JFK’s Brain and Other Missing Body Parts of Historical Figures

Einstein's Brain, Stonewall Jackson's Arm, Napoleon's Male Organ, and More

John And Jackie Kennedy
Smith Collection/Gado / Getty Images

Remember when you were a kid and one of your goofy uncles was always trying to scare you by “stealing your nose” between his thumb and forefinger? While you quickly figured out your nose was safe, the phrase “until death do us part” takes on a whole new meaning for some very famous deceased people whose body parts have been oddly “relocated.”

John F. Kennedy’s Vanishing Brain

Since that horrible day in November 1963, controversies and conspiracy theories have swirled around the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Perhaps the most bizarre of these controversies involves things that happened during and after President Kennedy’s official autopsy. In 1978, the published findings of the congressional House Select Committee on Assassinations revealed that JFK’s brain had gone missing.

While some doctors at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas testified that they had seen First Lady Jackie Kennedy holding a part of her husband’s brain, what happened to it remains unknown. However, it is documented that JFK’s brain was removed during the autopsy and placed in a stainless-steel box that was subsequently handed over to the Secret Service. The box remained locked in the White House until 1965, when JFK’s brother, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, ordered the box to be stored in the National Archives building. However, a National Archives inventory of medical evidence from the JFK autopsy conducted in 1966 showed no record of the box or the brain. Conspiracy theories regarding who stole JFK’s brain and why soon flew.

Released in 1964, the Warren Commission report stated that Kennedy had been struck by two bullets fired from the rear by Lee Harvey Oswald. One bullet reportedly went through his neck, while the other struck the back of his skull, leaving bits of brain, bone, and skin scattered about the presidential limousine.

Some conspiracy theorists suggested that the brain was stolen in order to hide proof that Kennedy had been shot from the front, rather than from behind — and by someone other than Oswald.

More recently, in his 2014 book, "End of Days: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy," author James Swanson suggests that the president’s brain had been taken by his younger brother, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, “perhaps to conceal evidence of the true extent of President Kennedy's illnesses, or perhaps to conceal evidence of the number of medications that President Kennedy was taking.”

Still, others suggest the much less glamorous possibility that the remains of the president’s brain simply got lost somewhere in the fog of confusion and bureaucracy that followed the assassination.

Since the last batch of declassified official JFK assassination records released on Nov. 9, 2017, shed no light on the mystery, the whereabouts of JFK’s brain remains unknown today.

The Secrets of Einstein's Brain

The brains of powerful, intelligent, and talented people like JFK have long been favorite targets of “collectors” who believe a study of the organs might reveal the secrets of their former owners’ success.

Sensing that his brain was somehow “different,” super-genius physicist Albert Einstein had occasionally expressed his wishes to have his body donated to science. However, the creator of the groundbreaking theory of relativity never bothered to write down his wishes.

After he died in 1955, Einstein’s family directed that he — meaning all of him — be cremated. However, Dr. Thomas Harvey, the pathologist who performed the autopsy, decided to remove Albert’s brain before releasing his body to the undertakers.

Much to the displeasure of the genius’ loved ones, Dr. Harvey stored Einstein’s brain in his home for nearly 30 years, rather unceremoniously, preserved in two plain Mason jars. The rest of Einstein’s body was cremated, with his ashes scattered in secret locations.

After Dr. Harvey’s death in 2010, the remains of Einstein’s brain were transferred to the National Museum of Health and Medicine near Washington, D.C. Since then, 46 thin slices of the brain have been mounted on microscope slides displayed at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia.

Napoleon’s Man Part

After conquering most of Europe, diminutive French military genius and emperor Napoleon Bonaparte died in exile on May 5, 1821. During an autopsy done the next day, Napoleon’s heart, stomach, and other “vital organs” were removed from his body.

While several people witnessed the procedure, one of them reportedly decided to leave with some souvenirs. In 1916, heirs of Napoleon's chaplain, Abbé Ange Vignali, sold a collection of Napoleonic artifacts, including what they claimed to be the emperor’s penis.

Whether actually part of Napoleon or not — or even a penis at all — the manly artifact changed hands several times over the years. Finally, in 1977, the item believed to be Napoleon’s penis was sold at auction to leading American urologist John J. Lattimer.

While modern forensic tests conducted on the artifact confirm that it is a human penis, whether it was ever really attached to Napoleon remains unknown.

John Wilkes Booth's Neck Bones or Not?

While he might have been an accomplished assassin, John Wilkes Booth was a lousy escape artist. Not only did he break his leg just after murdering President Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865, just 12 days later, he was shot in the neck and killed in a barn in Port Royal, Virginia.

During the autopsy, Booth’s third, fourth, and fifth vertebrae were removed in an attempt to find the bullet. Today, the remains of Booth’s spine are preserved and often displayed at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, D.C.

According to government assassination reports, Booth’s body was eventually released to the family and buried in an unmarked grave in a family plot at Baltimore’s Green Mount Cemetery in 1869. Since then, however, conspiracy theorists have suggested that it was not Booth who was killed in that Port Royal barn or buried in that Green Mount grave. One popular theory contends Booth escaped justice for 38 years, living until 1903, supposedly committing suicide in Oklahoma.

In 1995, Booth’s descendants filed a court request to have the body buried at Green Mount Cemetery exhumed in hopes that it could be identified as their infamous relative or not. Despite having the support of the Smithsonian Institution, the judge denied the request citing previous water damage to the burial plot, evidence that other family members had been buried there, and publicity from the “less than convincing escape/cover-up theory.”

Today, however, the mystery might be solved by comparing DNA from Booth’s brother Edwin to the autopsy bones in the National Museum of Health and Medicine. However, in 2013, the museum denied a request for a DNA test. In a letter to Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen, who had helped craft the request, the museum stated, “the need to preserve these bones for future generations compels us to decline the destructive test.”

The Salvaging of "Stonewall" Jackson's Left Arm

As Union bullets zipped around him, Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson would famously sit “like a stone wall” astride his horse during the Civil War.

However, Jackson’s luck or bravery let him down during the 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville, when a bullet accidentally fired by one of his own Confederate riflemen ripped through his left arm.

In what was the common practice of early battlefield trauma treatment, surgeons amputated Jackson’s tattered arm.

As the arm was about to be unceremoniously thrown onto a pile of similarly amputated limbs, military chaplain Rev. B. Tucker Lacy decided to save it.

As Chancellorsville Park ranger Chuck Young tells visitors, “Remembering that Jackson was the rock star of 1863, everybody knew who Stonewall was, and to have his arm just simply thrown on the scrap pile with the other arms, Rev. Lacy couldn't let that happen.” Just eight days after his arm was amputated, Jackson died of pneumonia.

Today, while most of Jackson’s body is buried at the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery in Lexington, Virginia, his left arm is entered in a private cemetery at Ellwood Manor, not far from the field hospital where it was amputated.

The Travels of Oliver Cromwell's Head

Oliver Cromwell, the sternly Puritan Lord Protector of England, whose parliamentary or “Godly” party tried to ban Christmas in the 1640s, was far from a wild and crazy guy. But after he died in 1658, his head really got around.

Starting as a Member of Parliament during the reign of King Charles I (1600-1649), Cromwell fought against the king during the English Civil War, taking over as Lord Protector after Charles was beheaded for high treason.

Cromwell died at age 59 in 1658 from an infection in his urinary tract or kidneys. Following an autopsy, his body was then buried — temporarily — in Westminster Abbey.

In 1660, King Charles II — who had been exiled by Cromwell and his cronies — ordered Cromwell’s head placed on a spike in Westminster Hall as a warning to potential usurpers. The rest of Cromwell was hanged and re-buried in an unmarked grave.

After 20 years on the spike, Cromwell’s head circulated around small London area museums until 1814, when it was sold to a private collector named Henry Wilkinson. According to reports and rumors, Wilkerson often took the head to parties, using it as a historic — though rather grizzly — conversation-starter.

The Puritan leader’s party days finally ended for good in 1960, when his head was permanently buried in the chapel at Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge.

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Longley, Robert. "JFK’s Brain and Other Missing Body Parts of Historical Figures." ThoughtCo, Dec. 6, 2021, thoughtco.com/jfk-brain-missing-body-parts-of-historical-figures-4155636. Longley, Robert. (2021, December 6). JFK’s Brain and Other Missing Body Parts of Historical Figures. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/jfk-brain-missing-body-parts-of-historical-figures-4155636 Longley, Robert. "JFK’s Brain and Other Missing Body Parts of Historical Figures." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/jfk-brain-missing-body-parts-of-historical-figures-4155636 (accessed June 8, 2023).