The Strange Stories Behind 10 Historical Body Parts
From Napoleon's penis to Galileo's finger, the body parts of historical figures are steeped in legend. We try to separate the fact from fiction behind the strange journeys and unusual fates of the body parts of 10 historical figures, adapted from an episode of The List Show on YouTube.
1. Jeremy Bentham's Head
Philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s body is on display in the student center at University College London—but his real head isn’t with it. The year before Bentham’s death in 1832, he penned an essay advocating for the use of what he called “auto-icons.” Basically, your family would donate your body to science when you died, and then they’d create a lifelike statue of you by dressing your leftover skeleton in your clothes, stuffing it with hay, and placing your mummified head on top. Though it might sound like a ghastly proposition, Bentham actually had some pretty good reasons for suggesting it. Not only would scientists have an endless supply of cadavers to dissect, but society would no longer need cemeteries or sculptures. The new tradition would also, as Bentham explained, “diminish the horrors of death.”
When Bentham died, he left specific instructions for his body to become the first auto-icon. His physician, Thomas Southwood Smith, followed the orders, but the endeavor didn’t exactly help diminish the horrors of death. In fact, it kind of made them worse. Bentham’s mummified head looked so grotesque that Smith replaced it with a wax version. When he gave the auto-icon to University College London in 1850, administrators sat Bentham’s real head on the floor between his feet (above). In the mid-20th century, they transferred it to a wooden box on its own pedestal, where it was stolen by students from King’s College London in 1975. The kids said they’d return it if the university donated some money to a certain charity, which they did. Then, the university locked Bentham’s head in a safe.
It’s still showcased from time to time, but Bentham’s wax head gets much more attention these days. In early 2020, University College London moved the auto-icon to a state-of-the-art glass case in the student center. It’s the only auto-icon on campus. Or … probably anywhere.
2. Louis XIV’s Heart
Officially speaking, William Buckland was an early 19th-century geologist, minister, and Dean of Westminster. Unofficially speaking, the man was a human trash can. There was nothing Buckland wouldn’t eat. One of his favorite snacks was mice on toast, and he also tried porpoise, puppy, and plenty of other exotic foods that some wouldn’t even consider food.
His crowning gastronomic achievement came during a visit to Nuneham, the ancestral home of the Harcourt family. As the most popular version of the story goes, the Harcourts happened to have a piece of the mummified heart of French king Louis XIV. When Louis died in 1715, his heart was encased in a small chest and placed next to his father’s heart in Paris’s Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis Church. His body was laid to rest at the Basilica of Saint-Denis, the usual burial site for French leaders.
During the French Revolution, however, those opulent tombs became symbols of the much-hated monarchy. In 1793, France’s National Convention celebrated the anniversary of overthrowing the crown by destroying nearly all the tombs at Saint-Denis. A motley crew of volunteers dumped the royal remains into a few mass graves. Though the hearts of Louis XIV and his father escaped this particular purge, they were no longer considered sacred relics. A painter named Alexandre Pau reportedly purchased both, and used them to create a shade of paint called “mummy brown.” It’s not totally clear what happened next, but Pau supposedly had some of Louis XIV’s heart left over, which somehow ended up in the hands of Lord Harcourt several decades later.
In other words, it’s definitely possible that whatever Harcourt had wasn’t the heart of a king—or of anyone at all. Human organ or not, when Harcourt showed it to Buckland, the culinary daredevil is said to have exclaimed, “I have eaten many strange things, but have never eaten the heart of a king before.” Then he popped it in his mouth and swallowed. His reaction is lost to history, but it probably wasn’t a resounding “Yum!” Still, Harcourt may have been slightly less disgusted than you’re imagining. At the time, many people believed that human remains could cure a variety of ailments. Fat was rubbed on wounds and there are reports that executioners would collect this fat to sell as medicine. The practice of consuming powdered mummy had only recently fallen into disrepute, and according to one 19th century source that wasn’t “from any want of faith in its virtues,” but rather distaste with the reportedly unscrupulous practices of the primary suppliers of mummified human beings to the European market.
3. Napoleon Bonaparte's Penis
In 1821, a doctor on the island of St. Helena performed an autopsy on a very important person and supposedly sliced off a body part as a keepsake. The VIP was Napoleon Bonaparte, and the keepsake was his penis.
As evidenced by the previous story, tracking body parts over time and space is easier said than done. But here’s the most popular account of where the Little Corporal’s little corporal went after 1821: The doctor passed it to a priest (who in some versions of the story was the person who cut it off) who then brought it to Corsica and left it with his family before he died. They sold it to a British bookseller in 1916, who sold it to an American bookseller about eight years later. In 1927, the public may have finally gotten a chance to see the severed member at the Museum of French Art in New York, when it was being presented as a tendon, not a penis. In any case, TIME magazine referred to the giggles of onlookers and described it as “something looking like a maltreated strip of buckskin shoelace or a shriveled eel.”
In 1977, a well-respected New Jersey urologist named John Lattimer purchased the artifact for $3000 and kept it hidden from prying eyes until his death in 2007. To him, the legendary general’s privates were no laughing matter—they were a precious emblem of urology. As his daughter explained in a 2008 interview, “One of his big crusades … was to lend dignity to that profession.” But while Lattimer did verify that the item was, in fact, a penis, we still don’t know for sure that it belonged to Napoleon.
Thanks to Tony Perrottet, author of Napoleon’s Privates, we do have a more recent description of the centuries-old phallus. After Lattimer’s daughter let him take a look in 2008, he told NPR it was about 1.5 inches long and “like a little baby’s finger.”
4. Francis Xavier's Toe
The Catholic Church remembers 16th-century saint Francis Xavier mainly for his missionary efforts and his help in founding the Jesuit order. After he died in China in 1552, his body was transported to Goa, India, where Xavier had done a lot of evangelizing during his life. Since his work in Goa furthered Portuguese colonialism, there were enough Jesuits, Portuguese expats, and newly converted Catholics there that the arrival of his corpse in March 1554 was met with great fanfare. When people saw his body, that excitement grew. Like the remains of certain saints who came before and after him, Xavier’s body was said to be incorrupt. In other words, it hadn’t decayed at all.
Worshipers flocked to see it for themselves, and one person got more than just a good look. A Portuguese woman reportedly bent down and bit Xavier’s right pinky toe clean off his foot. It supposedly spurted blood, which was more evidence that the body was still in perfect condition. Well, except for the missing toe. According to Thomas J. Craughwell’s 2011 book Saints Preserved, the toe has been passed down through the woman’s family for the last several centuries.
5. Galileo's Tooth and Fingers
A few of Galileo’s body parts were also passed down through the family of a fan. In 1737, almost a century after the astronomer’s death, his body was transported to a new, much more extravagant tomb near Florence’s Santa Croce Basilica. During the move, some opportunistic Italians made off with three fingers, a tooth, and his fifth lumbar vertebra. One finger was taken by an antiquarian named Anton Francesco Gori and later given to librarian Angelo Bandini, who displayed it in the Laurentian Library. It spent some time in the Tribune of Galileo during the 19th century and eventually settled in Florence’s Museum of the History of Science in 1927. The vertebra proved easy to track, too, and in 1823 it ended up at the University of Padua, where it still is today.
Galileo’s tooth and the other two fingers didn’t leave such an obvious trail. The original thief, an Italian marquis, bequeathed them to his progeny, and they stayed in the family for generations. But the last written reference to the artifacts was from 1905, and historians later in the 20th century assumed they were gone for good. Then, in 2009, two fingers and a tooth showed up in a jar at an auction in Italy. The auction organizers didn’t know whose body parts they were selling, but the buyer had an inkling that they were Galileo’s. They brought their purchase to the Institute and Museum of the History of Science, where museum director Paolo Galluzzi confirmed the theory.
He based his verdict on the fact that the items and their container matched the detailed description from 1905. And since the objects were unlabeled and sold for a scant sum, it seemed unlikely that someone had produced them in some kind of bizarre counterfeiting scheme. As Galluzzi told CNN, “[The] story is so convincing I cannot think of a reason not to believe it.” After renovations, the museum reopened in 2010 under a new name—the Galileo Museum—which proudly exhibited Galileo’s two shriveled digits (and lone tooth) next to the finger already on display.
6. Buddha's Tooth
Galileo’s spindly fingers sort of overshadowed his one dental vestige. For Buddha, on the other hand, the tooth was the main posthumous event. Siddhartha Gautama, widely known as the Buddha, died at the age of 80. His death may have occurred some time between 544 and 368 BCE, depending on which scholars you ask. After his cremation, a disciple named Khema is said to have rescued a single canine tooth from the pyre and transported it to a Hindu kingdom, where it became a highly worshiped item for the next eight centuries.
Between the 4th and 13th centuries, the tooth traveled widely. Some kings sought to possess it for their own kingdoms, while others wanted to destroy it. The Hindu king Pandu, for example, had a subject steal the tooth and toss it on top of burning charcoal. The plan failed spectacularly, according to legend.
As José Gerson da Cunha wrote in his 1875 book Memoir on the History of the Toothrelic of Ceylon, “[A] lotus-flower of the size of a chariot wheel arose above the flames, and the sacred tooth, emitting rays which ascended through the skies and illumined the universe, alighted on the top.”
In 1268, the tooth was brought to the Sri Lankan city of Kandy, where it’s been almost ever since. The Catholic Church did try to burn it again during the 16th century, but the legendary lotus flower ferried it back to Kandy’s Sri Dalada Maligawa, or Temple of the Tooth. You can still visit the temple, where the venerated bit of Buddha is safely encased in a small but ornate golden shrine.
7. George Washington's Hair
George Washington’s purported wooden teeth have a surprisingly horrifying history, but the Founding Father’s dentures aren’t his only bodily claim to fame—locks of his hair are still around, too. Mount Vernon boasts more than 50 strands, kept in jewelry, frames, and other sealed items. The Academy of Natural Sciences and the Smithsonian Institution both house specimens, too.
Giving hair as a keepsake was pretty common during the 18th and 19th centuries, and tresses from a venerated public figure like George Washington were a hot commodity. A few ended up in the hands of people you’ve probably heard of. One was 19th-century poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Longfellow’s maternal grandfather, Peleg Wadsworth, was serving as a Massachusetts congressman when Washington died in December 1799. The following January, Wadsworth’s 20-year-old daughter Eliza wrote to her father, asking for a souvenir [PDF]: “[What I want] ... is a scrap of General Washington’s hand writing, perhaps his name… Papa had he hair? A lock of that I should value more highly still; but this I suppose impracticable … ”
Impracticable though it seemed, Papa came through. He passed her wish along to Martha Washington, who gave him a bit of George’s hair for Eliza. When Eliza died from tuberculosis in 1802, she left the lock to her sister, Zilpah, mother of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow [PDF]. He preserved it in a locket in 1850, and his daughter gifted it to the Maine Historical Society in 1899.
In February 2018, an archivist at Union College in New York discovered another strand in a 1793 almanac. The accompanying envelope read: “Washington’s hair … from James A. Hamilton given him by his mother, Aug. 10, 1871.” His mother? Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, wife of Alexander Hamilton. Archivist and authenticator John Reznikoff called it “not hugely valuable,” ballparking its worth between $2000 and $3000, but the following February another piece of Washington’s hair given out by James sold at auction for $35,763.60.
8. Mata Hari's Remains
On July 14, 2000, a New York Post headline proclaimed: “Mata Hari Heads Off—Femme Fatale’s Skull Swiped From Museum.” But the crime in question had presumably taken place about 45 years earlier.
Mata Hari was born in the Netherlands in 1876 as Margaretha Geertruida Zelle. After spending a few years in what is now Indonesia with her soon-to-be-ex-husband, she arrived in Paris and launched a career as an exotic dancer. Her new identity was based on a culture that wasn’t her own, and that penchant for deceit bled into other spheres during World War I—namely, espionage. It’s still not clear if Mata Hari actually spilled state secrets to her German lovers, but France still arrested, convicted, and executed her in 1917. No family member came forward to claim her body for burial, so it was donated to the Museum of Anatomy. There, her head was removed, embalmed, and put on display with those of other criminals from the era.
Though Mata Hari’s story continued to captivate the world for decades, her mummified head didn’t have the same appeal. When archivists realized it was missing in 2000, it soon became clear that nobody had seen it for quite a while. Some suspected that a thief had stolen it in 1954 when the museum relocated to a different building. But it wasn’t just Mata Hari’s head that was missing—museum curator Roger Saban confirmed that none of her remains could be found.
9. Oliver Cromwell's Head
The current location of Oliver Cromwell’s head is sort of a mystery, too. Two years after Cromwell’s death in 1658, Royalists began reinstating the monarchy. Much like the French republic would later do with their former rulers, Royalist sympathizers exhumed Oliver Cromwell’s body from Westminster Abbey in 1661. But they didn’t simply rebury it elsewhere. Instead, they hung it from the Tyburn gallows as a symbolic execution.
Then, the rebels chopped off his head and stuck it on the end of a 20-foot wooden pole outside Westminster Hall. There it remained for what might have been as long as 30 years. According to one story, a massive storm broke the pole and Cromwell’s cranium came tumbling down. A guard reportedly took it home and kept it hidden until his death around 1700, at which point it passed to his daughter. For the next two centuries or so, the severed head popped up intermittently around England. Claudius Du Puy displayed it in his museum in 1710, but it disappeared after he died in 1738. In the 1780s, a self-proclaimed descendant of Cromwell claimed to have the head, which he gave to James Cox to settle a debt. Cox, for the record, was happy about this—he had actually lent money to the man because he hoped to get his hands on the head somehow.
By the early 19th century, the ghastly artifact had passed through a few more owners and landed in the possession of a surgeon in Kent: Josiah Henry Wilkinson. He liked to show it off at parties. In 1822, one woman described it as, “a frightful skull … covered with its parched yellow skin like any other mummy and with its chestnut hair, eyebrows and beard in glorious preservation.”
It would have been fair to doubt that Wilkinson owned Cromwell’s actual skull. Not only had the trail gone cold several times, but other people claimed to own Cromwell’s head, too. But three separate studies supported the theory that Wilkinson’s was the real McCoy (or, you know, the real Cromwell). The latest, published in the journal Biometrika in 1934, was the most compelling. Scientists found that the pole had clearly been stuck to the head for some time, and X-rays showed evidence of the spike that had held it in place. Measurements from busts and masks of Cromwell matched those from the head. They could even still see the wart on Cromwell’s forehead.
Cromwell’s noggin stayed in the Wilkinson family until 1960, when they finally decided to give the one-time ruler a proper burial. His grave is somewhere near the chapel at Cambridge University’s Sidney Sussex College, where Cromwell studied, but only a few people know exactly where.
10. Thomas Edison's Last Breath
Childhood friends and family knew Thomas Edison as “Al.” Admirers called him “the Wizard of Menlo Park.” To Henry Ford, he was “BFF.” OK, he didn’t call him that—but the two were very close. Ford was the chief engineer for the Edison Illuminating Company in the 1890s, and Edison encouraged Ford’s aspiration to manufacture automobiles. They continued to support each other for the next three decades, and Ford even published a book about their relationship in 1930 called Edison As I Know Him.
So it’s not exactly surprising that when Edison died the following year, Ford kept something to remember him by. The memento itself, on the other hand, is a little surprising: A vial filled with Edison’s last breath.
To be fair, he didn’t specifically ask for that—though many people thought he did. In 1953, Edison’s son Charles responded to a newspaper inquiry with the truth behind the rumors. As his father lay dying, eight empty test tubes happened to be near the bed. As Charles wrote, “Though he is mainly remembered for his work in electrical fields, his real love was chemistry. It is not strange, but symbolic, that those test tubes were close to him at the end. Immediately after his passing I asked Dr. Hubert S. Howe, his attending physician, to seal them with paraffin. He did. I still have them. Later I gave one of them to Mr. Ford.”
The test tube is currently on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. As for the other seven vials, the Edison estate probably still has them … and perhaps a few dozen more. In 1999, the director of the Edison-Ford Winter Estates told writer William Palmer that the Edison estate had a collection of 42 tubes that supposedly all contained a bit of Edison’s last breath.