8 Lesser-Known Miracles of Christian Saints

Whether or not you attended Sunday school, keeping track of all the Christian saints is an almost superhuman undertaking: Religion and culture writer Peter Stanford estimates that there are 10,000 recognized in Catholicism alone. And while stories about the deeds of some holy healers and leaders remain popular decades or centuries after they were first told, many of the most surprising miracles have been forgotten. Here are just eight you might not know about.

1. ST. DENIS CARRIES HIS OWN HEAD THROUGH THE STREETS OF PARIS.

St. Denis, first bishop of Paris, was reportedly martyred along with his companions St. Eleutherius and St. Rusticus by the local governor Sissinius (probably during Emperor Decius’s persecution of Christians in the 3rd century) after they converted a number of pagans to the Christian faith. Little is known about the details of the martyrdom other than that the three men were reportedly tortured and decapitated near Paris; their followers recovered the bodies, which were laid to rest where the Abbey of St. Denis was built centuries later.

As Phyllis G. Jestice, scholar and author of Holy People of the World: A Cross-cultural Encyclopedia, Volume 1, points out, however, the legend of St. Denis's most famous miracle describes his journey to his final resting place as happening rather differently. A late 5th-century text established the still-popular tale of St. Denis carrying his own decapitated head post-execution several miles from what's currently Montmartre to where the Benedictine abbey at Saint Denis currently stands.

2. ST. BLAAN CREATES FIRE WITH HIS FINGERTIPS.

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Believed to have been active in the 6th century, the Scottish bishop St. Blaan is credited with several miracles, including lighting fires on at least one occasion using only his hands. James King Hewison’s 1893 text describes the initial legendary incident:

One day while [worshippers] were busy psalm-singing, the fires, which were left in charge of Blaan, all went out. He, wishing no one to incur the blame of the saint, offered up prayer, whereupon fire sparkled from his finger-tips like flashes from a flint when it is struck.

While producing fire from one’s fingertips is an amazing act in any era, for monks from the Middle Ages—who were tasked with the long process of making a fire—the term miraculous was apt. As Paul Burns' revised edition of Alban Butler's Lives of the Saints observes, "This and other curious miracles ascribed to Blaan testify to the harsh conditions of the age and place, and to what, under them, was an appropriately exceptional achievement."

3. ST. BRIGIT ENDOWS WATER WITH THE POWER OF LOVE …

Brigit (or Brigid) of Kildare has been a venerated Catholic figure since not long after her death circa 525 CE, according to Jestice, and is one of Ireland's three patron saints. During her life of chastity and Christian service, she reportedly performed or received many miracles—ranging from the healing of ailing beggars to hanging her cold, wet clothes on a sunbeam—and once assisted a man whose wife had lost her spark for the marriage, according to Lady Gregory Augusta's 1908 collection of folk knowledge and lore regarding saints:

There came to her one time a man making his complaint that his wife would not sleep with him but was leaving him, and he came asking a spell from Brigit that would bring back her love. And Brigit blessed water for him, and it is what she said: "Bring that water into your house, and put it in the food and in the drink and on the bed." And after he had done that, his wife gave him great love, so that she could not be as far on the other side of the house from him, but was always at his hand.

According to the legend, though, this miraculous change may have come with a price: Later on, when the man had just embarked upon a journey at sea, he saw that his wife had followed him to the shore and, unable to cross the patch of water now separating them, said "that if he would not come back to her, she would go into the sea that was between them."

4. ... AND TURNS HER BATHWATER INTO BEER.

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Today, St. Brigit is still well known for her legendary appreciation of beer, which pops up throughout accounts of her life and work (miraculous and otherwise). Lady Gregory, for example, includes the following in her list of “Things Brigit Wished For” as the saint’s very first desire: "I would wish a great lake of ale for the King of Kings; I would wish the family of Heaven to be drinking it through life and time."

According to legend, though, she didn’t just wish for beer; she also produced it by miraculous means. Max Nelson’s The Barbarian's Beverage: A History of Beer in Ancient Europe notes that various texts refer to the miracle of St. Brigid turning her bathwater into beer so that she may better host some last-minute visiting clerics, and even a hymnal reference in which she “seems to turn water into mead.”

5. DON BOSCO GETS HELP FROM IL GRIGIO, HIS GUARDIAN DOG.

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According to Dr. Charles d’Espiney’s 1884 account of the life and works of Don Bosco, a.k.a. St. John Bosco, the 19th-century Italian priest was at times accompanied by a large dog that would mostly appear in times of need, and whose dark gray coat earned him the nickname Il Grigio. In her 1885 re-telling of d’Espiney’s narrative of the saint, Elizabeth Raymond-Barker explains that the huge dog’s initial appearance one dark night was as sudden and mysterious as many of its subsequent ones, but that it quickly became the priest’s trusted companion:

[Don Bosco] had begun to cross [a] lonesome tract, [when] he suddenly saw by his side an enormous grey dog. A first feeling of alarm was removed by the gentleness of the splendid creature, which, after gambolling round him, walked quietly by his side until it saw him safely indoors. From this time, when Don Bosco had been detained in Turin until after dusk, he was joined almost invariably, as soon as he had left the town, by his foot-footed friend.

Il Grigio appeared sporadically throughout Don Bosco’s later life, repeatedly keeping him safe on lonely walks home and once helping the saint find his way when lost on a late-night journey. The pup reportedly saved the saint's life from would-be assassins in an escalating series of attacks, too, but Don Bosco's ability to communicate with and call off Il Grigio ensured that his attackers never ended up as mincemeat themselves. 

The dog wasn’t all business, either, and—while he reportedly never took food or drink from the priest’s grateful followers—he welcomed affection from Don Bosco and from the children of the church’s playground, too; according to Barker, "At first inclined to be shy of this new acquaintance, [they quickly] hailed him as a playfellow: some mounted his back, some stroked his silken ears, and they took him thus to the refectory."

6. ST. MARTIN DE PORRES BROKERS PEACE WITH THE RAT POPULATION.

Born in 1579, St. Martin de Porres, who the African American Registry calls “the first black saint in the Americas,” led a very busy, abstinent, and accomplished life in Lima, Peru. His very hard work as a servant—the only job he was permitted to take at the Dominicans of Holy Rosary Priory—inspired the order to rethink its ethnic barriers and even promote him to the un-ordained position of lay brother, while his exceptional abilities as a surgeon and healer caused a steady stream of patients near and far to seek his help throughout his life.

His reverence for life didn’t end with human beings, though; popular legend has it that, when he was asked to set out poison for a population of rats that was irksome to the resident prior, the vegetarian and future saint did as he was asked but then called out for them in the convent’s garden, told them about the poison, and got them to agree not to bother the prior anymore.

7. ST. GUTHLAC EXORCISES A DEMON WITH HIS BELT.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The medieval monk fought evil in various forms throughout his life in the 7th and early 8th centuries, and was legendarily given a protective whip or scourge by St. Bartholomew for use on demons. However, he also made use of his own belt (or “girdle”) when necessary; the item was “good against headache,” William George Black points out, and even allowed St. Guthlac to free a man from demonic clutches, according to The Anglo-Saxon Version of the Life of St. Guthlac, Hermit of Crowland

[A] follower of the aforesaid exile Athelbald, whose name was Eega, was disquieted by the accursed spirit. And he plagued himself so severely that he had no recollection of himself. Then his relations brought him to the man of God. As soon as he came to him he girded him with his girdle. No sooner was he girded with the girdle than all the uncleanness departed from him, and the illness never after ailed him.

8. ST. NICHOLAS BEGINS FASTING ON HOLY DAYS AS A BABY.

The 4th-century saint and bishop Nicholas of Myra performed various miracles throughout his life, and is perhaps best known today in his jelly-bellied, white-haired version. However, he famously kicked off a lifetime (and then some) of miraculous behavior while he was still in the cradle. Author Giles Morgan notes that St. Nick “demonstrated an early interest in religion as a child [and] is sometimes shown [in religious art] as an infant refusing to drink milk from his mother's breasts on Wednesdays and Fridays as an act of fledgling piety because these were days of canonical fasting.”

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The Body
10 Facts About the Appendix
Illustration by Mental Floss / Images: iStock
Illustration by Mental Floss / Images: iStock

Despite some 500 years of study, the appendix might be one of the least understood structures in the human body. Here's what we know about this mysterious organ.

1. THE ANCIENT EGYPTIANS CALLED IT THE "WORM" OF THE BOWEL.

The human appendix is small, tube-shaped, and squishy, giving ancient Egyptians, who encountered it when preparing bodies for funerary rites, the impression of a worm. Even today, some medical texts refer to the organ as vermiform—Latin for "worm-like."

2. THE APPENDIX SHOWS UP IN LEONARDO DA VINCI’S DRAWINGS.

The earliest description of a human appendix was written by the Renaissance physician-anatomist Jacopo Berengario da Carpi in 1521. But before that, Leonardo da Vinci is believed to drawn the first depiction of the organ in his anatomical drawings in 1492. Leonardo claimed to have dissected 30 human corpses in his effort to understand the way the body worked from mechanical and physiological perspectives.

3. IT'S ABOUT THE SIZE OF A PINKY FINGER.

The appendix is a small pouch connected to the cecum—the beginning of the large intestine in the lower right-hand corner of your abdomen. The cecum’s job is to receive undigested food from the small intestine, absorb fluids and salts that remain after food is digested, and mix them with mucus for easier elimination; according to Mohamad Abouzeid, M.D., assistant professor and attending surgeon at NYU Langone Medical Center, the cecum and appendix have similar tissue structures.

4. CHARLES DARWIN THOUGHT IT WAS A VESTIGIAL ORGAN …

The appendix has an ill-deserved reputation as a vestigial organ—meaning that it allegedly evolved without a detectable function—and we can blame Charles Darwin for that. In the mid-19th century, the appendix had been identified only in humans and great apes. Darwin thought that our earlier ancestors ate mostly plants, and thus needed a large cecum in which to break down the tough fibers. He hypothesized that over time, apes and humans evolved to eat a more varied and easier-to-digest diet, and the cecum shrank accordingly. The appendix itself, Darwin believed, emerged from the folds of the wizened cecum without its own special purpose.

5. … BUT THE APPENDIX PROBABLY EVOLVED TO HELP IMMUNE FUNCTION.

The proximity and tissue similarities between the cecum and appendix suggest that the latter plays a part in the digestive process. But there’s one noticeable difference in the appendix that you can see only under a microscope. “[The appendix] has a high concentration of the immune cells within its walls,” Abouzeid tells Mental Floss.

Recent research into the appendix's connection to the immune system has suggested a few theories. In a 2015 study in Nature Immunology, Australian researchers discovered that a type of immune cells called innate lymphoid cells (ILCs) proliferate in the appendix and seem to encourage the repopulation of symbiotic bacteria in the gut. This action may help the gut recover from infections, which tend to wipe out fluids, nutrients, and good bacteria.

For a 2013 study examining the evolutionary rationale for the appendix in mammal species, researchers at Midwestern University and Duke University Medical Center concluded that the organ evolved at least 32 times among different lineages, but not in response to dietary or environmental factors.

The same researchers analyzed 533 mammal species for a 2017 study and found that those with appendices had more lymphatic (immune) tissue in the cecum. That suggests that the nearby appendix could serve as "a secondary immune organ," the researchers said in a statement. "Lymphatic tissue can also stimulate growth of some types of beneficial gut bacteria, providing further evidence that the appendix may serve as a 'safe house' for helpful gut bacteria." This good bacteria may help to replenish healthy flora in the gut after infection or illness.

6. ABOUT 7 PERCENT OF AMERICANS WILL GET APPENDICITIS DURING THEIR LIFETIMES.

For such a tiny organ, the appendix gets infected easily. According to Abouzeid, appendicitis occurs when the appendix gets plugged by hardened feces (called a fecalith or appendicolith), too much mucus, or the buildup of immune cells after a viral or bacterial infection. In the United States, the lifetime risk of getting appendicitis is one in 15, and incidence in newly developed countries is rising. It's most common in young adults, and most dangerous in the elderly.

When infected, the appendix swells up as pus fills its interior cavity. It can grow several times larger than its average 3-inch size: One inflamed appendix removed from a British man in 2004 measured just over 8 inches, while another specimen, reported in 2007 in the Journal of Clinical Pathology, measured 8.6 inches. People with appendicitis might feel generalized pain around the bellybutton that localizes on the right side of the abdomen, and experience nausea or vomiting, fever, or body aches. Some people also get diarrhea.

7. APPENDECTOMIES ARE ALMOST 100 PERCENT EFFECTIVE FOR TREATING APPENDICITIS.

Treatment for appendicitis can go two ways: appendectomy, a.k.a. surgical removal of the appendix, or a first line of antibiotics to treat the underlying infection. Appendectomies are more than 99 percent effective against recurring infection, since the organ itself is removed. (There have been cases of "stump appendicitis," where an incompletely removed appendix becomes infected, which often require further surgery.)

Studies show that antibiotics produce about a 72 percent initial success rate. “However, if you follow these patients out for about a year, they often get recurrent appendicitis,” Abouzeid says. One 2017 study in the World Journal of Surgery followed 710 appendicitis patients for a year after antibiotic treatment and found a 26.5 percent recurrence rate for subsequent infections.

8. AN INFECTED APPENDIX DOESN’T ACTUALLY BURST.

You might imagine a ruptured appendix, known formally as a perforation, being akin to the "chestbuster" scene in Alien. Abouzeid says it's not quite that dramatic, though it can be dangerous. When the appendix gets clogged, pressure builds inside the cavity of the appendix, called the lumen. That chokes off blood supply to certain tissues. “The tissue dies off and falls apart, and you get perforation,” Abouzeid says. But rather than exploding, the organ leaks fluids that can infect other tissues.

A burst appendix is a medical emergency. Sometimes the body can contain the infection in an abscess, Abouzeid says, which may be identified through CT scans or X-rays and treated with IV antibiotics. But if the infection is left untreated, it can spread to other parts of the abdomen, a serious condition called peritonitis. At that point, the infection can become life-threatening.

9. SURGEONS CAN REMOVE AN APPENDIX THROUGH A TINY INCISION.

In 1894, Charles McBurney, a surgeon at New York's Roosevelt Hospital, popularized an open-cavity, muscle-splitting technique [PDF] to remove an infected appendix, which is now called an open appendectomy. Surgeons continued to use McBurney's method until the advent of laparoscopic surgery, a less invasive method in which the doctor makes small cuts in the patient's abdomen and threads a thin tube with a camera and surgical tools into the incisions. The appendix is removed through one of those incisions, which are usually less than an inch in length.

The first laparoscopic appendectomies were performed by German physician Kurt Semm in the early 1980s. Since then, laparoscopic appendectomies have become the standard treatment for uncomplicated appendicitis. For more serious infections, open appendectomies are still performed.

10. AN APPENDIX ONCE POSTPONED A ROYAL CORONATION.

When the future King Edward VII of Great Britain came down with appendicitis (or "perityphlitis," as it was called back then) in June 1902, mortality rates for the disease were as high as 26 percent. It was about two weeks before his scheduled coronation on June 26, 1902, and Edward resisted having an appendectomy, which was then a relatively new procedure. But surgeon and appendicitis expert Frederick Treves made clear that Edward would probably die without it. Treves drained Edward's infected abscess, without removing the organ, at Buckingham Palace; Edward recovered and was crowned on August 9, 1902.

11. THE WORLD'S LONGEST APPENDIX MEASURED MORE THAN 10 INCHES.

On August 26, 2006, during an autopsy at a Zagreb, Croatia hospital, surgeons obtained a 10.24-inch appendix from 72-year-old Safranco August. The deceased currently holds the Guinness World Record for "largest appendix removed."

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History
13 Incredible Facts About Frederick Douglass
Photo Illustration: Mental Floss. Douglass: Glasshouse Images, Alamy. Backgrounds: iStock
Photo Illustration: Mental Floss. Douglass: Glasshouse Images, Alamy. Backgrounds: iStock

The list of Frederick Douglass's accomplishments is astonishing—respected orator, famous writer, abolitionist, civil rights leader, presidential consultant—even without considering that he was a former slave with no formal education. In honor of his birth 200 years ago, here are 13 incredible facts about the life of Frederick Douglass.

1. HE BARTERED BREAD FOR KNOWLEDGE.

Because Douglass was a slave, he wasn't allowed to learn to read or write. A wife of a Baltimore slave owner did teach him the alphabet when he was around 12, but she stopped after her husband interfered. Young Douglass took matters into his own hands, cleverly fitting in a reading lesson whenever he was on the street running errands for his owner. As he detailed in his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, he'd carry a book with him while out and about and trade small pieces of bread to the white kids in his neighborhood, asking them to help him learn to read the book in exchange.

2. HE CREDITED A SCHOOLBOOK FOR SHAPING HIS VIEWS ON HUMAN RIGHTS.

Engraving of Frederick Douglass, circa the 1850s.
Engraving of Frederick Douglass, circa the 1850s.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

During his youth, Douglass obtained a copy of The Columbian Orator, a collection of essays, dialogues, and speeches on a range of subjects, including slavery. Published in 1797, the Orator was required reading for most schoolchildren in the 1800s and featured 84 selections from authors like Cicero and Milton. Abraham Lincoln was also influenced by the collection when he was first starting in politics.

3. HE TAUGHT OTHER SLAVES TO READ.

While he was hired out to a farmer named William Freeland, a teenaged Douglass taught fellow slaves to read the New Testament—but a mob of locals soon broke up the classes. Undeterred, Douglas began the classes again, sometimes teaching as many as 40 people.

4. HIS FIRST WIFE HELPED HIM ESCAPE FROM SLAVERY.

Portrait of Anna Murray Douglass, Frederick Douglass's first wife.
First published in Rosetta Douglass Sprague's book My Mother As I Recall Her, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Anna Murray was an independent laundress in Baltimore and met Douglass at some point in the mid-1830s. Together they hatched a plan, and one night in 1838, Douglass took a northbound train clothed in a sailor's uniform procured by Anna, with money from her savings in his pocket alongside papers from a sailor friend. About 24 hours later, he arrived in Manhattan a free man. Anna soon joined him, and they married on September 15, 1838.

5. HE CALLED OUT HIS FORMER OWNER.

In an 1848 open letter in the newspaper he owned and published, The North Star, Douglass wrote passionately about the evils of slavery to his former owner, Thomas Auld, saying "I am your fellow man, but not your slave." He also inquired after his family members who were still enslaved a decade after his escape.

6. HE TOOK HIS NAME FROM A POEM.

He was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, but after escaping slavery, Douglass used assumed names to avoid detection. Arriving in New Bedford, Massachusetts, Douglass, then using the surname "Johnson," felt there were too many other Johnsons in the area to distinguish himself. He asked his host (ironically named Nathan Johnson) to suggest a new name, and Mr. Johnson came up with Douglas, a character in Sir Walter Scott's poem The Lady of the Lake.

7. HE'S CALLED THE 19TH CENTURY'S MOST PHOTOGRAPHED AMERICAN.

Portrait of Frederick Douglass
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

There are 160 separate portraits of Douglass, more than Abraham Lincoln or Walt Whitman, two other heroes of the 19th century. Douglass wrote extensively on the subject during the Civil War, calling photography a "democratic art" that could finally represent black people as humans rather than "things." He gave his portraits away at talks and lectures, hoping his image could change the common perceptions of black men.

8. HE REFUSED TO CELEBRATE THE 4TH OF JULY.

Douglass was well-known as a powerful orator, and his July 5, 1852 speech to a group of hundreds of abolitionists in Rochester, New York, is considered a masterwork. Entitled "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July," the speech ridiculed the audience for inviting a former slave to speak at a celebration of the country who enslaved him. "This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine," he famously said to those in attendance. "Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day?" Douglass refused to celebrate the holiday until all slaves were emancipated and laws like the Compromise of 1850, which required citizens (including northerners) to return runaway slaves to their owners, were negated.

9. HE RECRUITED BLACK SOLDIERS FOR THE CIVIL WAR.

The Union attack on Fort Wagner, Charleston, during the American Civil War. The fort was under attack from July 18 to September 7, 1863, by soldiers including the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first African-American regiment in the U.S. Army.
The Union attack on Fort Wagner, Charleston, during the American Civil War. The fort was under attack from July 18 to September 7, 1863, by soldiers including the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first African-American regiment in the U.S. Army.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Douglass was a famous abolitionist by the time the war began in 1861. He actively petitioned President Lincoln to allow black troops in the Union army, writing in his newspaper: "Let the slaves and free colored people be called into service, and formed into a liberating army, to march into the South and raise the banner of Emancipation among the slaves." After Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Douglass worked tirelessly to enlist black soldiers, and two of his sons would join the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, famous for its contributions in the brutal battle of Fort Wagner.

10. HE SERVED UNDER FIVE PRESIDENTS.

Later in life, Douglass became more of a statesman, serving in highly appointed federal positions, including U.S. Marshal for D.C., Recorder of Deeds for D.C., and Minister Resident and Consul General to Haiti. Rutherford B. Hayes was the first to appoint Douglass to a position in 1877, and Presidents Garfield, Arthur, Cleveland, and Benjamin Harrison each sought his counsel in various positions as well.

11. HE WAS NOMINATED FOR VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES.

As part of the Equal Rights Party ticket in 1872, Douglass was nominated as a VP candidate, with Victoria Woodhull as the Presidential candidate. (Woodhull was the first-ever female presidential candidate, which is why Hillary Clinton was called "the first female presidential candidate from a major party" during the 2016 election.) However, the nomination was made without his consent, and Douglass never acknowledged it (and Woodhull's candidacy itself is controversial because she wouldn't have been old enough to be president on Inauguration Day). Also, though he was never a presidential candidate, he did receive one vote at each of two nomination conventions.

12. HIS SECOND MARRIAGE STIRRED UP CONTROVERSY.

Frederick Douglass with Helen Pitts Douglass (seated, right) and her sister Eva Pitts (standing, center), circa the 1880s.
Frederick Douglass with Helen Pitts Douglass (seated, right) and her sister Eva Pitts (standing, center), circa the 1880s.

Two years after his first wife, Anna, died of a stroke in 1882, Douglass married Helen Pitts, a white abolitionist and feminist who was 20 years younger than him. Even though she was the daughter of an abolitionist, Pitts's family (which had ancestral ties directly to the Mayflower) disapproved and disowned her—showing just how taboo interracial marriage was at the time. The black community also questioned why their most prominent spokesperson chose to marry a white woman, regardless of her politics. But despite the public's and their families' reaction, the Douglasses had a happy marriage and were together until his death in 1895 of a heart attack.

13. AFTER EARLY SUCCESS, HIS NARRATIVE WENT OUT OF PRINT.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself, his seminal autobiography, was heralded a success when it came out in 1845, with some estimating that 5000 copies sold in the first few months; the book was also popular in Ireland and Britain. But post-Civil War, as the country moved toward reconciliation and slave narratives fell out favor, the book went out of print. The first modern publication appeared in 1960—during another important era for the fight for civil rights. It is now available for free online.

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