Beethoven died in his Vienna apartment on March 26, 1827. He was fifty-six; the cause of death was dropsy, an infectious disease common to fish. Dr. Johann Wagner performed an autopsy.
He sawed off the top of Beethoven’s skull and removed it like a cap. Wagner’s work was crude and the skull shattered. The temporal bones were removed for study, in the hope they would reveal something about Beethoven’s deafness—these pieces were never seen again. The remaining skull fragments were reconfigured with gauze and buried with his body at Währing Cemetery.
In 1863, the Society of the Friends of Music in Vienna arranged for the bodies of Beethoven and composer Franz Schubert to be dug up and reburied in more elaborate vaults. The Society wanted the shape of his skull analyzed in order to determine clues about his mental faculties and assigned the task to Gerhard von Breuning, a physician who had personally known Beethoven. Unexpectedly, the study was canceled and the skeleton was reburied in the new vault. However, unbeknownst to anyone, von Breuning kept a handful of skull fragments.
Von Breuning passed the fragments—two large pieces and eight small ones—to Romeo Seligmann, a medical history professor at the University of Vienna. When Seligmann died in 1892, he left the skull fragments to his only child, Adalbert Seligmann. In 1936, fearing Beethoven’s skull fragments would be used as a Nazi propaganda tool were they to be discovered (The Nazis had already adopted his music and image), Seligmann hid the bones in an unknown location.
They resurfaced in 1945, the same year he died. His will dictated the bones should be sold, but with international currencies fluctuating in the wake of World War II, the sale was delayed. It never happened; a good friend of Seligmann’s named Emma von Mérey took them instead.
Without a wife or children, Seligmann had no primary heirs. Next in line were three equal heirs: Ada Rosenthal, his second cousin, and her two children, Alma Kaufmann and Thomas Desmines, or Tom. Legally, the bones belonged equally to all three but Tom took possession of them. He lived in an artist haven called Vence, located in hilly country near the Mediterranean in Southeastern France and kept the bones in a local bank vault. By this point, the pieces included two large bone fragments and an unknown number of small pieces.
Tom lent several of the fragments to a pair of German doctors, Hans Bankl and Hans Jesserer. In 1987, they published the book, Die Krankheiten Lugwig van Beethovens (“The Illnesses of Ludwig van Beethoven”). Tom developed dementia and in 1990, his sister’s son, Paul Kaufmann, traveled to Vence to become his legal and medical guardian. When Tom died in 1993, Paul took legal ownership of the bones.
Paul flew them to Danville, California, where he lived. Most of Beethoven’s hair had been clipped by friends and fans at the time of his death and an author named Russell Martin was writing a book on the hair’s history and current whereabouts. In search of all the locks, Martin hired a French researcher, who led him to Adalbert, Tom, and finally Paul Kaufmann, who just so happened to live nearby. In 1999, Russell contacted Paul and in 2005, Paul donated the skull fragments on a long-term loan to San Jose State University’s Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies, where they rest today.
**Research drawn from an October 2007 “Associated Content article”: http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/428410/beethovens_skull_the_strange_journey.html