Missing 'Vampire' Director's Skull: Why People Snatch Bodies

Still of Max Schreck in F.W. Murnau's silent vampire film “Nosferatu."
Still of Max Schreck in F.W. Murnau's silent vampire film “Nosferatu." (Image credit: Prana-Film)

The disappearance of a famous director's skull from his tomb in Germany is morbid. It's also far from unusual.

The loss of the head of F.W. Murnau, the director of the 1922 silent vampire film "Nosferatu," has authorities flummoxed, though it's not the first time the director's tomb has been disturbed. Indeed, Murnau is hardly the only victim of body snatching.

The practice has occurred regularly throughout history, despite taboos against disturbing the dead. The motives range from the mercenary to the macabre: Corpses have been snatched for ransom and for the purpose of cannibalism. Victims range from the poor and anonymous to the politically prominent and at least one president. [The 6 Most Gruesome Grave Robberies]

Probably the most common reason for grave robbery involved the medical profession. Until the mid-1800s and into the early 1900s, doctors experiencing a shortage of anatomical specimens often engaged in shady deals with "resurrectionists." These resurrectionists made their money by selling purloined bodies, often snatched from fresh graves.

Lost head

Murnau, who died in 1931, is interred in the Stahnsdorf South-Western Cemetery in a Berlin suburb. The burial ground is the resting place of a number of luminaries, from stage actor Gustav Kadelburg, interred right across the lane from Murnau's tomb, to German composer Engelbert Humperdinck, who is most famous for the opera "Hansel and Gretel."

Vandals and would-be grave robbers have disturbed Murnau's tomb before, according to the Washington Post. This time, though, they made off with the director's skull — but only after lighting a candle left at the scene. That clue has some suspecting the theft was the work of Satanists.

Famous graves are vulnerable to the attentions of criminals, or even zealous fans. In 1978, thieves stole the body of silent film star Charlie Chaplin, who'd died the year before, from a Swiss cemetery. They attempted to ransom the corpse.

"It was a horrendous thing to happen, especially in Switzerland, where everything is so quiet," Chaplin's son told The Independent newspaper in 2014.

Chaplin's widow wasn't one to assign a great deal of value to a dead body, so she refused to pay the ransom. But an early phone-tapping scheme by police caught the thieves, two immigrants from Eastern Europe. Chaplin's body was found buried in a field not far from the original gravesite.

In 1876, the Secret Service foiled an organized crime plot to exhume and ransom the body of Abraham Lincoln; in response, the former president's son, Robert, had Lincoln's body interred far under his tomb, beneath a layer of concrete. The protective measures apparently worked.

Not all political personages were so lucky. In 1955, the embalmed body of Eva Peron, wife of deposed Argentinian president Juan Peron, was stolen by the military officers who had helped to overthrow the president. Her body went on a post-mortem odyssey through a variety of hiding places in Argentina, and eventually to a false tomb in Milan. Juan Peron, living in exile in Spain, finally got his former wife's body back in 1971. Today, Eva Peron is buried in a fortified crypt in Buenos Aires. 

More recently, the body of former Cyprus president Tassos Papadopoulos vanished into thin air. On Dec. 11, 2009, a former bodyguard visited Papadopoulos' grave in the city of Nicosia and found only an empty hole and a pile of dirt. It took three months for authorities to discover the missing politician, who was hidden in another cemetery. The crime was a conspiracy between two brothers and one of their acquaintances. The motive? An attempt to use the corpse as collateral to negotiate the release from prison of one of the brothers, who was serving consecutive life terms for murder.

Anonymous bodies

Some of the most gruesome episodes of body snatching date back to the 1800s. As medical science became more advanced, doctors needed cadavers for anatomical study and training. The corpses of executed criminals had once been used for this purpose, but capital punishment was on the decrease and medical training on the rise. [Image Gallery: The Oddities of Human Anatomy]

The result was a thriving black market in corpses. Sometimes doctors contracted with unscrupulous undertakers; in other instances, "resurrection men" or "resurrectionists" would steal into graveyards under the cover of darkness, tunnel into fresh graves, break into caskets and pull the bodies out.

The public found these practices abhorrent, and there were at least 17 all-out riots over anatomical body snatching between 1785 and 1855, reports Michael Sappol in the book "A Traffic of Dead Bodies: Anatomy and Embodied Social Identity in Nineteenth-Century America" (Princeton University Press, 2002).

On occasion, anatomical body snatchers nabbed a famous corpse. The body of John Scott Harrison, son of President William Henry Harrison and father of President Benjamin Harrison, was found dangling from a rope from a trapdoor over a hidden chute at the Ohio Medical College in 1878. Harrison's son hadn't even been looking for his father's body; he and a friend were searching for the body of another friend of theirs whose body had been snatched a few days before.

Most of the time, though, resurrection men seemed to target the poor and marginalized. A 1950 article in The Ohio History Journal tells of multiple invasions of graves in potters' fields, where unclaimed bodies and poor people were buried. The furor of the public seemed dependent on the class and race of the disturbed dead. For example, in 1879, a rumor spread that the grave of a black man in Dresden, Ohio, had been robbed. No one was bothered enough to inspect the grave, however, according to the Journal.

Similarly, researchers have discovered archaeological evidence of body snatching in African-American graveyards. In the early 1990s, a freeway expansion necessitated the exhumation and reburial of bodies interred at the Freedman's Cemetery in Dallas. Between 1869 and 1907, the cemetery was the site of many African-American burials. An archaeological project to catalog and identify the burials found something shocking: a coffin crammed with two adult bodies, instead of one.

One skeleton had a sawed-away skull and cut marks on its thigh bones; the lower legs and feet were missing. The other skeleton's arms had been hacked off at the elbows, and the skull was gone. To add insult to injury, that body was wedged in the coffin upside-down, so that its missing head would have been stuck in the groin of the other body. [8 Grisly Archaeological Discoveries]

The poor treatment may have been in part the result of racist attitudes toward black bodies, researchers wrote in the International Journal of Historical Archaeology in 2007. Indeed, the first documented execution in Dallas County, Texas, was the hanging of an enslaved woman, Jane Elkins. The night of her execution, Elkins was disinterred and dissected, wrote James Davidson, an anthropologist at the University of Florida.

Sixteen other graves at the Freedman's Cemetery in Dallas were found empty, with broken or tampered-with casket lids. Though there are sometimes legitimate reasons to exhume bodies, this is rarely done by smashing up the coffin. It's likely, the researchers wrote, that at least some of these 16 empty graves were the work of body snatchers.

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Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.