Jonathan Tremblay: From Jesus' Foreskin to Mussolini's brain: History's Relics

Roundup: Talking About History

[Jonathan Tremblay is a historian and is currently an intern for the History News Network]

Alessandra Mussolini, granddaughter of the Italian dictator and “former showgirl turned MP” as the BBC describes her, has claimed that some blood and parts of her grandfather’s brain have been stolen to be sold over the Internet. It was allegedly heisted from Milan’s Policlinico Hospital where Mussolini was autopsied 65 years ago. Somewhat out of outrage but mostly out of violent curiosity, worldwide media have taken up the story about the evil man’s organ. What is the importance of this mushy reminder and how legitimate are its origins? It is probably as significant as a number of other “famous body parts” that have angered and fascinated over the centuries.

Technically, the term “relic” is a strictly ecclesiastic concept that may pertain to preserved body parts of Catholic saints and that may or may not have healing powers. The mystical properties aside, the term certainly applies to the saved body parts of famous historical people due to the legendary amount of speculation and interest they attract.

Einstein’s Brain

Following the brilliant physicist’s demise in 1955, his brain was secretly removed and preserved by Thomas Harvey, the man in charge of his autopsy. Einstein’s son had agreed to the analysis of the organ for medical research but it was not until 1978 that the world even found out. Harvey cut the lobes up into 240 blocks and did every possible test available at the time to find out if anything physical and anatomical could account for Einstein’s massive intelligence. After 40 years of tests, the only conclusive findings were that the man’s language center was smaller than usual yet his numerical and spatial intelligence centres were larger. Later analyses also revealed a greater than usual amount of glial cells in certain areas of his brain; these cells increase the speed and rate of information transfer in the brain (RAM if you will).

The diced brain of Einstein remains in laboratories today and still fascinates millions as a testament to mankind’s ignorance when it comes to his own brain. Despite the few irregularities, we cannot identify intelligence, sentience, reasoning and memories in the fleshy organ and therefore in reality, it is nothing but a collection of brain cubes in formaldehyde.

Oliver Cromwell’s Head

The Lord Protector of England deposed and executed the Monarchy in London all the way back in 1649. He had won a terribly bloody civil war to end the tyranny of the British Crown yet his Republican regime would see the deaths of millions of dissidents. He died in 1658 while still in power and thus his body was interred after a sumptuous funeral at Westminster abbey; a funeral worthy of kings some might say.

One year later the monarchy was re-established in London and Cromwell, along with a handful of his fellow regicides, were posthumously executed. Indeed, the decomposed body of Cromwell was dug up, hung and decapitated and thus begins the journey of his head. For decades, it stood above Westminster Hall, displayed atop a twenty foot pole as a dark reminder of the consequences of treason. Lore tells us that the pole was eventually shattered by a violent storm and that the weathered head fell into private hands. From a grisly threat, it became unimportant politically and began a career as a fascinating curiosity. It spent the next century in private exhibitions where people could pay a small amount to view the head of the Protector. It was finally purchased by the Wilkinson family in the early 1800s and after centuries of being the thought center of a revolutionary, a warning sign and a freak show display, it was buried in front of a few witnesses in 1960. When the public was made aware of the long-awaited resting place a few years later, a general shrug of indifference was expressed. Despite the dwindling importance and the questionable voyage of the head, it remains a miscellaneous curiosity in the field of British History.

Rasputin’s Member

The Russian mystic was an advisor to the last royal house of Russia, the Romanovs. For his ‘dark’ influence of the Tsar and especially of the Tsarista Alexandra, he was eventually assassinated in 1916. The body is generally said to have been burned or sent to an unmarked grave but further speculation add the element of ‘penectomy’ to the tale. Indeed the organ of legendary proportions is said to have traveled from Moscow to Paris with the Russian noblewomen that escaped the Communist Revolutions of 1917. Used as a fertility charm and as a mystical instrument to control the hearts of men, the ‘magical’ properties of the organ rapidly spread to the realm of myth. The commotion about the relic led Rasputin’s daughter Marie to acquire it and indeed to preserve it until her death in 1977.

In the end, a man bought the body part from her estate auction and then tried to sell it in a prestigious auction house. Preliminary analysis confirmed the phallic nature of the object and then revealed it was a dried sea cucumber. In this case, the relic was not even a body part, never mind if it belonged to the actual person. Despite this, the object was part of human curiosity and legend for decades.

The Holy Foreskin

As has become customary in the Jewish faith, Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day of his birth (New Year’s). An apocryphal gospel then records that an old Hebrew woman kept it in an alabaster box. After this, 1000 years of nothing. Then, 18 different Jesus foreskins appeared around Europe and indeed all the way into India. Our chronicles even record the relic being given to Pope Leo III by King Charlemagne. Charlemagne himself claimed it was given to him by an angel. The Crusades brought about a multitude of claims of the foreskin’s ownership and legends began propagating about the miraculous and curative properties of the organ. Every city, church and monarch seemed to have legitimate ways in which they came to own the relic yet there couldn’t possibly be 18 actual foreskins originating from Jesus...

The problem of multiplicity was widely solved by the Reformation and the French Revolution that simply destroyed most of the foreskins (and churches and clergymen) in wars against Catholicism. Into the twentieth century, only one example remained, in Calcutta of all places. Whether or not it was actually a foreskin and whether or not it belonged to a newborn Jesus was no longer important and it was venerated yearly as it was paraded through Rome. That is, until thieves took it in 1983. It has never been seen again.

In closing, the amount of speculation and hard-to-believe circumstances surrounding all these relics seem to be pretty substantial. What is surprising is that it doesn’t matter. Only one of these is religious but they all have a lasting legacy dependant on faith. That being said, will Mussolini’s brain become such a relic of History?

My verdict is probably not. Alessandra Mussolini has been described as a ‘colourful character’ and just happened to announce the finding of her grandfather’s remains on the online auction site eBay as she was attending a seminar on Internet crime. Furthermore, the brain was not displayed and the eBay listing only showed a box and some red liquid (eBay, having a strict policy of NOT selling body parts, promptly removed the listing). Finally, the records at the Policlinico hospital show that Mussolini’s autopsy ended in the destruction of the corpse. It is very possible that Ms. Mussolini herself has orchestrated the entire thing for media attention (she is a fervent supporter of her grandfather’s teachings AND a member of the Italian government). I wonder if it will matter...

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More Comments:

Jonathan Tremblay - 12/1/2009

Thank you for those, I find myself mesmerized by these tales of "relics" that are at times worshiped and at others gawked at in circus and carnivalesque exhibits.

Edmond Dantes - 11/30/2009

Very interesting piece, Mr. Tremblay. People would be amazed to find out how many of these relics actually exist out there. My research has uncovered a plethora of the macabre:

1. Napoleon's member - Supposedly the priest retrieved to read the last rites to Napoleon, swiped the member from the conqueror's lifeless body. It exchanged hands in Europe over the centuries until an American urologist purchased it. I'm sure one can currently find it stateside somewhere.

2. Nat Turner's skull - I discovered this item in the hands of a former mayor of Gary, Indiana. The gentleman also served as a local leader in the NAACP. He had hoped to build a Civil Rights museum around it.

3. Guiteau's brain - Among the many medical curiosities and bizarre items on display at the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, are the pickled remains of Guiteau's brain - the man who assassinated President Garfield.