How Mussolini’s brain slipped through the fingers of local scientists and into the grip of District legend.
By Felix Gillette Illustration by Robert Meganck
St. Elizabeths Hospital has seen some politically unpopular inhabitants in its 150 years. At a panel discussion this summer about plans to redevelop the hospital’s west campus, D.C. Department of Mental Health Director Martha Knisley took a moment to impress the audience with the facility’s historical importance.
John Hinckley Jr., the failed assassin of Ronald Reagan, is still confined there, Knisley said. Ezra Pound, the modernist poet, composed verse in St. Elizabeths for years after pleading insanity to charges of treason following World War II.
Then Knisley dropped one more big name. “Until recently,” said Knisley, “we had Mussolini’s brain in our lab.”
Could it be true? While Pound was confined for his pro-fascist propaganda activities, was a piece of his idol, Il Duce, near his side? Had Benito Mussolini’s gray matter been reposing in a jar by the Suitland Parkway all these decades? And if so, where did it go from there?
Knisley, it turns out, was stretching the facts a bit. Mussolini’s brain had not quite been where she thought it had been—at least, not all of it. After leaving the dictator’s skull sometime in 1945, the brain continued to lead an eventful existence: divided into test tubes, shipped across the Atlantic, and prodded by classified scientists. Some of it eventually got back to Italy. And some didn’t. Instead, it ended up somewhere in the great divide between history and mythology.
First the history: In 1945, Mussolini was losing control of Italy. With the Allied forces closing in, he attempted to sneak out of the country. He made it as far as Lake Como in the north. There, members of the Communist Party captured him, along with his mistress, Claretta Petacci, and shot him to death.
In the following weeks, Mussolini’s body hung upside down in the Piazzale Loreto in Milan. For the first time, the common people could reach out and touch their untouchable leader. They did so with closed fists, pummeling, kicking, and spitting on the corpse.
Eventually, Mussolini’s beaten body was taken down and autopsied. A few months later—for reasons that to this day remain shrouded in mystery—the Institute of Legal Medicine at the University of Milan sent two vials containing tissue from Mussolini’s brain to Washington, D.C., for analysis. One sample went to the Army Institute of Pathology (the institution that would eventually become the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology [AFIP]) and the other to St. Elizabeths.
Dr. Webb Haymaker, a neuropathologist with the Army Medical Corps, made headlines with his study of the brain of Hitler’s henchman Dr. Robert Ley, who had committed suicide while awaiting trial in Nuremberg. Ley’s brain, Haymaker reported, had deteriorated in the cranial lobes, the “part…that makes man civilized.” The bad guy had a bad brain. The neuropathologist posed with the surprisingly perky-looking brain in a Life magazine spread.
Mussolini’s brain samples got no such fanfare. It wasn’t until the mid-’60s, in fact, that the secret of their existence leaked out of the city’s cerebral vortex. Why?
Perhaps the U.S. government kept the hat on Mussolini’s brain because it didn’t want to advertise to the rest of the world that it was collecting cerebral keepsakes from foreign heads of state. Or perhaps Mussolini’s brain, scattered in tiny bits, didn’t look impressive enough to warrant a spread in a glossy magazine.
Or maybe—as clues from the era seem to suggest—Mussolini’s brain was just too damn normal.
In 1966, the Washington Post noted in a short piece that a “section” of Mussolini’s brain had been sent to Washington after World War II, where it had been “examined by pathologists who described it as average.” Other reports from the time describe test results on the tissue as “nothing extraordinary” and note the absence of syphilis.
The late-breaking news of Mussolini’s humdrum encephalon had been triggered by events in Italy. There, Rachele Mussolini, the dictator’s widow, had embarked on a campaign to win back her husband’s brain. According to an article published in the Italian magazine Gente in February 1966, American officials at first resisted the request but eventually capitulated. On March 17, 1966, the Army handed over its remaining sample of Mussolini’s brain to the U.S. State Department for safe return to Italy, where the tissue would be reunited with its long-estranged body.
The rest of Mussolini’s cadaver had experienced an adventure of its own. In 1946, a group of fascist rebels dug up Mussolini’s grave and kidnapped the corpse. For months, they moved it secretly from town to town as a decaying pawn for their political ambitions. The body was eventually recaptured and reburied.
In 1957, the beleaguered body was moved again, this time to the place of Mussolini’s birth, Predappio. To this day, Mussolini’s remains rest there in a tomb, which, according to Los Angeles Times reporter Richard Boudreaux, is “topped with a marble bust of Il Duce and a box containing part of his brain.”
Members of the U.S. State Department were unable to verify whether the Army’s old samples made it into the box. What is clear, however, is that the brain-repatriation package did not include the sample of Mussolini’s gray matter that was originally sent to St. Elizabeths. Where did that sample go? Did it remain at St. Elizabeths until recently, as Knisley suggested?
Nobody knows for certain, because the sample has vanished.
Linda Grant, a spokesperson for the D.C. Department of Mental Health, says that after conducting tests on Mussolini’s brain in 1945, scientists at the hospital discarded the remaining tissue. The results of the tests also subsequently disappeared. According to Grant, Mussolini’s brain was labeled and studied under an alias. What was the alias? Grant says that information, too, has been lost in the bureaucratic shuffle, so that it’s impossible to dig up the old test results. “There’s no key, no legend, no code,” says Grant. “There is no documentation that it’s with us any longer.”
But, contrary to Grant’s trash-can story, there is evidence that the brain matter was still around 10 years after its supposed dumping. In 1955, John McKelway, a reporter with the Evening Star, visited St. Elizabeths in search of Mussolini’s brain.
After a few inquiries, McKelway wandered into the office of Dr. Winfred Overholser, who, upon request, walked over to his safe and whipped out a bottle that he said contained a part of the brain. McKelway described the remains as looking like “chicken liver.”
A decade later, Rachele Mussolini’s public pining for her late hubby’s brain once again sparked interest in the St. Elizabeths sample. In 1966, Orr Kelly, also a reporter with the Evening Star, revisited the hospital.
But by then, Overholser had passed away—and with him all knowledge about Mussolini’s “chicken liver” brain sample. Members of the hospital staff told Kelly that they, too, had heard rumors about the brain, but nobody could pin down the location of the slippery sample.
One way or the other, Mussolini’s brain had finally escaped the ignominious poking of D.C. scientists.
Yet despite its partial disappearance and its partial return to Italy, Mussolini’s brain continues to resurface in the District—as in Knisley’s recent off-the-cuff reference.
“Obviously, Mussolini’s brain is symbolic of the fact that [St. Elizabeths] was once a research facility,” says Knisley. “I made reference to Mussolini’s brain, but, in fact, there are thousands of pieces of tissue that came to St. Elizabeths over the years, from thousands of different people.”
But she didn’t choose to talk about those thousands of people’s brains. She chose Mussolini’s. And she didn’t specify that St. Elizabeths never had the whole brain, just some minor tissue samples. Nor did Knisley mention that nobody has spotted those samples for about 45 years.
By glossing over the specifics, Knisley gave the impression that at one point all of Mussolini’s brain resided in the District. The full monte. The big enchilada.
And that is how it should be. With each passing decade, the jumbled details of history fade away, leaving only the clarity of folklore. The mystery of Mussolini’s brain—and our government’s secret affair with it—now dwells in the proper place, alongside such favorites as John Dillinger’s penis (which is likewise rumored to reside here, stuffed in some outsized jar, in some top-secret government collection).
And like Dillinger’s member, which gets bigger and bigger with each retelling, Mussolini’s brain is growing with age. As rumor and hearsay replace memory and fact, for the first time since his grisly demise, Mussolini’s brain has become whole again. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Robert Meganck.