skull. Rosenbaum who gave the skull as substitute was long dead by then. And even when he was alive he wouldn't say anything about it as he intended to pass this skull off as the original.

Thanks for reading and making a very intelligent and interesting comment.

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