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10 Strange Cases of Stolen Skeletons

by Kieran Torbuck
fact checked by Jamie Frater

It’s terrible when things are stolen, but there is usually an understandable reason why certain goods are targeted. Cash and jewelry have predictable values and are easy to carry and conceal. But criminals are rarely so coldly logical. Skeletons or their parts are a surprisingly common stolen good despite it usually making no sense to steal them.

Nothing is off-limits when it comes to skeleton theft—man or mammal, ancient or recently departed, may all be stolen alike. Even stranger is the fact many skeleton stealers were not spur-of-the-moment chancers but have gone to serious lengths to take their target. What follows are ten truly strange and bizarre examples of stolen skeletons, bones, and skulls.

Related: 10 Gross Historical Facts About The Skeleton Trade

10 Dante Alighieri

Guy Raffa on Humanities Research Project “Dante’s Bones”

This titan of Italian literature’s body has been the center of several skeleton-stealing plots since his death in 1321. One of the most fascinating took place in 1519 and had its origins in a spat over where the poet’s rightful resting place should be.

Dante died and was buried in Ravenna, where he had been exiled from Florence. However, the people of Florence had understandably come to regret exiling a man considered to be perhaps the greatest poet of all time. But Ravenna refused requests from Florence to return Dante’s remains, so the Florentines turned to more drastic measures.

With the Pope’s permission and the backing of other leading figures of the day, like Michelangelo, robbers attempted to steal Dante’s body at night. However, local Franciscan friars had heard about the plot and removed Dante’s body themselves for safekeeping.

For over three centuries, his remains were passed down through generations of the Franciscan order until they were expelled from Ravenna by Napoleon in 1810. They had hidden the remains in a wall near Dante’s official tomb, where they were considered lost until being rediscovered by a stonemason during renovation work.[1]

9 The Young Man of Chan Hol II

Giant Underwater Cave Was Hiding Oldest Human Skeleton in the Americas | Expedition Raw

Predating Dante by some twelve millennia but stolen in 2012 was a skeleton known as the “Young Man of Chan Hol II.” Discovered in a Mexican underwater cave in 2010, the Young Man’s skeleton was one of the oldest known examples of human remains in the Americas. And yes, you read that right—the remains were stolen from a cave that was underwater!

The caves of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula used to be dry and are believed to be one of the earliest human settlement locations in North America. Other similarly-aged remains have been found in the area. That is just as well because only around 10% of the Young Man’s skeleton was left intact, and the whereabouts of the rest are still unknown at the time of writing in 2023.

Fortunately, archeologists were able to study what little remained and estimate the era in which the young man lived. They did this by analyzing stalagmite growth surrounding the skeleton and seeing how many isotopes of different elements existed in the samples.[2]

8 16,000-Year-Old Bear

Cave Bear Skeleton

Prior to their extinction around 10,000 years ago, cave bears roamed Europe. They were big beasts, larger than brown bears, and they could weigh up to one ton. Given their size, you might expect their bones to weigh quite a bit. But this was not a problem for brazen thieves in Bosnia in 2009.

A giant cave bear skeleton was discovered in Orlovaca cave near the Bosnian capital Sarajevo in 2004. It was the second-largest cave bear skeleton ever found and was reported to be priceless by some experts.

But in 2009, the remains vanished from the cave, which had been turned into a museum, without a trace. Border police and Interpol were informed of the crime and told to be vigilant about the thieves trying to smuggle the bear’s remains out of Bosnia. Still, there have since been no reports of the bear being found or returned.[3]

7 50-Million-Year-Old Thesceloraurus

Thescelosaurus a dinosaur that isn’t commonly known but should be! Hear about its ear bone (stapes)

Among museums, scientists, and wealthy private individuals, there is an active market trading in dinosaurs worth millions of dollars. Hollywood actors like Nicholas Cage and Leonardo DiCaprio participate. So do artists and drug dealers. In 2020, artist duo the Connor Brothers bought a 50-million-year-old Thesceloraurus skeleton at a trade show. It was never delivered.

The artists investigated the disappearance themselves, which led them down a strange line of inquiry involving a senior member of the brutal Sinaloa Cartel from Mexico. This member apparently had a son who was obsessed with the Jurassic Park movies, and like any good father, he set about purchasing a real dinosaur skeleton for his boy. He had his lawyer negotiate with the dealer who had sold the dinosaur to the Connor Brothers. The lawyer later met with the artists and confirmed the boy’s fascination with Jurassic Park, but he assured them his client would never have bought a herbivore.

Another theory was that a famous Australian actor had developed a passion for collecting real dinosaur remains and made the dealer a better offer. However, the actor and their agent refused to speak to the artists. Eventually, the brothers lost hope of ever seeing their dinosaur—unless the cartel boss’s goods are confiscated by the authorities and their dinosaur is found among them, of course.[4]

6 Polar Bear Skeleton Sculpture

The Ice Bear Project Skeleton

Some artists try to buy rare skeletons for their work, while others, like British sculptor Mark Coreth, replicate them. Coreth created several bronze sculptures of life-size polar bear skeletons. As part of a World Wildlife Fund campaign to draw attention to the dangers of melting ice caps, polar bears were carved from ice around the bronze skeletons and left to melt in prominent public spaces in London, Manchester, Copenhagen, and several Canadian cities.

One of the remaining bronze skeletons—estimated to be worth more than £15,000—made its way to the rural English countryside from where it was stolen in 2013. According to police, it was no small operation because the size and weight of the sculpture would have required a truck with a loader crane to move. It was even secured with a metal structure. Still, the savvy thieves managed to make away with the sculpture without being noticed.

Sadly for the artist and his fans, it seems likely the artwork was sold as scrap metal. It is unlikely the thieves had any idea about its true value.[5]

5 Sperm Whale Skull

Most bizarre robbery in history? Whale skull stolen from museum | 9 News Australia

Another ambitious heist of a large object took place in Australia in 2023 when a sperm whale skull belonging to the Eden Killer Whale Museum was being stored at another property. It was there to let the oil drain from it so it could later be displayed. Undeterred by the fact the storage location was in a residential neighborhood, what was most likely a team of thieves worked quietly together to take the skull.

It must have taken “some organization and coordination,” according to the museum’s head of collections, who described the skull as “bloody huge.” She said she could not understand why anyone would want to steal it. The size and weight of the skull mean equipment, including a crane and a flatbed truck, would have been required to move it. At the time of writing, there have been no reports of any arrests, and the thieves might think they have committed a perfect—even if bizarre—crime. However, if the oil is not properly drained from the skull, it can continue to ooze out for many years, making it difficult to store and attractive to pests.[6]

4 Murder Evidence

Most murderers attempt to avoid prison by hiding the bodies of their victims. Sanele Msimang from South Africa initially did too. He later admitted killing his employer and burying the remains in a shallow grave. Either unable to live with what he had done or guessing he would be caught anyway, Msimang handed himself in and showed police where he buried the body. This is when the case gets weird.

While Msimang was in custody, the skeletal remains of his victim went missing from a mortuary where they were being stored while awaiting forensic examination. After jumping to conclusions, the media reported that the bones had been stolen by thieves. The police suspected accomplices of Msimang might have been involved. Though, this would be strange given that Msimang had cooperated and shown them where the body was buried.

The authorities opened investigations into the theft and the attempts to circumvent justice. However, the bones were located only five days later, having been moved in error by the Department of Health.[7]

3 Ghost Marriage

In China, an ancient practice that dates back thousands of years and still happens in some areas is the “ghost marriage” or “wedding of the deceased.” It stems from a belief that the death of an unmarried man brings bad luck to his family. To avoid this, the remains of an unmarried dead female are taken; the two bodies are “wed” and then buried side by side. Some families desire to avoid bad luck so strongly that they are willing to steal a bride for their deceased son.

This was suspected to be the case in Hebei Province in 2019 when the family of a dead girl became alarmed to find her skeleton missing from her grave. The 18-year-old girl died in 2001, and in 2017, the family was approached about offering their daughter as a bride for another family’s deceased son.

They refused because they felt uncomfortable doing so, even in exchange for money. When her skeleton went missing in 2019, police and the girl’s family felt convinced her skeleton was stolen to become a ghost bride. It is unknown whether the 2019 grave robbers were related to the family which made the 2017 proposal.[8]

2 Oscar

Some people will go to striking lengths to steal strange items, like the thieves in this case. They stole a model skeleton from the second-story balcony, where it had been secured with metal chains for more than 20 years. “Oscar” was the mascot of the Eltham Physiotherapy and Sports Injuries Clinic and something of an icon in the small local community.

His sudden absence in 2019 was almost immediately noticed by several people who expressed their shock on the clinic’s Facebook page. The clinic reported on Facebook that a ladder must have been used, and the metal chains securing the skeleton had been cut in what they described as “a big operation.” In addition to his role as “guardian of the practice,” Oscar was the clinic’s only form of advertising. They offered a reward for his safe return, but Oscar was never found. He was later replaced with a new mascot called “Harold.”[9]

1 12-Foot Skeleton

Security footage of person stealing 12-foot skeleton from Northwest Austin neighborhood | FOX 7 Aust

Few things are as audacious as daylight robbery, and it is even more shocking when something huge is stolen. It was no surprise headlines were made in October 2022 when a shameless woman stole a 12-foot tall skeleton from a Texas front yard. The thief was caught on camera outside a condominium community, casually toppling and dismantling the enormous decoration before shoving it into her car and quickly making off.

The skeleton was so big it could barely squeeze into her car, even when taken apart. The thief eventually succeeded, but the owner of the skeleton released the camera footage, which went viral. They also offered a $50 reward for information leading to the skeleton’s safe return.

The confident, albeit confusing, crime was widely reported, but it is unknown whether the culprit was captured. She could be a serial skeleton stealer. In an equally bizarre and brazen crime earlier the same year, a woman stole a model skeleton dressed as Disney’s Tinkerbell called “Boney Stark” from a Texas library. Could it be just a spooky coincidence?[10]

fact checked by Jamie Frater