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Heads of the Dead

Neatorama welcomes an article from J. Tithonus Pednaud of The Human Marvels. This is an excerpt from Pednaud’s new book After Life: True Tales of the Restless Dead, which is on sale now.

After Life: True Tales of the Restless Dead unearths and recounts fantastic post-mortem adventures undertaken by cadavers and also chronicles numerous misfortunes that have befallen the dead.


Born Margarethe Geertruide Zelle in the Netherlands, Mata Hari was an exotic dancer and a courtesan to rich and powerful men. She is also one of the more intriguing women of the twentieth century, who consistently captured imaginations due to the fact that she was also a spy. But truthfully, she wasn't a very good spy.

During WWI, the French asked Mata Hari to use her charms and contacts to get information. She proved to be unsuccessful and the French suspected she was a double agent for the Germans. In February of 1917 she was arrested and put on trial for spying for the Germans. Despite no concrete evidence, Mata Hari was convicted and promptly executed by firing squad on October 15, 1917.

Following the execution, no family member stepped forward to claim Mata Hari’s body. Her corpse was given to the Museum of Anatomy in Paris where she was dissected. Mata Hari’s head was eventually severed and preserved in wax, then placed in the museum’s display of notorious criminals. The museum already contained head casts of criminals executed during the 19th century, as well as a vast collection of skulls from asylums for the mentally ill, and so Mata Hari was a welcome addition.

But when the French Minister of Education threatened to close the failing Museum of Anatomy in 2000, the museum director decided it would be best to present the Minister with a catalogued list of the museum’s most impressive treasures. In researching that catalogue, it was discovered that the head of Mata Hari was missing. What happened to it is a mystery, but it is suspected that it was stolen by a morbid admirer.

While it was Mata Mari's fame that compelled authorities to collect her head, it was Fritz Haarmann’s notoriety that earned his head a spot on a shelf.

Haarmann (center) being escorted to court by police detectives. (Image credit: German Federal Archive)

Known as “The Vampire of Hanover,” between 1919 and 1924 Haarmann committed at least 24 murders. His victims were primarily young male vagrants who hung around railway stations, whom Haarmann would lure back to his apartment and then kill by biting through their throats. He was eventually apprehended when numerous skeletal remains, which he had dumped into the river Leine, washed up on shore and led authorities to his home. Haarmann was beheaded by guillotine on April 15, 1925 and his head was preserved in a jar in the hopes that an examination of his brain would reveal the secrets of his madness, but his head is now kept at the Göttingen medical school and is still pretty much intact.

It should also be noted that not every head is taken. Some are given up willingly.

When the moral philosopher Jeremy Bentham died in 1832, he left specific instructions pertaining to the preservation of his remains. Specifically, he requested that his corpse be mummified, dressed in his favorite suit and seated upright in a chair in the halls of the University College London.

In life, Bentham was a well-respected philosopher. He is known as the founder of modern utilitarianism and he is also known for championing principals and ideals that were far ahead of his time, including prison reform, animal welfare, freedom of speech, universal suffrage and gay rights. That said, Bentham was also a bit of an eccentric. It's been said that he was so obsessed with his post-mortem plans, that he carried a pair of personally selected glass eyes in his pocket, for over a decade, in the hopes they would be inserted into the head of his mummified remains.

When he did pass away in 1832 at the age of 84, his close friend, physician Southwood Smith, tried to carry out Bentham's final bizarre instructions. Unfortunately, the preservation process went horribly wrong and Bentham looked more like a bad horror movie prop than a trailblazing human rights activist and university founder. Bentham's head, in particular, was absolutely ghastly. It appeared wizened, sullen and leathery. The bight and alert blue of the glass eyes set inside the head made the entire thing look infinitely unsettling and it was decided that the head had to go. Bentham's body was dressed in the suit that had been requested, filled out with padding and straw stuffing, and then eventually seated in the University corridor as asked. His head was replaced with a wax effigy that actually looked like Bentham, while the vile little thing that was Bentham's actual head was placed at the feet of the effigy. There the head remained undisturbed, glaring unblinkingly at all who passed by, until the mid 1970's when it began to wander.

(Image credit: Michael Reeves)

In 1975 Bentham's head was stolen from its display by a group of unruly students. The students initially held the head for a ransom, before eventually just returning it. Following that, the head was again stolen by students and allegedly used as a football during an impromptu game. Following a few more thefts and pranks, university administrators decided to remove the head from public display. It now sits in the Conservation Safe in the Institute of Archaeology and is brought out only for the most special occasions.

The effigy of Bentham, often referred to as an Auto-icon, has also been known to wander – albeit, under supervision. The body has been removed from its case to attend special events including faculty votes and staff retirement parties, although it has yet to actually cast a vote or toast a departing professor.

The preceding was excerpted from the new book After Life: True Tales of the Restless Dead by J. Tithonus Pednaud, which is now available in both Kindle and print versions from Amazon.

Find out more about After Life at its website and at Facebook.

Also see another excerpt from the book that we posted long before the book was finished: The Heart Cherished by Frankenstein's Maker

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