Skip to content

The Whippet #123: Reasons not to be in a shipwreck

McKinley Valentine — 5 min read

On this page


Like everyone else in Melbourne* my brain is made of mush right now, so this issue is gonna be short. Also a little more copy-pasty and less thinking-original-thoughts than usual. But the Haydn’s head Wikipedia article is great, you’ll be glad I copy-pasted it.

* nothing interesting: new covid outbreak, no vaccines, back into lockdown, weather miserable

Joseph Haydn’s body was buried with two heads

You know Joseph Haydn, big name Viennese composer, born in 1732, died in an era when people believed you could figure out someone’s personality by the shape of their head?

Austria was at war (with Napoleon) when Haydn died and Vienna was occupied, so he had to be buried in a little local cemetery instead of a grand central one.

Joseph Rosenbaum and another man bribed the gravedigger to cut off Haydn’s head and steal it for them. The gravedigger didn’t get a chance to steal it until 4 days after his death -

and due to hot weather the head had decomposed considerably, causing Rosenbaum to throw up as he delivered it in a carriage to the hospital for dissection.

They wanted it because they believed in phrenology and thought his head shape would show what a genius he was. They took it to a phrenologist, who examined it and confirmed that it had a bump on it indicating ‘musical genius’, this is why science does blind trials now.

Rosenbaum kept the skull in a handsome custom-made black wooden box, with a symbolic golden lyre at the top, glass windows, and a white cushion.

In 1820, Haydn’s old patron Prince Nikolaus Esterházy II (and Rosenbaum’s boss) was inadvertently reminded by the chance remark of an acquaintance that he had forgotten to carry through his plan of having Haydn’s remains transferred from the little local cemetery to the family mausoleum.

When the remains were exhumed, the Prince was furious to find that they included no skull, and quickly deduced that Rosenbaum was responsible. However, through a series of devious maneouvres Rosenbaum managed to maintain possession of the skull.

Rosenbaum hid the skull in a straw mattress. During the search of Rosenbaum’s house, his wife Therese lay on the bed and claimed to be menstruating—with the result that the searchers did not go near the mattress. Eventually Rosenbaum gave Prince Esterházy a different skull.

After Rosenbaum’s death in 1829 the skull passed from hand to hand, eventually ending up at the Vienna Society of the Friends of Music.

His remains were finally reunited in 1954. Prince Paul Esterházy, Nikolaus’s descendant, had built a fancy marble tomb, and the Society of the Friends of Music brought it there in a “splendid ceremony”, thus completing the 145-year-long burial process.

When the composer's skull was finally restored to the remainder of his skeleton, the substitute skull was not removed. Thus Haydn's tomb now contains two skulls.

I have drawn a helpful mockup for you:

You’ll never make me learn any program besides MS Word

[The above quotes all from the Wikipedia article “Haydn’s head”; imagine being so famous that your head gets its own wikipedia page]

Cheat vest and cheat socks for the Chinese imperial examinations

from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911)

To get a public/civil service job in Imperial China, you had to pass gruelling exams. And you really wanted that job — the scholar-gentry was its own social class; passing the exam made you a society elite for life.

If you’re thinking, “but how could you look at your own socks without being caught?” the answer is that the exams took place over multiple days in a little stall that you wrote, ate and slept in:

Seems bad, but you’d get a lot of work done, right? They should hire these out to writers.

Photos came from Bryan W. Van Norden on twitter, and there’s a little more info there too.

The original images are hi-res enough that you can read the writing on the socks — if anyone’s able to translate some of it (maybe just those highlighted bits? are they section titles?) I’d be so keen.

The earliest examples of the extremely good “afterlife as bureaucracy” trope are from Chinese mythology and literature. In one story from the Qing Dynasty book, Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, “a newly deceased man takes the Celestial court’s exam and is awarded a post as god of his city, but refuses on the grounds that he needs to care for his ailing mother. His examiners are impressed by his show of filial devotion and bring him back to life until his mother dies of old age and he’s free to assume his divine position.” (Source: TVTropes)

See, this is exactly why I never want to be in a shipwreck

In the late 1780s, the Cork clergyman Arthur O’Leary met a performing bear at Boulogne-sur-Mer in northern France. The bear could mark time, count with his paw on the sand and in the words of Eugene Davis who tells the story in his Souvenirs of Irish Footprints Over Europe (1889) he could “nod to the gentleman and make an Oriental salaam to the ladies with a grace and affability quite foreign to the members of his grizzly order”.

The bear, however, became irritated after been repeatedly poked at with a stick by his owner, and growled out, “t’anam ón Diabhal, táim cráite go deo leis an buc seo” [The devil take him, this guy has me persecuted].

The ‘Bear’ turned out to be a monoglot Irish speaker from Dungarvan, shipwrecked while sailing to Bilbao with a consignment of dried cod. A Frenchman had subsequently sewn him up in a bearskin and made him perform. O’Leary contacted the mayor of the town, the skin was ripped open and out clambered the naked Waterford man.

Anecdote from the inaugural lecture given by Michael Cronin, Professor of French at Trinity College Dublin, 2018. Transcript published in the Irish Times.

Field Guide

by Tony Hoagland

Once, in the cool blue middle of a lake,
up to my neck in that most precious element of all,

I found a pale-gray, curled-upwards pigeon feather
floating on the tension of the water

at the very instant when a dragonfly,
like a blue-green iridescent bobby pin,

hovered over it, then lit, and rested.
That’s all.

I mention this in the same way
that I fold the corner of a page

in certain library books,
so that the next reader will know

where to look for the good parts.

Thanks everyone, hope your brains aren’t mush 💛

Leave a comment


Sign in or become a Whippet subscriber (free or paid) to add your thoughts.
Just enter your email below to get a log in link.