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Famous People Who Have Been Exhumed — And What Their Bodies Revealed
Some of history’s most famous figures have been disturbed from their eternal rest — here’s why.
This article was updated to reflect the 2022 season of "Exhumed."
After somebody dies, we have a funeral and “lay the body to rest,” typically through burial or cremation. However, not everyone’s rest remains undisturbed.
Bodies have often been exhumed — dug up from the ground — for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes, it’s to change their final resting places; other times it’s to get DNA to establish a familial connection to actual or supposed relatives.
Bodies are also exhumed to uncover historical mysteries and to solve murder cases, as seen on series “Exhumed,” executive produced by Kelly Ripa and Mark Consuelos and returning to Oxygen on Sunday, May 8 at 7/6c. On the show, killers are caught and crimes are ultimately solved thanks to an exhumation. After all, bones hold all sorts of stories and secrets.
And while exhumations are a rarity, even some of history’s most famous figures have been subject to the process and removed from their graves. Here’s why:
Eva Perón, nicknamed Evita, was an actress, the first lady of Argentina, and an absolute icon. But despite her massive popularity among many during her life, her afterlife was anything but peaceful.
When Evita’s husband, Juan Perón was removed from power in Argentina via a military coup in 1955, her embalmed body (she died of cancer three years earlier) disappeared. It was taken coup organizers who knew Evita was the popular symbol of her husband’s politics, the BBC reported in 2012,. The body was moved around in secret for years, but its disappearance led to massive outcry, with graffiti asking, “Where Is The Body Of Eva Perón?” popping up, according to the outlet.
The body was ultimately recovered and, in 1957 with the help of the Vatican, secretly flown to Italy and buried under a fake name in Milan for its safety. It wouldn’t stay there for long, though: In 1971, the body was returned to her husband in Madrid, Spain. That resting place would prove short-lived as well: in 1973, Juan Perón returned to Argentina after he was elected president again, and Evita’s body was finally returned to her homeland, the BBC reported. As of 1976, she is in a fortified crypt her family's mausoleum in Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires, so she can finally rest in peace.
2. Abraham Lincoln
Immediately after his death, Abraham Lincoln’s body was moved around a lot. After he was fatally shot in the head by John Wilkes Booth in 1865 in an assassination that shocked the nation, his body was taken on a massive journey to 180 cities. Mourners were able to see the president, some for the first time, The Washington Post reported in 2015.
The heat and length of time meant his body was slowly decaying the whole way, but people were ecstatic to get a chance to pay their respects to such a beloved figure as he made his way to his final resting place in Springfield, Illinois.
Curiously enough, he was actually accompanied on this ride by an exhumed body: His son Willie, who died at age 11 of typhoid fever, was going to be reburied along with him, according to the outlet.
But Lincoln’s body would be jostled around again after thieves unsuccessfully tried to steal the body in 1876 and hold it for ransom. In 1901, he was disinterred and put into a new resting place in a concrete vault in The Lincoln Tomb, so his body could never be disturbed again, The Columbus Dispatch reported in 2015.
3. Salvador Dalí
Sometimes, bodies are exhumed because there are questions only bones can answer. In famed Spanish painter Salvador Dalí’s case, he was exhumed in 2017 to determine whether he fathered a child.
A tarot card reader named Pilar Abel had come forward in recent years, claiming her mother had an affair with Dalí in 1955, a year before she was born. Abel insisted she was Dalí’s child — and as such was entitled to a portion of his estate, NPR reported in 2017.
Dalí, who died in 1989, was ultimately exhumed to see whether Abel’s story checked out. They took hair samples, nails, teeth, and bones from his body (which was embalmed). But in 2006, the answer came back: After extensive DNA testing, officials determined Dalí was not Abel’s father, The Guardian reported in 2018. He has since been reburied in the Figueres Theatre-Museum.
4. Christopher Columbus
The remains of controversial explorer Christopher Columbus, one of the first Europeans to reach North America, haven’t enjoyed a particularly peaceful rest — mainly because for some time it wasn’t exactly clear where his body was.
On May 20, 1506, Columbus died and was buried in Valladolid, Spain, although in 1509 his body was moved to a monastery near Seville. However, Columbus specifically requested to be buried in the Americas, so in 1537, his daughter-in-law sent both her husband and Columbus’ bones to a cathedral in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, the Associated Press reported in 2003. That was already a lot of moving around for a long-dead body, but in 1795, the real confusion began.
At that point, France assumed control of the Dominican Republic from Spain, so Spain eventually shipped the body to Havana, Cuba, then back to Seville to keep it safe. However, in 1877, bones were found in a chest in a Santo Domingo cathedral and the inscription on the vessel indicated they were Columbus’, according to the outlet.
Could it be his body never left the Dominican Republic, after all?
Well, in 2003, his supposed remains in Seville was exhumed for DNA tests to see who was really in that grave. It turns out the body in Spain is indeed Columbus, as NBC News reported in 2006. However, as Dominican authorities refuse to test its set of bones, there is no telling whether those contain part of Columbus’ body as well.
5. Jesse James
Another body with questions long swirling about its true identity? The remains of notorious outlaw Jesse James. James’ shooting by fellow gang member Robert Ford in 1882 for a cash reward was an infamous killing that cemented James’ status as a folk hero. But others insist that isn’t actually what happened to James — they say he faked his own death and went into hiding.
James’ body was buried in Kearney, Missouri — so in 1995, his body was exhumed so forensic scientists could test this conspiracy theory once and for all, the Associated Press reported at the time. The results? DNA testing indicated it was indeed James in that grave, according to the outlet.
Of course, that didn’t put the theory to bed for good. The body of a Kansas farmer who died in 1935 was exhumed in 2003 to test if he was James, My Planview reported in 2003. The remains of a Texas man were also exhumed in 2000 for the same reason. Neither man was a match for James.
6. Lee Harvey Oswald
Who killed President John F. Kennedy? Well, while Lee Harvey Oswald was identified as the lone assassin, many have doubted that’s the whole story and plenty of conspiracy theories about JFK’s assassination survive to this day. One such theory even led to Oswald’s exhumation.
Soon after Kennedy was fatally shot in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, Oswald was taken into custody, but three days later, he was shot to death by Dallas club owner Jack Ruby while authorities were moving him to a different jail. Oswald was buried in Rose Hill Burial Park in his hometown of Fort Worth — but dug up again in 1981 after speculation swirled the body was not really Oswald, but a Soviet spy sent to kill Kennedy, The New York Times reported in 1981.
Pathologists compared the body’s teeth to Oswald’s Marine Corps dental records, among other measures, to identify the body, and came to a certain conclusion.
''We, both individually and as a team, have concluded beyond any doubt, and I mean beyond any doubt, that the individual buried under the name Lee Harvey Oswald in Rose Hill cemetery is Lee Harvey Oswald,'' Dr. Linda Norton, head of the team of pathologists, said, according to The New York Times.
That’s at least one conspiracy theory thoroughly debunked.