While researching my book Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, I was prepared to encounter some seriously gruesome material. But many of the facts I uncovered weren’t gross so much as just plain bizarre. Here are some of the strangest pieces of trivia I uncovered:
1. Mozart’s skull is inscribed with the phrase “musa vetat mori.” (“The muse prevents death.”) And he’s not the only one with an embellished skull: the forehead of Descartes’ supposed skull is covered in a poem praising his genius.
2. Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, kept her husband Percy Shelley’s heart in her desk drawer. Really.
3. Wars have been fought over the possession of the Buddha’s teeth, which supposedly conferred the right to rule the land.
4. Napoleon’s penis once may have been stored beneath a bed in Englewood, New Jersey.
5. John Paul Jones was buried in tin foil to help preserve his body.
6. The Roman emperor Augustus supposedly knocked the nose off Alexander the Great’s mummified corpse when he bent down to kiss it.
7. Charlie Chaplin’s coffin was kidnapped by two men who hoped to use the ransom to open a garage. (They were not successful.)
8. By his own request, Hunter S. Thompson’s remains were mixed with fireworks and lit the night sky to the strains of “Mr. Tambourine Man.”
9. American scientists studied a sliver of Mussolini's brain in a Washington, DC laboratory to see if he had syphilis. (The results were inconclusive.)
10. Shortly after his burial, London bodysnatchers dug up author Laurence Sterne's corpse and sold it to an anatomy professor at Cambridge.
11. Musician Gram Parsons asked his road manager to burn his body in the Mojave Desert. He complied.
12. The dead Hitler was identified by his teeth, which a Soviet translator carried around Berlin for days.
13. Army officers who examined Eva Peron's embalmed corpse after her husband fled the country didn't believe it was real until they amputated a finger.
Bess Lovejoy is a writer, researcher, and editor based in Seattle. Her book Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses comes out today from Simon & Schuster.