History In The Headlines

Digging Up the Dead: History’s Most Famous Exhumations

By Christopher Klein
Authorities yesterday exhumed the remains of former Brazilian president Joao Goulart, deposed in a 1964 coup, to investigate claims that Uruguayan agents acting at the behest of Brazil’s military government poisoned the exiled leader in 1976. As toxicology tests on Goulart’s body begin, explore 10 of history’s most famous exhumations.
Joao Goulart Exhumation

Forensic technicians stand next to grave of former Brazilian President Joao "Jango" Goulart. (Credit: Getty Images)

1. Jesse James
The infamous Wild West outlaw may have died in 1882, but his legend lived on—as did persistent rumors that James faked his own death. Although it was widely accepted that fellow gang member Bob Ford shot and killed James to collect the bounty on his head, some speculated that Ford had actually murdered another man to assist James in his ruse, a claim boosted when a 100-year-old man named J. Frank Dalton came forward in 1948 saying he was the real Jesse James. In 1995, the James family requested the exhumation of their ancestor’s corpse from a Kearney, Missouri, cemetery, and DNA tests confirmed the remains were indeed those of the outlaw.

2. Eva Peron
After the death of Argentina’s beloved first lady in 1952, Peron’s embalmed body was put on display inside a Buenos Aires trade union headquarters until an enormous mausoleum could be constructed. The Argentine military leaders who seized power from Juan Peron in 1955 feared the symbolic power of his wife’s corpse, so they hid it in locations around the city that included a movie theater and water works. In 1957, Peron was secretly buried in Milan, Italy under the assumed name “Maria Maggi.” Fourteen years later, Evita’s body was exhumed and moved to Madrid, where her husband lived in exile. Finally in 1974, her remains were returned to Buenos Aires and buried in a fortified crypt in La Recoleta Cemetery.

3. Abraham Lincoln
In 1876 a gang of Chicago counterfeiters hatched a scheme to snatch the slain president’s body from his tomb in Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, Illinois, and hold the corpse for a ransom of $200,000 and the release of their best engraver from prison. After law enforcement officials thwarted the grave robbers in the middle of the crime, Lincoln’s body was quickly moved to various unmarked graves until it was eventually encased in a steel cage and entombed under 10 feet of concrete in the same Springfield cemetery in 1901.

4. John Wilkes Booth
The man who murdered Lincoln also had his final resting place disturbed. After the Union Army killed Booth during the manhunt for the presidential assassin, his body was buried inside the Washington Arsenal in the national capital. In 1869, the Booth family disinterred the assassin and buried him in a family plot in Baltimore’s Green Mount Cemetery. (To answer persistent rumors that Booth actually escaped the manhunt, family members are split on whether to exhume the body of his brother Edwin to obtain DNA samples to compare with vertebrae purported to be the assassin’s stored at the National Museum of Health and Medicine.)

5. Zachary Taylor
While America was engaged in a fierce debate about extending slavery to Western territories, the robust twelfth president died suddenly on July 9, 1850. His passing was attributed to natural causes such as cholera or even a fatal case of gastroenteritis brought on by overindulging in cherries and milk. Some historians, however, believed the true cause to be arsenic poisoning perpetrated by his political enemies. In 1991, Taylor became the first president to have his remains exhumed, and tests conclusively showed that he was not assassinated by poison.

6. Christopher Columbus
Death did little to slow the explorer’s global travels. Following his passing in 1506, Columbus was buried in Valladolid, Spain, and then moved to Seville. At his daughter-in-law’s request, Columbus was shipped across the Atlantic to Hispaniola in 1542 and interred in a Santo Domingo cathedral. When the French captured the island in 1795, the Spanish dug up remains thought to be those of the explorer and moved them to Cuba before returning them to Seville after the Spanish-American War in 1898. However, a box with human remains and the explorer’s name was discovered inside the Santo Domingo cathedral in 1877, and the mystery of whether remains of Columbus are in the New World, Old World or both continues.

7. Oliver Cromwell
When the English revolutionary who helped to overthrow the monarchy and sign the death warrant for King Charles I died in 1658, he was embalmed and buried with honor inside Westminster Abbey. Three years later, however, the monarchy returned and Cromwell was treated much differently. King Charles II exhumed Cromwell’s body on the twelfth anniversary of his father’s execution and in retribution for the regicide staged an execution of his own—albeit with Cromwell’s dead body. The Lord Protector’s corpse was strung up on display, beheaded and dumped into a vast London pit. Cromwell’s head was mounted on a pike on the roof of Westminster Hall, where it remained for decades as a warning to would-be revolutionaries. The head eventually became a collector piece and in 1960 was interred at Cromwell’s alma mater, Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge.

8. Lee Harvey Oswald
Among the conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy was the assertion by author Michael Eddowes that the man arrested for the killing was actually a Soviet spy who had switched places with suspected assassin Lee Harvey Oswald during his visit to the Soviet Union months earlier. With the permission of Oswald’s widow, Eddowes had the body exhumed in 1981, and dental records confirmed the man was not a Russian body double, but Oswald himself.

9. Simon Bolivar
The 19th-century South American revolutionary hero died near Santa Marta, Colombia in 1830 from what was believed to be tuberculosis. Twelve years after his death, Bolivar’s remains were exhumed from Santa Marta’s cathedral and transferred to Caracas, Venezuela. The late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, who was among the conspiracy theorists who believed Bolivar had been murdered by arsenic poisoning, had the man known as “El Libertador” exhumed in 2010 in an elaborate nationally televised broadcast, but the testing by forensic specialists proved inconclusive as to the cause of Bolivar’s death.

10. Daniel Boone
After the frontiersman’s 1820 death, Boone was buried in an unmarked grave near present-day Marthasville, Missouri. Twenty-five years later, the remains of Boone and his wife were disinterred and reburied in Frankfort, Kentucky. Some assert, however, that the wrong bodies were removed, and both Missouri and Kentucky still claim to be Boone’s final resting spot.

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Categories: Burials