Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones

Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Hundreds of 17th-Century Case Notes of Bizarre Medical Remedies Have Been Published Online

Illustrated portrait of Simon Forman.
Illustrated portrait of Simon Forman.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As medical texts, the writings of Simon Forman and Richard Napier aren't very useful. The so-called "doctors," regarded as celebrities in 16th- and 17th-century England, prescribed such treatments as nursing puppies and wearing dead pigeons as shoes. But as bizarre pieces of history, the 80,000 case notes the two quacks left behind are fascinating. The BBC reports that 500 of them have now been digitized and published online.

Forman and Napier were active in the English medical scene from the 1590s to the 1630s. They treated countless patients with remedies that straddled the line between medicine and mysticism, and their body of work is considered one of the largest known historical medical collections available for study today. After transcribing the hard-to-read notes and translating them into accessible English, a team of researchers at Cambridge University has succeeded in digitizing a fraction of the records.

By visiting the project's website, you can browse Forman and Napier's "cures" for venereal disease ("a plate of lead," "Venice turpentine," and blood-letting), pox (a mixture of roses, violets, boiled crabs, and deer dung), and breastfeeding problems (using suckling puppies to get the milk flowing). Conditions that aren't covered in today's medical classes, such as witchcraft, spiritual possession, and "chastity diseases," are also addressed in the notes.

All 500 digitized case notes are now available to view for free. And in case you thought horrible medical diagnoses were left in the 17th century, here some more terrifying remedies from relatively recent history.

[h/t BBC]

When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Tried Solving a Real Mystery

An 1892 drawing of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, published in The Strand Magazine
An 1892 drawing of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, published in The Strand Magazine
Sidney Paget, Wikimedia // Public Domain

On September 1, 1907, the New York Times wrote:

It looks as if Sir Arthur Conan Doyle will eventually come to be considered an even greater detective than he made out Sherlock Holmes to be.

Doyle had found himself embroiled in a case that captured worldwide media attention for the fact that he, and not his famous sleuth, was trying to solve it. In 1906, a man named George Edalji was freed from prison after being sentenced for the crime of animal cruelty. He stood accused of injuring horses and cattle in Great Wyrley, and also of writing letters threatening to do the same to women. Upon his release, he wrote to Doyle asking for the celebrated author’s help in proving his innocence.

Doyle, who typically turned down such requests, was grieving over his wife's death and was eager for a distraction. He suspected Edalji’s Indian heritage was partly to blame for his conviction, as the Staffordshire police were believed to be racially discriminatory and the physical evidence was flimsy. (Another horse had even been attacked while Edalji was in prison.)

Doyle’s theory of the man’s innocence was largely dependent on his eyesight. In a remarkably Holmes-esque observation during their first meeting, Doyle noted Edalji held his newspaper close to his face. Since the animal mutilations had taken place at night and the criminal would have had to navigate a series of obstacles, he figured Edalji’s vision was too poor for the accusations to make sense.

Once Doyle took up his cause, Edalji became a symbol for injustice. Letters poured in, both to Doyle and to the Daily Telegraph, who had published his argument of Edalji’s innocence. The Scottish writer J.M. Barrie (creator of Peter Pan) wrote to say, “I could not doubt that at all events Edalji had been convicted without any evidence worthy of the name.”

Not everyone was convinced. The chief constable, George Anson, did not appreciate Doyle inserting himself into what police considered a closed case. Doyle was not simply posturing as an amateur sleuth: he was a pest, bombarding Anson almost daily with letters questioning their investigation, offering alternative theories, and using his celebrity to keep the case in the newspapers. Since Edalji had already been freed, his intention was to get some kind of financial compensation for the wrongful conviction. Anson responded unkindly, dismissing Doyle’s ideas and delivering sharp retorts.

Doyle was a “contemptible brute,” Anson remarked.

But the author would not be dissuaded, even when an anonymous letter had been delivered to him that was threatening in tone and insisted Edalji was the guilty party. It led him to believe the guilty party was worried enough to try and shut Doyle’s efforts down. By this point, he had isolated his suspicions to Royden Sharp, a former sailor who was said to be aggressive and once showed off a horse lancet capable of inflicting the wounds seen in the injured animals.

Doyle’s actions, the anonymous correspondent wrote, were “to run the risk of losing kidneys and liver.”

Doyle would later learn the letter was not written by a suspect, but instead commissioned by an unlikely tormentor: Constable Anson.

The officer had become so aggrieved with Doyle that he believed forging this letter would either discourage the author or send him on a wild goose chase. In recently discovered records that went up for auction in 2015, Anson even expressed glee that he had fooled “Sherlock Holmes.”

Despite Anson’s attempts to embarrass Doyle, the author had too large a platform for the Home Office to ignore. In 1907, they pardoned Edalji of the mutilation crimes, which allowed him to return to work as a solicitor. But they refused to apologize or offer any restitution.

Doyle was frustrated by their stubborn reaction, but his efforts had one crucial impact on British law: the publicity surrounding Edalji led to the creation of an official Court of Appeals, easing the process for future defendants.

Though Doyle won over the court of public opinion, he failed to solve the case: Sharp was not seriously investigated by police. Whoever had stalked the horses, cows, and sheep during those nights in Great Wyrley has never been identified.

This story was first published in 2016 and republished in 2019.

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