What do Rasputin's penis, Shelley's heart and Einstein's brain have in common?
They were all taken from their bodies after death and went on adventures of their own. Bess Lovejoy discusses these stories and others in her brand new book, Rest In Pieces, The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses. Earlier this week I interviewed Bess for the blog I write about death, Digital Dying. Here are some of the highlights:
Why were some famous corpses severely abused and others not?
When you are a controversial figure there are going to be some complications after death. Especially with political corpses, people like Mussolini, who was hated by much of his populace. His corpse was abused after death. Or Eva Peron, she was beloved by her people so her corpse was embalmed and preserved. When the new regime came in they wanted her gone. But she was Catholic, they couldn't just throw her away, so they put her in a secret grave. You see this a lot with political corpses, no one knows where the graves are so there's no opportunity of them becoming pilgrimage sites. The neo-fascists still visit Mussolini's grave once a year. They do their fascist salute and there are tourist shops where you can find little figures of Mussolini. I think that's particularly horrifying.
If you could keep a piece from one of the corpses you researched, what would it be?
I have a real thing for skulls, I think they are really, really fun. I love the story of Mozart's skull. I love that it's inscribed with a message: musa vetat mori, "the muse prevents death," I love the idea of skull graffiti, a lot. I love the idea of the skull and music -- there's a story that if you get really close to Mozart's skull you can hear music come out. Something about the skull seems to be more than a sum of its parts. You see a skull and it doesn't just say dead body, like a femur bone does, it seems to be a symbol of mortality in general. To me there is this cackling bone-chilling delight around skulls. I know phrenology is wrong, but there is something about looking at the skull and trying to understand the human being inside that makes sense to me on an emotional level. If a skull somehow got in my possession I would make sure it got to the proper authorities, but I would treasure it for a few moments.
Tell me more about Rasputin's penis, please?
Rasputin was a Russian mystic in the early 1900s, he was close with the royal family and in December of 1916 he was murdered. Rasputin had a daughter, Maria. She left Russia and did fascinating things, like work in the circus. In the '70s she hooked up with a writer named Patte Barham, who was writing a book about her life. Apparently, Patte was in Paris when a mysterious man appeared at the hotel and said to her, "I have something to show you." He took her to the suburbs of Paris and showed her what he claimed was Rasputin's penis.
The story was, when Rasputin was murdered his penis was flung into the corner of the room, where the item was discovered by the maid. She gave it to one of her relatives, who smuggled it to France. In Paris, a group of women would gather to worship the penis, happy to be in the presence of his relic. Patte told all of this to Maria, who was then determined to get the thing back. She did, but tests later showed it was actually a sea cucumber, not a penis. A few years ago this guy in St. Petersburg showed up and said, "I have Rasputin's penis." He put it on display in a proctology clinic, but I've seen pictures, it looks more like a horse penis.
Do you think at some point people will have a right to their corpse, just like we have a right to free speech?
Hopefully green burials and natural burials will become more possible. In a lot of places it's not even legal. There's an irrational idea that the corpse is incredibly toxic and full of disease and for most dead bodies that's not necessarily the case. There are a lot of rules for things like burying people in your backyard and I think it's time we look at some of those rules in a more modern light.
Since the book's publication, has anyone surprised you with tales of corpses you didn't know, or personal corpse stories of their own?
I had a book launch last week and a woman told me that she kept her husband's ashes in an urn and she takes him around to different baseball fields and rests the urn for a few moments on home plate. I thought that was a sweet story. And just last night I got an email from someone with a list of three facts I had missed. The first was that Sir Isaac Newton's penis was preserved. The second was that after John Wilkes Booth was shot he was coated with gold, tied to a pole and displayed at state fairs. The third was that Einstein left his brain to science. None of these things are true to my knowledge.