Top 10 Strange Tales of Skulls and Bones

Bones are all around you. Most of the ones
closest to you are safely hidden inside bodies, but every skull and bone must come out of
its shell and return to dust at some point. Each one leaves behind a story in the process,
and some of these tales are quite remarkable—like the people, beasts, and macabre model skull
on the list below. 10. The Legend of Shakespeare’s Missing
Head For years, it was believed that the bard’s
head had been stolen by thieves keen on studying it for clues about the playwright’s genius.
In fact, a magazine called The Argosy published an 1879 article that even assigned an exact
date to the crime—1794. But few gave the tale credence, and the years passed by. Shakespeare died in 1616, which makes 2016
the 400th anniversary of his death, and we can thank this milestone for the discovery
that the legend of his missing skull is quite probably fact. The Holy Trinity Church in
Stratford-upon-Avon, where Shakespeare and other family members rest, had long refused
archaeologists’ requests to investigate the grave. But with the anniversary fast approaching,
a team from Staffordshire University led by Kevin Colls was finally given permission to
perform testing for the documentary Secret History: Shakespeare’s Tomb, and what they
found corroborates the whisperings of yore. Using ground-penetrating radar, Colls and
his team peered inside the grave to see what they could see. And what they saw was odd—a
body that appeared to lack a head, plus a section of tomb that contained intentional
damage and repair. These finds pointed the team to another skull of legend, this one
located not too far away in Beoley at St. Leonard’s church. Proponents of the stolen
head theory previously thought the Beoley Skull was Shakespeare’s. However, Colls’
team carefully analyzed the skull and concluded it belonged to an old woman. So, a dead end. Which leaves us with two questions: Where
is Shakespeare’s skull? And what curses befell the scoundrels who seem to have made
off with it? For the inscription on the ledger promises nothing good to cranioklepts: “Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forbear, To dig the dust enclosed here. Blessed be the man that spares these stones, And cursed be he that moves my bones.” 9. Tchaikowsky’s Posthumous Acting Career Unlike Shakespeare’s skull, we know where
pianist Andre Tchaikowsky’s is located. It’s in a box at Stratford’s Royal Shakespeare
Company, in accordance with the composer’s last will. You see, Tchaikowsky wanted his
skull to star as Yorick’s in future productions of Hamlet, a wish that went unfulfilled for
years because it was deemed inappropriate. But during the 2008 Stratford run, Tchaikowsky’s
dream came true. David Tennant of Doctor Who fame held the real skull during the famous
graveyard monologue, and audiences weren’t aware of the prop’s true nature until later.
The actual skull was also used in the London run from December 2008 to January 2009—even
though the secret was out and the company had promised to retire Tchaikowsky’s skull. An interesting segue here involves the influential
comedian Del Close’s similar skull wish. In Close’s case, the recipient was the Goodman
Theatre in Chicago. However, Close’s skull never made it to the stage; it was cremated
along with the rest of his body after physicians refused to play along. A skull was in fact
donated to the theater, but it was definitely not Close’s. 8. F. W. Murnau and the Crypt of Nightmares In yet another stolen-skull escapade, it would
seem that Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, influential director of the 1922 classic horror film Nosferatu,
is not resting in peace. According to representatives of the Stahnsdorf South-Western Cemetery where
he is buried, Murnau’s eternal slumber has been interrupted several times going back
to the ’70s. However, in the most recent invasion of the family crypt in July 2015,
the intruders left the director’s corpse headless. Appropriately, there is evidence from this
heist that points to occultist activity. When the grave robbery was discovered, remnants
of wax were found on the floor of the crypt, a possible sign of a Satanic candlelit ceremony.
Either Murnau is spinning in his famous grave, or he is pulling the strings of present-day
horror from the afterlife. 7. King Richard’s Face and DNA Greyfriars in Leicester, England, was the
final resting place of King Richard III, the English monarch portrayed in Shakespeare’s
namesake play. His battlefield death in 1485 was obviously traumatic, as his remains indicate
multiple wounds—including two vicious blows to the head; one of which was probably from
a halberd. A few decades after the king was dumped in a hole, the friary was demolished,
and Richard’s grave location was lost to time until archaeologists finally dug up his
body in August of 2012. It was buried underneath a parking lot. Having Richard’s skull in hand has allowed
facial anthropologists and artists to build a remarkable reconstruction of his appearance.
This is especially valuable for any future actors who play Richard—as well as the audiences
who hear his story—because it gives them a pretty conclusive idea of what the man really
looked like. With new evidence comes a new level of understanding and authenticity. Having Richard’s DNA, on the other hand,
has opened an entirely different can of worms. Mitochondrial testing confirms beyond all
doubt that the skeleton is Richard’s, with odds that it’s not to the tune of 6.7 million
to 1. But strangely enough, tests on the Y chromosome compared to modern-day descendants
of Richard’s great uncle reveal a false paternity. This raises serious questions about
whether other rulers in the Plantagenet and Tudor lines, such as Henry V and Elizabeth
I, actually had valid claims to their royal positions. 6. Geronimo’s Descendants vs. Yale The story of Geronimo’s skull involves more
speculation than truth. But there is truth in rumor, and in this case the rumor was true
enough to create a lawsuit. One of the defendants named was the exclusive Yale society The Order
of Skull and Bones. Founded in 1832, Skull and Bones is a highly
secretive society with quite a few powerful turnouts, including several generations of
the Bush family. As told in a 1918 letter between society members, a few trophy-hunting
Skull and Bones scallywags located the Chiricahua Apache warrior’s grave and disinterred his
body, helping themselves to the skull, a couple bones, and some riding gear. These objects
were then removed to The Tomb, the society’s headquarters in New Haven, Connecticut. On February 17, 2009, exactly 100 years after
Geronimo’s passing, a group of 20 of his descendants filed a lawsuit against Yale,
as well as Skull and Bones, in an attempt to win back the remains. The suit was dismissed
in 2010 on technical grounds, and the story remains somewhat of a mystery to this day. Although many are convinced the skull is in
the Bonesmen’s hands, others think not. Historian David Miller refers to accounts
of Geronimo’s grave being unmarked and overgrown until the 1920s. If true, this would mean
that while Skull and Bones members quite likely did dig up a grave, there’s no way it was
Geronimo’s. 5. This Dinosaur’s Enormous Head Reaching a height of 10.5 feet, the skull
of this 74-million-year-old beast towers over the crowd. Its remains were discovered in
1941 in New Mexico. However, due to wartime funding cuts, it spent the next five decades
hurrying up and waiting at the University of Oklahoma—underneath the school’s football
stadium, oddly enough. As fate would have it, the ancient giant was
eventually rediscovered and unboxed by D. E. Savage, a paleontologist who had assisted
with the initial dig as a student. Today, it stands in all its restored glory at the
Sam Noble Museum of Natural History in Norman, Oklahoma. There is some discussion about whether this
creature is a Pentaceratops or an entirely new specimen, which Yale paleontologist Nicholas
Longrich has dubbed Titanoceratops. The inner workings of the debate aren’t too important,
because what matters here is that this dinosaur holds the Guinness World Record for largest
land animal skull. Whatever the name, we can all agree that’s one massive head. 4. A Dark and Stormy Bison Skull The Sam Noble Museum gets a second mention
on this list by virtue of housing another strange skull, albeit a much smaller one belonging
to an extinct species of bison. At roughly 10,500 years old, the Cooper Skull is the
oldest painted object ever found in North America. It takes its name from the archaeological
site where it was unearthed, a long-ago gully where Paleo-Indian Folsom hunters trapped
and slaughtered bison herds on three separate occasions. The Cooper Skull was buried in the bottom
layer of death, and it stood out immediately for sporting a red lightning-bolt design.
The paint was a monumental find on an artifact of this age, but there was also something
a little more mysterious about the Cooper Skull that turned heads. To allow other experts to inspect and document
the skull before removal, the archaeologists left it in the ground and went home. That
night, a thunderstorm rolled in and dropped two inches of rain on what had been bone-dry
land for a month gone by, as if responding to the lightning bolt’s exposure. Six years went by. The skull had been safely
excavated, studied, and preserved, and it was about to find a forever home in the newly
completed Sam Noble Museum. On the night before the museum doors were to open, it once again
summoned a thunderstorm to strike. The volume of rain was such that it overwhelmed the roof
drainage system, and the building sprung a single leak—right above the Cooper Skull
exhibit. 3. Leonardo da Vinci’s Handmade Skull In 1987, a German couple named Winfried and
Waltraud Rolshausen walked out of an antique store in Homburg with a very unique piece—a
1/3-scale model of a human skull, sans lower jawbone, crafted of a white stone material.
The handmade skull served nicely as office décor for Winfried, a medical doctor. Fast forward to 1996. Dr. Roger Saban, a skull
specialist and museum director at Paris Descartes University, examined the skull and decided
it was something much more than simply decorative. He was the first to notice a major clue about
the miniature’s past; namely, that it resembled a set of three 1498 anatomical drawings by
the one and only Leonardo da Vinci. These drawings, which are held at the Royal Collection
at Windsor Castle in England, show detailed sectional sketches of a human skull that shares
certain anatomical oddities with the Rolshausens’ antique model. Further analysis by Belgian researcher Stefaan
Missinne revealed that the skull was not made of marble, as Saban presumed, but rather an
agate mixture traced to a mine about 50 miles southwest of Florence, Leonardo’s hometown.
Its composition also contained the rare element iridium, which must have been added during
formation of the skull. Based on Leonardo’s documented invention and use of just such
a mixture (which he called “mistioni”), Missinne dated the skull to around 1508. Accounts by Leonardo’s contemporaries also
attest to the fact that he owned a miniature skull. But is this thing really his work?
Perhaps, but without more examples of Leonardo’s sculpted art, it will be hard to know for
sure. 2. The First Murder Case? In the never-ending quest to interpret the
evidence left by our ancestors, we continue to find increasingly older signs of interpersonal
violence. A 430,000-year-old Neanderthal skull called Cranium 17 bears witness to such conflict,
but at a much earlier time than has yet been recorded. Discovered at the Sima de los Huesos archaeological
site in Northern Spain, Cranium 17 belonged to one of at least 28 individuals tossed down
a shaft that is now believed to be a burial pit. What sets Cranium 17 apart from the rest
are two large holes in its forehead, which experts say are certain signs of foul play. Research led by Dr. Nohemi Sala of the Centro
Mixto UCM-ISCIII Evolución y Comportamiento Humanos concluded that the two holes are the
result of an attack with intent to kill. Fracture and trajectory analysis showed that the blows
were delivered by the same object at different angles. This essentially means Cranium 17’s
death was no accident, and that murder has run in our family for a very, very long time. 1. Phineas Gage and the Iron Rod At last we turn to the story of Phineas Gage,
who is noteworthy for his unwitting and unfortunate role in the advancement of modern neuroscience
and personality psychology. In 1848, Gage was working as the foreman of
a railroad crew. While laying tracks in Cavendish, Vermont, Gage had an explosive moment when
the powder he was packing into a hole blew up unexpectedly, launching his tamping iron
skyward. The 3.5-foot iron rod left his hands and rocketed straight through his head. Incredibly,
Gage not only survived, but retained the presence of mind to dryly quip to the attending doctor,
“Here is business enough for you.” But Gage would never be the same. After the
accident, he changed drastically in both temperament and cognitive function, turning to alcohol
and indecent behavior. Seizures ultimately led to his death in 1860. A sad ending, but
not a vain one—according to Smithsonian, the case of Phineas Gage broke new ground
in neuroscience by connecting the dots between brain trauma and personality change. More recently, Gage’s tale gained an interesting
epilogue involving a 19th-century daguerreotype. In it, a handsome man with a determined, one-eyed
stare confronts the camera. He is holding an iron rod with a blurry yet partly readable
inscription—and it matches the inscription on the rod displayed alongside Gage’s punctured
skull in Harvard’s Warren Anatomical Museum: “This is the bar that was shot through the
head of Mr. Phinehas P. Gage.”