The Dead Have Something to Tell You

C. H. Huyberts: Frontispiece to Frederik Ruysch's Icon duraematrix, Amsterdam 1738
C. H. Huyberts: Frontispiece to Frederik Ruysch’s Icon duraematrix, Amsterdam 1738

On Sunday, the New York Times ran an opinion piece I wrote about Halloween, famous body parts, and the benefits of contemplating your own mortality. I’ve been honored by the response! Read the piece here.

A Bone to Pick: Relic Thefts In the News

The relic thieves have struck again! According to German news outlet The Local, police are seeking thieves who stole a mummified “liar’s hand” from a church in Legden, North Rhine-Westphalia. (Gruesome photo at the link.)

To be clear, the hand isn’t the relic of a saint—in fact, it’s not clear who it originally belonged to. The Telegraph explains, “Known as the ‘perjury-hand’, local legend dictates that it was severed from its owner when he or she broke an oath, and to serve as a bloody lesson to anybody else contemplating straying from the truth. But nobody knows the real history behind the hand other than that it was discovered preserved in lime during the demolition of an old fortified town in 1905.” In fact, locals had just raised enough money to send the mysterious item to Düsseldorf University for tests to determine its age and the sex of its owner.

The world has been plagued by a spate of thefts of mummified body parts—and their accessories—over the past year and a half. This past March, the 900-year-old heart of 12th century Irish saint St. Laurence O’Toole was stolen from a church in Dublin. In February, also in Ireland, a burglar stole a valuable shrine that normally contains part of cheekbone of St. Brigid. (The bone was out at the cleaners; hat tip to Christine Quigley for news of that theft.)

Christ Church, Heart of Archbishop Saint-Laurence O’Toole. Photo by Chickpea, via Creative Commons on Flickr

In October 2011, three “relics of the true cross” were taken from Holy Cross Abbey in Ireland, while in June 2011 in California, a bone said to be from St. Anthony’s body was stolen from a Long Beach Catholic church. In the latter two cases, both of the relics were later recovered.

(Then there’s the Czech whack job who claimed this past summer to have plundered the Vienna graves of composers Strauss and Brahms, but that’s a different story.)

There’s a long history of relic thefts in the Catholic Church, though for a variety of reasons. In the Middle Ages, owning a fragment of a major saint—their tongue, say, or a scrap of their cloak—could establish your church as a must-see pilgrimage destination, providing a steam of both pilgrims and revenue. Eventually, relics became scarce enough that towns and churches began stealing them from one another—under the cover of night or in all-out assault.

According to medieval historian Patrick Geary, such thefts were known as “sacra furta,” or holy theft, and they weren’t seen as an ethical problem. Because the relics were viewed as the representative of the saint on earth, the bones, tongues, or bits of cloth were thought to have their own personalities. If they didn’t want to be stolen—or “translated”—they wouldn’t allow it. A successful theft meant the saint wanted to come with you.

Two of the most famous thefts of the Middle Ages concern Saint Mark and Saint Nicholas. In 828, Venetian merchants smuggled bones supposedly belonging to Saint Mark from Alexandria to Venice; the story goes that the relics were covered in a layer of pork to prevent the local Muslims from interfering. In 1087, sailors from Bari (now part of Italy) stole Saint Nicholas’s bones from Myra (now Demre, Turkey). The perfume of his “manna,” or “bone oil,” was said to be a sign that the saint approved of his move.

I discuss the theft of Saint Nicholas (the inspiration for Santa Claus) in Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses. For those who want to more about medieval relic theft, I highly recommend Patrick Geary’s book Furta Sacra: Thefts of Relics in the Central Middle Ages. And if anyone reading this works at a Catholic Church, I highly recommend hiring some additional security guards.

Cowboy Outlaw

There’s always a moment in these stories where someone makes a really gruesome discovery. In the case of Elmer McCurdy, outlaw, that moment came in 1976, when a camera crew preparing for an episode of the Six Million Dollar Man accidentally dislocated Elmer’s arm, thinking he was a mannequin in an amusement park. True, he was spray painted day-glo orange, and was entirely dead, but Elmer had once been alive, and that’s no way to treat a former human.

Recently, my officemate Kevin filled me in on the details of McCurdy’s story, and a wonderful song that has been written in his honor. Here’s a rundown of the tale from The New York Times:

In December 1976 a very dead body was found hanging in a rundown Long Beach, Calif., amusement park ride called ”Laff-in-the-Dark.” The grotesque discovery was made during a location shoot for the television series ”The Six Million Dollar Man,” and though the glow-in-the-dark painted corpse had nothing to do with the plot, the irrepressible show business newspaper Variety headlined its story ”Bionic Man Meets Dummy Mummy.” Local officials quickly determined that the body in question was indeed a mummy, but not one from some ancient civilization. An autopsy revealed not only its American origin but also its all-too-American way of death: fragments were found of a bullet that had blasted its way diagonally through the torso to lodge in the left hipbone. Ticket stubs for a Los Angeles ”Museum of Crime” some yokel had slipped in its mouth, along with a corroded penny dated 1924, provided a starting place for investigators; they soon came up with the name of Elmer McCurdy, an Oklahoma outlaw who was killed by a posse in 1911 after a botched train robbery.

For the rest of the story, read the Times article or check out the summary on Snopes. If you’re really curious, there are at least two books on the subject. There’s also a lovely song, written by the inimitable Brian Dewan. An excerpt of the lyrics appears below:

He was sprayed a special color to help him look a fright,
And they hung him from a gallows ‘neath an ultra-violet light.
He hung there in a spookhouse for many, many years,
As youthful faces passed him by in tiny railroad cars.

Until one fine and fateful day in 1976,
He fell down from the gallows when the hangman’s noose unhitched.
His arm broke at the shoulder as he clattered to the floor
And the man who went to fix him was stunned by what he saw.

And the teenage boys did holler, and the teenage girls did faint,
When they saw the bone protruding from the varnish and the paint.
A coroner came to serve him and ran a slew of tests,
They found out who he was, in time, and laid his soul to rest.

(Photo by carletaorg on Flickr)