Select Page

Death doesn’t mean everything stop for you. There are lots of ways we can live on after shuffling off the mortal coil. From body parts taken from famous bodies, to cells that won’t stop growing, to a taxidermied person on display in a museum, we look at bodies and body parts that don’t let death slow them down. Thanks to our special guests, Dumb & Busted podcast.

Turn of Phrases

For more than a century, the taxidermy diorama “Arab Courier Attacked by Lions” – a man on camelback, fending off Barbary lions with a long dagger – has stood in Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Throughout all those years, the piece has kept a disturbing secret from hundreds of thousands of visitor eye. Created by French taxidermist Edouard Verreaux in 1867 and acquired by industrialist Andrew Carnegie for the museum in 1899, “Arab Courier Attacked by Lions” was long known to contain real human teeth. As recently as last summer, however, staffers believed it contained no other human remains. During a restoration that began last year, a CT scan revealed that—like its camel and lions—the display’s rider was constructed with “natural” materials. In this case, an actual human skull. My name’s Moxie and this is your brain on facts.

The Carnegie Museum is willing to return the skull, but there’s no way to know where it came from specifically enough, even with modern DNA testing. So, in his anonymous way, the original owner of the skull is famous and he’s been bestowed a certain kind of immortality. Death doesn’t mean everything stop for you. There are lots of ways we can live on after shuffling off the mortal coil, the least of which being as part of the ecosystem into which we decompose.

Parts of Henrietta Lacks live on today, even though the majority of her died in 1951. Henrietta Lacks was born in 1920, the ninth of ten children, great-great-granddaughter of a slave and was herself a tobacco farmer whose family remained poor. The farthest she ever travelled from her Southern Virginia home was Baltimore, when she went to Johns Hopkins Hospital, seeking treatment for aggressive cervical cancer at 31. She would leave behind five young children when she succumbed. She had no obituary.

Unbeknownst to Henrietta, doctors had taken cells from her cervix to grow more cancer cells for research. Needless to say, she wasn’t compensated, despite the replicated cells being bought and sold hundreds of times over. Thousands of patents are based on her cells, producing millions of dollars in profits for the companies that hold them. While a cure for cancer remains elusive, the cell line named for her, HeLa (pronounced hee-lah), has been at the core of treatments for hemophilia, herpes, influenza, leukemia, and Parkinson’s disease as well as the polio vaccine, the cancer drug tamoxifen, chemotherapy, gene mapping, and in vitro fertilization.

After the first of Henrietta’s fifth child, a hard mass was found in her cervix and, as usual, a small piece of the cancerous tissue was cut off and taken to Gey’s pathology lab for a diagnosis. Unlike most cancer cells, which died within a few days, a cluster of Lacks’s cells not only survived, but thrived, doubling within 24 hours and never stopping. Gey later told others that the cells were taken from a woman named “Helen Lane,”

But the rapid reproduction of HeLa cells continued, inexplicably becoming the only human cells to grow outside the body. Scientists used them to gain insight into viruses. Cosmetics companies, pharmaceutical firms and the military did tests on them. And Scientific American published an article informing readers how to grow HeLa cells at home. HeLa is the most prolific and widely used human cell line in biology.

The Lacks family found out about HeLa one night in 1973 when one of Lacks’s daughters-in-law had dinner with a friend, whose husband happened to be a cancer researcher who recognized the Lacks name. He told her that he was working with cells from a woman named Henrietta Lacks and asked if she had died of cervical cancer. She rushed home and told Lacks’s son Lawrence, “Part of your mother, it’s alive!”

A lawyer representing the eldest son and two grandsons of Henrietta Lacks, whose “immortal cells” are now also the subject of a best-selling book and an Oprah-helmed TV movie in June that she plans to file a petition seeking “guardianship” of the cells. “It’s not all about the money, Henrietta’s grandson Ron said. “My family has had no control of the family story, no control of Henrietta’s body, no control of Henrietta’s cells, which are still living and will make some more tomorrow.”

Johns Hopkins University released a statement denying it had profited from the cells, as it had not patented them. Further, they explained, the cells were taken from Lacks in 1951, there was no established protocol for informing patients or getting consent for research of cell or tissue specimens. The family receives no royalties from the book or movie, but Oprah did make a significant donation to The Henrietta Lacks House of Healing.

Bodies and bits of bodies being used without the owner’s permission are going to be the watchwords of today’s episode. Another person whose body helped save lives, though no one asked if they were willing to volunteer, was one Glyndwr Michaels. He was a vagrant who died from eating rat poison, either as a deliberate suicide or accidentally by eating poisoned food that had been left out for the vermin. With his body, World War II British intelligence officers managed to pull off one of the most successful wartime deceptions ever achieved, with the randomly chosen and creepily perfect name Operation Mincemeat.

In April 1943, a decomposing corpse in a military uniform with a black valise chained to his wrist was discovered floating off the coast of Huelva, in southern Spain. Personal documents identified him as Major William Martin of Britain’s Royal Marines. When Nazi intelligence learned of the downed officer’s briefcase, and Britain’s desperate efforts to recover it, they did all they could to gain access. Though Spain was officially neutral in the conflict, much of its military was pro-German, and the Nazis were able to find an officer in Madrid to help them. In addition to other personal effects and official-looking documents, they found a letter from military authorities in London to a senior British officer in Tunisia, indicating that Allied armies were preparing to cross the Mediterranean from their positions in North Africa and attack German-held Greece and Sardinia.

This intelligence coup for the Nazi spy network prompted Hitler to transfer German troops from France to Greece ahead of what was believed to be a massive enemy invasion. The only problem? It was all a hoax, the brainchild of British intelligence officers Charles Cholmondeley and Ewen Montagu. After creating an elaborate fake identity and backstory for “William Martin,” including but not limited to carrying Martin’s papers in the wallets and wearing his clothes so they wouldn’t look too know, Cholmondeley and Montagu got Charles Fraser-Smith to design a false torpedo into which to transport the body. It was imperative that as few people as possible knew about the body. One of England’s leading race car drivers transported the container to a Royal Navy submarine, which dropped it off the Spanish coast. Once the Spanish recovered the body, British authorities began their frantic attempts to recover the case, counting on the fact that their efforts would convince the Nazis of the documents’ validity. As a result of the false intelligence carried by “William Martin,” the Nazis were caught unawares when 160,000 Allied troops invaded Sicily on July 10, 1943. In addition to saving thousands of Allied soldiers’ lives, Operation Mincemeat helped further the downfall of Italian leader Benito Mussolini and turn the tide of the war towards an Allied victory in Europe. The body at the center of it all is buried in Spain under a marker bearing the names William Martin at the top and Glyndwr Michael at the bottom.

Bonus fact: another member of Operation Mincemeat was one Ian Fleming, the author of the James Bond novels. Fellow Intelligence office Charles Frasier-Smith is thought to be the model for gadget guru Q.

Glyndwr Michael has lots of company in the ‘body going walkabout’ club. Some corpses cover a lot of ground through nefarious intentions and some for innocuous reasons. After the assassination of Abraham Lincoln on April 14th, 1865, his body went through an elaborate embalming process before embarking on a two week, sixteen-hundred mile train tour. An extensive schedule of public viewings allowed hundreds of thousands to mourn the fallen president in person. Lincoln did not travel alone; he was accompanied by the body of his son William, who died of typhoid fever at the age of 11 three years earlier.

Even after finally being interred at Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, Illinois, Lincoln’s body didn’t rest in peace. Two years later, on election night, fittingly enough, a band of counterfeiters attempted to exhume the corpse to hold it for ransom for the equivalent of $4 million and the release of a jailed associate. They managed to get into the tomb and remove the marble lid from the vault, but had only moved the coffin a few feet before a U.S. Secret Service member embedded in the group alerted local law enforcement. Lincoln’s coffin traveled to a number of secret locations in the following years, with the coffin opened to confirm that Lincoln’s body remained inside twice between 1876 and 1887. Lincoln’s body moved a total of 17 times before he and the body of his wife Mary were moved to their current accommodations in 1901.

Bonus fact: President Lincoln had created the Secret Service less than a year before he was assassinated. They original mandate was to combat counterfeiting, though they would be tasked with the more-familiar presidential security detail in 1901 after the assassination of President McKinley.

Another beloved and younger-than-average president, John Kennedy, [ … ]
The assassination of President John F. Kennedy has been surrounded by controversy and conspiracy theories since that fateful day in November 1963. We know that the second bullet fired went through Kennedy’s skull, at which point, a fair amount of brain matter was ejected. Doctors removed the remaining part of JFK’s brain during the autopsy. This is where this mystery starts. Some witnesses that were supposedly at the hospital state that JFK’s wife, Jackie, was seen holding a part of her husband’s brain, but it is not known what eventually happened to it. During the course of the autopsy, doctors removed the rest of the brain and put it into a metal container. The Secret Service moved the container to the White House. In 1965, the brain was removed to the National Archives. But an inventory the following year revealed that JFk’s brain was missing. Investigators interrogated approximately 40 people were interrogated, but the brain section was never found.

When you read about JFK’s autopsy, it’s not all that surprising that tissues were lost. Neither of the men who performed the autopsy was a pathologist. They both assumed the other man knew what they were doing and neither questioned the other. The autopsy report had such staggering notes as suggesting bullets had fallen back out of the body. That’s not how that works. That’s not how any of that works.

Brains of famous people go missing more often than you’d think. At 01:15 in the morning of 18 April 1955, Albert Einstein – theoretical physicist, peace campaigner and undisputed genius – mumbled a few words in German, took two breaths, and died. The pathologist who conducted the autopsy, Dr Thomas Harvey, had gone further than simply identifying the cause of death – a burst aorta – he sawed open Einstein’s cranium and removed his brain.

“He had some big professional hopes pinned on that brain,” says Carolyn Abraham, who met Harvey while researching her book Possessing Genius: The Bizarre Odyssey of Einstein’s Brain. “I think he had hoped to make a name for himself in medicine in a way that he had been unable to do. And then he comes to work one morning and finds Albert Einstein on his autopsy table.” Harvey was not a neurologist, but he promised to marshal the country’s greatest specialists to study the brain, and to publish their findings soon. Years passed, however, and no scientific paper emerged. After a while, Einstein’s brain was forgotten.

In 1978 a reporter was dispatched by his editor to find the illustrious organ. The reporter tracked Harvey to Wichita, Kansas. When he pressed Harvey to see some pictures of the brain, the doctor walked to a stack of cardboard boxes in the corner. The bottom box was labelled Costa Cider. Inside were large mason jars containing Einstein’s brain.

When the story came out, Harvey was approached for samples, by, among others, the neuro-anatomist Marian Diamond at the University of California, Berkeley. She received four sugar cube-sized pieces of brain in a Miracle Whip jar, but at least qualified scientists were finally able to study Einstein’s brain. With the exception of an increased presence of cells called glial cells, no scientist has been able to find a significant difference between Einstein’s brain and the average person’s. In 2010, Harvey’s heirs transferred the remains of Einstein’s brain to the National Museum of Health and Medicine. More recently, 46 small portions of Einstein’s brain were acquired by the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia.

Leaves of Grass poet Walt Whitman’s brain wasn’t stolen after his autopsy, but it was dropped, jar and all, onto the floor and destroyed.

Composer Joseph Haydn’s whole head was stolen for the same reason. Two men with an interest in phrenology, a pseudoscience that believed a person’s intellectual characteristics were defined by the size, shape and proportions of their skull, bribed the gravedigger, and stole the composer’s head. One of them kept the skull “on a cushion covered with while silk and draped with black satin inside a black wooden cabinet that was modeled after a Roman sarcophagus and decorated with a golden lyre.” When authorities searched the one men’s houses, he hid the skull under a mattress and had his wife lay down on it and dissuade the police by pleading ‘female troubles.’ The skull passed through half a dozen hands before finally being reunited with his body.

Frederic Chopin’s heart heart covered even more ground than Haydn’s head. Before the Polish composer died in Paris in 1849, he made the peculiar request that his heart be sent back to his home country. His eldest sister complied with his request, taking the heart before his body could be buried and secreting it back to Poland in a jar of what was most likely cognac. She hid the jar under her cloak and was able to smuggle it to the Holy Cross Church in Warsaw where it was buried beneath a small monument. Given Chopin’s popularity, the monument quickly became a rallying point for proud nationalists. During World War II, the Nazis stole the heart and coincidentally outlawed playing his music. Thankfully, the heart was recovered after the war and reinterred in the church. It remained there peacefully until 2014 when church officials and doctors dug up the heart under cover of night, to verify that it was still well-preserved, not drying out of decaying. They found the heart to still be in sound condition.

Heads and hearts aren’t the only organs to []. Sometime arguably even more valuable to its owner was removed, taken, sold and resold. I’ll let Hannah and Allyson from the highlarious true crime podcast Dumb and Busted tell you the story.


Some bodies are preserved and peered-at in part, some are kept whole. If you thought the people behind the last few segments were bad, you’re going to hate the Verreaux brothers. We actually touched on their work at the top of the show. They were also responsible for the human skull in the “Arab Courier” diorama. Jules Verreaux, a French dealer in “naturalia”, witnessed the burial of a Tswana warrior in 1831 and returned at night to dig up the body and steal the skin, the skull, and some of the bones. With metal wire, wooden boards, and wads of newspaper, Verreaux prepared and preserved the stolen body. He then shipped the body to Paris, along with a batch of taxidermied animals. A review of the exhibit in which the Tswana man was featured claimed his attracted more attention than any of the animals.

More than half a century later, the Tswana man appeared at the world exhibition in Barcelona, Spain. He was now dressed in a raffia loincloth, holding a spear in one hand and a shielf in the other. When alive, he stood 4.5ft/1.4m tall. By the 20th Century, having been brought over to Banyoles, a small city at the foot of the Pyrenees, his origins had been largely forgotten. He was mistakenly labelled a “Bushman of the Kalahari”. In the decades that followed, the link to his Tswana origins faded even further and he became known simply as “El Negro”. At some point, Roman-Catholic museum curators replaced the revealing loincloth with an orange skirt. His skin was given a layer of shoe polish to make him seem blacker than he was.

Standing in his display case, slightly bowed and with a piercing gaze, El Negro embodied the darkest aspects of Europe’s colonial past. He presence confronted visitors with “scientific racism” – the classification of people according to their supposed inferiority or superiority on the basis of skull measurements and other false assumptions. As time went on, El Negro became more and more of an anachronism and there increasing acknowledgment of the fact that his body and grave had been violated.

It was actually the 1992 Olympic games in Barcelona that were used to persuade the authorities to remove the exhibit. The lake of Banyoles was the venue for the rowing competitions. Surely any athletes and spectators who visited the local museum would take offence at the sight of a stuffed human being. Assistant Secretary-General of the UN Kofi Annan, condemned the exhibit as “repulsive” and “barbarically insensitive,” but there was heavy resistance among the Catalan people, who embraced El Negro as a “national” treasure. It was not until March 1997 that he was removed from public view. Three years later, he began his final journey home.

Following long consultations with the Organisation for African Unity, Spain had agreed to repatriate the human remains to Botswana for a ceremonial reburial in African soil. The body was moved to Madrid and relieved and any non-human additions, such as his glass eyes. His skin, however, crumbled when handled and the decision was made to leave it in Spain. An examination of the body showed that the man lived to be about 27 years old and probably died of pneumonia. The coffin, destined for Botswana, contained only the skull and certain arm and leg bones.

The remains of the Tswana warrior lay in state in the capital Gaborone, where an estimated 10,000 people walked past to pay their last respects. The following day, he was committed to earth in a fenced-off area in the Tsholofelo park. “We are prepared to forgive,” said the then-Foreign Minister Mompati Merafhe to the assembled mourners. “But we must not forget the crimes of the past, so that we don’t repeat them.”

And that’s where we run out of ideas, at least for today. I’ll leave you with a story of a body’s travels that are a form of karma and bringing positivity out of tragedy. One of the key figures of the atrocities of WWII concentration camps was Joseph Mengele, a doctor who conducted brutal experiments and had a particular fascination for dwarves and twins. For more than 30 years, his bones lay unclaimed inside a blue plastic bag in the Legal Medical Institute in Sao Paolo, Brazil. Dr. Daniel Romero Muñoz, who led the team that identified Mengele’s remains in 1985, obtained permission to use them in his forensic medical courses. Today, his students are now learning their trade studying Mengele’s bones and connecting them to the life story of the man called the “angel of death”. Thanks for spending part of your day with me.

The Mystery of JFK’s Brain: How Did it Disappear?