31 March 2007 19:37

After-lives of celebrated organs... or how Napoleon lost his *****

A row over an exhibition that displays the brain of an Italian anarchist has reignited a wider debate about what happens to the bodies of the famous after their deaths. Andy McSmith offers a cut-off-and-keep guide to what's where

Published: 31 March 2007

The anarchist's brain

Giovanni Passannante did not have much going for him. He was a cook who became an anarchist, and decided to assassinate King Umberto I of Italy on a visit to Naples in 1878. He lunged at him with a kitchen knife, missed, and injured the Prime Minister. Jailed for life, he went insane after a decade in chains in an underground cell, and died in an asylum in 1910, aged 60. His pickled brain, on display in Rome's crime museum, is now the centre of a political row. The Deputy Prime Minister, Francesco Rutelli, and the writer Dario Fo are among the eminent Italians calling for the organ to be returned for a decent burial in Passannante's native hilltop village of Savoia di Lucania. It is, in fact, scheduled to return to Savoia on 11 May. But the mayor, Rosina Ricciardi, wants it kept on display as a tourist attraction.

Einstein's brain

One of the finest brains of the 20th century was removed from its owner's skull - with his prior consent - less than seven hours after Einstein's death in 1955. It remained with Thomas Harvey, the doctor who removed it, and for three decades was the subject of rumour and controversy rather than study. Finally, in the Eighties and Nineties, the brain was studied at various US universities. One study, published in 1999, compared it with the brains of 35 other men and 56 women. Einstein's brain turned out to be 15 per cent wider than average, because the region that controls mathematical calculation and the ability to think in terms of space and movement was unusually large. Most people have a groove running through this part of the brain, but not Einstein. This may have speeded up communications between neurons. What remains of Albert Einstein's brain is now at Princeton Hospital in New Jersey. His eyes, meanwhile, are thought to be in a safe deposit box in New York.

Sarah Bernhardt's leg

The "Divine Sarah" was more than 60 years old when she injured her right knee leaping off the parapet in the final scene of Tosca, while on tour in South America. Ten years later, in 1915, gangrene had set in, and her right leg had to be amputated. She faced the operation with astounding courage, refusing to let it end her acting career; she was filming when she died in 1923. Following the operation, she set off to visit soldiers on the front line. There are various stories about her amputated leg, most of which are probably myths. However, one appears to be true. During her recuperation, she had an offer from the manager of the Pan-American Exposition in San Francisco of 100,000 for the right to exhibit the leg. She replied, by cable: "Which leg?" The current whereabouts of the right one are unknown.

Oliver Cromwell's head

Oliver Cromwell (Lord Protector of the English Republic between 1653 and 1658 ) was buried in style in 1658, but upon the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, his body was removed from Westminster Abbey on the order of King Charles II. He was ritually hanged as a regicide, and his head stuck on a pole in Westminster Hall. It was still there in 1684, but disappeared. The wind may have blown it down, but somebody apparently retrieved it as a trophy. In the 1770s, an actor named Samuel Russell was offering a head for sale, claiming it was Cromwell's. It passed into private hands, and was exhibited in 1799 at Mead Court, off Bond Street. In 1814, it was bought by Josiah Wilkinson, one of whose heirs, Canon Horace Wilkinson, allowed two scientists to examine it. Their 100-page report, published in 1935, concluded that it was genuinely Cromwell's. The head was buried in Cambridge in 1960. No one knows what happened to the body.

Thomas Hardy's heart

When the great writer died, in January 1928, an argument over whether he should have a national or local funeral ended in compromise. His ashes are in Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey, next to Charles Dickens's, while in St Michael's Church, Stinsford, Dorset, there is a gravestone marked: "Here Lies the Heart of Thomas Hardy". The heart was apparently removed by a local surgeon, wrapped in a towel, and placed overnight in a biscuit tin found in the Hardys' kitchen. A legend instantly sprang up, apparently started by one of the domestic staff, that the cat, Cobweb, had prised the lid off the tin and eaten Hardy's heart. The heart in the grave is allegedly a pig's. Years later, the tin turned up, and on it there is an illustration of a kitten catching a bird, with the caption "In disgrace" - which may or may not have been what gave the rumour-monger the idea.

St Anthony's tongue

Work on the beautiful Basilica of St Anthony, in Padua, began in 1238, seven years after the death of the saint who was so eloquent that fish in the river Marecchia, in Rimini, are said to have once leapt out the waves to hear him preach. When the time came, 25 years later, to transfer the saint's coffin to the centre of the Basilica, it was opened and the faithful were astonished to see that his tongue had not decomposed. St Bonaventure is said to have exclaimed: "O blessed tongue, you have always praised the Lord and led others to praise him! Now we can clearly see how great indeed have been your merits." The tongue is now on display in the Basilica's Treasury Chapel, alongside the saint's lower jaw and cartilage of the larynx. It is, according to the guide book, "a perennial miracle, unique in history and full of religious significance".

Napoleon's 'shrivelled object'

In 1969, the London auction house Christie's included in its catalogue an item enigmatically described as a "shrivelled object" about an inch long and looking like a shrivelled eel, which they failed to sell. In no time, the story was out that the object in question had - allegedly - been sliced from the corpse of Napoleon Bonaparte after his death on St Helena. Abbot Ange Vignali, who administered extreme unction to the fallen emperor and officiated at his funeral, had kept a few souvenirs - knives, forks, a silver cup and (according to Napoleon's manservant, Ali) a small part of Napoleon's person. Ali did not say which part. The Vignali collection changed ownership more than once, and, after a further sale in Paris in 1977, the part in question ended up in private hands - those of a leading New York urologist, John K Lattimer. Whether the object is what people think is open to doubt - but not for one British red-top newspaper, which reported Christie's failure to make a sale in 1969 under the headline "Not Tonight, Josephine!"

Rasputin's less 'shrivelled object'

Known as the Mad Monk, Grigori Rasputin tramped out of the Russian steppes and charmed his way into the Imperial Court. The Tsar and Tsarina, Nicholas and Alexandra, were desperately concerned for their only son, who had haemophilia. Rasputin could stop the boy bleeding. He also preached a strange brand of Christianity, through which a woman could achieve salvation by sleeping with a holy man and many noble ladies are rumoured to have sampled this route to heaven. That part of Rasputin which saved so many female souls went on display in 2004, in St Petersburg's first museum of erotica. "We can stop envying America, where Napoleon's is now kept," the museum crowed. "Napoleon's is but a small pod: it cannot stand comparison to our organ of 30 centimetres."

Ronald Kray's brain

Ronald Kray's brain was removed and kept - according to the official explanation - because it was "still subject to an investigation to establish the cause of death". This is a puzzling explanation because, unlike certain East End thugs who had fallen foul of the Kray twins, Ronald died of natural causes in bed, at Wexham Park Hospital, Slough. During 27 years in prison and mental homes he had taken to smoking 100 cigarettes a day, and his heart gave out. The family later discovered that Ronnie's brain was in a jar on a shelf at the hospital. The Krays' MP, Harry Cohen, suspected that it was being kept as a curio, rather than for any forensic purpose, and raised the issue in the Commons. The brain was released and given a separate funeral; it is now buried next to its owner.

Alistair Cooke's bones

The venerated British journalist Alistair Cooke died in March 2004, aged 95. He had continued broadcasting his weekly Letter from America on Radio 4 almost to the day he died, and it was in America that he was cremated. His ashes were scattered in Central Park - or so everyone thought. But when New York police closed in on a group of rogue morticians who had been doing a trade in body tissue, they announced that Cooke's bones had been carved out before he was handed back to the family, and sold for $7,000 (3,500) for use in transplants. It is likely that there are people in New York walking around with traces of Alistair Cooke in their bones. Apart from the appalling distress felt by Cooke's family, this is also a health hazard, because by the end his bones were cancerous.

Last edited by Blackleaf; Mar 31st, 2007 at 01:59 PM..