Mystics and horror movie fanatics will be the first to tell you disturbing a grave is a bad idea. Sometimes, though, exhumations are necessary. The process entails a lot of red tape -- usually, you’ll need a court order, several government officials, and possibly the consent of the family.
But particularly when it comes to historical figures, digging up remains can lead to crucial DNA results, reveal new truths about world leaders, or just save former president from grave robbers. Here are nine famous cases of exhumations. Most of them are pretty understandable, except for one, which comes straight out of the Game of Thrones playbook.
In June, 2017 a Madrid court ruled that the body of artist Salvador Dali be exhumed from his crypt beneath the stage in The Dalí Theatre and Museum in Spain to settle a paternity case. The woman in question claims Dalí, who died in 1989, had an extramarital affair with her mother in the mid-50s, and the court explained his body may be exhumed since there are no DNA samples with which to compare. She’s been trying to prove the surrealist was her father for the past 10 years. The results of the exhumation revealed that Dalí was... not the father! However, The Dalí Foundation, which had fought to prevent his body from being disturbed, did make a discovery that added to the eccentric artist's allure: After nearly 30 years of burial, Dalí's iconic mustache had remained perfectly intact. [Photo Source: HiredFalcon / Shutterstock.com]
When the former chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization passed in 2004, some believed his death was not accidental. One of those people was his widow, Suha, who pushed for a murder investigation. She and other Arafat supporters suspected that he might have been killed with polonium-210, the same radioactive poison used to silence the defecting Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in 2006. So she hired separate teams of French and Swiss scientists to quickly gather samples and test for polonium-210. (The Palestinian Authority added some Russian researchers to the mix.) The entire exhumation and reburial took place over six hours in the middle of the night. And the results? The Swiss found high levels of polonium-210 in his rib, but the Russians and French didn’t. [Photo Source: Andrew V Marcus / Shutterstock.com]
There was precedent for the Arafat situation. The 12th president of the United States was also exhumed to test theories of a poisoning plot. Historians persuaded the descendants of Zachary Taylor to greenlight an exhumation in 1991, because some believed a pro-slavery saboteur killed him with arsenic. (Taylor didn’t support expanding slavery into the western states.) Kentucky medical examiners ultimately sided against this argument, concluding that Taylor’s death, though sudden, was most likely natural. [Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons]
The First Lady of Argentina and inspiration for the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical (and, later, Madonna movie) Evita had quite the afterlife. Eva Perón’s body was moved around Buenos Aires for several years after her death in 1952. Initially, this was due to construction plans for a grand monument. But those plans were cut short when a military coup forced her husband, Juan Perón, out of power. Supporters smuggled her body out of the country and over to Milan, where it was buried under a pseudonym in 1957. She stayed there until 1971, when the Argentinian government decided to exhume and return her body to Juan, then exiled in Madrid. Eva’s body stayed in Spain with Juan and his third wife Isabel until 1973, when he was elected president of Argentina yet again. He returned with Isabel and his former wife’s body in 1976, and she could finally be put to rest in her family mausoleum in Buenos Aires.
Lee Harvey Oswald
The John F. Kennedy assassination has attracted an insane amount of conspiracy theories since 1963. One of them maintains that Lee Harvey Oswald never shot JFK at all, and that it was a Soviet Union spy who stole Oswald’s identity. This mystery man, the theory goes, is the one actually sitting in Oswald’s coffin. Since Oswald did have ties to the USSR, the British writer Michael Eddowes successfully spurred an exhumation effort in 1981. Oswald’s widow also consented, eager to settle the matter. Pathologists confirmed that the remains definitely matched Oswald’s DNA, putting at least one JFK conspiracy theory to bed. [Photo Source: Youtube (WARNING: The video contains graphic images. Viewer discretion is advised)]
For years, both Spain and the Dominican Republic have argued over who owns the body of Christopher Columbus. Spain insists he was buried in Seville, while the Dominican Republic argues his bones are in a lighthouse in Santo Domingo. Spain attempted to bolster its claim in the aughts by exhuming the Seville site and testing the remains against the DNA of Columbus’s brother Diego. Scientists concluded that there was a 95 percent chance the bones belonged to Christopher Columbus. The Dominican Republic elected not to exhume its tomb, but that doesn’t mean they’re lying. Since Columbus’s body moved around a lot, there’s a good chance both cities have parts of the explorer. [Photo Source: Cynthia Liang / Shutterstock.com]
The story goes that Wild West outlaw Jesse James was done in by his own man, Robert Ford, who shot him in the back for reward money. James was then buried in Kearney, Missouri, where he’s remained ever since. But some claim that’s just the convenient story and James actually survived the Ford attack, living well into old age. To settle the score, scientists exhumed the remains in Kearney in 1995 and tested the DNA against samples from descendants of Susan James, Jesse’s sister. They got a match, but that hasn’t stopped the families of J. Frank Dalton or James Lafayette Courtney from waging counter-arguments.
About a decade after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, tomb raiders attempted to steal the president’s body for ransom. They were stopped, but fearing a copycat attack, Lincoln’s friends relocated his coffin to a hiding place between the walls of his tomb. This worked for a while but by the turn of the century, it was time to scrap the old monument and build a new one. Abe was exhumed yet again and placed in an unmarked grave as construction got under way. Once the project was completed in 1901, Lincoln was dug up and reburied -- this time for good -- in his new, secure resting place in Springfield, Illinois.
Well this one is just nasty. For those behind on their 17th century British history, Oliver Cromwell was a military leader who fought against King Charles I in the English Civil War. Cromwell won, and although he never assumed a crown himself, he ruled the United Kingdom as “lord protector” until his death in 1658. At that point, the seat of power opened yet again and guess who claimed it: Charles II. Since he was obviously mad at Cromwell for executing his dad, Charles Jr. had his friends dig up Cromwell’s body. First, they hung it from the gallows. Next, they beheaded it and displayed Cromwell’s head on a spike. The body was then dumped and the head traveled around for a bit, until it was finally reburied in Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge in 1960.