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The Mysterious Case of Santa Claus's Leaking Bones

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Wikimedia Commons

The body of St. Nicholas—the man Santa Claus is based on—resides in Bari, Italy. The church claims that the bones of the saint are secreting a sweet-smelling water called manna. Every May 9th, the priests remove a small amount of this liquid, which is said to contain healing powers. You can purchase some in the church gift shop. Here’s a video of the priest removing the manna in 2012:

What’s going on here? Why is liquid coming out of St. Nicholas’s tomb?

No Bones About It

The body isn’t even supposed to be in Italy. St. Nicholas was a Greek bishop who lived in Turkey during the 4th Century. Like many early saints, little is known about his life. It’s said that when his wealthy parents died, Nicholas gave away his inheritance to the sick and needy, thus gaining a reputation for generosity. In one story, a poor man was considering selling his three daughters into slavery because he couldn’t afford their wedding dowries. On three separate nights, Nicholas tossed a bag of gold through the window (chimneys hadn’t been invented yet) and saved the daughters from ugly fates. This story is the seed for Santa Claus.

When Nicholas died on December 6, 343 AD—still widely celebrated as Saint Nicholas Day—his grave in Myra became a popular pilgrimage site. In 1087, Italian sailors stole the body and brought it to Italy, supposedly to protect it from invading Seljuk Turks. Today, Bari still celebrates this theft with a citywide festival that includes the removal of the manna and a parade where a statue of St. Nicholas is carried from the harbor to the Basilica Di Nicola. (But not everyone revels in this ancient larceny: Turkey has demanded the body be returned, setting off a debate about who has the right to archeological remains.)

In the 900 years that Nicholas has been in Bari, the remains have been examined only once. In 1953, the tomb was opened for renovations and the bones were measured, x-rayed, and diagramed. At the time, they were found to be in delicate condition. Many bones were missing.

Based on those measurements, Santa Claus was not a jolly fat man, but thin and short with big eyes and an unusually large head. (Here’s a 3D reconstruction of his face.) He also had a broken nose, which support stories that Nicholas had a temper—supposedly, he punched a heretic during the First Council of Nicea.

So what about claims that the body gives off manna? The church says the bones have always leaked. When St. Nicholas died, the tomb in Turkey was supposed to produce fragrant oil that healed everyone who touched it. When the bones were moved to Bari, they continued to ooze liquid, which was bottled up and sent all over the world. Even when the bones were taken out in 1953, they continued to perspire so much that the linen cloth below them was soaking wet.

The Plot Thickens

Bari isn’t the only place that has St. Nicholas’s bones. San Nicoló al Lido in Venice also has some. For years, the two churches argued about who could claim the real Santa Claus. In 1992, Luigi Martino, who also led the Bari study, examined the Venice bones and said they were likely to be the same person. The explanation, such that it is, is that the original sailors may not have removed all the bones from Turkey and the rest were brought to Venice during the first crusades.

Oddly enough, the Venice bones don’t seep liquid, suggesting that whatever the phenomenon is, it’s only happening in Bari. Venice also has a bottle of manna dating back to the 1100s—or so the church thought. In 2002, scientists did analysis and radiocarbon dating on a sample of the manna and found that it was vegetable oil from the 1300s.

Experts say it’s unlikely that St. Nicholas’s body is giving off holy bone-juice that the public can buy for a tidy profit to the church. Instead, humidity may be causing the liquid. Bari is a port town and the marble tomb is below sea level. The priests may simply be collecting condensation.

Whatever the explanation, all that moisture can’t be good for Nicholas’s remains. In the 2004 documentary The Real Face of Santa, a small camera was inserted into the tomb so that forensic scientist Franco Introna could view inside. He was distressed by what he saw. The bones were lying in pools of shallow water and had deteriorated considerably since the 1950s. He said the bones needed to be treated, or they would be gone within 100 years.

“I am a little bit sad because, of course, this is the last remains of St. Nicholas,” he said, adding again that the bones should be preserved. “These bones don’t belong to Bari. They belong to all the world and to all the people that love St. Nicholas.”

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This Just In
A Connecticut Farm Purchased by Mark Twain for His Daughter, Jean Clemens, Is Up for Sale
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Mark Twain—whose wit was matched only by his wanderlust—had many homes throughout his life: a small frame house in Hannibal, Missouri; a Victorian mansion in Hartford, Connecticut; and "Stormfield," a country estate in Redding, Connecticut, just to name a few. Now, the Connecticut Post reports that a farm adjacent to Stormfield, purchased in 1909 by Twain for his daughter, Jean Clemens, is up for sale.

“Jean’s Farm,” as Twain nicknamed the home, is priced at $1,850,000. In addition to a storied literary legacy, the refurbished five-bedroom estate has a saltwater swimming pool, a movie theater, and a children’s play area. It sits on nearly 19 acres of land, making the property “well-sized for a gentleman's farm, for horses, or as a hobby farm,” according to its real estate listing. There’s also a fish pond and a 19th-century barn with an extra apartment.

While scenic, Jean’s Farm has a bittersweet backstory: Jean Clemens, who had epilepsy, enjoyed the pastoral property for only a short time before passing away at the age of 29. She lived in a sanitarium before moving to Stormfield in April 1909, where she served as her father's secretary and housekeeper and made daily trips to her farm. On December 24, 1909, Jean died at Stormfield after suffering a seizure in a bathtub. Twain, himself, would die several months later, on April 21, 1910, at the age of 74.

Twain sold Jean’s Farm after his daughter’s death, and used the proceeds to fund a library in Redding, today called the Mark Twain Library. But despite losing a child, Twain’s years at Stormfield—his very last home—weren’t entirely colored by tragedy. “Although Twain only spent two years here [from 1908 to 1910], it was an important time in the writer’s life,” historian Brent Colely told The Wall Street Journal. “Twain was always having guests over, including his close friend Helen Keller, hosting almost 181 people for visits in the first six months alone, according to guestbooks and notations.”

Check out some photos of Jean’s Farm below, courtesy of TopTenRealEstateDeals.com:

Jean’s Farm, a property in Redding, Connecticut that author Mark Twain purchased for his daughter, Jean Clemens, in 1909.
TopTenRealEstateDeals.com

 Jean’s Farm, a property in Redding, Connecticut that author Mark Twain purchased for his daughter, Jean Clemens, in 1909.
TopTenRealEstateDeals.com

Jean’s Farm, a property in Redding, Connecticut that author Mark Twain purchased for his daughter, Jean Clemens, in 1909.
TopTenRealEstateDeals.com

Jean’s Farm, a property in Redding, Connecticut that author Mark Twain purchased for his daughter, Jean Clemens, in 1909.
TopTenRealEstateDeals.com

[h/t Connecticut Post]

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History
The Dangerous History Behind the Word 'Deadline'
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Nowadays, the word deadline is used all but exclusively to refer to a date or time by which something must be accomplished. But over the centuries, the term has been used in a number of different contexts: Among early 20th-century printers, for instance, a deadline was a line marked on a cylindrical press outside of which text would be illegible, while the Oxford English Dictionary has unearthed a reference to an angler’s “dead-line” dating from the mid-1800s referring to a weighted fishing line that does not move in the water.

The modern sense of deadline, however, may be influenced by a much more dangerous meaning. It originated during the Civil War, and came to prominence during the much-hyped trial of an infamous Swiss-born Confederate leader named Henry Wirz.

Wirz was born Heinrich Hartmann Wirz in Zürich in 1823. In his early twenties, a court forced him to leave Zürich for 12 years after he failed to repay borrowed money, and in 1848 he left first for Russia before eventually settling in America. After working a string of jobs at several spots around the country, Wirz married a woman named Elizabeth Wolf in 1854 and moved to Louisiana. After the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, he enlisted as a private in the Fourth Louisiana Infantry.

One of Wirz’s first engagements in the war was the Battle of Seven Pines on May 31, 1862. He was badly wounded in the fighting, losing the use of his right arm, and when he returned to his unit a few weeks later he was promoted to the rank of captain in recognition of his bravery and service. From there, Wirz rose through the ranks to become an adjutant to John H. Winder, an experienced and high-ranking general overseeing the treatment of Confederate deserters and Union prisoners. In 1864, Wirz was put in control of Camp Sumter, a newly-established internment camp for Union soldiers located near Andersonville in rural Georgia.

Over the remaining 14 months of the war, Camp Sumter grew to become one of the largest prisoner of war camps in the entire Confederacy. At its peak, it held more than 30,000 Union prisoners, all of whom shared an enormous 16.5-acre open-air paddock—conditions inside of which were notoriously grim. Disease and malnutrition were rife, and a lack of clean water, warm clothing, and adequate sanitation led to the deaths of many of the camp’s prisoners. Of the 45,000 Union prisoners held in the Camp at one time or another, it is estimated that almost a third succumbed to Sumter’s squalid and inhumane conditions.

In his defense, Wirz later claimed to have had little real control over the conditions in the camp, and it is certainly true that the day-to-day running of Camp Sumter was a disorganized affair divided among numerous different parties. Incompetence, rather than malice, may have been the cause of many of the camp's horrors.

Execution of Captain Henry Wirtz (i.e. Wirz), C.S.A, adjusting the rope
Execution of Captain Henry Wirz in 1865

In 1865, the war came to an end and Wirz was arrested in Andersonville. He was eventually sent to Washington, and held in the Old Capitol Prison to await trial before a military commission. That fall, more than 150 witnesses—including one of Wirz’s own prison staff and several former prisoners—took to the stand and gave testimony. Many provided damning evidence of Wirz’s harsh treatment of the prisoners (although historians now think some of these testimonies were exaggerated). As accounts of him withholding food and other supplies from prisoners found to have committed even minor offenses were relayed in the press—and as the full extent of the terrible conditions inside Camp Sumter became public—Wirz emerged as a much-vilified symbol of the camp’s inhumane treatment of its Union prisoners.

One of most damning examples of his inhumanity was his implementation of what became known as the Camp’s dead line:

Wirz, still wickedly pursuing his evil purpose, did establish and cause to be designated within the prison enclosure … a “dead line,” being a line around the inner face of the stockade or wall enclosing said prison, and about twenty feet distant and within said stockade; and so established said dead line, which was in many places an imaginary line, in many other places marked by insecure and shifting strips of [boards nailed] upon the tops of small and insecure stakes or posts, he … instructed the prison guard stationed around the top of said stockade to fire upon and kill any of the prisoners aforesaid who might touch, fall upon, pass over or under or across the said “dead line” ...

—Report of the Secretary of War, October 1865

In other words, this deadliest of all deadlines was a line Wirz implemented just inside the inner wall of Camp Sumter. Any prisoner wandering beyond the line would immediately be killed.

Stories like this were all the evidence the court needed: Wirz was found guilty of violating the rights of wartime prisoners, and was hanged on the morning of November 10, 1865.

Widespread press reports of Wirz’s trial and the horrors of Camp Sumter soon led to the word deadline being popularized, and eventually it passed into everyday use—thankfully in a less severe sense.

By the early 20th century, the word’s military connotations had all but disappeared and the familiar meaning of the deadlines we meet—or miss—today emerged by the early 1920s.

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