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15 Historic Wonders Housed in the Vatican's Secret Archives

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First, a caveat: Anyone with a strong grasp of Latin—or a distaste for Dan Brown novels—will warn others not to get too excited about the name of this papal library. Archivum Secretum looks like it would refer to a “secret” archive, but the translation is actually closer to “private archive,” and it serves as a place where the personal documents of all the popes are stored. The contents inside were never intended to be kept secret.

That said, it’s not like just anyone can waltz in and take a peek around. The archives, which were founded in 1612, were completely closed to the public until 1881, when Pope Leo XIII began allowing Catholic scholars to conduct studies amongst the stacks. In recent years, the restrictions on researchers have been relaxed—slightly—but still remain pretty stringent. Only carefully accredited scholars are allowed to enter—journalists, students, and amateur historians are barred. And even if you meet the requirements to view texts from the Archives, no browsing is allowed. Scholars can request up to three folders a day—which can end up being a bit of a gamble, because not everything is cataloged, and some catalogs are written in Italian or Latin. 

Three years ago, however, the Vatican decided to the celebrate the Archive's 400th anniversary by making 100 items available for public viewing for the first time at the Capitoline Museums in Rome. Of course, with 50 miles of shelving and documents dating back to the eighth century, 100 items only scratches the surface. But without unique access—or a plane ticket to Rome—those 100 documents, and any others that have been sourced by scholars, are all we can know of the "Secret Archives." Here are some of the highlights.

1. The papal bull from Pope Leo X excommunicating Martin Luther

On January 3, 1521, Pope Leo X issued the papal bull Decet Romanum Pontificem, which excommunicated Luther, thereby launching the Reformation. The earlier papal-issued Exsurge Domine had given Luther 60 days to recant his condemnation of the Church as outlined in his 95 Theses. Luther responded by burning his copy.

2. A 1530 petition from 81 English clergymen and lords asking Pope Clement VII to annul King Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon

In 1530, an heirless Henry was eager to marry Anne Boleyn—but divorce was not permitted within the Catholic Church. Despite the 3-foot-wide letter signed by 81 Members of Parliament and clergy (including the Archbishop of Canterbury), and threatening language that warned that "a refusal of annulment would require recourse to extreme measures for the good of the kingdom which we would not hesitate to take," Clement refused, resulting in the formation of The Church of England. Many of the seals of the signatories were affixed to the petition with a red ribbon, a practice that is sometimes considered the source of the term “red tape.”

3. Transcripts from the trial of the Knights Templar

After enjoying centuries of wealth and privilege as an elite army during the Crusades, the Knights Templar's prestigious status came to be seen as a liability. In what was likely an effort to avoid his financial debt to the order, Philip IV of France had all the knights arrested on October 13, 1307 and charged with heresy. After years of torture, many admitted to the trumped-up charges and were eventually burned at the stake. Pope Clement ultimately disbanded the Order under intense pressure from Philip. In 2007, the 60-meter-long document that comprises the minutes from the years-long trials was finally made public—revealing that the pope had first intended to pardon the Knights Templar before he was coerced into condemning them.

4. Correspondence relating to the trial of Galileo

Although by the 1600s, scientists were starting to question whether the Earth was really the center of the universe, the Church maintained that it was and persecuted anyone who publicly said otherwise. Physicist and astronomer Galileo Galilei had already been reprimanded for his beliefs in 1616, but had successfully defended himself by claiming that he had simply discussed the idea of a heliocentric universe without necessarily believing it. That argument failed to hold up in 1633, when the investigation under Pope Urban VIII found Galileo "vehemently suspected by this Holy Office of heresy, that is, of having believed and held the doctrine (which is false and contrary to the Holy and Divine Scriptures) that the sun is the center of the world, and that it does not move from east to west, and that the earth does move, and is not the center of the world."

5. and 6. Letters to Pope Pius IX from Abraham Lincoln and from Jefferson Davis

Both were written in 1863, at the height of the American Civil War. In his request that the Pope accept Rufus King as the U.S. representative to the Vatican, Lincoln made no mention of the violence tearing his country apart. Confederate President Davis, on the other hand, detailed the horrors of "the war now waged by the government of the United States against the states and people over which I have been chosen to preside." Jefferson's not-so-subtle angling to have the South recognized as an independent country by the Vatican failed, but only just. In a separate correspondence, the Pope addressed Davis as the President of the Confederate States of America, while Robert E. Lee believed that Pius was the only world leader who recognized the Confederacy.

7. A letter from Michelangelo to Pope Julius II

The letter warned the Pope that the Vatican guards hadn't received their paychecks in three months, and were threatening to walk off the job. It's not clear what ended up happening (or not happening) as a result of the artist's warning.

8. The Papal Bull from Pope Alexander VI splitting the New World

On May 4, 1493—just a year after Christopher Columbus "discovered" the New World—Pope Alexander VI issued the Inter Caetera, which gave Spain control over all new lands 100 leagues away from the Azores and Cape Verde. Effectively, this meant that the eastern part of present-day Brazil would be Portuguese, and the rest of the New World would be Spanish.

9. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception

On December 8, 1854, Pope Pius IX issued the Ineffabilis Deus, officially committing to Apostolic Constitution the belief that Mary was conceived without "original sin."

10. A letter from Mary, Queen of Scots, a few months before her execution

Imprisoned for nearly two decades in England (she fled there after a Scottish revolt, hoping Elizabeth would protect her), Mary, believed to be a threat to the throne, was executed on February 8, 1587. Just a few months before her death, Mary wrote to Pope Sixtus V from her prison cell at Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire, begging him to save her life and professing her Catholic faith, while also railing against her treatment and the alleged illegitimacy of the tribunal that condemned her.

11. A document from 809 CE

The oldest loose parchment kept in the entire archives dates from 809 CE and records part of a donation to a church in Venice.

12. A letter from Clement XII to the deputy of the seventh Dalai Lama

In it, the pope requests protection for a Franciscan mission in Tibet and freedom for the friars to preach the Gospel.

13. The design of a flying machine invented by a Brazilian priest

Wikimedia Commons

Bartolomeu Lourenço de Gusmão, a priest who lived in the then-Portuguese colony of Brazil in the late 1600s and early 1700s, spent his life studying how disparities in density should allow certain objects to float through the air. He made several demonstrations at the court of King John V of Portugal and designed plans for a never-completed flying machine, called the Passarola, which resembled a giant inflated bird.

14. A papal bull issued by Pope Innocent III calling for a new crusade to the Holy Land

Issued in 1198, this effectively launched the Fourth Crusade, which saw the capture of Constantinople by the Crusaders. Although the pope had originally sanctioned the Crusade, the sack of the massive city was so brutal he condemned it as "an example of affliction and the works of Hell."

15. A letter from China's Grand Empress Dowager Helena Wang to Pope Innocent X

Written on a silk scroll, the letter from the Empress, who had converted to Catholicism, appealed to the pope for help after the Qing Dynasty forced the Empress to flee Zhaoqing. Unfortunately, the letter never reached Pope Innocent X—he died before the messenger was able to gain an audience.

All photos courtesy of Getty unless otherwise noted

(c) Field Museum, CSZ5974c, photographer Carl Akeley, used with permission.
The Time Carl Akeley Killed a Leopard With His Bare Hands
(c) Field Museum, CSZ5974c, photographer Carl Akeley, used with permission.
(c) Field Museum, CSZ5974c, photographer Carl Akeley, used with permission.

Carl Akeley had plenty of close encounters with animals in his long career as a naturalist and taxidermist. There was the time a bull elephant had charged him on Mount Kenya, nearly crushing him; the time he was unarmed and charged by three rhinos who missed him, he said later, only because the animals had such poor vision; and the time the tumbling body of a silverback gorilla he'd just shot almost knocked him off a cliff. This dangerous tradition began on his very first trip to Africa, where, on an otherwise routine hunting trip, the naturalist became the prey.

It was 1896. Following stints at Ward’s Natural Science Establishment and the Milwaukee Public Museum, Akeley, 32, had just been appointed chief taxidermist for Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, and he was tasked with gathering new specimens to bolster the 3-year-old museum's fledgling collections. After more than four months of travel and numerous delays, the expedition had reached the plains of Ogaden, a region of Ethiopia, where Akeley hunted for specimens for days without success.

Then, one morning, Akeley managed to shoot a hyena shortly after he left camp. Unfortunately, “one look at his dead carcass was enough to satisfy me that he was not as desirable as I had thought, for his skin was badly diseased,” he later wrote in his autobiography, In Brightest Africa. He shot a warthog, a fine specimen, but what he really wanted was an ostrich—so he left the carcass behind, climbed a termite hill to look for the birds, then took off after a pair he saw in the tall grass.

But the ostriches eluded him at every turn, so he returned to camp and grabbed the necessary tools to cut off the head of his warthog. However, when he and a “pony boy” got to the spot where he’d left the carcass, all that remained was a bloodstain. “A crash in the bushes at one side led me in a hurry in that direction and a little later I saw my pig's head in the mouth of a hyena travelling up the slope of a ridge out of range,” Akeley wrote. “That meant that my warthog specimen was lost, and, having got no ostriches, I felt it was a pretty poor day.”

As the sun began to set, Akeley and the boy turned back to camp. “As we came near to the place where I had shot the diseased hyena in the morning, it occurred to me that perhaps there might be another hyena about the carcass, and feeling a bit ‘sore’ at the tribe for stealing my warthog, I thought I might pay off the score by getting a good specimen of a hyena for the collections,” he wrote. But that carcass was gone, too, with a drag trail in the sand leading into the bush.

Akeley heard a sound, and, irritated, “did a very foolish thing,” firing into the bush without seeing what he was shooting at. He knew, almost immediately, that he'd made a mistake: The answering snarl told him that what he’d fired at was not a hyena at all, but a leopard.

The taxidermist began thinking of all the things he knew about the big cats. A leopard, he wrote,

“... has all the qualities that gave rise to the ‘nine lives’ legend: To kill him you have got to kill him clear to the tip of his tail. Added to that, a leopard, unlike a lion, is vindictive. A wounded leopard will fight to a finish practically every time, no matter how many chances it has to escape. Once aroused, its determination is fixed on fight, and if a leopard ever gets hold, it claws and bites until its victim is in shreds. All this was in my mind, and I began looking about for the best way out of it, for I had no desire to try conclusions with a possibly wounded leopard when it was so late in the day that I could not see the sights of my rifle.”

Akeley beat a hasty retreat. He’d return the next morning, he figured, when he could see better; if he’d wounded the leopard, he could find it again then. But the leopard had other ideas. It pursued him, and Akeley fired again, even though he couldn’t see enough to aim. “I could see where the bullets struck as the sand spurted up beyond the leopard. The first two shots went above her, but the third scored. The leopard stopped and I thought she was killed.”

The leopard had not been killed. Instead, she charged—and Akeley’s magazine was empty. He reloaded the rifle, but as he spun to face the leopard, she leapt on him, knocking it out of his hands. The 80-pound cat landed on him. “Her intention was to sink her teeth into my throat and with this grip and her forepaws hang to me while with her hind claws she dug out my stomach, for this pleasant practice is the way of leopards,” Akeley wrote. “However, happily for me, she missed her aim.” The wounded cat had landed to one side; instead of Akeley’s throat in her mouth, she had his upper right arm, which had the fortuitous effect of keeping her hind legs off his stomach.

It was good luck, but the fight of Akeley’s life had just begun.

Using his left hand, he attempted to loosen the leopard’s hold. “I couldn't do it except little by little,” he wrote. “When I got grip enough on her throat to loosen her hold just a little she would catch my arm again an inch or two lower down. In this way I drew the full length of the arm through her mouth inch by inch.”

He felt no pain, he wrote, “only of the sound of the crushing of tense muscles and the choking, snarling grunts of the beast.” When his arm was nearly free, Akeley fell on the leopard. His right hand was still in her mouth, but his left hand was still on her throat. His knees were on her chest and his elbows in her armpits, “spreading her front legs apart so that the frantic clawing did nothing more than tear my shirt.”

It was a scramble. The leopard tried to twist around and gain the advantage, but couldn’t get purchase on the sand. “For the first time,” Akeley wrote, “I began to think and hope I had a chance to win this curious fight.”

He called for the boy, hoping he’d bring a knife, but received no response. So he held on to the animal and “continued to shove the hand down her throat so hard she could not close her mouth and with the other I gripped her throat in a stranglehold.” He bore down with his full weight on her chest, and felt a rib crack. He did it again—another crack. “I felt her relax, a sort of letting go, although she was still struggling. At the same time I felt myself weakening similarly, and then it became a question as to which would give up first.”

Slowly, her struggle ceased. Akeley had won. He lay there for a long time, keeping the leopard in his death grip. “After what seemed an interminable passage of time I let go and tried to stand, calling to the pony boy that it was finished.” The leopard, he later told Popular Science Monthly, had then shown signs of life; Akeley used the boy’s knife to make sure it was really, truly dead.

Akeley’s arm was shredded, and he was weak—so weak that he couldn’t carry the leopard back to camp. “And then a thought struck me that made me waste no time,” he told Popular Science. “That leopard has been eating the horrible diseased hyena I had killed. Any leopard bite is liable to give one blood poison, but this particular leopard’s mouth must have been exceptionally foul.”

He and the boy must have been quite the sight when they finally made it back to camp. His companions had heard the shots, and figured Akeley had either faced off with a lion or the natives; whatever the scenario, they figured Akeley would prevail or be defeated before they could get to him, so they kept on eating dinner. But when Akeley appeared, with “my clothes ... all ripped, my arm ... chewed into an unpleasant sight, [with] blood and dirt all over me,” he wrote in In Brightest Africa, “my appearance was quite sufficient to arrest attention.”

He demanded all the antiseptics the camp had to offer. After he'd been washed with cold water, “the antiseptic was pumped into every one of the innumerable tooth wounds until my arm was so full of the liquid that an injection in one drove it out of another,” he wrote. “During the process I nearly regretted that the leopard had not won.”

When that was done, Akeley was taken to his tent, and the dead leopard was brought in and laid out next to his cot. Her right hind leg was wounded—which, he surmised, had come from his first shot into the brush, and was what had thrown off her pounce—and she had a flesh wound in the back of her neck where his last shot had hit her, “from the shock of which she had instantly recovered.”

Not long after his close encounter with the leopard, the African expedition was cut short when its leader contracted malaria, and Akeley returned to Chicago. The whole experience, he wrote to a friend later, transported him back to a particular moment at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, which he’d visited after creating taxidermy mounts for the event. “As I struggled to wrest my arm from the mouth of the leopard I recalled vividly a bronze at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, depicting the struggle between a man and bear, the man’s arm in the mouth of the bear,” he wrote. “I had stood in front of this bronze one afternoon with a doctor friend and we discussed the probable sensations of a man in this predicament, wondering whether or not the man would be sensible to the pain of the chewing and the rending of his flesh by the bear. I was thinking as the leopard tore at me that now I knew exactly what the sensations were, but that unfortunately I would not live to tell my doctor friend.”

In the moment, though, there had been no pain, “just the joy of a good fight,” Akeley wrote, “and I did live to tell my [doctor] friend all about it.”

Additional source: Kingdom Under Glass: A Tale of Obsession, Adventure, and One Man's Quest to Preserve the World's Great Animals

Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons // Nigel Parry, USA Network
Meghan Markle Is Related to H.H. Holmes, America’s First Serial Killer, According to New Documentary
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons // Nigel Parry, USA Network
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons // Nigel Parry, USA Network

Between staging paparazzi photos and writing open letters to Prince Harry advising him to call off his wedding, Meghan Markle’s family has been keeping the media pretty busy lately. But it turns out that her bloodline's talent for grabbing headlines dates back much further than the announcement that Markle and Prince Harry were getting hitched—and for much more sinister reasons. According to Meet the Markles, a new television documentary produced for England’s Channel Four, the former Suits star has a distant relation to H.H. Holmes, America’s first serial killer.

The claim comes from Holmes’s great-great-grandson, American lawyer Jeff Mudgett, who recently discovered that he and Markle are eighth cousins. If that connection is correct, then it would mean that Markle, too, is related to Holmes.

While finding out that you’re related—however distantly—to a man believed to have murdered 27 people isn’t something you’d probably want to share with Queen Elizabeth II when asking her to pass the Yorkshire pudding over Christmas dinner, what makes the story even more interesting is that Mudgett believes that his great-great-grandpa was also Jack the Ripper!

Mudgett came to this conclusion based on Holmes’s personal diaries, which he inherited. In 2017, American Ripper—an eight-part History Channel series—investigated Mudgett’s belief that Holmes and Jack were indeed one in the same.

When asked about his connection to Markle, and their shared connection to Holmes—and, possibly, Jack the Ripper—Mudgett replied:

“We did a study with the FBI and CIA and Scotland Yard regarding handwriting analysis. It turns out [H. H. Holmes] was Jack the Ripper. This means Meghan is related to Jack the Ripper. I don’t think the Queen knows. I am not proud he is my ancestor. Meghan won’t be either.”

Shortly thereafter he clarified his comments via his personal Facebook page:

In the 130 years since Jack the Ripper terrorized London’s Whitechapel neighborhood, hundreds of names have been put forth as possible suspects, but authorities have never been able to definitively conclude who committed the infamous murders. So if Alice's Adventures in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll could have done it, why not the distant relative of the royal family's newest member?

[h/t: ID CrimeFeed]


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