The tradition of putting body parts on display is almost as old as religion itself. Reliquaries containing the hands, feet, teeth, and other parts of holy people have been touted around the globe for thousands of years. But 20th-century cultural icons and ancient historical figures? Yeah, those get around too.
While some are proudly on display, many are decidedly better hidden. But with careful planning and a discerning eye, there are some pretty incredible body parts to be seen out there. You just have to know where to look.
Image: Gonzo Carles/Flickr
1. Einstein’s Brain – University Medical Center, Princeton, New Jersey
All of us have one, some are a lot more developed than others, and Einstein’s was incredible. Yep! We’re talking about brains.
When Einstein died in 1955, his brain was removed by Thomas Harvey, a doctor working in the Princeton Hospital in New Jersey where the scientist passed away. Harvey thought that careful study of Einstein’s brain would help him figure out what made the guy so gosh darn smart. Harvey was not granted permission to remove Einstein’s brain, but he did it anyway, which landed him in some pretty hot water. And after Harvey became frighteningly obsessed with the brain and refused to relinquish possession of the specimen, he was fired from the Princeton Hospital and left in shame. But not before stealing the brain.
Harvey left New Jersey and went on a wild scientist goose chase. He traveled to any research facility or lab that agreed to perform tests on the brain. And here’s where things really get weird: after a divorce and a downward spiral that brought him across the Midwest, Harvey ended up losing his medical license. His tragic tale ends with a cross-country road trip intended to return Einstein’s brain to his granddaughter, only for her to tell him she didn’t want it. 40 years later, Harvey returned the brain, in pieces, to the pathology lab in Princeton.
The bits of brain are somewhere in the Princeton Hospital, although we’re not sure exactly where. Anyone got any insider info? We’d love to know.
2. Chopin’s Heart – Holy Cross Church, Warsaw
We know artist types can be a bit dramatic, but you’ve got to give it up for Chopin. This guy could show any modern-day hipster how it’s done. A virtuoso pianist and composer, Chopin was born outside of Warsaw in 1810. Sadly, his incredible career was cut short when he passed away at age 39, probably from tuberculosis, while living in Paris.
Chopin had made it clear that his heart belonged in Warsaw. One of his final wishes was for his actual heart to be taken to Poland, which his sister fulfilled by smuggling it into the country in an urn. The heart was sealed in a pillar of the Holy Cross Church in Warsaw where it has been ever since. It was even smuggled out of Warsaw for a time in 1944, a stroke of luck considering the original church was leveled that year during the Warsaw Uprising. The pillar with Chopin’s heart is still a part of the now-rebuilt church, where you can visit it today.
3. Galileo’s Finger - Museo di Storia della Scienza, Florence
Nine years under house arrest for saying the earth revolved around the sun seems pretty harsh by today’s standards. And if Galileo were around today, we’re pretty sure he would point to the Catholic Church and say, “I told you so!” He wouldn’t have many fingers to point with, though, since three of his were removed from his body in 1737, over a hundred years after his death.
Two of the three fingers have always been accounted for, but the third was lost between 1905 and 2009. Hope of ever finding the third digit was given up until an auctioneer unwittingly put it up for sale. Luckily, a friend of science (who asked to remain anonymous) knew a good deal when he saw one and purchased the finger which he then donated to the Galileo Museum in Florence. Now all three fingers are reunited and on display.
4. John Wilkes Booth’s Neck Bone – National Museum of Health and Medicine, Washington, D.C.
John Wilkes Booth had a dashing mustache and serious acting chops, and was pretty smooth with the ladies. Too bad he threw it all away to become one of the most infamous assassins in US history. After shooting President Lincoln, Booth escaped into northern Virginia for a whole twelve days before being tracked down by Union soldiers. Booth was shot in the back of the head, with the bullet passing through his third, fourth, and fifth cervical vertebrae.
Although his body is buried in Baltimore, Maryland, the vertebrae punctured by the gunshot were preserved. They now sit on display at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington DC.
5. Chang and Eng Bunker’s Fused Liver – The Mutter Museum, Philadelphia
We don’t say this lightly: Chang and Eng Bunker led an incredible life. Born as conjoined twins in 1811 in Siam (now Thailand), the Bunkers were the original Siamese twins. At 18 the men were “found” by a British merchant who invited them to come to the US to tour as a curiosity, which they did to great success.
When their life in show business was over, the men wanted to lead the most normal life they could. So they settled in North Carolina, purchased a plantation and slaves, and married sisters. The two men alternated spending the night at each wife’s home, producing 21 children.
Image: Michael Buitron/Picasa/Wikipedia Commons
At age 63 Chang contracted pneumonia and passed away; Eng followed three hours later. After their death, it was discovered that although the Bunkers were connected at the liver they didn’t actually share one. Instead, they were each owners of a fully formed and functioning liver with only a little cartilage connecting the two. Modern medicine could have easily separated them.
Their livers are now on display at the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia (along with many other medical curiosities).
6. St. Stephen’s Hand – St. Stephen’s Basilica, Budapest
As their first king, Szent István (aka St. Stephen) holds a special place in Hungarians’ hearts. He drove the pagans out of Hungary, gouged out the eyes and poured lead in the ears of his would-be assassins, and greatly expanded Hungary’s borders, all before 1038 AD. With no heirs, on his death bed Szent István held up the Royal Crown of Hungary with his right hand and begged the Virgin Mary to find someone good enough to take his place.
Rumor has it that after his death, his right hand did not decompose like the rest of him. Taking this as a heavenly sign, the hand was removed from his body and kept as a holy relic. Although St. Stephen is by no means the only person to have an appendage removed for posterity, his hand’s digs are certainly some of the fanciest.
His hand now rests in the Basilica named after him in Budapest. The skeletal remains sit perched on a pillow in an ornate reliquary box. If you want to see it, come prepared with 200 forint (about $1 USD) because the hand is shrouded in darkness until a curious patron shows up with a couple coins. Only then does the box light up to reveal a glimpse of the goods.
7. George Washington’s Hair – Maine Historical Society, Portland, Maine
The fact that George’s hair is on display proves once again what good people the Washingtons were. After the president’s death in 1799, the country mourned. One such mourner was Eliza Wadsworth, the daughter of a congressman in Philadelphia. Eliza wrote to her dad asking for a piece of George’s writing and a lock of his hair, saying it would mean more to her than anything. A real softy for his daughter, the congressman wrote to Martha Washington, asking her if he might have what his daughter so desired.
Martha, touched by the congressman’s desire to fulfill his daughter’s wishes, consented and sent a lock of hair to the congressman to pass on to his daughter. When Eliza died, she willed the hair to her family for safekeeping, but ultimately wanted the people of Maine to be able to enjoy it too. In 1899 the hair was given to the Maine Historical Society, which is where you can peek it today.
8. Rasputin’s Manhood – Russian Museum of Erotica, St. Petersburg
Grigori Rasputin is one of the most debated figures in modern history, so it’s no surprise that his, er, manhood should be debated in death. Famous for his purported magical powers and for having an uncomfortably close relationship with the Empress Alexandra of Russia, Rasputin was assassinated in 1916.
Unfortunately for Rasputin (and for his murderers) he didn’t go down easy. The big guy was poisoned, shot once in the back and left for dead, then shot three more times and left for dead again. Still not actually dead, he was then beaten, rolled in a carpet, and tossed into the semi-frozen Neva river in St. Petersburg. Found a few days later, the autopsy revealed that he died from drowning, not his other injuries. Creepy!
Image: Wikipedia Commons
Here’s where things get even more freaky. Between the numerous shootings and the river plunge, legend has it that Rasputin’s manhood was cut off, although there is no proof. Fast forward almost 100 years and Igor Knyazkin, director of the Russian Museum of Erotica, claims he is the proud owner of Rasputin’s dismembered member. (If you’re interested in seeing the specimen, feel free to Google it… but we don’t recommend doing so at work.)
Although Knyazkin swears he has a bona fide body part, we’re skeptical. You can decide for yourself if it’s the real thing.