Bones of Contention

(and other body parts…)

If you’re searching for tangible evidence in the murky fog of conspiracy theories, new world orders and secret societies, facts, figures and names are slippery eels.  However, beyond the myths and legends surrounding the Bilderberg Group, the Illuminati  and the Freemasons, in the leafy Ivy League enclaves of  Yale University  there is one  perceptible organisation, obsessed with death, the Skull and Bones Society. This secretive group, dating back to 1832, has been populated by some of America’s most influential industrialists, politicians, bankers and presidents, among them  George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, and the failed presidential candidate John Kerry. Whereas their membership list[1] is no secret, their saturnine rituals, performed in The Skull & Bones Hall, otherwise known as the windowless, red stone Newhaven “Tomb” certainly are. One of the ‘Bonesmen’s’ morbid fascinations has been the acquisition of body parts.


In 1986, Ned Anderson, chairman of the San Carlos Apache tribe in Arizona, led a campaign against the Skull and Bones Society for the return of the skull of none other than the great warrior, Geronimo, who died of pneumonia in 1909. The story goes that in 1918, a group of 6 well-heeled ‘Bonesmen’ stationed at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, robbed Geronimo’s grave and removed the chief’s skull and some bones. According to a centennial history of Skull and Bones by a 1923 initiate, Francis Otto Matthessen, there exists a 1919 log book featuring the skull, which is apparently now displayed in a glass case in the Tomb. Matthessen names the grave robbers, among them one Prescott Bush, the father and grandfather of the U.S. presidents. Over the past decade 20 of Geronimo’s descendants have tried desperately through the U.S. Courts to have the skull returned, but in 2010 Judge Richard Roberts dismissed the lawsuit against Skull and Bones and Yale, saying the plaintiffs cited a law that applies only to Native American cultural items excavated or discovered after 1990[2].


The sad theft of Geronimo’s remains is just one example of the melancholic fascination with the possession of purloined body parts. In 2009, for a few hours on E-Bay, you could bid for three glass vials containing a dictator’s brain and blood. The initial asking price was 15,000 euros, or £13,000[3]. At the end of World War 2, after being shot with his mistress Claretta Petacci by anti-fascist partisans,  Mussolini’s body was strung up on a lamp post by a petrol station near Milan. The Americans, no doubt interested in how the mind of a dictator works, removed his remains and kept the interesting bits. Mussolini’s wife, Rachaele, expressed her horror in her memoirs, and in 1966, America returned part of the former Duce’s brain to his widow. Yet the macabre story didn’t end there. Forty-three years later, Mussolini’s granddaughter Alessandro discovered what was left of her granddad being peddled on E-Bay and the auction was abruptly aborted.


You could drive through Erwarton in Suffolk and hardly realise you’d been there. The village, in the parish of Babergh, 14km south of Ipswich on the Shotley peninsula has a population of just over 100, and a pub, The Queens Head, which closed in 2009.

      Yet like many seemingly insignificant villages, Erwarton has an interesting little 13th century church, St. Mary’s. The church organ dates from 1912, and it bears a curious attachment; a copy of a drawing by Holbein of Anne Boleyn, together with this legend: after her execution in the Tower of London, 19 May 1536, it was recorded that her heart was buried in this church by her Uncle, Sir Philip Parker of Erwarton Hall. It goes on to reveal that in 1837 a lead casket was discovered in the church, believed to contain the hapless Anne Boleyn’s heart, yet the casket had no inscription. Historian Alison Weir[4]  points out that ‘heart burial had gone out of fashion in England by the end of the fourteenth century’ and identifies the uncle in question as Sir Phillip Calthorpe of Erwarton, who was married to Amy (or Amata) Boleyn, Anne’s aunt. Yet the story of the heart reverberated around the world for decades after the discovery, and an article in the New York Times dated November 13 1881 confirms Weir’s correction and tells us that Erwarton’s parish clerk, James Amner, who died in 1875, was present with the rector, Rev. Ralph Berners, when workmen, restoring the church, found the heart-shaped lead casket behind the north wall. It was opened and contained what appeared to be a pile of dust. It was re-buried in the Cornwallis vault, beneath where the organ now stands.


America’s independence owes much to Thomas Paine, Born in Thetford, England on January 29, 1737. A great revolutionary, the author of The Rights of Man and The Age of Reason, he inspired Washington’s army during the Revolution of 1776. As his service to America had been at his own expense. in 1784 New York State gave him a confiscated Royalist farm in New Rochelle, and Congress awarded him $3000. Paine died in New York City on June 8, 1809, and only six mourners, including two freed slaves, attended the funeral. He was buried on his farm.

        In 1819 Britain’s William Cobbett, political activist and author of Rural Rides, another ‘dangerous man’, at one time Paine’s rival who had come to admire him, without permission dug up Paine’s remains and brought them to London with ambitious plans for a memorial which never materialised. Paine’s bones, in a series of boxes, were handed down through the generations of Cobbett’s descendants. What became of them is uncertain, although it is claimed that there is a rib in France, some of his bones were made into buttons and in 1987, a Sydney businessmen bought Paine’s skull while on holiday in London. It was sold to another Australian named John Burgess, reputed to be a descendant of an illegitimate child of Paine’s[5]. The last bit of news on the tale was that Burgess’s wife was trying to raise $60,000 for DNA testing. Is it Paine’s skull? Both Gary Berton, president of the Thomas Paine National Historical Association and The New Rochelle Citizen Paine Restoration Initiative have been on the trail. Berton said the skull was  the right size and has some incised markings which are believed to have been made by Cobbett and his son.

However, all that definitely remains in New Rochelle of the great are his mummified brain stem and a lock of hair, kept in a secret location.


He may have ruled Europe with a rod of iron, but as for Napoleon Bonaparte’s physical extremity, much enjoyed by Josephine,  it seems to have suffered the ultimate indignity.  The unkindest cut of all, the removal of Bonaparte’s penis is said to have been carried out by his physician when the Emperor died in exile on St. Helena in 1821. The doctor may have given it to the priest who gave him the last rites. The priest’s descendants, the Vignali family  in Naples,  crop up in an article by Guy Lesser about a rare book dealer, A.S.W. Rosenbach,  in the January 2002 issue of  Harper’s Magazine. Sadly, the fleshy relic does not seem to have been well preserved. Lesser writes:  “Rosenbach evidently had been fond of showing off his collection of Napoleon relics to his most favoured clients, acquired in the mid-1920s, from the Vignali family of Naples, the descendants of Napoleon’s chaplain and last confessor on St. Helena. The relics included hair, cutlery, clothes, and, as the piece de resistance, so to speak, a short length of dried leather, kept by Rosenbach in a small blue morocco box–and delicately referred to, in his day, as ‘Napoleon’s tendon’. The ‘thing’ had been quietly sold by Rosenbach in the mid-1940s”

The wayward Willie has been compared at various times to piece of leather, a shrivelled eel or a bit of beef jerky. In 1927 it went on display in Manhattan, when TIME magazine likened it to a “maltreated strip of buckskin shoelace.” In 1977, John Lattimer[6], of New Jersey, the world’s leading urologist who had treated Nazi war criminals awaiting trial, reputedly  forked out $3,000 for the battered baguette  (some sources claim it was $38,000)  and stored it under his bed where it stayed until his death in 2007. His daughter inherited[7] it as a probably unexpected bonus in her father’s will, and has had offers up to $100,000. At least that’s a more dignified sum for an Emperor …


When the faithful go in search of a miracle, they can have no better reward than a body which refuses to decompose. At the age of 46, the zealous Catholic missionary St. Francis Xavier, worn out from his various Asian sea voyages, died on Saturday  December 3, 1552 on the Chinese island Sancian. The body remained buried – and fresh – for ten weeks in a coffin full of lime. It was then transported on a decorated galleon to Goa as the saint himself had wished to go there. Huge crowds, including the Viceroy himself, accompanied by the nobility, gave the cadaver a royal welcome.

On March 14,1554 the corpse, in a wooden coffin with damask lining, was taken to the Church of Ajuda at Ribandar. Dead or not, Xavier just kept on travelling. Two days later he was delivered to the Church of S. Paulo in Goa on March 16, 1554 and the strange life of a relic began when the little toe on the right foot was bitten off by Dona Isabel de Carom, a Portuguese woman, who claimed she was anxious to have a relic of the Saint. Apparently, it gushed blood. Three other toes were later removed from his right foot. One of the purloined extremities ended up at the saint’s birthplace, the  Castle of Xavier. After 60 years of not mouldering in the grave, the ecclesiastic souvenir hunters were at it again. On November 3, 1614,  Father General Claude Aquaviva instructed that the right arm was to be cut off at the elbow. It arrived in Rome  the following year, where it remains in a silver reliquary in the church of Gesu. Today, St. Francis Xavier is spread far and wide[8]. As well as the toe, displayed in a silver reliquary in a Goa cathedral, one of his hands is in Japan, there’s yet another relic elsewhere in Goa – a diamond-encrusted fingernail, and for all we know, he may have a toe in the door at other clerical locations.


Back in less enlightened times, when Britain, France and Germany had empires, many branches of non-European humanity were seen simply as biological curiosities. Our intervention in such cultures back then must have had all the characteristics of today’s ‘alien abduction’ phenomena.  Even as late as the 1960s, touring fairgrounds, alongside their 2-headed sheep, often had their 10-foot mummified South Pacific Giant or a brace of tiny, unfortunate mummified  little characters doubling as either Polynesian pygmies or even ‘captured leprechauns’. However, the abduction of hapless tattooed Maoris developed into a grisly business for collectors of the exotic. Around the world today about 500 intricately tattooed Maori heads, known as ‘tai moko’ are either hidden away in dusty vaults or stored in boxes in various museum stockrooms. The sad thing about this repugnant trade is that many Maoris were kidnapped from New Zealand, forcibly tattooed, then be-headed. In May 2011[9] the head of one such unfortunate warrior was handed back to the Maoris in Rouen, Northern France, where it had languished in the city’s museum for the past 136 years. According to museum director Sebastien Minchin, up until 1966 the head  had been displayed as part of the museum’s prehistoric collection. Although the Maori committee and the New Zealand Consul were pleased with the hand-over, there are still an estimated 15 of these heads awaiting return throughout France, and in recent years 300 tai mokos have returned home from countries around the world.


In the same dark, colonial collector’s  netherworld which decapitated Maoris lies the story of two opportunistic mid-19th century  French taxidermists, the Verrueax brothers,  who, finding themselves at a burial site in the Kalahari desert, decided to take a break from stuffing lions and rhinos and exhume the body of a recently buried African man.  Soon they had him well stuffed and suitably embalmed, and before long the morbidly curious of Europe were queuing up to see their handiwork. As the two maladjusted stuffers were a bit disappointed with their victim’s light skin, they decided on their own method of making him ‘African’ by adding a layer of black polish. He eventually came to rest in Spain at a Catalonian town called Banyoles, where, known to locals as ‘El Negro’, he resided for a century in the Darder Museum until in 1992, when Alphonse Arcelin, a local Doctor of Haitian descent, raised objections. The town fought to keep the corpse, and even issued boxes of chocolates commemorating his presence, but common sense eventually triumphed, and he was finally laid to rest in a dignified burial ceremony in Botswana in 2000[10].


Traditionally, St. Nick may squeeze down your chimney on Christmas Eve, but the jolly old redcoat’s mortal remains might put Rudolf right off his carrots.

The Middle Ages were the high watermark for the lucrative Christian business of attracting pilgrims to holy body parts and possible miracles. The long-dead, real St. Nicholas was originally lying in peace in a grave in Myra, Turkey. However, in 1087 the wily elders of the Italian town of Bari, looking for a suitable, cash-raising  religious attraction, hit upon the wheeze of hiring a gang of pirates (some called them ‘privileged mariners’) to nip over to Turkey and raid the Myra crypt and bring Father Christmas to Bari. The mission was a success, and the buccaneering blag is celebrated every year with a massive parade followed by a firework display.  Commissioned by Abbot Elia in 1087, the Romanesque basilica of St. Nicholas in Bari now attracts thousands of pilgrims who hope to benefit from the strange liquid called ‘Manna’ which oozes from St. Nick’s casket[11] and is said to cure various illnesses.


King Badu Bonsu of Ghana’s Ahanta tribe  seems to have pushed the invading Dutch over the edge in 1838 when he decided to lop off the heads of two Dutch emissaries  and use them to decorate his throne. When Major General Jan Verveer discovered what had happened, he promptly had the king hung and then decapitated, and took his head back home to Holland. It’s modern location, the Leiden University Medical Centre, was revealed by Dutch novelist Arthur Japin, who was researching his latest work.  For decades, the poor old Monarch had been staring out through the glass from a dusty jar of formaldehyde in a store room in the centre’s anatomical collections department.  In July 2009 the Dutch government received a deputation from Ghana to arrange the head’s return. The ceremony was not a particularly joyful occasion, despite the ceremonial tipple of Dutch gin and the red robes of the visiting Ahanta tribesmen. They were still angry; the King’s great, great grandson,Joseph Jones Amoah exclaiming “I am hurt, angry. My grandfather has been killed…”[12] The party were also displeased as they thought they had only come to identify the relic, not return it, as they would first have to adhere to tribal protocol by reporting back to their chief. However, the king’s head went home a few days later, with the Dutch hoping that they’d righted a wrong.

            The ages of imperialism and colonialism may be long past, but the lamentable enthrallment with bits and pieces of the departed, or even the whole body, is still with us. The frozen cadaver of the ‘Prince of Pop’, Michael Jackson, remains un-buried in a bare brick room in a gold casket encased in a clear fibreglass container. Jackson’s 79 year old mother can’t bring herself to have him buried[13] for fear that grave robbers might moonwalk into the cemetery, and like a scene from ‘Thriller’, make off with a Jacko souvenir.

It’s a pity all those religious zealots, fairground barkers, taxidermists, and Lenin’s 1924 embalmers didn’t know anything about the modern science of cryonics. If the old chestnut about Walt Disney’s frozen noggin is true, saints and sinners could, like baseball legend Ted Williams, whose body was frozen in 2002, become major live attractions in the years to come.


2937 words.

[1] For a full membership list

[2] Los Angeles Times May 3rd 2011

[3] Daily Telegraph July 20 2011

[4] Weir, Alison The Lady in The Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn  Vintage, 2010.

[5] For two engrossing leads on Paine’s remains read Collins, Paul The Trouble With Tom: The Strange Afterlife and Times of Thomas Paine Bloomsbury, 2006. There is also a fascinating article in the New York Times dated May 31st 1914 at

[6]  This site claims Lattimer paid $38,000 for the penis.

[7] This is a video where the writer, Tony Perrottet, author of Napoleon’s Privates, (Harper Entertainment, 2008) visits Lattimer’s daughter to track down the penis. For some peculiar reason, although he verifies its existence in the basement,  the camera is not allowed to film it.

[8] TIME magazine, May 10 2011


[10] “España sólo devuelve huesos del negro de Banyoles” (in (Spanish)).

[11] At you can see a video of priests collecting the ‘Manna’ from the tomb.

[12] Huffington Post July 7 2009


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