Lifestyle & Belief

Digging up the past: famous exhumations throughout history


Hanging coffins of the Sagada people, on the island of Luzon in the Philippines.


Wikimedia Commons

Yasser Arafat has been disinterred after suspicious evidence emerged that his death wasn't entirely natural.

But Arafat isn't the only iconic figure to be disturbed after-death. Famous folks who have died in controversial ways are dug up on a somewhat distressingly regular basis — and it's been going on for a long, long time. Here are some interesting examples of iconic figures who weren't exactly allowed to rest in peace.

Abraham Lincoln....and the Bodysnatchers

The iconic Abraham Lincoln is the subject of a certain new and critically acclaimed Hollywood movie, but the great president's life-after-death is also rather interesting.

After his assassination, Lincoln was interred in a grand central Illinois tomb, following a remarkable cross-country farewell journey by train. There, Lincoln's sad story was supposed to end — but it didn't.

In 1876, a common Illinois crook and counterfeiter named Ben Boyd was imprisoned for his crimes. This displeased his business associate "Big Jim" Kinealy, who decided that it'd be a good idea to steal Lincoln's body from its tomb, and then hold it hostage for a large amount of money — and the release of Boyd. What could possibly go wrong with a plan like that?

Kinealy and his cronies carried out the caper on Nov. 7, 1876, but only managed to move the very heavy coffin a mere 15 inches. Little did they know that one of their conspirators was actually a Secret Service agent, who had placed detectives at the cemetery to capture them. They got away, but were swiftly arrested, and imprisoned for a year each for their weird crime.

After that incident, Lincoln's family decided that the former president's tomb had to be made more secure. This meant Honest Abe's body would have to be temporarily exhumed, an act that took place in 1901.

Lincoln's son, Robert, left explicit instructions that the body not be viewed. But he wasn't present at the exhumation, and those gathered decided that it'd be best to view the body to make certain it was really him. (One suspects a certain amount of human curiosity was involved here.)

A small portion of the top of the coffin was cut out, filling the room with a powerful smell; those gathered then gazed into the face of Lincoln. He was well preserved, so they said: his skin had turned black, but his beard and distinctive mole were still there. Satisfied, the onlookers closed the coffin. One of the men present at the exhumation died as late as 1960, making him the last surviving person to look upon the president's face.

Oliver Cromwell: Because We Couldn't Execute Him the First Time Around

Oliver Cromwell led the bloody British Revolution of 1648, deposing and executing King Charles I in a bid to remove the monarchy forever and turn the state into a republic. He became protector of the British Empire, and was afforded ultimate power over the realm (but never did take the title of king, even when it was offered).

Cromwell died in September of 1658, but his political experiment didn't last much longer than he did. The Stuart monarchy was restored in 1660, and the royals wanted revenge for the death of Charles I. After killing 12 of the regicides who collaborated with Cromwell first, the body of the protector was next in line.

The corpse of Cromwell was famously strung up at Tyburn, displayed for a day, decapitated and then dumped in a pit there — where his bones presumably remain to this day, somewhere under the hustle of London's modern streets.

What about his head? The former dome of Oliver Cromwell was put up on a pole above Westminster Hall, presumably setting an example for any who had thoughts of repeating his revolutionary efforts.

The head appears to have stayed there for quite some time — and then, after it was blown down in a storm, became a passed-along family heirloom of the Wilkinson family, who acquired it in 1815, complete with a discernible mustache.

The remarkably persistent head of Cromwell was finally interred at the chapel of Sidney-Sussex — Cromwell's alma mater — in 1960, according to the Cambridge Time Traveler. Where it, presumably, remains today.

The Exhumation Proofs of Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Poetry and the morbid art of exhumation are not often associated, but there are exceptions — such as the strange case of poet-painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and the poems he buried in the grave of his late muse and wife, Elizabeth Siddal.

Siddal was a great beauty and a popular pre-Raphaelite model, whom Rossetti often painted in lugubrious poses. You've likely seen her before: she was the model for Millais's great, haunting painting of Ophelia, where she is portrayed floating almost on top of the water, her delicate mouth slightly open. (She caught an awful cold from the modeling experience, drawing the ire of her father upon the pre-Raphaelite artist).

But Siddal suffered from a terrible addiction to laudanum (an opium-based painkiller popular in the Victorian era), as well as post-partum depression after the birth of the couple's stillborn child. The stricken muse died a mere twenty months into the couple's marriage.

When she died, the devastated up-and-coming poet buried the only existing manuscripts of his recent writing with her body.

And then, seven years later, Rossetti thought better of it. His vision was failing, and he had turned back to poetry; he now wanted to see those old, moldering proofs again. There was only one way to get them: exhumation, a distasteful prospect.

“The truth is that no one so much as herself would have approved of my doing this," claimed Rossetti of the incident, according to Jan Marsh in the Times Literary Supplement. "Art was the only thing for which she felt very seriously."

The "Exhumation Proofs" extracted from Lizzie's burial site are quite good, but the long-lasting controversy over their removal from her tomb has decisively out-shone the verses themselves in history.

Charlie Chaplin

Cinema Golden Age star Charlie Chaplin was beloved by millions, and his 1977 death at the age of 88 provoked international mourning. But unfortunately, the mustachioed star wasn't permitted to rest in peace for long in his Switzerland grave.

In 1978, two grave robbers-cum-auto-mechanics named Roman Wardas and Gantscho Ganev managed to dig up the Little Tramp and make off with his body. Mirroring the rather hare-brained Lincoln plan, the robbers intended to hold Chaplin's corpse for ransom.

They hit up his widow first, phoning and asking for a cool $600,000. Oona Chaplin rightly dubbed the demands "ridiculous" and alerted police, who began the curious hunt for a missing (and deceased) star.

They then went on the lam with the remains of Charlie Chaplin, in a caper that would probably make for a very interesting art film. After tense weeks had passed, police finally nabbed Wardas and Ganev, who led them to Chaplin's body. They'd buried it in a corn field a mere mile from the Chaplin family home in Corsier, Switzerland, says the BBC. The men were sentenced to seven and a half years for extortion and "disturbing the peace of the dead."

You can still visit Chaplin's grave, which is located in Corsier. The coffin, quite practically, has been reburied and sealed with a healthy coating of cement. One can only hope Chaplin himself would have found the whole grave-robbing affair amusingly absurd.

Bobby Fischer Takes a Paternity Test — After Death

This mysterious chess champion hooked the entire world on a board game, as he battled the Soviets using nothing but his wits during the tense Cold War years. Always an iconoclast, Bobby Fischer jumped from country to country for years, making increasingly anti-social statements during those rare occasions when he popped back onto the international radar.

His passport was revoked by the US, and he was detained in Japan in the mid-2000s in a highly publicized case, says The New York Times, after flouting sanctions against Yugoslavia in a 1992 match.

Iceland finally offered the stateless Fischer a place to go, and he accepted the offer. The Icelandic parliament itself voted to grant him citizenship, allowing him to leave Japan. He lived on the frigid island until his 2008 death at the age of 64.

That would have been the end of it; but in 2010, his Filipina girlfriend, Marilyn Young, sued to have Fischer's remains exhumed so he could take a posthumous paternity test, says the BBC.

The test was a negative, reported CNN: Fischer was not the father of 9-year-old Jinky. His earthly remains were re-buried soon afterwards.