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The 19th Century Aristocrat Who Literally Painted The Town Red

Wikimedia Commons // iStock

If you paint the town red, then you have a riotously, recklessly good time. But what does painting—and, for that matter, painting things red—have to do with what the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines as “to go out drinking, dancing, etc.”?

Well, as always with these kinds of things, there are a number of etymological theories. But English folklore will have you believe that the phrase alludes to one drunken night, and one drunken aristocrat, in particular.

According to legend, at the root of painting the town red is Henry de la Poer Beresford. Despite being an Eton- and Oxford-educated aristocrat (he became the 3rd Marquess of Waterford after the death of his father in 1826) Beresford was a notorious hooligan, whose entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography perfectly sums up his character:

"[Beresford] returned to Eton in 1838 to steal the headmaster’s whipping block, an exploit [he] celebrated with an annual dinner. He matriculated at Christ Church, Oxford, in 1829, but was invited to leave, and for the next decade he was to be found most frequently at the racetrack, on the hunting-field, or in the police courts. His favoured companions were young 'sporting men,' prize-fighters, and prostitutes; powerfully built, rich, and with an uncontrolled sense of humour, it amused him to challenge passers-by to fight him, to break windows, to upset (literally) apple carts … When, as frequently occurred, his activities landed him in court, he laughed at (and paid) the derisory fines which were designed to control the excesses of the working class, not those of the apparently limitlessly wealthy aristocracy."

In fact, Beresford’s extraordinary and seemingly unstoppable misbehavior even saw him considered a suspect in the unsolved case of Spring-Heeled Jack, an acrobatic fire-breathing reprobate who terrorized London in the late 1830s, half a century before Jack the Ripper. But Beresford’s bad behavior appears to have been more hedonistic than it was dangerous or anarchic—as evidenced by the night he and his friends spent in the sleepy Leicestershire countryside.

In the early hours of April 6, 1837, Beresford and a group of companions arrived at the tollgate of Melton Mowbray, a small town about 20 miles outside of Nottingham. After a day of gambling, hunting, and (all but non-stop) drinking at the Croxton Park races, Beresford and his crew were in typically boisterous form—and in no mood to be held up by a sleepy tollgate operator. Unfortunately for the operator, the gatehouse was in the midst of being repaired and alongside it were strewn workmen’s ladders, tools, and pots of paint. Seeing an opportunity for mischief, Beresford grabbed the paint and began daubing it over the tollgate (and, according to the story, the tollgate keeper himself). From there, he and his friends headed into town.

In the center of Melton Mowbray, Beresford’s riotous group continued their unruly rampage. The pub sign was torn down. The post office window was smashed. Gardens were trampled. A police constable who tried to intervene was knocked to the ground. And through it all, everything—walls, windows, doors, signposts, and even the policeman’s face and neck—were daubed in bright red paint.

The following morning, the people of Melton Mowbray were in an uproar. Beresford and his companions were promptly arrested and made to cover the cost of all repairs; eventually, they were charged with common assault, and fined an eye-watering £100 each (equivalent to more than $12,000 today). Beresford’s night of quite literally “painting the town red” had cost him dearly.

There’s no doubt that Beresford’s night of unruliness certainly took place: Records from the Derby Assizes document Beresford’s sentencing, and an article published in New Sporting Magazine in 1838 described a notorious “spree” that “took place in Melton Mowbray last season,” immortalized in an illustration by an artist named “Mr. R. Ackermann [of] 191 Regent Street.” In the picture, an unnamed group of gentlemen in scarlet-colored hunting jackets are depicted daubing paint on the sign of the local pub and attacking a police officer:

"Three gentlemen in scarlet coats, small-clothes, and silk stockings … are seen engaged in painting the sign of the White Swan red; and two others of the same class are perceived painting the window of the Post Office in the same manner. Another of those 'bloods' is making a stroke with his brush at the back of a flying watchman; two others, like regular gutter-bullies, are engaged in personal contest with two watchmen, and three MEN in scarlet have a single watchman down and are daubing his face with paint."

But as genuine as Beresford’s actions were, there’s a problem when it comes to connecting his paint-throwing night in Melton Mowbray with the origin of painting the town red: The expression did not appear in print until July 1883, almost half a century after Beresford’s night on the tiles. Not only that, but its earliest written record comes not from some local Leicestershire newspaper, but from The New York Times:

"Mr. James Hennessy offered a resolution that the entire body proceed forthwith to Newark and get drunk … Then the Democrats charged upon the street cars, and being wafted into Newark proceeded, to use their own metaphor, to 'paint the town red.'"

Could the events of April 6, 1837 really have inspired an expression that not only found its way across the Atlantic, but that no one sought to put in print for another 50 years? It seems unlikely—and instead, several more straightforward theories have been proposed.

Perhaps painting the town red alludes to the reddishness of a drinker’s face or nose, or else to blood spilled in drunken bar brawls or arguments? Perhaps it alludes to the bright red color of celebratory fireworks, or to revelers who stay up so late that they see in the dawn? Or perhaps it’s a reference to shady red light districts, or to the bleary red eyes of heavy drinkers or partiers? They’re all plausible theories. But until any further written evidence is unearthed, all we can presume is that the expression painting the town red first emerged in mid- to late 19th-century American slang, before steadily gaining wider currency elsewhere. And whether the Marquess of Beresford literally “painting a town red” is its true inspiration or not, it’s still a superb etymological side note.

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

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