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Forensic Bach

The little known story of how one musician inadvertently aided in the development of a key area in forensic science. The story comes from Katherine Ramsland’s Beating the Devil’s Game—a must-read for anyone interested in the history of forensic science.

If you’re a Murdoch Mysteries fan, you’ll be familiar with the use of facial reconstruction to aid in the identification of a victim who’s been dead so long, that all investigators can retrieve are bones and a skull.

This type of work is possible because of what we know about facial tissues and their relative thickness. Using the technique, a sculptor with knowledge of facial anatomy can recreate a fairly good likeness of the victim. And that can often be a good start to solving a case so cold, the perpetrator could be excused for thinking he’d gotten away with it.

Well it turns out that the first work of this type was performed by a Swiss anatomist by the name of Wilhelm His. The musician who lent his skull for the purpose was none other than Johann Sebastian Bach. Not that Bach had any say in the matter. He was long dead by that time.

According to Katherine Ramsland, who recounts the story in her Beating the Devil’s Game, the anatomist Wilhelm His had acquired a skull he believed to be that of J.S. Bach. His was a professor at the University of Leipzig, the city where Bach spent his last unhappy years.

However, by 1894, Leipzig, which had ignored the man in his lifetime, viewing him as an irritant at best, wanted to cement its association with the great man. The skull and bones were retrieved from St. John’s Church where Bach is believed to have been buried.

His was called in to verify that the skull did indeed belong to Bach. After an examination of the remains, His was fairly certain it was the great musician. But he needed to be absolutely sure. And the best way to do this was to reconstruct the face the skull might have possessed in life. 

So Professor His worked with 28 different cadavers. He plunged oiled needles into various points of each corpse’s face. A cork at the other end of the needle rested on the surface of the skin once the needle had hit the bone. The measurements thus derived gave him a fairly good idea of the thickness of facial tissue at different points along the face.

Presumably working with so many corpses also gave him some idea of the natural variance in facial tissue thickness from one individual to the next.

With this information, His, with the help of artist Carl Ludwig Seffner, reconstructed the face of the skull retrieved from the church. Together, they obtained a likeness so good, the entire city was convinced they had found the remains of Sebastian Bach.

Dr. Julia Ogden and Murdoch aren’t the only investigators to use this method to identify victims of violent crimes.Today this method is an important tool in the investigator’s arsenal. 

But were it not for task assigned to Wilhelm His, we likely wouldn’t have a technique that’s enabled investigators to bring justice in many a missing persons case and to bring closure to the families of such victims.

Bach, Eighteenth Century, facial reconstruction, forensic science, Haydn

  1. Beverlee Swayze says:

    That’s fascinating. I had no idea. Did they photograph the results? I’d love to see this reconstruction. The work that was done with Richard III’s skull showed a very different man than in the portraits, even though it was clearly the same person. (I don’t believe there are any extant portraits of Richard taken during his lifetime, and the later ones are drenched in politics.) I think I once saw a site with similar reconstructions, comparing them to contemporary portraits.

  2. Nupur says:

    Seffner, the artist made a bust, based on the reconstruction. And apparently, there’s also a more modern computerized facial reconstruction. This site has some images: https://strangeremains.com/2015/07/13/the-anatomist-the-sculptor-and-the-first-facial-reconstruction/

  3. Fascinating. I wasn’t aware of the ‘role’ of one of my favorite composers in forensic science. I interviewed and observed the work of Frank Bender, another forensic artist, while a reporter.

  4. Nupur says:

    That must have been fascinating, John. I’ve only ever seen things like this on television.

  5. Susan says:

    This is a fascinating article! Thank you for sharing it.

  6. Nupur says:

    Glad you enjoyed it, Susan! By the way, did you check out the solution to the Body in the Church case?

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