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Posted on Oct 18, 2010 in Books and Movies

Skullduggery: 45 True Tales of Disturbing the Dead – Book Excerpt

By Brian Kannard

With Halloween approaching, ACG looks at a book that tells about things that went bump in the night for presidents, kings, revolutionaries, and just plain folks … after they were no longer living.

There really are things that go "bump" in the night. Anyone who has stood fire watch in a barracks can tell you that.

Consider the bumps you might hear while standing guard over a cemetery, your eyes straining to spot a point of lantern light, your ears attuned to listen for the fall of a pickaxe and shovel. For tonight, you guard against grave robbers.

Grave robbers? We’ve all heard a story about medical students in the not-too-distant past having to dig up bodies for use in their anatomy classes, or the infamous team of Burke and Hare who went into business to do that in Victorian England. Maybe you’ve heard a tale of some poor sot unearthing a corpse so he could loot the jewelry from it. The Pharohs were forced to hide their remains in elaborately constructed tombs to protect them from those infamous Egyptian grave robbers. But these sort of things happened in long-ago historical eras. They couldn’t happen today—could they?


This year news agencies reported that the former President of Cyprus’ body was found after a four-month hiatus from his tomb. The Cyprus police theorized the President was in the hands of those who would ransom the remains back to family members. A few months back, there was some conjecture about the disposition of singer James Brown’s body. Members of Brown’s family argued, via the press, that Brown’s body might have been stolen by another family member. The claim was that one faction of Brown’s family believed the soul music icon’s death was foul play and his corpse was spirited away to prove he was murdered.

Welcome to the surprisingly complex world of Skullduggery: 45 True Tales of Disturbing the Dead. Those who would plunder the resting places of the dear departed still skulk around cemeteries, making ghoulish plans for a myriad of reasons. Take the earlier examples of the former President of Cyprus and James Brown. While greed was the motivation for the Cyprus hijacking, the issue of James Brown is more complex. Had it been found that Brown’s body was stolen by a family member to prove a fatal conspiracy theory, the motivation seems almost acceptable. Imagine if you knew your father had been murdered and no one would listen to you. The authorities had turned a deaf ear to a further investigation into your father’s demise. Your only recourse might be to take his corpse and have an independent forensic analysis performed.

As a society we accept these morbid acts under certain conditions but not others. Such horrific deeds usually make us bristle with indignation. The perpetrators should be punished no matter what the reason, we say—yet we also think it is acceptable for archeologists to dig up and display the remains of those who have been dead for thousands of years.

One of the most famous grave robbers of all time was Howard Carter. On November 26, 1922, Carter broke into the tomb of the Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamen. The fabulous wealth of the boy-king was catalogued and removed for display. Anywhere Tut’s remains and funerary gear have been displayed, throngs of people flock to catch a firsthand glimpse of Egypt’s former glory. Carter performed an action that is no different than that of a thug who digs up a grave to plunder a gold ring, yet we do not consider Carter in the same category because he was an archeologist. His grave desecration has been morally equivocated by the masks of history and science. Would you consider it acceptable if someone dug up your corpse in a thousand years to find out what made a 21st-century man or woman tick?

These examples bring up daunting moral and ethical questions on how the dead are treated and illustrate that grave robbery is not simply the act of men with pickaxes digging up a body for loot. The realization of this was a prime motivation for me in writing Skullduggery, a book of true stories about those who have dared to disturb the dead’s eternal slumber. The tales are as rich and sordid as any fiction written by Stephen King. Each resonates with a common human fear: We have no control over what happens to our mortal remains after death.

Consider these well-known names and their post-mortem histories:

Thomas Paine’s body was stolen by a man who believed his pauper’s grave in New York was ill-fitting of the author of Common Sense. The plan was to take his remains to England, where a grand monument would be erected to the founding father.

Gram Parsons’ body was taken from Los Angeles International Airport by a friend who had made a pact with the 70s singer. Parsons’ had wanted to be cremated at Joshua Tree National Park, but his family wanted his remains buried in New Orleans. The pact Parsons made with his friend was that, no matter what, his wishes for cremation would be carried out.

Elvis Presley was targeted by a bungling crew of grave robbers a couple of weeks after his death in 1977. The leader of the would-be body-nappers contacted a Memphis reporter and told his intentions to steal the King’s body. While it seems rather silly for a criminal to telegraph his plans, the goal was to draw as much attention as possible to the crime.

Charlie Chaplin was stolen from his grave by two down-on-their-luck auto mechanics. The Chaplin family refused to pay their exorbitant ransom demands, and the Little Tramp’s corpse remained missing for months.

Albert Einstein’s brain was stolen by a pathologist who wanted to preserve it for scientific research. The brain of the physicist was kept under his guardianship for over forty years before it was returned to a medical facility in Princeton.

The mysterious Skull and Bones secret society at Yale is rumored to have in its possession the skulls of Geronimo, Pancho Villa and Martin Van Buren.

And then there was the matter of Che Guevara and a son’s determination to extract justice … You can read about it in the attached excerpt from Skullduggery. Click here to download the pdf of the chapter "End of a Myth."

Brian Kannard is the author of Skullduggery: 45 True Tales of Disturbing the Dead (Grave Distractions Publications). Click the link for more information.



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